Let’s Talk About Privilege

Let’s Talk About Privilege April 13, 2015

Ahnnalise Stevens-JenningsPrivilege is a word that I have not been able to go through a week without saying ever since my first year of seminary. I think that says a lot about the character of Wesley, but this is not a day for me to start rattling on about the things I love about my school. I promise to save that for next year around graduation when I am getting nostalgic.

Privilege, (as some people know, some people do not know, and many people pretend not to know), colors our lives and the way that we walk in them. My own working definition of privilege is the different characteristics and attributes of a person to which a given society has assigned value. Privilege comes in many flavors. I will give some examples for my own context, which is the United States. There is racial privilege in which the value has been assigned to White people and taken away from People of Color. There is gender/sex privilege which values people born male that stay male and express as male over people born female that stay female, people that change sex and/or gender, and people who consider themselves to be intersexed, gender non-conforming, or gender fluid. There is the privilege of heterosexuality which values straight people over members of the LGBTQ community. There is class privilege which assigns value to people on a sliding scale from people experiencing poverty at the bottom to people with exorbitant amounts of wealth at the top.

These are some examples that probably do not come as a surprise to people if they are honest with themselves, but there are others that we may not think about as much. Consider these; the privilege of being considered physically attractive, the privilege of being thin, or of being tall, being in good mental and physical health, the privilege of having no disabilities, of the neighborhood that you live in or come from, the privileges associated with specific age groups, the privilege associated with coming from a specific cultural background, those associated with your nationality, your primary language, and the list could go on.

I list all of these things in the hope that we can all identify the ways in which we are privileged, and they ways in which we are not. I am not listing these things because I want privileged people to feel bad. I am not looking for any kind of guilt. I have found that a lot of the people who want to deny the existence of privilege are doing so not because they do not think it is real, but because they do not want to be told that they are bad people because of it. Privileged people are not inherently evil. Non-privileged people are not inherently holy. Just because you have some privileges, does not mean that you will reap the benefits of all privileges. Just because you lack some privileges does not mean that you have no privileges. We each need to take the time to sort out what has been given to us and what has not. This is not so that we can all feel bad and then make other people feel bad. This is so that we can help each other as we are called to do by our Creator.

We live in a broken system that unjustly gives more to some people than to others for terrible reasons. We have to acknowledge the system’s existence in order to make the world better. I am the most upset by people who deny privilege because they are missing opportunities to make the world better.

I honestly do not believe that most people who are benefiting from privilege are actively trying to keep others down. I do think that some people do not want to acknowledge their privilege because they would then have to change how they live and their outlook on life. I know a few people who do not want to acknowledge their own privileges because they are so attached to the places in their lives where they are not privileged. As an example, I have personally seen this happen the most with impoverished White people who will not acknowledge their White privilege because they know People of Color who have the class privilege that they do not have. For another example, I have known men who will not acknowledge male privilege because they have been told all their lives that they can not hit women, and that they have to treat women in special ways (like opening doors, lifting heavy things for us, and always picking up the check). I also know White feminists who refuse to acknowledge their class privilege or their racial privilege because they have gotten so stuck on their lack of gender/sex privilege.

This makes me so sad because most of these people also have claimed to want to see the world become a more equal place. They are missing the opportunity to use their privilege to make that happen. Imagine what the world might look like if everyone used their privilege to help those who do not have it.

Here is a silly example. My husband is a six-foot-tall White male. I am about five-foot-four on a good day, and I am Black as well as female. We read an article about a woman who noticed that she was constantly walking around males on the side walk, or down a hallway. She noticed that they never moved out of her way, but that she always moved out of their way. So she decided to stop. She is now being run into by a lot of men. I decided to try this as well. I was also being run into by a lot of men. One day while walking with my husband, he spotted a pack of men walking towards us, and so he stepped in front of me, and they all went around him and therefore, around me. I didn’t get run into possibly because he used his White, tall, male privilege to protect me.

I know this is just a silly example, but what if the upper classes protected the poor? What if native English speakers helped non-native speakers? What if able bodied people stopped parking in the spaces reserved for those with disabilities? What if White people stood beside People of Color instead of against them? What if men decided to learn about feminism instead of dismissing it? What if people who are considered beautiful started to affirm the beauty of people who are not and insisted on their representation in the media? What if more straight people became allies? What if the Church bought into this idea and started to use it to aid in the coming of God’s Kingdom? Can you imagine that world?

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