In my previous post, I talked about discussing the concept of privilege (male privilege, white privilege, and class privilege) with nuance. Earlier that week, I had led a workshop at a local church on “Fine-tuning Privilege,” using Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” as a resource. (If you are unfamiliar with it, take a few minutes to read it and reflect upon it.) Part of my talk was about naming and understanding privilege. Discussion and comprehension are not enough, though. We must counter it.
One strategy for fighting privilege is making it visible. The recipients of privilege are often unaware that they have to systemic advantage over others. Privilege, used in the context of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and religious dominance, is not something earned on merit alone. In the essay linked above, McIntosh describes it like this: “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was meant to remain oblivious.” These are conditions built into our culture that some groups receive which benefit them to the detriment of others. Making privilege visible means naming it and calling it out. Wage gaps, digital divides, and racial profiling practices exist; ignoring them perpetrates the problems.
A system that privileges one group over another makes the conditions of privilege to seem ordinary or insignificant. I have an example of this concerning white and male privilege. On the campus where I work, a group of four or more white people or men can sit together at lunch in the faculty dining center or a residential dining hall with no one commenting about their group. As a black woman, I can sit with a group of male colleagues or a group of other women and men without a rude comment directed at us. These types of gatherings are ordinary occurrences on my campus and are rather un-noteworthy. But when I sit with three or more women, male acquaintances frequently stop to greet us and joke about crashing our “meeting” or “club.” It’s even worse when I’m with three or more people of color. We get fewer jokes, but more looks of surprise, confusion, or interest in our “meeting” or “club.” Heads turn as our colleagues try to figure out who we are and what we’re doing. Being able to walk into a dining room or restaurant and enjoy a meal without fearing that my race or gender will draw scrutiny or attention is a form of privilege I don’t have where I work and live. This is a minor annoyance for me, but it points to larger systemic issues: Who belongs in the community? Where do they belong?
There are other forms of privilege that I didn’t notice until someone pointed them out to me. “Flesh” colored bandages or “nude” pantyhose that match light skin tones implicitly suggest what the normal or most common skin tone is. Names like nude or flesh suggest that the shade matches human skin, while names of like cocoa and honey refer to things we consume. It may be subtle, but these names are dehumanizing. They distort the truth about humanity, identifying it with light, not dark skin. In Christian theology, we would say that this dehumanization is a distortion of the imago dei, the image of God every human being possesses innately. Contrary to privilege, which is conferred only on certain groups, the imago dei is a shared human trait, common to all. Because of the imago dei, all humans are entitled to be treated with dignity. When we denigrate others, we sin, or act in ways contrary to the divine calling on our lives.
There is another strategy for dismantling privilege that, ironically, is the responsibility of those who have privilege. The beneficiaries of privilege can use their status to advocate for those who do not their unearned advantages. As people with power, they can do the work inside their institutions and systems to make them more just and inclusive. They may even go as far as divesting their privilege, renouncing their own benefits until they are extended to others. Such is the case when workers strike out of solidarity for other workers. In Christianity, we can use Jesus as model for this. In numerous biblical stories, we see Jesus, a Jewish male, acting on behalf of woman and outcasts. He prevents a woman caught in adultery from being stoned; the man with her was presumably not in danger. Jesus diffuses the situation by pointing out the hypocrisy of stoning her for her offense, when those who would stone her were sinners. Jesus included people who were marginalized in his ministry, and in his teachings, he subverted prevalent negative beliefs about the poor, lepers, and Samaritans (who were often disparaged by his own religious and ethnic group).
Perhaps the best parallel in the Christian scriptures of divesting oneself of privilege can be seen in the teachings about kenosis, or Jesus’ self-emptying. Philippians 2:4-7 (NRSV) reads:
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
Jesus, having the power and authority of God, did not use it for his own advantage. Instead, he became human for our advantage. The way of kenosis is not about denying who we are. It is about renouncing the advantages we receive because of who we are and extending them to others.
I’d like to hear from you. What can else can be do to weaken forms of privilege? How might these be supported by your religious and spiritual traditions?
Elise M. Edwards, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter or academia.edu.
Categories: Activism, Bible, Christianity, Community, Education, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender and Power, Justice, power, Power relations, Privilege, Race and Ethnicity, Reform, Resistance, Sexism