What Can We Do to Weaken Privilege? by Elise M. Edwards


elise-edwardsIn 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.

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Categories: Activism, Bible, Christianity, Community, Education, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender and Power, Justice, power, Power relations, Privilege, Race and Ethnicity, Reform, Resistance, Sexism

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12 replies

  1. Thanks for this Elise.

    If I as a white person speak out about racism that I see occurring in front of me to white people who are unaware of it, I risk my own position as a loyal member of “the team” (which is not understood to be a white or white male team). I make other white members of the group uncomfortable and they decide consciously or unconsciously that they would rather not have me around to make them feel uncomfortable. As white people, we need to speak truth to power even knowing it will or may be held against us.

    As a white woman I have been most appalled by white women who sympathize with feminism and even speak their own pain when they are with other women, but who, when speaking to men in power, indicate by words or gestures that some women go to far, and communicate: don’t worry I won’t make you feel uncomfortable.

    There are costs for speaking against racism and sexism and too many people prefer to pass over the obvious and hope for the best.

    Jesus after all was murdered by the powerful.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. PS It makes me sick that “the world” and advertising think “white light and blonde” are more beautiful than “dark darker and dark-haired.” Living in Greece I often look around me at all the beautiful people who are darker than me and I just can’t figure out why pale and washed out (to put it in negative terms) is considered more beautiful!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for keeping this subject in the forefront. One thing I often notice when I am with a person of color, is that other white people keep their eye contact on me while speaking to both of us. Thus I frequently look at my friend which forces the other white person to include them in with eye contact. Be mindful of this small gesture.
    There are many things to do. When you go to an event look around for the people of color. Are they alone? If so, go make a new friend–you will learn and they will feel included.
    How many people of color are among your friends? How many gay people? How many economically challenged? The more we reach out the less likely we are to call the police on a person of color just living their lives ( this is such a ludicrous and embarrassing thing white women do) .
    These are just some of my thoughts on this subject.
    We shouldn’t be the “great white hope “, but we can support the struggles of people of color (I realize this term may be offensive to some), by giving funds to their causes, demonstrations and being inclusive in our lives.
    And Listening when we’re corrected without being defensive.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sometimes I play with magic marker (though it occurs to me that they are probably environmentally unsound!) I remember when a marker called “flesh” was renamed “peach.” I wonder who had the wit and determination to lobby for that change. Bandaids haven’t caught up, though I remember a time when they were decorative instead of any kind of skin color.

    When I took the activist training, which included a section on “how to be a good relative,” the trainers suggested putting white and other privilege in service, one example serving as a liaison with police in direct actions. I hope to be able to take that training.

    I do not have school age children any more, but it behooves us all to be aware of history, teaching it, the art of history, how it is affected by who presents it. Last night I watched the film Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and recalled that as a school child in the 50s and 60s I had been exposed to none of the history of how first nations people had been forced onto reservations, stripped of rights, treaty after treaty broken up to the present time.

    That’s all for now. Will keep pondering. Thanks, Elise!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you! Yes, these are excellent suggestions. You’ve worded it more directly than I have. I agree that we should put our privilege in service of others, becoming advocates and GOOD allies where we can. It doesn’t mean we do the work for others, but with them in the spaces they can’t be.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent post! Perhaps women and people of color and others who are not privileged can keep gathering together and marching and carrying out other actions so that the privileged ones actually look at them/us. I think voting for change in our politicians (duh!) might help, too. Well, those actions might be a start, but it’s a long, long road. BTW, I use “Hello Kitty” bandaids and avoid pale “flesh-colored” anything. Yeah. It’s a start.

    Thanks for writing this excellent, thought-provoking post. I hope you’ll write more about privilege.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! At the workshop I did, one of the participants told me that adhesive bandages, for at least some companies, come in multiple shades. She has a child with dark skin who felt really validated to see a bandage that was close to their skin tone.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for shining a light on such an unyielding problem. The voice that I have followed in this is Rev. Dr. William J Barber and his Poor People’s Campaign (as heir to Martin Luther King Jr) and Repairers of the Breach. He found out that he had received a MacArthur Fellowship while he was getting arrested in Chicago for protesting for worker’s rights. Now that is someone who walks his talk!

    Like

  7. Thanks for this post. I have actually been thinking about privilege recently, in this case, heterosexual privilege. Being white and talking “upper middole class” certainly gives me a pass where I might otherwise not be able to go.

    Like

  8. Why seek to take anyone’s privilege? All the races and colors of man (male and female) have been given privileges by the nothing (spirit). Some are material and others purely spiritual. Why desire someone’s privilege? I would never cash in my spiritual privilege. So, if white people have a material advantage, to the spirit be the glory; for as the brown man, I would never trade my invissible privilege for their material gains. Each color of man must seek to understand his and her own blessings before seeking to take the other’s blessings.

    Like

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