Last month, the internet raised a ruckus over a Princeton student’s declaration that he never benefited from “white privilege.” Pundits across the U.S. took to their computers or, if they had such a platform, their cable news shows. If you’re like me, and you have Facebook friends across the social and political spectrum, you probably didn’t miss the conversation, but you may have seen people missing each other in the conversation.
When trying to understand each other, we come to conversations with presuppositions and preconceived ideas. Many of us are so busy trying to assert our point-of-view that we miss entirely what the person in front of us is saying. In conversations about “privilege,” I’ve seen many a discussion get stuck in a roundabout of quibbling over definitions.
In conversations about the Princeton article, several friends saw the word “privilege” and hesitated to identify themselves as privileged because they understood the term to mean a person has never suffered or had difficulty in life. This is a common misunderstanding and digging in on this point often derails a potentially productive conversation about race, gender, religion, etc. So let’s demystify the whole thing by starting with a basic agreed-upon definition.
Before we can go any farther in our exploration of feminism from a Christian perspective, we need to understand this concept of privilege. The term itself gained popularity through the work of Peggy MacIntosh, a scholar at Wellesley College. Her 1989 essay, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” is a great primer on racial (particularly white) privilege.
Through work to bring materials from women’s studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to women’s statues, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages that men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened, or ended.
Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that, since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of while privilege that was similarly denied and protected. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.
I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.
Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in women’s studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about having white privilege must ask, “having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?”
After I realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are just seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.
My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow “them” to be more like “us.”
To use the racial example, white privilege does not mean that white people make no efforts toward their own successes. It does mean that there are inherent social and economic advantages to being white that will inevitably make the climb to success less difficult than it would be for a person of color. In his recent long-form essay, Ta-Nehisi Coates explores this when he talks about the dismissal of systemic racism by those who uphold exceptional examples of successful people of color:
In the contest of upward mobility, Barack and Michelle Obama have won. But they’ve won by being twice as good—and enduring twice as much. Malia and Sasha Obama enjoy privileges beyond the average white child’s dreams. But that comparison is incomplete. The more telling question is how they compare with Jenna and Barbara Bush—the products of many generations of privilege, not just one. Whatever the Obama children achieve, it will be evidence of their family’s singular perseverance, not of broad equality.
Scripture is rife with ideas about justice, and a lot of those ideas center around the concept that in societies, human beings often establish hierarchies where certain groups of people enjoy more advantages than others. Much of the Bible describes ways to mitigate structural privilege, calling upon the people of God to remember their own disadvantages in solidarity with those who suffer those disadvantages in the present age. As God was establishing the nation of Israel following the Exodus, He gave clear instructions on how His people should treat the disadvantaged, namely the widows, orphans, sojourners (immigrants), and indentured slaves.
When He established the Church, the book of Acts and most of the Pauline epistles speak to how the Jews (historically privileged as the “chosen people of God”) should accommodate, include, and show hospitality to the Gentiles. There are also admonitions to the Gentiles and the Jews to remember the poor, widows, and those politically disadvantaged. In fact, the foundational teaching on how to relate to people different from ourselves is on display in the person of Jesus Christ who eschewed His own privilege as the Son of God in service to humanity:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:3-7, NIV)
As it relates to our exploration of feminism, we will be talking about how privilege factors into the power dynamics of these ancient societies in the Old Testament and New and how patriarchy continues to privilege men over women, and by extension, married women over single women, and women with children over women without children.
It’s important to remember through all of this that whatever privilege is enjoyed by any group, privilege is not based upon inherent worth or superiority of any one group or person. God calls upon all of us to forsake such a notion and instead see one another as brothers and sisters in His unified kingdom. Many of us are already on board with this and believe racism, sexism, etc. to be something we should each surrender to God about in our own hearts. Yet while we individually work toward unity and love in our own hearts, we cannot ignore the fact that collectively in our contexts, cultures, and societies, privilege and systemic injustices exist and operate, no matter what our individual intentions may be. We must submit ourselves individually and corporately to God on these matters, but we must also work to see that our communities are organized around justice as well.