Many well-intentioned people have entered into urban ministry because they believe God can and wants to use them in the lives of people in the city. But all too often we answer that call with preconceived ideas about the problems people in the inner city have and their role in creating those problems. So, we ride in on our white horses to fix the poor minorities. What we often fail to understand is that many who live impoverished lives are oppressed by systems not simply choices.
One can acknowledge that privilege and oppression exist and even that they have terrible consequences for people and still get off the hook by blaming it all on them. Those privileged can draw on a rich supply of negative cultural stereotypes, such as, to satisfy themselves that if people who don’t come from privilege were different – if they were more like the privileged supposedly are – there wouldn’t be so much trouble. The privileged can say things like, “If they were smarter and worked harder or got an education, they’d be okay,” and expect most other privileged to go along, because these stereotypes have such an authority in this culture. They can also count on others that are privileged who disagree with them to not say so to their face.
In similar ways, men can tell themselves that women who say they’re sexually harassed are hypersensitive, or had no business being where they were, or sent mixed signals, or “asked for it” in one way or another. If a woman fails to break through the glass ceiling, men can say she doesn’t have what it takes. If she allows herself to be openly emotional, men can point to that as a reason she hasn’t reached the heights; if she isn’t emotionally and nurturing, they can criticize her for not being “womanly” enough, too much like a man. If she’s friendly, men can say she wants to be approached sexually; if she isn’t friendly, they can say she’s stuck up, cold, a bitch even, and deserves what she gets.
Or lesbians and gay men may be told they’re “asking for trouble” by “flaunting” their sexual orientation by, say, holding hands in public – in other words, by being as open about being gay or lesbian as heterosexuals are about being straight.
The result of such thinking is that oppression is blamed on the people who suffer most from it, while privilege and those who benefit remain invisible and relatively untouched. And off the hook.
It’s important to remember this as that urban kid walks into your outreach center, church, street corner, or passes you at the mall. Check your assumptions at the door.