There’s no denying who I am. I am a white, middle-class, straight, American, Christian male. I, and others like me, and we are legion, we are many, and we are in control of the American culture.
I have more power over my life than most others around the world. I didn’t steal this power from others. It was given to me by a generation of white males that didn’t steal it either. I’m not sure how far back we’d have to go to find the culprits but somewhere along the way (there are definite benchmark though), someone took power that wasn’t theirs to take. Using and benefiting from power that isn’t mine to begin with makes me complicit in the act of theft.
If someone steals a television from their neighbor and sells it to me without telling me it’s stolen, I cannot be held responsible for the theft. I may still have the privilege of using it and watching cable and movies on it but I’m not aware it shouldn’t be mine to begin with.
Once I learn the television is stolen (wake up), I have a moral and social responsibility to address this problem. If, instead, I just keep using the television, knowing it was stolen, I am complicit and an accessory to the act and I am equally responsible for the harm committed against the neighbor from which the television was stolen from.
I order to stay asleep (in denial about my privilege) I have to morally disengage. You can read about that here. Moral disengagement is the cognitive process where we justify our harmful actions towards others. It’s mental gymnastics.
I have come to the conclusion this year that I have not only profited greatly from this privilege but have sought to protect it by personally and systematically oppressing other people groups, other beloved children of God. I have undergone a personal, internal awakening, one in which I have become painfully aware of the origins of my privilege and the toll it has taken on others. Here’s a great post on how white people experience white privilege.
I once heard a talk at a conference in which the speaker talked about three phases of change; orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. 2016 has been a period of disorientation and I’m hoping 2017 will be a reorientation to a new normal. The disorientation started long ago but I became acutely aware of it this year while reading the following:
9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds.
13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. 18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.
19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three[a] men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”
22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” 23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.
I spent the better part of the past year meeting with, talking to, interviewing and blogging and speaking about marginalized and vulnerable populations of people; LGBTQ youth, heroin users, racial minorities, refugees, people with disabilities, and people in the criminal justice system and the more time I spent listening to them the more ashamed I became of myself. I also became ashamed of my faith, for it was guilty of the same thing.
The focus of what I’ve learned this year is the danger of having too much (personal and corporate) dominance over a culture and how the systems that govern it may be contributing to a larger problem that will impact our personal and corporate faith for a long time to come.
As a white, middle-class, straight, American, Christian male, I am part of the power structure at the top of the ladder. When any group rises to the top it is often accompanied by a sense of privilege. It’s the “Good Ol’ Boys Club” mentality. And, it often happens without its members even knowing it. As a result of one group believing it has privilege, another group consequentially is oppressed. I have and you do not.
In other words, if people from the dominant groups, in this case, me, really saw privilege and oppression as unacceptable – if white people saw race as their issues, if men saw gender as a men’s issue, if heterosexuals saw heterosexism as their problem – privilege and oppression wouldn’t have much of a place in the future of the church. But that isn’t what’s happening. Dominant groups don’t often engage these issues, and when they do, it’s not for long or with much effect, and rarely do they address the systemic causes. I had developed throughout the course of my life; toxic ownership, entitled sense of power and control, unequal distribution of that power and control, a fear of scarcity, and a homogenous community.
When asked “How or Why?” certain responses pour out without hesitation. Because I benefited most in the dominant culture I don’t see privilege as a problem. Why couldn’t I see it?
- Because I didn’t know in the first place. I was oblivious to it. The reality of privilege doesn’t occur to me because I don’t go out of my way to see it or ask about it and because no one dares bring it up for fear of making things worse. I also have no understanding of how my privilege actually oppresses others.
- Because I don’t have to. If you point it out to me, I may acknowledge that the trouble exists. Otherwise, I don’t pay attention, because privilege shields me from its consequences. There is nothing to compel my attention except, perhaps, when a school shooting or sexual harassment lawsuit or a race riot or celebrity murder trial disrupts the natural flow of things.
- Because I think it’s just a personal problem. I thought individuals usually get what they deserve, which makes the problem just a sum of individual troubles. This means that if whites or males get more than others, it’s because we have it coming – we work harder, we’re smarter, more capable. If other people get less, it’s up to them to do something about it.
- Because I want to protect my privilege. On some level, I think I knew I benefited from the status quo and I just didn’t want to change. I felt a sense of entitlement, that I deserved everything I have and wanted, including whatever advantages I have over others.
- Because I was prejudiced – racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist. My attitudes use to be consciously hostile towards blacks, women, lesbians, gay men, the poor. I believed in the superiority of my group, and the belief is like a high, thick wall. I developed circular reasoning to protect against myself against cognitive dissonance.
- Because I was afraid. I may be sympathetic to doing something about the trouble, but I was afraid of being blamed for it if I acknowledge that it exists. I was afraid of being saddled with guilt just for being white or male or middle-class, attacked and no place to hide. I was even more afraid that members of my own group – other whites, other heterosexuals, other men, the ones that affirm my power – will reject me if I break ranks and call attention to issues of privilege, making people feel uncomfortable or threatened.
So there you have it. That’s me, or more accurately, the old me. A work is being done in me, as I look back throughout the last decade, especially as I look back over the last year and what has brought me to the place I am today. In my heart I want to have this vile, evil purged from me. I want to do the right thing.
Although doing the right thing can be morally compelling, it usually rests on a sense of obligation to principle more that to people, which can lead to disconnection (injustice) rather than to restorative justice (reconnection). I take care of my children, for example, not because it’s the right thing to do and the neighbors would disapprove if I didn’t, but because I feel a sense of connection to them that carries with it an automatic sense of responsibility for their well-being. The less connected to them I feel, the less responsibility I feel. It isn’t that I owe them something as a debtor owes a creditor; it’s rather that my life is bound up in their lives and theirs in mine, which means that what happens to them in a sense also happens to me. I don’t experience them as “others” whom I decide to help because it’s the right thing to do and I’m feeling charitable at the moment. The family is something larger than myself that I participate in, and I can’t be a part of that without paying attention to what goes on in it and how everyone is affected.
So, maybe that’s where I start today, maybe that’s where we all start…paying more attention to all the members of the family. Not just the few that look like us. But, it can’t just end there, as it usually does. We must share our lives and resources, breach cross-cultural barriers, take risk, and sacrifice our comfort if the church is to ever be what God intended for it to be.
Where do you see privilege in your heart and your community? Where do you see overt or subtle oppression? What unconscious biases are you becoming more aware of? What conversations do we need to start? How are our youth being shaped by privilege and oppression? Do we have real friendships with people not from our tribe? Do you have ideas and beliefs about people but don’t intimately break bread with them on a regular basis? Maybe that’s where we all start…That’s what Peter did when the Spirit showed him the vision. It took him three viewings, so know that we’ll struggle with this initially. That’s ok, embrace the disorientation and trust that God wants to reorient you to a new way of thinking, living and loving.