To be a person of privilege is an odd sort of thing. It is to be given a certain amount of power merely by virtue of our existence, whether we want it or not. I was born into privilege. My family was not wealthy but the society we lived in rewarded us with opportunities not afforded everyone. When I walked down the street as a teenager, no one got scared or called the police to report suspicious behavior. Every year when school began, my teacher assumed I would be a good student. I grew up in a society that told me I was smart and valuable, a society that expected good things from me and encouraged me to do good things.
People of privilege have a common experience: it’s hard for us to see that others in society have not enjoyed the same treatment. People have always seen us as important and valuable and we just assume that anyone who isn’t seen that way has caused the perception themselves. When we hear that women or African Americans feel left out or oppressed, we are surprised because that’s not our experience. We’re so surprised when others feel left out or oppressed that we often blame them for their differing experience. We think that, if they had just worked as hard as we have, they too could enjoy the same privileges we do. To us the playing field feels fair because it’s treated us well. Some of us were born on third base but convince ourselves we have hit a triple. We look at other people struggling and we think there must be something wrong with them, that they don’t have the talent we have, or that they are lazy and unmotivated.
People of privilege, understandably, can become the focus of anger from those who do not share the same privileges. People of privilege, understandably, can get defensive and protective and get furious at those who project anger toward us. I’ll admit I’ve always felt pretty guilty about my privilege. I grew up in the Episcopal Church which did a good job of teaching me grace: all that I have in life is a gift, not something I have earned. The message I received from my parents growing up was that racial divisions are more the fault of the white race than the black race. Both of those messages still ring true to me. I am very fortunate. And my race has done many cruel things. I want things to be better. I am stuck in the system and haven’t been able to change it drastically.
At Diocesan Convention this past weekend, I heard a testimony from a black woman. She was behind a white woman in the grocery store check-out line. The white woman wrote a check for her purchase and was getting her bags together as the black woman wrote a check for her purchase. The clerk insisted on seeing two forms of identification and then began looking through the bad check book. The white woman looked at the clerk and asked why she was going through those steps with the black woman. The clerk replied that it was store policy. The white woman noted the policy had not been enacted for her, called for the manager, and explained the differing treatment the two women had received. The check from the black woman was then accepted.
The point of this woman’s testimony at Convention was, refreshingly, not to make the largely white crowd feel guilty. The point was to encourage people of privilege to use their influence to address wrongs and change society a little at a time. Most who read this will be people of privilege and all, I venture to say, really want things to improve in our society. We want people to be treated fairly and equally. But we feel stuck. There’s nothing we can do about being people of privilege. Like the color of our skin, it’s just something we have inherited. While feeling guilty about that may increase our compassion for those who don’t enjoy privilege, guilt usually just leads to hopelessness rather than action.
To know that I can take advantage of my privilege and make things better a little at a time is the encouragement I need right now to engage the ills of society. I may not be able to make prejudice and bigotry disappear but I can address it when I see it. I can look for the ways I am enabling a racist system. I can be aware and I can speak up in a loving and humble way.
When Jesus told the rich young ruler (Mt. 10.17ff) that he lacked one thing and asked him to sell his possessions and give to the poor, he was asking him to use his resources and influence to make the world a better place. The rich young man walked away sorrowful and unwilling to use his resources for the good of others.
Lent starts now. Perhaps you might be encouraged to use these 40 days as a time to devote your privilege and influence to addressing the disparities in our system. Confess your own sins of prejudice but move beyond guilt into forgiveness. Step newly and freshly into humble actions which will help earth become more like heaven. Your privilege can be a good thing if you use it generously.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Inquirers’ Class – Sundays in Lent
All those who wish to learn more about the Episcopal Church are invited to attend the Inquirers’ Classes held on the Sundays in Lent, February 18 – March 25, at 9:15 in the Archives Room, led by the Rector. The class is open to newer parishioners and those who have been here for a long time too. Subjects will include: Distinguishing Features of the Episcopal Church; Church History; Holy Scriptures; the Book of Common Prayer; the Sacraments, and plenty of opportunity for questions. You need not register for the classes but if you wish to be confirmed by the Bishop on May 6, please contact Robert Wisnewski (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Events Around the Corner
Ash Wednesday – February 14 (7:00, 12:05, 5:30)
Family Promise – February 18-25 (need people to cook a meal or spend the night)
Episcopal Church Women Meditative Evening – February 18, 5:30
Vestry – February 19, 5:00
Lent Preaching Series – February 21, 12:05 pm – Bishop Kee Sloan (luncheon to follow
Lent Teaching Series – February 21, 6:30 pm – Bishop Kee Sloan (5:30 Eucharist, 6:00 supper)
Lent Preaching and Teaching Series – February 28 – Dean Alexander from Sewanee