The many faces of privilege: more than race and riches

I really appreciated this short article, 3 Reasons Why I Hate Diversity, from Christena Cleveland over on Ed Stetzer’s Christianity Today blog. While I wholeheartedly concur with her points regarding the discomfort that engaging with a multi-cultural body can bring, it is her point #3, “diversity exposes my privilege” that really peaked my interest.

In our stratified society, it’s fairly easy for privileged people like me to turn a blind eye to inequality. As long as I stick to certain neighborhoods and social settings, I am unlikely to meaningfully interact with people who struggle to survive underneath society’s oppressive boot. This makes it easy for me to sidestep feeling guilty about my privilege and the relative ease with which I move through life. But racial diversity has a way of bringing racial, economic and other forms of inequality into conscious awareness.

For this reason, as a person who identifies with some privileged groups (e.g. the upwardly-mobile, the educated, the mentally able, etc.) I sure as heck don’t want more diversity in my church. More diversity would expose my privileged life by bringing the inequality “out there” into the very sanctuary pews where I sit. True diversity would require me to stay alert to the reality of inequality. It would demand that I confront my privilege, recognize the ways that I benefit from a society that oppresses my brothers and sisters, repent, and join the fight for justice.

But I’d rather not confront my privilege. I’d like to keep believing that I’ve “earned everything that I have”, that “if people just work hard enough, they’ll succeed”, that “if people just obey the law, they won’t be harassed by the police” and that, frankly, I deserve to be treated better and earn more than others.

Diversity exposes my privilege, my desire to take credit for the social power that I possess and my tendency to justify holding onto the money that passes through my hands.

In our racially charged culture, when we speak of privilege, we often think of “white privilege” and for good reason since it has been the standard by which acceptability is set. However, her description reminded me that privilege has many faces. Merriam-Webster defines privilege this way, “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage or favor.” I don’t know about peculiar, but we should not balk at the idea that sociological circumstances can exist whereby a dominant group enjoys a certain kind of power because their privilege has been deemed the norm, giving them the right to marginalize others. 

Isn’t this exactly what we see in James 2:1-4

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in,and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Privilege can be a convenient tool unwittingly wielded towards oppression. In the case of the scenario in James, it is the rich marginalizing the poor. But notice how Cleveland frames her example of privilege – “the upwardly-mobile, the educated, the mentally able, etc.” It’s not just race or money but can be knowledge and know-how.

People can enjoy privilege on a number of different levels, including intellectually, knowledge-wise, and even spiritually mature-wise. When that is the dominating factor, it’s easy to marginalize others. I find this especially true with church leaders or those who invest in significant study who are quick to condemn others for being ignorant, biblically illiterate, not attuned enough to the Spirit…not not not whatever they need to be.

Providentially, while I was chewing on the many faces of privilege, I came across this meme

meme_more fortunate build table

If you experience any kind of advantage, Jesus has shown us that creating tables is the way, not using that advantage to build fences to keep people down and out. In the scenario in James, it means for the rich to create a table for the poor without patronizing to them. But also considering the other faces of privilege, it means for those who enjoy an intellectual advantage to not build a fence of condemning ignorance. It means for those who seemed to have conquered their battles to not build a fence of dismissal for those who can’t seem to get it together. It means for those who are biblically illiterate to find ways to engage with loving Christian education.


2 thoughts on “The many faces of privilege: more than race and riches

  1. M Charles February 16, 2016 / 11:30 am

    The words you wrote after the passage in James are really on point. Thanks for sharing this peace of wisdom. God bless

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