By Jeanette Arnquist
The topic of privilege is very divisive these days. While I am not an expert, I am hoping that my thoughts might help people gain some insight into the topic. Most definitions refer to it as a special right or advantage that is not available to everyone.
For starters, let’s focus on the privilege of being tall. There are certain disadvantages to being tall, but mostly the advantages outweigh them. For this little example, let us suppose you are tall, very tall. Your parents are tall, your siblings are tall. You grew up in a tall world. Now let us suppose you are moving into an apartment that you will share with another person, a non-tall person. Let us suppose you move in a week before your roommate.
When you stock the kitchen, you put lots of things on the top shelf without even thinking that it might create a problem. Since you were 14 it has never been hard for you to reach the top shelf. That is a privilege you have had for years.
When the roommate moves in, the problem begins to appear. Your roommate wants the peanut butter, which happens to be on the top shelf. The roommate asks for help. What do you do?
Do you tell you roommate to buy their own peanut butter, or grow 10 inches, or get a step ladder, or do without peanut butter? Most likely, you get the peanut butter down. And then what? Do you put it back on the top shelf? You could put yourself in the position of always having to take it down for your roommate. Maybe you could even extract a favor in exchange or charge a small fee.
You have the privilege of being tall through no fault of your own. You did not choose your gene pool. And now you are aware of an unearned advantage. Here is where choice comes in.
I would hope that you would recognize the difficulties your roommate has. I would hope that the two of you would have a discussion about what is on the top shelf and who might want to access it and how often. You might then do some rearranging. You might even find a way to lower the top shelf or decide to eliminate it altogether. In any case, I hope you would work together to find a solution that makes life easier for both of you.
So what is the point of this little story?
Often privilege is essentially unexamined. Because we are so used to having a particular privilege, we might not recognize it as such. Privilege can be as hard to see as the air we breathe. We might even deny having privilege. We might think that those who don’t have the privilege can acquire it through some work or discipline: in other words, that it is their fault.
Recognizing our own privilege is an essential first step. When people offer us help in doing so, we should be grateful for their input. Then we should follow the advice of John the Baptist in Luke 3:11. “If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.” In other words, if you have privilege, open your heart in compassion to those who don’t enjoy your advantage. Use it to help people, use it to promote the common good. Use it to help create a world where the gulf between those with privilege and those without is not so great. Build bridges, not walls.
A final word about white privilege: if we are white, we have white privilege. Period. That doesn’t mean that everything has been easy or that we haven’t suffered or experienced discrimination or had hard times in life. It doesn’t mean that we haven’t worked hard. It doesn’t mean that we have engaged in racist behavior. It does mean that we have not experienced the particular personal or systemic disadvantages of not being white.
If you really want to delve into understanding white privilege, consider gathering a group to explore the JustFaith Racial Justice program. It is a well-designed, prayerful and powerful way to deepen understanding of privilege and race. Resources are available at www.JustFaith.org/programs. This program is perfect for a parish group or just a group of friends who wish to explore privilege and race through the lens of faith.
Jeanette Arnquist is a former Director of the Department of Life, Dignity & Justice for the Diocese of San Bernardino. She is retired and living in Tucson, Arizona where she remains active in social concerns ministries.