Say a space alien teleports into a classroom on a college campus.
“Greetings,” he says to the stunned students. “I’m interested in studying life on your world and want to stay here a while.”
Then he asks a question. “I want to enjoy my time here, so what features should I have to be successful on your planet?”
The students begin to toss out answers. “You should be tall. You need to speak English. You have to go to a good college. You should be a man.”
So begins an activity led by Christina Edmondson, Dean of Intercultural Student Development at Calvin College.
Edmondson helps students process the activity by asking them questions such as what it would mean to be the opposite of what they just described and whether the alien would then be at a disadvantage.
“It sounds to me like there’s a privileged way to be,” Edmondson suggests.
Conversations about privilege almost always elicit strong responses–from defensiveness to guilt and confusion.
The volatility of the topic makes exercises like this helpful in spurring dialogue that wouldn’t happen otherwise. They can help create new awareness about the way society functions and how benefits are unequally distributed among different groups of people.
WHAT IS PRIVILEGE?
In their book on counseling and cultural diversity, Counseling the Culturally Diverse, Derald Wing Sue and David Sue explain that privilege means possessing certain traits that are considered more desirable in a certain community and thus, give a person easy access to the rewards of that community.
As Edmondson describes it, “Privilege is unearned social currency.”
The key to understanding privilege is realizing these traits are not earned. They are usually present because of someone’s birth and circumstance.
Usually when people hear the word “privilege” it is affixed with the adjective “white” before it, but there are kinds of privilege that go beyond race. In a society that statistically favors men, someone’s gender can be a privilege. Inherited wealth can be a privilege. In America, being a Christian (a religious majority) can be a form of privilege.
In 1988, Peggy McIntosh composed one of the most well-known explanations of privilege. “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group,” she wrote. McIntosh then composed a list of things that she, as a white person, had the “privilege” of assuming due to her racial status.
“As far as I can tell, my African-American coworkers, friends and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and time of work cannot count on most of these conditions,” McIntosh famously wrote.
Some examples include:
“When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.”
She also explained that unlike some prominent members of minority communities, “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.”
She added that because she was white, “I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.”
Although written almost 30 years ago, the examples remain relevant today. Putting the culture and norms of white people at the center of society brings advantages that people of color do not have.
THE TROUBLE WITH PRIVILEGE
There are some white people (though they are few) who would readily acknowledge that racial minorities face certain obstacles. But the majority of white people struggle to concede that they—being a majority group—may have an easier time maneuvering in society.
White people experience poverty; they endure chronic illnesses; they struggle to afford health insurance or find employment and adequate educational options, in the same way people of color do.
Privilege, however, doesn’t mean white people don’t struggle. Rather, it says that in all those struggles, race was not an additional obstacle.
“White privilege doesn’t mean your life isn’t hard,” Ken Wytsma writes in his book, The Myth of Equality. “It means that if you are a person of color, simply by virtue of that, your life might be harder.”
Others often object to the concept of “privilege” because of its origins. Privilege, they say, comes from a secular mindset. It’s not a term found in the Bible, therefore, Christians should not use it. Wytsma argues believers can employ the term, though.
“I’m a fan of using the most accurate terminology for something,” he says. “And if that terminology is getting confused, then we need to go back to the roots of the word and strongly define what we mean by it.”
Alexander Jun, a professor of higher education and co-author of the book White Out, agrees. He wonders if the painful feelings the concept of privilege evokes may play a role in some Christians rejecting the word.
“Perhaps it is just part of our sinful human nature to attribute negative meaning to certain terms in order to justify the removal of words we either don’t like or don’t like the way they make us feel.”
For people of color, though, white racial privilege is an everyday reality. Recent data from the Pew Research Center shows that while only 46 percent of white people say they benefit from advantages black people do not have, 92 percent of black people say white people gain benefits due to their race.
This difference is even more pronounced along partisan lines. Among those who are Democrat or lean Democrat, 78 percent say white people benefit from their skin color. Only 27 percent of Republicans or Republican-leaning people agree.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT PRIVILEGE
What can be done about privilege? A first step may simply be to mourn. “We need to lament the past sufferings before trying to fix them—or else we’ll never feel or truly empathize with the human toll,” Edmondson says.
The Bible admonishes believers to weep with those who weep, and feeling the weight of the grief of racism can create a burden to change the status quo.
Another response is that people with privilege should leverage their advantages for the good of those who do not have such privileges. “We should reframe our perspectives, and use the term to acknowledge that we have it, not so that we would feel guilt or shame, but
to leverage it for good. To whom much is given, much will be required,” says Jun.
Tackling an issue as unwieldy as privilege can seem impossible. How can one person or even a group of people change what an entire society values and how it treats people? While such effective movements are rare, that doesn’t mean Christians are powerless in the face of privilege.
If you are committed to undoing injustice, it helps to start small. The experts recommend focusing on a specific issue or topic where you can practice self-sacrificial systemic change.
For example, you could be part of discussions about health disparities and how infant mortality rates are higher for African-American babies. You could observe what’s happening in your local school district around suspension rates for students of color and join efforts to find alternative consequences. Or you could work in your school or organization to make sure power is equitably distributed among people of diverse backgrounds.
However you choose to get involved, one key piece of advice: “Don’t get overwhelmed by the fact that you can’t fix it all,” Edmondson says.
But it’s not just about stewarding privilege for the benefit of others. Christians should also lay down their privileges for the sake of righteousness and justice.
Just as Jesus emptied Himself to become a human being and save those who believe in Him, believers should release their social advantages, often due to sinful realities like racism and embrace solidarity with the marginalized (Philippians 2:1-8).
Admittedly, this process can be agonizing for those who have social privileges. Learning that people can unintentionally benefit from racism or other forms of oppression can upend one’s perception of the world. This is why addressing it must be done in community.
“It’s not easy for people to experience life getting more complicated or difficult without someone mentoring, teaching or coaching them through it,” Wytsma says.
PRIVILEGE AND GRACE
The Christian understanding of grace helps dismantle the various injustices caused by all forms of privilege.
Grace—unmerited favor— comes to believers through Christ and the salvation He offers to sinners. If Christians can accept the idea that they have done nothing to earn God’s gift of the Gospel, then the concept of unearned advantages may be easier to grasp.
But God’s grace in Christ is purely good. “We merited nothing, but are saved by grace alone by faith alone,” Wytsma explains.” In that way, we ought to celebrate and acknowledge the privilege of election, earned only by the merits of the death and resurrection of our savior Jesus Christ.”
It is this grace that frees believers to surrender any social benefits they may have due to race, wealth, education, location or any other factor.
Christian community is where believers count others as better than themselves. In this context, social privilege loses its appeal and the only true privilege comes from serving others.