Living with Privilege
December 9, 2007
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
Rev. Jane Page
I’m a PC. No, I’m not trying to take the role of the dorky character in the MacIntosh commercial. I’m using the initials PC in the way that my teacher used them back in elementary school. When one of us would do something like break in line, she would say, “You must think you are a PC.” – meaning privileged character.
Well, I am a privileged character and this sermon title is “Living with Privilege.”
If this sermon title and some of the stories I share seem familiar, that may be because you happened to have read my ministerial musings last June. That’s when I first explored this topic of “Living with Privilege.” The idea has stayed on my mind and heart and I felt that the holiday season might be a good time to explore and share a bit more with you.
This concept first began to weigh on my mind as I was traveling with fellow UU minister Joan Kahn-Schneider to our ministerial retreat at The Mountain last spring. As we journeyed, I shared with her my feelings of joy about my upcoming marriage that were juxtaposed with feelings of guilt and frustration with my decision. How could I take advantage of a privilege that my gay and lesbian friends did not have? Joan looked over at me with great wisdom in her eyes and said, “Jane, you have LOTS of privileges that you take advantage of every day. Just look at those shoes you are wearing that you paid so much for because you had heel spurs. There are lots of other folks with heel spurs that could never afford those shoes. But that didn’t stop you from buying them.”
Joan was right. I am tremendously privileged. When one studies groups that historically have privilege in the United States, I fall within most of those categories. What is privilege?
The etymology can be traced back to the Latin word for private law – meaning a law that was specific to a person – usually because of the office they held. We hear it used in that same way now if our President or someone from his administration claims “executive privilege” – when asked to testify or handover specific documents.
The use of the word broadened though and the way I’m using it today is the way it is used by many sociologists. Privilege is a sociological concept describing the advantages enjoyed by a dominant group of individuals beyond what is commonly experienced by the non-dominant group in those same social spaces (nation, community, workplace, etc.). As one who carries the identification (by myself or others) of being white, heterosexual, able-bodied, well-educated, and financially secure, I have opportunities and possibilities that come easily to me. As a Unitarian Universalist, I have become more aware of these privileges and have, therefore, questioned the fairness and justice of it all.
Now for most of my life, I didn’t think of myself as privileged. I did think that others were disadvantaged in many ways. And perhaps that was an easier way to deal with it – so that it was the other who had the problem; not me that had unfair advantages. And after all, I could hold up the banner of gender oppression and say that I understood their pain. But did I?
Back in the late 80’s, feminist Peggy McIntosh, the Associate Director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, began asking those same kinds of questions.
McIntosh is most famous for authoring "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies." This analysis and its shorter form, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," have been instrumental in putting the dimension of privilege into discussions of gender, race and sexuality. The essay set forth the concept of "white privilege", a theoretical construct that has since significantly influenced anti-racist theory and practice as well as other activist movements. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peggy_McIntosh)
McIntosh came to this understanding as she worked to bring curriculum related to women’s studies into the mainstream. Because McIntosh expresses her uncovering of this concept so well, and because it mirrors my much later awareness of my own privileges, I’m going to provide a more lengthier quote of her work than I usually do in my sermons. Because I think what she has to say, and the way that she says it, can provide a good foundation for the rest of my sermon. Here are a few paragraphs from her “White Privilege” essay:
Through work to bring materials from women's studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men's unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to increase women's statues, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can't or won't support the idea of lessening men's. Denials that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages that men gain from women's disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened, or ended.
Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that, since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of white privilege that was similarly denied and protected. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.
I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.
Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in women's studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about having white privilege must ask, "having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?"
After I realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are just seen as oppressive, even when we don't see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.
My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow "them" to be more like "us."
Wow. I don’t know about you – but McIntosh describes my schooling and background well – with the exception of my training in seminary, which thankfully opened my eyes a little wider to the truths that she was sharing. McIntosh goes on in her article to name 50 of the daily effects of white privilege in her own life. I shall not take the time to list those. I will share ten that I know to be true for me.
1. I can shop without being followed around the store or harassed.
2. I do not have to educate my children (or grandchildren) to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
3. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
4. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
5. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
6. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
7. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
8. I can be sure that if I need legal, medical, or financial help, my race will not work against me.
9. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in "flesh" color and have them more or less match my skin.
10. If a law enforcement officer pulls me over, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race.
My economist husband has also pointed out to me that members of my race are on the positive side of a $180,000 wealth gap between whites and blacks in this country, a gap that exists regardless of differences in education.
McIntosh shares that these privileges are like tools in an invisible weightless knapsack that white people carry around with them and can use whenever needed.
Those studying sexuality have used McIntosh’s knapsack analogy and listed a set of privileges that heterosexuals carry around with them. And as someone in a mixed gender relationship, I have to admit that I carry around these as well. Here are a 10 of the ones identified by Linda Ketner, a lesbian who passed for many years as a heterosexual. She says:
If I am a Heterosexual:
- Television, movies, and musical recordings reflect my relationships in widely diverse and nonstereotypical ways.
- My children are given texts and information at school that validate my sexual orientation.
- Society encourages me to marry and celebrates my commitment.
- As a responsible and loving parent, I won't lose my children in a custody battle because of my sexual orientation.
- I can easily buy postcards, books, greeting cards, and magazines featuring relationships like mine.
- I can be sure that if my spouse is in the hospital, I can visit and will be consulted about any decisions that need to be made.
- Insurance provided by my employer covers my spouse and my children.
- Hand holding with my love is seen as acceptable and endearing.
- I can keep pictures of my loved one on my desk at work without fear or reprisal.
- I never need to change pronouns when describing the events of my life in order to protect my job, my family, or my friendships.
Now I also mentioned in my introduction that I am privileged by being able-bodied, well-educated and financially secure. Some may say – but Jane, perhaps that is because you worked hard for those. And it’s true that I try to eat right and exercise. I have regular check-ups and take my medicine for the few physical problems that I do have. I don’t smoke and have managed to stay away from addictive drugs other than caffeine. But while I’ve contributed to my good health, a lot of it is purely genetic—both the bad and the good. And the same is true with my education and my financial situation. I’ve worked hard and studied hard and saved my money and lived fairly simply in order to have what I have. But I surely had some unearned advantages all along the way.
This became highlighted for me on Memorial Day weekend when we had the Annual Picnic at our home. Greg and I live on six beautiful acres beside a pond. This place has become even more wonderful with the addition of the labyrinth that the congregation helped to build. After our dedication of the labyrinth that weekend, one of our members commented about the beautiful place. I thanked her but then added, “You know, I didn’t do anything to deserve this place. This was part of my dad’s farm – and before that, part of my granddad’s farm.”
Actually, all of us sitting in here today have tremendous advantages by living here in this country –even though we do like to complain about it. We are here though, with all the advantages and luxuries that this society has to offer. What are some things that we all carry in our invisible knapsacks that many in the world do not have. Here are a few.
- We can drink a glass of water from the faucet without fear of becoming deathly ill.
- We can choose a religion that is different than the religion of the majority of people in this country without fear of being arrested or executed.
- We can count on electricity being available in our residences and workplace almost all of the time.
- We can travel within the country freely without having to check in with authorities or get permission to do so.
- We have the right to own, use, and profit from the proceeds of land and other kinds of property without fear of the government suddenly taking it from us.
- Our children can have at least 12 years of public education and have access to an excellent university system.
- We live in a country in which unemployment is consistently less than 5 percent.
- We can criticize our leaders without fear of being arrested. (thank goodness)
- We live in a country in which one of the biggest health problems is people eating TOO much rather than not having enough to eat.
- We live in a country that others are literally dying to get into. (People are taking many risks at the Mexican border to enter this country and paying about a year’s income to be smuggled across.)
And there are many others. Of course, it would be nice to add Universal Health Care to that list – wouldn’t it?
In any case, here we are – very privileged characters! And like Siddhartha in our story for all ages, some of us have ridden through the walled gates of our privilege and we’ve opened our eyes and have seen the poor, the sick, and the dying. And we just can’t reconcile our lives with such unearned privilege with others. What do we do? What did Siddhartha do?
Well at first he gave up everything and lived the life of an extreme ascetic. He not only meditated, he starved himself. Until he himself was dying – and he still didn’t know the meaning of life or what to do about it all. Then someone came along and offered him some food – and Siddhartha thought – if I do not eat, I will die – and then what good will I be. So he ate. The other monks were extremely critical. But Siddhartha thought there must be a better way – a middle way, the way of moderation.
The Middle Way is summed up in the fourth noble truth - the Noble Eightfold Path - Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
Or we could just go with the Erk Russell rule: Do Right!
This is the season of the year in which we are pressured to move away from that middle moderate path. We’re encouraged to spend more than we can afford, eat more than we need, and do more than we can possibly get done. And all in the name of Love and Peace and Good Will toward all! Some of us are so frustrated with all the consumerism and commercialism of the holiday season that we are tempted to say – “Fooey on it all!” (Or something like that.) But then we turn into scrooges; grimacing every time someone wishes us a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays! We are indeed privileged and blessed people. Instead of unwrapping packages of presents we don’t need, this could be a season for us to recognize and commit ourselves to unpacking our invisible knapsacks – at least realizing what’s in there, and then on using our privileges in positive ways to make the world a place where these positive privileges are entitlements that we all have.
Yes, I’ve become more aware that I’m a very privileged character. I told you earlier the awakening I had related to this when walking back from the labyrinth to my home with the member who complemented our home place. I realized that living on that property was, indeed, an unearned privilege. But I declared that I would attempt to share it in positive ways with others. So, you all are invited to our home on December 22 for a Holiday Potluck and Solstice Celebration!
Perhaps that’s not enough. And perhaps that is just a rationalization for holding on to something that, in reality, I probably don’t deserve. I do have many privileges. But I’ve decided not to shave my head and take a vow of poverty and chastity. After all, the Buddha gave up his life of extreme asceticism for a middle way. And Jesus gratefully accepted Mary’s sweet (and expensive) perfume foot bath. Yes, I will work with others to give up the negative privileges and shift the positive privileges to entitlements for all. And I will generously share with others. But I will continue to enjoy my home, my marriage, and my citizenship in this country. And hopefully, the joy that these bring will make me a better minister. And what a privilege that will be!
So, I have confessed to owning an invisible knapsack of privileges. What about you? What’s in your knapsack? We all have one. I invite you to spend some time during this holiday season exploring yours, becoming aware of your privileges, then trying to determine your middle path.
As the Buddha shared with his followers before he died,
“Be ye lamps unto yourselves. Be your own confidence. Hold to the truth within yourselves as to the only lamp.”
♫ (Sing the same).