All my life I’ve heard the term “underprivileged.” It was used when we talked about people in impoverished countries or children who needed assistance with school lunches. I’ve never heard anyone take exception to the term.
But for some reason when you bring up the idea there are people who are privileged, folks get real bent out of shape. This seems a little crazy to me since you can’t have people who are underprivileged without having people who are privileged.
Part of the problem is that, if we’re going to imagine that there’s a privileged people, it’s someone else—not us.
The spectrum of privilege
If you lined up everyone in the world according their access to healthy food, pure water, shelter, and sustainable wages, you’d have the most underprivileged people on one end of the scale, and the most privileged people in the world on the other. In many ways it’s no one’s fault where they are on that scale. If you were born in the west, you’re going to naturally find yourself a clustered with the privileged.
In fact, based on just these criteria, the poorest people in any particular western country would still find themselves on the higher end of the worldwide privilege spectrum.
As I said earlier, where you land is typically outside of your control. That said, there are also systemic injustices that help maintain the spectrum as we know it. Some of the poorer countries suffer from civil unrest and terrible governments who oppress them. Some of the businesses and governments in more privileged countries take advantage of poorer nations by exploiting them and taking their resources.
So, while it might not be anyone’s fault where they are on the spectrum, it is the responsibility for justice-minded people on the more privileged end of the spectrum—this should include all followers of Christ—to do what they can to assist the people on the lower end. At the very least, they should opt out of practices that further exploit them.
Privilege is more than money
We can modify that spectrum we created earlier by factoring in other aspects that affect quality of life—but we need to give them appropriate weight according to their culture of origin.
There’s a huge re-juggling of this spectrum when we factor in gender. By simply being born a woman, your privilege is greatly affected. If you’re a woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo, not only do you have to struggle with the economic issues which affect daily life, you live in constant fear of violence. Rape is so frequent that UN investigators have called it unprecedented. Of the 775 million people over the age of 15 who can’t read or write, 2/3 of them are women.
Other factors that greatly affect this scale are race, religion, sexual orientation, social class or caste, and health/disability. And again, we need to weigh each one according to many factors. For instance, it’s much better to be born a woman in Iceland than it is in Nepal. It’s better to be gay in South Africa than in Russia.
Privilege at home
This spectrum dramatically changes when you go from an international scale to a national one. People on the lower end of the economic spectrum in America may find themselves higher on an international scale, but it really doesn’t matter within their current context. It doesn’t help a mother of three struggling to make it in Detroit to tell them, “Buck up, you’re doing much better than the average mother in Mali.”
Race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, social class, and disability have a great effect on the quality of life in America (or any country)—and to deny that they don’t just seems ludicrous. I’ve been looking for a job at the same time as a close friend of mine. In a conversation the other day he said to me, “I put my nickname and not my given name on my résumé because I get a lot fewer call backs when they see that I’m Mexican.”
I don’t have the real estate in the particular blog to offer social proofs for how each factor affects privilege in the United States, but the proof is there if you’re serious about becoming educated.
But keep in mind, whenever you hear another white guy talking about those “fat cats in Washington” or “trust fund babies,” they’re talking about privilege.
Who are you to tell me I’m privileged!?
One of the arguments I hear all the time, especially from Bill O’Reilly fans, goes something like this, “How can I be privileged? I’ve worked my ass off to get where I am. How dare you call me privileged!?”
I’m a healthy, straight, white, middle-class man, and I’ve had virtually no say in any of those factors. This doesn’t mean I haven’t had to work to succeed; it means that I haven’t had to work around many of the economic and sociological boundaries that others have. Sure, there are many people of color who are more successful than I am, but by-and-large, all things being equal:
- I’m less likely to be arrested
- I’m more likely to go to college
- I’m more likely to get called back for a job
- I’m more likely to find adequate housing
This mythology that, no matter who you are, you can be whatever you want if you just work hard makes it difficult to have this discussion. Working hard matters, there’s no question about it. But this is by no means a level playing field and by pretending that it is, or that all cultural barriers can be bypassed by working harder, we solidify issues of privilege.
When you look at the pay gap, there’s a huge discrepancy when it comes to race, and an even greater one when it comes to gender.
One thing I find extremely troubling when talking about this issue is how seldom Native Americans are factored into the discussion. I just want to go on record by saying that not only do I think our first-nation people are some of the most underprivileged in America, they’re even under represented by voices who contend for more civil equality.
Does Jesus care about privilege
One of the most damning criticisms of Christianity is that it’s not only accepted its privileged position in the west, but that it also exploits it. If we’re being honest, it’s not too hard to concede the point. Not only can an argument be made that Christianity has been complicit in the subjugation of Native Americans, the economic success of slavery, and the fight against women’s suffrage, it can be argued that, within this “melting pot” of races and religions, Christians have often sought a dominant role in American life.
The expectation that corporate (Christian) prayer should occur in public schools, the frustration that someone would wish you “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas,” or the conviction that Christianity’s view of matrimony should dictate who can and cannot get married, points to an ingrained sense of Christian privilege.
I recognize that there were Christians who fought for women’s suffrage, for native Americans, and against slavery. This doesn’t negate the overwhelming evidence that Christians have often been on the wrong side of issues of privilege. It’s no wonder that people puzzle over whether the Jesus of Christianity cares about the issue of privilege at all.
Not only did Jesus abandon privilege to walk among us (Phil. 2:5—11), his concern for the underprivileged helped put him in the crosshair of the religious establishment. He spoke up for the poor, healed the sick of the racially underprivileged (even when it at times when it wasn’t religiously acceptable to do so—Mark 3:1—6), and spoke up for and treated women like valued and important members of society.
Many of Jesus parables and teaching included elements that would undo first-century (and modern privilege). I see the Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) as being about both the economic and national privilege. Beyond Jesus, it’s obvious that the introduction of Christianity was intended to plant sociological seeds that would drive a stake into the heart of privilege.
What do I do with white guilt?
“White guilt” is one of those terms that I hear from white friends to scornfully dismiss issues of privilege. It always irritates me.
Many of the problems we’re talking about are systemic. I didn’t choose them, and I’m not sure feeling guilty about it does anyone any good. The person who should feel guilty is the one who refuses to admit that it’s a legitimate issue.
The bigger question is, “What do we do about it?”
Once we recognize the issue of privilege we’re responsible for our response. We can’t continue to soak up the benefits of privilege and deny they don’t exist.
It’s not enough for me to reject the idea of privilege. I can’t publicly decry my societal position and go on with life as usual. I might get a boost of moral superiority by saying “I reject my privileged status as a white male in America,” but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m going to still benefit from this systemic weaknesses in American culture. So I have to do something else. I have to subvert the system—I have to leverage my privilege for the benefit of others.
I had a friend who laid into me because of the popularity of my blog. Because I was a white, straight male, I was perpetuating privilege by having anything to say that anyone would want to read. That irritated the hell out of me. If I have more of a voice than someone else, it does neither of us any good for me give up my voice so that we’re both mute. If I have a platform, I consider it my responsibility to elevate marginalized individuals. I just need to be very careful not to speak on their behalf.
One thing I have been horrified at this week is how easy it is for white people to speak for black Americans as if they understand their situation from reading a couple blog posts or watching the news. I have absolutely no right to talk as if I understand what it’s like to be black, female, gay, handicapped, Muslim, or for any other group that I have not experienced from the inside. But I do feel responsible for hearing and raising their voices.
That said, here are list of blogs I read regularly:
The first step for a stronger, more empathetic church is to break out of our intellectual, theological, and sociological cul-de-sacs. It is a lot of work not to standard and prescribe my perspective for everyone. I tend to think I’m pretty objective, but my objectivity is colored by my limited experience and understanding. It’s time for the church in America to provide room for more voices.