On Learning What Privilege Really Means

Despite a general lack of confidence in myself, there are several personal qualities about which I feel unalloyed esteem. These include the ease with which I rise early every morning, my slow-and-steady discipline as a distance runner, my transparency about a Diet Coke addiction.

And also, my belief that I am an enlightened progressive.

About this sense of my own enlightenment, I’ve often assumed a humble/brag demeanor, letting people know that I am well aware of privilege in its various forms. I read all the right progressive publications, after all, and my literary diet is heavy on writing from people of color. I am a verified Christian feminist, calling out the patriarchy for its various abuses in my own writing and research.

At the college where I teach, I take classes on diversity and serve on multicultural committees, sometimes smugly deriding the colleagues who themselves deride diversity. Because, I think, I get privilege. I get it, that is, until I am blinded by my own privileged positions, and fail to see how my privilege—a white woman of moderate means, a full professor at a Christian college, an elder in my church—might affect others.

In these last days of summer, online and in-person discussions about privilege in general, and white privilege specifically, have reminded me that I am not so enlightened as I often believe myself to be; and neither are many of my white Christian sisters and brothers, progressive or otherwise.

We may actively seek ways for all of God’s children to be included at the fellowship table, talking about equity and justice, blogging and tweeting about it, but white Christians aren’t doing what might be best: that is, checking our own privilege by being quiet and listening to the stories of others.

Such listening has been difficult, though, if Christena Cleveland’s blog is any barometer of the inhospitable spirit evangelicals seem to be displaying in conversations about race.

In mid-August, Cleveland started a seven-part series on “African-American voices and Christian colleges.” Her series’ second post was by DeLisa Thomas, an African-American graduate of George Fox University, who movingly narrates an experience of eating in her college cafeteria, and being told by several white women that she needed to move, that she could not sit by them.

“This incident highlights the racism and fear-based prejudice that are very much alive and well at Christian colleges,” DeLisa writes. “These women were clearly uncomfortable with me and afraid of me because of my race. Removing me was their way of dealing with their fear.”

As a matter of full disclosure, I should say that I know DeLisa, and served as her academic advisor at George Fox. She is a strong, smart, outspoken woman, despite the encounters with racism at the university that were truly dispiriting. DeLisa chose to share one example of those encounters, and in her post, encouraged others to listen to her story as a way of confronting racism in our Christian campuses.

Judging from the comments following her post, though, many were not only unwilling to empathize, they were unwilling to listen, period. The initial commenter, a man identified as “Brendt,” suggested DeLisa had no evidence that her experience was racist, and believed DeLisa might have been treated poorly for other reasons entirely. Others agreed with Brendt, saying that because the white women didn’t intend to be racist, they were not racist; and that DeLisa’s story wasn’t “real” racism; and that blacks just need to “get over it” and “move on.”

Some commenters extended understanding to DeLisa, appreciation for her vulnerability, and a longing for reconciliation, though the general tenor of the discussion seemed to suggest that DeLisa—and by extension, other people of color—was not truly a victim of racism, her story having no basis in reality. Her voice, no merit.

(As an aside, I noticed that DeLisa’s article got far more negative comments than the one that followed, by an older African-American male. I can’t help but wonder whether DeLisa received criticism not only because she was a person of color, but also a woman, and younger: an easy target for insecure, mostly anonymous internet commenters.)

So much for listening to the voices of African-American experiences at Christian colleges. Or, really, listening to such voices after they graduate, because as Cleveland points out in another blog post last week, Christian Piatt’s listing of the top-25 evangelical bloggers—a listing crowd-sourced by ardent readers of blogs—only one woman of color cracked the list, Cleveland herself.  “The results of this poll are unsurprising and definitely not a fluke,” Cleveland writes. “Rather, they are indicative of the larger problem of privilege within American Christianity” (emphasis hers).

Still, as long as white evangelicals insist there are no problems with privilege; or that they remain persecuted in a country that generally privileges white Christians; or even that they are enlightened about privilege and already get it, we will not be able to have honest discussions about race and racism and what privilege really means. And, lacking such discussions, Jesus’s vision of a just and grace-filled kin-dom will surely remain unfulfilled.

Sometimes it takes only one conversation. Often, it will take more. And once in awhile, finding racial reconciliation means white Christians must contend with uncomfortable truths about themselves and their own presumed enlightened selves.

My own epiphany about privilege and my need for more enlightenment occurred earlier this month, just weeks before Cleveland’s excellent series on African-American voices. While I’ve certainly had many other epiphanies about race and gender and my own privilege as a westerner, this experience was something else entirely: the first time I’ve really felt my own privilege acutely, uncomfortably even, in my workplace.

I serve on the Personnel Committee for our university, an elected position that requires me to read faculty portfolios and reviews, and also recommend faculty members for tenure. It was clear, during a meeting I attended recently, that other faculty members see the committee as fairly powerful, our position in the university privileged. This is especially true for faculty of color, who look at the Personnel Committee and see only white folks, entrenched in a western world view that may influence how they read and judge what people outside the dominant culture do.

In the meeting, we were asked to sit and listen quietly to others’ perceptions of the peer review process. Although I wanted to be defensive about the way tenure is decided, to say these faculty members had it all wrong!, all I could do was listen.

And that’s when I had my epiphany. I never saw the committee position as having much privilege: I’m just little old me, after all, a peer who eats candy at her desk and takes afternoon naps without fail. But a peer who also

Belongs to the dominant culture.

And understands the rules, unwritten and written, of that culture.

And speaks the language of that culture.

And speaks the language well enough to already have tenure.

And makes recommendations that might shape a peer’s career.

It took shutting up and listening to recognize that I also have positions of privilege; that if I want justice and equity in all the places I inhabit, I need to check my own privilege, often; that because of my own privilege, I need to more intentional in my advocacy for others who, because of skin color or socioeconomic standing or gender or sexual identity or even faculty rank, cannot be heard.

I’m no longer confident that I get it, at least when it comes to conversations about diversity. And, I wonder, if maybe that’s the best place for someone like me to be. Because, it seems, only when white Christians can shut up and listen will other voices truly allow to be heard.

(I recognize, of course, the irony of this post, me—a white Christian—blah blah blahing about needing to be quiet. But I’m done now. And trying hard to listen.)