These past few days it seems like everywhere I go (virtually speaking) folks are talking about privilege. Or fighting about privilege. A friend’s Facebook post inspired this meditation on the informal “rules” I picked up in my first two years at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, a place I often refer to, in my mind at least, as Disrupting Privilege Boot Camp. Please do not think that learning these was easy, or that I did it with good grace, or that I’ve mastered them. But I continue to try to incorporate them in my version of the Ignatian Examen, as I reflect on my day or an event.* (For full disclosure of my own social position, I am a white, rural-dwelling, educated, low-income, bisexual, mostly able-bodied, Christian woman who is married to a man. I know I’ve missed something, but the learning is part of the process.)
Finally, please don’t think that the following is a complete list; in fact, I hope you’ll add to it if so moved!
The first rule of learning about privilege: Shut up and listen. (Or if you prefer gentler language, be quiet and listen.) Even if you don’t understand, even if you feel uncomfortable and defensive, even if you feel angry. Even if you feel like someone’s yelling at you, accusing you, even hating you. Even if someone is hating you. First you need to listen.
Rule 2: Sit for awhile with what you hear from oppressed persons and groups and those advocating on their behalf. Don’t formulate a response. Just keep listening, and keep mulling.
Rule 3: Do a self-examination. On your own time. Read. Join a group. Seek out people in your demographic who analyze and work to disrupt privilege rather than expecting oppressed persons to keep educating you.
Rule 4: Try to move past guilt. We’ve all f*cked up. We’ve all acted out of some kind of privilege. We were ignorant, which is unfortunate but forgivable (and after all, everyone’s been there). As long as we keep on listening and learning. Your guilt helps nobody; it only adds burdens. (I was stuck here for such a long time. Leaving it felt like my own personal Exodus from Egypt. But I need to keep reminding myself that the Exodus isn’t just about personal freedom; it’s about freedom leading to service. In the Exodus, God doesn’t free us so we can do whatever we want; God frees us so we can live justly in service to God and each other. God frees us for solidarity.**)
Rule 5: Ask questions. My spouse had a great Lenten discipline one year of asking questions; at the end of the day he’d write down the questions he asked. This kind of practice is excellent for displacing yourself, at least for moments, from the center of your world, and making room for others’ experiences and perspectives. It also avoids a lot of simple but deadly misunderstandings.
Rule 6: Learn to love the exhilarating disruption of your privilege. Find joy in it. Laugh about it. Thank those who birthed it. And carry on with the work.
Rule 6a (optional): Watch Stephen Colbert. I’ve never heard him use the word “privilege,” but I’ve also never known another Straight White Male with such a thorough awareness of his own privilege, and such a brilliant and subtle way of lampooning it. If I were teaching a course on disrupting privilege, snippets of The Colbert Report would be required viewing.
*Can I add how much I love this Ecological Examen on the website I link to above?
**In certain contexts my advisor, David Carr, often translated the Hebrew word tzedakah (צדקה) not as “righteousness,” which is the common but misleading rendering (what do most people think of when they hear the word “righteous”? Probably “self-righteous.”). Instead, he used the word “solidarity.” Here’s the New Jerusalem Bible’s translation of Jeremiah 22.3, using solidarity to render tzedakah:
“Yhwh says this: Act uprightly and with solidarity; rescue from the hands of the oppressor anyone who has been wronged, do not exploit or ill-treat the stranger, the orphan, the widow; shed no innocent blood in this place.”
Solidarity ends in action, but it begins with understanding the nature of injustice, and that begins in hearing the stories of those who suffer it. Even though they’re not your stories.