Just recently it seems that discussion surrounding ‘privilege’ has become more mainstream. If you blog about, or take part in social justice activism, it’s probably nothing new to you. Recognising your privilege – the advantages you enjoy due to being part of a certain group of people – is key to understanding how best to engage with those who are less privileged and understand their lives, their issues, and the difficulties they face.
Most people are privileged in some way; a lot of people enjoy many more privileges than others. When progressives and activists talk about privilege they don’t just mean the upper classes. You’re white? That’s privilege. Male? Also privilege. Able-bodied? You guessed it – privilege. Being privileged doesn’t mean you’re inherently bad or that you need to feel guilty about aspects of your life you didn’t choose. But when you recognise the ways in which you’re privileged, it should mean that you start to consider how you could act in a genuinely pro-equality, non-discriminating way towards marginalised groups of people, while accepting that whatever your good intentions, you need to make room for others.
That might mean giving them the space to talk about their experiences instead of assuming you are better placed to talk about it. It might mean changing the language you use because you’ve realised that certain words are offensive to certain groups of people. It might mean going further to try to include people from a more diverse range of backgrounds in something you’re organising.
Being inclusive; putting a stop to discrimination – it doesn’t sound all that bad, right? Unfortunately, since these discussions have hit the mainstream – and the national press – the oft-heard phrase “Check your privilege!” has, for some, become a bit of a joke. An updated version of ‘political correctness’. People have been upset – successful journalists with their noses put out of joint because someone has ‘called them out’; activists from marginalised groups who have been told that pointing out their concerns is ‘divisive’. Occasionally I’ve seen the Christian community online debating all that’s going on. All this shouting at people for being too white, too middle class, too successful – isn’t it a bit bizarre? What’s the point of it?
The thing is, the conversation about privilege should have a lot of relevance for us as Christians. The Bible tells us on numerous occasions that we should be defending the oppressed, standing with the poor, looking to what we can do for those who are needy. And because they’re people too, we need to make sure that our concern comes from a place of wanting to raise up, equip, and listen.
The conversation about privilege should also inform how we think about the global church and who gets to have a say, who gets to be powerful. Research done in recent years tells us that the average Christian is a Latin American or African woman in her early 20s – a woman who is considered poor by western standards. And yet the voices we hear the most from, the faces we see when we think of important and influential Christians, are usually white men, middle-aged or older. That’s not to say that they’re bad people or that they’ve done something wrong, but it does suggest we have a lot of work to do in making room and welcoming a diverse range of people to the table – a range of people who can bring their experiences and thoughts and make our community a better place.
The concerns and issues of the average Christian are not going to mirror the debates played out on high profile blogs and at glitzy conferences. And sometimes it’s easy to forget this – that the next big debate of our times could be doing nothing more than making us look out of touch, and proving a distraction from issues that just might be crying out for our attention.
Do you want to defend the cause of the oppressed, or defend the status quo? If it’s the former, that means thinking about the ways in which we’re privileged, and considering how we can be better allies to people who haven’t had it quite so easy – remembering who Jesus aligned himself with and thinking how we can be advocates without speaking for – and over – others.