Pieces of Me: Revealing Privilege
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
–Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects
I’m just not going to have a good day.
The day started when my friend Jerrod Lowry (I haven’t met him in person so that’s presumptuous on my part) posted a selfie of running in the early morning dark. Jerrod is a Presbyterian pastor in Utah who happens to be serving on a national search committee and finds himself in Louisville at the moment. He went for a run because… he’s awesome like that. Attached to his selfie he wrote, “if you don’t fear running in an affluent neighborhood, then we don’t live in the same universe. How to run in a way that seems non-threatening or could be mistaken for mischief?”
His post was apocalyptic for me. Not that I haven’t thought about it before, this very fact occurs to me while I am running frequently… but it holds no actual power over me. Its just a thought that wanders in and out of my head… and I have the privilege of letting it wander out. Jerrod’s post hit me hard today. Apocalyptically. In that sense that apocalypse uncovers hidden realities in our world. And what I saw beneath the covers was a type of hell that is all around me… but I don’t walk (or run) in it.
Jerrod is a person of color. I am not. And he is absolutely correct. We live in different worlds. The same space… different dimensions. I run at night, and people worry about me (I don’t worry about myself because I live in a privileged bubble of safety.) But what they worry about is me getting hurt because someone cannot see me. They are worried about negligence… what they aren’t worried about is that I will be perceived as criminal because I’m running. They won’t. They don’t have to, because I’m white.
I recall another friend who is also clergy once talking about going into the bathroom at church late at night and having to check all the stalls to make sure they were empty before she knew it was safe to use the bathroom. OMG. I grew up with three sisters, I have three daughters… but this too was an apocalyptic moment for me. Because I have never done so nor thought about it. Because I’m male.
I have another clergy friend who was telling me about his interview process with a church. It was all going well until they casually asked about flying him in with his family. He had no children, and he wasn’t married. And the interview ended. Right then, right there. They lost all interest in him. I cannot even fathom such a thing… because I have cute little blond-haired, blue-eyed rugrats and a wonderful wife and most churches hope (no matter how “progressive” they may be) that someone who looks like us, likes them. Because we’re a comfortably cisgender, heterosexual, affluent, traditional family.
I could go on like this all day… I get a call to sit across from a legislature as an advocate. Not because I’m the most knowledgeable advocate… but because my title and attributes of my being grant me authority that this legislator will listen to regardless of the message. Because I am power.
I can pray in public because I’m Christian.
I can move around the country from place to place without fear because I’m a clearly born and raised in this country Euro-American.
I can shop in any store because I belong to the upper classes so they won’t shun me and the lower classes can’t risk doing so. I can even chose to be unaware of this reality (and in many ways I am because I’ve played off my privilege in a thousand ways I haven’t recognized) because… I’m protected by the societal norms I don’t see, even and particularly when I claim they don’t exist. If we do not name and see the devil? The devil gets power unchecked.
And that is what gets me. That’s what makes me mad. Because I’m lost. I don’t know what exactly to do with all this except to name it and try and refuse it and try to get others to see it… that’s the one thing I feel I know I can do is name and claim it. But…
Another friend, Laura Cheifetz, posted an article shortly after Jerrod’s post. The writer of that article is a person of color saying that talk about privilege isn’t real. The article, as I read it, essential posits that racism and sexism and oppressive system to non-normative peoples is just in their head and they need to get over it… and, again as I heard it, Laura is pretty much being told she is perverting the gospel when she advocates for her own inclusion and equality. And telling her that… or Jerrod… or anyone of my other brave friends who trudge upstream in society is a kind of sick sin I cannot help but get tear-my-hair-out frustrated by… I cannot sit aside and not say something. Because my silence makes me as guilty as anyone else.
I know that people who don’t want to see and admit to structural, systematic, and societal sin of oppressive prejudice of all kinds will run that article up a flag pole to champion their cause. “See,” we will say, “this is a person of color who shows us that if you work hard and act right there is no racism or oppression.” And we can go back to shoring up our white male Christian cisgender affluent educated… privilege.
Friends. It’s real. It doesn’t mean it’s universal. It doesn’t mean I’m a horrible person or that you are. But it’s real. And by my very breath I participate in it. And by my calling I am obligated to help bring down the dividing walls of this hostility. And I don’t know how to do that (thank God it’s not up to me alone) so I will try to do the only thing I know I can… invite you to reflect on its reality. I get our need to feel defensive. I get our need to say “I didn’t do it.” I get why we lament what seems like the loss of our rights when what we have lost was the super-rights we never should have had. I get how hard it is to “put yourselves in someone else’s shoes.” I get that its easy to worry about the ways we feel oppressed and make that our way out of caring and working for the next set of oppression… and I get that life is hard EVEN with privilege and sometimes so hard it doesn’t feel possible we have any advantage at all. And it can both be true that life is hard… AND that the deck could be even more stacked against you.
So to everyone I wronged through ignorance,
to everyone I wronged through acceptance,
to everyone I wrong through ambivalence,
to everyone I wrong through maintenance,
to everyone who runs in a universe apart from me,
I apologize. I repent.
And I will keep needing the reminder to keep repenting. Speaking. Transforming.
Help me help us change what it means to be me and what it means to be you in the world. Because I do love you. And I love me. And that is the way it should be. But equally. And we should all get to go running in the dark, and use the bathroom without fear, and have, or not have, the family of our choice, and sit across a desk from people with power because our voice matters whatever the body that incarnates that voice.
I am having a bad day. But don’t help me have a better one. Because my day is still worlds away from so much grief and hardship. The only way my day gets better? Is to make OUR day get better. And the page isn’t big enough to contain that OUR.
The Devil is real. And like the Wild Things of Maurice Sendak’s greatly prophetic book, we need to name them and claim them and tame them “with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.” So let’s do some staring, and naming, and claiming, and let’s go for a run — together.