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Becoming Aware of My Privilege

If you grow up with some privilege, you probably don’t recognize it. Unconsciously, you take your “what is” for the furniture of the universe – “just the way things are,” not only for you, but for everybody else. Sure, you may see on television or via social media evidence that people in other places face bad situations – war, famine, natural disasters of one sort or another. But down deep, your unspoken “gut hunch” is that – for the most part, indeed (and all the really important ones) – what you experience is what about everybody else does, what you do is what everyone else who really tries hard could do. Sure, we may know that some are better off (financially, especially) than you are, but they and we are all sort of “in the same boat.” And we know some who aren’t better off – and have a pretty good idea why.

That’s certainly the way I grew up. I didn’t think of myself as privileged. I came from a working-class background, grew up in a pre-fab home, and went to our town’s public schools. In a socio-economic sense, I certainly wasn’t privileged. BUT I was white, male, and of European ancestry.

In a socio-economic sense, I certainly wasn’t privileged.

I had absorbed the notion that folks should “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” In school, I was no varsity athlete, but I worked really hard and excelled at academic stuff. If other people did, they could, too. I got to go to university; if they had worked hard, they could have, too. I figured that would work for everybody, no matter where they lived or what colour their skin was. BUT I was white, male, and of European ancestry.

Even though I grew up in the 1960s, with the civil rights movement challenging the barriers that black folks experienced, I never asked myself why I never saw any of my black acquaintances from school eating in the restaurants where my family did. I didn’t ask why none of them went to the barber shop where I had my hair cut. The church I grew up in never talked about that stuff. But when a black Christian young woman came to our church, it was obvious the adults were uncomfortable. “They have their own churches in our town. Why is she here instead of with ‘her own kind’?” I knew her from school, and the question bothered me. It bothered me because I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t be welcomed in our church. But it also began to bother me because I had never even thought about how uniformly white our church was, even though I knew some of my high school friends who were people of colour went to church. I was white, male, and of European ancestry, but I didn’t begin to fathom how much that had shaped my life and situation, or the lives and situations of other people who were not white, male, or of European ancestry.

I was white, male, and of European ancestry, but I didn’t begin to fathom how much that had shaped my life and situation.

Over following years, I would become more aware of that privilege. Learning how the countries of North America had dealt with the original peoples of the continent was something I had to get from other sources than my history textbooks, written as they were by folks of European heritage. European privilege – unrecognized by those who have it, but unmistakable to those who don’t.

My young daughter’s questioning mind helped me see how privileged males are in our society. Through her and my wife, an accomplished Christian businesswoman, I came to recognize the hassles females in our societies regularly endure – whether while walking down a street, in a boardroom, or as they contemplate the roles they can play in church and society. Male privilege – unrecognized by those who have it, but unmistakable to those who don’t.

White privilege – unrecognized by those who have it, but unmistakable to those who don’t.

Over the last several years, I have had the privilege of working closely with and, more importantly, genuinely listening to black people who have become dear friends. We have talked about living in North America – and especially in the U.S.A. I have listened with astonishment – and, often enough, horror – to what they regularly face in contemporary society and what they must fear for their children. Last year, I saw a Facebook post which I shared with a gentle, thoughtful, and wise African-American female friend who is the embodiment of Christian charity and love. The post said, “If you don’t get white privilege, you have it.” She thought a moment and gently responded – without bitterness or rancor, but honestly, “Yes, that’s exactly right.” For most of my life, I didn’t “get” it, even though I “had” it. White privilege – unrecognized by those who have it, but unmistakable to those who don’t.

There are probably lots of others who, like me, would like to become more aware of how white privilege has shaped social structures, opportunities, and hopes – not only for white people, but for those of colour, as well. Over the last few months, I read three books that have helped me recognize it much better: Trevor Noah's Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016); Debby Irving's Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race (2014); and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2014). In the next couple of blogs, I hope to tell you about those books and what we white folk can learn from them. And maybe that will help us figure out better how to “do justice” with others. 

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