As I was driving today, I was putting thoughts together to write a piece about human perspectives on privilege. I thought I might opt for another term, like inherited advantage, since the term “White Privilege” has been used and misused and misunderstood to a point where those with said privilege have conditioned themselves to dismiss it as propaganda.
The thing is, I received a call shortly after arriving at work that my son’s gravestone monument is ready to be set in two days. Something like that will interrupt your thoughts. Makes you stop what you’re doing. Makes you remember a beloved life lost. Makes you remember things you thought you had forgotten.
The movie, “The Jerk,” starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters came out in 1979. If I’m not mistaken, it was the first movie I ever went to see with friends. It opened with Steve Martin’s character, Navin Johnson, stating, “It was never easy for me. I was born a poor, black child.” Well, I was born into a white, relatively middle class (for rural America) family. I am a female, so that created its own set of issues related to power, safety, protection and vulnerability during my formative years in the late 20th century. As a woman, I’ve experienced sexual molestation and physical violence from men I thought loved me. As a white woman, I’ve experienced rejection and abuse because of my relationships with men of other races. I’ve experienced homelessness and isolation and marginalization from some advantages of having been born into a white family. I’ve been terrorized by Klan-minded church members, more concerned about my relationships than my safety. That’s my experience, but not my whole message.
When you are born with advantages that you did nothing to earn other than arriving here on earth by way of your birth parents, you don’t understand what it’s like not to have them. How could you? Why would you even try to imagine it? It would be very hard to convince someone who is born into a white American family with a sufficiently large home – maybe two – who graduated college without paralyzing debt, who landed a great spouse and a great-paying job and who enjoys plenty of food and vacations without being questioned or harassed that those lovely things aren’t due to his or her pious living, belief in God, and otherwise-perfect choices over the course of a lifetime. Very hard. As hard as leading a camel through the eye of a needle. Especially if going through that eye means having to let go of some of those unearned trappings to which we feel attached and for which we feel entitled.
I think “choices” is a great place to pause. Because not everyone has the same array of choices. The very heart of being privileged or having advantages means having a wider, better assortment of choices. Of course, not everyone with advantages makes great choices. I’ve made some pretty rotten choices myself. But sometimes, a bad choice is the better of two pretty awful choices.
My son died by suicide last year. It was a bad choice in my estimation, but I suspect he felt it was the better of his limited array of perceived choices in that moment. He had some advantages: he was smart, good looking, had a decent job, had a family who loves him, had talents and skills that were still developing. He also had disadvantages: he wasn’t able to complete his college degree due to issues surrounding ADD; he was biracial with green eyes and was often mistaken as coming from a nationality or culture that people in America fear post-9/11; he fought mental illness/depression; he had a job with terrible medical benefits that could barely be called benefits at all; and he had limited financial resources due to the types of jobs he was able to secure and a lack of saved resources coming from a single-parent/absent father household. This week, I’ll witness his gravestone being set in place. That shouldn’t be happening according to natural order, but I don’t have another good choice.
Growing up as I did, belief in Jesus was often conflated with American patriotism, local privileges and cultural standards. There was a prosperity gospel element to it, equating poverty with immorality. There was, in my neck of the woods, a racist element, left over from the era of slavery, that equated being from a non-white race to being immoral. I knew something smelled rotten. I rebelled against it, even if I couldn’t properly or articulately identify it from within the context of the rotten smells. I separated myself as best I could.
“Nose-blind” they call it, when you can’t smell your own stink while it surrounds you.
Assuredly, following Jesus requires a complete rejection of those conflated ideas. These are interesting times in which we live. Much is being uncovered in terms of bad theologies that are unjust, unmerciful, unloving and not at all like Jesus’ example. I’m glad to see these things being identified and confronted.
I’m also painfully aware that these core issues still surround us. In light of these previously-hidden-and-protected, and recently-spotlighted sins of our humanity, I recognize and acknowledge that I have more, better choices than very many of my neighbors. Some of that is entirely because of my appearance – something I had no part in creating. I’m not a wealthy woman in our culture’s terms, not by a long-shot. I’m still (again) a single mom working two jobs for pay and two more without pay, just trying to keep things floating. I’ve seen terrible things that have taught me where to look. I know how to utilize my advantages. I also know that, when you see others doing better than you in your most insecure and myopic view, it can make you hold on very tightly to what little you might perceive that you have, fearful of falling lower in esteem or losing traction in some regard.
But any response to others that is birthed in fear is probably the opposite of what you’re being asked to do by Jesus.
Choose to give generously to people outside of your social circle and sphere of influence. Expect nothing in return.
Choose to speak up when you see someone being mistreated, regardless of who the offender is. Offer help and encouragement to the one in harm’s way.
Choose to go out of your way for a suffering friend or loved one or stranger. Yes, go out of your way. He or she is likely unable to make a move toward you or any other help.
Choose to be a good listener and lay aside any defensive responses when someone says you’ve hurt them. Be willing to reconcile differences without attempting to make another person into some alternative version of you.
Choose to love people first.
These things are just, merciful, kind and humble. These are great choices that anyone can make.