Beyond Theory: Privilege as a Felt Reality
In college, I became very familiar with the term privilege. Peggy McIntosh, in her article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, refers to white privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was 'meant' to remain oblivious,” which I think is a helpful description of privilege overall. Other sources of privilege, beyond race, include gender, sexual orientation, education, or socioeconomic background. “Male privilege,” for example, refers to the advantages someone receives in a society for being male. These terms can come up quite often in academic discourse; they can also come up frequently in conversations about social justice. During my time at college, I became more involved in these social justice conversations. In my junior year, I joined a group on campus called Gender & Sexuality Alliance in my efforts to be supportive of the LGTBQ community. I also belonged to our campus's feminist group, WomenSpeak in my senior year. Most of my close friends at college were passionate some sort of social justice issue(s). Privilege was a regular topic of conversation.
While it was easy for me to wrap my head around privilege academically and theoretically, it's been quite different to experience it the way that I have through my Saint Hilda's House internship at the Community Soup Kitchen in New Haven. The organization serves free lunches on a regular basis to people in need in in the city. Sometimes, the soup kitchen provides over 300 meals a day. It is one thing to know that poverty and hunger are problems, which most people do on some level. It is another thing entirely to see how many people's situations force them to rely on organizations like this soup kitchen on a daily basis.
Though I do not work on the food serving line every day, I have done so a few times. While scooping up salad for guests or asking them their choice in bread, I find myself aware of just how easy my life has been. I have never had to worry about where or if I could get my next meal. Beyond offering food, the soup kitchen also hosts other services. For example, we have nurses come in throughout the week to offer First Aid, blood pressure screenings, and referrals to other services. If I ever needed medical attention, I've always been able to go to the doctor. To this day, I am still covered by my parents' health insurance.
Working at the soup kitchen has also impressed on me how privileged I am to have the education that I do. Though I've had to take on some debt to finance my education, going to college was never really a question of If? for me; rather, it was always framed as a question of Where? I am aware that I have many opportunities open before me because of my degree and job experience that many of the soup kitchen's guests do not, although it is important to note that there are plenty of college graduates who are struggling with poverty as well.
This privilege can often feel distancing, especially as I think about how it might be perceived by others. How do I relate to the guests the soup kitchen serves when my life has been and is so different from theirs? How do I relate to the volunteers who are doing court-mandated community service hours? Can I relate?
To be honest, the pairing of these sort of worries with my natural tendency to be quiet in new situations and settings has made me concerned that I'll appear standoffish when that's so far from my intention. Earlier this week, I heard it mentioned that some soup kitchens or food programs have a problem with getting volunteers out on the serving line. Instead, volunteers want to stay back in the kitchen. I have to hypothesize that this problem might stem from feelings of distance or discomfort that come with facing the reality of one's privilege and people who don't have those same benefits.
Prior to this internship, I have often been frustrated with the way some people deny that they have privilege. This experience might be giving me an insight into that resistance. With privilege comes the idea of difference. Privilege can be divisive. Resenting how that may inhibit connection is, in some ways, a logical response.
Personally, I don't think the answer is to ever bury one's head in the sand and pretend privilege doesn't exist. While facing privilege is not always the most comfortable situation, the idea is actually helpful as I undertake this internship. Knowing that many benefits are conferred on the basis of categories like gender, race, and socioeconomic background, rather than merit, reminds me that I could easily be on the other side of a soup kitchen counter. Though I do like to think of myself as someone who works hard, advantages that I have done nothing to deserve have also shaped my circumstances and led to my successes. If I was not aware of my privilege, I might indulge in arrogant and destructive thinking, believing that all of our guests only have to work harder, be a certain way, or do a certain thing to overcome their struggles. Recognizing my privilege, though, helps me realize that, while people can take certain actions and circumstances can change, things aren't simple and certainly not easy. I also know that, because of my privileged position, I can't speak authoritatively about the struggles someone else faces. Overall, though my current awareness of my privilege can make me feel a bit self-conscious, it is also crucial to cultivating a posture of humility and empathy that I think will be essential to my internship and other non-profit work I take on in the future.
Recognizing privilege is also important because it is an act of honesty. As I thought more about privilege and honesty, and how these concepts figure into my callings as a Christian, I thought of feminist theologians I've read who have drawn on Martin Luther's “theology of the cross.” A “theology of the cross” is characterized by these thinkers as a theology that names things for what they are. In the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther writes that “a theologian of the cross” understands God through “the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” He continues to say: “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a church with which the Episcopal Church is in full communion, has a Justice for Women project that uses this concept as a theological support for the importance of naming the things that harm our society, particularly patriarchy and sexism. You can read more of what they have to say here. I find this framework helpful for thinking about privilege. Yes, all people are made in the image of God, all believers are one in Christ (as it says in Galatians), and Christians are called to live in hope of resurrection and redemption, but these aspects of our faith are not an invitation to put on rose-colored glasses.
Things do divide us on earth—and often unjustly. Being able to see those dividers and injustices is just the beginning, but an important beginning, nonetheless.
On page 338 in the Book of Common Prayer, there is a phrase of prayer that I've become fond of, where we ask God “to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.” This language about “good works” has resonated with me as I've begun this internship year. I cannot do good on my own. What good I can do is, as the Book of Common Prayer suggests, contingent on grace and preparation from God. Perhaps opening our eyes to our privilege (even if that particular term may not be used in someone's realization) is one way that God prepares us for good works and shows us where those good works are most needed. Now comes the challenge of moving past preparation and actually starting to walk in those things for which God has readied me.