when being polite and proper obfuscate privilege and prejudice

Mass shootings. Police violence. Black Lives Matter protests. Pride events. Church politics.

Photo by Hector Vasquez

Photo by Hector Vasquez

I’m guessing I’m not the only one who is feeling a mixture of uncertainty and paralysis, helplessness and grief, overwhelmed and guilty, all while trying to listen, learn, and process the intersection of oppression, violence, and injustice as it is protested and lamented all around us.

Given our raw state, I’m going to say this gently: All that I’ve just described is a sure sign that you, like me, live with a lot of privilege.

I’ve been finding that this notion of privilege can be hard to grasp, let alone accept, for a lot of good Christian people. And I have to wonder if it isn’t because we were raised to be good, to be polite, with certain ideas about what was proper …. and we had no idea that this was a luxury. We followed the bible, did what we were taught, and trusted Jesus to receive us in heaven – that covered all our bases. We often weren’t aware that our striving to be good covered up a lot of insecurity and shame. So when people tell us we have a lot of privilege it can sound like we’re being accused of something (and everything inside screams our innocence) or that we haven’t been good (despite trying so hard) or that we aren’t enough (our biggest fear) – and that is why we want to resist the idea. It’s hard to understand privilege when you have it. And it can be hard to know what to do about it.

So to escape our discomfort, we unconsciously look around to shift the attention …. and inevitably we’ll find someone not behaving too politely or acting very properly and, though we might not even be aware of it, we return to our self-justified and often self-absorbed way of life. We’re just doing the best we can after all … right?

“I don’t know what difference I can make anyway.”

A word like “oppression” can seem extreme ….. when you’ve never experienced it.

“Why do they have to be so angry? Why do they have to flaunt their lifestyle?” “Being angry isn’t polite.” “Displaying your sexual energy isn’t proper.” “Putting someone out, making someone wait is rude.” “Nice people don’t make demands.”

When this is the formative script that begins to play when you feel anxious, it can make it very difficult to truly listen, to truly enter in, to walk a mile in someone’s shoes, to resist getting defensive or taking offense, to not shut down.

If you’re white or if you’re male or if you’re straight or if you’re cis-gender or if you’re Christian or if you’re able-bodied or if you’re employed or if you’re educated or if you’re married or if you’re middle-aged or if English is your first language or if your ancestors were the colonizers instead of the colonized… then I plead with you to pause and repeat this mantra to yourself, calmly – even gently, until you can receive it without feeling anxious: “it’s not about me”

That’s where we begin.

That’s how we can set our defensiveness aside. That’s how we can choose to not be offended.

That’s when we can begin to see that our inner discomfort, resistance, and protestation aren’t really about what is polite or what is proper…… that’s when we can begin to recognize not just the privilege we inherited but the prejudices that our nice, good, Christian upbringing disguised.

Being white or male or straight or cisgender etc. isn’t bad – but it does come with a lot of privilege. Those of us with privilege are part of systems that separate, divide, judge, look down on, dehumanize, use, beat, oppress, and kill – and in these systems we are protected most of the time, we aren’t the ones targeted, we aren’t the ones who feel powerless.

Maybe we feel we have no choice, maybe we feel that we aren’t overt perpetrators, maybe we really do want to be loving and good and kind and fair. But the system we benefit from isn’t. It isn’t good. It isn’t kind. It isn’t fair. And it isn’t energized by love.

And that’s why – no matter how uncomfortable or anxious or uncertain we feel …. we can’t just numb out, we can’t just look the other way, we can’t just mumble dry-eyed prayers, we can’t just carry on.

Today you can choose. Today you can commit. Today you can risk.

  1. Be a learner: start reading, find people working as allies and advocates and ask for their help, engage people’s stories at a heart level.

  2. Be open to personal transformation: it can be so painful the more aware you become ….. but keep choosing an open posture.

  3. Be connected: find others who are working for justice and join them!

The culture and language of social justice and anti-oppression might seem foreign initially…. maybe even a bit threatening. But don’t be afraid. Remember that God loves ALL that God made and looks on every single human being as a beloved child. Keep that in front of you, choose whatever is consistent with that truth, and God will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus our Lord.