Sunday, July 7, 2013

What do I do with all this privilege?!

I'm so inspired by the few comments I have received in response to the blog post I wrote about the need for White Christians to learn from sociologists.  My encouragement went out specifically to White Christians because I feel that is it is really important for the people with privilege to engage these ideas.  As I've listened to a few Black Christians, I realized that the call needs to go out to more than just White folks.  We all need to learn about our society, the context in which we live. 

Another good critique is that privilege is not just about "race."  We all experience privilege in different ways. Rich people have privilege.  Men have privilege.  Christians have privilege.  Heterosexuals have privilege.  White people have privilege.  Etc.  If you are reading this blog on a computer with Internet access, you probably have some kind of privilege, or multiple kinds of privilege, which means you have blind spots. 

Another point of clarification is that I don't actually believe that White people (or other privileged people) can get rid of their privilege.  There are some scholars that advocate trying to distance yourself from privilege, but I feel that unless you were able to dismantle the entire system by which you have gained privilege, it would be an exercise in futility.  However, I believe that you can use your privilege on behalf of others.  Some sociologists talk about privilege as "social capital."  Capital is, of course, the currency by which you acquire things in a capitalist system.  So I feel that if you have it, you should spend it on behalf of those that don't. 

One particularly awesome comment from a White sister went something like this: "How do we tackle this issue? I mean, I've personally identified/recognized White privilege in general, but there are so many ways it shows up.  So now what? What I am I supposed to do?  Besides teach my children?"

I am really in the beginning stages of figuring out what to do with all this information, but here are a few initial thoughts.

1. Develop a healthy White racial identity.

One of  biggest defenses I hear/read from White folks involves some form of guilt or shame related to their racial identity, or attempt to deflect or resist either of those emotions.  As a Christian, I believe that God made people in all different shapes, sizes, colors, languages, and cultures.  God loves diversity and every human bears the image of God.  Every person should begin to develop a healthy identity based in reality.

A psychologist who works in the area of racial identity development theory (Helms, 1992) designed a really useful activity for this purpose.  The task is to try to list all the reasons you are glad to be White.  However, you can't use any reasons that compare yourself to any other racial/ethnic group.  So for example, you can't say, "I'm glad I'm White because I'm better/worse at [pick an activity] than [pick a racial/ethnic category]."  It has to be something that is not dependent on a hierarchical view of "race."

Not so easy to do, right?  We are so used to thinking about racial identity in terms of a racist view of society, that it's hard to think about why it's good to be a White person that doesn't involve disparaging another racial group.  But White people are also made in God's image, so it's important not to wallow in guilt and shame, but instead figure out what it means to have a healthy White racial identity. Why are you glad to be just the way God made you?

2. Talk to your kids about "race." 

The White sister was right on when she suggested that one of the ways White people can engage privilege is to talk to their kids.  If this is the only anti-racist activity you do in your lifetime, this would still be huge.  Children are learning about "race" from the time they are babies, whether you talk to them or not.  And children form theories based on the experiences, stereotypes, and other information that they take in.  Imagine how difficult it is to learn about "race" and racism as an adult, after years of socialization into a racist society. What I hope for my children is that they don't have to undo so much programming, but instead that we can start having honest, open conversations from an early age.

The key to these conversations, as with any kind of "talk," is that they should be age-appropriate.  Let the child lead the way.  Right now, my 3 year-old and I have conversations about different colors of skin, because that's the first thing that children usually talk about.  He says something like, "That man has brown skin."  Instead of saying, "Shhh, don't say that so loud!" (which sends the message that "race" is a taboo subject), I say, "Yes, isn't his skin beautiful? God made different colors of skin." 

I make lots of mistakes along the way, but I think it's better to try than to remain silent.  For example, I realized that in my attempt to celebrate diverse skin tones, I only made comments when I saw Black or Brown people.  This implicitly sent the message that "White is normal" and everything else is divergent.  Or in my zeal to give my son a variety of words to talk about skin tone (black, brown, olive, peach, tan, and only sometimes "white"), I was still privileging Whiteness.  I treated "black" and "brown" as if they were monolithic, but gave various shades to "white," while still avoiding the word "white."  Fortunately, children are both perceptive and honest, and my son recently informed me that "tan" is actually "White" (indicating that he has already internalized this racial category).  Because it's true.  So we're learning together.

3.  Keep listening and learning.  

The hardest part of being a privileged person is a lack of knowledge, an inability to empathize with other people, and a tendency to devalue the experience of others.  The remedy for this is relatively simple in theory, but an arduous activity in practice.  It involves listening to people who might be mad at "people like you."  It means learning things about your country, culture, or people group that might be less than flattering or even downright shameful.  It requires humility, empathy, and the ability to keep your mouth shut sometimes.

This is a really important step, although it doesn't feel like "doing something" all the time.  However, partial knowledge can be just as damaging as complete ignorance.  For example, middle-class White people learn a little bit about racial inequalities and segregation, so they decide to move into a "transitional neighborhood" (i.e. poor Black and Brown folks) in order to create a diverse community.  They come in with their rehab projects, art galleries, and community gardens, and before you know it, they have caused the housing prices to go up so much that the original inhabitants of the neighborhood can't afford to rent an apartment there anymore.  These well-intentioned White folks perpetuated one injustice while trying to eradicate another.

This is the hard part, because I don't believe we should remain stuck in inaction and silence.  But I also think that wisdom and humility are more important than feeling good about myself because I'm "doing something."  And I also know that "doing something" will look different for different people.  My personal goal is that I would be able to raise my children in a diverse community, where they learn to value and celebrate many different ways of being human.  Heck, I hope I can learn to do that.  We are a long way from that goal, but by God's grace and mercy we will keep learning, moving, and growing.

I would love to hear thoughts about this topic.  What steps are you taking, or have you thought about taking, in order to wrestle with the issue of privilege? 

Suggested Reading

Derman-Sparks, L., & Ramsey, P. G. (2011). What if all the kids are white?: Anti-bias multicultural education with young children and families (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press. 

Helms, J. E. (1992). A race is a nice thing to have: A guide to being a white person or understanding the white persons in your life. Topeka, Kan: Content Communications.

Tatum, B. D. (2003). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”: And other conversations about race. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

How I learned compassion

Matthew 9:13 (NASB)  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

I started learning compassion when my life started going in a direction I hadn't anticipated.  I hadn't anticipated it because I had tunnel vision.  Most of my closest friends could have called it 10 years out.  My family was not surprised. My professors were not shocked; in fact, they were pleased.  I may have been the only one who somehow still clung to a vision of my life as a stay-at-home mom with tons of kids.  Believing all the things I was taught as a child.  Never questioning.

For the love, I was in denial.  Because ever since I was able to talk I have been questioning, challenging, testing the limits.  Not because I was going to cross the limits.  Oh, no. I was a first-born and a people-pleaser.  The reason I tested the limits was because the limits, as I saw them, were not entirely logical or well thought out.  It seemed like the limits were somewhat arbitrary, actually, and I just wanted to know if anyone else was paying attention.  Yes, I was sent here by God just to keep you on your toes.  You're welcome, Mom.

But here's the thing. I started on a path that involved saying "yes" to a lot of seemingly little choices.  The choices were not so obviously correct at the time.  In fact, I have spent a lot of time feeling regret over certain choices.  In the end, I made choices that seemed like the right way to go.  It made sense in a sort of "die to yourself, crucify the flesh" kind of way.  In other words, they were often the choices that didn't make good financial sense, but somehow amounted to better character.  Or something.

Until here I am.  One husband, two kids.  Full-time doctoral student working on a Ph.D. and teacher certification.  I may be in school for the rest of my life.  Or the next 3 years, whichever comes first.  My husband is now officially a stay-at-home dad.  What's that?  Yeah, you heard me right.  He cooks, cleans, gardens, changes diapers, and generally manages the home. He also is the best arts-and-craft, fort-building, ukelele-playing, baby-snuggler I have ever met. 

One other thing you should know about me--my research focus involves the social construction of "race" and class in education, racial inequalities in education, and anti-bias curriculum.  What, you say?  Well, I couldn't find anything more controversial, so I settled on that topic. 

Actually, there's probably one more thing you should know.  When I stumbled upon my new research topic--because I don't know a better way to described how I landed there--people in my church told me I was making crap up.  Please stop talking about racism.  Thank you.  Except no "thank you."  Which inevitably sent me into a crisis of faith, because if you seriously are in that much denial about our society, I obviously can't believe anything that you say about God or life or anything.  

All of this taught me compassion.  Okay, so I wasn't so compassionate towards the naysayers initially.  I'm working on that.  But I take comfort in the fact that Jesus Christ experienced throughout his life what it was like to be on the "outs."  Like he kept saying that he was God, so the religious leaders called him a heretic.  Stuff like that.

In the Bible in the book of Hebrews it says that Jesus Christ "learned obedience through the things that he suffered."  That word for obedience actually means "attentive hearkening," which people take to mean just straight up submission.  But really I think more than anything, Jesus learned to listen.  He was the ultimate example of someone who learned to walk a mile in another person's shoes.  He learned, taught and acted compassion.

I know what it's like to have someone tell me I'm probably doing it wrong, and why don't you just stay home with your kids.  I know what it's like for people to think my husband is a "man-fail."  I know what it's like to have people tell me "I don't even know if you're a Christian anymore, what do you believe anyway."

And dear God, I have so much compassion now. 

For every person who has been labeled a heretic.  For every person who was told "don't ask too many questions, that's a slippery slope." For every mom or dad that has people whispering behind their back about their parenting or life choices. For every person who the church has shunned, overtly or covertly.  For every person who feels like no one "gets them" and everyone is judging them (because maybe they are). Single people. Single moms.  Couples without children. Gay people. Black people. Democrats.

And I'm so sorry. 

To every person I have ever judged with my words or my thoughts.  For every time I have argued instead of listening.  For every time I have participated in the behind-the-back whispering.  To every person I shunned because I was too scared of people's opinions.

My message to others, but mostly to myself is this--it's okay to be "different." It's okay to have different opinions about life, God, the Bible, parenting, etc.  It's okay to have disagreements, to make mistakes, and change your mind.  It's okay to say, "I don't know."  And above all, it's okay to really not know.  Because we really don't.  We just don't really know anything. 

And I'm not making excuses anymore for my lifestyle.  We are happy, as a family, as a couple.  This way of doing things works for us, at least for right now. I am not less of a woman or a mother, and my husband is not less of a man or a father.  If anything, we are free to be more ourselves.  I may have ended up here haphazardly, but I'm so glad I did.