“Google, define privilege.”
From vocabulary.com comes this response: “A privilege is a special advantage not enjoyed by everyone…. Privilege comes from Latin privilegium, meaning a law for just one person, and means a benefit enjoyed by an individual or group beyond what’s available to others.”
I hear and experience this word over and over in leadership in The United Methodist Church these days. Yesterday, my heart moved into my throat a number of times during a meeting as I sat once again in conversations around lack of diversity in general in the Virginia Conference and the spectrum of theological understandings in our denomination. My own pain – and empathy for others – in these anxious times choked me.
The UMC General Commission on Religion and Race offers a personal and/or group activity where you are asked to list your ideas for “What’s next” in your personal or group journey in addressing racism in particular and privilege in general. For each idea, you’re asked to plan three action steps: (1) what you need to LEARN in order to do faithful and effective work, (2) ways you or your church can SHARE what you’ve learned, and (3) what you are willing to RISK in order to accomplish the learning and sharing.
I haven’t slept well these past two nights. I know the Spirit is stirring but I’m not quite sure yet where that’s headed. Tonight, however, the direction seems to be in reflection of my own story of privilege as a blue-eyed/fair-skinned, CIS gendered, educated, employed, home owning, (too) well fed, middle aged, American, United Methodist female. That list could go on.
I had nothing to do with the blue-eyed, fair-skinned female privilege. This DNA-controlled part of my journey started in Appalachia – certainly not a place of privilege: in the sweat of a sharecropper working a field of tobacco, the farmer’s wife with 9 children born in the early 1900s, the West Virginia coal miners and the factory workers of Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. It wasn’t until I was a preteen that I realized my factory working parents went each year to the local loan office to borrow enough money for a one-week trip to the beach. They worked the rest of the year to pay off the loan. Today, we’d be the family at the paycheck lending window. Today, I am the daughter of a woman who worked all her life, saved all she could, did as much for me as she could, and at 93 has to rely on Medicaid for her daily care. Today, I carry the mark of my Irish heritage in the white spot in the middle of my neck under my chin. I can’t get away from my blue-eyed, fair-skinned privilege, but I certainly recognize my family history that comes with it.
The educated part of my privilege could have easily not happened. I still hold anger toward the Reagan Administration for cutting out my Veteran’s Administration survivor benefits during the summer months. When I started college, I was receiving support for my education from my father’s service in World War II. During President Reagan’s tenure, the decision was made to provide those payments for only the nine months of the typical school year. If it wasn’t for the bank loans, work study jobs, and other financial assistance, I wouldn’t be “educated.” And it only took me 10 additional years to pay it all off. My poor mother felt so sorry for me after moving me into college because I didn’t have the same “things” as the other girls that on her first visit to campus that fall, she brought me a gift of a gold add-a-bead necklace and a pink Izod pullover shirt. She wanted me to “fit in” with those of greater privilege.
I could go on with parts of my journey of privilege: living on the white side of street in the little town where I grew up and daily walking past the black community pool and ballfields, giving up the Girl Scout Christmas party gift so that the girl whose family couldn’t afford to bring one went home with one of the best, striving for a church that is the living embodiment of the Kin-dom of God….
I recognize that I am privileged in so many ways. That realization grows stronger with each step in my journey of faith. What am I to do with the learnings? How am I to share what I have experienced? What am I now called to risk when some days, I feel like I’ve risked it all already?
In these early morning hours, I’m reminded of these words from We Make the Road by Walking by Brian D. McLaren :
We have to graduate from thinking in terms of “our kind versus their kind” to think in terms of “humankind”….We must find a new approach, make a new road, pioneer a new way of living as neighbors in one human community as brothers and sisters in one family of creation. (p. 217)
And so, I keep walking home….