PRIVILEGE. IS IT ME?

Post by Jonathan Penner

Over the past several months, beginning with Charlottesville, I have been reflecting on the use of the word privilege. Particularly white, male, heterosexual privilege. Why? Because unlike my many black, brown, female, and LGBT friends, I fit that description. I am part of what some describe as the most privileged people group on the planet.

So what does it mean? What do I do with that? How do I respond? Or in the words of a close friend:

“What do you do when you realize you are the most powerful person in the room?”

So I decided to start off by asking three questions:
1. Where did my privilege come from?
2. Who has it?
3. Who doesn’t?

Understanding these three helps setup an informed and more effective response.

So where does it come from? Privilege often has a history. There are times when political systems, communal mindsets, and even religious cultures take privileges from one group and give them to another. Other times privilege is purchased or earned through trade or learning. Sometimes privilege, or our lack thereof, is connected to our birth order, our physical attributes, or our geographic location.

So the first step in our response to privilege or our lack thereof is to explore the story:

  • Where did it come from?
  • Was it stolen?
  • Did you earn it?
  • Were you born with it?
  • Was it something that happened in your lifetime?
  • Or is it something that took place over many generations, or even centuries?

Next, who was it given to? Was this a privilege given to you as an individual or was it given to a whole people group of which you are a part of?

Third, who are the individuals or people groups around you that do not have this privilege? How has that affected them and for how long have they lived without this privilege?

Finally, own your part in the story. Is it part of your personal story, your family story, your races story, your countries story, your genders story, or your religions story? Because in the words of Brené Brown:

“The stories we don’t own, own us. The stories we own, we get to write the ending.”

Which takes me back to the beginning. What do you do when you realize you have privilege – not just white, male, heterosexual privilege, but any privilege, be it racial, religious, political, workplace, financial, physical, or other?

Explore the story of how you came to have that privilege. Own your part of the story, which includes the part your ancestors, country, race, gender, or religion played. Then, in light of how you came to receive this privilege, consider how you can use it to benefit and bless all people, particularly those who have been deprived of your privilege.

Because when you realize you have privilege, power, or advantage. When you choose to discover how you came to have it. When you decide to own your part in the story. That is a defining moment. It’s your opportunity to write a brave new ending. It is your chance to restore the beauty of humanity within the circles of your influence – leveraging your privilege for the benefit those around you, tearing down dehumanizing systems of privilege and power, or restoring privilege to those from whom it was stolen.

That’s what you can do when you realize you are the most powerful person in the room.