According to Miriam-Webster’s dictionary, “Privilege is an advantage that one person, or a group of people, has, usually because of their position or because they are rich.”
Well, I'm privileged because I am rich. And yes, I know that talking about personal finances verges on breaking some social taboos. But I'll risk it to make a point.
So, not unlike many of my friends, Irene and I have money. In fact, though we are not one-percenters, we are financially better off than upwards of 90 percent—maybe even close to 95 percent—of Canadians.
Because we are comparatively rich, Irene and I were able to help our children complete graduate educations in law, medicine, and anthropology.
Because we are rich, we might buy a 40-foot yacht when we retire, to live on for a few years while we cruise the southern seas.
Because we are rich, we can—and do—give ten percent of our after-tax income to charity—half to church, and half to other charities.
Because we are rich, we travel. Lately I’ve had the privilege of going to South Africa twice, to Grenada and Costa Rica, to Haida Gwaii, San Francisco and New York. The only reason I haven’t been to more places is that I don’t have time.
Because we are rich, we can buy a new car whenever I need one, without worrying about how much it costs. Or a new furnace. Or new clothes. Or electronic toys.
Mind you, I do not feel guilty about being rich. We have wealth partly on account of good luck, partly because we are careful and save, partly because we have great jobs, and partly because of our parents. Some people may have cheated to become rich, but not us. And so, by the way, we also don’t mind being taxed at a higher rate, or government policies meant to advantage people who have less than us. We have plenty of advantages, after all. It’s a privilege.
But now, I want to say two more things. First, as is the case with wealth, I am also privileged, I have advantages, because I am white.
I don’t worry that the police will card me when I walk or stop me when driving because I look suspicious. They never have, in fact.
And if the police, or a social worker, or a boss, or teacher or a store loss prevention officer do scrutinize me, I do not expect to be arrested, or beaten, or shot, or put to the bottom of the list, or not be believed or failed; and when scrutinized, I won’t think I need to be extra polite, or play possum, or talk nice, or even put up with the scrutiny if I don’t like it. If I complain to the authorities, in fact, I know that they will treat me with deference and respect. It is a privilege I enjoy.
When I grew up in my family, I did not hear stories of how my parents and grandparents were kidnapped by the government, told to lose their religion and language and culture, as well as often beaten or otherwise abused by their teachers—all the while being prevented upon graduation from getting good jobs or acquiring generational wealth. And I did not have to grow up in a family or community where many of my elders could not speak of these realities because they were traumatized and suffering from post-traumatic stress.
When I grew up, I didn’t have to live in a community with unsafe water and no jobs and high rates of teen suicide. I grew up with all sorts of advantages. I was privileged.
When I grew up, my parents never needed to warn me about how to deal with systemic racism. My own children, though, have to teach my black grandchildren how to be meek, mild, and unfailingly polite and submissive in the face of authority, just to survive. And I won’t even get into the complexities of being a black child in a white educational system.
Because of white privilege no one thinks that I am likely unqualified for any job, or received my job because of minority quotas or affirmative action.
White privilege is someone killing fifty people with a machine gun and being labeled a lone wolf rather than a terrorist. White privilege is believing that Las Vegas was America’s worst mass murder in the past hundred years, when in fact, many more blacks or First Nations people were murdered in other incidents. But who remembers that stuff, anyway?
And of course, not remembering? That is white privilege.
White privilege is a fact of life in North America. As with wealth honestly come by, we should not feel guilty, on that score, for being white.
But second—both the privilege of wealth, and the privileges that go with being white together mean that many of my friends, fellow church members, and neighbours have the advantage of power. We can influence politicians and corporations and public opinion. When we speak or spend people will notice and even listen. Privilege comes with advantages, even advantages--such as power--that we never sought. What should we do with such power?
Psalm 146, just one of many Old Testament passages that describe ancient Jewish ideals with respect to power, is as good a Biblical passage as any for seeking guidance on what we should do with our privilege and the power that comes with it. If the Israelite who wrote this Psalm had been transported to our day, he or she would have argued that God wanted justice for all the oppressed—for the poor, the racialized, the mentally ill, the veterans, the physically disabled.
God wants food for the hungry (146:7) and education and opportunity and respect for them too.
God wants us to set the prisoners free (146:7), especially the overrepresented First Nation and Black prisoners in Canada’s prison system.
The ancient Israelites believed in a God who wants us privileged types to open the eyes of the blind who can’t see their privilege (146:8), and to put remedies on every corporate and political and church agenda.
God wants us to do all in our power to lift up those who are bowed down, to make right what our parents and grandparents made wrong.
Why? Because while being wealthy or white are not in and of themselves something we should feel guilty about, the privileges that go with being wealthy or white are not a right either. Privilege is an advantage, says the dictionary. It is, by definition, admitting that the playing field isn’t even.
So if we have privilege, we need to understand that the best of our shared religious heritage suggests that what we need to do with it is execute justice for the oppressed and lift up those who are bowed down. Privilege, if we have it, is the cosmic salary we must spend to help make this world right.