Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Use of Privilege

How can you not use your privilege for your own benefit. That negates the inherent nature of privilege as a social entity and dynamic and (wrongly) reduces it to an individual choice dynamic.
If you are white, you will receive preferential treatment by store clerks, loan officers, real estate agents, police/military and other white people generally.
The intention of using your privilege as a white person to do some kind of good work does not prevent or mitigate this at all. Privilege is usually a social structure that is used whether one likes it or not, precisely because it is social and not individual.
Things like not working for a company that cheats people their wages. This isn’t possible. All companies cheat people of their wages. If I am selling a chair, I must pay my employee that makes the chair less than the value of the chair my employee produces. I must keep some of the value she/he produces for myself. In fact, I must keep a lot of the value my employees produce in making the chairs. That is how business owners become rich while their employees producing the value just make ends meet.
Having the privilege to run a business under capitalism is by definition exploitation.
In this sense, and I believe this is the correct frame to analyze this, most of the list is negated in its practical application to the real world. The impulse is admirable, though.

I’d like to think this discussion is more than an admirable impulse.
It’s one thing to use power. We all do it. It’s the way our world works. It’s quite another thing to use your power at the expense of shaming or degrading someone else. THAT is what Paul is talking about.
It’s a tall order, that is for sure. But, it is the call we have. So, I plan to work towards that “admirable” goal.

Inegmar, it seems that you are taking an unnessessarily fatalistic approach to privilege.

First of all, I want to reiterate that privilege is something that is shared by most people, just in different areas. Perhaps one person is of color, but male, thus he has both privilege and oppression. Another person is female but educated. Another person is wealthy but homosexual. Another person is poor but a citizen of the U.S. All of these people have a mix of both privilege and oppression– inate power and inate weakness. Thus they can understand both the mourning of oppression and the power of the oppressed, if they can see past the blinders of their culture which is communicating to them that they are “normal” or they are “victim”. For the most part, we all have power, we all have experienced loss.

Secondly, there are two types of privilege: that which we have, inately, and that which we use. I can’t help being white, and that naturally gives me certain privilege from birth. Most of us on this forum were born as citizens of the U.S. and that gives us an authority and a power that is there, wherever in the world we go. While this privilege gives us inate power, we can show that this power can be marginalized, if we choose it to. I could go to Bangladesh as a U.S. citizen and become a window washer with the poorest in Dhaka. My privilege is not gone– I am not any less an American or white– but over time I can show that my privilege is marginalized. I am contextualizing my inate privilege in a manner to associate with the lowest and to become one of them.

But there are other kinds of privilege that we can use– education, relationships with the powerful, finances, political power, inheritance, authority etc. The opportunity for this privilege is also innate, but this form of privilege is able to be directed. Our culture trains us to use this privilege in order to establish a “normal” existence, i.e. a privileged one. This is using privilege for our own benefit.

The Bible, however, teaches us that it is our responsibility to use what privilege we have to create justice, to create equity, to stop oppression, to create opportunities for those who do not have privilege.

And this, as I see it, is a choice, the choice that the Bible gives us. We can live to be consumers, live for the increase of our family and thus increase privilege for our generations after us. Or we can surrender the use of our privilege and give the use of it to those who do not have.

We cannot change who we are. But we can change who we serve.

Steve K

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