Acknowledging Privilege

I’ve never really been into family history. I know vague details – my paternal grandmother’s family came over from England in the early Mayflower-ish days; my paternal grandfather’s family came over from England around World War 1; my maternal grandfather’s family came from Germany…. I have access to more details, but just have never really researched it.

Both sides settled in the midwest and consisted of business owners. They never owned slaves or explicitly participated in systems of injustice but they certainly benefited from being educated, white, Anglo-Saxon immigrants. As a result, I have benefited from coming from generations of educated, white, “upwardly mobile” people.

Last week, as I grappled with the events of Charleston, I posted an article about how we label shooters of color differently than those who are white. As a result, someone suggested I was spreading racism – that this isn’t about color; that we need to stop seeing differences; that until we do, nothing will change. Another friend and I have had a few brief conversations about privilege. She has said that I can’t apologize for my privilege – it’s  not something to be ashamed of.

I agree with her on some level. My privilege is not what’s going to change the systemic issues that are in place. However, by not acknowledging my privilege, is my silence continuing these systemic injustices? By recognizing my own benefits and apologizing for my part a system of injustice, I don’t think I’m negating the positives of privilege, but simply acknowledging the unfairness of the world we live in.

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My friend, Adrienne is someone who exemplifies using her privilege to graciously make changes. At the Pride Parade here in Denver, she has worn a shirt a shirt reading, Hurt by the church? Get a straight apology here. Adrienne is one of the kindest, most loving advocates to the gay community that I know. She has nothing to apologize for. Yet, she recognizes the importance of apology, that bridges are slowly built when we recognize our global privilege. By offering an apology to individuals hurt by the church, she is not taking on the atrocities committed against the gay community herself, but she is recognizing the privilege straight people benefit from on a daily basis.

In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller describes a similar idea. He and his friends set up a confessional, apologizing for the church’s role in such global atrocities as the Crusades, Inquisition, and slavery. By confessing these sins, Miller is not negating all the good the church has done over the centuries, nor is he personally taking on the sins of the church. He is recognizing that the church has made some big mistakes – mistakes from which we are still experiencing repercussions – and he is apologizing on behalf.

As I am confronted with my own privilege, and as I read story after story of the inequality that still pervades our justice system and our country, I apologize – not to negate my own privilege but because I recognize my privilege plays into this system of inequality. By apologizing, I am not condemning all white people as racist, but I am recognizing that I have benefited from systemic racism, whether or not I agree with it or like it.

I feel like our country is still grappling with how racism pervades our society and how we, the privileged can confront it. I have no answers for that. I have heard that we need to listen and I have also heard that our time for listening is over and that we need to act. What I know for myself, is that I need to recognize my part – whether it’s explicit or not – in the way our system works. I’m messily fumbling along with it, but I hope that I can be like Adrienne – someone who puts aside my own perceived role and simply offer an apology and a hug. Sometimes that’s the best place to start.

How do you acknowledge your own privilege? What are some “next steps” you suggest?

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10 thoughts on “Acknowledging Privilege

  1. What a great post Annie and thank you for your kind words. There is much to be done to heal our society and I do believe if we could all just try to see things from the other person’s perspective, there wouldn’t be so much hate. Looking through someone else’s lense only helps us to understand, we don’t have to agree but we really need to understand each other more so we can live in a place of peace. We really are our own worst enemy.

  2. I’m a bit uncomfortable with the assumption of a mea culpa on behalf of the Catholic church, or society in general. Not because I don’t feel that evil things were done, but because those who choose to apologize “on behalf” take on a de facto responsibility. Donald Miller had no part in the Inquisition, but by apologizing for it, he carries the responsibility for that dread time forward to the present day – and paints all Catholics with that shade of judgement. It’s not his place to apologize.

    Think of it turned, just a little bit – would we feel justified in demanding that a young German or Japanese apologize for the crimes committed by their nations seventy-odd years ago? I should think not,but when we accept the validity of an “apology on behalf”, it becomes something we can find the nous to compel in others.

    I’m Asian. I’m sorry that racism happened, and I’m sorry that the Inquisition is part of history. We try to move on from it, but taking an active role in making the sins current through a sort of moral penance seems to perpetuate the divisive nature of the original problem.

    It’s still “us and them”; we’re just taking the role of the villain now.

    1. It’s true, Andrew. I think that’s where I’m finding the tension. How do I own and acknowledge what I’ve been given – even as a result of an unjust system – without taking on responsibility that is not my own. How do we recognize past injustice without staying there or giving an easy apology? How do we use that as a means to move forward? Clearly, I’m not the one with the answers – just trying to figure out my own role in it all!

      Thank you so much for your thoughts. I especially like that you pointed out that we continue the us-them narrative when we linger in the past….

      1. See? Motion introduced that Annie Rim is brave, seconded, passed.

        Resolved – Annie Rim is BRAVE!

        (And, for what it’s worth, I always look for your comments on other blogs – you’ve got a lot of warmth and wisdom, which I find inspiring.)

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