Posted by: peanutbutteryelleytime | April 13, 2009

in which yelley celebrates easter by discussing the concept of privilege.

This post is about privilege, and may be offensive to anyone who is a member of a privileged group. I will mainly be talking about Christian privilege, but I will also reference white privilege, male privilege, and heterosexual privilege. Please keep that in mind before reading further.

Last week I mentioned the idea of privilege as it applies to religion and received a few questions about it, so what better time to explain what I mean than on this particular day.

First let me explain what I mean when I say privilege, because it is a concept that I was not fully familiar with until a few years ago. I am not talking about privilege in the “I finished all my homework early so Mom says I can watch cartoons” sense. Yes, that is a privilege, but that is an earned privilege, a reward for doing something. I am talking about unearned privileges, advantages experienced by a person or group of people simply because they are a member of the dominant group that defines normalcy in a society. There are several types of privilege, white privilege, male privilege, and heterosexual privilege to name a few. Want to see what I mean? I am going to act on my white privilege and assume that most of my blog readers are white; read through the list of white privilege in this article by Peggy McIntosh, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack and tell me how many of them apply to your life if you really consider it. Here’s an excerpt of the list for all you tl:dr types, but I highly recommend taking the time to read the whole list as I have chosen only my favorites for you here:

I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.
. . .
1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
46. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

This is just one type of privilege that I as a white person benefit from. I also have heterosexual privilege working for me ( heterosexual privileges, if you want to play the list game for this one too). As a woman, I have male privilege working against me. For individual people, different sets of privileges can overlap and cancel each other out, but that does not change the fact that privilege exists. One of the key points in the idea of privilege is that often times these advantages are not acknowledged and in some cases they are even denied and the people that experience them are offended. It’s important to understand that privilege and racism (and classism, sexism, various other -isms) are different things; one can benefit from white privilege without being a racist individual, one can recognize the effects of male privilege without hating all men.

So now that we understand the concept of privilege as a whole, let’s talk about my favorite type of privilege, Christian privilege. Why is it my favorite? Because it’s the one that I have to deal with the most often, even more often than male privilege, and it is the one that I am not allowed to say anything about at the risk of offending someone’s beliefs. I can call out instances of male privileges without being condemned to hell, the same cannot be said of Christian privilege because of the respect that religion expects. Douglas Adams said it better than I ever could:

Religion … has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? — because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘I respect that’.

Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows — but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe … no, that’s holy? … We are used to not challenging religious ideas but it’s very interesting how much of a furore (Richard Dawkins) creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you are not allowed to say such things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.

Well now I am in a place where I do not have to keep quiet. I still feel the need to start out my post with a warning about possible offensive content, but I do not need to keep quiet about it. Here are some examples of Christian privilege that I see in my own daily life:

  • I can be sure that the elected leader of my country represents my religious beliefs and values.
  • I can be sure that the company I work for or the school that I attend will have vacation days that for the most part line up with the holidays that I celebrate.
  • I can be sure that I can turn on the radio and hear messages of inspiration and faith even on stations that do not claim religious affiliation (I’m talking about you, Delilah).
  • I can go to any large store such as Target or Wal-Mart and find a large selection of items that relate to my religion and religious holidays.
  • I can confidently greet or say goodbye to people using phrases that represent my beliefs without giving any consideration to the other person’s beliefs or lack thereof. (Merry Christmas, Happy Easter, God Bless, etcetera)
  • I can assume that others understand my beliefs and the traditions associated with the holidays that I celebrate.
  • I can ask others to pray for me or I can state that I will pray for others without considering whether they pray at all or believe in what prayer purports to do.
  • I do not need to worry about what people will think of me if I tell them my religious beliefs, and I assume that the person I am talking to shares my beliefs.
  • I can set up displays that relate to my beliefs (manger scene at Christmas, faith related bumper stickers on cars) without worrying about vandalism.
  • I can be assured that people of my religion can be associated with positive character traits, “He is a good Christian man” as opposed to the stereotypical “greedy Jew” or “angry atheist”
  • Should I keep on going, or is that enough for now?

    So here is a little try-at-home activity for everyone. If you’re a Christian, keep this list in mind during your day and see how many of the benefits you reap. Step outside the box for a moment and think about the possibility that you might encounter people today that don’t want to be wished a Happy Easter. Bonus points if you can identify any other privileges that you experience simply because you are of the dominant religious group in the US. If you’re not a Christian and these privileges don’t benefit you, think about what sets of privileges you do benefit from and how they may affect the group on the other side.

    Be mindful of your fellow Americans. We are not all Christian, white, and heterosexual. Just something to think about.



    1. This is the cynic in me, and maybe it’s true of other religions besides Christianity, but I think Christians aren’t worried about whether they’re inadvertantly offending someone, because they’re sure that what they believe is right and everybody else is wrong.

    2. I should have said “a lot of Christians” have that attitude, not all of them.

    3. Ahh too bad some of those “good Christians” are involved in nefarious activities. Rape, murder, theft just to name a few. Good Christian activites.

      Righteous indignation can be a privilege also.

    4. That’s not what I’m saying at all, the fact that some criminals are Christian doesn’t change that fact that it is easier to list off negative stereotypes for non-Christian religions than for Christianity.

      And yes, I suppose that I am privileged in the sense that I can freely express my righteous indignation with no fear of physical harm. It is part of my American privilege given to me by the Constitution simply because I was born in America. I don’t claim to be without privilege, that is obviously far from the truth. Are you saying that my privileges should be enough to counteract the Christian privilege that works against me?

    5. I am saying that you can find any number of things to rail against. The difference is not in the railing, the difference is in what are you going to do about it? What action is going to be taken? You, as a young person, happen to be in a great position to make whatever changes you want to make in your world, your country, your life.

      Otherwise it is just a conceptual exercise.

    6. What bothers me most about privilege is that the privileged often feel that they have a inborn right to remain privileged. Hey guess what? Wal-Mart setting a policy that their greeters say “Happy Holidays” doesn’t infringe on your rights. It infringes on your privilege. And you need to suck it up and deal.

      Someone told me yesterday, “It’s good that the mall is closed for Easter because it lets people be home with their families. But it’s dangerous because now all the Jews and Muslims are going to want days off for their holidays too.”

      You would be amazed at the amount of restraint I exercised. I have found it a huge waste of time to engage in political discussion with people who open with statements like that.

      But anyway, to what Mr. Phil is saying, what do we do? Hard to really do much, but small things like saying “Happy Holidays” when you don’t know what a person celebrates, or Happy Your Holiday when you do. Working at and promoting companies that have floating holidays instead of set ones, so that an employee can choose which religious holidays to take instead of being forced to take Christmas and Good Friday. Not organizing group prayer at work or before the game. That kind of stuff.

    7. What do you do? You talk, you write, you find out why things are the way they are. And once you find that out, you find like minded people and then you talk, and you write some more. And the list of people who are like minded grows until you all decide that you want action “A” to happen, or you want action “B” to happen. It is sort of like politics, but only that politics completely blow, and a grass roots campaign can actually work.

    8. And someone saying “Happy Whatever” to you is about like saying the wind is blowing. Who cares? What difference does it make in your life? The only concern that is there is your own reaction to it.

    9. The problem with that sort of solution is that it still requires people to change their ways and give up their privileges. I could find all the like minded people in the world, and we can all talk as much as we want, but there’s no sense in preaching to the choir, if you’ll forgive the expression.

      If we use the example of Christian privilege, how do you reason with members of that group? How do you explain to someone of faith that the privileges that they gain from being a Christian are unfair, when they have come to expect these privileges and feel that they deserve them? The solution to the problem is to dissolve the privileges and get everyone on equal footing, but first we need to get people to realize that their privileges are not a divine right. And just how might I go about doing this, considering that logic and reasoning are no match for my adversary, a ghost in the sky that nobody can see or hear but everybody insists is there?

    10. Rhiannon, your restraint is far greater than mine… I kept quiet when everyone wished me a Happy Easter yesterday, but I don’t think I could have kept my thoughts on that one to myself!

    11. exactly

    12. what she said.

    13. . . . what who said?

    14. […] as completely unnecessary and hedonistic as Sock Summit? I truly lead a privileged, earned and unearned of course, life. I suppose one may argue that it isn’t necessarily frivolous to indulge […]

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