Tuesday, May 01, 2007

On being privileged

I made a comment when I interviewed for the new position a few weeks ago that has caused some conversation among folks at the seminary. I suggested that the presence of minority students at our school did not make us a diverse institution. I believe we need to dig deeper and examine the ways in which we protect white privilege and undermine our efforts at hospitality in the way we run the school, and be willing to surrender that privilege in order to truly welcome all. Okay, it was an interview and I was responding off the top of my head. My answer wasn't exactly that well-stated, but that's the gist of what I said.

The irony, as some see it, is that the person who got the job is from a minority group. I don't really think it's ironic. I think the best person got the job, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I'm a competitive person and don't give in easily, but even I know when I lose fairly. I lost out in a very fair process and the right decision was made. That does not mean, however, that there aren't those who are assuming the other person got the job largely because we need to diversify. Hearing such comments makes me angry, very angry.

But all of this has heightened my awareness of how deeply rooted white privilege is in our institutions, and what a threat it poses to very good, very well-intentioned people who fear the outcome of allowing things to change when we welcome new ways of doing things. The students in my reflection group found their way to a similar question tonight as they talked about some issues related to race. I left wondering what I mean when I say we have to be willing to surrender our privilege.

As I think about it, I don't think it means giving up on our values and what we think is important to let another group take over, but I think it means letting go of our need to say what we value and say is important is the right way or the best way, to welcome others to the table to discuss what is right and best for the institution, and to trust that we together can make decisions that will lead us to change.

My attendance at a luncheon earlier in the day I think heightened my attention to this issue. I had that deep sense of being out of place that often accompanies me when I go to events that include people who are wealthy and by many standards, very successful. It's not that I'm unsuccessful. I get that. It's not that I'm uneducated and incapable of intelligent conversation. I know that too. I guess I'm seeing that the sense of not belonging has as much to do with the fact that no matter how well I do, how much education I have, what my job title becomes, there will always be a sense of dis-ease in those situations, because, and this may sound entirely cynical and unfair, it seems like it's just a bunch of well-to-do white people patting themselves on the back for all the good things they do. Don't get me wrong. They do some amazingly good things. But to what extent does this way of doing things serve only to protect white, upper middle-class privilege?

I'm wide open for people to tell me how I'm looking at this in the wrong way, but maybe I'm not meant to feel okay in those situations. Maybe that sense of discomfort has a message for me entirely different than the old messages I usually hear, the ones about not being good enough or accomplished enough or not having good enough social skills to be accepted in such groups. Maybe the message comes from what I know about being on the margins and not really fitting in. I can't make my blue-collar upbringing go away. I can't discard my experience of being a gay woman in a largely heterosexual male dominated world. Perhaps the discomfort is telling me to pay attention to those issues of dominance that shouldn't just be taken for granted.

And the scary part...maybe that message is there because I'm meant to do something to work for change.


Yankee T said...

What a great post! I do believe that you are meant to work towards change-it's on the shoulders of all of us who see the weight of white privilege in society.
Again, a great post!

Songbird said...

It's amazing how easily we can see up the pyramid of power, and how easily we can ignore those beneath us. This is indeed a great post!

Gannet Girl said...

As I was rounding the bend toward the end of your post I thought...exactly what you wrote in the last line!

PPB said...

Linda, you're the best.

Iris said...

Our prophet, Linda, crying out in the wilderness! Wonderful post, thank you!

Marie said...

Amazing post! You say so eloquently the things that I feel and cannot name. I think you are indeed called to be an agent of change with your beautiful, strong, prophetic voice.