The Spirituality of Privilege

I want to start my blog today with a confession about class and privilege. As I followed the discussion on Quakers and class via www.quakerquaker.org, I said that I find it hard to place myself in any particular class or culture. My mea culpa (or confession) today is that I didn’t see at first how much of a privilege it is to be in the educated class and have one physician parent and one with ministerial education (though he never worked as a minister). The truth I see today is that education on its own is a tremendous privilege that allows me to transcend many of the other challenges my life might have given me. I can navigate around the hurdles of being a non-citizen because of my education, and making my way in the world without a “network” was possible because of my education. I am a privileged person, and I think I can attribute 90% of that to my education. As with most confessions, it feels wonderful to let go of the deceit I have been involved in.

So….. What do we do about educational privilege? Those of us with privilege need to be willing to give it up. Unfortunately there is no such thing as “un-educating”. But we can do something to level the playing field for the next generation. In fact, part of my discovery that education indeed is such a privilege, has come about as a result of my experiences of trying not to take advantage of privileges my daughters could have had in the Seattle School District. Part of the reality of privilege has become apparent to me in the resistance and emotional intensity I met as I tried NOT to use it. 

In a nutshell, the Seattle School Board last year proposed a change that would give high school students greater access to their local schools, thereby limiting their freedom to go to a high school of their choice. The result of this would have been that the high-performing schools in the north of Seattle would take about 900 fewer students from the Rainier Valley in the south, which tends to be poorer, has a much higher percentage of African American students, and where the schools tend to perform less well academically. Although my own children would have benefited from the proposed plan – we live in the north and this would have guaranteed them better access to the good schools closer to where we live – I could not in good conscience accept this at the expense of the kids in the Rainier Valley. As I spoke up at community meetings about how those of us with privilege should refrain from trying to get more privileges for ourselves, I was amazed to see how upset some of the parents became at my description of us as “privileged”. 

What did I learn about privilege by trying to give it up?

Firstly, that the privilege of education is real. I am convinced that I would not have been met with as much emotional intensity otherwise.

Secondly, when we are privileged, we tend not to recognize it. That reinforces for me that we need to be in mixed groups so that others can help us to see our privilege, thereby setting us free to join in God’s movement towards justice by giving up the privilege we have. It’s a huge problem that 90% of liberal Quakers are college graduates: unless the non-grads speak very loudly, it is hard for the college-educated among us to see ourselves clearly! 

Third, I think part of the reason people with privilege don’t recognize our own privilege is that we don’t feel good. Our culture teaches us that we should pursue privilege (wealth, possessions, education, etc) because those things will make us feel safe and good and virtuous. There is some truth to that – we do feel good if we are not worrying about how to feed our children or find shelter for the night. But if we have more than we need, if we have stuff that came to us unfairly, or if our privilege keeps other people from having what they need – we can’t possibly feel good! God will be pricking our consciences all the time. What do we do if we don’t feel good? Our market-economy-run-amuck has a one-size-fits-all-solution: try to get more stuff, more privilege! Our society – our churches in particular – fail in that we don’t speak enough about the fact that many of us would feel better if we gave something away. So when people with privilege feel bad, all we know how to do is seek MORE privilege. It is a very, very sad vicious cycle.  

Fourth, I think many of us who decide to take on the injustices of privilege presume that people with privilege know they are privileged. During the school assignment discussion, it honestly never occurred to me that people in my predominantly wealthy, highly educated neighborhood would be upset with me for describing us as privileged. Even though I know better, I made the mistake of buying into the idea that people with privilege feel good and I expected that they would know they can afford to give up their goodies. But people with privilege don’t feel good, and consequently don’t think they have any goodies they can give up! They are scared that, as badly as they feel, they’ll feel even worse if they give something up.

Fifth, when we combat injustice, I think we often fail to understand just how miserable and scared those with privilege are. We don’t have much compassion. But what I have learned as a chaplain is that a person who is afraid is often to all intents and purposes deaf: only compassion can reach a scared person, and only promises of something good can open the frightened heart. Jesus told us to love our enemies for good reason. We need to speak about how good it feels to give up privilege. And it DOES feel good!

Sixth, my experience is also, if we are privileged, it is easier to accept the fact of our privilege if we are offered both forgiveness and concrete suggestions for steps to take to correct the situation. For most people it is harder to leave the relative comfort of what we know if we don’t know what the next step will be. When parents at our children’s school were offered an opportunity to go into a partnership with a school with fewer privileges than ours, there was immediate and enthusiastic involvement. I think we like to be generous and helpful if we only know how! 

And finally, I think to redress the privilege that education can be, we need to make it a little less lopsided. Today it is geared primarily towards academic knowledge. That hurts us all because it makes for competition. It makes education into an idol. In addition to academic knowledge, our schools ought to teach how to achieve economic justice, compassion for the marginalized, that the important things in life are not things but relationships, and that we can’t feel good unless everyone in the world has the basics of education, food, shelter, and the resources to be productive.  

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2 Responses to “The Spirituality of Privilege”

  1. Omar P. Says:

    Susanne –

    A brilliant post! As a worker in the education “industry” I can readily affirm much of what is said here. I have many thoughts, ideas and responses to this post, but not the time to write them all down. Suffice it to say, well done!

    Friends (and friends), let us acknowledge that education is a privilege and that to the extent that we can broaden our definition of education (or “intelligence” for that matter) and to the extent that we can disseminate this re-imagined and reformed education to the broadest possible group of people world-wide the happier we will be and the more just the world will be.

    Just my $.02 worth . . .


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