by Judith Roberts
Our identities shape our stories and experiences of the wider world. As a racial justice trainer/facilitator, I often facilitate an activity called “What’s in your bowl?” designed to help individuals share how their community, identity and culture have shaped their world views. The exercise is reflective and revealing. Participants recall their early identity formation and when they first noticed people different from those “inside their bowl.”
It’s always eye opening to hear these experiences. At the onset, other group members may make some assumptions about each person’s racial, ethnic, cultural or socioeconomic background or identity. However, as people feel free to share, all bets are off—diversity usually shows up in the room. There may be a certain amount of commonality (Lutheranism, for instance), but often groups are not homogenous. When people are given opportunities to bring all of aspects of their identity (race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) to a conversation or situation, we paint a richer, fuller, bolder picture.
My life as an adult, black, Christian, middle-class, educated, able-bodied, hetero, cis-gendered, natural-born citizen woman with a socially acceptable body size means I experience life through multiple aspects of my identity. As a black woman serving in a predominantly white denomination, I am constantly aware of my blackness in white spaces. Quite often my work takes me across the U.S. on planes, trains and automobiles—many times, solo. I often find myself as the lone woman of color in a room of white faces. This reality heightens my awareness of safety, acceptance and assumptions others have about me and my story.
I am frequently reminded of the many stereotypes about black people and specifically black women. Per national media research, there are twice as many negative media images of black women than positive images. Even former First Lady Michelle Obama was confronted by negative stereotypes projected onto her as an “angry, black woman.” In her final White House interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2016, Michelle Obama shared her thoughts about being confronted with stereotypes. “We’re so afraid of each other,” she explained. “Color. Wealth. These things that don’t matter still play too much of a role in how we see one another.”
Being honest about privilege
When you are busy fighting stereotypes that demean, dehumanize and degrade you, it’s not always as easy to see the places, spaces and ways you experience privilege. If I take my own identity inventory, I, too, have privilege. I was raised in a middle-class family. I am one of two children. I have birth privilege as the first-born. As the only girl, I never had to worry about hand-me-down clothes. My parents had decent incomes. They owned their own home. We never worried about having enough to eat or missing a meal. Books were available and read in our home. I attended a private high school. My parents took us to museums, restaurants and cultural events. We made family trips.
It wasn’t until I went south to Mississippi as a youngster that I encountered families living in extreme poverty. When I got into close physical proximity to family members in rural parts of Mississippi, it opened my eyes. But you don’t have to travel to parts of the Deep South to find people living below the poverty line.
To avoid feelings of guilt and shame, people often want to maintain the invisibility of their privileges. Confronting privilege would mean acknowledging the unearned benefits and rewards because of that privilege. Some privileges are not as visibly obvious (i.e., sexual orientation, citizenship or socioeconomic status). The hard truth is that confronting privilege means being honest with oneself. It means taking inventory of all the advantages, opportunities, access and power experienced because of your identity. Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation is an organization that defines privilege and oppression as two sides of the same coin. In other words, one group cannot receive privilege without another group experiencing oppression.
Using our privilege for good
Privilege and power show up in the story of the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-37). In the Gospel text, Jesus is confronted by a Gentile, Greek-speaking woman. This nameless woman of another race is desperately in need of a miracle for her daughter. The woman grovels at Jesus’ feet, believing that he is the messiah. And yet she is ignored. She continues to plead for Jesus’ attention. Again he refuses her request. He says to her: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). This Gospel story portrays a Jesus who is dismissive, dehumanizing and holding firm to his place of privilege. In her persistence, she responds: “Yea, Lord; even the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs” (Mark. 7:28). It is in a space of proximity where her voice, the voice of the oppressed, is heard. Jesus is confronted, challenged and changed. Here, Jesus had gender, race and religious privilege. Jesus chose to use his power to see the women of faith, to challenge his beliefs and to change his mind.
I’m a huge movie fan, and one my favorites this past year was Hidden Figures. Spoiler alert: In case you haven’t seen it, the movie sheds light on the little-known contribution to the National Aeronautic Space Administration (NASA) program by three brilliant black women: Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.
These working, educated, black women were mothers, wives, mathematicians and engineers. Not only does the film break apart stereotypes about race and gender, it illustrates how a white male used his position of power and privilege.
In the film, actor Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, the white boss of Katherine G. Jackson (portrayed by actress Taraji P. Henson). The relationship between Al and Katherine transforms Al. He witnesses Katherine’s perseverance as a black woman working amongst a team of all-white engineers in the 1960s space program. She’s the brightest mathematician in a room full of white male colleagues who take credit for her work, relegate her to second-class status and dismiss her brilliance.
Al uses his privilege to lead by example in recognizing Katherine’s work. He uses his position of authority to include her in key meetings. He uses his power to tear down the “colored ladies” restroom sign. Although the main characters of Hidden Figures are real women, the character of Al is a composite of several different men. Unfortunately, that’s Hollywood. Whether all of Al’s actions were portrayed accurately or fictionalized, the comfort of privilege comes at the expense of others’ pain, marginalization and dehumanization.
Leaving our bowls
The trouble with seeing privilege is that it isn’t absolute. It is relative to the context and the situation. Intersectionality is a term first coined in 1989 by American civil rights advocate and leading scholar of critical race theory Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. This term, intersectionality, proposes that all aspects of one’s identity need to be examined since they simultaneously interact with each other and affect one’s privilege and perception in society. These aspects of identity cannot be observed in isolation.
For example, during the 2016 presidential race, many rural whites felt their voices were not being heard in the wider political sphere. Although they had the race privilege of white skin, they did not have the power of middle to upper-middle class socioeconomic status. A Pew Research Center survey conducted from May through June 2016 suggests that the economic concerns of rural white Americans align to a striking degree with several key issues: jobs, immigrants and fears about an eroding standard of living. I share this example in hopes of shedding light on opportunities to create streams of deeper engagement. In the words of poet, author and activist Maya Angelou, perhaps “we are more alike…than we are different.” The more we pull back the layers of understanding identities, the more we align ourselves with all of our humanity. What if conversations about privilege opened people up instead of shutting them down? What if class privilege was also part of the dialogue about race? Would rural whites have just as much in common with urban blacks or indigenous people? What if white rural communities shared their immigrant stories alongside the stories of the struggles of undocumented families?
Our comfort zones act as protective shells. When we stay within our own bubble or bowl, it reinforces a false sense of security. It’s true that leaving our comfort zones can increase feelings of fear and levels of anxiety. Yet there is value in surrounding ourselves with people who challenge our perceptions of the world. Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gives a wildly popular TED Talk, the “Danger of a Single Story.” It has received more than 11 million YouTube views. Adichie warns: “There is never just a single story about a place or a people.” She names the challenges we face when we trust the stereotypes rather than work to develop authentic relationships with each other. It is only when we get close to one another and come out of our comfort zones that we can learn to walk in someone else’s heels.
There is power in proximity. We must get close enough so that we can hear the other’s story, wrestle with our privilege and act. Simply acknowledging privilege isn’t enough. Let us all be moved beyond a place of guilt and shame. Let us be moved toward actions that work to lift all people. Let us not be so comfortable in our privilege that we ignore another’s grieving but rather work to end what makes her grieve.
As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Working for a fair and just society benefits us all. When people feel valued, there is more social harmony. Social harmony creates unity. When we have unity, we celebrate the gifts of all people, and we all prosper. When we all prosper, the possibilities of our human potential become boundless.
Judith Roberts is ELCA director for racial justice ministries.