A Wind at the Back: Some Thoughts on Privilege

Sermon Audio: 

The Rev. Stanton H. Barrett, III
March 26, 2017

When my sixth great-grandfather Robert “King” Carter died in 1733, he was said to be perhaps the wealthiest man in English North America, and probably the biggest landowner and the biggest slaveowner in the colony of Virginia.  He owned, so I’ve read, 1000 slaves, and during long service in the House of Burgesses, and at least one period as Interim Governor of the colony, had a part in setting out what kinds of punishment could be meted out to escaped slaves upon their recapture, so as to prevent their being able to run again.  Whatever else he did in his life, and whatever kind of man he was to those close to him, he benefited from and actively contributed to a brutal system, the defining institution of what is often referred to as America’s original sin, racism.

They say that if you look too closely into your genealogy, you’ll find a horse thief…well, Robert Carter is one of the horse thieves in my past, though who knows if he ever did anything illegal?  It is a shameful heritage, one I mention now and then, not because I feel personally guilty or in need of shaming, but to keep myself honest about how confident I can really be that I am free of unconscious racism, much as I want to be, and to remind myself and those who hear me of the privilege I carry due to the color of my skin.

There is no doubt in my mind that, though none of Robert Carter’s wealth made it to my parents’ generation, a significant part of my sense of myself from a young age, of being able pretty much to do what my talents and inclination turned me toward, of having a relatively secure and safe place in the world, sprang from the white privilege to which I was born.  My parents could tell me, and believably, that the police were my friends, and that if I were in trouble I should go to them.  We know that the talk parents of color must have to this day with their sons is far different.  White children may squander their privilege, and black children overcome their lack of it, but privilege matters.

I don’t feel guilty or responsible for great-grandfather Carter’s life, but, in part because I know about it, I do feel a responsibility to take racism very seriously, and to use the privilege he and others have bequeathed to me, for the benefit of those at whose expense it has come.  I have not been much of an activist in my life, but I do try at least, through reading and study, through compassionate listening, through monetary contributions, through trying to tune my heart to sensitivity, through my vote, and perhaps through the occasional sermon, to know my privilege and use it for good.

So now you have an idea of one source of my deep sense of connection to issues of advantage and disadvantage, systems of privilege and prejudice.  The immediate impetus for this sermon, however, came from attending UU General Assembly last year, when the diversity of that gathering, the visibility given to issues of privilege, and the emphasis on what was called “right relationship,” convinced me I needed to prepare a sermon about privilege, and especially about its complexities.

Because it is complex, isn’t it?  One sermon can only scratch the surface of its complexities, but probably the most obvious is that there are so many types or aspects of privilege.  In the preface to the book Privilege: A Reader, from which this morning’s reading was taken, editors Michael Kimmel and Abby Ferber quote the following from a 1963 book Stigma by sociologist Erving Goffman:

In an important sense there is only one complete…male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant, father, of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports…Any male who fails to qualify in any one of these ways is likely to view himself – during moments at least – as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior.

It’s striking how much of that still resonates after 54 years.  I have to admit that, given the marks of privilege I do carry, I was almost relieved to be disadvantaged by being southern, short, and of dubious record in sports!  And of course there are obvious parameters of privilege missing from the list, among them:  1) by virtue of being a description of males, this list may do a passable job of showing the aspects of privilege some men have over other men, but it bypasses entirely the privilege of simply being a man, and 2) issues of gender identity were hardly on the radar screen in 1963, especially for those who didn’t have to think about it: i.e., those comfortable with the gender appearing on their birth certificate.

That leads right to one thing that needs to be said about privilege:  it easily becomes hidden, except to those who don’t have it. A very straightforward example of this is in the form usually given to the ratio of men’s and women’s average pay.  How often we have heard that women earn (rounding off) about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes.  But how often have we heard the ratio reversed, making it evident that a man earns $1.25 for every dollar a woman earns?  The difference may seem subtle, and anyone can do the math, right?  But subtle differences really do make a difference, especially when reinforced time and time again: a difference in what we see and what we don’t quite see.  In another example, women know when they don’t get their share of air time, or when their ideas aren’t received with the same weight, but it’s easier for men to miss that, myself included.  It may seem a funny point to highlight for a person who has chosen a profession in which he, at least now and then, gets to talk for 15-20 minutes without anyone being able to talk back!  Oh, well, they told me years ago that we tend to preach the sermons we need to hear!

To tell you the truth, I think that – once we know about the suffering of the disadvantaged - it’s easier for us to look at that than at the benefit we gain from a skewed system of uneven opportunity.  Life may not be entirely a zero-sum game, with a pie of set size to be divided among all, but there are real ways in which it is so.  If you are “marked down,” as it were, for some characteristic – like race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, etc. – which I don’t share, then I have a better shot at the job we’re both applying for.

My wife Leslie’s father Ed Lawrence was born Ed Levine.  Sometime in the 1940’s – we haven’t pinned it down, but it was after he graduated from Cornell in chemical engineering – he was applying for jobs and getting nothing.  One day an interviewer advised him, “If you want to get a job, change your name.”  So Ed Levine gave up that beautiful, historically rich Jewish name, and became Ed Lawrence.  Now I don’t know how much Ed suffered personally for that sacrifice: my guess, from what I know of Ed, is that he made the change and moved on. But a sacrifice it was, and basically unfair, and it’s right to notice the injustice to Ed.

Yet what might get lost in noticing that, is what was gained by those who had names like Jones or Smith or Barrett.  Take Ed out of the mix, and everyone else’s chances went up.  They carried a privilege he didn’t have, and it mattered, at least until he changed his name.  And we have to say that, even though Ed got a job and lived a life rich in many ways, it’s a privilege not to have to change your name to get that.  Ed loved to sail, so let me bring in the analogy from my sermon title.  Ed’s competitors had the wind at their back in that situation.  Ed had to tack, i.e., make diagonal moves to get to the same place.  It matters if the wind is behind you, supporting your progress, or in front of you, slowing you down.

I think that there’s another issue that’s challenging about taking a serious look at privilege, namely that it begins to feel like our individuality is getting lost.  Are we after all to see ourselves and others as simply made up of our membership in groups, which are themselves characterized by having - or not - a privileged quality?  Aren’t we each unique and precious individuals, and part of a system which rewards individual talent and effort?

In my opinion both are true.  There is much more to us than our membership in a combination of privileged and unprivileged groups.  And I believe we are each unique and precious.  We may in good conscience teach the next generation that their efforts to fulfill their potential are crucial to their success and happiness.  And yet, and yet…finding that fulfillment is made easier for some and harder for others by privilege or lack of it.  And I fear that continuing to believe in the sufficiency of individual effort to determine the course of our lives is much easier for us to the extent that we have privilege:  part of privilege is being able to avoid seeing our privilege.  Those who lack it see clearly how much it means.

So what are we to do?  If we say that we affirm the worth and dignity of every human being, how then shall we live, as individuals, as families, as a congregation?   Simply put, I think that, insofar as we have privilege, we are called to use it for the good, not only of ourselves, our families, and those like us, but also for the good of those who have less.  I say “insofar as we have privilege” because, if you were so inclined as to give us each a number from 1 to 100 signifying our total privilege, we would certainly define a spectrum.  And if you took into account our individual circumstances, e.g. our health, employment status, and other factors that affect our capacity to give of ourselves, the spectrum would be even more fine-tuned.  Yes, in this community, as in others, we vary in the amount and complexion of our privilege, but, insofar as we have privilege, I think we are called to use it in solidarity with the less privileged of our community, our nation, and our world.

Now, if we can give our hearts to that endeavor, I think the next step is to engage in what will inevitably be an ongoing awareness project.  For most of us, most of the time, this effort at taking privilege seriously will play out primarily in our interactions with family and friends, members of the beloved community and other groups we’re part of, and – let us say – another shopper at the grocery store.  It’s about what is often called in UU circles “right relationship.”  And, believe me, it’s a lifelong learning project.

I heard a piece on NPR some time ago in which a woman of color was relating how a white woman had come up to her and her little girl in a public place, and, exclaiming “what a beautiful little girl,” had taken the head of the child, who was facing elsewhere, and turned it so she could see the little girl’s face.  Now the women telling the story didn’t think the white woman meant any offence, but for her it was a recapitulation of all the ways, over 100’s of years, that whites have taken possession of black bodies.  She knew the other woman had no bad intentions, but for her it felt like an aggressive act – what is often called a micro-aggression – because in matters of privilege, as in much in life, context matters.  For the woman of color, 400 years of racism in America are a big part of the context, and understandably so.

If we think about our personal relationships, I think you’ll agree that once we have a history behind us, things we say or do are no longer “innocent” in the sense of taking their meaning only from the moment: they take their impact and meaning also in the context of what has gone before.

Then there’s the example of comedian Peter Kim, in the Jan. 27th instance of In My Humble Opinion on PBS news Hour, who identifies himself as “a Korean man who’s also gay.”  In this segment he speaks of the subtle racism – or white supremacy - of his being asked “where are you from?” because it assumes that the default in this country is whiteness.  He points out that his boyfriend, who is from Minnesota, and whose family is from Sweden, never has to explain where he’s from.  Here, similarly to the previous example, the questioner probably is only expressing interest…and I could easily see myself doing that or something like it.  Yet it seems to me that part of honoring each other’s worth and dignity is caring about how things affect the other, and trying to avoid hurt in our words as well as actions.  Words matter.

Honing our awareness means waking up time and again, and often being waked up when we slip up.  Those who know us and trust – or even love – us, may let it pass, or gently shake us awake, but sometimes it will be a rude awakening.  I think that, part of being committed to taking privilege seriously, and the awareness project it entails, is being willing to be wounded now and then for the sake of our learning, and of right relationship.  It’s not about “political correctness,“ though it may seem that way at times.  Fundamentally, it’s about sensitivity to others, and trusting their description of their experience.  In such matters, Jesus’ words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” are on the one hand much too simplistic for dealing with the complexities of privilege, and on the other hand, not bad as a starting place, and even as a touchstone all along the way.

In his sermon E Pluribus Unum here last March, The Rev. Robert H. Thompson, a man of color, did something that has stuck with me.  It was a time when then-candidate Donald Trump had really begun to show his strength with certain groups.  Rev. Thompson gave us a heartful example of the ability to use privilege to understand complicated situations.  He said, and I’m paraphrasing now, that he could see how an out-of-work white coal miner in West Virginia, with little prospect of a job which could really support his family, and all the problems that follow from that, could look at him, yes a black man, but possessed of a fine prep school, college, and graduate school education, and employed by an elite prep school, and say “…and I’m the one with privilege?”

We can’t walk a mile in everyone’s shoes, but with compassion and imagination we can put ourselves there in a very real way.  If you asked me for my imagined endpoint, my vision, I’d say that I can imagine a world in which privilege is shared, and used for the good of all, and where status is more fluid, and disconnected from characteristics that have nothing to do with skill or usefulness to society.  It would be a world – to borrow from our Affirmation of Faith - where humankind would serve each other in fellowship, facilitating both dwelling together in peace and growing into harmony with the divine.

If a thriving church community is one which both nurtures spiritual growth and cares about its community and world, surely taking privilege seriously is one place where those two meet.  On the one hand, we can’t really engage privilege without coming to know ourselves and each other better, and the spiritual paths I know best suggest that the royal road to spiritual growth, though not ending in the self, does pass through it.  So facing and naming our benefits and our wounds from privilege can foster spiritual growth.

On the other hand, and more obviously perhaps, taking privilege seriously can facilitate a truer and more effective engagement with the needs of our world.  In a time when we are assessing who we are and want someday to be, in preparation for settling a new minister, perhaps both our inner and our outer journeys can be furthered by engaging with what it means to have the wind in our faces, or at our backs.  So may it be.  Amen.

Readings: 

“Feeling Conscious, Not Guilty" from "Privilege: A Reader," by Michael Kimmel and Abby Ferber