Tom Fuerst ~ Right Privilege
About a year ago my son started expressing interest in playing baseball. So we went to Dick’s Sports to get him a glove. But my son, only 3 years old at the time, throws left-handed. When we tried to find a glove small enough for his right hand there weren’t any. There were plenty of left-handed gloves for right-hand throwers, but absolutely no right-handed gloves for left-hand throwers. The right-handed throwers are the dominant culture. Being right-handed is the assumption. It is most people’s reality.
But this trip got me thinking at the time about how, when little league starts, my son could be functionally behind the right-handed kids. Not because he’s not smart enough, athletic enough, or big enough, but simply because there were no gloves in his size and for his hand. Simply because the dominant culture is not one he fits into. In this way, he lacks privilege that most kids have.
Privilege is a dangerous word in our culture. We don’t like to acknowledge privilege, and for those of us in the dominant culture, we don’t have to acknowledge privilege because the society is set up for us. We can be blind to these things, not because we’re necessarily immoral, but because we’ve had the privilege of never having to think about them. Again, I never had to think about the dominance of right-handed culture because I’m right-handed, but once I saw how left-handedness can impact athletic performance, I learned that my privileges of right-handedness come with all kinds of assumed, unearned benefits. How much more, then, does the fact that I’m white come with assumed, unearned benefits? How much more, then, does the fact that I’m male come with assumed, unearned benefits?
Of course, it’s at this point that people object – especially white men. We like to see ourselves as self-made. We like to think that we did it all ourselves. And some of this might even be true. Those right-handed little leaguers who get really good at baseball certainly work hard at it. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t benefit from privilege. You can be privileged and still be a hard worker.
The point is, your privilege affords you certain benefits that others can’t assume. To further the handedness metaphor a bit, once I noticed how my son might be delayed about in his baseball skills because of a lack of glove, I began to also notice other ways our world privileges right handers. Standard scissors assume right handedness. Our written language assumes right-handedness – even the way the letters are formed, especially cursive. Even something as simple – and unnoticed – as the dishwasher always being on the right side of the sink displays an assumption (and therefore privileging) of right-handers. Before I had a left-handed son, I never had to think about these things. I was able to just assume right-handedness is just the way the world is.
And this is maybe the key to any discussion of privilege. Those with privilege just assume this is the way the world is, and therefore they do not have to be aware of how others are not included in their privilege. As a man, I’ve never had to worry about whether people think I have the authority to preach. I’ve never had to worry about people judging my entire sex based on my preaching performance. Rather, because men dominate pulpits, I just get to assume this is just the way the world is. But I’ve never had to think about why a woman’s experience in the pulpit is thoroughly different. I’ve never had to think about the fact that most women in preaching roles struggle with their congregations questioning their authority, giftedness, or competence. I’ve never had to think about how if I preach a bad sermon, no one is going to say, “See, that’s why men shouldn’t be preaching.”
As a white man, I’ve never had to worry about if I did or didn’t get a job because of my skin color. I’ve never had to worry about how a “black name” might appear to an employer on a resume. That’s not a problem white men in this country ever have to deal with. And when I do get a job, nobody ever asks if I got it because I’m white. I have to privilege of everyone just assuming I’m qualified. That’s just the way the world is for me. But it’s not the way the world is for everyone. I’m privileged.
But my blindness to my privilege can also make me blind to the fact that the God I worship is not blind to the way the world is and he sees how some people have an easier go at life than others. Getting a late start in baseball because you can’t get a glove on your hand has minimal significance in life. But getting a late start in education or getting an inferior education simply because of where you were born or the color of your skin matters to God!
The God of scripture has a preference for those who are not privileged. Christ came to proclaim release to the captives, healing for the sick, restoration of sight to the blind, and good news to the poor. His entire mission is a message of restoration and empowerment for those who lacked privilege. This is why Christianity started off as a dominantly poor movement. It’s why so many women were attracted in the beginning. It validated the lives and stories of those who lacked privilege in Roman society.
But this isn’t just something Christ did that was different than how God had previously revealed himself. Rather, God, from the beginning, has been challenging our understandings of the way the world is. In Genesis 4, God went against the way the world is and accepted the younger Abel’s sacrifice over the older (and more privileged) Cain’s sacrifice. Later, God went against the way the world is by choosing Isaac over his older brother, Ishmael. Again, later, God contradicted the way the world is by choosing Jacob over Esau. God later tells the people of Israel that He chose them, not because they were the greatest, most powerful, privileged nation, but precisely because they were not. We could cite numerous examples of this even prior to Christ.
So it begs the question – in what ways does God want to challenge the way the world is today?
One of the key things God may want us to understand is that just because that’s the way the world is for us, doesn’t mean that’s the way the world is for everyone. As a white male, I was raised on the assumption that if you just work hard enough, you can accomplish anything you want. That promise is nice in an ideal world, but it’s a myth – even for me. Nevertheless, it still stays in the back of our minds, such that when we see less privileged people who aren’t succeeding as well as we are, we don’t first think about privilege. Rather, we first thing about hard work, or intelligence, or even virtue. They must not be working hard enough, be smart enough, or be good enough, we think.
But, if I can continue with the handedness metaphor, that’s like saying, “Left-handers have ugly handwriting. If they just worked harder at their handwriting, if they just worked on not smearing the ink on the page, if they just put in some effort, they could have beautiful handwriting like me.” But such an assumption fails to take into account the privilege – the way the page is set up, the way our written language moves from left to right, the way beautiful handwriting is judged by certain slants and curves that are darn near impossible for left-handers to achieve, no matter how hard they work.
Or, if the ugly handwriting metaphor doesn’t work for you, let me actually couch the metaphor in performance. Remember in grade school you had the wrap-around desks? Well those desks were made for right handers – so right handers could rest their arms up on the wrap-around piece to make writing easier. But where did that leave left-handers? If we were doing a timed test, as a right-hander I had an easier time with the actual writing because my arm didn’t get tired. Not so for a left-hander. Not only do they write slower on average because their pen-strokes have to be different, but they also didn’t have an arm rest. My higher performance on a timed test may not be because I as smarter, but was because I had a privilege, the word of the desk was assumed me.
When we consider that privilege is more than just about desks, the problem is exacerbated. An individual underperforming child, then, should prompt questions, not first about a child’s intelligence, but about social structures, educational access, and even simple things like if child eats when not in school. Looking at the larger context should cause us to ask other questions, too – why are all the best schools and best teachers out in the suburbs? Why do Christian schools – schools that name themselves after a poor man named Jesus – have prices so high that poor people can’t access them and get a great education, too? And what is the impact on our city of 50 years of underfunded schools in poor neighborhoods? Do you see? There’s a larger context than individual underperformance. And we must be willing to look at the larger context.
Just as left-handers can’t work harder or just learn to write with their right hands, no amount of hard work is going to remove or displace a glass ceiling. It’s going to take persons in privilege caring enough to notice that ceiling and working with those who are limited by it to remove it. It’s going to take the non-privileged persons to raise their voice, and the privileged persons having the willingness to listen and respond appropriately.
And our faith can play a key role in helping non-privileged persons gain access and resources to flourish as God’s creatures. Christianity is a religion that proclaims a God who laid aside his privilege, power, and even comfort, entered into the human story in the physical form of an oppressed minority in the backwater of nowhere, died a non-privileged death. What might it take for Christians today, especially those of us with privilege, to “take up a cross” and emulate that story?
To return to the left-handedness metaphor, when I was in high school, my best friend Tommy Branch was a left-handed Catholic. In elementary school, he said he went to a Catholic school where they, for religious reasons, tried to make him learn to write right-handed. As a Protestant, I don’t fully understand this, but the point is, his teachers reinforced “right privilege” and tried to justify it on religious grounds. The way the world is was reinforced by baptizing the way the world is instead of celebrating that there are other ways of viewing the world.
I wonder what the white church world, of which I have always been a part, can learn from our brothers and sisters of color. I wonder how we have theologically justified white privilege or male privilege, instead of asking tough questions about the way the world is. I wonder how much we have baptized our assumptions and benefits, talked about them as gifts of God, without considering how God might want us to lay those aside to benefit other voices. Not because I’m anyone’s hero or messiah, but because I care about a world where everyone can flourish, and I understand that I participate in a faith tradition where God’s privileging of the non-privileged is just the way the world is.