In my husband’s family, there’s a story we love to tell. It’s a story we’re proud of. It’s a beautiful part of our legacy. When my husband’s maternal grandfather was a young man preparing to return home following the end of WWII, his dad said, “Son, the factories are going to be making tractors and farm equipment again. If I put your name in now, since you were a soldier, you might have a chance at getting one of those new tractors. I know you don’t have the money for it, so I’ll front you the money, and you can pay me back.” Papa Patman (called Lynn D, back then) agreed and was the first recipient of a brand-new tractor as they began coming off the line following the war. He had grown up as a farmer’s son in depression-era West Texas, and he had learned a thing or two about hard work. He worked that tractor day and night. When he wasn’t using it, he rented it out to other farmers in the area. He used that tractor when he and his young wife moved to southeastern New Mexico, where the land was as cheap and plentiful as it was rocky and unforgiving. He plowed the fields for cotton year after year with it. He continued plowing the earth when his two daughters were young, and when he and his wife built a beautiful new farmhouse closer to town. Decades of hard work afforded him the opportunity to send his daughters to college and leave an inheritance to his grandchildren. It’s the story of the American dream.
It is a good story. It’s a story of hard work and sacrifice, of blood and sweat and tears. It’s a story of a life poured into land and family. It’s a story of the beginning of the type of financial stability that can only be built through generations of hard work, delayed gratification, and good stewardship. It is all those things—and, as incongruous as it may seem, it is also a story of privilege.
I will not forget the day the realization of my privilege first hit me square in the face. I was standing at my kitchen counter listening to a popular podcaster unpack the difference between post-WWII opportunities for white soldiers and their black counterparts. I was aware of the tremendous sacrifices the black regiments made to fight in the war with even worse conditions than their white peers. And I felt like I knew a reasonable amount about segregation in the Civil Rights era. After all, I had been a kid in an American public school that never failed to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. But I had never stopped to think about what happened in the years in between. I certainly hadn’t spent much time contemplating how the post-WWII chain of events that took place nearly seventy-five years ago were playing out in my life currently—and how differently they might be playing out for a person of a different ethnicity.
After WWII, the government established the GI Bill, which offered veterans small business loans, home loans, healthcare, stipends for college, and the chance to put their names on a list for farm equipment. Meanwhile, black veterans were deprived of these privileges. They were typically denied admission to colleges. They were largely prohibited from moving to the new suburban neighborhoods popping up around the country. Banks regularly refused to grant them home loans or small business loans, even with the government backing the loans.
My grandparents, much like my husband’s grandparents, bought land, built houses, earned degrees, and started businesses. Black grandparents struggled to feed their families on sharecropping wages. Or they remained trapped in urban centers, watching white flight take the best schools, jobs, and medical care with them. They rented poorly maintained homes. They were further entrapped by cycles of poverty. They struggled to navigate a white world that didn’t want them, screamed of their inferiority, and invoked fear at every turn.
In fewer than two generations, this difference dramatically impacted our family tree and the narratives of our lives. My husband and I grew up in a small town and a suburban neighborhood, respectively. We received a good education. We became third-generation property owners and university graduates. We have professional jobs and retirement plans. We have options when it comes to our child’s education. We are white. We are privileged.
There’s no denying that many of us have worked very hard and made significant sacrifices to get where we are. No doubt, I have seen that modeled in the lives of my parents and grandparents, and I am eternally thankful. They worked hard and sacrificed much, and my family benefits greatly as a result. We too work hard and seek to be good stewards of our opportunities and resources. We don’t take them for granted or use them frivolously. These are good qualities that we’re working to instill in our son, while we simultaneously do our best to help him feel the weight and responsibility of his privilege as a white American male in a middle-class family.
In my current ministry context in New Zealand, I share life with Indians, Pacific Islanders, people from across Asia, and refugees from the Middle East more frequently than with those of African descent. Yet the reality is the same. I see my privilege reflected in my native language, my passport, my skin color, my education, my property, and my understanding of the predominantly Western structure in which we live and work. I am not rich. I don’t wear fancy clothes or drive a new car. My salary is significantly lower than one might expect, based on my education and work experience. And yet . . .
I am white.
I am educated.
I am a property owner.
I am a passport holder.
I am free to enter most countries in the world.
I am privileged.
And I feel the weight of my privilege. My privilege stares me in the face when I book a plane ticket to another country. It’s mixed with the gratitude I feel when I get accepted to a postgraduate degree program. I hear it profoundly when I chat with my equally talented Pacific Island friend who longs to be able to study but is inhibited by the responsibilities of family, rent, and cultural expectations beyond her control. It pulls at my heart when my friends who are genuinely wonderful parents express deep longing to be reunited with the children they have left behind while trying to make a better life in a new country. It nudges me when I download a book to my Kindle without a second thought, and when I enroll my son in afterschool activities. It is reflected in the shiny finishes of new bathroom hardware from recent home improvement projects. It whispers in my ear when my non-white colleague says under his breath mid-meeting, “You’d better do the talking. They won’t listen to us.”
It may be uncomfortable to recognize the ways we have been party to systems of privilege while others are trapped in cycles of oppression. We may have been naïve to the systems at play, but that does not let us off the hook. The reality is that, if we can tick any of the boxes of white, male, English-speaking, educated, home-owning, passport-holding, or salary-earning, we are privileged. We don’t even have to tick all the boxes to qualify. The sheer opportunity to make choices about the narratives of our lives—without being inhibited by our skin color, native language, gender, or country of origin—denotes privilege.
The question for me is not whether I am privileged; rather, the question is, what am I going to do about it? I don’t have it all figured out, but here’s where I am on the journey.
1. I’m paying attention. I’m paying attention to the ways and places I experience privilege—to the resources I have access to that others do not. I’m working to increase my sensitivity to the issue and to the places I can help level the playing field. I’m making space to share my table and my life with people who experience life differently from me.
2. I’m posturing myself as a learner. Clearly, I have a lot more to learn about history and culture. Authors such as Austin Channing Brown, Angie Thomas, Nic Stone, Robin Diangelo, Anthony Ray Hinton, and others are helping me to think about issues of race and privilege, but admittedly, my need-to-read list is long, and I have much learning to do.
3. I’m doing my best to listen. In meetings and conversations with my non-white colleagues, I’m listening first, creating space for those who speak more quietly, who are more cautious when sharing ideas, and who have historically been run over by white people. I’m choosing my words carefully, knowing they bear much weight, even if I don’t intend them to bear more weight than anyone else’s. I’m listening to black voices as well as the stories told by the diverse voices in my individual context.
4. I’m allowing myself to feel the weight of my privilege. I grieve that this is a reality in the twenty-first century. I’m understanding anew that with much privilege comes much responsibility. I’m keenly aware that, as a Christian, I cannot turn a blind eye to the structures that are in place within the church and the culture that attempt to maintain the status quo. I am owning my responsibility in my spheres of influence.
5. I’m sharing or even sacrificing my own platform wherever I can, creating space for others who are equally (or perhaps even more) talented to have a space on the agenda and a seat at the table. I’m seeking to promote the skills and talents of those who are often marginalized. Sometimes that looks like proofreading papers of learners whose first language is not English so they can thrive in an academic setting. Other times, it looks like suggesting people of varied ethnicities for places on committees, filling the pulpit at our church, and speaking at conferences—even if it means I need to step aside.
Lest we try to excuse our participation in cycles of oppression, it’s important to note that the Bible has a whole lot to say about power structures. In the New Testament, it was the most religious of folk who had the biggest buy-in to power structures. Jesus’s message caused such a shakeup among his own religious elite that they killed him.
I fear that, when it comes to issues of privilege, we might fall into the same traps. It’s comfortable. It feels justifiable. We work hard. We follow the rules. We do what’s best for our families. And, often, we fail to truly see or serve those who live outside our own familiar ethnic and demographic confines.
Instead, may we feel the weight of our privilege anew. As we do, may we be a people who genuinely understand that the first will be last, which means laying down our lives—and our privilege—for others.