What does it mean to live with privilege?

At a recent gathering of the Conference Ministry staffs of the West Central Region (Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Northern Plains, South Dakota, Missouri-Mid South, and Kansas-Oklahoma), these 7 Conferences agreed that each would submit an article on a topic related to racial justice over the next several months, for publication in each of our Conference newsletters.  This reflects our shared commitment to keeping the struggle for racial justice “front and center” in the lives and ministries of our Conferences.  This article is the second in that series, written by Rev. Ginny Brown Daniel, Conference Minister in the Missouri Mid-South Conference.

What does it mean to live with privilege? I have been consciously wrestling with this question ever since the White Privilege curriculum was introduced from the United Church of Christ. But if I am honest, I have been unconsciously wrestling with this spiritual question my entire life. Growing up in Alabama in the 1980s, I wrestled with our communal sin called racism. I was fortunate to grow up in a progressive college town, where education for all was the bedrock of our community. In high school, I worked at a drug store, where James, an African-American in his 50s, taught me what subtle Christian racism looked like as an older customer entered the store with a nice smile and James whispered the customer’s 30-year old sins of beating him for going to the “wrong bathroom.”

The more personal expression of racism took many more years to process and confess: my family’s sin of paternalistic racism. They disagreed with Governor George Wallace, who stood in my dad’s high school doors, emphatically pronouncing segregation. Years later my family bemoaned Wallace’s shrill actions when they could have worked toward a more peaceful resolution (which was a stalling tactic just as sinful as Wallace’s doorway demands). They eventually fled their hometown when African Americans rightly boycotted my grandfather’s business. But they did so because they had the financial means to leave and move to another town. Privilege.

I have privilege. I am a white, middle-class, middle-aged southern, educated woman. For many years, I was reticent to identify my privilege lest it sound like bragging in a terribly superior manner. But if I don’t name my reality, I cannot breathe God’s goodness and peace into my reality. I have been poor, but I have always known that I had a safety net to protect me from imminent financial danger. I have experienced sexism, but I have always had enough power to pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again.

When I named my privilege, it was as if I was finally open to healing within my body, mind, and spirit regarding my privilege and my racism. My spirit sought the stories of Jesus and how he interpreted and lived out his privilege. Jesus indeed had privilege. He was a man. He was Jewish. He was a rabbi. And he was educated enough to know, recite, and preach from the scriptures. In Jesus’ privilege, he listened to the stories of the oppressed (Samaritan Woman), he gave his privilege away (healings on the Sabbath), and he spoke truth to the powerful (turning the tables in the Temple).

Recently I asked myself how I live out my privilege. How do I listen, give away my privilege, and speak truth to the powerful?  After the Executive Order banning entry into the United States for Muslims from seven particular countries, I really wrestled with my privilege. What do I do with the power, prestige, and privilege I have been given as a UCC Conference Minister? And what is my spiritual obligation with this privilege? And so I decided that my Lenten spiritual practice would be to wear a hijab, or head scarf, to spiritually reflect on who God created me to be while giving my privilege away. I sought to stand in solidarity with my Muslim sisters and brothers, who are unfairly being judged and discriminated against because of how they worship God.

And so on Ash Wednesday, I donned a head scarf and began my journey. To be honest, wearing a hijab has been an eye-opening experience. Watching those who look past me, when they normally greet me warmly. Listening to people processing their own privilege as they admire my “courage” for this practice. And receiving racism in verbal and non-verbal expressions especially when I am at the airport. Last week, as I entered the St. Louis airport, there was a woman with a head scarf on and we looked at each other with big smiles on our faces. Talk about extravagant hospitality! There were people who were extra nice to me, and even a flight attendant who winked at me! Her wink lifted my spirits because, not 15 minutes earlier, a man gave me an ugly stare as we boarded the plane. At first, I forgot about my hijab and wondered what I had done to cause such an ugly stare. And then I remembered. And I stared at him right back as if to dare him, “Bring it on, you mean man! I’ll take you down!” (Not quite the loving spirit of Jesus but I’m being honest). In my wearing a hijab, I have also committed to reading books by Muslim American women about their spiritual lives. I am currently reading “Threading My Prayer Rug,” by Sabeeha Rehamn (here is a youtube interview with Ms. Rehman) to hear the story of one Muslim-American woman.

I have learned more about my white privilege wearing a hijab than ever before in my life.  I am more concerned when I walk through the security line (even in the privileged TSA Pre-check). I am more aware that, as they say in the broadway play Avenue Q, everybody is a little bit racist. I am more aware that discrimination stems from other people’s own fears and has  nothing to do with the person being judged. I am more aware that there will always be compassionate people willing to stand with the powerless and oppressed. I am more aware that my privilege is not granted because of who I am as a child of God. I am more aware that I have a deeper spiritual responsibility to give my privilege away by listening to the heart of others, by giving my privilege away, and by speaking truth to the powerful.

I, like all of you, have been created in God’s image. Our spiritual work will always be to live into who God created us to be while we give our privilege away. This indeed will be a just world for all!