I grew up a child of privilege: upper middle class, educated the finest schools, belonging to a healthy loving family, white in a society that discriminated on the basis of skin color. Yet, as I matured and became aware of the advantages afforded me on the basis of my privilege, I came to loathe aspects of that privilege and see it as a burden. For instance, when I was in college and began awakening to the horrors of institutional racism, I remember wishing I had been born black, so that I didn’t have to bear the burden of guilt for the terrible atrocities committed by whites against African-Americans throughout European and U.S. history. In a way that many not born to privilege would find odd, I tried to shed the clothing of that privilege, only to find that it was not removable, that in fact it was literally part of my skin, my bones, and my genes.
I have long admired people such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B Dubois, Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu. They are included in my personal “hall of heroes” and inform my social vision and inspire me to act and speak out against in injustice wherever possible. However, there has always been a point of disconnect for me with these folks. Unlike me, these “heroes” have not been people of privilege. I recognize that their courage and sacrifice was infinitely greater than mine could ever be. As people of color they were and have been easy targets for the maintainers of racial status quo to single out, to defame, and in many cases to kill. I have never had to, nor probably ever will have to, live under the threat of such unjust treatment. I have come to realize that as large as these folks are in my personal and social vision, they are not sufficient guides.
Recently, I viewed the film “Amazing Grace,” the story of British politician William Wilberforce and his struggle to abolish slavery in England. At a cost to his friendships, his political capital, and his health, Wilberforce led a small band that was able to overturn the laws of slavery after 20 years of effort. As I watched the movie, I consciously realized something I had tacitly embraced long ago: that Wilberforce (another one of my heroes) represented a different kind of guide for me. Like me, Wilberforce was a person of privilege, and yet in a paraphrase of the apostle Paul “did not count [that privilege] something to be grasped, but emptied himself and became a servant.”(Philippians 2.6)
Thinking of Wilberforce reminded me of so many other folks who were/are people of privilege who in their limited way have sought to undo the very systems that gave them their privilege. People such as the following:
– John Woolman, a Quaker in the 18the century who traveled up and down the Eastern seaboard, personally convincing Quakers to free their slaves.
– The unnamed whites living near the Mason-Dixon line who served as stops along the Underground Railroad
– Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist journalist in Alton, IL beaten to death by an angry mob for outspoken stance on slavery.
– Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Catholic intellectuals who founded the Catholic Worker movement serving the urban poor.
– Clarence Jordan, a man with two PhD’s (in agricultural and Biblical Greek), who in the 1950’s and 60’s built Koinonia Farms, an interracial community in segregationist Georgia.
All of these, like Wilberforce were people who used the benefits of their wealth, position and education to work for justice. My guess is that none of them would equate their sacrifice or courage to those people of color whom they allied themselves. Yet, they are examples for those who are from the privileged set of how to respond.
While the movie makes it appear that Wilberforce’s social vision was always clear, I tend to believe that his clarity was more Hollywood than truth. One of the things I continually reach to attain is a clarity of social vision. I am often reminded by people of color that while my heart may be in the right place, that I don’t fully “get it.” That’s why concerned people of privilege and courageous folks of color must be in constant dialogue and partnership. Folks of privilege can never consider the work of justice to be completed as long as the victims of injustice claim that racism and oppression still exist. As a result my vision is continually being refined, seemingly unfolding more clearly as I work more faithfully toward it. I “see through a glass darkly” (I Corinthians 13), and need others to bring clarity to what needs to be done.
Another one of my heroes is my mother, who in her own way sought to use her privilege to bring about change. Through her involvement with an organization called A Better Chance (ABC) she brought students of poverty and color into our upper middle class home and community. She thought justice and equity could be achieved by giving aspiring students from poor urban school districts a chance at a decent education could bring about change in society. While I never said this to her directly, I was inwardly critical of her shortsightedness in not seeing that simply helping individuals did not change a system that benefited a few to the disadvantage of the many. Even so, I admired her persistence, commitment and courage to use her upper middle class status to benefit others. At the same time I have come to accept that I am similarly shortsighted, and that as a person of privilege, I must continually unpack the ways my background has blinded me to the injustice built into our system. I have come to see my mother as yet another hero, like Wilberforce and the others, who seek to use their privilege to dismantle the system that creates that privilege. Their examples are truly a form of “Amazing Grace” that keeps me going, and provides me guidance.