“When you’re a straight, white male, your privilege bracelet looks more like a necklace,” one of my high school students told me after making a privilege bracelet at a booth at the recent ELCA Youth Gathering.
The activity was great – exposing teens first to what privilege is (a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people, often by virtue of birth) and then challenging them to think about the various privileges they have in regard to seven different categories – religion, gender / sex, nationality, ability, orientation, socio-economic class, and race.
The activity was also daunting. As a straight, white female, my bracelet also looked a lot like a necklace. I lacked only five beads for the entire activity, all related to my gender. This realization made me feel guilty, which is why I loved the conversation this activity provoked. After participating in it, another male student came up to me and said, “I get that I’m privileged but so what? What am I supposed to do about it?”
We spent the next half hour wrestling with this very thing.
We talked about how the ELCA – a 97% white denomination – uses its collective privilege to accompany and make space for those who lack it, for example by giving non-white, female, gay, and trans people the platform during the mass gatherings at the Youth Gathering.
At one point in our conversation, my colleague, Joe – a straight white male – joined in. Thanks to his Lutheran seminary education, the influence of mentors, and his own empathy and compassion, Joe is incredibly aware of his privilege. He regularly uses it on behalf of those who lack it.
When Joe jumped into this conversation, he gave an example of using his privilege to benefit others (in this instance, me). He talked about how when we travel together, people often assume he's the lead youth worker. He is, after all, a white, male, ordained pastor while I’m a white, female, non-ordained youth worker. When this happens, he willingly corrects people’s mindsets.
Sixteen years into my youth ministry career, I’m used to people assuming any adult male I'm with is the youth pastor, not me. Although I wish people wouldn’t assume such things, that’s not what bothered me about Joe’s example.
What bothered me is that Joe used this as an example of how he relinquishes his privilege for the good of others. In his eyes, when he corrects people’s mistaken assumptions about who’s in charge, he’s humbling himself in order to restore me to my position.
Here’s the thing, though.
That position is not Joe's to begin with. So, when he corrects such misconceptions, he’s simply giving me what’s already mine: A title that comes with some responsibility and authority.
To me, that’s doing what’s right, not using your privilege to benefit others.
In contract, using your privilege to benefit others is giving away something that is actually YOURS – even if it’s yours because of privilege – to someone who because of their lack of privilege doesn't have that same opportunity.
So, Joe inviting me to preach instead of him on a Sunday morning in our congregation (which he's done) is an example of him using his privilege to benefit me. Since I don't have a seminary degree, when Joe gives me the microphone - he gives me access to a platform that I wouldn't otherwise have.
In the same way, I, too, have privilege – some connected to my race, others to my socio-economic status. Five years ago, I completed a master’s degree that was largely accessible to me because of my socio-economic status. This degree gave me the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the leaders in the youth ministry world, which opened doors to research, writing, and speaking previously closed to me. I now see it as part of my role to try to connect those without that privilege to the network I’m part of.
None of these things are earth shattering, but they are tangible examples of what it means to use our privilege to benefit others.
In a world where the distance between those who have and don’t have privilege is growing, understanding privilege is important… But so, too, is understanding how to relinquish our privilege.
That’s why I’m grateful for this activity at the Youth Gathering and the resulting conversation between the students and adult leaders in our ministry. It’s also why I’m grateful for people like Joe who are willing to enter into the fray – knowing that they have much to lose – occasionally be wrong, learn from their mistakes, and truly use their privilege on behalf of those who lack it (something you cannot learn and do unless you’re actually in close proximity with those who lack some of the privileges you have).
Micah 6:8 suggests:
What does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
That’s what relinquishing privilege is about.
And walking humbly in ways that benefit not just those with privilege, but those without it.