Inheriting Privilege

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

Recently, my husband and I spent a weekend sorting through boxes and boxes stored in the attic of my childhood home. My brother and sister-in-law, who now live in the 120-year-old farm house, brought down boxes, threw broken dolls and outdated files out the window, and we sorted generations of stuff into “burn,” “donate,” and “keep” piles. I looked through totes of photos and knickknacks my mother had put out of sight. I can’t blame her for storing so much of it—she had the room in the large, unfinished attic, and didn’t intend to leave it as a burden for us to deal with. But over the decades things just kept piling up.

It’s a joy and a burden sorting through all this stuff. I find forgotten treasures and souvenirs from special moments. Some of it is mine from my childhood, some of it my mother inherited from her mother, so we have been going through three generations of paraphernalia. I’ve felt badly about donating or throwing away so many things, but I’ve had to remind myself: it is not my fault my ancestors kept these things. I am not responsible to inherit all of my mother’s belongings. However, I am now responsible to decide what to do with them.

I’m reminded in this process of what it means to inherit our families’ histories, especially when those histories come with privilege. “Acknowledge your privilege” has become a common expression in our culture. It’s a call for people to recognize that many aspects of our individual identity might come with built-in advantages: race, socio-economic status, gender, religion, citizenship, occupation, family background, or appearance to name a few factors. You might not have chosen these things for yourself; you or your ancestors may have worked hard to get you to where you are. Still, you are reaping benefits based on factors in your life. Those benefits might involve an easier time getting an education or the job you want. They might mean you face fewer challenges or less discrimination than those with less privilege. We are left with the decision to ignore it all or sort through it and determine its significance in our lives.  

Many argue that the discussion around privilege is problematic. I didn’t choose my race or the family I was born into. I’m responsible with the money I’ve inherited. I study hard and work hard. I am not responsible for systemic racism or prejudice that began centuries and still damages our society. Even if my ancestors or people of my skin color took advantage of others in the past, I can’t be at fault for that.

In my case, I think of how my mother was raised, along with six other children, by an immigrant widow left with nothing. My mother worked hard to get good grades to get a scholarship to get a good university education to get stable employment. My father was raised by Dutch immigrant parents who came to Canada with very little and strove to build a good life for their children and grandchildren. I am so grateful for parents and grandparents who worked hard, despite their disadvantages, to provide so many opportunities for me.

But despite the great challenges my ancestors faced, they also had the privilege of being of European descent, of being Christian and Protestant in a Protestant subculture. I have inherited privilege in many forms, some based on forces within my predecessors’ control, and some beyond them.

While recognizing our privilege doesn’t eliminate racism or economic injustice or any other form of inequality, it does allow us to have compassion and empathy, to be self-reflexive about how we might have come by many of our advantages in life. I (and my ancestors) might have worked hard to get to where I am in life, but others, because of their lack of privilege, might work just as hard to still be held back in life, and might never be granted the same opportunities as those of us with privilege. If we regularly apply Christ-like humility to “check our privilege,” we will seek opportunities to hear voices that are silenced, to be attentive to who is granted leadership, status or a podium in our culture. We will seek to create opportunities for reconciliation as we strive to welcome God’s shalom here on earth.

We follow a man who told parables about storing up possessions in barns and about the rich man who paid no attention to the beggar outside his front door, a savior who pointed out how one woman’s offering of a few pennies was worth more than the extravagant offerings of those who had much. We worship a God who chose to enter the world as the child of a poor, unwed mother, who as an adult spent his time with the disadvantaged of society: sex workers, the diseased, the poor, and women. While he did spend time with people who seem to have financial or status privilege, he called them to reverse the expected order of things (think of the rich young ruler, Zacchaeus, and the religious leaders). He and the early church constantly challenged the accepted definitions of power and importance established by the Roman Empire. Those with wealth in the early church recognized their privilege and shared their finances and belongings so that those with less were empowered.         

Checking our privilege can and should be a spiritual exercise. Our privilege is not something we are at fault for, but we need to sort through it. It does not mean we need to feel guilty, but it does mean a call to empathy, and to use our privilege to bring justice in the world. Acknowledging privilege in and of itself isn’t enough, but it is the first step in considering how we might use our inherited privilege to serve others, to break down the structures of injustice in our society, and move toward a world ruled by God’s justice, where we recognize that every person is made in God’s image.

About the Author

Melissa Kuipers writes fiction and non-fiction. She is also director of discipleship ministries at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton, Ont

X