Learning to Bridge Human Difference Lesson 3: Privilege
By: Iyabo Onipede – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.
I had the privilege of attending seminary in midlife. With some experience under my belt and a previous graduate degree, I delved into theology and loved every minute of working on my Master of Divinity degree at Candler School of Theology. I was outspoken. I was argumentative. I often thought out loud. I challenged my teachers. I was not shy. If I had an opinion, I stated it. Loudly. And sometimes, I was quite wrong. But mostly, I was different in my thinking and my experiences. Not good. Not bad. Just different. My experiences were just not similar to my classmates.
My saving grace was that I was a kind and loving person. I smiled at, and hugged, everyone, professors included. I felt great compassion for others and I was brutally honest without being judgmental. I would help anyone who asked, and you could count on me for truth-telling. My life experiences, both the good and the bad, served me well during this time.
One of my classmates, a twentysomething-year-old white male from a rural part of Georgia became pretty close to me. I call him a friend. Let’s call him “Ned.” That was not his name but for the sake of privacy, the name works.
He was a gorgeous, highly intelligent, open-hearted soul. He loved kids and had that one rare gift of being able to look at another person and hold a gaze to the person with his beautiful eyes. I never felt invisible around this handsome young man who was old enough to be my son. He loved God and loved academia. As smart as he was, people came before his studies and he always had time for a conversation. Over the three years that I knew him, I was impressed by the fact that he went out of his way to take classes with women professors. I noticed that he shied away from political discussions and I concluded he was probably a Republican in this flaming liberal environment. Yet, we had a wonderful friendship.
One day, he said to me, “Ms. Iyabo, I have a question. I am dealing with something and I have no one else that I feel I can trust with this information.” With great discomfort, he tumbled out a bunch of words and basically told me that he grew up in the rural south as a white male and his seminary experience was introducing him to his privilege. He talked about racism in his social location and how normative it was. He wondered how he would be able to integrate back into his community after seminary as he felt he would not be able to assimilate back into that culture.
Basically, my understanding was that his people use the “N” word regularly. His folks did not go around shooting at black people, but they kept their distance and thought of themselves as superior. Back then, #45 in the White House whose name shall not be mentioned in any of my posts, was not yet in office, but I imagine at that Thanksgiving dinner in 2016 at Ned’s home, in rural Georgia, his people were happy. Knowing Ned, he was probably silent at that holiday dinner. He is not a feisty, in your face kinda guy. He is more of a pastoral, kind and loving pastor type.
What I admire about Ned is that he did not enjoy, what Toni Morrison in The Origin of Others refers to as “a seamless commitment to the status quo.” There was definitely a worn and unraveling bump in his commitment to the status quo. As I reflect on my friendship with him, I think of the fact that it was part his personality and natural curiosity, plus a sense of fairness, and his intellect on the one hand that caused him to seek to expand and resonate to this true nature, and on the other hand, it was exposure to an environment not similar to the one in which he was raised.
I had a simple assignment for Ned when he presented me with his conundrum. I asked him to take a week to look at the bevy of beautiful ladies that adorned the seats in his classroom and graced the halls of the building and come back to me with the name, or names, and description of the most beautiful black woman he could find. I told him to play with his thoughts and push his concepts of sexy and beautiful.
Literally, Ned spluttered.
Yup. He did. My wonderful Ned spluttered.
“But, but, but…..”
Yup – spluttering.
He ran his hand through his hair and the first thing he told me was pure crap. He said he did not want to date anyone while in seminary because he had to focus on his studies. After I called him out on his crap, he said he would try but eventually, he confessed and told me that he did not find black women attractive and he had a particular look he liked (blond, blue-eyed) and he did not see what that had to do with race.
I told him that what we consider beautiful is what we hold dear. I told him that even sexual attraction to another is something we are often trained in and we do not realize it. We had a wonderful conversation that we revisited over the years of our friendship.
We went on to discuss what lies at the center of privilege: Norms determined by an invisible set of other people that we are magically supposed to conform to.
For instance, Ned was unaware that he had been taught what beauty was supposed to look like. Ned was unaware that black could be beautiful. He was ok with black being beautiful to other black people, but I pushed up on all his programming when I invited him to consider black as beautiful. As open-minded as he was, he did not recognize that he was biased against entertaining black as beautiful; not just sexual, but beautiful.
Needless to say, my words scrambled his brain and he at least considered my challenge. After that, when I would see Ned, he would say jovially, “Ms. Iyabo, I am working on it. I am looking at everyone!”
He ended up falling in love with a wonderful woman who is beautiful and is perfect for him. I like her a lot and I think she is probably one of the best things that will ever happen to him. She is a beautiful white, blondish, blueish eyed amazing woman.
He did not need to go and partner with a black woman that he felt was beautiful to fully wrestle with his privilege, but the lesson was important. What you consider “beautiful” is actually a reflection of what you have been taught as beautiful. It often reflects our norms and mores. What made me love my friend Ned, even more, is that he actually entertained this, thought about this, held up a mirror to himself and wrestled with his concept of beauty, privilege, and whiteness.
I am proud to continue to call him a friend.
Peggy McIntosh, in her classic work called White Privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack defines white privilege as carrying around, usually unintentionally, “an invisible package of unearned assets…an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes and blank checks” (2003, pg. 165).
When I teach about white privilege, I often ask people to imagine the buildings they are in. I ask, “How many steps did you climb to enter this building?”
Often, they cannot tell me how many steps they climbed but they may know that they climbed some steps. That is able-bodied privilege. Persons in wheelchairs could tell you the various doors they attempted to enter precisely and how many steps were between them and the door. Steps are the privilege of able-bodied persons. Ditto with racial privilege. Laws are made for “white” values and “white” concepts of what a society should be like. For instance, black and brown folks have been sent to prison for years for carrying opioids and using opioids. There was no legislation about that but now that white kids are abusing drugs in droves, America, all of a sudden, has an “opioid epidemic” and we have to deal with it with love and support and not incarceration.
That is picture perfect privilege.
One thing I often tell folks in my workshop: Please do not apologize for your privilege. Now you know you have it, what do you do? You become uber-aware of it and begin to look for who is disadvantaged by your privilege. If you get a job and you know that the brown skin woman who applied for it was more qualified, get in there and ask why you were hired and not her. Stand up for your values and call folk out on their racism, on how they are biased and using their power to promote their biases. Let them get totally uncomfortable with all that don’t let them off the hook.
Be like Ned and don’t be comfortable with the status quo. Have awkward conversations. Screw up the conversations and let people know that you are not going to get it right 100% of the time and that is ok.
Most of all, look your privilege straight in the eye and do something productive with it. Now that you are aware of it, you cannot ignore it.
More by Iyabo:
Iyabo is a Leadership Development Coach whose work focuses on the soul of the leader. She moves leaders from thriving careers into discovering, crafting and living into their life work. By helping successful people integrate spirituality into their leadership roles, they become more engaged with their work, expand the connection of their work to social justice issues and experience more satisfaction in their life work. Using the power of narrative and reflection, she helps leaders fine tune the sacred “work their souls must have” (Alice Walker).
Iyabo is located in Atlanta, Georgia and graduated from Goucher College (B.A.), Georgetown University Law School (J.D.) and Candler School of Theology at Emory University (M.Div.).
Iyabo’s home on the web is at http://www.coachiyabo.com
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