Why it’s so hard to talk about privilege (and how I’m checking my own)


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

(Note: Look for my reflection on the lectionary tomorrow. Ascension week is hard; I’m struggling with this one!)

It’s hard to talk about privilege because it’s human nature to focus on the ways in which we are disadvantaged, not the ways in which we are advantaged. 

Let’s face it. Most of us like to think of ourselves as the scrappy, beleaguered underdog for whom success is the result of hard work and a strong will to beat the odds.  But privilege is relative to context, and we forget that to our own peril (or, more likely, the peril of others).

This phenomenon is easy for me to spot in others: It can be frustrating to try and talk about privilege with conservative evangelicals, for example, because many see changes in public opinion regarding things like marriage equality or feminism as indicative of their waning influence, and so they count themselves among the disadvantaged at best and as oppressed minorities at worst. But while a Southern Baptist youth pastor may in fact be in the minority in his opinion on marriage and women’s roles in the broader culture, he is likely in the majority in his more immediate church culture where he has the most influence and where women and LGBT people may be disadvantaged. So he needs to weigh his own privilege with humility and care before speaking to his youth group about things like gender, race, finances or LGBT experiences. Where he may be disadvantaged in one context, he may be advantaged in another. And the very people he perceives to have more influence in the broader culture may in fact be harmfully disadvantaged in his own. 

It’s much more challenging to spot privilege in myself, but I’ve been thinking lately about what you might call my “social media privilege.” It used to be that I could engage in theological discussions, and even a bit of banter, online without bringing thousands of people to the conversation. Not anymore. And while this increased exposure is certainly a gift that I hope to use for good, it can also be used to bully.  So when someone with 2,000 followers on Twitter says something unkind or theologically-questionable to me, I can re-tweet it and sit back and watch that person incur the wrath of my 47,000 followers, who are obviously more likely to be favorable to my position. 

I am especially guilty of this when engaging with people I perceive to have more power than me—people with positions in Christian leadership, for example. As important as it is to challenge Christian leaders when what they say is harmful or untrue, I’m realizing that in the context of social media, I may need to be more careful because I have more power than I think. Where I may be forbidden from even speaking at a conservative evangelical pastor’s church, I may have a significantly louder P.A. system than he does online. That shouldn’t stop me from speaking up, of course. But it should give me pause before I start yelling over him. 

For so long, I felt powerless in the church—as a woman and as a questioner. When I spoke, I felt I had to shout to be heard. But now, (thanks in large part to you guys!), I’ve got something of a megaphone. It’s important to continue to speak, but sometimes I need to remind myself that I don’t have to shout anymore. 

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Thoughts? Advice? I’d really love your feedback on this. 

And can you think of ways in which you are both advantaged and disadvantaged, depending on the context? 

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