Listening well as a person of privilege: Recognize that the rules are different for you

This is the first post in a series on Listening well as a person of privilege. If you've been energized by this series, I encourage you to be on the lookout for my book "The Priesthood of the Privileged" which I hope will be out at some point in 2014. I’m doing a short series on listening well as a person of privilege[i] because I often encounter privileged people who sincerely desire to stand in solidarity with oppressed people but don’t really know how to go about it in an honoring way. As a result, their well-intentioned attempts to listen well often result in clumsy and oppressive interactions that counterproductively widen the divide between the privileged and oppressed. In order to honor the image of God in oppressed people, we need to think deeply about what it means to listen well as a person of privilege – hence, this series. I hope you’ll join in and share your thoughts.

As someone who identifies with both privileged (highly educated, upwardly-mobile) and oppressed (black, female) groups, I’ve experienced both ends of the privileged-oppressed spectrum.  As a result, I’ve played the part of the privileged perpetrator of oppression as well as the oppressed target of oppression. And within the reconciliation context, I’ve often had to ask for grace and I’ve often had to give grace.  These thoughts on listening well as a person of privilege are based on my experiences as a privileged person and an oppressed person.

Thought #1: Recognize that the rules are different for you. 

One of my buddies recently graduated from Harvard.  Like many young college grads, he is quite proud of his alma mater and naturally wants to place a “Harvard” bumper sticker on his car.  However, one of our friends pointed out that if he does so, he will risk being perceived as a pompous jerk who flaunts his high end degree in the face of less fortunate drivers.  In response, my friend cried “Foul!” pointing out the double-standard that allows alums of less prestigious schools to proudly display their bumper stickers but disallows Harvard grads from doing the same. I told him that it may not be fair but it’s the small price he pays for the privilege of attending such a prestigious school. I added that if he wants to build solidarity with people who haven’t been granted the same level of privilege, he should probably leave the bumper sticker off his car.  By complaining about the double-standard, My friend made the mistake of thinking that he should be treated just like everyone else in the world, even though his privileged experience was unlike most everyone else’s. He failed to understand that the rules are different for people of privilege who want to engage with the rest of the world.

Despite the fact that privileged people have benefited from an unfair advantage in society, they are often preoccupied with being treated “fairly” in the context of reconciliation work.  They believe that they have a right to be heard. They also believe they have the right to a clean slate; they don’t want past injustices (either individual or societal) to negatively affect the current reconciliation work. In addition, they believe that they have a right to be treated graciously; in other words, the oppressed person must refrain from sounding angry when expressing him or herself and must communicate in a way that is comforting to the privileged person[ii]. If any of these “rights” are violated, privileged people often bolt from the reconciliation context.

As persons of power, privileged people (unlike oppressed people) are typically afforded these rights. As such, it’s only natural for them to expect to receive these rights in the context of reconciliation work. But just because it is natural doesn’t make it helpful or right. Indeed, to insist on retaining these rights reveals a misunderstanding of both power dynamics[iii] and the upside-down reconciliation work of Jesus.

For an interaction between the privileged and the oppressed to serve as a step toward overcoming years of injustice, it must first reverse the unjust and unequal power dynamics that have long fueled divisions between the privileged and the oppressed.  After years of inequality, reconciliation often requires more than the establishment of equal status between the two groups.  A further step is needed – one that requires that the privileged folks relinquish their high status and adopt a humble position that elevates and honors the oppressed people at great cost to the privileged folks. In the new power structure, privileged folks are more interested in hearing from oppressed people than in exercising their own “right” to being heard. In the new power structure, privileged folks willingly dive into the messiness of reconciliation work rather than claiming a “right” to a clean slate or protection from anger.

For an excellent example of this self-sacrificial reversal of power, we need look no further than Jesus, who abdicated his “rights” in order to honor the image of God in oppressed people and build a bridge to them.

Phillipians 2:5-8

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

What would it look like for you to adopt Jesus’ humble stance in your interactions with the oppressed people in your community? What would it cost you?



[i] In general, you are privileged if you are: white, male, heterosexual, middle-class or higher, educated/upwardly-mobile, able-bodied, and/or physically attractive. (Note: this is not an exhaustive list.) Also, you are privileged if you don’t see that some people in our society are privileged and others are not.  Blindness to privilege is privilege.

[ii] This short list of “rights” is by no means exhaustive.

[iii] Suggested reading on power dynamics in the Church: Soong-Chan Rah, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church; Joseph Barndt, Understanding and Dismantling Racism: The 21st Century Challenge to White America; Korie Edwards, The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches