The privilege of experiencing “un-privilege”

I had an experience when I was in an African country last November that I have wanted to write about ever since, but it is one that I have struggled both to fully understand and to articulate.

In some of the churches we visited, men and women sit on separate sides of the room during a Sunday service. We, however, as honoured [white] guests, were often seated separately from both men and women, in the “best” seats at the front or on the side.

This Sunday, as the only white woman present, I wanted to sit with the other women in the congregation. But what actually happened was that when I sat on the women’s side, none of the local women sat with or near me. In fact, as the church filled up, it soon became glaringly obvious that despite the packed house, there was a circle with a radius of at least two metres between me and anyone else.

I felt incredibly isolated. I also felt an overwhelming mixture of frustration, anger, and sadness, which I struggled to contain. At the time, I couldn’t pinpoint who or what I was angry about, or exactly what made me feel so disconsolate.

After returning home and reflecting on the experience, I have come to the conclusion that I was simultaneously experiencing both privilege and what I will call (for want of a better term) “un-privilege.” As a white person, I was given elevated status, to the point that the other women did not feel that it was acceptable for them to sit with me. But as a woman, I did not have the status that would make it acceptable for me to sit with the men.

Now, let me say that I categorically do not wish to make any value judgments about the people I was worshipping with. About the only thing I can probably be certain of is that they were not experiencing this event the same way I was. But I do want to learn from and share about what I experienced in that moment, from my perspective.

The idea of “privilege” is one I know not everyone is comfortable with, but it has become a helpful shorthand expression for something that is very common in our world. Basically, it refers to the advantages that a group of people have due to their social status. As this status is conferred by society, it is not something that is chosen, and it can often be something very difficult for those who experience it to recognise.

Experiencing the world as a white person means I experience privilege. It means that I do not understand what it means to be disadvantaged because of the colour of my skin, and that often I am not even aware that there is any advantage or disadvantage based on skin colour. But when I listen to my friends and neighbours who experience the world every day as “people of colour” (a term that itself reeks of privilege – as if those of us who are white are “without” colour!), I realise that they face many subtle and not so subtle reminders every day that it matters what they are not.

I also experience privilege because I am educated, wealthy, heterosexual.

However, on the other hand, experiencing the world as a woman means that I experience “un-privilege.” I recognise every day that there are ways I am spoken to and spoken about, ways that I am looked at and overlooked, ways that I am valued and evaluated, that are not experienced by men.

Maths

So, why was my experience in Africa so confronting? From my perspective, something about that simultaneous experience of both privilege and un-privilege clarified things. I felt both the miserable isolation of not having the same status as the men, as well as the humbling shame of being given a status above the other women that I had done nothing to deserve.

And I think it was that shame which provoked my deepest anger, frustration and despair. The shame that reminds me that I can go through life so oblivious. To not even know that by what I assume to be my “neutral” experience I am actually both being advantaged and therefore causing others to be disadvantaged. That unless I somehow enter into the experience of those who are not like me, and try in some way to feel what un-privilege is like, I will never understand my own privilege. And so I am grateful for my experience in that church. It was confronting but in a way that I needed to be confronted. It was a privilege in the other sense of the word – a humbling gift and a source of true pleasure.

A good friend of mine was recently the only male participant in a room full of people discussing the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated profession. He reflected afterwards on his desire to apologise as he recognised that even he, who is a gracious and forthright advocate for women’s participation in our profession, so often did not even see how the ways he spoke and acted could perpetuate the disadvantage that women experience. I felt so grateful that he was able to have that experience. I know that he will be able to make a greater difference because of it. That like me in Africa, his confrontation with the realities of un-privilege was a gift and an honour he will not scorn.

Finally, I am reminded of one of the most profound truths of the Christian faith. Incarnation. The fact that the God who had all the status and privilege in the universe chose to fully enter into the un-privilege of humanity. And the incredible wonder is, that He counted it a true privilege to do so.

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5 thoughts on “The privilege of experiencing “un-privilege”

  1. I wonder about your comment that you ‘did not have the status to sit with the men’ and how narrowly you are applying the word ‘status’. Certainly you do not have the right gender to sit with the men, but does the separation of men and women in African (and many Indian) churches always imply higher/lower status? Or do we westerners read such cultural expectations through status-sensitive eyes? What about our own separations as per, say, men’s and women’s retreats? Just pondering….

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    1. Fair question Anne! I am very conscious that I was viewing and experiencing the event through my cultural perspective, which may very well not have been how they understood it. I guess it was the fact that the other women did not feel it was ok for them to sit with me that made me view it as about ascribed status (I’m not sure how else to read that?), and certainly there were plenty of other experiences I had while in that country which indicated that men were given higher status than women. But yes, I agree that that does not necessarily mean everything is perceived or intended that way!

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  2. Thanks Melinda; very interesting reflection. The NT world was like the African church so Paul’s instruction to the Romans “outdo one another in showing honour” was radically counter-cultural. Becoming aware of our privilege is the first step in finding a way to privilege the previously unprivileged.

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  3. I really like what you say about how learning of our own privilege and no longer being oblivious is a privilege. It’s easy to get frustrated with people for their ignorance when sometimes (not always!) the reason is simply that they’ve never been exposed to a different people group or way of thinking.

    I know analysing their reasons isn’t the point of your post but I remember having a similar experience here in Tanzania which may possibly be of help: http://meetjesusatuni.com/2013/03/26/a-lesson-about-thinking-flexibly-from-the-baby-clinic/

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  4. Thanks Melinda, this is very timely for us as we prepare to spend the next few months in Nepal and navigate our way through a whole new world of social etiquette and cultural perspectives.

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