What Does it Mean to Have Privilege?

Perhaps you have heard the phrase “white privilege” in recent years. Here is one definition: “The societal privilege that benefits people whom society identifies as white in some countries, beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances.” (Wikipedia)

Even that definition is an example of white privilege since everyone who is not perceived as white is seen as the opposite; it makes “whiteness” the standard. Maybe we could use the term “people of color.” In the United States, we may soon be able to use the term “the majority of people.” Or perhaps another way to think about it is that white people are seldom defined by their race. They are just a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher, not an “African-American doctor” or an “Asian lawyer” or a “Latinx teacher.” I have had two experiences recently that reminded me of my privilege, both because I am perceived of as white and because I am perceived of as old.

I live very close to the presbytery office in the West Loop. That means I walk on the sidewalks in this neighborhood frequently. There are people of all races and lots of ages on these sidewalks, although I think this neighborhood trends more diverse and younger than some. The University of Illinois at Chicago campus is very close to us and there are always lots of students around.

Usually when I walk around here, I am pretty invisible. I am not young enough to attract the attention of people who might be romantically or sexually interested in me. And I am both female and white so am not seen as threat by most people. Of course, I do still have credit cards, a phone, and some cash with me and I am a woman, so I might be seen as a target by someone who wanted to cause me harm; but my status as an old white woman may protect me from threat. I walk down the street most of the time without attracting much attention at all.

A few months ago, I was leaving the building where I used to live, which is about five blocks from the office, at the same time that the night doorman was leaving the building. He was walking to the CTA Blue Line near the office so we walked those blocks together. We were talking about his grandchildren and about my grandchildren as we walked down the street.

After a block or so, I noticed that I was no longer as anonymous as I usually am. I had lost the privilege of not being seen. The person who worked in the building where I lived was black and male. Almost every white person we passed look directly into my face—they never looked at me before—to be sure that I was all right. It reminded me to a very, very small degree the difference between this gentleman’s walk down the street and mine.

Then one of my grand-daughters came to stay with me during her spring break. She is eleven and about five feet tall with very blonde hair which she had up on top of her head, making her look taller. She and I went for a little walk in the neighborhood. I was suddenly reminded what it is like to walk with a young girl/woman, to see through her eyes a world full of people who are interested in her in inappropriate ways. I kept seeing men’s heads turn to follow our path in a way they never look at me when I am alone. It brought to mind, again, the privilege I have of walking through the street unnoticed and unthreatened.

White privilege means we see people like us on TV in the starring roles, find personal care products in the store that cater to the needs of our skin and hair types and, perhaps more importantly, that we can walk into a store or down the street without attracting undue attention. We can spend much of our lives either in the zone of not being seen as presenting a threat to those with whom we might be walking; or not being the object of unwanted surveillance.

We all seek to discern God’s will for our ministry in this country in this century. The issues of privilege and racism need to be a part of that discernment as we work to bring hope to all people in the name of Jesus Christ.

Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago