In her book, Proclaim Jubilee, author Maria Harris writes about the sin of omission. Referring to those who commit such sins, she says: “I suspect what we fail to do – our omissions – regularly arises from our awareness of our privilege, whether that is racial privilege, gender privilege, economic privilege. Educational privilege, or even – when it comes to our relation with our children – grown-up privilege.”
A number of years ago, while I was studying at St. Cloud State, I happened to attend a lecture by Paula Rothenberg, author of the book, White Privilege. Her talk was part of series offered to the citizens of the city as they dealt with an increase in the immigrant population. The author invited her audience members to share personal experiences of either privilege or disadvantage. One black man shared how his mother had to teach him that when stopped by a police officer, he was to put both his hands on the base of the window opening where they could be seen. All of the black men in the room, including the esteemed professor who had invited Rothenberg, nodded knowingly. These are things white mothers don’t bother teaching their sons.
A woman shared about how she and her family had been given a table in a restaurant ahead of a black family that had arrived before them. She told the hostess that there was another family that had arrived before them and should really get seated first. She was a white person who woke up in the experience of being treated preferentially, but most often white people are oblivious. We seldom look over our shoulders to see those who have been overlooked.
I think about the story Jesus told about the banquet at which those accustomed to privilege automatically took their places at the head of the table. Those of less importance took their place at the lowliest places, as they’d learned to do. It was the host that corrected the situation. He leveled the playing field, you might say. But in the story above, it was one of the privileged person that spoke up and stepped aside because they understood what was fair and right. The woman was a respecter of persons, no matter what their status by society.
Sometimes I feel helpless when I see injustice continue in a society that holds “Justice for all” as its supreme value. But the woman at this presentation inspired me. I can be conscious of those around me, those of different race, creed, age, or economic status and treat them as my equals. When I observe them being treated differently because of who they are, I can speak up. I can let them ahead of me if that is the just and right thing.