noun, verb, priv·i·leged, priv·i·leg·ing.
This is a question that’s plagued me whether consciously or unconsciously for many years. Only recently have I really been able to pinpoint and address it. It’s hard to look into a problem if you don’t know you have it, or you don’t know what its called.
Every time I mention my race, my gender, or my religion I realize I feel a little uneasy. Why? Well, when I mention my race I’m reminded of my “otherness” and I have to consider what that means in new contexts. When I mention my gender, I think about all I’ve had to overcome to prove that I’m “just as good as the guys” or how quickly that fades away when I meet someone new. My religion, on the other hand, is a different story. When I mention my religion I expect people to make generalizations about me, and I’m actually afraid of making other people uncomfortable. There are exceptions to all of these. Usually when it means I don’t have explain the above problems because a person presumably understands me.
And while I don’t have white privilege, I feel that it has been something that has shaped my life and changed the path I might have taken. Take for example the experiences between me and my two best friends. The three of us are like three peas in a pod. We talk about everything, hang out as often and as long as possible, and tend to understand each other without words. Fran and Emily are both white middle class women. The one thing that separates that description with me is white. Both of them now are spending over a year each in China, where they have both studied at different times, and now as graduates are going on their grand adventures, one as a Fulbright scholar, and another as a Teach For China teacher. They are both fluent in Mandarin. Curiously, and as has been a joke for a while, the one Chinese girl of the three of us is not fluent, nor has made it a point in her life to be in China as much as possible.
I really point to our separate experiences with China and Chinese overall. When white American girls speak broken Chinese, Chinese people think its fantastic! Even if their Chinese is broken and poorly spoken and it no doubt it when someone is learning Chinese. When an Asian American girl speaks broken Chinese, Chinese people think I’m stupid. The first reaction is not, “Wow you can speak Chinese!” but rather, “Why can’t you speak Chinese?” And truth be told, this painted my experience with the language and the culture. Why should I pursue a language that will deny my efforts? Why should I pursue a people who are not curious and inviting to me, but rather judgmental for my perceived short-comings? Would my life have followed a path similar to theirs had this not been an issue? We’ll never know. This, of course, is not a critique of my friends at all. They didn’t do anything for this. It just comes with the privilege of being white.
The other part of my experience with China is really where I’m at fault. And this definitely has to do with my Christian American privilege. The second time I travelled to China was actually with Fran, and a Church. We were going to Zhong San to help with an English camp that was held at a church there. It was a missions trip. My previous experience with missions trips was going to Lousiana to help clean out some houses from Hurricane Katrina. I had never actually done a missions trip where I would be evangelizing to other people. I’d always been good about inviting people to church, but never very good at actually speaking to people about it. As a Christian, we’re expected to spread the good word, and get as many people as we can to believe that Jesus is the Savior in order so that we save them from Hell. Being uncomfortable with that is un-Christian… Afterall that is our mission, isn’t it? I rationalized that it would be okay because I would be teaching English. That was really my main goal. Oh! Also, going to China. That was actually probably the main goal.
Anyways, we got to nearing the end of the trip, and there was a Chinese boy who had been hanging out with us. I believe he was one of our group’s cousins. Somehow in our hotel room, and I still remember feeling extremely uncomfortable with this, with our motley crew of students we convinced him to convert to Christianity. I felt more like we ganged up on him than anything else. Pressured him. I kept thinking that after this was over he’d be glad not to see us any more. Or perhaps that was after I came back and continued to think about it.
The idea that we, as foreigners, were bringing English and bringing the Gospel, was one of American privilege. To think that we were bringing all that was good and teaching these lowly Chinese people what to think so that they would be better is completely from a position of privilege. They are lost without Christ, and as Christians we also have to paint a picture of them as miserable without Him. We don’t paint a picture of people that we can learn from. To learn from them is to learn their heathen ways.
With a background of some conversation with Pastor Kurt from the Agape house, taking ourselves from a position of privilege and learning from the people we’re with is a way to equalize that privilege. Us as students obviously were humbled by our inability to communicate and our unfamiliarity with the culture, and from that learned. But that was not the point of our process to China, nor was it a point that the church we were travelling with made. Most of the adults on the trip spoke Chinese, and were familiar with China. I don’t want to just blame my church though. I do want to point out ignorance. I don’t think privilege is one that they considered. It is definitely one that I had not considered when I went on that trip.
What then does this mean for Missions that churches around the world are doing? My cousins just returned from a Missions conference called Urbana. They had about 17,000 people attending, many learning for the first time about Missions abroad. Many of them learning for the first time, really about the rest of the world. This could be good! This could be an awesome educating experience.
One of the cousins who went shared this video with me, and suggested that I look up more. This one was supposed to be a particularly good speaker.
Not to throw my cousin under the bus, but I didn’t like it very much. I mean, it was good on a lot of parts, but it really illustrated White Christian American privilege. He comes from a traditional Christian background. He has money and uses it to save third world countries. He is a huge advocate of spreading the Gospel. He doesn’t understand that Buddha is not a God. There is a complete dismissal of other people’s religions. Is this how the Missional conference is getting people to be Missionaries? Admittedly I haven’t been to this conference. Maybe this was the only speaker like this, or they addressed this.
Really my take away from my experiences is that I don’t want to be that person who makes someone feel less than because I am bringing them something good and better. Just like any proper relationship both sides should feel like they are contributing and on equal footing. I learn and do a service. I do not just bring salvation and my Western ways (and yes I bring Western ways even if I look Chinese, thank you very much!). Most likely I will be in the position to make the same mistakes in some country around the world. I perhaps will work for a faith-based NGO. I don’t know if I will ever feel comfortable calling myself a Missionary. My feelings are most likely no. These are lessons I hope to take with me, to help me recognize my privilege.
What are your thoughts on this? Am I missing something? I’m itching for conversation on this topic.