Privilege and Oppression

A few nights ago, in celebration of the beginning of reading week (like spring break in the US), my dad and I plopped down on the couch in his apartment to watch a movie. We put in Shallow Hal, a Jack Black comedy about a man whose perception is altered so that he can only see people for who they are on the inside. For example, if a beautiful woman wasn’t a very nice person, he saw her as physically unattractive. The whole plot revolves around his relationship with a voluptuous blonde woman (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) who is actually an obese woman. Yet Hal (Jack Black’s character) was only able to see her inner beauty—hence her “appearing” to be a tall, thin, blond woman.

Towards the end of the movie, my mother came home from class at the University of Toronto and asked to be filled in about the movie so she could join in for the last 10 minutes or so. We conceded and told her what had happened over the past 90 minutes. After the movie was over, she said, “You know, I can see why people think this movie has a good message about inner beauty, but I don’t like the fact that it perpetuates traditional messages about what is considered beautiful.”

I prodded her to say more and she explained to us how the movie’s underlying message was that an obese woman (or a woman with acne, a man with psoriasis, or a woman with oily hair) couldn’t be seen as physically beautiful. After all, when Hal saw people for their inner beauty, he saw their bodies as conforming to traditional notions about what is beautiful.

 I felt ashamed for not picking up on this oppressive social cue that ran throughout the film. Feeling embarrassed, I said to her, “Mom, sometimes a person just needs to turn off the social-critical lens.”

While my comment may ring true for the experiences of some people, I began to reflect about how, as a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class, highly educated, young, North American male, I had the luxury of turning off my social-critical lens once in a while and just enjoying a movie with oppressive underlying messages that I try to fight against in my life and work. This luxury was part of what Peggy McIntosh refers to as the “Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege,” an invisible, weightless pouch of privilege and luxuries that I have ready and unconscious access to because I’m a white male. My mother, as a white woman, surely carries her own “Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege,” but, unlike me, she lacks that “Invisible Knapsack of Male Privilege.” As a woman, she didn’t have the luxury or privilege of turning off her social-critical lens during a movie that degraded women by holding up unrealistic and oppressive views of female beauty. People who lack one or more markers of the social status that I have because of my whiteness, my maleness, my able body, my heterosexual gender identity, my age, my class, my location in the world, and my graduate degrees can’t just “turn off” their oppression radar. They live with it every day. The very fact that I—a person who spends his professional life struggling against issues of power, oppression, and hegemony—could say to my mother that sometimes people just need to relax and stop analysing everything shows my privilege.

 Privilege, power, and oppression are difficult topics to discuss, especially with children. But the reality is that privilege, power, and oppression are always at work in the lives of people, robbing some people of human dignity while heaping benefits and luxuries on others. We need to engage children and youth in difficult conversations about race, ethnicity, culture, gender, ability, sexuality, and social class and help young people unmask injustice and oppression for what they are. We need to educate children about the theme of God’s justice that is woven throughout the Bible and help people see that they are actors in God’s story who are called to struggle against injustice, stand up for what is right, and always keep trying to see the world through a social-critical lens that we, as parents, teachers, leaders, and ministers, can help them to develop. Of course, children and youth (and all of us) are going to make mistakes along the way. We might perpetuate harmful oppressions even as we seek to struggle against them. This is part of the paradox of being human.

I’ve written about injustice and oppression when it comes to children’s gender identities (for example, check out this and this), but there is much more work to be done. In fact, work that pushes against the hegemonic and unjust forces in the world is never over. Even in writing my article about gender identities, I was criticized for using the work of a lesbian feminist Christian. The same people who lauded me for what some called an important, groundbreaking discussion about subverting gender identities through ministry with children were not willing to acknowledge their own heterosexist views. We need to begin more conversations about how to help children develop eyes to see and hears to hear the structures and attitudes of oppression that exist all around us.

This is what I look forward to doing at the conference, “Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity.” From May 7 to May 10, 2012, parents, pastors, lay volunteers, writers, theologians, and artists will join together in Washington, DC, to hear amazing speakers talk about how to educate young people about issues like sexuality, violence, injustice, and racism and how to nurture the spirit of activism in the lives of children and youth. Save the date, join us in DC, and be the change!

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