BTSF in chronological order (most recent articles appear first):

Monday, May 13, 2013

Listening well as a person of privilege: Recognize that the rules are different for you

This is the first post in an series from Dr. Christena Cleveland on listening well as a person of privilege that originally appeared on her blog. Christena is a social psychologist in Minneapolis, MN with an upcoming book “Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart” that you'll definitely want to check out. 

I’m doing a short series on listening well as a person of privilege* because I often encounter privileged people who sincerely desire to stand in solidarity with oppressed people but don’t really know how to go about it in an honoring way

As a result, their well-intentioned attempts to listen well often result in clumsy and oppressive interactions that counter-productively widen the divide between the privileged and oppressed. In order to honor the image of God in oppressed people, we need to think deeply about what it means to listen well as a person of privilege – hence, this series. I hope you’ll join in and share your thoughts.

As someone who identifies with both privileged (highly educated, upwardly-mobile) and oppressed (black, female) groups, I’ve experienced both ends of the privileged-oppressed spectrum. As a result, I’ve played the part of the privileged perpetrator of oppression as well as the oppressed target of oppression. And within the reconciliation context, I’ve often had to ask for grace and I’ve often had to give grace. These thoughts on listening well as a person of privilege are based on my experiences as a privileged person and an oppressed person.

Thought #1: Recognize that the rules are different for you.
One of my buddies recently graduated from Harvard. Like many young college grads, he is quite proud of his alma mater and naturally wants to place a “Harvard” bumper sticker on his car. However, one of our friends pointed out that if he does so, he will risk being perceived as a pompous jerk who flaunts his high end degree in the face of less fortunate drivers. 

 In response, my friend cried “Foul!” pointing out the double-standard that allows alums of less prestigious schools to proudly display their bumper stickers but disallows Harvard grads from doing the same. I told him that it may not be fair but it’s the small price he pays for the privilege of attending such a prestigious school. I added that if he wants to build solidarity with people who haven’t been granted the same level of privilege, he should probably leave the bumper sticker off his car. 

By complaining about the double-standard, My friend made the mistake of thinking that he should be treated just like everyone else in the world, even though his privileged experience was unlike most everyone else’s. He failed to understand that the rules are different for people of privilege who want to engage with the rest of the world.

Despite the fact that privileged people have benefited from an unfair advantage in society, they are often preoccupied with being treated “fairly” in the context of reconciliation work. They believe that they have a right to be heard. They also believe they have the right to a clean slate; they don’t want past injustices (either individual or societal) to negatively affect the current reconciliation work. In addition, they believe that they have a right to be treated graciously; in other words, the oppressed person must refrain from sounding angry when expressing him or herself and must communicate in a way that is comforting to the privileged person.** If any of these “rights” are violated, privileged people often bolt from the reconciliation context.

As persons of power, privileged people (unlike oppressed people) are typically afforded these rights. As such, it’s only natural for them to expect to receive these rights in the context of reconciliation work. But just because it is natural doesn’t make it helpful or right. Indeed, to insist on retaining these rights reveals a misunderstanding of both power dynamics*** and the upside-down reconciliation work of Jesus.

For an interaction between the privileged and the oppressed to serve as a step toward overcoming years of injustice, it must first reverse the unjust and unequal power dynamics that have long fueled divisions between the privileged and the oppressed. After years of inequality, reconciliation often requires more than the establishment of equal status between the two groups. A further step is needed – one that requires that the privileged folks relinquish their high status and adopt a humble position that elevates and honors the oppressed people at great cost to the privileged folks. 

In the new power structure, privileged folks are more interested in hearing from oppressed people than in exercising their own “right” to being heard. In the new power structure, privileged folks willingly dive into the messiness of reconciliation work rather than claiming a “right” to a clean slate or protection from anger.

For an excellent example of this self-sacrificial reversal of power, we need look no further than Jesus, who abdicated his “rights” in order to honor the image of God in oppressed people and build a bridge to them.

Philippians 2:5-8
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
           6 Who, being in very nature God,
                     did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
           7 rather, he made himself nothing
                      by taking the very nature of a servant,
                      being made in human likeness.
           8 And being found in appearance as a man,
                      he humbled himself
                      by becoming obedient to death—
                              even death on a cross!

What would it look like for you to adopt Jesus’ humble stance in your interactions with the oppressed people in your community? What would it cost you?

Continue to part 2...
*In general, you are privileged if you are: white, male, heterosexual, middle-class or higher, educated/upwardly-mobile, able-bodied, and/or physically attractive. (Note: this is not an exhaustive list.) Also, you are privileged if you don’t see that some people in our society are privileged and others are not. Blindness to privilege is privilege.

**This short list of “rights” is by no means exhaustive.

***Suggested reading on power dynamics in the Church: Soong-Chan Rah, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church; Joseph Barndt, Understanding and Dismantling Racism: The 21st Century Challenge to White America; Korie Edwards, The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches


  1. I'm really interested in how to begin a process (heck how about a movement!) of true reconciliation within The Church itself... both local church and THE Church. Any thoughts on that?

  2. Awesome! Are you thinking specifically about race? Some other aspect you're passionate about? Lots of resources and groups that I'd love to point you to.

  3. Sorry it took so long to get back... I have a masters in human resources development and I know a lot of the things I learned about in school and deal with in HR can be applied to churches as organizations as well.. servant leadership, empowering people to do what the love (whether it's a staffed position or volunteering in a ministry) through continual development, as well as having a diversity and inclusion strategy which involves understanding the full complexity of diversity in the workplace and how to truly involve all people from all backgrounds. But then I heard that word "reconciliation" in reference to justice and relationships (I think it was Brenda Salter McNeil when I saw her speak at the Justice Conference) and I realized it's even bigger than even inclusion. Reconciliation means recognizing the hurts from the past and making amends, then moving forward in concert with one another, in relationship, and honoring the other person or group... and if you are thinking scripturally, putting that person's needs above your own. Reconciliation among people of different races, cultures, nationalities, ethnicities is very important within the church. But also generational reconciliation, gender reconciliation, theological too (why can't Episcopals and Southern Baptists link up and do something for the Kingdom together once in a while!). I think this idea of reconciliation really comes down to building authentic relationships with those who had previously been considered "the other," whatever that looks like. I have lots of dreams about this stuff. I would like to go to seminary some day and eventually maybe go around to churches and help them develop diversity/inclusion/reconciliation strategies, help clergy and laity learn how to use their spiritual gifts to reach out and live out justice in their communities whether it's by reconciling with one another, or the people at a different church, or especially people in their communities who never thought to step foot in their church doors. I would just love to learn more about how to help the Church reconcile with all people so that we can truly show the light of Jesus to the world and love people the way we're supposed to.

  4. I'm so glad to hear you passion, Debi! You might be interested to check out some of these books:
    Reconciling All Things:
    More Than Equals:

    Radical Reconciliation:

    And do let me know if there other specific resources I can send you to aid you on your journey

  5. Thank you so much! These will be very helpful.

  6. why should we stoop down to the level of those less privileged? Can't they just step up and act more like us? why should we play small rather than them play big? I get your point about listening but I don't feel it's fair to me to feel guilty of the so-called advantages I have over others. I breathe the same air they do so the options available to me are also open to them if only they would stop being so into themselves. I think people should stop whining and just step up. I don't get this "victim" mentality.

    Your note is correct : I don't see the existence of the privileged vs not. Everyone is the same. We set our own limits on ourselves. Everyone gets to make choices about what they think of themselves. I'm 5'1" and Asian and female, single unmarried mom and I don't see young single mothers, Asians or females as less privileged. I also still don't understand what's the big deal about the college I went to and dropped out from and why people struggle so hard to get into college in the first place and end up in debt if their families couldn't afford it.

    I honestly don't see race, money or looks as thinks that prevent mobility. I think we are all captains of our own ship and we need to stop making excuses.

  7. hi Emelie-

    Thanks for sharing your perspective! It's important to be able to talk about these issues together. I'm grateful for your vulnerability.

    In a world where God "stooped low" to walk among humankind, we are called to care about the neighbors around us. Jesus took seriously the struggles of the marginalized: women, children, foreigners, those in poverty. He demonstrated that sacrificial compassion is a holy trait.

    I don't believe seeing everyone as the same is what God would have for us. He created us all unique with many cultures and background living together ( Many of the differences are beautiful, but so often humanity takes what is beautiful and corrupts it. If you check out this week's post, Disparity By The Numbers (, you'll note that everyone is clearly not the same when it comes to our advantages in society. This disparity comes from years of generational advantage ( that is difficult to combat. But we can love one another and offer what we can to restore wholeness to our neighbors.

    Thanks again for the dialogue, Emelie. I look forward to hearing back from you!


Creative Commons License
By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at @BTSFblog