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Monday, May 20, 2013

Listening well as a person of privilege: Solidarity first, collaborative problem-solving later

This is the second 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.

Privileged folks are problem-solving wizards. They can draw from experiences, tools and social
networks that make problem-solving a snap! For example, privileged people have critical thinking skills that were expertly sharpened at expensive liberal arts colleges. They have easy access to information via their Kindles and their iPads and their friends with master’s degrees in random disciplines. They rarely suffer from learned helplessness because they haven’t been systemically and repeatedly told that they’re stupid or angry or only good at sports. They possess high self-efficacy because, among other things, they can easily see themselves in the many successful people in society (e.g., teachers, politicians, pastors, etc.) who share their gender, race and/or class. And they have friends in powerful places.

Earlier this month, I spoke at a church conference in Ohio. After my presentation, an elderly black woman approached me and told me that she had recently purchased a new home and in the process had become the first non-white resident in a housing development of over 100 homes. Apparently, her neighbors were not crazy about the increase in diversity.

With tears rolling down her cheeks, she told me that her white neighbors were actively shunning her at association meetings and harassing her by placing large piles of junk on her lawn. I looked into her eyes and could see that her spirit was broken and that she felt entirely alone in her predicament. Horrified, I sat with her and listened to her and cried with her and prayed for her and expressed anger on her behalf.

Later, I alerted some of the church staff to her situation. Not surprisingly, they responded with genuine concern for the elderly black woman and vowed to reach out to her. One white, well-educated staff person said, “I’ll call my lawyer friend.” Privileged people know lawyers.

Privileged and oppressed folks can and should collaborate to solve problems. God knows I’m grateful for the privileged people who have utilized their problem-solving skills to create a more just and inclusive space for people like me. But problem-solving should never precede solidarity. Even Jesus the Great Problem-Solver spent 30 years standing in the ditch of humanity before he flexed his problem-solving muscles and performed his first miracle.

In the two years that I’ve lived in my predominantly black, low income neighborhood in Minneapolis, I’ve seen dozens of teams of privileged folks come in and try to fix a glaring problem without taking the time to build solidarity with the great people in my neighborhood. Typically, within months the good-intentioned privileged folks retreat back to their privileged spaces, leaving behind a devastating trail of benevolent classism and racism.* Last summer, a few kids on my block told me that they don’t trust the white people who come into our neighborhood because they “don’t understand us and they always leave soon anyway.”

If Christian privileged people aren’t careful, their problem-solving heroics can easily dishonor the image of God in oppressed people. Most obviously, this occurs when privileged people bypass the crucial stage of “weep with those who weep” listening. This type of listening requires the privileged people to stand in paradigm-shifting, time-consuming and uncomfortable solidarity with oppressed people. Instead, they go straight to the “Let me solve your problem for you” type of non-listening.

I believe there are several reasons why this happens so often:

1. Solving oppressed people’s problems rids privileged people of their own discomfort. Privileged people have the luxury of remaining oblivious to the everyday challenges of the oppressed. Privileged folks who voluntarily forfeit their ignorance (and its associated bliss) and choose to listen to personal and devastating accounts of oppression may not be prepared for how discomforting it is to be aware of such ugliness. 

When you’re used to living life on the clean, paved sidewalk of society, it can be uncomfortable to descend into the muddy ditch of oppression in order to stand in solidarity with the oppressed. In their haste to escape their own discomfort, privileged folks can choose the easy route: to fix the oppressed person’s problem ASAP, thus ridding the privileged person of the discomfort of standing in the ditch or even the awareness that such a ditch exists.

I periodically ask myself, whose discomfort is motivating me to act – my own or the oppressed person’s? Oftentimes, I must admit that my own discomfort with oppressed people’s suffering primarily motivates me to advocate for oppressed people. I feel better when they are no longer suffering and I no longer have to stand with them in their suffering or think about their suffering. When this occurs, their feelings and needs are secondary to my own. And once again the situation revolves around me, the privileged person. Mission not accomplished.

2. Privileged folks often underestimate how much they need solidarity with oppressed folks. Privileged folks who think that only oppressed people need rescuing will never be healthy collaborators. Time spent in solidarity with oppressed folks exposes the truth that privileged folks need oppressed folks as much as they think oppressed folks need them.

Solidarity with the oppressed rescues privileged folks from their myopia, their cultural shortcomings and the ditches of privilege that prevent them from truly experiencing God’s grace.** Solidarity is designed to show both privileged and oppressed folks that they are irrevocably interdependent and that they need each other’s help in climbing out of their respective ditches (see 1 Cor. 12:12-26). Healthy collaborative problem-solving only occurs after this lesson has been learned and lived out.

3. The idolatry of privilege. Many privileged people are so accustomed to relying on their agency, power, and skills to solve problems that temporarily refraining from doing so in order to listen well first seems unfathomable. “If I don’t solve this problem immediately, then who will?” they might ask themselves. So they skip out on the listening part and get right down to the business of problem-solving.

In this scenario, the unspoken assumption is that the privileged person’s agency, power and skills are the key to setting oppressed people free. Privilege is god. As such, there’s no need for God and the resurrection power in the battle against oppression. This approach can lead to hasty problem-solving strategies that fail to surrender to God’s timing, rely on God’s power or involve oppressed people in a collaborative and empowering way.


Seek solidarity first. Seek to experience life from the perspective of the oppressed. Seek to rejoice when oppressed people rejoice and weep when oppressed people weep. Seek to understand the specific ways to honor the image of God in the oppressed people around you. Seek to be influenced by the oppressed folks around you. When you’re ready, you’ll be invited to collaborate with your oppressed brothers and sisters on problem-solving efforts that are powered by Jesus and led by Jesus.

Continue to part 3....

*Benevolent racism and classism consist of attitudes the individual thinks of as favorable toward a group but that have the effect of supporting traditional, subservient roles for members of oppressed groups.

**The Peter and Cornelius narrative in Acts 10 and 11 is worth pondering in light of this truth.


  1. Excellent article. I may even share my recent demeaning imago dei dishonoring experience with career missionaries, who I saw as mentors, but behaved identically to each point shared above.

    Clearer picture please: you are in the middle of an illustration above, but there's some typo/ hiccup dynamic that obscures it (see section with this sentence "ditches of privilege that prevent them from truly experiencing God’s grace.**"

  2. Whoops! Thank you for point that out! I think it has now been fixed...


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