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privilege

I have a couple of students who wrote some very racist remarks in one of their essays recently, and it has me thinking a lot.

They went on in their responses to a story about a Native American's experience of racism about how this guy was blaming all whites for his problems, and how the Indian himself was racist, and how they were so tired of being blamed for the sins of the their ancestors when there was nothing they could do about it now, and on and on.

And in thinking about their reaction to this story and how exactly to explain to them how wrong they were, I was thinking a lot about a Christian's reaction to me and other atheists in this country as well. And you know how it is... they aren't responsible for the bad things done by dead members of their religion (but atheists are), and how we are the bigots, and how immoral we are, and on and on. There is so much here that is the same. What is it? How to describe the commonality? How do you explain that it isn't really the "sins of the past" that I want to demand an accounting for, it's just right now.

The commonality, I think is the privilege that comes from an unequal status.

No one wants to give up their privilege, no matter where it comes from. We treat our privileges the same whether they are earned or unearned. We think that they say something about us as people, about how much better we are than those around us. We can separate ourselves from the misforunes of others that way. We can blame "them" instead of ourselves. We don't have to worry about people like us being single mothers, getting pregnant at 15, dropping out of school... because those are things black people have happen to them. It's not our fault they are poor and don't try hard enough, that they can't see the value of an education. And we can't blame those atheists for being angry, or depressed. We aren't angry or depressed, so it must say something about them, and we don't have to have that happen to us.

This is the root of why abolishing a class-based society was so important to the Founders and why there was so much resistance in Europe. Even the servants of the higher class people saw themselves as "better" than the servants of the lower class people. There is something very fullfulling about looking down on someone with disdain.

It's very hard to give up that privilege, even when you recognize that it exists. Because if you admit that, you will have to admit that some portion of your option of yourself does not deserve to be as high as it has been heretofore. That you aren't as good as you think you are. You're not so special. You are just like everyone else. You have a stake, a highly emotional one, in maintaining that sense of privilege at all cost.

I have said before that there is a place for both the person that uses the "direct" route, and calls a bigot a bigot, and there is a place for the diplomatic approach that can coax someone toward your view. Some people will respond to the diplomatic approach, and I was pleased to read that at least one of my students responded favourably to this approach. But there are also those who do not respond to gentle nudges, and for those people they must be called out for what they are and not tacitly accepted by society for refusing to acknowledge that they are not better than everyone else, for that failure of imagination that doesn't allow them to put themselves in another person's shoes.

We had several examples of the privileges of the Christian majority this week, both to our benefit, but both also highlighting our comparatively lower status.

Federal court strikes down the Illinois moment of silence law. A federal court, who had ruled with the plaintif in the past, struck down the law mandating a moment of silence, in part because the law required elementary school teachers to explain to children what prayer was and what was acceptable for them to contemplate.

This is bald-faced privilege from the atheists' perspective. If there are restrictions on what can and cannot be contemplated during this "moment of silence" and it's teachers who have to explain what is "supposed" to go on, about prayer and all that, then hell yeah! But again, it's a reaction to the abolishment of the previous tradition of morning prayer, when there was no doubt about requiring everyone, Christian or not, to participate in Christian prayer. And they aren't going to give up their privilege readily. I mean, how dare we tell Christians they are no better than the rest of us? That they and they alone can't dictate what goes on in schools?

And then there is the matter of the "unbelievers" reference in Obama's speech.

Don't get me wrong, I was excited when I heard it. I don't hear references (good ones) nearly often enough, and hearing one and being included was nice. But the more I thought about it, the more angry I became. Not at Obama for including us... though, he could do it more often, and really, leave off the "God bless America" crap at the end of every speech... but more at myself for being so impressed. Atheists are so hated in America, that just to be acknowledged in a non-judgmental way makes us feel validated. But we shouldn't have to fight so hard to be validated. Someone, last week I think, told me that if an atheist became President and invited speakers to the Inauguration, not to pray, but to tell the people how stupid religion was, then it would just be karmic retribution. And all I could think was I don't want retribution, I just want a little fairness now. If you don't want an atheist to tell you you're stupid for believing in god at a governmental function, why can't you see that that's just how we feel when you pray (or worse, that you ARE stupid and our goverment is run by morons)?

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