The Justice and Outreach Year (J.O.Y.) of Formation program kicked of its second year, with a new cohort of participants, on the weekend of Saturday, September 16th. As the J.O.Y program is a year-long immersion of learning from and working alongside people who experience life on the margins, it was important for us to begin with an understanding of the lens through which we view the world. A key piece of learning within the J.O.Y. experience is discovering that authentic solidarity means being present with people and acknowledging our mutual brokenness. It is a model of service that veers away from “me helping you” and draws nearer to “us standing together”. The healing power of friendship is the most effective agent for healing, and also the most demanding. It also requires a shift in perspective: it requires an awareness of our own privilege and how everything we do and say is a product of that privilege.
Anita Verlangen, an English language instructor with the Saskatchewan Intercultural Association with a background in anti-racist and anti-oppressive education, facilitated our first J.O.Y. session with a morning of understanding what the nature of privilege is all about.
Verlangen began by explaining how privilege, such as education, one’s ability to find fruitful employment, one’s inherent safety based on skin colour or gender, etc… are a set of basic, often unconscious, assumptions we all hold.
“Privilege is a set of circumstances in the world that we are all part of, whether we want to be or not – it’s how the fabric of our society is made up,” she said.
Quoting Sensoy and DiAngelo from their book entitled, Is Everyone Really Equal?, privilege is defined as “…the rights, advantages and protections enjoyed by some at the expense of and beyond the rights, advantages and protections available to others. …In this context, privilege is… the product of structural advantages. One automatically receives privilege by being a member of a dominant group.”
“So it’s important to start to recognize that we don’t all start on the same footing,” Verlangen explained. “We don’t all start at the same starting place. …Canada has a reputation for being a pure, multicultural, very open society – and it is. But we also have a history that is founded on racism and colonization.”
As Verlangen described, it is important that we grapple with and understand how our self-understanding and assumptions have been formed out of this history, especially before reaching out to others in service.
“What we’re talking about is power: who has it; who doesn’t; how it is exercised; and how it is perpetuated,” she said.
To illustrate the oppressive perspectives often taken for granted by members of a dominant group, Verlangen took us through an exercise called “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” These are a series of statements outlined by Peggy McIntosh in her essay entitled, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies” (1988), which identify the daily effects of white privilege. Some of the statements include:
I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or
I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my
I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical
I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
Measuring our experience next to some of these statements allows us to recognize the privilege we may unconsciously operate out of, noting that privilege is also a continuum.
“Your level of privilege is dependent on many different factors,” explained Verlangen, “such as your level of education, your class, whether or not you are a citizen of a country, your race, your sexual orientation, your gender, being able-bodied or disabled, etc... [Privilege] is a power dynamic that shifts and changes and our identity informs our privilege. For example, a white male who has grown up in poverty will have less privilege than someone who has grown up with wealth.”
She went on to identify what privilege is not:
“It does not mean all white people have it easier than all minorities. White privilege does not mean white supremacy or ‘white guilt’. It does not mean it is okay to discriminate against white people and it does not mean that if you are not white you can never achieve anything in this society.
“Rather, privilege means: I don’t have to think too much about my race. It means I am not defined by my race and my actions do not reflect my race (either positively or negatively). Privilege means I expect to be treated fairly and justly; and when I am not, I expect to be heard and the situation rectified. And finally, privilege means I do not have to learn about other cultures unless I want to.”
Being aware of our privilege as people who are about to reach out to others in service is an imperative. It is important that we understand we aren’t bringing anything greater or better to our volunteer placements and to our acts of service – we simply bring ourselves. Being aware of our privilege also creates openness and willingness to being changed through our encounters with others.
As Jean Vanier wrote in his book, Community and Growth, “we have to remind ourselves constantly that we are not saviours. We are simply a tiny sign, among thousands of others, that love is possible, that the world is not condemned to a struggle between oppressors and oppressed, that class and racial warfare is not inevitable.”
The J.O.Y. program invites us to step out of ourselves and be present to the experience of others. It invites us to become aware of the various social justice issues that exist within our community and to respond with the same friendship and love that Jesus extends to us all.
In her concluding remarks, Verlangen offered a quote by Fr. Gregory Boyle from his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, which speaks directly to the heart of the J.O.Y. program and to the call that belongs to all the baptised.
“No daylight to separate us. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”