I have been reading, with great fatigue, constant observations by Christians that those of us who believe “Black Lives Matter” don’t understand the Marxist ideology behind this concept. I keep hearing that Marxist ideology is where we get our ideas of power, race and gender struggles. I want to graciously say that ‘privilege’ means you need Marx to tell you there are systems of power that oppress some and benefit others. As a person who benefits from these institutions, your privilege becomes the lense through which you view the world. As a person who suffers from these institutions, your oppression becomes the lense through which you view the world.
I’m the child of migrants, my olive skin and unruly curls betray the accent that escapes my lips. I’ve stood on all sides of the power structures, accessing privilege in one breath and being oppressed byt it in the next. I’m aware of my privileges, because of the way I’ve seen the systems (and the gifts that I’ve been given) in which I operate, benefit me at the expense of others. Bryan Stevenson really helpfully explains that the first step in combatting these oppressive structures is proximity. Being relationally close to those who suffer and graciously observing their struggles helps us both understand our plight and use our privilege in a way that is generous.
My parents left Egypt in 1971, because they were in search of a better life for their children. As part of the minority in Egypt (Coptic Christians – their ethnicity as much as it is their religion) – they were limited by the institutions, set up by the Islamic majority, that prevented their ability to thrive. To this day, those same institutions continue to oppress the lives of Copts in Egypt. There are wealthy Copts, sure – but the system is stacked against them, evidenced in so many ways: churches are routinely attacked at Christmas and Easter; Coptic women are kidnapped and taken from their communities; Coptic homes and businesses set alight – and no one is ever prosecuted for these heinous crimes.
I was born in the mid-80s in Sydney, into great privilege.
My brothers were over a decade older than me, so I had a more diluted migrant experience than they did. One of my brothers taught me to read before I got to kindergarten, the other encouraged me to read the newspaper when I was in year 1.
Before I was born, my Dad bought a dilapidated house near a well-to-do suburb, and so I attended an excellent public, all girls, languages High School. Diversity and bi-lingual skills were acknowledged and celebrated.
My father was injured in his work when I was a toddler, and my mother violently attacked in a racially motivated hate crime (by one of her colleagues) at work, so neither of them worked for income in my living memory. We had no great wealth, but I still count the social security we depended on as a great privilege that sustained us. We were always clothed and fed.
We had close family friends who were Anglo-Australian, from an association with a white Church. They gave us hand-me-down clothes, introduced me to the literary greats, and – incidentally – helped us hone our accents so we didn’t sound like the children of migrants.
Of course, I recognise these privileges because I saw how others struggled without them.
My brothers spent their teenage years and adulthood mediating between my parents and every institution those exhausted migrants could not navigate. I realize that having an adult mediate for you in schools, with Centrelink and telephone companies is a privilege that most children of migrants don’t get to access.
My brothers have been constantly verbally and violently harassed as “Wogs” by police and their peers alike. I’ve accessed the privilege of being a woman, with a rehearsed smile that can disarm even the angriest heart so that I’ve been able to de-neutralise tense situations and avoid violent conflict. Although my brother and I share the same DNA, my feminine charm has given me privileges they cannot access.
I know that Strathfield Girls High School afforded me privileges I wouldn’t have accessed if I ended up at Wiley Park Girls High School – a community which was more inline with our socio-economic status. With 60% of the school of Anglo Australian descent (and 98% of the teachers) I learnt how to navigate through a positive, dominant-culture environment as an ethnic minority. I know that some of my peers who grew up in ethnic enclaves (because of their socio-economic status) had to navigate through the powers of the dominant culture in confronting and sometimes violent ways as adults. My privilege allowed me to avoid this culture shock.
Although my parents didn’t work for money, they both volunteered fulltime in the Arabic church. This is a privilege, because my parents demonstrated busyness in their unemployment, and although I noticed some people looking down on our family because of our economic status, I felt a great sense of pride when their ‘work’ was celebrated and honoured within our religious community. Statistics tell me that children with unemployed parents are at risk of entering into a cycle of unemployment and Centrelink dependency themselves – a privilege I have been able to escape.
Because my parents had diagnosed, physical injuries that prevented them from working, we received Centrelink benefit, without the added stigma that is attached to those who receive it because of mental health or addiction issues. This is a privilege. I’m thankful that we live in a nation with these measures and it’s a privilege I want to preserve for others, knowing that my tax dollars continue to sustain the lives of men, women and children all over the country
Although I had neither the clothes I wanted, nor toys, bikes or birthday presents, I had the privilege of never going hungry. My Mum was a great fiscal manager, and although I was often in want, I was never in need. This is another a privilege I recognise and appreciate when I consider how quickly 2 pensions could have enforced a life of deep poverty on a family of 7.
I read at a higher reading level than my peers, and I used this gift, education and privilege as a way to articulate my thoughts. I went to schools which had debating teams, and I got to practice the skill of public speaking which is now my (tiny) income source. I know that not all students get to practice using their voice in the public sphere, and the Catholic primary school where I began my education never afforded me this privilege.
There were adults who were invested in my education and gave me books to read, and this privilege meant that not only had I read non-fiction C S Lewis books before my 12th birthday, but I was encouraged to discuss them with adults who fostered my voice and celebrated my mind beyond my racialised body. Not every child has the privilege of having safe conversations with grown men, nor the opportunity to hone their voice and ideas.
I honed my Australian accent to force my acceptance in the greater Australian community, and to access resources and privilege that would have been difficult if my accent exposed my ethnicity. As a 19 year old, labourers who bullied my dad and mocked his migrant accent while they worked in his home, cowered when I walked into the room with my greatest ‘Aussie’ impersonation: “hey mate, is that really necessary?” and mediated on his behalf (it was the first time in my life I had used the word ‘mate’, and I rehearsed it several times before saying it). In recent years, I have seen people complain about, mock and correct migrant accents and miscommunications while simultaneously celebrating and encouraging Anglo-Australian with speech impediments for their efforts at communicating.
I’ve experienced racism. Not just racism, but patriarchy, racism, abelism, sizeism… But I don’t want to tell you those stories. I want to tell you the story of my privilege. And I want to tell you that when we speak about privilege, we’re not making moral judgments about people who access privilege. We all access privilege in our different contexts, and in different ways.
But it’s important to recognise the systems where our privilege has benefited us – not so we can be ashamed, or take blame, but so we can use our privilege to strengthen others. To make room at the table for those who can’t get through because of the disadvantages that stop them from getting a seat.
Also, don’t go at me because I “didn’t mention God”. Neither did the book of Esther. I don’t need to spell out that my privilege – all privilege – is in fact a blessing from God. Because I truly believe that all those oppressive structures have also been a blessing from God.