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Unpacking the backpack of Christian privilege

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So Starbucks has won 2015's first "War On Christmas" prize, by offering seasonal red and green paper coffee cups that some evangelicals deem not Christmasy enough. And it's only the beginning of November! While I usually try to ignore such skirmishes, the kerfuffle made me think of Harvard professor Peggy McIntosh. Her 1989 essay, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," changed millions of lives, including mine. Now I want to take up her challenge and suggest that members of the erstwhile Christian majority in US and Canadian society also carry invisible knapsacks of Christian privilege.

I encountered McIntosh's essay in the early 1990s, when I served on the board of Calgary's Women Looking Forward (WLF), a coalition board that included women from the community as well as representatives from local women's groups. Although Calgary seemed to be almost all-white when I arrived in 1987, WLF did have some women of colour on the board, mostly from immigrant groups. One woman, Theresa Woo-Paw, went on to become a provincial Cabinet minister. To raise our own awareness of unconscious assumptions that might be discouraging more ethnic women from participating, the WLF board took part in a consciousness-raising exercise based on McIntosh's essay about what white people take for granted.

My first reaction to Mc Intosh's essay was fury, like most white people who read it for the first time -- especially those of us who have worked for civil rights and human rights since the 1960s. Before long, though, her observations made sense, especially in the context of US racial relations. McIntosh was perhaps the first to point to systemic privileges, things that might seem outside an individual's control but that have unequal impacts on individuals' lives.

After several weeks writing down insights and checking them with Harvard colleagues, both white and African-American, she wrote: "I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious... White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks..." She said that her identity as part of the majority conferred privileges or advantages such as:

•    When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my colour made it what it is.

•    I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

•    I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser's shop and find someone who can cut my hair.

•    I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

•    I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.

•    I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

•    I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of colour who constitute the world's majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
"... For me, white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject," she writes. "The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one's life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own."

McIntosh's feminism gave her the initial insight that led her to wonder about a racialized discrepency. "I have often noticed men's unwillingness to grant that they are over-privileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged," she wrote. Her notes to workshop facilitators say to encourage participants to write about other areas where they see some people at a disadvantage -- including religion -- as long as they do so from a personal, autobiographical perspective, as she did.

"Please draw attention to the specificity of 'my sample,'" she wrote. "I compared my circumstances only with what I knew of the circumstances of my African-American female colleagues in the same building and line of work. This sample is very specific with regard to race, sex, region, location, workplace, vocation and nation."

With her words ringing in my ears, I turn to recent discussions about the 2015 Starbucks holiday season cup, and the reasons that people I like and respect have given for maintaining this time of year as exclusively a space for Christmas and Christians.  [But not including American "evangelist internet and social media personality" Joshua Feuerstein, who started the Starbucks so-called "scandal" with a cell phone rant.]

1.    "We're all raised in a Christian culture," said one friend."You can't escape it." But Jews have always lived alongside the mainstream, adopting their own Christmas traditions, such as an annual Chinese dinner and a movie. My Muslim friends delivered Christmas gift baskets last year. I'd have to research to know what to send them for Ramadan. McIntosh said: "When I am told about our national heritage or about 'civilization,' I am shown that people of my colour made it what it is." Christians can say that much more easily than Jews, or Muslims, or even First Nations people. (Let's talk about Thanksgiving, eh?) Christians still assume that theirs is the mainstream culture, but that's hardly the case now, if it ever was.   

2.    Many symbols are common to several religions, and often more recent religions overwrote already-popular faiths. My choir is singing a song about the Rock of Ages for our Winter Holidays concert, a song that was offered as Christian. News flash: "Rock of Ages" is a Hanukkah song. McIntosh said, "I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race." Christians can be assured of Christmas carols blaring from speakers in every mall and public plaza, urging shoppers to buy more. (I can't even imagine how store staff feel after two months of the constant repetition. Worse, a friend in retail reports shoppers often say, "Merry Christmas," and get miffed if the response is, "Happy holidays.") No such musical extravaganza greets Hannukah, or even Chinese New Year's, which occurs just over a month later.

3.    Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis argued that her "religious freedom" allowed her to refuse marriage licenses to same sex couples. As the mother of an adult gay child living in Alberta, I find her position ironic and immoral. The irony is that her hatemongering in the name of "freedom" means that some people I care about don't feel safe on Calgary streets. Peggy McIntosh wrote: "I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them." Christians complain they "don't feel safe" using words like God and Jesus -- that people react by rolling their eyes. My child deserves to feel safe too, and not have to worry about a pickup truck pulling up behind them on a quiet street and loudly disgorging five mouthy guys with baseball bats, as has happened to more than one LGBTQ friend of mine. 

4.    Unlike Christianity, many faiths emphasize seeking, discussion and debate. I'm a Unitarian. An old joke says that if a group of Unitarians was climbing a mountain and came across a fork in the road, with signs pointing either "To Heaven" or "To Discussions About Heaven's Existence," the Unitarian group would go to the discussion. My Jewish friends get into arcane debates to show off their knowledge; their joke is, "Two Jews, three opinions." McIntosh wrote, "I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group." Christians often ask, "So how do your people interpret" this or that. Short answer: depends on the person.

5.    Christian statutory holidays mark the turning of the year just as the seasons do. Workplaces and public institutions make far fewer accommodations for religious fasts, like the month-long Ramadan holiday; or 10 day feasts, like Chinese New Year's -- or even East Indian Christmas, Diwali, which also rotates through the year. McIntosh wrote: "I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of colour who constitute the world's majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion."  Christians can observe their own holidays without hindrance, but members of other faiths must fit their celebrations into workplace schedules designed around Christian events.

6.    Finally, there is the question of dissent. Christians feel free to criticize other faiths, especially Islam.  But the reverse is not necessarily true. After the murders at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris last January, people whom I had previously believed to be level-headed were prepared to round up all Muslims and... well, they never got to "send them away" or "put them in camps," but news reports showed some yahoos did go to their local mosques to harass women wearing hijabs. McIntosh said, "I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behaviour without being seen as a cultural outsider." I can't speak for how Muslims feel, but I felt pretty beaten up after a week arguing with otherwise-intelligent people who wanted to deport them all.

Some Christians are also bothered by the "War on Christmas" mentality, but for different reasons. Last year, Stephen Ingram, an Alabama Methodist youth minister, wrote, "The very fact that people feel that it is their duty to mandate Christ in Christmas is, in and of itself, an act of heresy..." He continued:

"I know many very well-intentioned people believe that they are fighting the good fight and are experiencing religious persecution, but that is simply a wrong way of thinking. If you are a Christian in America, you have to stop pulling the persecution card. It is not persecution just because you do not get everything you want or because you can not do whatever you please..."

Or more to the point, he says, the issue is that Christians cannot force everybody else to do what they, the Christians, want. "Christianity, as defined by the life and teachings of Jesus, never depended or insisted on being the majority, in power or even influential. It was a religion that lauded the weak, meek and the poor..."

"...When we try to force God on others we reincarnate some of the worst epochs of our religious history, and default on its core founding principles of Love, Grace and Hospitality. When we assume these seats of power and belligerently insist that we take priority and our voice is the only voice that matters, we are not representing the man who called for humility, peacemaking. meekness and self sacrifice. What we do is become pawns in larger economic and political narratives, not the narrative of Christ as found in the Bible. We do not serve the one we call the Prince of Peace, we serve corporate America, politicians who use religion for their platforms and men and women who ride the coat tails of Jesus straight to power."

Personally, I see religion as one of the mechanisms for maintaining class privileges in our society, which has been described to me as Anglicans at the top, Catholics marching close behind, United Church in the rear, and other religions barely visible. McIntosh said, "One factor seems clear about all of the interlocking oppressions. They take both active forms, which we can see, and embedded forms, which as a member of the dominant group one is taught not to see...."

For me, insisting that Christmas is the only December holiday looks like the embedded form, a privilege or advantage that Christians take so much for granted that they resent having to share the month.

For Christians, I leave the last word to Stephen Ingram:

"As a person of faith, you do not have to keep Christ in Christmas. He is already there. He is there with the lonely, the depressed, the joyful and the confused. He is there with the widow and the orphan, with you, with me and with the atheist. As people of faith it is in these places, fuelled by grace love and hospitality, we can -- not bring Christ back to Christmas -- but join with him in the work he is already doing, and sometimes work he is already doing in spite of the best intentions of his people."

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Keep Karl on Parl


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