The Glasses of Privilege

Discovering all the ways in which my identity as a cis-gendered, straight, white, middle-class male have restricted how I see the world.

Have you ever been to a 4D theater?

A couple years ago we took our kids to the Air and Space Museum at Balboa Park (right here in San Diego) where they have one—a 4D theater—and I was enthralled at the way they used various effects to bring home that fourth dimension.

You really do feel/experience what you’re seeing on the screen thanks to the 3D glasses that give visual depth to the movie; giant fans to simulate the wind; seats that rock up/down/back/forth to simulate the flight of your aircraft; and even small children who crawl on your lap because they get scared (okay, that wasn’t provided by the theater, that was my own B.Y.O.C. experience).

Since all dimensions were accessible, it was truly a one of a kind, immersive experience. Far more “real” than seeing that same movie in 2D.

None of it would’ve worked, though, without the glasses.

It would’ve just been a noisy, obnoxious, uncomfortable movie. But the glasses empower you to see what you otherwise could not. All the video’s depth, nuance, and layers are suddenly accessible, enriching the entire experience.

Glasses—specifically the lenses—have enormous power to alter what we see.

A Straight Guy Writing a Book on the Bible and Homosexuality

I’m a guy who identifies as straight.

And, in 2016 I wrote a book about the way the Bible has been misused to justify discrimination against homosexuality.

There’s some understandable tension there, and I get that.

In that vein, I’d like to talk about the concept of privilege for a couple weeks. A bit about what it is, how it functions, and maybe how we might begin to own and steward it.

I am not an expert in this area by any stretch of the imagination. And, to be honest, I have not done this work all that particularly well over the years. These are things I am still learning about and growing in to.

June is Pride Month here in the states, and so it seems like as good a time as any for me to dig in to some of this stuff. As always, I welcome your feedback in the comments below, and, of course, you’re invited to join me for my LIVE show on Wednesdays at 2pm.

For today, to help unpack privilege I want to use the above concept of 3D glasses because I think privilege works in a similar way… only, in reverse.

The Glasses of Privilege

Imagine each area of any given person’s privileges as lenses on a pair of glasses.

For example, for me that might mean the following lenses: cis-gender, straight, white, middle-class, and male. But in this illustration each lens actually reduces what you can see. It narrows, if you will, your field of vision.

  • The straight lens obscures the experiences of those who identify LGBTQ.

  • The male lens blurs what it’s like to be a woman in our society.

  • The middle-class lens hinders you from seeing what life is like in poverty.

  • The white lens makes it almost impossible to see the world through the eyes of people-of-color.

  • The cis-gender lens ensures I’ll need all the help I can get to understand the transgender experience.

You can also imagine how all these lenses might stack on each other and the resultant combination creates even further alterations to the field of view (this is known as intersectionality, the ways our various identity markers play off each other and create unique combinations of experience).

To keep with this (strained?) metaphor, we might talk about how gaining awareness in a given area would be like removing that particular lens—perhaps not entirely, but enough to enter the ballpark of empathy.

For instance, when awareness empowers me to take off the glasses of male privilege I can see the experience of the female in a whole new way. I notice how many aspects of everyday life are slanted towards us as men, and how many things women experience that we never will. I learn how certain doors and opportunities are open to some humans more than others merely by virtue of genitalia. I see how the world responds differently to men than women, with different expectations and cues and tones of voice.

(Sidenote: To better understand this phenomenon, I highly recommend the new book by Paula Stone Williams, “As a Woman: What I Learned about Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy after I Transitioned”)

Or when I’m able to remove the smudges on the lenses of white privilege I can see how the world is a different place for people of color. In the words of Peggy Macintosh (a pioneer of modern conversations on privilege, and author of White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack), as a white person I am struck how:

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

  • I am really not even seen as a racial group, I’m seen as the “normal.”

  • I can go home from most meetings or organizations I belong to feeling somewhat connected to the group, rather than isolated, out of place, out numbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.

  • I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my race will not work against me.

  • If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.

If I’m fortunate enough to shed the glasses of straight privilege, I get to see a fuller picture of the world around me as I see how LGBTQ people are denied rights that I enjoy simply because I’m attracted to the opposite sex. I wake up to the realization that, growing up, I never had to wonder what it looked like to date people, to hold their hand, to have crushes. I never had to consider hiding my feelings, or pretend to be attracted people. I never had to withhold my significant other from my workplace because I wasn’t quite sure how people would respond. I never had to question whether or not my vocation was even an option, since being gay has in the past (and in some fields still today) prohibited people from certain work.

(Want to understand the experience of those who are gay/lesbian better? I recommend Torn by Justin Lee, and Outlove by Julie Rodgers)

When I take off the glasses of my middle-class privilege the world around me is even further detailed and nuanced. Vast dimensions of the human experience become visible as I see how, because I grew up in a middle class family, I basically just assumed that I could do stuff in life if I tried hard. College seemed like the norm, the expectation, not some far fetched dream that I need untold amounts of luck to achieve. When I got jobs at minimum wage I always assumed it would be the beginning point, and that my life would be a slow climb up some kind of ladder. Whereas many people in the world imagine that bagging groceries or working construction is the best they dare hope for.

See Better Without Glasses

Everyone is born with a set of glasses. By a unique cocktail of nature and nurture we develop various lenses that impact how we see the world.

To talk about privilege is to name how some people are granted lenses almost entirely by virtue of nature (meaning, they were born with it or into it), and they happen to also live in a society where those particular lenses have a way of making life less difficult for them.

Immediately when talk of privilege comes up there inevitably will be those who object:

Pfff, don’t tell me I’m privileged. I grew up poor… or…

my life was incredibly hard, not privileged… or…

I worked my ass off for what I have, nobody gave it to me.

Objections like these miss the point, though.

The point is, take whatever your mix of lenses are and, if you swap one (or more!) out for a version that is opposite/different, then each of the obstacles you faced would suddenly become more challenging. The effort you had to put in for your success would require significant increase.

Sure, you grew up poor, maybe in a divorced home with all sorts of financial insecurity. But if you are white, imagine taking all those same factors and consider that if you were black, how might those factors be extra challenging?

Anyway, we won’t belabor the point, because in my experience it can be really, really hard to help people see and understand the concept of privilege if they are outright opposed to it as a reality. No matter how many memes, or examples, or stories you tell, there is a huge block there. Often driven by fear, for who are they if they aren’t the person they’ve come to believe they are, with the stories attached to how they got to where they got?

It can be scary to start pulling the strings of the life you’ve built, exposing that maybe not everything is as it seems.

For today, though, it’s enough to establish the basic idea that privilege is like special lenses you’re given that make life in society a little easier to navigate. Things are weighted in your favor, whether you asked for it or not.

And awareness, then, is the process of trying to clear those lenses. Remove them just enough to begin seeing the depth, the nuance, and the colors that they’ve been restricting.

The more I am aware of these glasses—glasses that I did not earn but that were given to me simply by being born—the more I can make conscious decisions to remove them.

And the more I remove them, the more dimensions I see.

And the larger the world becomes.

And the more expansive my heart can grow.

And the more empowered I am to work towards building a world where the concept of privilege is a relic of the past.

For unlike 3D glasses, the glasses of Privilege make the world a flatter, colder, less interesting and more harmful place.

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Pride Month Conversations

All month long I’ll be celebrating Pride by inviting special LGBTQ guests on to my show to share about themselves and their work!

Join me today, Wednesday June 9th, as I’m joined by Ashton Colby.

Ashton Colby (great last name, btw) is a leader in transgender integrative health. As the founder of Gender YOUphoria, he is on a mission to shift the disempowering narratives about transgender people.

I met Ashton a few months ago because we were both part of a YouTube series from Anchored North, pairing us with more conservative Christians to talk about issues that divide us. (Ashton's video has been viewed 650,000 times!

Join me and let's keep learning how to elevate the conversation, deepen our awareness, and participate in the liberation of those who identify LGBTQ.

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