Unpacking Domination: E-pistle 07.28.11

Unpacking Domination: E-pistle 07.28.11

Old First’s urban service camps provide participants with experiences and perspectives otherwise hard to come by– through volunteer service, meeting new kinds of people, encountering different social situations– to identify the little boxes into which North American life often divvies us up. Cubby holes that keep us from knowing people who are different and their different lives. Little boxes ordered hierarchically, a social pyramid of some people counting more than others. The technical word, of course, is segregation.

We talk about how neighborhoods and schools; highways and public transportation routes; even government programs and commercial lending practices– to name just a few causes, cut the population along racial/ethnic and economic, gender, religious and even sexual orientation lines.

In preparing our current group for their week with us, Billi used the movie, “Free Indeed,” about a white church that wants to volunteer at a Black church, and the latter’s response. The film introduces the concept “white privilege.”

The mostly 14-year old service campers had not heard of the term or considered such an idea. Thinking about helping them grapple with the implications sent me back to Peggy McNamara’s article “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”

McNamara, a women’s studies professor, has seen that men often recognize that women face specific, gender-based, social disadvantages. Much more difficult, it seems, is for men to identify their own status as “over-privileged.” It’s a basic disconnect or denial: that men’s advantage demands the denigration of women.

Men can commit to the improvement of women’s situation, while still refusing to acknowledge, much less give up the male privilege that causes the problem in the first place. For men, McNamara suggests, male privilege is a sacrosanct group taboo serving to safeguard their advantage.

As an Euro-American, McNamara guessed that white privilege might function analogously– similarly unconscious and, when proposed, denied, thereby, buttressing domination.

Whites are taught now days about racism as a negative that puts people of color at a disadvantage. But are Euro-americans confronted with their own racial advantages? What happens when they are? Can whites acknowledge their privilege is built on the backs of others’ disadvantage?

McNamara describes “white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which {an Euro-American} can count on cashing in each day, but about which {s/he} 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.”

Members of dominant groups are offered no training in understanding themselves as oppressors. Never do we learn that we are all participants in a damaged culture. The dominant group is, rather, enculturated to see their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average… and also ideal. This is why when dominant folks work to benefit others, they often conceptualize their goal as enabling “them” to be more like “us.”

It’s bracing to consider: unacknowledged privilege leaves whites blind to their oppressiveness. But people of color cannot fail to identify the connection between their disadvantage and white’s privilege.

Being able to recognize then grapple with the connection between privilege and disadvantage goes a long way towards understanding the very different social locations, perceptions and experiences of, for example, African Americans and their white neighbors.

Through the eyes of groups who are not privileged, instead of a land of individual opportunity, ours turns out not to be such a free country. One’s life is not what one makes it. Many doors open for certain people through no virtue of their own. And open doors for some necessitate closed doors for others…

We understand our urban mission camps to be, most basically, religious experiences or spiritual training. So, while there are many and profound social and political implications for understanding the connection of privilege and disadvantage this way, we might ask ourselves most basically:

What does our faith ask of us… or more bluntly, what does God ask of us? …ALL of US who are living in a world of domination and subjugation.

See you in church,


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