Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Just Lucky, I Guess

by Connie Goodbread, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

Grace. I love the word grace. It has a deep meaning. Grace, an elegant and fluid way of being responsible, taking it all in stride. Grace, to bring beauty into our lives and the lives of others. Grace, having a trusting clarity about your heart’s desire and actually listening to and acting on it. Grace, the ability to forgive, learn, and move on. Grace, advantages I have, but did not earn. 

As I work through my own development and becoming, I find myself thinking of several ideas and concepts that, for me, have been a struggle. Of course there are the religious concepts - what does God or Holy mean to me?  How do I hold covenant in my heart every day? How do I live in covenant with the world as a practicing Unitarian Universalist? What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of my life? What happens when I die? Unitarian Universalism has been my lifeboat as I struggle with finding my answers to these questions and the meanings of these concepts.  
As I face issues involving racial justice, I also have struggles. I witness others struggling, too. One of the struggles is with "White Privilege." What does it mean? When I see others wrestle with this term, I wonder if the struggle isn't exacerbated by the way we talk about it or present it. I have heard the following discussion several times. How can it be a privilege to not be raped or beaten? How can the basic human rights of fair treatment and justice be a privilege? Isn’t that the norm, the way it should be - where the bar should be set?  Yes, it is the way it should be but, in reality basic human rights can be and are denied to individual human beings everyday. So how do we talk about the power that our culture offers some and not all? I wonder if there isn’t a way to talk about “White Privilege” in a way that helps us to see the difference between our personal struggle as opposed to the cultural homeostasis that is the water in which we swim. Systems thinking is my lifeboat in this struggle.

I want to testify, and so, I feel exposed and vulnerable in what I am about to write. I thank you ahead of time, gentle reader, for your compassion and understanding. Here is my thinking - there are different meanings for the word privilege. One way to look at it is that, because of some of my attributes, I have cultural advantages that translate into privileges. Some of my advantages are that I appear to be white, I have the genetic advantages of being healthy, being tall but not too tall, being thin but not too thin, fairly smart, and female. All of these things are examples of grace - I did nothing to earn these attributes. Just the luck of the draw. I can’t give them away. Our dominant culture reacts to me in certain ways because of these attributes. The only thing I can do is to be aware of the fact that our culture gives me privileges in the form of a head start, the benefit of the doubt, I am listened to and treated with respect all because of the way I look. I never expect to be pulled over by the police, yanked out of my car, thrown on the hood, handcuffed, frisked, body probed and arrested.

The other way that I think about privilege is that there are also privileges that are earned. When our children want the right to do something we often say, “If you want that privilege you must earn it.” We earn privileges by having integrity, being disciplined, working hard, overcoming obstacles, being responsible for our own actions, learning valuable lessons, being kind, honest and/or trustworthy. 

Through hard work and dedication I have earned the privilege of serving Unitarian Universalism as a member of the Congregational Life Staff. I am not a minister. I am a credentialed religious educator. I studied Systems Thinking with leaders in the field for many years, served two congregations and have had many different roles as Field Staff with our Association. I have worked to become well versed in conflict transformation. I have struggled with my own faith development and looked deeply into Unitarian Universalist theology and history. I have honed my skills as a presenter. I try my very best to be a team player. When I have the honor of leading, I try to practice vulnerable leadership. This is the hard work that I have done to earn the privilege of serving this faith that I love.

I was also born into a working class, military family. Both of my parents grew up dirt poor.  Neither went to college. Every college course I took, I paid for myself. I have worked since I was fourteen. I am very dyslexic. My mother tried to commit suicide twice. My father was a functioning alcoholic. We moved every two years and in the second grade, when I should have been learning to read, we moved six times. I did not learn to read until the fifth grade, when I taught myself. I am a bad test taker. I was labeled stupid. I was put into classes for children who were also labeled stupid. My mother died when I was twenty after a four year bout with cancer. These are all realities and could be seen as disadvantages, although I do not see some of them that way. I have both advantages and disadvantages that make up my experience, my reality, and color the way I see the world. They make me who I am. However, another reality is that there are cultural homeostatic privileges that come into play when I struggle to overcome a disadvantage or problem. I get a break for appearing white.  If I looked more like my mother’s Native American heritage I don’t think I would have gotten the same breaks. She didn’t.

So what do I do with this? All I can do is to continue my struggle and continue to testify. I know I am unfinished. I take comfort in that. I know my reality is not the reality of others. I must do everything I do with humility. I know that in order to make a difference I must use any power and privilege I have, to empower and emprivilege (I made that word up) others. I know that I will fail but I need to remember that I will also succeed. I know I can’t do any of this by myself, I must partner with others in the work. I am grateful for my gentle, patient partners. I cling to my lifeboats as I continue my struggle in and with the deep water that surrounds me. I pray for clarity, wisdom, forgiveness, beauty in the world and the ability to take it all in stride. That is, for grace.