Earlier this week, I came face-to-face with my straight white privilege.
I’m thirty-three years old and I have never understood what that meant. I am a white, heterosexual male in Alabama (of all places). Of course I didn’t get it. I didn’t grow up during the Civil Rights movement or in the early days of desegregation. I’ve always viewed people, I thought, as my equal. I mean, I did have black friends in high school.
Yesterday, I was talking with my boss, who is nearly seventy. Sue was having a hard time with a particular project. This woman never complains. Ever. And she rarely asks for help. She’s brilliant, capable, and independent. She always figures out a way to get stuff done.
But yesterday, she was having a tough day. Sue isn’t tall. And she’s 69 years old. As we sat at lunch, I asked her a couple of questions that I could probably never ask another employer in my life. But Sue and I have been good friends for eight years, so I went for it.
She was talking about being in two protected classes: female and senior citizen.
I had never thought about it before.
“Why is age a protected class?” I asked.
“Because someone like you, at thirtysomething years old, could come in and likely do physical tasks that I am no longer able to do. Or not able to do safely, or as quickly as I used to.”
Okay, got it.
“But what about being a female? How is that a protected class?” I understand protecting females in the military or public servants like police officers or firefighters, but what does a woman in corporate America need protection from?”
Y’all, I’m ignorant.
Sue chuckled a little and said, “Where do I even begin?”
She recounted story after story of her career. She’s been a very successful woman in corporate America, but for the first twenty years, she is convinced that she made much less than her male counterparts. I’d never considered that as an option. She told the story about a job interview where she was asked, “How does your husband feel about you taking this job?”
I still wasn’t quite tracking. My mom wouldn’t have thought anything about that question. Sue said, “They also asked me if I planned to have any more children.”
Things started to sink in.
I would never be asked such ridiculous and demeaning questions. I would have laughed if someone had ever asked me what my wife thinks about me taking a particular position.
There were also stories about pantyhose and dresses being required. She talked about sexual harassment and how, for years, there was no one to report anything to.
Flash forward to supper.
Lindsey and I went out with John and his husband, Joe. They’re starting a church in Birmingham and we are so excited to be a part of it! We were talking about what it looks like for the pastor the church to be gay and the worship pastor to be straight and what Lindsey and I should expect as one of the only straight couples in the church when we launch.
Joe said, “Eventually we’ll have more straight couples, but I hope you’re prepared for the heaviness that could come from queer folks who have never been affirmed, approved, or accepted by other straight people in the church. And certainly not by a family.” I would swear there were tears in his eyes as he spoke.
He said, “I hope you’re prepared because that could be a heavy load to bear until other straight people come alongside you to share that burden.” Lindsey and I were quiet for a while as the harsh truth of Joe’s statement sank in.
All I could think was how excited we were to partner with this amazing couple and their beautiful vision for a church without labels. And in the next breath, I realized I’ve never needed someone’s affirmation to be part of any church. I’ve sang on countless praise teams, served on staff, and never once had my sexual orientation come up in conversation. I’ve never needed someone to approve of me just so I could sit in a pew as an equal in the congregation.
I’ve never had to fight for equality of any kind. I have every right in the entire world and I’ve never had to lift a finger to get it. It’s been handed down to me as a result of my gender, skin color, and sexual orientation. And it’s been given by other straight white folks who never had to do anything to earn it either.
Oh my gosh.
I think I have started to understand a little of my straight white privilege. I thought white privilege was spoiled upper-middle class kids in the suburbs who get whatever they want. I realized, it is the fact that my wife and I sat at this restaurant with our gay friends for two hours last night and I never thought twice about holding hands or kissing. No one else in the restaurant thought a thing about it either.
But if John had kissed Joe? Or even just held his hand at the dinner table? Heaven forbid! Alabaster, Alabama, might have just come unglued.
As we sat together, talking about planting this new church, John,who is certainly unashamed of who he is, still intentionally lowered his voice each time he uttered the word “gay.” I’ve never lowered my voice when I say the word “straight.” Then again, I rarely use the word straight. I don’t feel the need to use that identifier. Because, it’s who I am. And it’s widely accepted and approved.
I have never had to fight to be seen or respected as a peer. So now, the question is, what am I going to do about it? Now that I recognize I was born with this power, how will I serve others who don’t? How will I teach my children to include everyone? How can I best support the dialogue around LGBTQ inclusion in the church today? And how can I lend my white voice to the black lives that do matter so very much?
Me, and my straight white privilege.
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Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.
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