Posted by: Renee | November 16, 2014

Beyond Support

by Renee Sappington

I recently heard the disprivilegetinction made between “advocacy” and “support” when a religious organization declined an LGBTQ group use of their space.  They were willing to have a support group but not an advocacy group to meet there.  It struck me, because I believe their statement doesn’t just reflect how they feel – I think it’s true for many other churches and people, too.  Hence, their distinction between advocacy and support sheds some light on why our society is in the shape it’s in.  You see, we’re much better at charity and comfort measures than we are at change and empowerment.  While I can follow the rationale for making the distinction (such as fearing the fallout we might experience if we look too much like activists), I think it’s a distinction that serves to delay justice.  It’s a distinction that allows people of privilege to excuse themselves from challenging the system.  I say this as a person of privilege.  I’m a white person living in the former Confederacy, where I still hear people make sweeping uninformed claims about black people and other non-whites, where Blacks are racially profiled and assumed guilty until proven innocent on a regular basis.  I’m a Christian living in the Bible Belt, where city meetings often open with Christian prayer and elected officials quote the Bible to defend their opinions.  I’m an able-bodied person living in a city where the City Hall isn’t even compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the condition of the sidewalks often present trip hazards for visually impaired people and forces people in wheelchairs to ride in the street.

But, I’m also a person in the margins.  I know what it’s like to not have my marriage license recognized by the state I live in, and to know that I could be fired from a job just because I’m gay.  I know what it’s like to fear I won’t be allowed to sit by my wife’s bedside if she is dying, and to fear for our safety if I were to hold her hand on the street.  I know what it’s like to feel welcome in a church as long as I keep my mouth shut about who I am and how I think the Church should act.   So, when I hear a distinction made between support and advocacy, the underlying message I hear is that asking for the equal treatment of all persons is just too radical an idea to lend your voice to.   While I’m thankful for support, and support is definitely progress, I believe privileged people and institutions have a responsibility that goes beyond support.

I believe it is privilege that feeds the status quo and the incessant inequalities in our society.  Whether we’re actively stacking the decks unfairly or perpetuating inequalities by our inaction, we as privileged people are the ones most responsible for the systems that are failing entire groups of people.  I recently read an interesting article titled “Where Slavery Thrived, Inequality Rules Today”  in which the author cites research exploring socioeconomic inequalities in the US and the world.   When factoring in the earliest history of countries, a study concluded that societies that began “with extreme inequality tended to adopt institutions that served to advantage members of the elite and hamper social mobility.” That doesn’t surprise me since I’m not sure we really learn from the mistakes of our ancestors as much as reinvent them to be more socially acceptable in our day in time.

Albert Einstein said it well when he said: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”  So we’ve got to find a way to rise above the conditioning of our privilege so that we can accurately see the condition of the world and other people to which we are so intricately connected.   To that end, the first most obvious steps are to learn how to listen well as people of privilege and to cultivate empathy.  The articles I just linked to provide excellent tips for listening even when what we hear makes us uncomfortable and learning how to step into others’ shoes.  As we begin to understand and stand in solidarity with people who are oppressed or marginalized, if we truly open our hearts to their experience in the world, I believe advocacy will come more naturally to us, even if it does feel risky or we think we don’t have the time or energy for it.  People are worth the risk and the time and energy.

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