Vriezen: Be aware of the effects of privilege

Claire Vriezen

We live in a nation where all sorts of majority groups hold privilege over others. When I say “privilege,” I’m referring to what is generally recognized as rights, immunities or benefits “enjoyed only by a person or group beyond the advantages of most.” There are many aspects in our everyday lives where we tend to experience privilege, yet don’t realize it. It could be class privilege, race privilege, gender, age, ability or religious privilege.

Many groups involved in activism for various social equality causes are very aware of privilege and attempt to show people in majority groups how they have certain privileges, even if they don’t recognize the effects. Personally, I have things like white privilege or a heterosexual privilege. I enjoy the benefits of being in a majority group and the social assumptions and expectations that go along with those characteristics.

One type of privilege enjoyed by a large majority of Americans is religious (specifically, Christian) privilege. No one will dispute the fact that the predominant religion in America is Christianity and all its various sects. When you include Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox and “other Christian,” you account for 78.4 percent of the population. Only a little over 16 percent of the population falls into the category of “unaffiliated,” which includes atheists, agnostics and “nothing in particular.” The remainder of America identifies as Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu or a variety of “other.”

The ways in which Christian privilege manifests in our everyday lives seem harmless enough, especially if you don’t notice them as a part of the majority group. But for a minority, they can often stick out like a sore thumb.

This past week was Easter, and I’m sure many of you went home to visit family for the holiday celebrations. Leading up to Good Friday, many of my friends asked, “Are you going home for Easter?” The assumption was innocent enough but pervasive. It was assumed that everyone was probably going home or seeing family for Easter weekend. As a nonreligious person, who still loves spending time with family and getting free candy (from the Easter Bunny that my parents still claim is responsible for hiding our baskets of goodies), the assumption that everyone celebrated the day still dug at me.

While these are obviously extremely mild examples of Christian privilege, too often the idea that Christianity is the preference or expectation of social interactions turns into (usually unconscious) suppression of other religious ideologies.

In our neighboring country of Canada, a school board recently decided to end the practice of allowing Gideons to hand out Bibles to fifth graders, and implemented a ban on the “distribution of all non-instructional religious materials.” As an outsider, this seems like a perfectly reasonable decision on the part of the school board. Public schools are not for proselytizing but for education. Additionally, this sort of ban does not single out Christian groups but instead equally prohibits distribution of religious material from anyone.

Unsurprisingly, there was outrage and even threats from Christian community members who saw this as an attack on religion and religious heritage. But one must ask, if the ban was removed, and non-instructional religious material allowed, would these same Christian community members support the distribution of Korans? The Rigveda or Bhagavad Gita? What about Wiccan materials? You can be certain there would be similar uproar if any of these groups sought to hand out materials to elementary aged children. The expectation that Christian materials are acceptable, but not those of other religions illuminates how privilege affects our treatment of other faiths.

This is not an isolated incident, nor a sole example of Christian privilege in America. George W. Bush, during his time as governor of Texas, proclaimed a “Jesus Day” on June 10, 2000. This year, Pennsylvania has declared 2012 to be the “Year of the Bible.” There have been pushes by various legislators to reinstate prayer in public schools, the support of voucher systems for private parochial schools, and a lack of provisions for religious dress and practices for those of other faiths in schools or workplaces.

Often, issues regarding Christian privilege are closely tied to First Amendment violations. Either there are direct violations of the separation of church and state, or the religious expression of minority groups is being suppressed or marginalized in favor of the majority.

Privilege is everywhere, whether you realize you have it or not. Until recently, I didn’t even entertain the idea I had a privilege based on ability. Realizing you may have Christian privilege and noting how it affects your interactions with people (assumed observance of religious holidays or assumed attendance at a church) is simply a valuable tool for looking at how you approach religious diversity.

Many of the privileges we hold are arguably a product of our environment. In Iowa (and the general Midwest), it’s a relatively safe assumption that any given person you meet will come from a Catholic or Protestant background. But when that assumption becomes ingrained in our normal interactions, it lends itself to a mindset that when the privilege is challenged by minority voices; those that hold the majority may claim religious persecution. Perhaps even more importantly, it creates a false view of the world where everyone shares the same majority view as the same assumed characteristics and us.