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22 November 2012

Is It Ethical to Give Thanks for Privilege?

On this Thanksgiving holiday, I ask an important question: Is it ethical to give thanks for privilege? In essence, that is what many of us do on Turkey Day. In fact, it is often ritualized as we go around the table and delineate all of the things for which we are thankful. Like in the other parts of our lives, however, we are unlikely to contextualize these items, instead misunderstanding them as earned and/or "blessings" from divine providence. Both conceptions cloud the reality--and thus perpetuate the fact that--some of us are systematically advantaged over, and even at the expense of, others.

I'll hold myself up as an example. Here is a partial list of things that I might name at the dinner table today: I am thankful for my health, my family, and my career. Now, here is a partial list of my intersecting statuses to which many would be unlikely to attribute these "blessings": I am white, upper class, a man, heterosexual, married, Mainline Protestant, over-educated, and American. It's tough to imagine a person with a more privileging set of identities than me, and yet, people like me are typically more likely to tacitly ascribe their "blessings" to their own efforts and/or to God's preference for them. The implication is that those who have less for which to be thankful have not worked hard enough and/or have somehow been spurned by God. The notion that God blesses or prefers some over others is a theological problem into which I won't delve here, but the notion that privilege or relative advantage is wholly earned is contradicted by over a hundred years of scientific, sociological evidence. The danger is that by being ignorant to the structural nature of privilege, we collectively cement that privilege along with the deprivation for the unprivileged.

So, what to do? Many spend the holidays "giving back" by volunteering at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and they should be applauded for these efforts; however, such volunteering serves to ameliorate the symptoms of disadvantage only temporarily. Deeper change is needed to address the causes of inequality. This Thanksgiving, I hope that as we all reflect on our "blessings," we will take some time to reflect also on the systematic ways in which many among us are are not "blessed" and that we might be moved to action by that reflection.

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