Difference and Discomfort: Christian Privilege Some of Its Consequences in Student Affairs; By: Dr. Jane Fried

After the recent upheavals on campuses on the East and West coast because faculty members expressed their opinions on white supremacy and heteronormativity were disciplined, Julia Golden Battle spoke up on the NASPA blog about freedom of speech for their voices, which are typically suppressed or ignored in student affairs. Her comments were followed by eloquent statements from Kevin Kruger, NASPA President, and Ajay Nair, Director of Diversity and Inclusion for NASPA. Ms. Battle’s contribution was a breath of fresh air for me because she opened a door which had frequently hit me on my way out of numerous situations during my 45-year career in student affairs. I responded to her comment online:

All I can say is that it’s about time that student affairs people start speaking up again about assumptions made by the invisible oppressors who are generally “nice” people. It’s sort of a professional dysfunction. It’s been around for the 45 years of my career. I have been victimized by it. I am considered “quirky.” All I have been doing is speaking my truth but a lot of my nice colleagues don’t want to hear it. They often have the graciousness to excuse me for being myself.

My particular issue in the student affairs profession is politely cloaked Christian privilege/anti-Semitism. This problem expresses itself in both microaggressions (That’s funny, you don’t look Jewish) and systemic dominance of the normative group, in this case, Christians. Christian dominance occurs, for example, when a national conference is scheduled on Passover because scheduling it the following weekend on Easter was unthinkable. After reading Julia’s comments about the ways in which student affairs professionals either do not have or do not take advantage of academic freedom of speech, I began to remember how Judaism is never discussed in conversations about multiculturalism and how many Jews, because we look like white folks and often have those privileges, do not speak up. This has burned me many times during my career and I have not spoken up. Now is the time. I want to thank the two colleagues, Will Barrett and David Braverman, who have also contributed to this piece. Here is a brief initial summary of our thoughts. Your thoughts are also invited.

Analysis

Members of majority groups create norms, expectations, and shared culture. Majority culture norms influence individual behaviors within the boundary of those norms. A Christian majority reinforces Christian norms, and anyone not within those normative bounds may be considered abnormal by members of the normative group. This implicit understanding of the other as abnormal and the dominant group as normal has at least two consequences. First, normative cultural assumptions, in this case a Christian worldview is reinforced positively. Second, non-normative behavior is often negatively sanctioned either explicitly or implicitly. When a Christian world view dominates a culture, then it is acceptable to have conversations about “putting the C back into the YMCA”, serving ham as the entrée for multicultural dinners, and scheduling international meetings on non-Christian holy days. Thoughtlessness and ignorance about religious diversity is an obvious expression of privilege because anyone who has privilege is not forced to consider the concerns of those who do not have it. This privileged world view leads to micro- and macro-aggressions. The logical consequence of Christian privilege is a negative impact on non-Christians. In this case we are thinking of anti-Semitic words, actions, and inactions. A particularly egregious inaction is requiring Jewish staff members to take personal days to celebrate Jewish holidays while, in most cases, all staff are expected to take several days off at Christmas. On an interpersonal level, we often have conflicting norms about expressions of opinion. As a Jew I have learned to express my opinion directly and expect that others will do the same so that differences can be addressed. Many of my colleagues consider this behavior rude because they have learned other modes of expressing opinions. People are often shocked when I say exactly what I think. I am often left wondering what they think. Nothing is resolved, but distress occurs on both sides of these conversations.

We are not accusing anyone of intentionally discriminatory behavior. We recognize that members of all cultural groups tend to enjoy the company of other members of the same group because norms are commonly shared, and it is not necessary to do much thinking about them. However, in this case, we are discussing Christian dominance and privilege in our profession. As Aristotle reminded us, those with greater power always have greater responsibility. It seems to us, that ignorance of the cultural beliefs and interpersonal norms of non-Christian cultures is a manifestation of Christian privilege and naiveté is no longer acceptable. When a predominantly Christian group comes together it is important to be aware of the presence of Jews, Muslims, and others and to take their beliefs and practices into account. Discussing our differences and sharing our distress might be a good place to start. This is about understanding, not blaming. If we don’t understand, we cannot correct.

This essay is the beginning of a much longer-term project. We are collecting stories about cultural and religious misunderstandings and difficulties. We are particularly interested in Jewish-Christian rough spots, but we are more than mindful of the difficulties which Christian dominance may cause other groups. We welcome all stories. We’ll organize a respectful method of sharing what we learn. Thank you.

 

 

Bio: Jane Fried (she/her/hers) is the founding chairperson of the NASPA Spirituality Knowledge Community. If you have thoughts, feelings, or feedback regarding this essay, Jane asks for you to email her at hjf205@earthlink.net. She is the author of Civility and Spirituality, a chapter which appeared in Transforming Campus Life: Reflections on Spirituality and Religious Pluralism, edited by V. Miller and M. Ryan (Peter Lange, NY, 2001). She is currently co-editing a new volume on student spirituality with Dr. Ruth Harper, in which the development of spirituality both within and outside religious traditions is explored. Dr. Fried received the NASPA Outstanding Contribution to Literature award in 2012 and the Diamond Honoree award from ACPA in 2016. She is currently working to help institutions and individuals overcome racism and other forms of bias through her consulting practice, Learning with Mind and Heart (learningwithmindandheart.com).

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