by Heather Steranka-Petit, Director, “It’s Time to Talk” Programs & Services
In my work as the Director of It’s Time to Talk Programs and Services for YWCA Greater Cleveland, I spend a lot of time talking to people about other cultures. I also do trainings on things like unconscious bias, cross-cultural conflict, and institutional racism. One of the key concepts that I teach is about something called: privilege. Privilege is defined as unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group. Privilege is not seized by individuals, which is why it can be difficult sometimes to see one’s own privilege. Many people have heard of white privilege. White privilege can include little things like when you buy bandages—if you are white, then the color of the bandage is usually close to your skin tone. White privilege also includes being confident that the police exist to protect you and will only stop your car if there is something wrong.
Understanding privilege is an important concept in any diversity context. Privilege is not exclusive to race. Being a member of any dominant group (based on age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, and more) often includes an often unnoticed privilege. In the USA, in addition to white privilege, there is also male privilege, education privilege, socio-economic class privilege, and Christian privilege (just to name a few).
A few weeks ago, as I was watching the 50th anniversary of the Peanuts Christmas special, I realized that there were no people of color in the entire episode. This led me to think about my white privilege, where I can be reasonably sure that people represented in the media and on TV will look like me.
As I was unpacking this white privilege, it struck me that the Christmas season in America includes privilege for American Christians. If you are a practicing Christian or a heritage Christian (like me), you may rarely notice (or simply enjoy) the ubiquitous Christmas music that starts to play around Thanksgiving. That’s what privilege is—if you don’t have to think about it, it’s a privilege. What must it be like to be a child (or the parents of a child) who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but still has to perform in his public school Christmas musical show? You want to fit in with the other kids, but everything around you in December says that you don’t.
Most Americans receive time off of work for Christmas. Ok, most people won’t complain about a day off. However, if you want to travel out of town to celebrate Eid Al-Fitr (Muslim holiday celebrated at the end of Ramadan), Diwali (Hindu Festival of Lights), or Yom Kippur (Jewish Day of Atonement), you probably have to use your vacation days.
I enjoy the Christmas season, but I also want to be mindful and respectful to all my neighbors and colleagues. Acknowledging cultural and religious differences does not diminish my experience of Christmas; we can all learn about and respect each other’s holidays and traditions without sacrificing our own. If others don’t celebrate Christmas, I want to support and include them—if indeed they want to be included. Respect is the key. I try to ask questions in a respectful way, and not assume that everyone is like me.
If you celebrate Christmas—Merry Christmas! If you don’t then I wish you a great December, Happy New Year, and all the best in 2016.