by Heidi Dirks
Many adults will remember what they were most excited to do when they reached the age of majority. Whether voting, signing legal documents, or buying alcohol or spray paint, age matters. Age can open up opportunities or impose restrictions. These opportunities are not given based on merit, rather they are bestowed solely based on legal age.
Discussions around race and privilege have been occurring around the world with the Black Lives Matter movement and the deaths of people including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the United States. Canada too is reckoning with the deaths of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in altercations with police.
Christians are wise to ask ourselves the clichéd phrased “What Would Jesus Do?” How do we love our neighbours—all our neighbours—in a way that elevates their dignity as image-bearers of God? How do we give up our rights to further the gospel of Christ, which is good news for all people (1 Corinthians 9:18)?
Age is but one aspect of our identity. Humans are complex, and have multiple cultural influences that impact our lives. Dr. Pamela Hays, a clinical psychologist, outlines many of these influences in her book Addressing Cultural Complexities in Practice with the acronym ADDRESSING. Her model was created to help psychotherapists and counsellors better understand the challenges their clients are facing. While the model can be used in any culture, the examples are specific to Canada and the United States.
Hays describes that within these different influences there is a dominant and a minority group. Those in the dominant group have advantages given to them by their culture. While not their fault they have such advantages, they are responsible to act in just ways towards people who are disadvantaged. Oppression occurs when those in power use that power to maintain benefits for themselves at the expense of those in the minority group.
The first cultural characteristic in Hay’s model is age. Adults are the dominant group, as illustrated by my earlier example, and children, youth and elders are in the minority group. This category also includes roles related to age, such as being the eldest son or being a grandparent.
Developmental or other Disability
Disabilities can occur at any point during the lifespan. Developmental disabilities occur starting at birth or in childhood, such as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Other disabilities can occur at any time, such as a spinal cord injury or Alzheimer’s disease. Individuals who are able-bodied have privilege, and those with a disability are in the minority group. Individuals with disabilities face many daily challenges that able-bodied people do not. For example, many buildings and homes are still not accessible to people who use a wheelchair.
In Canada and the United States Christians are the dominant group, with other religions and spiritual practices being the minority. In Canada, Christians have the freedom to worship in safety, and stories from the Bible are commonplace in secular literature. People who practice other religions may struggle to observe their holy days without time off from work. Safe places to observe religious rituals may be a challenge to practicing their faith (such as a room to pray), with people even facing threats or acts of violence.
Ethnic and Racial Identity
White (or Caucasian) people have privilege over people of colour, who form the minority group. Canada has a long history of official government policies that privileged white Europeans at the expense of others groups. Our language still reflects racial stereotypes of groups of people. For example, common phrases such as “peanut gallery” have racist origins. In 2018, Black Canadians were most likely of any racial group to be victims of a hate crime.
Individuals who own property or investments, have access to higher education, or are considered to be “Middle Class” are the dominant group, with people lacking access to those resources being in the minority. Those living in poverty, or experiencing homelessness, experience particular vulnerabilities and challenges. It is difficult to get a job when you don’t have a mailing address and phone number to put on a resume, or the money to buy clothing and equipment required for that job.
In this seventh category in Hay’s model, heterosexuals are the dominant group, having privilege in a world that assumes that everyone is sexually attracted to the opposite gender. Gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals are in the minority, facing discrimination and challenges that heterosexuals do not face.
Related to ethnic and racial identity, individuals who are non-Indigenous have privilege, whereas Indigenous people are in the minority. Canada has a long and painful history of oppressing Indigenous peoples using power and violence, which has created generational trauma. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015) has documented many stories of the painful experiences of Indigenous people in Canada.
There is privilege given to people who were born in Canada, as opposed to those came to Canada as immigrants or refugees. There are additional challenges for people who come to Canada, which may include learning English or French, navigating our health and social services systems, and learning the nuances of Canadian culture. Anyone want to go for a double double at Timmies?
The last cultural characteristic in Hay’s model is gender identity. In this category men are the dominant group, with women, transgender and intersex people in the minority. Male-gendered nouns have long been considered to be generic (mankind, policeman, etc). Women also face gender-based violence. In Canada women make up almost 80% of victims of violence and homicides by an intimate partner, and almost 90% of sexual assault victims.
Being white, I experience privilege every day without noticing. I can go shopping without being followed or questioned by store employees. I have no problem finding children’s books with illustrations of people that look like me. I have never been asked to speak on behalf of all white people. If a police officer pulls me over while I’m driving, I don’t wonder if it is because of my skin colour or fear for my life.
However, as a woman I am in the minority. I read male-gendered nouns and am told that it includes women too, even though the language does not reflect that. I have sat in church meetings as the only woman and not had any of the men make eye contact with me. I have listened to sermons with sexist jokes that are seen as funny. I have been cat-called while walking down the street.
I am privileged in many other ways too. Privilege does not mean that my life is never hard, but it means that my skin colour, socioeconomic status, religion and other factors do not make my life even harder.
Privilege and Jesus
Reading the Bible through the lens of privilege and power highlights how Jesus treated all people with dignity. Jesus healed a woman with a bleeding disorder (Mark 5:25-34), asked men of low socioeconomic status to follow and learn from him (Matthew 4:18-22), and said that our neighbour is not defined or limited by ethnicity (Luke 10:25-37).
As followers of Jesus, we are called to love our neighbours. Part of this love is to listen to their experiences without discounting or dismissing their stories because we don’t experience the same discrimination. We are called to stand against injustice while elevating marginalized voices above our own privileged voices (Amos 5).
We have the incredible opportunity to stand with marginalized groups of people, declaring God’s love for all people and the need to end oppression. In the words of the hymn O Holy Night: “Truly he taught us to love one another; His law is love and his gospel is peace; Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother; And in his name all oppression shall cease.”
Heidi Dirks, B.A., B.Ed., M.A. (Counselling) has experience in the area of youth mental health. She serves as the secretary of the Board of Church Ministries and attends Aberdeen EMC.