Recently, the Governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, signed the Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act. On Governor Bryant’s website, the student religious liberties bill is described as one that “protects students from being discriminated against in a public school for expressing their religious viewpoints or engaging in religious activities.”
The expressed desire is to ensure that students can express their religious viewpoints. However, when we look at this bill more closely, it seems to be protecting the privileges associated with being part of the dominant Christian faith. As someone who does not subscribe to the dominant religion in Mississippi, Christianity, I found myself wondering whether the state was acting as an entity with privilege and whether my personal response (along with many others) was consistent with the behavioral patters the attached document ascribes to people who are—in the broadest sense—being oppressed. Because essentially, what this bill does is protect SOME students from being discriminated against in public school for expressing their religion.
Last week, I wrote about privilege and oppression. While we might feel privileged in certain areas of our life, we may feel oppressed in other areas of our life. This dynamic is often found when there is a dominant group with power greater than that of a minority group without as much power.
It’s difficult to make the case that in a Mississippi public school, where a significant majority of the students and faculty members are Christian, that a student that is Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, atheist, or any other minority faith (or no faith at all) will feel as though their expression of religion is being protected by this bill. If anything, the message is that to fit in with the other students, their religious expression ought to be diminished and more consistent with the dominant religion.
The tendency to pay most attention to the dominant culture is a phenomenon we see not only in public schools, but also in private institutions – including American synagogues. Ashkenazi, white, straight, able-bodied congregants are part of a dominant culture. They are dominant in numbers and in the power structures of many American synagogues. Is it a stretch to wonder whether people who don’t fit that very precise description are feeling oppressed in any way? In looking at the tendencies associated with people in oppressed positions, I’d like to suggest that there are similarities.
Again, this chart provides some insight into the behavioral tendencies of people in positions of privilege and how it feels to be in a position of oppression—in the broadest sense. My hope is that this insight can lead us to proactively aim to foster a community where everyone is part of the “we” and there isn’t an “us” and “them” that separates the dominant group from one that is less dominant. With this in mind, we can do the difficult work of creating more genuinely inclusive schools, houses of worship, and communities, where everyone is valued.
We recently finished celebrating Passover, a holiday where “oppression” is an ongoing theme (and freedom, of course, is our cause to celebrate). We were challenged many times—through readings, traditions and symbolism—to experience the pain of oppression and celebrate the joys that accompany freedom. One particular text comes to mind: “In every generation a person is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he, was taken out of Egypt.”
This statement encourages us to put ourselves in the shoes of people who are oppressed and to imagine what it would mean for us—personally—to be freed. Awhile back, I came across a tool that might help us better meet this challenge. I find it to be a very valuable resource when I begin to contemplate what it must be like to be oppressed, and to be free, in our society:
This chart lists various tendencies that can be found among people who are in positions of privilege and oppression. As the authors make clear, these are not personality characteristics that we can presume based on someone’s position of power: privileged or oppressed. However, it provides a framework from which we may be able to look at the behavioral tendencies that are common among people who experience privilege and oppression. It enables us to better understand our society’s expectations of people in these different environments and the ways in which these expectations are internalized to impact the day to day lives of everyday people.
Think back to the opening of the Passover seder and our invitation to the poor to come join us for the Passover meal. There is a symbolic attempt to level the power imbalance between people who live in poverty and people who don’t. All too often, people living in poverty are forced to encounter people with behaviors that mirror those listed in the attached document. In this way, the poor in our society are often being oppressed. The idea that we open our seder tables to the poor, indicates a desire to sit alongside the poor, to get to know the poor, to better understand the poor and to treat people who are poor with dignity.
I hope that this chart provides our readers with a greater understanding of how power impacts our personal lives, the lives of fellow community members and of people around the world who are oppressed regularly. I also hope that it provides ideas on how to best fight oppression and ensure that all people, in every generation, have the experience of freedom.
What are your experiences with privilege and oppression? Do you find this chart useful?