Teal dustpan and hand brush hanging on a wall

Hidden privilege is, by definition, something that’s hard to see–especially in ourselves. And even as we begin to address it, it still has the power to hurt, like fragments of broken glass invisible to the naked eye. Meredith Barnes offers us insight into the process we go through when our privileges are revealed to us, and how these revelations might shape the way we engage with the world around us.  

The glass shatters. It slips through my fingers while I’m not paying attention—the way that inanimate objects sometimes exert free will. 

Things slip and leap and sometimes they break. In the split second before the bottle hits the ground I think maybe it won’t break, but it does before I can even finish the thought. 

I sigh and wish my hands hadn’t faltered. 

Kneeling down amongst the shards, I grab a broom, wet towel, and vacuum and try to do the impossible—clean what I cannot see. I work swiftly as small feet run frequently in this space and the baby crawls—with even smaller soft pink knees that still trust a safety I cannot guarantee. 

Glass collected, I stand and sigh, sure it will not be the end of this story. And it’s not. 

A few days later it is warm and my guard is down. I bask in the luxury of open windows and slow breezes. I hum a tune that my mother sang to me when I was little. 

I am walking barefoot in the kitchen when I step on the small but sharp bit of glass. It had escaped the previous day’s copious search and sits waiting—holding its bite for my unsuspecting step. 

The thing about broken glass is it’s hard to see. 

But just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. 

Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it can’t hurt you when stepped upon. 

And just like broken glass, our own biases can be hard to see but still draw blood on impact. 

We are in a phase of sweeping up the glass in this country. We are recognizing that the work some of us thought was done, hasn’t been completed. 

There are still shards of hurt hiding in the world, hardest for privileged eyes to see.

A SHATTERED REALITY

Fourteen years ago, when I was a student doing my rotations to become a Physician Assistant, I was working on the south side of Chicago. It was the second office I had worked for in the area, and I had enjoyed the first experience so much that when they offered me another position in the community, I accepted gratefully. 

A few weeks into my time there, someone came into the office to say something had happened outside—a car had been broken into. After they gave a brief description—silver, Volvo SUV—I knew immediately it was mine. 

I grabbed my car keys and rushed outside. It was spring but the temperature was below 40 degrees and the wind whipped at my face as I rushed to my car. 

Sure enough, my driver’s side window was smashed—glass covering the front seat and ground beneath my feet. Items that had been inside the car were now gone: a pair of sunglasses, a dress I had never worn with the tags still attached, and some spare change amongst the lost items. 

The violation was not in what was taken but what was lost—my sense of safety in the world. My claim on what I considered a basic right. 

I walked back inside the office stunned. The clear film of security I had unconsciously assumed was all around me had ripped wide open—allowing a cold Chicago chill to invade deep within my soul. 

Everyone in the office stood silent for a moment before one of my coworkers said to me, “You’ve never had your car broken into before?” 

The tone was simple and flat, without sympathy or shock. It wasn’t cruel or kind, it was honest. 

A broken car window was not out of the ordinary in this community. I was what was unordinary.

 Me and my privilege were the visitors to their reality. A reality where the world was unsafe and could take from you what it wanted. I shook my head and continued the work day, wondering at a world where broken glass was simply a normal occurrence. 

FIXED—BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

I fixed the window and learned not to keep things in my car that I wasn’t ready to part with. 

The only item I made sure was always present in my center console was a small book that could almost fit in the palm of my hand: A mini NIV New Testament—an offering to the next visitor, and a reminder to myself that while we are all created as equals we are not always treated this way. As Paul writes in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

I left my time working on the southside of the city with a greater awareness of my own previously unrecognized privilege, and humbly resolved not to forget the uncomfortable truths I had learned about the reality of life in this community in comparison to my own.

***

Just yesterday I dropped another bottle. This time the glass that broke was a shade of green. It was easier to see; easier to find the stray pieces; easier to clean up. And yet I still wait for a small pinch at my heel. A tiny drop of blood from a covert and stubborn piece of glass. 

Each time we address our inherent biases they may become easier to see, but it will still take effort to clean them up.

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16 comments
  1. Joyful Live magazine gone “woke.” Ughh! Joyful Life magazine giving just a little poke, to draw just a little blood.

    Long ago I began college in a little town in Kansas; a town where people never locked their house, let alone a vehicle. One evening right out side my dorm window a car horn began blasting without end. My immediate thought was that someone was being robbed or raped and was calling for help in the loudest way possible. I panicked. I told my roommate we needed to call the police and run out to help. She laughed. She told me someone had probably taped the car horn with duct tape as a prank. And that is what had happened.

    I had freshly arrived from Boston, Massachusetts, my community was part of the “Boston busing program” (Google it) where a constant car horn blaring meant danger. I was awed that a place this safe still existed. And I was thankful.

    You know what I DIDN”T think? “Gosh, what a bunch of privileged white folk living out here in the middle of nowhere Kansas where a blaring horn doesn’t mean, ‘danger.'”

    1. Excellent comment, Terri.
      I also don’t think I’m privileged or underprivileged.
      Too bad and disappointed in this article as well. We need to stop apologizing for what we perceive we “must” be.

  2. I am sorely disappointed in the “woke” implication of this article. The large majority of articles are uplifting, meditative, and a blessing; this one is divisive. Though I could post a lengthy commentary, I will refrain. We must remember, sin is a choice. It has nothing to do with the color of my eyes, my skin, where I was born, or where I live. It has all to do with my desire to be pleasing in God’s sight. My heart. My character. The world’s definition of privilege is tainted by sin.

    1. I’m with you, Sherry. Too “woke” for me too. Very disappointed. Sin is sin is sin.
      It knows no color, race, etc. Satan is out for us all.

  3. Wow. So now foolishly leaving valuables in a car is due to PRIVILEGE? Sounds more like ignorance to me. Very disappointed in this ridiculous attempt at shaming.

    1. With all due respect, Lauren, there’s nothing “contemplative nor brave” about a piece of writing that slavishly seeks to find “whitey” guilty of, well, something. That sort of thinking is so “of the day,” that it is the furthest thing from courageous, brave or inspiring. To repackage and write in a sweet soft-spoken Christian way that if you are white, you are systemically racist is antithetical to the gospel.

  4. Thank you for your courage Meredith, and gentle tone in challenging us to look a little closer. We all bear God’s image and come from different lenses and backgrounds. There is tremendous kingdom value in considering another’s perspective.

  5. Meredith, A well written piece! Thank you for sharing your story about a personal awakening spurred by the Chicago incident then brought back to the surface by the broken bottle. “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.“ That is an exact line of a blog I wrote once and I delight to see this inspired thought included in your story as well. Thank you for sharing your realization and heart awakening. A personal / spiritual awakening of a unrecognized attitude of privilege is not the same as the current “woke” culture.

    Blessings!

    1. Thank you Joanne! I’m sorry it took me a minute to reply. Your kind words were not overlooked and in fact meant a lot to me. Oh the power of our words. Thank you again.

  6. “Me and my privilege were visitors to their reality” really? Crime happens in big cities. I doubt your car was targeted because they knew a white person owned it OR that the person commuting the crime was a minority. Bad things happen because the world is a broken place. It is sin that is the problem, not privilege, not race, not gender, not economics, but SIN. The answer is Jesus. I am so disappointed in the tone of this article, just because you have not been the victim of crime does not mean you are privileged, anymore than the crime I have been a victim of means that I am underprivileged. I am sick of this woke nonsense, it is degrading to minorities. Quit whining about your “privileged life” be thankful for any blessings you’ve received and go out and do good to those around you. But stop lecturing the rest of us on our privilege when you know nothing about our life or history. Such a lot of garbage!

  7. I have very mixed feelings, here. No disrespect to the author of the article, but this seemed very manipulated. Bad things happen all the time but to say that because you had not had the same life experience as someone else, you were privileged? Not necessarily.
    Also, disappointing that Joyful Life is trying to be PC.

  8. This piece gently calls us to consider the possibility that we have bias and privilege that we do not even realize exist. As Laura mentions in her comment, there is kingdom value in considering another’s perspective and, I believe, in seeking to grow more like Christ by humbling ourselves and admitting this possibility. Meredith, your reflections on what it was like to realize that not all people grow up in safe environments was not a call for us to feel guilty, but to humble ourselves as Christ did and offer our lives up for others. Following Christ with humility means we are not concerned about what is “too woke” but instead seeks to bring peace in the broken spaces, in the unsafe places. I loved your article, Meredith. I am saddened by some of these comments that focus more on culture wars than on the Kingdom of God. Thanks for this article. Keep sharing.

  9. Joyful Life, how do you handle this commentary? Such disrespect and negativity is disappointing.

    Meredith, thanks for sharing your thoughts and perspective. I guess these negative comments only reinforce your message:

    “There are still shards of hurt hiding in the world, hardest for privileged eyes to see.”

    Keep sharing your words and your heart. They’ve touched mine.

  10. I wonder if it is the use of the word privilege that so many take offense to? Perhaps we associate the world privilege with ideas of wealth and grandeur, as opposed to simply having access to certain things that other people don’t. Privilege is relative. For some families, looking in the fridge and seeing food is a privilege, as they remember days past when they could only afford food day-to-day. For others, a well-stocked pantry is something they are able to take for granted, as they’ve never known any different. “Hidden privilege” is just that… we don’t realize that the things we take for granted–whatever those may be in our particular circumstances, and we ALL have them–would be considered privileges to someone else.

    An analogy I find helpful here is to think of our “privileges” as blind spots. When you are driving, you have a certain vantage point. You can see what is in front of you and what’s made visible through your mirrors, but those things in your peripheral vision, or those just beyond–in that blind spot between what you can see and what’s in your side mirror–those are your privileges. They’re there, but you can’t see them if you don’t look. The other drivers around you can likely see them as they are looking from a different vantage point, but as a responsible driver, it’s your job to shoulder check so you don’t endanger yourself or others.

    I think this article is pointing out that it behooves each of us to be a little more cognizant about our own blind spots, or privileges. We’ve all had different experiences, and when we assume that others have had the same experiences as we have, we take the risk of hurting them or alienating ourselves. As someone who married into a family from a very different culture from my own, I’ve had to re-learn this lesson over and over.

    I’m proud of the Joyful Life for providing a platform where we can gently exhort each other in His name to love our neighbors as ourselves by trying to see the world from their perspective.

  11. Meredith, this piece is so beautifully written and a gentle nudge to all of us to humbly consider our own circumstances and those of others that for better or worse, we may be blind to. I want to encourage you in this space especially, that when we share about topics of this nature that really can rattle peoples’ hearts our hope and prayer is that our words might nudge them even just a step closer to God’s heart in all this. And I very much believe that this is what you have done here. Thank you for writing such loving, gentle, yet bold words.

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