The privilege of a white, Christian fundamentalist childhood
I often view my childhood through the lens of abuse. But recently, I've been challenged to examine it through the lens of privilege. This is uncomfortable. It's hard to to see the privilege when you're being spanked everyday. Stockpiling for the Apocalypse. Pretty much living in terror.
But last week I also got to listen to a friend give a lecture on social theories, especially as they pertain to education. My friend is a professor at a local college. Twice she's invited me to come speak to her classes about my book; specifically what it looks like when religious fundamentalism frames the whole of a person's existence.
Before I gave my talk last week, I listened to her lecture.
And this was my epiphany: in many ways, my fundamentalist upbringing WAS privileged.
In order to staple down my ADD brain, I made a list explaining why:
- We Read Books (lots of them): on the radio in SoCal right now, there are PSA's about the importance of reading to your child for 30 minutes a day. When I heard that, I laughed. THIRTY minutes? That's IT? As a fundamentalist, it was more like 2-3 hours per day. I read SO MUCH as a child--and still do, as an adult. I never realized it--but the fact that I read so much (and had parents who reinforced the importance of that) afforded me a huge leap ahead of other children my age. My extensive childhood reading directly contributed to my ability to write well. THAT is privilege.
- Family Dinners: We ate meals together almost every night. Homecooked meals. With proper table settings, candles and cloth napkins. At the time, I resented having to "wash and dress" for dinner. But now I realize how those meals afforded me the privilege of learning proper table manners, the art of conversation, the ability to ask questions and disagree while remaining civil.
- Limited exposure to TV and commercial advertising: To this day I still don't know the popular TV shows of the 80's. But I can remember my favorite heroes and heroines from books. I remember long, quiet hours of sustained concentration while completing an art project. Instead of TV, my parents took me to classical music concerts and ballets. I developed an appreciation for art, music and dance. THAT is privilege.
- Slow Things Mattered: I absolutely hated the hours spent practicing the piano or learning proper penmanship. But looking back I realize that I can still read music (which counts as a second language). I have beautiful handwriting. I know how to sew. Even though I don't like cooking, I can put together a well-balanced meal without really thinking about it. I can just DO these things, rather easily. THAT is privilege.
- Critical Thinking: As a child, I chafed under Scripture memorization, copying long passages into my journal, breaking down Scripture passages into "chapter summaries" and then writing reflections on what we'd read. But now I realize that these exercises helped develop my critical thinking skills: examining, investigating, processing and synthesizing what I'd read. Ironically, these skills helped me think my way out of fundamentalism and into Catholicism. The ability to think? THAT is privilege.
- Socialization & Conversing with Adults: the average American kid is socialized with kids her own age. Not me. Our "one room schoolhouse" afforded us interaction with children of all ages. Additionally, there were lots of BIG families (4-10 kids per family) and this meant I was in constant contact with babies, toddlers and little ones. I knew how to expertly diaper, feed and care for little ones by the time I was 8. And because we had so many people living with us, I spent a lot of time talking with adults, hearing their life stories and engaging in discussion with them. All this interaction meant my world was actually BIGGER than most American kids my age. I also knew how to do my own laundry, cook, clean, care for babies and speak with adults. THAT is privilege.
- Travel: even though our travel was "for the sake of the Gospel," I still got to visit almost every state in the nation. And also traveled to Canada, the UK and Mexico. I saw and talked with all different kinds of people. Hiked the Grand Canyon. Snorkeled in San Diego kelp beds. Kayaked among sea lions in Northern California. Spent a sweaty summer in Lincoln, Nebraska. Toured the old mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. Visited all the national monuments in Washington, DC. Even though most of my travel was limited to the United States, I still got to see and experience much more than the average kid my age. THAT is privilege.
I have childhood friends who say their view of my life was one of privilege. More than once I've been called an "Assembly Princess" because my family was the founding family, the "royalty" of our church. I used to be surprised (and rather offended!) when I heard this.
I mean, my life never felt privileged to me as a kid. It felt terrifying and abusive. I suffered every day.
But perhaps it was BOTH.
I never "felt" rich because we didn't have the typical markers of wealth: owning homes, luxury vehicles or boats. We didn't have stocks, retirement or savings accounts. But we did rent homes in nice neighborhoods and drive new cars (paid in full cash through "gifts" from Assm. members). I also had access to life experiences (travel, exposure to the arts, extensive reading, piano lessons) that are typically inaccessible to the poor.
Is it possible for a "princess" to live isolated and abused inside her ivory tower? Is it possible for someone to be both privileged AND deprived? Yes.
My privilege came at a high personal price: physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual abuse. I still struggle with the effects of a cult upbringing.
But I also have tools available to me that I wouldn't have were I not privileged: the ability to read, write, express myself. I am white. I speak fluent, "privileged" English. I have good health. I have a college education. THAT is privilege.
What are some other areas of privilege within fundamentalism? Or American evangelicalism?
Do you think it's possible to live a "privileged life" while also experiencing abuse?
Do we have a responsibility to examine our privilege and seek ways to broaden our viewpoint and develop empathy for those not as fortunate as ourselves? WHY?