Years ago, I heard John Perkins speak at a Christian Community Development Association conference. He off-handedly mentioned voluntary poverty but warned with a wry smile that we can’t do much good by simply being poor. Instead, we should “go out and make a lot of money and give it away.”
I was a recent college grad, passionate about social justice and a little drunk on idealism, and his pragmatism struck me. Here was a respected Christian leader telling me not to shed privilege, but to leverage it for more power in order to empower others. I eventually became a pastor and a writer—so much for “make a lot of money.” But Perkins had planted a seed, and I began to imagine what it might mean to use privilege redemptively.
That term privilege, once the property of academics and social researchers, has become ubiquitous and culture-shaping. In The Perils of Privilege: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage, Phoebe Maltz Bovy discusses how “privilege” is the primary framework for how we talk about social justice today—from conversation-stopper phrases hurled like grenades online (“check your privilege,” “your privilege is showing”) to the new genre of “privilege aware” confessions. Privilege once described a small group of elites born into extreme wealth and power, but today it encompasses essentially any unearned advantage—white privilege, male privilege, ableist privilege, heterosexual privilege, cis privilege, youth privilege, even thin privilege. Bovy shows how this framework has burrowed its way into higher education, the media, and contemporary conversations about feminism, race, and politics.