By Laura Stephens-Reed
I vividly remember (20 years ago now!) walking from the parking deck to my seminary classroom building when I saw an undergrad, talking on her phone, stride boldly into a crosswalk. An oncoming car screeched to a stop to avoid hitting her. The student never turned her head.
I began to notice that this scenario was pretty common on campus—people stepping off of sidewalks, confident that motorists would adjust to the sudden presence of pedestrians. It galled me. It was such a glaring symptom of entitlement, not to mention a huge physical risk.
To me, entitlement is the expectation that the rules apply to everyone else but me, that the world must shift based on what I want.
It comes in subtle and obvious forms. I hear it play out a lot right now in the conversation taking place in my community and state about masks: “why should I have to wear a mask if it’s mainly to protect others? Masks are hot and itchy and fog up my glasses. If you’re at greater risk of COVID-19, you should just stay home.” This sentiment has led to so much head-desking that I now have a dent in my forehead.
Entitlement, as it turns out, is my most easily-activated pet peeve. That irritation comes out regularly in my teaching and preaching in the form of exhorting people to love their neighbors as themselves.
I’ve realized that I too suffer from the scourge of entitlement, because my privilege as a white person drips with it.
History is taught from a white perspective in most American schools.
White people make up the majority of leaders in government in all branches and at all levels in the U.S. and thus make most of the laws under which we live.
Cultural expressions are often judged in comparison to the (white) “norm.”
Oppressive practices, past and present, make it much more difficult for people who aren’t classified as white to accumulate wealth in this country.
White people regularly gaslight those who dare call out any of these realities.
Four years into beginning intentionally to unpack the many ways I personally benefit from all of this privilege, I am still just scratching the surface. White privilege is a corporate, systemic, much more insidious manifestation of entitlement.
When I look at my blond-haired, blue-eyed, only child, I realize how easy it would be (is) for him to assume the world has been made just for him. This only amps up the responsibility I bear for noticing my entitlement and both using well (without overstepping) and giving up my privilege. I’m working on it. I’ve got a long way to go.
I guess it’s true that the sermons we preach are the ones we most need to hear.
Laura Stephens-Reed is Peer Learning Group Regional Director for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. She also serves as a clergy coach and congregational consultant.