Understanding Privilege

by Brian Dyck

Whenever I go to a Canadian Council for Refugees meeting, I hear a short presentation about the power wheel. The power wheel is a reminder to me and everyone else in the meeting that the closer a person is to the centre, the more power a person has. It is also a reminder that this power may not have anything to do with knowledge or wisdom but how society put me at the privileged centre in that meeting, in Canadian society and indeed in much of the world in so many ways. It is a reminder for me to be humble and to make sure that I am really listening to others who are typically on the margins.

The power wheel: the closer you are to the centre, the more privilege you have (The Canadian Council for Refugees).

If I were to add some wedges to the wheel for Mennonite Central Committee, my work experience, education, and church experience in the Mennonite world would give me even more ways that I am privileged in my work setting.

In some ways, a wheel is the wrong image. It might be more helpful to think about it as a cone with privilege to be at the apex of the cone. Or perhaps this wheel is more like an inverted cone with privilege at the bottom where resources and opportunities flow down effortlessly like water to those at the privileged centre compared to those at the outer rim of the cone.

Because I have been close to the centre of this wheel of privilege much of my life, I have had the luxury, if I chose, to be unaware of this privilege most of the time.  Looking at this wheel is a reminder that others—those on the periphery—do not have that luxury.

Over the years, MCC has looked at the issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and other forms of inclusion or exclusion within MCC itself in a variety of ways. Recently, I saw a list of reports and training events done by MCC stretching back to the early 1990s. MCC staff orientation, a multi-day event for most people who work for MCC, included sessions on racism and anti-oppression when I went to my orientation nearly 15 years ago and they continue to the present. As an organization, MCC continues to struggle with issues of racism and oppression. Without that internal struggle, our work to help newcomers to our communities in Canada who have fled some form of oppression would lack integrity. When people arrive in Canada, they are hoping to find a new place and community that will accept them for who they are. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Nisan Moussa and Jomana Alhariri play a game with other children participating in a summer program for Syrian and Kurdish newcomer children and youth. (MCC photo/Rachel Bergen, 2017)

Several years ago, as part of our ongoing effort to understand and come to grips with Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s exploration of the impact of residential schools, MCC staff across Canada took part in “The Blanket Exercise” that was developed by Kairos Canada. We as a staff were reminded of the way that Indigenous peoples of the land we live and work on were increasingly pushed to the margins of privilege in ever shrinking spaces.

One of the most recent times we at MCC Canada tried to come to grips with racism anew, was last summer after the death of George Floyd on May 25, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis. In a staff meeting following George Floyd’s death, several people of colour who work at MCC Canada shared about their experiences of racism. It was sobering to hear my colleagues talk about experiencing racism in simple everyday situations—drive a car, get a coffee, enter a store. These are situations I experience very differently. In the stories my colleagues shared, sometimes racism was subtle, sometimes it was overt.

Those two events were important in different ways. The blanket exercise teaches about historic and contemporary settler-Indigenous relations and how we got to a place today where there is privilege for settlers and marginalization and oppression for Indigenous people. The event last summer where my co-workers shared their experiences of racism reminded me that this is not something that just happened in the past or in another country but here where I live to people around me.

Hundreds of people participated in a mass blanket exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill, lead by members of Kairos. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer’s from across the system. (Alison Ralph/MCC Photo, 2015)

When I am at an event like a facilitation of the blanket exercise or hearing stories of everyday racism, I am left with a sense of profound sadness and complicity. If, like me, you are at the centre of the power wheel and have a privileged life, it can feel like there is nothing for us to do but to withdraw. I confess that is my reaction sometimes, but I need to remember that withdrawal is once again a luxury reserved for those at the centre of the power wheel. So instead, I continue to wrestle with my own privilege and look for ways to work against marginalization and to address oppression.

Years ago, when I lived in South Africa, I got to know the writings of the South African author, Zakes Mda. Mda who fled South Africa during apartheid, has written a number of novels and plays about post-apartheid South Africa and the challenging path towards reconciliation. This comes out in particular in his play “The Bells Amersfoort.” In the play, Tami, a Black South African woman who fled to the Netherlands during apartheid, and Johan, a white Afrikaner man who came to the Netherland after the end of apartheid to study theology, have a chance meeting. During the play, we discover that both are dealing with trauma and that their personal stories of trauma are tied together. At the end of the play, one of the conclusions they come to is that they will need to work together to deal with the past that haunts them both in different ways. Their individual journeys of healing are tied together.

As I reflect on my place on the power wheel, I remember this story and how the injustice of racism not only impacts those on the periphery of the power wheel but the entire community. Racism is not just a wound felt by those on the margins of the wheel but the whole wheel or as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:26, “If one member suffers, all members suffer together with it” (NRSV). As Mda suggests in his book, we need to see the interconnectedness of our histories and our present, and only then can we move forward together in creating societies where everyone is accepted for who they are.

Brian Dyck is National Migration and Resettlement Program Coordinator for MCC Canada.

To learn more about the work of MCC and to get involved in working for a just society, visit our website here.

2 Thoughts

  1. Brian, I’m grateful for what you are doing on behalf of those of us who support MCC and the work it has been called to do ‘in the name of Christ.’ You’ve written a very sobering and powerful essay on my privileged status – something I was blissfully unaware of for most of my life.

    In my life, the gradual revelation of my own privileged status has produced a whole range of emotions since I am a rich, white, English-speaking,’ christian, adult, male . . . the very group that has caused far too much of this world’s misery. To a greater or lesser extent, I have experienced shock, denial, embarrassment, shame, anger, etc as I’ve had to face the fact that I’ve lived a life of privilege through absolutely no effort on my part, and at the expense of other cultures and generations whose privileges have often been deliberately stolen from them.

    I particularly found the infographic extremely helpful and I’m sure I will need to have a look at it again. Thanks for putting your thoughts out there.

    1. Thank you Eric. Like you, I am on this journey and I hope that we can encourage others like us to come along.

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