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Recent events in the United States have caused the word privilege to be used a lot in media reports. Statements from leaders of various ethnic groups mention privilege. Those who have been made to feel that they have less worth than other groups in society are talking about privilege.
I have to be honest: I represent one of these "privileged" groups. I can't help it; I was born into this group and I will die this way. It's how God made me. But I have come to realize it's how I live my life that defines me, not the color of my skin nor the family I was born into.
I was discussing the events of the past few days with a close friend and colleague, someone whose opinions I highly respect, even on the few occasions I don't agree with him. He made a comment that made me stop and think, a comment that actually bothered me and has been bothering me all day. He shared that these current events brought back memories of how, as a young boy, he was called names because of how he looked, the ethnic background of his family, the color of his skin. I realized that I couldn't relate to this. Not even closely. And it bothered me. A lot.
The next few hours brought me to a place of deep reflection as I thought of my life and the perceived challenges I thought I had faced growing up. I was embarrassed to realize that I don't know what it's like to be an outsider because of who you are. To have to face challenges and scrutiny because of how I look, dress, or even live. I have many friends from many different ethnic and racial backgrounds and I consider myself lucky for having the vision to accept people for who they are and not how they look. But I also have to be honest and feel ashamed for the times when I've let feelings of resentment and anger bubble to the surface. I have felt frustration when someone of a different ethnic group, usually a complete stranger, cuts me off in traffic or violates my self-perceived personal space. My reflections took me to the one event in my life when I was completely out of place, when I was the sole minority in a public setting and felt their scrutiny.
I was traveling for work and gathering stories in Asia. It was a trip that took me to many different countries, most of them for the first time. The middle part of my itinerary took me to the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh, an immense city that is probably the most densely populated in the world. Late one afternoon, I decided to take a stroll up the street along which the compound where I was staying was located. A coworker went with me, but I was probably the only Caucasian within many miles. The sidewalks were tightly packed with men in long white robes and women covered in black with only their eyes showing. I felt as if every eye was on me as I made my way along the dirt and trash-covered path. My physical stature made me stand head and shoulders above the crowd, but part of me wanted to crawl in a hole and hide. For the first time in my life I felt uncomfortable with who I was. I found myself looking down at the ground to avoid the stares, to keep from seeing the eyes of those who I perceived to be uncomfortable with my presence.
It was at this point that my human nature took over and I did the one thing that we all should do when these situations arise. I smiled. I looked the next person in the eye and smiled at them. And they smiled back. I was shocked. That’s all it took. My smile said to them that I respected them, and their smile back told me I was welcome in their community. The rest of my walk was a real joy as I explored the new world around me. It was a lesson that stuck with me over the next few years as I traveled the world and experienced more than 100 countries and cultures. But somehow, in time it had become lost on me until today’s reflections. How could I have forgotten something so simple, yet so important? A smile. A symbol of respect.
There is another definition of the word privilege: something regarded as a rare opportunity. As Christians, we should be looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, losing sight of all the different colors and focusing on the opportunities that God places before us. What defines us as Christians should also provide us with the guidance as to how we should lead our lives. Christ accepts us as we are, not for who we aren’t. He loves us and forgives us despite the mistakes we make, no matter what the color of our skin is, how we live our lives or where we were born. God made us all in His image, and that’s something we should be proud of. He is white, black, red, yellow and brown. His hair is straight, curly, or even bald. He is tall or short, rich or poor. He is reflected in everyone on this planet. How can I not respect those who He has created? To do so is to disrespect Him.
I'm praying for those affected by the current turmoil on the streets, in the alleys and the homes of those throughout my homeland. I'm also praying that my life will be the start of something new. That maybe I can be the spark of a wave of respect, acceptance and love in this world. That I will accept the challenge of the privilege of being a child of God. That it starts with me and not my neighbor. And it starts with a smile.
-Daniel Weber is the Communication Director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America.