Living outside the United States creates a real awareness of the differences in societies — the various ways things are perceived and understood and practiced in different countries. And it can give a lived experience of the meaning of privilege.
Once when I lived in India, I went to Singapore to lead a retreat for the Catholic deaf people there. There were dozens of Indian migrant workers on the plane with me, and at the Singapore passport counter they were rigorously interrogated: What is your father’s name? Why are you coming here? Do you have a job? How much money do you have in hand? Do you have a bank account statement? Show me your return ticket. They were asked everything except the color of their underwear.
Finally my turn came and I approached passport control, holding out my passport for the officer. He saw that it was from the United States and just waved me through! He never took it out of my hand! He never said one word to me. THAT is privilege.
That airport experience has stayed with me and I hope has made me much more sensitive to my privilege — I am white, American, male, a priest — and how my brothers and sisters with different languages and skin colors and passports can be treated so differently from me.
Just the fact that we foreigners are here in Cambodia is a sign of privilege. We have enough money and economic security to come here. The locals we come to serve cannot go to our countries. They have no money and would never be given visas. They are just trapped in a daily struggle to keep their families alive.
With our foreign privilege, we come to places like Cambodia to work with others who are not so advantaged. God loves and appreciates all of us equally as God’s daughters and sons. But all of God’s children are not so appreciated in the eyes of many governments, local officials or even their fellow citizens.
Not all privilege is bad. Some privilege is earned or is a reward, e.g., frequent fliers have the privilege of using an airline’s airport lounge.
But there is also social privilege, which can give special status or recognition or advantages to a particular group of people, usually at the expense of other groups. Racism and colonialism are forms of such social privilege.
Privilege becomes especially harmful and hurtful when the privileged group considers themselves to be the norm and other groups are seen as lacking or inferior.
I live in the Phnom Penh Maryknoll office with another priest. It’s a simple shophouse — three-stories tall, 15 feet wide. Most of the population of Phnom Penh lives in similar accommodations. Frequently at night, I get into my own bed in my own room, with screens on the windows and AC if I want it, and with a kitchen and office downstairs.
At the same time, our 24-hour guard is bedding down for the night on a folding cot outside in our partially enclosed carport, with a mosquito net and table fan, and rats and mosquitos all around. He maybe has a primary school education; he has no chance for advancement; and he spends his day staring at the compound gate or his smartphone.
Our realities are totally different. I have opportunities and privilege that our guard will never have. But like the early Christians in Acts of the Apostles, we can share our resources and privileges, and working together and supporting each other we can bring about the reign of God.
Father Charles Dittmeier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, is the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh and pastor of the English-speaking parish. Follow his journey at parish-without-borders.org.