Unjustified outrage from ‘Christian Privilege’ workshop shows need to continue trainings

The Multicultural Student Services Center hosted a workshop last week on Christian privilege – titled “Christian Privilege: But Our Founding Fathers Were All Christian Right?” – that sparked outrage from the conservative media, pundits and others on social media. But the attention was unjustified and came from a place of ignorance.

The training focused on the built-in advantages of being Christian in America, touched on white privilege and discussed examples of Christian privilege, according to the event description. It was widely covered by conservative media sites like Campus Reform and the Washington Times and was a subject of discussion on the popular Fox News morning show “Fox and Friends.” Among the chief complaints about the workshop was that Christian privilege does not exist. This outrage and ignorance is exactly why the event needed to be held. Fortunately, the MSCC stood in the face of critics and continued with the training.

Even students who may be critical of the concept of privilege should attend to get a better perspective of different points of view.

We need to learn as a college community about the many different privileges that exist in our country because acknowledging them helps strengthen our campus community and supports the MSSC’s mission to build a “welcoming, enriching and inclusive environment.” Many people have said that privileges – including Christian privilege, white privilege and heterosexual privilege – do not exist, and efforts to reduce these privileges have been criticized. We can show we understand the importance of learning about all privilege by stepping out of our comfort zone to attend sessions that we don’t know much about. Even students who may be critical of the concept of privilege should attend to get a better perspective of different points of view.

Right-wing political commentators declared the workshop an attack on Christianity and claimed the training ignored the religion’s history of persecution around the world. These same commentators mocked the idea that Christian privilege exists. But it’s clear in the way Christian holidays are ingrained in American culture that Christian privilege does exist. Toward the end of the calendar year, “Merry Christmas” is an acceptable greeting. But many students from Christian backgrounds on campus can’t explain the customs and history behind Diwali and Kwanzaa – which are around the same time of year. Easter is often encompassed by Spring Break at many universities, but other religious holidays like Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha occur during the academic year and many Jewish and Muslim students have to observe the holidays while managing classes.

There are systems in place at some universities to cater to other religions. For example, professors at GW and other universities allow absences for religious holidays, but taking time off for religious reasons is often difficult because students are expected to make up all work missed. The reality is that Americans are expected to know, understand and adapt to Christian practices, but it’s common to never learn about other religions, like Hinduism or Islam.

Yet when there is a discussion, like this seminar about religious inequalities in America, rather than participating, the conservative media hides behind the guise of reverse racism and the legitimate struggles of Christians abroad. Those who criticized the event failed to acknowledge or learn about Christian privilege in the U.S. before they decided to attack a workshop designed to discuss it. This impactful session is also just a small part of what the MSSC has to offer. The center gives trainings on topics such as sexuality, race and gender with a similar purpose of educating students about inequality and privilege to raise awareness.

The reality is that Americans are expected to know, understand and adapt to Christian practices.

GW’s event was clearly misinterpreted by the large number of people who point out how Christians in the Middle East are persecuted because of their faith. Many claim that Christians are the most persecuted people in the world, but this training was never intended to discuss Christians outside of the U.S. The event also never claimed that American Christians don’t have their own struggles. Rather, the MSSC aimed to start a discussion with students about how American Christians benefit in day-to-day life in ways that can go unrecognized. These sessions must continue because they serve as a resource for educating students in ways that don’t necessarily happen in the classroom. For example, discussions as simple as how Christianity is more accurately depicted in pop culture than other religions, and as complex as how faith is often used to identify non-Christians in America, are important to have. This training session is an example of recognizing privilege in order to be more self-aware and to help other religious groups that don’t have the same privileges within the U.S. and not an event for diminishing the experiences of Christians around the world.

GW should be commended for putting on the event, which was meant to do no more than educate students. Those who attended the event were expected to learn about how to be able to define and provide examples of Christian privilege and to learn how to be an ally with non-Christians on campus. Critics ignored these positive takeaways, and instead focused on the title of the workshop – not the content. But even as it was hounded by controversy, the MSSC put learning and tolerance before the misguided criticism. I’m proud of GW for holding this seminar, and I hope that informational sessions that attempt to reduce inequalities – or at least make people more aware of them – continue on campus.

Kiran Hoeffner-Shah, a freshman majoring in political science, is a Hatchet columnist.

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