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This post was originally published by State of Formation on November 24, 2011. 

Having just returned from my first AAR experience at this year’s annual meeting in San Francisco, my mind is still spinning. For me, it was five glorious days of nerd-heaven where theological reflections on everything from identity politics to cyborgs abound. The only responsibility I had to fill during those days was showing up and learning something. Easy to do in such a context.

In the midst of an incredible session hosted by Lesbian/Feminist Issues in Religion and Gay Men in Religion, a student in the crowd gently reminded all of us of the privilege we hold in the mere fact we could be at such a conference. Not only did we have the means to travel to San Francisco from across the country, but we all had the opportunity to receive the education that birthed our being in a room enjoying scholarly conversations. Regardless of the diversity in gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation present, we shared in the privilege that allowed us to be there.

As a student, I spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about methodology, nit-picking theological claims, and (dare I admit publicly) crafting titles of various papers I long to write one day. It was good to be reminded of the privileges inherent in scholarly life and intellectual play. However, I am often tempted to think holding such privilege means I should give up the opportunity. Not everyone gets to spend hours and hours thinking and writing – so why should I? Such questions lead me to the thoughts expressed in myprevious post on scholar activism. There is a way to remain engaged in the academy and work alongside others in efforts to create systemic change, difficult as it may be. What I am learning is that acknowledging my privilege is less about giving up the opportunities before me and more about sharing them. I was reminded this week of political activist Angela Davis’ assertion that we must “lift as we climb.”

I witnessed the embodiment of this phrase in a few places this past week. First, I watched two well-respected theologians respond to a panel of student papers in such a way that authentically uplifted the students and their labor. A kindhearted critique, genuine respect for the strong work they presented, and the respondents’ belief in the students as necessary and qualified voices in the academy must have inspired every student in the room. I know I left a little more empowered. The respondents, in their scholarly prestige, lifted the students in an abnormally compelling fashion. It was wonderful.

Later, I attended a panel of five scholars. Most of the work was strong but one particular presentation was difficult to follow. Her thoughts were somewhat contradictory and her argument unclear. However, the next presenter spent a large portion of her time slyly lifting up the work of the previous presenter, making her argument shine. By the time she was finished, it was difficult to remember what didn’t make sense about the original piece and hard not to respect it. The second scholar used her time to lift the otherwise embarrassing performance of the first.

These examples, along with a small handful of others, were rare glimpses into privilege used well. In the world of the academy (even the religious one), the name of the game is often competition. Far too frequently, it’s a place for people to show off or have their egos rubbed.  In such cases, the privilege that accompanies the life of a scholar is wasted. Power inevitably comes with occupational success but what is done with it is completely up to the individual. With each step forward we must remember to look back and ask – who is being unjustly left behind (within or outside the academy)? What voice is not being heard?  Who can I lift as I climb? Ideally, these questions are pondered by those who hold power within the academy over those who don’t, but also by those of us who even have the privilege to be part of the academy at all.

Giving up opportunities, especially as a member of any marginalized group, is not helpful in and of itself. It does nothing to change the unjust systems of privilege at play. Recognizing privilege and using it to elevate others, however, is like a sneaky way of transgressing the system. With each step “up,” we “lift as we climb.” And so does that person. And the next…