Privilege is a word that has only fairly recently become part of my vocabulary. About time too, but that leaves me, like many others, feeling like I’m playing catch-up, with guilt making me question all the benefits I have gained – am still gaining – without ever consciously asking for those advantages.
When we talk about privilege, are we talking about things that make us feel proud? Feel loved? Feel lucky? Or are we talking about things that give us an unearned advantage in life, purely based on something we have little control over – our gender, our race, our physical ability?
The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.
The problem with language, glorious though it is in ever so many ways, is that here we are talking about both; and sometimes what we are talking about is equally part of both meanings. This post is my attempt to process things that are still new, confusing, and sometimes seem contradictory to me. If I get it horrifically wrong, please do correct me. Nicely, if possible, but if not I’ll try to understand.
In the process of writing this post, I also accepted what should probably have been self-evident: privilege is not an individual thing. In a culture dominated by individualism, this is a topic that, like faith, football and community action, can only really make sense when it is not practised alone.
One of the things I value about Quakers is their ability to ask open questions that expose more possibilities than they expect answers. One of the things we sometimes fall short on is remembering to talk about the myriad ways in which these questions might be answered. One such set of questions was asked at the most recent Yearly Meeting. I found them both helpful and challenging, and though I appreciate why they were not answered at the time, I look forward to hearing where other people might be on many of these issues, as Britain Yearly Meeting continues to explore, deepen, and act on these ideas over the next few years.
If I was to answer those questions now – well, some of them; I can’t remember them all – here is what I would say.
Q: Have you ever been the only person in a room with your skin colour?
A: Yes. But that doesn’t mean I understand, in my tummy and through my own experiences, what it is to be isolated and categorised purely on the colour of my skin. My own experiences of this are themselves steeped in the privilege that surrounds me, that made these experiences possible in the first place, and underlined by the worldwide impact of Britain’s colonial past:
- About 2 months into a transformatory period of volunteering, on the coast of Kenya, I was invited to the home of one of the staff, to talk about writing essays and to meet his new wife. I was the only white person not only in that home, but in the whole village, at that moment at least; and I was feted as a result to an extent I found deeply uncomfortable. Noticed, yes; judged or sidelined, definitely not.
- A few years later, the dire conditions in the refugee camps near Calais hit the headline news. I was invited to a fundraiser for the people living in The Jungle. It had a bouncy castle, a Frozen tribute act, and candy floss. I had two daughters who were under 5. Obviously, we were there in a flash. So were around a thousand other people. And for some time (until my husband, far better known in the area, arrived) there were only five white people in the room: Elsa and Anna on the stage, my daughters, and me. Some people looked at us in distaste. Some people looked with anger. Some people said nice things. Under it all was a palpable feeling of what are you doing taking over even this space, that is meant to be ours?
- Now, I am frequently the only person with my skin colour in a room. But I am at the front, the focal point of the room, and my language and experience shapes every lesson. My students – adults and often older than I am – are uncomfortable treating me as informally as I ask them to. One student was amazed when I wiped the board myself, instead of asking her – my senior, and someone who had also been on her feet at work all day – to do it for me. This unequal position is not due solely to my skin colour – they would have equal respect for any other teacher – but still, even when the only person of ethnicity in a room, my privilege is never left at the door.
Q: Did you grow up in a house with more than 50 books?
A: Yes. Oh, yes! I grew up in a house that probably had 50 books in every room. I live in a house now that definitely has 50 books in every room. It doesn’t feel like a home without them. But what does that mean in terms of privilege? Not that I grew up in a wealthy home. Although we never went hungry, as children, we weren’t well off either. I learned the meaning of “frugal” pretty early on, and in a supermarket at that. So being surrounded by books isn’t the same thing as wealth. Is it the same as being middle class? Again, no. Growing up, the books were my parents’. Although my father was middle class, my mother was proudly not. Her parents, who worked hard with their hands, in trades that might now be artisan but back then were not, instilled in her the belief that the education she could have and they did not was the best way to change her world, not by leaving behind her roots, but by being the best she could without anyone saying otherwise.
And yet, if privilege means unearned advantages, to me, coming from the household that I did gave me privilege. My parents read to me as a child: in Dad’s case, the whole of the Lord of the Rings. With the voices. They helped me with homework – and between them and my terribly smart, depressingly laid back, older brother, I had help with every subject up to A Level maths. My parents never said that reading was for losers, and didn’t have to hide their own fear or uncertainty behind making it sound dull. They never suggested that I couldn’t do science or maths because I am female – in fact, quite the opposite. University was an expectation and the household timetable was organised around enabling that. And now, a qualified teacher with a mountain of debt and the option of working in a variety of fields I care about, I know just how many doors are opened to me not because I am smart, not because I sound posh, but because I have good GCSEs, and a few letters after my name. Did I work for them? Yes – some a lot more than others. Did I get there purely on my own merit? No. No more than Jacob Rees-Mogg or Donald Trump are self-made men.
Q: Can you publicly display affection to your partner without fear of the reaction?
A: As a heterosexual, happily married, cis woman, yes, I can. I do not fear that people will hurl abuse – or worse – at either of us. They will not mutter, stare, or even notice us. Unless, that is, my husband is in work clothes. As an Anglican priest, he spends much of his time in a cassock. Which means that I have walked through shopping centres; held hands with; even kissed a man in a cassock in public (though maybe not quite as often as he might want me to…) And that means that I have been stared at. I have heard people questioning around us, full of judgement and negativity. I have heard people shout abuse and accusations of paedophilia at the man I love and not had the courage to do anything back. We are Christians, in a culturally Christian country, and with that comes a lot of things that make life easier. But living in a society that sees you living out your faith as an outmoded throwback at best, and an active participant in a horrific period of failing within a worshipping community that should always have been better than that, guilty by association, at worst; that is not the normal picture we paint when speaking of privilege.
Q: Have you ever been blamed for your own illness? (They didn’t actually ask that. I think maybe they should have done.)
A: As I have said before, I am overweight. I have always been “big boned”, but being tall helps it to not dominate people’s first impressions of me. But recently, I transitioned from that to someone who has high cholesterol. This, apparently, is the point that you start being a thing, instead of a person. Someone who gets told that you should “think about eating 5 a day” to make yourself healthier. No one asks what I’m already doing. No one checks why it’s hard. The assumption is that I am this way because I am lazy or ignorant of how to look after myself. End of story.
Is being thin a privilege? I don’t know. Does it open doors? Yes. Does it change how others see you, well before you open your mouth? Yes. But is it unearned? For some people, maybe, but for others, no. They have worked hard for the bodies they have, and have to continue doing so to keep them that way.
There are some things, protected characteristics that clearly carry with them discrimination and privilege. But this is not a straightforward subject. There are grey areas, uncertainties, confusion. I do not yet have all the language I need to discuss and learn from others’ experiences, and my own. What I can say is that no one is only privileged (well, almost no one, anyway). For those of us who have benefited more from privilege over the years, though, it is time to step up to the mark, own our own lives, and roll up our sleeves to start serving those who have not had as many open doors and step ups as they deserve. Not because we need to, but because we want to. Not because of fear, but because of hope. Not because of guilt, but because of love.