We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are unaware of their privilege until someone who does not share it points it out to them.* 2020 has introduced new ways of showing the same old privileges, over, and over, and over again. Sometimes I have re-met privileges I share, that others have highlighted to me; at other times privileges I lack frustrate me beyond reason until I manage to sit down and work out why I am so angry with people I know, love, respect. Here are some of the things I have learned, for those who cannot simply leave their homes and talk to others about their experiences; those who do not come into contact with the people these stories belong to every day; and those who really don’t want to hear what I have to say, buy frankly need to anyway.
Privilege 1: having a car
One of my adult students phoned into college last week. She had developed a temperature over the weekend and was feeling unusually fatigued, so she did exactly as she should, shut herself away, and sorted out a coronavirus test. As she spoke, my mind was spinning Catherine-wheels of panic; this was a conversation I’ve known for a while was inevitable, but it’s never one you’re ready for first time round. What followed was three separate conversations checking facts, experiences and regulations to work through what we had to do next. And in those three conversations, every one of them started out not with praise for the student’s actions, or relief at her social responsibility (though those did follow later). Instead the first response was to curse. Why on earth had she chosen to get a postal test, when drive-thru testing is so much faster? And then it hit. This student spent a week cut off from study, her source of income, much good will, and the ability to leave her home and see her children; all when someone with their own vehicle would have been able to take the test, get the negative result, and be be released after only a couple of days.
Having a car you can use whenever you need it means avoiding personal risk by being able to commute without allowing random strangers who happen to be on the same bus as you into your personal bubble. It means having the flexibility to work that extra half an hour, instead of having to scream out of the office exactly on time or risk missing the last bus that will get you to nursery for pick-up, with the threat of a £5-per-5-minutes-late fine setting fire to your legs and your lungs as you run the last 100 meters. It means being able to deal with the third timetable change to your college course in as many weeks, and being able to accept blended learning that leaves you with an hour to get from your computer screen to your in-person lesson; and avoiding the accusation of lack of commitment if you are unable to make that journey work in any other way. Those of us who are ecologically minded and have averting the climate catastrophe at the top of our agendas speak about the importance of giving up cars; but we need to remember, this year of all years, just how much privilege we are showing not simply with the luxury of having a car in the first place, but also with having the security and confidence to be able to give that luxury up.
Privilege 2: not having to wear a mask
When discussing reopening our Quaker Meeting House for Meeting for Worship, back when that was possible and before Lockdown 2.0, it was commented that many Friends may not feel comfortable worshipping in person because an hour was a long time to wear a facemask. I found the comment entirely understandable and quite infuriating simultaneously. Yes, it’s true, an hour is a long time to wear a mask, particularly before you have built up a tolerance to them. But who falls into the category of people who can choose how long they have to wear a mask for? Choose, that is, rather than not wearing one because they do not feel safe enough to leave the house, or because they’re not lucky enough to have a reason to draw them out, or because they have a health condition that might make them more at risk of the virus whilst simultaneously preventing them from protecting themselves with a face covering? Those who can choose are financially secure enough to be retired; or senior enough to have their own private offices; or well-educated enough to be able to avoid working as cleaners, as waiters, as taxi drivers, as care workers. They have the privilege to choose whether they go somewhere that necessitates a mask or not; the rest of us don one every morning or face disciplinaries, dismissal, and the virtual, overcrowded dole queue.
Privilege 3: having a secure job
Having a job, particularly if it is on a permanent, non-zero-hours, non-furloughed contract; having a job where you can call in sick or self-isolating and still be paid; having a job that will accept it when you call in sick if your sickness is linked to stress, mental health, or a long-term condition; this is a privilege many would give up all dreams for their future to possess. Not being able to plan for when you can study, when you can work, when you will be locked down and when your kids will be sent home with half an hour’s notice means many are unwilling to follow through on long-held commitments and passions for fear of having to set them aside once again; and the pain of doing that, after so much other pain this year, is just too much. Fear of losing such a job means not rocking the boat, not asking for an evening off to work on your literacy and finally get the qualifications to get out of there, not saying no to shifts when they are offered even if you have made it clear that you are utterly unable to work at particular times and days (another Sunday you can’t work? You say it’s because of church, but if you put that before your shift here, I just don’t feel you are best suited to the weekday hours I have on offer next month…) And having the knowledge, the power, the confidence to stand up and cry discrimination and willingly take the consequences? That remains the sign of privilege it has always been.
Privilege 4: having time
Time. That beautiful, ephemeral gift that lurks in the back of every busy mind; the gift I have asked for at birthdays and Christmases since having children; that thing that only those who never have it really understand. Having time may not seem like a privilege; indeed, for many during lockdown it may seem like a curse. But from where I’m standing? Here’s why I call it privilege.
Having time and the capacity to use it as you choose means being able to hold down a job that operates on the assumption that you will take work home with you and complete it after hours: something impossible if your time or your living space is not your own. Having time means that when you are offered an extra shift at the job you enjoy you can take it, rather than having to turn it down to race to your second job where they expected you half an hour ago, or because, due to lockdown restrictions, you can no longer ask a neighbour to drop your kids home instead of being there yourself in the correct 10 minute pick-up window. Having time means you can work with your children to complete their homework, fill gaps left by home-schooling and weeks of lockdown, help them grow, show them what is urgent and important and valuable in life and give them the best possibilities for their own futures. Having time means you can laugh, and play, and exercise, and slow down and notice the sunset instead of running with blinkers on to the next task. And so, having time means better mental health; better physical health; a more secure financial footing; more control and more choices.
There are those who speak of the beauty of Lockdown, of the hope inherent in slowing down, as though that is a universal characteristic of this year. There are those who speak of boredom, and I find myself desperately jealous of the thing that is slowly killing them. There are those who speak of productivity, of creativity, of finished to do lists and totally read bookshelves, and I am so glad that I can read their thoughts and their joys, for all it’s through a haze of frustrated tears, because their voice reminds me of a story that is not mine, another picture to put in opposition to the one leaking through the bricks and pores of my everyday life. One storm it may be; but while the angle of the waves and the size of our rafts are so infinitely different, while we can, we need to all shout our stories, our fears and our triumphs to those on other boats.
* Before the men reading this get infuriated with me, I am, of course, using “men” as a generic term to refer to all humanity…