Why I believe in the importance of recognising privilege.
The idea of privilege is pretty trendy right now. Male privilege, white privilege, class privilege. On one side it’s pretty easy to accuse someone of having one of these things as a way of discounting their accomplishments as being merely a product of their privilege. And on the other side, people are accused of victimising themselves by blaming the privilege of others for their problems.
I do believe in privilege. I believe some are born with privileges other’s don’t have and will reap the benefits of those privileges without making any effort. I don’t think it’s our fault, we can’t help being born into any circumstances, good or bad, but we can recognise those privileges and understand the impact they have on the world.
There are times I’ve talked to men about some of the worst things that have happened to me because I’m a woman.
“Why didn’t you say no?”
“Why didn’t you fight him off?”
“Why didn’t you just leave?”
These are all common questions I’ve been asked with a look that suggests that’s the obvious thing to do, and maybe if I really wasn’t happy I’d have done those things. The implication being I was complicit in my own abuse, or perhaps consented at the time but am painting a different story now.
This is when male privilege kicks in hard.
There are times I have said no, times I have screamed no. Then there are other times I haven’t because experience taught me it makes no difference and I’ve shut down completely because fighting is just too hard. And too dangerous. Which answers the next question. Even though for a woman I am quite tall, I’m relatively fit and strong, my physiology is significantly different to a man and I am a lot smaller and weaker than even the average man. Fighting has rarely served me well. In fact, it’s usually made it worse. If a man wants to beat me in a fight he can and there’s nothing I can do about it. A fact I’ve learned, and suffered for, and struggled with so much it haunts me. And why didn’t I leave? I lived once with a man who wouldn’t let me leave. He could leave me alone in our home and I still wouldn’t leave. Not because I was happy to stay but because the punishment for leaving was so very real and so very frightening that I was paralysed by fear. I didn’t leave because I couldn’t. Because my no was ignored and fighting myself free wasn’t an option.
Male privilege is assuming that everybody is as capable of physically defending themselves as you are. It’s assuming everyone has their no respected as much as you do. It’s assuming you can just leave if you want because how could anyone stop you?
With my own partner we’ve talked about how he can walk home at the end of a night alone, drunk, with his headphones in. He feels no fear. He’s been beaten up before but it’s been such a rarity that it barely impacts his day to day life. On the occasions I’ve tried walking home alone in the dark at the end of a night I’ve carried my keys between my fingers. I’ve been followed, I’ve been shouted at, I’ve had men touch me. I’ve had men hurt me. I don’t walk home alone in the dark anymore.
Male privilege is feeling safe. Male privilege is BEING safe. Sure there’s risk, men get into fights and are violent towards each other, men murder each other with guns and knives, but men can still walk home when they’re drunk in the dark and if someone assaults them, it’s the attackers fault. If someone assaults me, I was obviously asking for it. Why was I alone? Why didn’t I say no? Why didn’t I fight? Why didn’t I just walk away?
Male privilege is not struggling to afford menstrual hygiene products, it’s not being denied a job because you’re a pregnancy risk, it’s not having less qualified men explaining your job to you because as a woman you can’t possibly really know what you’re talking about. Male privilege is saying “this has never impacted, concerned or endangered me, therefore anyone who feels impacted, concerned or endangered is being ridiculous.”
White privilege and class privilege are things I have myself, and therefore I have the privilege of knowing less about them because they’ve impacted me less. I’ve only come to acknowledge and understand them in the last few years from listening to the conversation about them, and recognising myself.
I have white privilege. I don’t worry I’ll be turned down for a job because of my skin colour. I don’t worry I’ll be verbally or physically abused for my skin colour. I can walk around in a hoody and not be looked at like I’m a criminal. My skin colour never impacts my day so I never think about it. Like men have never had to think about the dangers of being a woman, I’ve never had to think about the dangers of not being white. Even simple things; “nude” colour underwear matches my skin colour, there’s always concealers and face powders that match my skin tone, every hairdresser is experienced in cutting and styling my hair.
Brexiteers have never shouted at me or told me to go home.
And class privilege. My mother is a successful doctor. I was given extra curricular education in music and arts. In the academic subjects I struggled with I was given extra tuition. Even though my main school education wasn’t paid for, my parents could afford to spend hundreds, thousands, of pounds on my education. I chose not to go to university but I managed to get jobs, I was taken seriously because I have an accent that marks me as educated. People always assume I went to uni, assume I have qualifications in all sorts, but I don’t and it surprises them. But this isn’t the case for people from less wealthy backgrounds. Whilst it’s a surprise to people that I’m not educated, it’s when working class people ARE educated that people seem surprised.
During my work I’ve been to some pretty swanky places. Posh hotels, glamorous bars and restaurants. I’ve never been treated like I didn’t belong. Never felt out of place. Even though as a struggling writer I could never afford to be in those places independently, my background makes me comfortable and familiar in those settings. People assume I belong, so I feel like I belong.
I’ve got where I’ve got in my career despite having no formal education in anything I do. I’ve got here through hard work and determination, through studying my craft in my downtime, working and writing in any moment I get. But how much harder would it have been if I was a working class person of colour? How much easier would it have been if I was a man?
People reject the idea of privilege because it suggests they don’t deserve what they’ve got, but I don’t think it does. Recognising my own privilege doesn’t mean I don’t deserve what I’ve got because it was that much easier for me than it would be for someone else, the work I’ve put in and the efforts I’ve made still count and I’m proud of myself. But recognising those differences and where we have a leg up that others don’t have is important. And it doesn’t mean that people without privilege can’t achieve things in life, it doesn’t mean as a woman I can’t be safe in the world at any time and it doesn’t mean that working class people can’t be highly successful. It just means it isn’t as easy, it means more obstacles will be thrown in the way.
My belief is that if we have privilege we should use it to bridge the gap. Because people who do have barriers thrown up in front of them for their skin colour, their disabilities, or their class deserve the respect of people on the other side of the barrier to help crush those barriers down. And the first step is by recognising where others have barriers that we don’t have, and to do that we have to listen.