Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Take my privilege: a personal essay

I’m white (obviously) so right out of the gate, I’m privileged. Believe me, I’m fully aware of that. I’m also educated to degree level. More privilege. On top of that, I’m middle class. Yet more privilege. I’m also (more or less) heterosexual. Still more privilege. I’m able-bodied. Even more privilege. I might lose a couple of points in the area of gender: I’m female, although my gender presentation falls a little more towards the centre of the spectrum. I might lose a couple more in the area of mental health: I suffer from depression and anxiety. But that’s it. Otherwise, I’m right up there. I’ve been afforded pretty much all the blessings modern Western civilisation has to offer. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not super rich or anything, but I’ll probably never have to worry about my economic status. I’m almost as privileged as I can be. I know that.

Meanwhile, my husband, also educated and middle class, has been afforded a measure of the same privilege, even though he’s not actually white, because he’s half white. Therefore, by some people’s reckoning, he’s only half as threatening as if both his parents had been from India. He also claws back a little more privilege by being male. But he’ll never have the same level of privilege as I do because he’s not fully white, and that immediately places him lower down the ladder. It places him in another category, that strange limbo of otherness that allows him to go about his life under the radar, as long as he continues to fit into the space society has allotted him. I don’t say that because I think it’s right, or that’s the way it should be. I say that because it’s true. What I want to do is use my own privilege for something meaningful. What’s the point of having it if I can’t try, in some way, to share its power with those who don’t have it?

I was brought up in a predominantly white area, with few families of colour, or even families who weren’t from the North East of England, so that has shaped my experience and my understanding. My sphere of existence, for a little shy of the first two-thirds of my life, was very small. Since then, of course, I’ve travelled and met plenty of people with different experiences and different backgrounds. But I’ve never really had the hard conversations, the ones about race, about what it feels like to have people hate you just because of the colour of your skin. That, I think, is at least part of the problem. People like me rarely want to step too far outside our safe, comfortable, protected bubbles. But I want to have those conversations. I want to hear those words and try to comprehend them. I know I’ll never properly get it. I can’t. But I want to do my best. Make me uncomfortable. Shake me. Wake me up.

I’m not asking anyone to think for me, to do the work for me. I’m not trying to make it all about me, because that, I know, is what people like me do, all too often. I’m asking what I can do to redress the balance, on an individual level. Anyone who knows me, knows I believe in equality. I believe skin colour, religion, upbringing, sexuality, economic status and any other aspect of one’s being over which one has no control should make no difference. Belief is all well and good, though. “Should” is all well and good. Wanting a world in which no one is treated as superior or inferior just by dint of their skin colour is not the same as doing something to bring it about. Deploring police brutality and the killing of people in the street is not the same as doing something to make that stop. I know that.

Now more than ever, with extreme right wing views becoming increasingly mainstream, those of us who want that better world and who have the kind of privilege I’ve described need to get off our arses and do our utmost to fight back. We need to use our bodies and our voices to bolster those who’ll suffer most as a result of this flood of nasty, insidious politics and to stem that tide. I want to start doing that. I want to stop being fuzzy and wishy washy.

So I’m asking to be taught. I want to hear and learn and then use that learning. Let me put it to the best possible use. I want to stop wasting this. Imagine if you had the world’s most beautiful voice but you never sang. This is like that. I’m in a position to do something and I want to do it. I just don’t know where to start. To be clear, I’m not seeking plaudits or a pat on the back. I’m trying to be as genuine as I can be, given this is the internet. I’m trying prise open those narrow spaces. I’m trying to take those first steps towards on the road to bringing that world of equality into being. I want to do what I can, and what I must. I’m opening my door. Take my privilege.

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