Shall We Talk About Privilege?

Accepting and recognising our own privilege

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Hold on to your hats ladies and gents we are in for a ride today.  I am delighted to have been asked to contribute to A Life Loved Blog and am diving in head first and tackling a subject for us to debate that often triggers eye rolls, anger, frustration, guilt, misunderstanding, awkwardness and sometimes shame: Privilege and White Privilege.

I told you, hold on to your hats. In order to talk about white privilege we have to talk about race too and we’ve become so frightened about talking about race in the UK, so worried about causing offence, so much so it has paralysed us from having meaningful debate.

SO, let’s start today.  I’ll be honest, this is a subject I am extremely cautious about discussing,  that requires much sensitivity and honesty and is far better received in one of my in-person workshops, than online. But I will do my best. It is a subject so often misunderstood and hugely emotive, (for good reason).

I put a call out to some of you to share some of your own thoughts and experiences of white privilege to illustrate the article.  In reality, it is a subject that is impossible to tackle in one blog post. The complexity and it’s intersectionality with racial (and social) inequality and our current socio-political climate is prolific. But, let’s at least start the conversation.

– Image via Eulanda Shead Osagiede 

The trouble with White Privilege

White Privilege is a statement often misused to describe the super rich and the upper class. A phrase thrown around in race debates often used as a stick with which to beat, a phrase that frustrates and intimidates. A phrase that can, if we’re not careful, divide us.

It is a statement that forces us to see colour, to intricately examine and acknowledge our differences. A phrase that can feel like an attack on the liberal society and upbringings we have become accustomed to and feel proud of. After-all, it can be easy to think that the issues that are being brought to our attention by our socio-political climate are being forced upon us, to rock the boat. That we are all fine, that we are progressive and ‘tolerant’ and nowhere near as bad as America. That White Privilege doesn’t exist and is in fact, just the affect of people with ‘racist minds’ who can’t let go of slavery. It is a construct that disrupts, interferes and turns our shared utopia of what we thought Great Britain was or is, upside down.  But it is a very real construct that we must understand before we can move forward from this uncomfortable socio-political climate we are experiencing right now.

One of the reasons it triggers such a strong response in many, is that recognising privilege forces people who aren’t racist, to address and even confront their own complicity simply through its very existence.

“It was much easier to be blind to racism and systemic oppression when I lived a middle class life in a liberal state… Much easier to believe the “post-racism” lies.  Where I grew up, it felt to me as a though I lived in a very progressive, diverse community.”

“It wasn’t until I moved to the South, I realised racism was still in full swing, not the “look the other way” racism of the liberal northeast, but full on confederate flag waving white supremacy. It’s pervasive here and ingrained in their culture.”

“I came to realise I was sheltered in a white liberal bubble for so long that I didn’t realise how bad it was for everyone else. Even with parents who were active in the civil rights movement, and taught us to love and respect all people, it was easier to view racism as a problem of the past”

– These quotes represent feedback via my own communities –

The Origins

The terminology is relatively new in the UK, which explains why we are all still getting to grips with it. It’s an academic terminology brought into the mainstream, but it has in fact been used amongst academics for several decades and was discovered and named as ‘white skin privilege’ by Theodore W Allen, a white American from Indianapolis during the American civil rights movement in the 1960’s.

“White privilege makes me feel defensive if I’m honest.”

Before I delve into what White Privilege is, I want to share the definition of what racism is, as it is also often misinterpreted. Racism is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

It is the combination of racism, plus power that leads to systemic issues.

I will continue by adding a caveat – we ALL have prejudice and we all have bias. All of us. We can’t help it. If you’re human you have bias. It doesn’t mean we’re horrible human beings. When we can start to run into difficulty is if we are not aware of how our bias is negatively impacting how we behave, how we communicate,  how we parent, who we choose to work with, (and in turn don’t) who we trust and who we fear, for example.

But what exactly is White Privilege and what does it mean?

In black and white (no pun intended); White privilege (white skin privilege) is a term for societal privileges that benefit people identified as white in some countries, beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances.” 

“White Privilege is the absence of the consequences of racism. It is an absence of funny looks at you because you are believed to be in the wrong place, an absence of cultural expectations, an absence of violence enacted on your ancestors because of the colour of their skin an absence of a lifetime of subtle marginalisation and ‘othering’ or exclusion from the narrative of being human.” – Author Reni Eddo-Lodge.

Feminist Dr Peggy McIntosh discusses her own experience with white privilege in 1989; “As a white person, I realised I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.”

White Privilege is not, and certainly should not be used as means to shame people. It should be used in the academic context to which it was born, to raise awareness of social injustices and help people better understand the history of our social constructs and structural bias that have been embedded into all of us, systemically and through the mainstream and popular culture from the day we were born. From beauty standards, to what our gut instinct tells us a bride should look like, to what a pilot looks like, who we see in government and positions of power in the workplace – notice the common denominators they share; race, class, gender. We become accustomed to seeing what versions of success look like.

In the same way we have become accustomed, on a subconscious level to who we should fear. We construct what a criminal or thug looks like, we make automatic assumptions about someone’s intelligence by the intonation of their speech patterns, we might grab onto our bags when someone walks past us that plays into a negative stereotype, we might even cross the road or feel uneasy without knowing why, and they become our default setting and this conditioning starts way before we enter adulthood.

We find it easier to connect positive associations with white and easier to associate negative associations with black.

It’s why I find a study by Harvard psychologist Mazahrin Banaji so powerful. It explores children’s behaviour from a variety of ethnic backgrounds between the ages of 3 and 5 who through the results of case studies were shown to exhibit racial bias and stereotypes from as young as 3 years old. Of course the children are not racist, they were not brought up the homes with racist ideals, they are simply children. But the study suggests that the children have already been conditioned to see certain skin tones as desirable, successful, beautiful, bad, stupid and ugly, by race association.

Children start to form gender stereotypes from as young as 5 years old and start to display signs of racial preference as young as 3 and studies like the Clark Doll Project and this pertinent scene from this documentary produced by Oprah Winfrey, reinforces this message.

So imagine for a moment, if all the stimuli you receive at that age starts to point to the same narrative; with positive associations for one type of group and negative associations for another, on a subconscious level. As seen with these children, it can start to shape your experience of the world and the value of the people in it. This might go some way to explain why people that take the Harvard (IAT) implicit bias test – a test that measures bias that we hold unintentionally and subconsciously –  the test shows that we find it easier to connect positive associations with white and easier to associate negative associations with black. It’s reported that over 70% of people taking that test who are white have have preference towards white and 50% of people of colour taking the test have the same preference.

Common misconceptions

A common misconception of  White Privilege is it that you can only experience it if you are upper class, rich and not in poverty. Which is a myth.

Privilege in the academic sense, doesn’t mean that you have lived a life of luxury and have never experienced inequality, or poverty or injustice, absolutely not. What it means is based on our genetic make up, through no fault of our own, statistics and social constructs show us that if our skin is white, we are, by default, afforded more unearned privileges than people of colour.  Of course this also extends beyond race, to gender, class, sexual orientation and ability. For example, even though I fall under the category of an ethnic minority and I am female (by default less privileged, statistically I will face more inequality than my white, male, middle class peers), but because of my genetic makeup, yes I experience some privilege too. For example, As an able-bodied person, I am more privileged than my disabled peers –  I can take a trip to London without having to restrict my route to only explore parts of town that are close to accessible tube stations, or to only visit shops that have a ramp or door wide enough to fit a chair through the door; a constant barrier for wheelchair users in London. I am privileged because I am heterosexual. I can kiss and my embrace my husband in public without fear of receiving a homophobic attack.

I myself had become so accustomed to my experience navigating this funny thing called life as a black woman, that it wasn’t until one of my friends (who is white-British) highlighted an inequality to me. I was talking about moving to the countryside and discovering I had to travel over 100 miles to the nearest hairdresser that caters to afro hair. It wasn’t until she reminded me that she can walk to any hairdresser ( or hop in the car) on the local high street to get her hair done. I had become so used to doing that 100 mile round trip that I just accepted it – I had become seduced by inadequacy of not being catered to – it had become the ‘norm’.

Confronting Privilege

Many people don’t even realise they are experiencing any type of privilege, because it has become their experience of the world. It is often embedded so deeply into structural systems, industries, organisations and the workplace, that it is extremely difficult to see, it is even harder to prove. It is one of the reasons why the UK Prime Minister commissioned a race audit in 2017 with a view to better understand and to take steps to dismantle growing race inequality in the UK.  But whilst it’s useful to see the stats, we need to understand why there is such disparity there in the first place.

I think our lack of understanding of why we’re still experiencing racial inequality in 2018, might be something to do with our discomfort with talking about race issues. And perhaps the absence of education in schools. Many schools don’t have black history, or indeed – simply British history about the UK’s prevalent involvement with slavery in British Colonialism on the curriculum.

About Understanding the historical context to repatriation and why immigration remains such a contentious issue for us today and where the phrase ‘go back to your own country’ actually came from. I am still discovering so much about British history,  it is hidden in plain sight, as a result so many people are unaware of the gaping holes in our history.  Perhaps more understanding of where we came from and how we used to treat each other based on skin tone, might go some way to help us learn about ALL of our history – the good, the bad and the indifferent, not just the part schools think have more relevance, to better understand some of the values our country was built upon and how that still affects us all today.

“When we deny our stories, they define us.
When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending
Until we find a way to own our collective stories around racism in this country, our history and the stories of pain will own us.
We will have to listen. We will have to challenge our resistance and our defensiveness.
We have to keep listening even when we want to scream, ‘I’m not that way. This isn’t my fault!’
We have to examine and own stereotypes and prejudices. Every single one of us has them. It will be tough.” – Brené Brown.

One of the reasons that White Privilege triggers such a strong response in many, is that recognising privilege forces people who aren’t racist, to address and even confront their own complicity simply through its very existence.

Racism is depicted to us in the context of extremists. As members of the far right such as The Ku Klux Klan, The British National Party. People with racist views are depicted as angry and cruel human beings, as people with little intelligence who are probably not working.  What happens when racism takes a form that is not explicit, or when racism is exhibited by one of the positive associations we have become accustomed to; a doctor, our friendly neighbour, or a friend or family member, it disarms us because it goes against the stereotypes and positive associations that have been constructed within us. So much so, we question whether less explicit racism exists at all….we feel frustrated and defensive. I mean, how can racism still be so prevalent in the UK? We live in a liberal society, multicultural England. We just had a black president in America. Black Panther featuring an all black cast just got released, more and more adverts are using families with mixed ethnicities in them. Meghan Markle is marrying into the British Monarchy What is the problem?

“First it was knowing that being white passing and benefitting from white privilege didn’t inherently make me a bad person. I always thought racists were evil, and I didn’t want to be evil. Realising that I wasn’t and I could accept that I had racist tendencies but could change them and not be a bad person was a huge deal.”

“Maybe this is a weird example, but one thing that really impacted me was studies and statistics showing how even very very young children exhibit signs of racism. What I took from that is that racism is not the same thing as hatefulness or evil intent. It’s not necessarily a conscious desire to cause harm (obviously some people have that, but I don’t think that is true in most cases). It’s a system of thousands of cultural inputs that become part of our thinking and decision-making process without us even realising it, and those prejudices are in literally everyone, every single person, because we are all exposed to those same racist institutions in one way or another. So I don’t have to feel guilty for having it in me, but I should feel guilty if I choose not to do something about it (or don’t do enough).”

“For me, the penny drop moment to understanding White Privilege was learning that black women couldn’t wear their hair naturally in the military in the US.  I was so confused because all I could say was ‘but that’s how it grows out of their heads?!’ The other was plasters.  It literally never occurred to me that all plasters look like MY skin tone.”

– These quotes represent feedback via my own communities –

Better Understanding Privilege

For some, understanding privilege comes over a long period or time and for others a penny dropping moment. Some of which I have used above to illustrate the piece. It is an enormous subject and I have barely scratched the surface today.

So what can we do to continue the conversation, to be able to move past any defensive impulses?

Be open to listening. Be open to understanding that just because something may not be your experience or a problem to you personally, does not mean that a form of inequality is a very real and often daily reality for others.

The change to dismantling racism and the firmly rooted foundations the UK was built upon, requires education and self awareness. It takes effort, it takes understanding, it takes empathy and it takes vulnerability.

Accepting and recognising our own privilege means being open to being vulnerable. It means accepting how we have benefitted in some way and that can be painful.  BUT to anyone who has been at the benefit of privilege in some way (which is most of us) – it is not your fault. But it is your responsibility to challenge your own complicity and to use the power of your privilege, in whatever guise it takes, to influence, to support. But more so to confront your own prejudices to help dismantle social and racist structures that have been designed, for centuries, to place one race as being more superior to another.

We are all human beings and our desire to strip all of these ‘labels’ and to get closer towards equality, or at least equity, will only happen if the change starts from within.

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It’s important to us all at A Life Loved that we encourage conversation around privilege and diversity. Please participate in our conversation using the comments box below or by joining the debate over on our Instagram feed.

Lead image Copyright © Shane Vincent, via the BJP online.

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16 Comments

  • Loved this article. It explains an issue I have failed to grasp so clearly and succinctly. The ‘penny dropped’ for me. Thank you Nova.

  • Thank you for this Nova, really useful to read about the definitions and origins to help shape our conversations. As a white woman it can feel uncomfortable to talk about race and you’ve helped demonstrate why. I commit a long time ago to trying harder and axknowledging my discomfort as part of the problem. I hope you can explore this topic more in future blogs.

    • Absolutely. I always say, it is better to have the conversation than not. It’s getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Only then can we all better understand each other, social injustices. It’s not our fault – but it is our responsibility not to repeat history as we move forward

  • A very well written piece that for the first time has enabled me to grasp a tiny bit of what the term White Privilege means.
    Thank you. I won’t be afraid to confront my shortcomings anymore.

  • Raw truth is always uncomfortable but complacency never leads to a change for the better. You are so right to remind everyone that effective change starts from the examination of one’s own conscious being.

    We need to have the humility and understanding to introspect more and challenge our own thought processes and really think before we speak and act. The fact that Humankind (or unkind at times) cannot live together peacefully is depressing and shocking when you consider that we are in the 21st century. The old adage that ‘history teaches us nothing’ should itself be challenged. Curricula in schools and universities would be a good place to start. Colonial history is not talked about enough.

    As a small child in the 70’s (a decade which taste truly forgot) I witnessed the most hideously racist portrayals of black lives on TV. To make matters even worse these were often comedy programmes like ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and ”Til Death Do Us Part’ which thank goodness would never be aired as repeats.. There would be a national outcry, one would hope.

    This is a vast, delicate but crucial subject and whatever we do in our professional, domestic and social lives constantly transmits and perpetuates messages and it is the responsibility of every human being to wake up to the fact that each one of us count in enacting change and that diversity is beautiful.

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