One of the hot topics of the day is
white privilege, with
privilege close alongside it. Having grown up with an undeniable level of
privilege, I recognise the significance of both, and a few more from which I
have benefitted. The net result is that I am, relatively
strong (most importantly in socio-economic terms, but
incidentally (though to a lesser degree) physically). By virtue of being strong
I am able to help others in various ways and my natural inclination is to do so;
furthermore, I have little respect for those who do not use such strength as
they have to make the world a better place, including a willingness to bear
reasonable burdens (at least those well within what they can bear) in order to
make the world a better place for others.
How well folk do in life is substantially influenced by circumstances over which they had no control: the economic circumstances and ethnicity of the family that raised them, their assorted (other) inherited traits – most obviously race – and the relationship between these and the the socioeconomic and political circumstances in which they find themselves living. The last may be, to some degree, within their power to change – by moving elsewhere – but typically there are significant costs to doing so, that limit the amount of difference they can practically realise thereby, to how well they do in life. It is an insult to those who suffer by it to deny the very significant contributions such circumstances make to folk's life outcomes. To the extent that some of us benefit from such factors, justice demands that we look for ways to help those who suffer by them; and the first and simplest step towards doing so is to recognise such benefit, in so far as we we unfairly gain thereby, and wake others up, who gain similarly or more, to the injustice from which they benefit. Those who benefit from privilege owe it to those who do not to recognise that privilege and to use their relative strength to end the systematic injustices in our society that deprive folk of control over how well their lives work out.
I was born into a prosperous family in a prosperous country in a time when
that country could mostly rely on a peaceful future (for all that the month
before I was born saw the world as close as it ever has been to nuclear
armageddon). I was born a boy (and have, as is the usual consequence, grown to
be a man) in a racial and ethnic group that is taken as the norm in that country
and which is widely treated relatively well even in countries where is is far
from the norm; and the nation-state within which that country is dominant is (by
the standards of comparable-sized nations with comparable-sized economies)
relatively influential in the world. The combination of my genetics (most of my
adult male relatives are over 1.8 metres tall and physically robust) and being
well fed while growing up have lead to me being relatively tall (close to 1.9
metres) and tolerably (physically) strong. Growing up after my civilisation had
learned enough about biology to make medical practice mostly competent, in a
nation that provided (mostly for free) an excellent health service (the UK's
NHS) left me in general good health, reinforced by a regime of physical exercise
imposed on me while at school. I was raised by well-educated parents, who gave
me a head-start in education and paid to send me to schools they believed would
serve me better than those provided by the state (which, I believe, were
respectably good by any historical standard, or when compared to other
contemporary nations). They and those schools have raised me to speak a
high-status dialect and accent of a language spoken around the world,
lingua franca of business and tourism.
These diverse factors, taken together, make it natural for me to trust that
I can go where I will and speak my mind freely, without fear of significant
harm, and that I shall have the means to survive and the support to stay
healthy. Those same factors gave me a good start at learning to be articulate
and enabled me to get started in a profession in which I have had ample
opportunity to make the most of (and thereby reinforce) most of the foregoing
advantages, particularly honing my ability to be articulate. The very existence
of that profession – a software engineer, predominantly in the
as such industry, which did not exist when I was born – is a
circumstance beyond my control, from which I have benefitted immensely.
Some of those benefits I enhanced or maintained by my own choice and efforts, beyond the extent to which I consider them unearned. Then again, it is all too easy to see my own contribution to how I earned them; but an honest appraisal compells me to admit that even the extent to which I have earned some of the advantages I have enjoyed in life, the advantages I had made it easier to do so.
I am grateful to my parents and teachers for the uncommonly advantageous head start they gave me in life. I do my best to make the most of what they have given me; in various (all too few and modest) ways I try to make the world a better place for others, though I do also take care to look out for my own future. I respect the folk of Norway's choice to improve the lives of most by levying taxes that take roughly a third of what my employer sets aside to keep me on the staff. It alarms me to see the obstacles others must overcome to have any chance of gaining a decent place in the world or giving their children a decent start to life. I may selfishly keep most of what I earn (after tax) for myself, but I will not deny that I owe the opportunity to earn it to the privileges I have been granted throughout my life; nor do I have any patience with those who, enjoying similar privileges, deny the advantages that confers on them. I am glad that I live in a land where most folk can look forward to a tolerably good life, if they are willing to earn it, and that the tax I pay helps to make that possible.
Some privileges in this world are conferred on folk, (by no means all, but
at least) some of them at least somewhat justly, in recognition of things they
have done, for the consequences of the choices they have made. For present
purposes, I leave those aside; some of them (like banks giving a higher interest
rates to, and imposing fewer transaction charges on, those who have more money)
at least reinforce injustices arising from other causes (and I would call many
of them, including the example just given, unjust in their own right); but I
leave that for another day or another author. I am here concerned with
privileges that one gains due to circumstances outside one's control, including
existing injustices in society and the economy that confer advantage (or spare
one disadvantages) for circumstances that cannot fairly be
Of course, those who wish to justify their privileges widen the meaning
earn to include more, but I do not consider an advantage earned unless
it arose from a meaningful choice the beneficiary of it made and went out of
their way to put into effort; nor do I consider any disadvantage earned (or
deserved) when it is suffered by someone who had no better choice meaningfully
open to them than the one they did make. Those are, furthermore, lower bound
constraints: I do tie the extent to which consequences of a choice can be said
to be earned to the extent to which the choice was meaningful and its supposed
alternatives were meaningfully accessible. Chosing to do what one's
circumstances largely compel or strongly encourage is far less meaningful than
making a choice to depart from such norms, for example; likewise, the more
daunting obstacles a person must overcome, to have any hope of benefiting from a
choice, the less meaningfully available that choice is.
One of the pernicious effects of privilege is that it is often invisible to those who have it. Privilege removes obstacles to choices, that those without privilege must overcome; those choices may thus be meaningfully available only to those with privilege; and it is hard to see an obstacle that was not there for you. Likewise, the path of least resistance for those with privilege, the path they are encouraged to pursue by all around them, the path they'll follow without meaningfully chosing to do so, is all too often a path those without privilege are steered away from, that they must fight to even be allowed to attempt. For example, If you can persuade a bank to lend you the funds to pursue some project that shall better your life, it is all too easy to forget that the bank's willingness to lend to you may depend on things they never mentioned in the course of your discussions with them. None the less, many others live with the practical knowledge that the bank would not even begin such discussions with them, all too often for reasons the bank would likewise take care not to mention out loud.
I allow that there is surely scope for differences in how strict one is in allowing whether any given advantage or disadvantate may fairly be said to be earned, but I have no time for claims that what one is born with is ever earned. I allow that parents have the right to do the best they can by their children (within the same limits as are generally recognised on their pursuit of their own interests), but I consider that the children of those for whom that best is better do thereby gain a privilege, that the child has not earned (though their parent may have). So, as a child of privilege (sketched, incompletely, above), I shall examine various privileges from which I have personally benefitted and which I do not claim to have earned.
There is something pernicious about the fact that I can be described
white – the colour of my skin, were it anything but skin, would
be described as a (slightly blotchy) pale brown, with pinkish overtones,
particularly on the paler parts – and yet, there it is, I am so described.
Behind that description lurk connocations of purity, virtue, cleanliness and
general goodness that are associated with the colour white, for reasons that
might make a whole topic of discussion all their own, even without the racist
associations arising from this use of
white to describe pale brown, with
pinkish overtones, when it happens to be the colour of skin.
I am also – and this is really a significant part of what's meant
white in this context, though folk tend to be shy of mentioning it
– of overwhelmingly caucasian descent. I have tolerably good grounds to
suppose an ancestor, in my mother's patrilineal line, back in the 1300s or
possibly earlier, was a Jewish convert to Christianity; I probably have other
ancestors of other races, too, but my knowledge of my ancestry (though, thanks
to one great-uncle's research into his patrilineage, it reaches further back
than most can answer to) is fairly sparse. In any case, I fit easily into the
range of skull-shapes and skin pigmentations that is described as caucasian. I
am quite sure plenty of my ancestors crossed into England from Scandinavia or
notable that folk with essentially the same skin-colour as mine, but
different head-shapes, are (or have been) described as
red-skins, both equally as inaccurate as calling me
Furthermore, some parts of the world distinguish among the
hispanic as a separate race despite the lack of any material
difference in physiognomy or skin colour. Likewise, the differences between the
folk characterised as
semitic and pale-skinned caucasians would hardly be
noticed, if it were not for the folk who so distinguish them bending over
backwards (and typically looking at things other than the body) to do so. Those
who favour folk for being
white to go great lengths to invent fine
distinctions, that are mostly in the eye of the beholder, to limit that
classification to the folk they want to limit it to.
That I am a pale-skinned caucasian is neither a bad thing nor a good thing;
it is just a happenstance of my ancestry, which I would sooner have the world
around me ignore, if only it would; and yet it is one which I know has made a
significant difference to the shape of my life. It is hard to point to how it
made a difference, because the way that it made a difference has predominantly
been by the lack of obstacles I would have had to overcome, were my
skull shape perceptibly different or my skin colour appreciably darker. Things
that might have been denied to someone of a different
race came to me
without effort, without the obstacles they would have faced being visible to me,
much less something I needed to overcome. It's hard to point to any one
advantage I have enjoyed by virtue of being
white, given how much the
advantages below have contributed, but I see quite plainly that this world does
discriminate in my favour, without even thinking about it, and indeed I have
participated in a study which showed me that I, too, am susceptible to
unconscious biasses in favour of
Black lives matter as much as mine, yet mine is far better protected. The world needs to wake up and pay more attention, to the fact that black lives matter, than to the fact that mine matters – because the fact that mine matters is already pretty well taken care of and the same quite plainly is not true – as it should be – of the fact that black lives matter. If a business's diverse divisions – design, production, marketing, sales and whatever else it may have – were working just fine, except for one of them, the CEO would demand a focus on sorting out the problem with that one; if some mealy-mouthed underling piped up to say that all departments matter, he'd get short shrift from any sane CEO. Just as the managers who have made the other divisions work will steer the efforts to fix the broken division away from damaging that success, so can we safely trust that the institutional habits that protect most folks' lives will steer our efforts to reduce the black death-toll away from putting other folks' lives at risk. So the thing to focus on, the thing we need to fix because neglect of it has been institutionalized for so long, is that Black Lives Matter.
I was born with some lumpy bits between my legs and declared, on that basis, to be a boy, thereby distinguishing me from girls. This has made a significant difference, to how the world treats me, ever since. I don't mean the (really quite limited) differences that the biological fact necessarily implies; this is about differences in how the world has chosen to treat me, where it could treat me the way it treats women or (better in most cases) it could treat women the way it treats me. I describe elsewhere how differently girls and boys are treated, and how that feeds into how men and women are paid differently. I do not have concrete statistics on how well women who do comparable work to mine for comparable employers are paid, but the established statistics show men generally being paid better than women, for equally valuable work, and men finding it easier to get recruited into jobs than women, with equal talent and qualifications. That is an economic privilege, that I most likely do benefit from; and there are so many other ways that being a man plays to my advantage.
When I go out into the world, I go without fear of being raped. That owes a fair bit to some of the other headings below (then again, being a man reinforces them, too), but crucially far fewer men than women get raped and the consequences for me, though still terrible, would not include potentially getting pregnant. A close companion to that is that, if I were raped and reported this to the police, I am fairly confident (perhaps misguidedly) that it would not simply be assumed that it was somehow my fault, or that I maybe lead the rapist on or consented and then changed my mind or any of the other appalling assumptions that women commonly face when reporting rape. Being able to go out without fear has an immense impact on one's life, that I only know partially and indirectly, because I have never lived with that fear. It remains pretty obvious, though, that the risk of rape does constrain women's freedom.
While my physical size and strength apear below as a separate topic, and the
distributions of height and strength among men and women overlap significantly,
statistically men tend to be bigger and stronger than women; some women are
bigger and stronger than some men, but most men are bigger and stronger than
most women. That's one of the factors in why women are more often raped than
men, but it also makes any other form of threat a man may pose to a woman more
significant. This has complex implications for the way society works and how
men and women interact; but it's an ever-present factor at the foundation of the
various ways that men wield power over women, however unwittingly that power may
be wielded or unaware men may be of
the violence inherent in the system
that lets us wield that power.
Our upbringing burdens girls (and thus women) with more expectations, that impose more burdensome restrictions, while teaching boys (and thus men) that we can get away with failing to live up to such expectations or with ignoring restrictions. The legacy of our upgringing makes some behaviours come more readily, that influence (both directly and indirectly) how successful we are at getting what we want and how dependent we feel on getting permission from others. The power-structures of our govenments and businesses tend to grant positions of power more readilly to men than to women, even when of equal competence to wield that power – and all too often gives power to men who wield it clumsily, where there are surely women who could wield it with skill and grace to advance the common good.
I'm English. A remarkable diversity of folk have treated me well simply because of that. I remain mildly perplexed whenever that happens, but I have seen it happen enough times to be quite sure it's real. Being posh, educated and prosperous has surely contributed to that, as has my fluency in a language that many want an opportunity to practice, but the simple fact of being English has had me treated more kindly, politely and amiably than I would be inclined to expect, given how folk from other lands (even the USA) are treated. To be sure, I also know of contexts where being English is not such a blessing, where folk hold grudges due to historical wrongs; but I have either managed to avoid those places or been spared for one reason or another. I do, after all, have several other privileges protecting me, that might overcome the rare case of one working against me.
In some cases this has been because the UK government still retains a reach and prestige in the world out of proportion to the present size and practical power of the country or its economy. When travelling in Jordan, our guide had occasion to visit the police, to tell his side in a dispute with his father; he asked me to go with him, which I naïvely did thinking he just needed the reassurance of company. Later I understood that his reason was far more practical: my presence significantly reduced the risk that they would simply beat him up and stuff him in a cell until (if ever) they felt like letting him out, without listening to a word said. He knew that they knew that: if I witnessed something bad happening to him and reported it to relevant authorities, there was far more likelihood that I would be listened to than that he would (if he ever got out of the cell to tell his tale), and that: if any ill befell me, there was a very real possibility of UK diplomats, with funds for lawyers and contacts in the press and in their own government, taking a lively interest in my case. I unwittingly wielded a power that protects me from all manner of perils (whether or not I notice them), simply by existing, hovering over me as it were; those restrained by it are far more aware of it than I am. Everyone should live free of those perils – yet, in a world where many do not, it is a privilege to have what all should have.
Written by Eddy.