On privilege

“Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege. I want to live in a world where all women have access to education, and all women can earn PhD’s, if they so desire. Privilege does not have to be negative, but we have to share our resources and take direction about how to use our privilege in ways that empower those who lack it.”
Bell Hooks, Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism

Checking your privilege has become somewhat fashionable of late. Increased awareness and focus on intersectionality has led to feminists and others to examine how their race, gender, sexuality, socio-economic background, disability and so on interact. Supposedly there is no hierarchy of oppression, yet one cannot ignore the fact that individuals’ experiences vary depending on where they sit on various spectrum’s of privilege. This article will explore my growing awareness and experiences of privilege as a working-class woman of colour with the aim of illustrating how one’s privilege shifts from one context to another and so must be continuously reassessed both structurally and personally.

My first conscious experience of privilege concerned class and took place at university, yet, with hindsight, these experiences began while I was a teenager. I grew up in social housing in Islington, North London. I would regularly babysit for local families who lived in large terraced houses with several storeys: homes that were the product of intergenerational wealth.

I enjoyed babysitting in these large houses, so different to my own, and never questioned how it was that my family lived in a small council flat, while others, just five minutes away, lived in such spacious luxury. I knew that the owners of these houses had professional jobs and made the simplistic analysis that a good job equalled a big house. As an adult, far from my dream of being a home owner, I have considered how intergenerational wealth confers advantages from birth to adulthood. Housing and children’s life chances are inextricably linked – having the space to study in; living in a clean and safe home and area; the resources available in the area you live in such as good schools, medical services, and leisure activities; access to cultural capital, the absence of poverty and so on will influence how a child succeeds in life. One needs only consider the child growing up in an over-crowded council flat in Bermondsey, compared to the child in a terraced house in Kensington. The variance in their opportunities, aspirations, ideas of work, jobs and sphere of reference will impact on their life chances: not simply in terms of getting work, or becoming financially well off, but on mental health, feelings of self-worth, confidence and so on. To unpick privilege we need a structural analysis of our economy.

To return to my experiences and understanding of privilege, I will describe a realisation I had recently. I used to long to be from a more authentically ‘black area’ such as Hackney or Tottenham. I understood, from others’ reactions, that Islington was considered quite well to do, trendy, and, as a ‘white’ area, respectable. Individuals’ attitudes towards me growing up in this type of environment have been positive and rarely questioned. This gives me a privilege I rarely considered, but which was articulated by my students in Hackney taking part in a session on unconscious bias. They pointed out that I may have an advantage in being from a wealthier area because positive assumptions about this area may influence others’ actions towards me. Furthermore, several bright and articulate Afro-Caribbean students stated that they had been considered ‘posh’ for a black person, particularly for a young, black person from Hackney. The underlying assumption was that well-spoken black teenagers from a deprived London borough are unusual. Such ideas are supported by research by French anti-racist organisation SOS Racisme and, more recently, by research by the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) which found that race and address can have an impact on your job prospects.

The location where you grow up interacts with privilege in another way: families find housing they can afford. My family came to the UK as immigrants through the Commonwealth and, although my parents’ position was difficult due to racism, they were not escaping war or genocide. I recognise that their experiences are not parallel to refugees in the UK who cannot work and are wholly reliant on the state. Activist campaigns on Yarls Wood detention centre and the vulnerability of the women placed there before deportation or whilst their cases are being heard have shown me the differences and privileges experienced by different generations of immigrants and refugees: here, again, privilege is shown to exist on a spectrum.

At university I was most struck at the privilege that my fellow white, middle-class students exhibited in seminars and bars – the right to have a voice and the entitlement to be heard. I feel white, middle-class people are likely to assert their right to talk, often at the expense of others, something I have found particularly in feminist circles. In my article on black women’s experiences of university some women highlighted how challenged, rather than encouraged, they were in academic circles when they attempted to have a voice. Furthermore, white, able bodied and straight students do not have to worry about standing out or fitting in due to their race, sexuality or a disability. Middle-class students are also privileged in that they are not questioned nor do they question themselves about their right to be at university. There is an underlying assumption that going to university belongs to a certain group and with it comes the confidence to participate in sparring with lecturers. The Eurocentric curriculum of many degree courses is criticised but rarely changed and this theme runs right down to earlier schooling where, for example, the main example of Afro-Caribbean people in history is the slave trade and even this is covered in such a way that the white middle class are portrayed as both the villains and the saviours of the slaves. The rest of the curriculum focuses on Europe – the ancient Romans and Greeks or the six wives of Henry the 8th. The curriculum does not reflect the multiculturalism of the UK: the greatest privilege is to have history written about from your perspective.

Exposal to more middle-class households at university, highlighted the huge income gaps between my friends and I and made me internalise negative feelings about my family and myself. I was angry that I was so different from my fellow students because of my race and class. As a sociology student I was both oppressed and motivated by statistics on Afro-Caribbean attainment: I believed in a meritocracy but wanted to go to the best university I could. It has taken years to relax my feelings of frustration towards my economic situation, but I realised that I could not compare myself to my university friends because the privileges of being white and middle-class have influenced their lives both tangibly – financial support and security for example – and intangibly – for example having confidence in their abilities. My anger and frustration was rooted in an awareness of how society viewed me. Furthermore, my belief in meritocracy has been tested because life has shown me, and many others of my generation, that getting a degree will only get so far in a competitive, capitalist society. We are disillusioned and rightly so: we swallowed the myth of education as a gateway to a brighter future. Yet those with entrenched privileges keep the gates .

My experience of privilege within feminism is twofold. I started a feminist book club with several friends. The group remains mainly white, middle class and heteronormative. There is an awareness of intersectionality and as I inhabit a role where my race and class position is different to the norm my personal views are given some import.

However, in black feminist circles my ethnicity, skin colour and hair are bound up with very different perceptions of my privilege, centering around the inadequacy of the term ‘person of colour’ in encapsulating the various privileges afforded to those with different skin tones. For example, I have been publicly challenged about my light-skinned privilege due to my mixed Indian and Caribbean heritage (I am often mistakenly identified as half black and white) which has led to people questioning my right to identify as black. I am uncertain about whether I can participate in the natural hair movement as my hair is long and curly, despite my conscious political decision not to straighten my hair. These experiences have made me question what privileges I have and recognise which of these privileges I can challenge and where I can make a difference – for example by giving a voice to other women. Occasionally I have a feeling of rootlessness within feminist contexts, having too much privilege in one context and not enough in others. For example, I have light-skinned privilege but this not approximate to and does not confer on me all the advantages of white privilege.

I see a parallel between my fellow students at university and in mainstream feminism where white and sometimes middle-class feminists insist on having a voice and the privilege of being heard. This insistence on being heard is not a negative if it is used to give space to marginalised voices and these voices are listened to.

Being aware of these forms of privilege is just the beginning. I want you to think about how you can challenge how privilege manifests itself for both privileged and less privileged individuals  both at a personal level and in the public spheres that you inhabit.   To speak out and challenge privilege, power and authority is to create a new dialogue and foster change. We need to all encourage greater awareness and thankfulness that we live in a prosperous country. I may be a working-class, black woman but I have had the advantage of being born in a developed country and had free access to education, good medical care and have always had a roof over my head so I am incredibly privileged. I strive to learn more and to listen.