I am aware of some of my privilege as a white, English speaking university educated woman. I have lived in Asia for most of the past ten years and am aware that my difference leads people to respond positively to me. If I want something I can usually get it, by elevating my language and explaining and arguing and even causing a scene or by smiling and charming and asking, ‘Can I just…’ and helping myself and literally take the liberty to do get what I need. Sometimes there might be a ‘no’ but it will be politely delivered, I’m more likely to see the mounting anxiety on someone’s face and give up than be shouted at or threatened. Generally I am safe to get what I want and I know this is a privilege. When I travel people may stop and stare but I am more likely the a local to get to the front of the queue and wait little time to get help, this isn’t true for everyone. The idea that it is comes to me easily because it is my experience so I must be careful to listen to others who do not have this experience.
I was reminded of this when I reheard Victor Lee Lewis, a longtime diversity advocate saying, “We’re all in the same boat, but we’re not on the same deck. And the ride looks different, depending on where you’re seated.”
It’s a sobering truth and when we live our lives in our own little bubble it is hard to step out. I have an experience that moving around the world for work and travel is easy, I remember my UK passport helps me, but not always that my university studies are the reason why I can obtain work visas, that my English language opens jobs which are unavailable and my early life was pleasant and stable enough for me to enjoy the challenge of change. This cluster of chances makes movement around the world easy for me in a way it is not for others. And the tragic part is that the people who need to leave their countries the most are people with no passports or unfashionable ones, experience of war, suffering and torture, skills and professional qualifications which aren’t recognised, even though to imagine migrants to be unskilled makes no sense – they have the mental resources to change their situation amid great stress and have a difficulty making themselves easily understood linguistically.
Miki Kashtan’s blog The Fearless Heart is where I first came across Victor Lee Lewis and now a link to this Open Letter To White Mothers which I urge you to read. In it Paige urges us all to,
- Recognise your conditining.
- Avoid this conditioning with your kids.
- Talk about racism openly with your kids.
- Talk to your kids about their privilege.
Paige very powerfully urges us to be vigilant,
‘your kids are absorbing the micro-messages in the news. They see that news of crime is predominately black men. They hear words like thug, looting, gangs, etc. paired with images of black men. TURN IT OFF. Turn it off with a quickness as if they were spewing the “n” word and spouting kkk credos. To your child’s developing mind they are just as dangerous. More so, because the messages are covert.’
Without horrifying our children we can make them aware of areas in life where they are lucky and in areas where they are not because of differences they have no choice in opting in or out of. She says, remember people in positions of power do not have the option of turning their awareness onto privilege, by its very nature it is a self evident fact, so do not shy away. When they are sad and confused we can let them know this is how we feel too, though I would urge anyone working with children to get adult support for the pain and mourning that fully acknowledging privilege entails, for a start this is a good place to look.
With sensitivity to their age and always with talk about actions we can take and positive stories about how privilege is being questioned by people from different communities we can let children we work with and care for know about structural disadvantages some people face so that we live our lives open to the fact of privilege, ready and willing to learn and converse on this topic even when we feel uncomfortable.