“Responsibility I believe accrues through privilege. People like you and me have an unbelievable amount of privilege and therefore we have a huge amount of responsibility. We live in free societies where we are not afraid of the police; we have extraordinary wealth available to us by global standards. If you have those things, then you have the kind of responsibility that a person does not have if he or she is slaving seventy hours a week to put food on the table; a responsibility at the very least to inform yourself about power. Beyond that, it is a question of whether you believe in moral certainties or not.”
~ Noam Chomsky
“If It Is Inaccessible to the Poor, It Is Neither Radical nor Revolutionary” ~ Unknown source
So many things have been said about privilege: from who has the “right” to use it against others, who needs to carry the title (whether they like it or not, agree with it or not) to those who argue that the continuous emphasis on privileges divides us even further, making it easier for the real powers-that-be to continue controlling us all…there are those who feel defensive when we point out their privileges, and those who can’t talk without bringing it up every second word. Others say it is a distraction and even other ones say the opposite (claiming lack of privilege) is being used as an excuse to not to act, change or stay as a victim…
I particularly find that those who don’t want to accept that privilege is real and that it comes in different shapes, complex layers and shades, are the ones who can’t see their own privilege, behave in self-righteous ways, patronize, blame or judge others for being stuck, frustrated, trapped and disempowered.
I have been involved in many causes, projects and groups in diverse capacity, from volunteer to organizer, from paid staff to supporter, observer, member or assistant, learner, apprentice or facilitator. The organizations themselves have been diverse: from formal NGO’s to grassroots community groups to private initiatives and institutions.
What I have found is consistent everywhere:
To be fair, I have also observed the following:
Fairness, accountability and responsibility:
Think about these examples:
Is it fair that a permaculture instructor asks every participant to ride a bike to visit the different demonstration sites? Is it fair that he/she allows for other ways of transportation so those who don’t feel safe riding in the city or don’t own a bike can also participate or would this create a visible “separation” between the group who enjoys riding together under the sun and the “left out” who need to ride a bus instead and are therefore late for all the presentations? Who is “right” and who has the responsibility to make adjustments here?
If a person who has much to offer is stuck in a situation where she/he can’t fully participate in meetings and activities of a certain group, who is responsible for making adjustments and offering options? Are they necessary or is this person to be dismissed and disempowered because of his/her situation?
If someone has no means to pay for a course that has the potential to change not only his/her situation but that of his/her community or family or may increase the global resilience in light of all the current world predicaments, who is responsible to offer this person a chance and how that chance may look like so the person is not invalidated and disempowered but can fully learn and participate as those who can pay will?
Lack of privilege or differences in the access to a privilege may be real (a real barrier put by others to your access, use, enjoyment, etc. of a resource, tool, opportunity, relationship, etc.) or may be perceived (by you, your “group” or even the others who imposes this on you). It is important to understand that whether real or perceived, the impact over you and your chances to be or do are more or less the same. I.e.: an overweight and unfit person may avoid getting into yoga because each time she tries, she sees that others are thin and fit and the activities seem easy to them and super challenging to her. While nobody is really rejecting or blaming her, her perception and their continuing asking for exercises that are inaccessible to her act as a privilege barrier for her to get fit and practice yoga.
Privilege differences are systemic: they may be culturally or ecologically defined (example, someone with a real chronic ailment is ecologically unprivileged compared to someone who rarely experiences physical or mental issues; someone who doesn’t have the expected degrees to participate in an activity, is socially or culturally unprivileged compared to those who had the luck to access to a school, means to sustain themselves while study, etc.). They can also be imposed to the person by the system: someone who was sexually abused as a child, was born in a country struggling for democracy and equality or was abused or neglected by her parents has a systemic underprivilege compared to someone who was born in a nice and stable family and country and never abused or neglected.
Most privilege in the world is not fully acknowledged because people can’t see what they don’t know: people perceived their own challenges as huge and this is normal because they are the ones suffering through them. If they have never experienced what it is to be of a different colour, shape, size, age, gender, educational level, etc., they may feel that what they have achieved and have access to is because of their own efforts and values, while the only thing separating them from the others is luck: being born in a certain way, place, time, etc.
What’s the solution? How we can help ourselves and others?
“History shows that it does not matter who is in power or what revolutionary forces take over the government, those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they had in the beginning.”
― Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro
The solution is not just one, but a combination of many different things. While I personally believe that emphasizing too much on who has and who doesn’t have privilege hurts our opportunities of working together for common causes and against common enemies (i.e. climate change, resource depletion, inequality, power-over, etc.) I also believe everyone in this planet has different shades and levels of privilege compared to others, and these differences may hurt, disengage, discriminate or oppress others even when those were not our intentions.
Not talking about privileges at all won’t make them go away, the same as ignoring climate change, resource depletion and pollution/waste won’t make those challenges go away either…
Here is what we can do to engage more and reduce privilege-related challenges for others:
And here is what we can do to overcome our own real or perceived lack of privilege:
Any other suggestions? What are your thoughts?
Here is some food for thought and resources: