“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:
- Firefighters and urban planners designing plans and making decisions in closed rooms about the vulnerability, hazards, risks and assets of entire communities (and not a single community member present!)
- “Authorities” blocking my efforts to put together neighbourhood and grassroots workshops for those same communities’ prevention, response and recovery disaster/emergency plans
- City-hall workshops and task force think tanks “working” to reduce poverty, hunger, homelessness, discrimination and the like, full of people with Masters Degrees and PhDs with no clue of what’s to go to bed without a meal, not having reliable access to water or electricity, suffering constant abuse and neglect by just being in this world, etc.
- “Grassroots” community resilience groups with charismatic leaders who filter all the information and decisions on what’s done and by whom, where and why
- Government of privately funded programs designed to support refugees, immigrants, indigenous peoples, LGTBQ people, youth, etc. completely top-down designed and focuses on pre-stablished outcomes with zero or minimal consultation with the individuals of the groups they are supposed to serve n what their real needs, assets, opportunities and desired outcomes are.
- Groups of (well intentioned and super nice and caring people, but otherwise clueless and lacking on real impacts and experience…or ignoring their obvious privilege around the topic), talking, sharing and designing about potential impacts of climate change, resource depletion, pollution, social inequality, nature disconnection, spiritual engagement and the like…
- Money everywhere: workshops, courses, apprenticeships, conferences, gatherings, retreats, etc. are all costly and (many) also require travelling (with the added pollution and resource depletion), creating an invisible barrier for those who may need these tools (permaculture, wilderness and survival learning and engaging, ecotherapy and ecopsychology, etc.) the most (i.e. people in crowded cities, overwhelmed by concrete, noise and pollution, full-time abusive jobs, commutes and family responsibilities, the chronically ill, the disabled, the poor, the too old or too unfit, etc.)
- Other invisible barriers: to be part of these task forces, groups, conferences, events, to be heard and taken into account, you need a Masters or a PhD, having “experience” in certain organizations (not necessarily on the actual topic you need to learn the most, example: you need experience working in food security agencies and programs, but your experience with real hunger and real challenges to access ethical food doesn’t count)
- “Invisible membership”: in many of these groups and initiatives, formal or informal, you need to “look like the tribe” or you will feel left out and rejected, your comments ignored, not invited if you don’t look thin, fit and of certain age-range, if you don’t meditate or practice yoga, don’t eat organic, ethic and healthy food (because you can’t), ride a bike, wear the “right” gear and clothing…
- Invisible judgement and blaming: the self-righteous who has already crossed the bridge of purity or those who were lucky enough (i.e. privileged) to buy land, learn to bike at the right age, have a supporting and tolerant family who provides for all the expenses to look “right”, or “woke up” to the issues of the world at the right time and left their jobs (and sometimes partners) behind are quick to tell you (sometimes in very subtle ways, so subtle that they may not even be aware of) how dirty, lazy, ignorant, stupid or full excuses you are for not being exactly like them!
- Bullies are everywhere and they don’t have to the “openly bully” to be so: many close the doors to others by not sharing, ignoring, “ghosting”, filtering their potential, leaving them behind, making them feel vulnerable and miserable, blaming or judging, etc.
To be fair, I have also observed the following:
- People who have lots to offer but are stuck in what I may call “self-oppressive” attitudes, looking for signs of privilege, oppression and abuse in others when they may be rare or non-existent
- People using their “automatic membership” to any of the un-privileged groups as excuses for not to challenge themselves, for not to belong and not to participate in initiatives, efforts, etc. that would allow them to become empowered and help others. If in doubt, these unprivileged groups include (apart of the most obvious ones such as blacks, indigenous, refugees and certain immigrant groups, the disabled, etc.) all the individuals who don’t have the “right” education or experience, who suffer from chronic and many times invisible (bot nonetheless debilitating) ailments, including spiritual, emotional and relational, those who are overweight or don’t comply with the accepted average for “attractive”, those whose working hours, commute, debt or other obligations keep them overwhelmed and stuck, etc.
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:
- Be humble and acknowledge that you do have privilege. Privilege is not the same as being “guilty”. Most of the privilege we have is not something we did, but something inherited by the system that was created before we were born…or by nature!
- Reflect on what those privileges are and how you can use them as a strength to help others through advocating, learning new ways to approach people and issues, etc.
- Work towards reducing barriers for unprivileged people by reducing costs and requirements, making events and causes truly inclusive, etc.
- Engage those who need (by nature or by circumstances) to be included: homeless people need to be present in any program to reduce or eliminate homelessness, people struggling with food security need to be including in programs about food sovereignty, those struggling with the system need to be able to access permaculture, wilderness and other resilience-building programs. Try to get away from preaching to the choir and into engaging “the choir” to go and share/engage (not preach) among the “unconverted”
- Speak up to authorities and those with power-over when you see privilege-related challenges (they always are privilege related): either gently and engaging or loudly (you choose depending on the occasion, but usually compassion and engagement are more convincing), but let them know what is happening, why people are not having access or feel left out
- Educate yourself in non-oppressive, inclusive and engaging approaches, dynamics and strategies such as NVC, the WTR, the Art of Hosting, the Circle Way, etc. Important to note: all these approaches are also privileged, as they assume “the other” knows them and will accept them. Some carry privilege activities and language that has to be acknowledged: for many people in the world, asking them to be grateful may sound as a really bad joke, given their current circumstances…so be sensible and reflect on those too
- Accept feedback and apply self-regulation: if things are not working for you or your group as you expected, if you are not getting enough people from minority and/or unprivileged groups, what is in your approach, language or practices that is 1) not reaching them and 2) making them to avoid you/your group?
And here is what we can do to overcome our own real or perceived lack of privilege:
- Acknowledge that as we have areas where we may be underprivileged, we may also be privileged in many others
- Reflecting on our privileges and lack of them, finding points of leverage (opportunities to break the circle of depletion, oppression, etc.)
- Selecting where, how and when we will be pushing our own boundaries to overcome our lack of privilege and what may be the helps or supporting systems and resources (internal or external) we can use to do this gently but surely
- Asking for what we deserve without becoming belligerent or oppositional. The more you give others (institutions, people, etc.) power over you, the more unprivileged you become: see yourself as empowered and deserving, not as less or victim, even if you are in a victim situation
- Learning about methods and strategies that can bring about more privilege and power-with to us (see recommendations in section above). Do not discriminate yourself out, reclaim your right to understand, learn and change (when necessary) those methods and strategies to empower yourself and others
Any other suggestions? What are your thoughts?
Here is some food for thought and resources: