Privilege blinds us to plight of others who lack it
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I am incredibly privileged. It does not wound me or undermine my credibility to say so, but I must first declare it here, otherwise some reader might intimate that I am hiding my privileges to lecture you on yours.
There are numerous elements we have to get right to create a more equitable and inclusive society. Whether in or outside the workplace, the potential solutions are multi-faceted — and one of those essential facets is an understanding of privilege.
We know this because when we begin to speak about race equality and white privilege, for instance, the resistance to the idea of the existence of this entirely unexceptional kind of privilege is a war zone.
Almost everybody accepts the idea of privilege in one dimension or another, often without understanding the nature of its operation. But we often consider its benefits through a cartoonish lens, imagining that any one advantage means someone’s life is hallowed and that person is immune from all other hardships.
White privilege is too often either dismissed as a radical delusion or, conversely, used to suggest white people live lives free of suffering — both are wrong. In a recent BBC Bitesize educational video, I described privilege as “the absence of an impediment”.
There is nothing unique or pejorative about white or indeed any privilege. It is merely that when we don’t acknowledge them, our privileges can make us blind and unempathetic to the plight of others who do not have them. It does not mean that having one type of advantage means you have it easy.
It is incredible how often people’s acknowledgment of privilege ends at the white variety.
It does not really matter what kind of privilege we focus on, whether a private-school education or being upper class, where one might imagine a group whose accents or command of Latin help ease their way through the world of work, or that of gender.
My eyes were opened wide to male privilege by a 2018 tweet by activist Danielle Muscato. She asked women what they would “do if all men had a 9pm curfew”.
The challenges of gender equity were never lost on me, but what struck me was the sheer mundanity of the answers from women across the world: “I’d run at night”, “I’d walk with both earbuds in”, “I’d take public transport”, “I’d leave my drink at the bar” — and on and on, relentless in their banality and all the more poignant for it.
One man in the thread spoke for me and others when he said: “Wow, I feel horrible right now. None of this has ever occurred to me as an issue. I run; I go do whatever I want whenever I want. Why aren’t women filled with uncontrollable rage all the time?”
To solve the challenges that women face, as a tentative first step we must realise these challenges exist, which for men means looking beyond their privilege of never having had to worry about such issues.
I am a 50-year-old, law-abiding, incredibly privileged, psychologist — and yet I am terrified of the police. In pre-Covid times, when the area around my house in London teemed with tourists, I sometimes looked in awe as Brits and visitors alike would tap uniformed officers on the shoulder to ask for directions.
I know not all police officers hate black people, but I know that my blackness, along with my size (I am 6’9”), is the first thing people see and — through no fault of my own — this combination is terrifying for some. Unlike the vast majority of white people reading this, I not only think about the possibility of being stopped and searched every time I leave my house, it is a reality some three times a year. (Conversations with black friends and black social media tell me I am lucky it is only three times.)
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It is hard to convey the humiliation of being held by the arm by a man in uniform who is “politely” asking me where I have been or “what I am doing around here”. The impotence of my other privileges becomes stark, as the crowds stream past me shooting furtive glances, secure in the knowledge that another violent, knife-wielding drug-dealer is being taken off the streets.
Privilege is not a pissing contest, it is about understanding the hidden ways that different people’s lives are made more difficult for reasons we often refuse to consider. No one privilege necessarily immunises a person from the challenges of the absence of another.
Asking you to acknowledge your privilege does not minimise your personal hardship and suffering. It does not make your pain any less legitimate if you acknowledge someone else’s pain, which, by chance or birth, you find yourself free of.
When it comes to white privilege, having it does not make your life easy, but understanding it can make you realise why some people’s lives are harder than they should be.
John Amaechi is an organisational psychologist, the chief executive of APS and a former NBA basketball player
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