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The Paradox of Privilege

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

I’ve mentioned before that peace, routine, and stability is a privilege. Knowing what lies ahead in your day, anticipating what you’ll earn in a month, knowing you can access contraceptives, being able to forecast solutions and situations is a massive privilege.

Being able to address issues through the work place, letting agents, doctors, and institutions is even more powerful. Examples include being able to get a job, finish university, pay rent, plan a meal, inherit money, and have control over the outcomes of your personal decision (or decisions/circumstance that affect you). It’s hard to see these things as a privilege when you enjoy then and have enjoyed them for a lifetime.

Peggy McIntosh wrote a stunning piece about privilege, specifically white privilege, and used the metaphor of tools in a knapsack (a backpack) that is carried and used every day. When you can take these tools to your daily life and work hard, great things happen.

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was 'meant' to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

On the rare occasion when asked about how I have achieved things in my life, I say it’s a combination of hard work, luck, and privilege. Privilege is often shamed into silence which is bad because it makes it invisible; if you put your privilege to work, there’s nothing to be ashamed about.

To put privilege to work, you’ve got to see it. That’s why the knapsack quote from Peggy is so useful – it helps to clarify what you’ve already got and how it has served you. Privilege can be a really shitty thing to observe in others because one of the greatest privileges of all is to be able to ignore the circumstance of others.

When we level up privilege, an even better way to operate is to accept the crappy circumstances of others as some random occurrence of events. It’s a comfortable space to be because you are socially aware by acknowledging horrible things but excuse yourself from being obliged to act effectively. It’s like a half-way house for political awareness where it's possible to stay educated and remain inactive.

One example of the difference between being obliged to act and to act effectively happens at work. There are charity events with dress down days and donations from staff are collected. My workplace recognises that there are horrible things happening and so we donate money to causes, like vulnerable children in the UK. I’ve yet to donate money because I think it’s insincere and bullshit.

Put simply, my role is contributing to writing letters, preparing cases, and advising clients to win VAT rebates from HMRC. This is all legal. The financial rebates also come from the same pot of government money that would be assigned to the national charities that my workplace supports.

The poverty of children is not a personal failure nor is it a random, incalculable procession of events – it is a political decision. Poverty is the combination of history, shitty luck, crappy socio-economic policies, and the active ignoring of the circumstances of other people. Don’t ever believe that poverty is a personal failure.

At work we are fundraising for the livelihoods of children because we accept the circumstances of others as some random occurrence of events. If we think of the backpack from Peggy, it’s the equivalent of saying – I won’t give you my back pack or parts of it, but you can have a bit of the cash I make.

So we act, but is it effective?

Things do not have to be shitty for large swathes of the population. Cash doesn’t fix problems, but opportunity has; the provision of tools has; structures that respond to hard work over and above luck and privilege have.

There's a difference between between being obliged to act and acting effectively.

To help effectively, we know the power lies in the ability to have the tools and to take them with us. It's a privilege to have them, to use them, and to keep them. It's the extension of this privilege that is effective.

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