~ Me, and my Privilege

On Munroe Bergdof, and ‘all white people’

Most people don’t want to be called racist, privileged, or complicit. It presents us with fault and responsibility, it lays atrocities – of the past – on us. Well I’ll admit to being privileged, and complicit, and I am black.

That is highly sanctimonious, if the word privilege makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps it is the image of the ‘privileged class’ that causes resistance. It shouldn’t, because this is not the object of ‘all white people are racist’.

Privilege can be far more subtle, based not on having an easy life, but one free from the disadvantage met by others.

This is my understanding at least, as a man in my 30s, in England. Compared to Munroe Bergdof I tick just one of many possible ‘diversity’ boxes – we could say discrimination indices; and include social class, age… Why is it hard to believe that she would know how to identify privilege?

And why when, in England at least, some have redefined ‘racism’ as unattached to concerns over borders, suspicion of a religion that we may identify as brown, or the acceptance of a few thousand deaths a year by drowning as OK; is it hard to accept Munroe Bergdof redefining racism as something broader than a conscious hateful thought, word or act?

I could give my stories of overt racism; but everyone knows these stories, and has probably known discrimination of some form. And that isn’t what this about. This is about the little things that can go unnoticed. So I will give a single example that on it’s own will not warrant such interpretation, but when, having been repeated so often in recent years, while race and religion have become such prominent issues, is instructive.

I’m in a shop, a supermarket say, and I approach the checkout. The cashier is just working, just being, maybe making small talk with the customer at the till. Then it’s my turn, and all of a sudden it’s colder. There’s a pause and it’s not just being, there’s no small talk; they withdraw, visibly stiffen. Is it conscious, it’s so quick, are those connotations of my skin actually registered?

I have paused, when out late, and it’s a group of white men, who could be nationalists, who could be looking for their Stephen Lawrence. They are most likely not, and for no reason more likely than anyone else, to be any of these things. But I pause.

But we can’t avoid all conversation, the cashier and me, not without outright rudeness, that wouldn’t be at all British.

And while my skin is black my voice is not. For various reasons I have that Received Pronunciation that news readers had, before accents were allowed ten/fifteen years ago. I’ve heard my voice played back, nothing wrong with it, but not particularly attractive – a bit nasally. But now it’s as some warm, gentle baritone melting that frost. The cashier can relax, visibly releasing tension, and just be; before another person again.

I watch this transition, over a minute or so; and now they want to pick up where their conscious left off. Like when the imp of the perverse passes and reason returns.

But I, at best, can only be desensitised. I feel like I’m looking at a racist, who, assured I’m no threat, one of the good ones, can recognise no more or less than a person.

And this is part of my privilege. I don’t want it, but a foreign accent would have to do more to get back to neutral, to just being. It would be a little more barrier, it could for example make a job interview harder.

We could have some small talk now, but I can’t explain all of this. That minute will melt away, leaving the cashier with their conscious, free of any words or actions that would equate to racism. Instead they’ve just confirmed what they’ve always known – it’s not about race at all; it’s fine, they’re fine.

That’s the illusion that reassures, the curtain we draw between us and a past we’d like to think doesn’t matter anymore.

We may accept that inequality exists at a structural level, and that this can effect the chances of the individual. We may acknowledge that this helps to sustain disadvantage, and that it is disadvantage rather than any inherent difference or moral deficit that creates deprivation. And then we would have to admit that our media, our influences, do little to attenuate this.

One more step – that we are made of this system. It’s in our first breaths before we know how to question it, or grow accustomed to the smell.

We didn’t create, or ask for, this system. And so it’s hard to admit our contribution and our benefit. The net effect of me may be neutral, but that only allows the system to remain. The lack of counter-action is acceptance, and this makes us complicit with our privilege.

Our privilege is not about having it easy, the great majority, like me, are somewhere in the middle. Our privilege is in accepting the illusion that we are free of the past. In not having to question it, because it’s working while keep up the charade. Race is still an issue, along with other demographics. And we have to accept our part in the problem if we are to be a part of it’s rectification.