Disclaimer: As I write this, I am livid. I’m sick and tired of seeing my friends experience the costs of other friends’ inability to challenge our own privileged status in our organisations. And no, I won’t stop shouting about it!
Before I begin, I’d like to suggest reading Sue’s ‘Open Letter to the Movement,’ Nishma’s ‘Inclusive movement: A call to action,’ Guppi’s ‘On Posh White Blokes in NGOs,’ and if you want to really delve deeper, Andrea Smith’s piece on ‘The Problem with Privilege.’
…Think of this as one angry person of traditional privilege’s open letter to all of the people who also hold traditional privilege in environmental and social justice organisations.
We all hold privilege in particular situations, but some of us experience it as the norm, rather than the exception in our lives. We are usually, but not exclusively, white, male, straight and at least semi-affluent. And whether we pay attention to it or not, traditional power structures have been built in our image.
I use the verb ‘hold’ quite deliberately in relation to privilege. I increasingly feel it is less passive an action than I used to think. Traditional privilege is held by those who’ve always had it, by continuing to pursue the status quo, as others are excluded and silenced by it. When we aren’t actively challenging privilege, we may well be perpetuating it, regardless of what other worthy work our organisations are doing.
Very few unions, NGOs, voluntary or non-profit organisations I work with have bucked this trend.
Discrimination: Still going strong
We’ve had information about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. available to us for a long time now. We’ve seen lunch counter sit-ins and riots, and declared ourselves to be friends of those who have struggled – and often given their lives – to create a world that treats them as human beings.
Most of us will acknowledge many of the ways that discrimination still takes place in the world: police violence, pay gaps, media portrayals…
But there are plenty of ways we still don’t acknowledge discrimination.
- Do we acknowledge the ways that only posting our new jobs on job websites frequented primarily by others with considerable privilege is likely to mean we continue to look like the same organisation we have since the 1950s?
- Do we know how much more difficult it is for someone who has grown up in a home that speaks another language, or even dialect, to feel comfortable enough to claim ‘excellent written and spoken English’ when they see it as a constant requirement in all our job descriptions?
- Do we look at the ways that the dismissal of visceral, spiritual, traditional forms of knowledge that are core to so many other cultures, can make it far harder for others to feel comfortable in meetings, or working relationships more widely?
- Do we ask ourselves how it might feel to attend yet another panel filled with white men, given yet another space to tell a wider audience what various white men have to say about a topic?
While it’s not to say there aren’t specific – and at times valid – reasons for each of the above, continuing to assume that their occasional validity makes them universally ok, means we are constantly closing and dead-bolting our doors to others who should be free to help shape the organisations and movements we are a part of.
Maybe some people with less in the way of traditional privilege really won’t want to engage, preferring to create alternative spaces that work for their communities. But even if this is the case, there is a level of responsibility on those of us who hold traditional privileges to make sure that is not the only option on the table.
As a white male, I won’t pretend I understand all of the ways in which lots of people struggle with discrimination in work places. But I’m also doing my best to accept what I’m being told about so many other peoples’ experiences of organisational cultures, rather than trying to judge them through my own lenses. When one story after another corroborate very similar feelings of dismissal and exclusion in social change organisations, I have to assume that I’ve got it wrong, and that my lack of understanding is the result of a blind spot afforded by so many layers of privilege I bring into my work.
I know that several of my good friends have become deeply depressed, and even suicidal, in large part due to their inability to be heard or have their concerns addressed within the largely white, patriarchal structure of our organisations.
Too often, when they have reached this point, their issues have been dismissed as unrelated mental health issues, absolving the people and organisations’ of any culpability for what has happened, de-legitimising peoples’ own perspectives on their lived experiences.
This is why I’m so angry. These stories are avoidable, if we actually took on the realities of the harm we are causing our friends, and to the causes that are losing their efforts and perspectives, each day.
From intellectual to visceral change
My gradual process of accepting the judgements of others about their experiences of our organisations, comes from a visceral acknowledgement of the issues, not just an intellectual one.
One way that organisation’s perpetuate certain demographics and dynamics is through the notion of professionalism that tries to keep everything work-related within the realm of intellect. This is European Enlightenment thinking (which feels incredibly foreign in much of the world), dominating our organisations. Many other cultures see more visceral, emotional understandings, to be just as important as one’s intellectual, rational point of view.
The empathy we need to find is not going to be found via intellectual understanding of someone else’s struggles, but through a visceral sense of empathy and human connection, and a clear sense that what they are experiencing is fundamentally wrong. When we try to relegate these conversations to the intellectual, we can easily make the rational case for why we continue to do what we’ve always done. When we feel some sense of connection with what someone else is feeling though, it’s far harder to ‘mansplain’ (or ‘whitesplain’) it away.
Privilege as wallpaper
I’ve written before, as have others, about the invisible nature of privilege when you have it; that the same things that exclude some, make others feel at home (or at least not too far from it).
But when we feel at home, we often de-prioritise the need for change. Everything else comes to be more immediately important, even when we intellectually recognise that all is not right.
Every time we de-prioritise asking the questions about making our organisations truly welcoming places for people who haven’t had very similar life experiences to our own, we reinforce our power and privilege. Privilege is making the choice to continue to inflict hardship on others, because doing so is easier than digging into a realm of very difficult questions, about ourselves, about our organisations, about the ways we relate to one another and on whose terms. Privilege is also simply being ‘too busy’ to open this can of worms. Without much effort, I can choose to put privilege on the backburner again and again, but that doesn’t give someone experiencing its flipside the ability to stop experiencing it until ‘other things settle down a bit.’
Is privilege our priority? No.
Addressing this stuff is HARD. But not nearly as hard as it is to be on the receiving end of it, day after day. That’s why all of us, when we find ourselves in positions of privilege, need to push it to the forefront – shout about it wherever we can.
Maybe a starting point for those who haven’t begun to make an effort in this area, is to acknowledge – even to ourselves – that it is not as high a priority as we claim it is.
If we acknowledge that, how do we feel about that acknowledgement? Are we comfortable with knowing that when we choose not to prioritise looking at the individual and institutional forms of oppression we are a part of, we are assuming they are less-important than the wider social and environmental justice aims of our organisations? We are accepting the depression and the resentment of people we consider our friends as an acceptable cost of our work?
I’ll leave that with each of you to answer for yourselves. It’s not that any of us can change all the ways that privilege affects people’s lives, but we can be more conscious of it, along with the many ways we benefit in different situations. We can also change specific parts of our work or our behaviours to open up new spaces for others to be able to shape some of these critical conversations.
But here’s the simplest starting point, highlighted by Guppi in her ‘On Posh White Blokes in NGOs‘ post: listen to what others are telling us and don’t try to explain it away. If we can’t do that, we won’t be part of any solution.