It’s been about a year since I posted Reflections, and since then, the subject of privilege has remained a part of my daily musings. Two incidents recently have made me think about it a little deeper.
Firstly, there was the CEO sleep-out, an event where wealthy businessmen slept out, one night, in sponsored sleeping bags, safe environments, with access to hot soup and manly companionship, in order to draw attention to the plight of the homeless. Millions of rands were collected, and many corporations drew tremendous positive publicity from the event. What struck me, however, was that it took the wealthy, largely white, largely male voices to drive this movement. Why was this? Why is the subject of poverty, of homelessness, unworthy of attention when it is spoken in voices whose accents are less Sandton, less private school? Less white.
Secondly, there was Jack Bloom’s book, 30 Days in a shack, which is also lauded as having exposed the dire consequences of poverty in South Africa. Because we couldn’t possibly have known about it, unless a white man told us.
This brought me back to my own reactions when faced with the realities of South Africa. Faced with violent crime, one of my first reactions was to consider emigrating. I can – I have two degrees and qualify for a British passport. If I were to emigrate, it would be to a land which would not see me as a refugee, but as a member of the community. I would immediately and easily assimilate, and be able to sit in English country gardens and talk about how much I miss South Africa.
White people have the privilege to be able to dip in and out of the reality of life for the majority of our country’s poor. We have the privilege to escape from the consequences of the society which, let’s face it, our forefathers created, with years of colonialism, followed by Apartheid. We have the privilege of either leaving, or of blocking it from our reality and refusing to see it, unless one of our own, like the aforesaid CEOs and Bloom, speak about it, and then we can make ourselves feel better by retweeting it, tut-tutting about it at book club, and donating part of the housekeeping to it.
We still define the narrative. We still determine the manner in which it will be spoken, and whether it will be regarded as serious, or as not worthy of attention. We need to address that, we need to ensure that our voices don’t drown out the voices of those who are directly affected by this, because, surely, their voices should be heard first?
Yes, I understand the hypocrisy of this post, and many on this blog, because I am speaking about the issues which I am now saying we should allow the less privileged to voice. There is a fine line between using your privilege to expose inequality, and abusing it to promote it. Sometimes, I stand on the wrong side of that line, and I value the critics who will slap me back into it.
If we are truly going to be allies to those without privilege (be they people of colour, women, the disabled, or LGBT people), we can’t simply dip in and out. We need to step fully into the arena and use whatever we can to fight the systems which foster inequality. That doesn’t mean that we are required to strip ourselves of wealth, of position, of comfort. It means that, instead of drowning out other voices, we raise them up. We make those voices louder through our support, and through our unswerving commitment to eradicating systemic inequality. It means that we don’t just speak out when it is politic to do so, but also when it is uncomfortable to do so. When it may make us unpopular to do so. More, it means we remain silent when we instinctively want to add the weight of whiteness, maleness, straightness, to the narrative.
Otherwise, it’s simply lip-service.