The political shocks of 2016 – Brexit, Trump – and a period advising the Cabinet Office on Inclusive Economy, has forced me to reflect the advantages I have because of my professional status. inspired by Peggy MacIntosh, I’ve been compiling a list of daily privileges that I enjoy.
The votes last year for Trump and Brexit have caused much discussion on inequality, whether focussed on the white working class, the ‘left behind’, or the ‘just about managing’. I was struck by how much was about the people over there, and rather neglected the role that all of us have in re-inforcing the status quo through our own behaviour.
Thanks to Zaid Hassan, I came across a rather brilliant piece from the early eighties by Peggy MacInstosh. She was a feminist academic who had been very critical of her male colleagues for their behaviour – and then realised that she had been behaving in a similar way on race. Her insight:
“I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege.
“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that 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, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.”
She then gives “a list of special circumstances and conditions I experience that I did not earn but that I have been made to feel are mine by birth, by citizenship, and by virtue of being a conscientious law-abiding “normal” person of goodwill” but which are not true for a person of colour. For instance, “I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.” or “I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.”
That got me wondering. What if we are taught not to recognise professional privilege? What if the many moments of small differences pass unnoticed, but nevertheless accumulate (brilliantly illustrated here)? What would be the equivalent list for me, here in 21st century Britain, of the privileges I experience but did not earn that the ‘just about managing’ do not?
In no particular order, here is a first stab:
- My accent and phrasing is widely trusted; I don’t have to overcome bad first impressions from my accent.
- I get confidence in my situation through the vast majority of the people I know are working and are financially secure.
- I get confidence in big institutions from the fact no one I knows has had a bad experience of the policy or anyone else.
- I know that if something goes wrong I can ask one of my lawyer friends about what legal actions I can take.
- I know that, if something goes wrong, then I know how to complain or make my way through the bureaucracy.
- I can turn to the ‘bank of mum and dad’ to step up the housing ladder.
- I can be confident that much of my job cannot be easily automated or off-shored.
- I can be sure my neighbours are not worried about me.
- I can stay with friends for holidays on pretty much any continent.
- I can browse in a shop or sit down in a restaurant and they won’t be worried if i can pay.
- I can be confident my credit score is good and accurate.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without it being a credit to my gender, race or class.
- I can be reasonably sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person with similar professional outlook.
- I can arrange my activities so that i will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my class.
There are many more, of course. And there are other ‘assets’ that I have earned, for instance my academic achievements came in part from my own hard work. But those achievements also came from other things too, like local education provision (I went to a good grammar school) that wouldn’t have been there for others with the same aptitude and effort. But I’ve found it a useful exercise to return to, and keep noticing my invisible knapsack of professional privilege.