Why privilege is everybody’s responsibility

Several years ago, on a cold and exceptionally windy Sunday I was on Blackpool’s seafront getting ready to run a half marathon. I set off running away from the famous Tower in the middle of the pack (ok maybe back of the middle) and felt really happy with my pace.  I felt even stronger when I saw those ahead of me who’d doubled back towards the Tower struggling.  ‘Idiots’ I thought smugly ‘obviously set out too fast and now they’re suffering’. Then I hit the double back and started to run INTO the 40mph gale…

Michael Kimmel used the wind as an insightful analogy for privilege. We don’t ask for it, it doesn’t only get behind those who are deserving or blow against those who are not.  But it does give some an advantage. It’s not a morality judgment about individuals but a systemic issue. We most often identify privilege in relation to race, gender and social background but it can be much wider than this.  Left-handed people face a world designed for right-handed people. Our maps of the world are biased towards the western northern hemisphere (just google Mercator projection and you’ll see what I mean). And older people are usually assumed to be better leaders.  And yet in many conversations today people react defensively against ‘accusations’ of privilege. We see it as invalidating any struggles we have had in life. And as human beings, we are used, to focussing on our disadvantages and seeing ourselves as underdogs so this does not sit comfortably.  But we don’t need to think like this.

There is a great deal of intersectionality relating to privilege.  We often assume that white men have the most privilege but not perhaps when they are part of the LGBT+ community and/or from a lower educational background.  Much of the divisiveness we see in society today is because of assumptions we make about the generic benefits of particular inherent characteristics. We need to be able to acknowledge that in different situations we may be the one holding the privilege, and think about what we can do in each moment. 

‘The most dangerous advantage of privilege is the power of the privileged to deny it exists’

Colton Poore

As a gay woman, I may not always have the privilege in a room full of straight white older men, but as a white person with a higher education I certainly do. I can choose to be an upstander and have benefitted historically from others who have done the same for me.  Maybe they have offered my name as a speaker when all the others are men, maybe they have helped build my confidence as a northern comprehensive student in a room full of people with posh accents. But again, I have had the privilege to find myself in situations where I have been in the company of great upstanders.  Sometimes we might need to work harder to assist.

The more privilege you have, the more opportunity you have. The more opportunity you have, the more responsibility you have’

Noam Chomsky

And what can this look like in housing? We must be aware of our privilege

It’s about realising that what we see as solutions in customer services might not be available to our residents – using a laundrette when a washing machine breaks down is not necessarily ‘affordable’.  Assuming technology is available to all our residents, and preferred, might not be a helpful attitude.  Affordable housing is unaffordable to a large group of people.  ‘Getting on’ and finding job opportunities isn’t straightforward for everyone.  Stepping back and seeing the situation through the other person’s eyes will always serve you both well.

I encourage you to think of whatever your privileges are as an honour, a superpower to help you pay it forward.  Hold it lightly but realise it allows us to raise others up, identify ways in which we can be upstanders and start to break down institutional biases and challenge our assumptions. Whatever the situation.

Written by Jenny Brown, Associate, Altair