Privilege, oppression and guilt

I wrote this as a followup to my previous post about the privilege of travelling as a reply to those sweet souls of you who told me not to feel guilty. :)

I don’t feel guilty or defensive about the privileges I have, such as being white, English and able bodied. And nor should you about yours. The point is to be aware of them, to avoid using them to trample on others and to seek to challenge the systems that uphold them whenever we can.

Understand that life is easier for us because of them and that that is normally invisible to us. That someone without our privileges has to work harder to achieve the same things and that if, instead they are in a poorer situation than us, it is likely because of how society benefits us rather than anything innately better or worse about either of us.

Don’t feel guilty just because society has been structured by others with our privileges to benefit those like us – we did not make those systems of oppression and they are beyond our individual power to defeat single handedly. Feel guilty only if and when you use your privilege to harm someone without it. And even then just feeling guilty is missing the point. We are all human, and therefore perfectly imperfect and constantly able and needing to grow and learn and develop and improve ourselves. Be as gentle with yourself as you would be with a child that hurts someone else because they didn’t yet know better. Apologise to the person you’ve done wrong to, without needing or expecting necessarily their forgiveness – they’ve likely had this happen way too many times before so don’t make this about you needing absolution from them. Making them relate to you is part of the self importance of privilege. Teach yourself about how that particular system of oppression functions. Become aware how you might benefit from it in a range of situations so that you can become better at avoiding trampling over someone next time. For example if you have male privilege, be aware that your voice will be listened to above a female voice, and that you have been socialised to dominate conversations whilst females have been socialised to yield and make space.

Lastly, and most importantly, though we are not at fault (unless you are!!) for bringing about systems of oppression, we should never collude in their maintenance. As a white person I should never (unless it would be dangerous) be silent in the face of racism but should always challenge it. Having the freedom and power that privilege has given me means I have the responsibility to do whatever is within my means to oppose the oppression of others, but always taking my lead from them rather than furthering their oppression by using my privilege to take a lead in their struggle!!

Privilege and oppression are complex systems, developed and maintained through millions of interactions, “common sense” ideas and official laws and processes. We all benefit from some systems of oppression (eg I am white) and are oppressed by others (eg I am female). Because we are social animals we have evolved to quickly absorb and learn the rules and dynamics of whatever society we are born into so that we can negotiate our life in it. This means the systems and rules within whatever society we are brought up in are normally invisible and neutral to us unless we put effort into understanding them. But they are not our fault, and learning about our privileges is not to beat ourselves up about them. Do not abuse your privilege. Do not use them to take advantage of others. Do not maintain or build systems of oppression by colluding with them. Be part of beautiful, vibrant human endeavours to live in a world free of oppression.

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