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Sex work as a choice people make in trying to survive capitalism within a sexist, cissexist, racist society.

January 27, 2018 1 comment

I would have to think hard to count how many of my friends either do now, or have done, at some point done sex work. and almost all of them are nervous about letting people know because of how judgemental folks attitudes towards their mode of surviving capitalism, sexism, cissexism[0], racism and other intersectional[1] oppressions are. there’s so much shame around it :( so much whorephobia. stereotypes of sex workers as naive, immoral, vapid, stupid, vulnerable, unable to make decisions about their own bodies. as if every person surviving capitalism doesn’t have to make hard choices and compromises about what they do with their time, energy, mind and body in order to pay their rent and bills. and for many this is literally the best choice for them. does the person cleaning toilets get same judgements?

I felt it strongly around the comments about that ukip leader’s racist girlfriend. so many of the articles and comments seemed to centre, and be titilated, that she worked as a glamour model. because that brought in people’s prejudices and stereotypes. here’s an easy exercise – be honest with yourself, and imagine a glamour model or other sex worker. think about what you think they are like, what their background is, education level, interests, knowledge of current affairs and politics. their sexuality and how (outside of work) consent to sex would be likely for them.

now know me. think about what qualities you think i value in friends. and take i have upwards of 30-50 friends who i know to do sex work now or in the past. there is huge variety in the sex work my friends do, but a lot of it is that most stigmatised as “street prostitution”[2] and it definitely includes “models”.

and all these interesting, smart, wise, clued up people who are my friends have taken the decision that for them sex work is the best way to survive capitalism and all the intersectional[1] oppressions.

i mean i wipe people’s bottoms for a living – does that seem any better? ;p

To survive in capitalism means having to have some level of income. And we all make compromises about what we do with our time, bodies and brains in order to get that income. None of us would keep working in the way we do if we got a windfall. We’d probably still want to do something meaningful, and maybe that would mean volunteering somewhere. But it would be different to what we do for work right now. Because we are forced at some level to do that work because we need to pay the bills. We make a choice (ideally) from within what society offers us in the way of work. Many of us have multiple options, and from within that we choose based on the payoff (wages) vs the hours, arduousness, how interesting the work is, how much it fits in with the rest of our life etc etc. For some people the best choice for them is sex work. That gives them the best payoff, and they maintain some degree of freedom and ability to control how and when they work. They are choosing between all the work options they personally have and deciding that sex work is the best out of those options.

Think that sex work is degrading? First off, why? Is sex innately degrading to those on receiving end (ie mostly women or men who “bottom” for other men)? And anyway lots of people’s jobs involve tasks society has deemed degrading. What about cleaning other people’s toilets? Or the way service sector workers are treated?

Feel that nobody would choose sex work as it is dangerous and harmful to sex workers? In that case why would anyone ever choose to work in “forestry, farming and fishing” which has highest incidence of workplace injuries in uk[3]?

Sex workers must be stupid? Brooke Magnanti (Belle de Jour) is an easy counter example[4] as someone who started in sex work to support themselves through their PhD. Or countless of my friends. Again, who do you think I have as friends? There are countless sex workers within that population.

What all of the people I know who are sex workers have in common is that none of them are white, cis, middle class men. Almost everyone I know who is a white, cis, middle class man has a reasonably paid job that he chose to do from amongst many *career* options. And note that even the fact that he got to have a career is notable – that implies some level of interest. Do you think your supermarket checkout assistant chose that because they’re super fascinated by the price of groceries? How many middle class, white, cis men do you see cleaning toilets or stacking shelves for their working lives?

Can you accept that because of how intersectional oppressions operate within our current society, many people don’t have huge numbers of awesome, tempting job options to choose from? And within that, sex work might actually be the best choice for them?

So given all that, can you become aware of your prejudices about sex workers? About who they are and what they’re like? And then think about how that prejudice, if unexamined and unchallenged, might spill out into comments you might make about sex workers. And then how this could project shame and judgement onto sex workers, when actually they’ve just found the best way they know to survive within capitalism and a sexist, racist, cissexist society.

 

[0] how society is set up to take the gender of those who are not trans (ie you, if you’re not trans) as more real and valid than a trans person. and therefore all the shit that trans people have to go through. its similar to how sexism treats all women.

[1] intersectionality is how one person is affected by all the different oppressions within society – class, racism, sexism etc. so for some oppression they might be privileged, but they might be oppressed by another one. for example a working class, white, man who uses a wheelchair is oppressed because he’s working class and disabled, but is still better than a black woman in the exact same situation. but worse off than a middle class man in a wheelchair.

[2] though mostly they don’t do it on the streets anymore due to how the internet has changed how sex workers meet their clients

[3] http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/industry/

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_de_Jour_(writer)#Career

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Does your partner sometimes scare you? (TRIGGER WARNING : domestic abuse)

March 2, 2015 Leave a comment

 

How to read webpages without it being very easy for someone else to see what you’ve been looking at. ]

 

Bride beaten by new husband on their wedding night because he couldn’t get her dress off

Divorce: Amy has now filed to separate from Gavin

Divorce: Amy has now filed to separate from Gavin

Back in August, Amy was brutally assaulted by her new husband after he refused to take her advice on how to take off her wedding dress. Subsequently he’s got a pathetic community order and she’s filed for divorce and has moved on.

I stumbled across this story but something really stuck out to me :

In talking about their wedding day she states “It was a huge celebration full of friends and family, and I thought it would have been the fresh start we needed.” Fresh start … that seems an odd way to describe a celebration of finding a life partner. So why did they need this fresh start? Turns out that initially “[h]e was caring and loving, and when we found we were having baby, we were delighted.” But then she got pregnant and “almost straight away, Gavin became controlling and manipulative. It was like walking on eggshells.”

A midwife friend told me that pregnancy is a very common time for a relationship to begin to get abusive. I don’t know why, though I guess maybe its the increased vulnerability of the pregnant person that gives the abusive partner a feeling of safety in letting loose with their arseholery, feeling that now their pregnant partner is less able to do anything about it.

How do you know if your relationship is on the abusive spectrum? Here’s a list of some of the signs of abuse. If folks reading this have any additional thoughts or resources, maybe you could add them as a comment to this post?

Partner abuse is prevalent in all types of relationships, gay or straight, polyamorous or monogamous, vanilla or kinky, and with partners who might profess leftwing or feminist views. I’ve seen so many friends and acquaintances survive abusive relationships, and often before I knew, the relationship seemed perfectly normal from the outside. So, if I know you, and you have any feelings that your relationship is in any way abusive, please know that if you feel able to confide in me, I will take your words at face value. Even if I am friends with your partner, and they have always been super nice to me, I know that people act differently in different contexts and with different people. Please feel free to tell me that you need to talk with me about something and we can arrange a safe time and place to do that.

I’m aware that its easy to sit on the sidelines and observe a relationship that is abusive, but that part of the trap is to belittle and undermine you until the abuse is normalised into behaviour that you might even feel is what you deserve. Like Amy, maybe you feel that your partner will change. And maybe they will. But in the meantime maybe you should try talking it over with a helpline?

Are you worried about someone you know? I like these resources: love is respect which even includes a section at the bottom for if your friend is the one that’s being abusive and a surprise entry from Glamour magazine “The Exact Words That Could Help a Friend in an Abusive Relationship

Big love to everyone out there. x

My input on sex work and queer issues during last night’s #LSEanarchism panel

December 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Hey. This feels a bit weird/egotistical to write, as I don’t feel I’m the best at speaking and especially not writing (I’m not just being modest – there are things I kickass at! ;p ) and I’ve not come up with anything groundbreaking. I felt compelled to speak last night at LSE’s discussion on “Anarchism and Sexuality” because the panelists gave really interesting talks on historical Anarchists perspectives on sexuality, but a lot of views, particularly around sex work (looking at you Mujeres Libras!) are very dated and oppressive. Also questions came up around what contemporary Anarchists thought about campaigns for same sex marriage. Anyway, I gave a kind of nervous rant but folks seemed to like it and as the majority of those there last night (as least who spoke from the audience and who I spoke to afterwards) aren’t Anarchists and are interested in Anarchist ideas, I’m just writing roughly what I said.

On sex work, as was said during the talks, as Anarchists we believe struggles should be led by those affected, and so we have learned, especially from the sex workers within our own movements, that sex work is work, and not a unique case where “prostitutes” must be rescued from their degradation.

All work is degrading under capitalism. Why single out sex work, and ignore call centre workers, or those working in McDonalds or sweat shops? Under capitalism nobody really has freedom of choice, and our working conditions and the way we are treated is degrading. Those with truly socially important roles such as cleaning or care-work are looked down upon and undervalued.

Patriarchal views on sex are that, in hetero relations, the man (or top during same gender pairings) gains something, whilst the woman (or “bottom”) loses. This sexist garbage really colours social outlooks on sex work – whore shaming and rapes/other violent assaults on sex workers are the inevitable result. How much of our perception that sex work is inherently degrading comes from this? Do we view female sex workers, or rentboys in the same way as we think of gigolos? And there’s the ongoing double standard regarding males and females and the acceptability of casual sex.

To learn more I strongly recommend the Sex Workers Open University

The other thing I wanted to talk about was Anarchism and queer politics. We critique mainstream LGBTq obsessions with the pink pound and same-sex marriage as in large part being about sanitising queerness – “don’t be afraid, we’re not going to change social norms – we just want to be consumers and get married like the rest of you!” Apart from how this privileges certain LGTBTq folks over others – those who have money to spend and those who want monogamous relationships – its also irrelevant. Basic Anarchist principles are that you are free to do what you like, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. Why should we try to gain the acceptance of some mythical mainstream, when what we are doing doesn’t affect anyone else? Homophobia is not wrong because “look, we’re just like you”. We fight for freedom for all to live and love as they wish, straight or queer, monogamous or poly, kinky or vanilla, asexual, aromantic or celibate. As the panelists mentioned often same-sex marriage campaigns are driven even by those critical of bringing the state into the bedroom, because of how access to housing, pensions and insurance are dependent on marriage certificates – whereas actually housing etc should be available to all.

I think there’s another reason people, even Anarchists, choose to get married, and that’s as a marker of a life event. Celebrating stages in life, “hatches, matches and dispatches”, coming of age, and the changing seasons and years are meaningful to people. But the default ways of socially recognise such events, particularly important romantic/sexual relationships, is through a legal or religious marriage. Instead of criticising those who go down that route, we should find new ways of celebrating life events. We should evolve and create our own rituals and commemorations that recognise and honour relationships, rather than just the default of a state sanctioned wedding.

Anyway, that was pretty much what I said last night, I think. Afterwards folks wanted to know what groups I was involved with, where I’d learned so much and who was the “we” I referred to. The easy answer is that I’m in the Anarchist Federation, and in both the gender oppressed (women, trans*, nonbinary and anyone else who feels oppressed because of gender) and queer caucuses within that. But that’s just the formal answer. The real answer is that I have learned from living my life, and from doing so within communities that are also just getting on and doing it, trying things out, reflecting, chatting, listening and supporting. I guess I’m really lucky. We have formal meetings and discussions, but we also have long informal times, for example during the 7 month Free Hetherington occupation, or just whilst socialising with friends, and I feel that these are the most constructive. In a meeting, or worse at a “debate”, the goal is to win people over and sell a particular viewpoint. That doesn’t lead (imo) to learning or creating new ideas or philosophies together. For instance often we learn because of our fuckups – and its hard to share and collectively learn from those in a public meeting. Or getting pulled up on our shit, which we all have from our ongoing socialisation in a patriarchal, white supremacist culture. In informal settings we can play with ideas. The shy people find their voices. Those who feel they’re too new to contribute, ask questions and share their opinions, and blow the minds of the wise elders!

One reason I felt sheepish speaking last night and writing this today is because nothing I’ve said is cutting edge in the communities I inhabit. So I guess that’s the most important insight perhaps from Anarchism on sexuality; by prefiguring the society we want to live in, we learn and grow and develop as individuals and communities far more than any amount of theorising or formal lessons can do. Direct action means those who are oppressed taking initiatives that change the immediate conditions of their oppression. By creating queer spaces and communities we challenge heteronormativity by trying out queer ways of being in safe environments – these can include pride marches or more confrontational taking of spaces such as queer occupations of sites of homophobia. We don’t try to appeal to the Daily Mail with exhortations of how we were just born this way so please don’t blame us, but instead we boldly state that yes we reject patriarchal, heteronormative gender roles and relations. That our bodies, sexualities and gender presentations are ours to do with what we will. I think in doing this we also offer liberation to those who might still choose heterosexual, monogamous, vanilla life partnerships because at least know that that is your choice, that you are not compelled to do so, but followed rather what suited you and your partner best, and actually had those awesome conversations with them, and made it explicit. Just like vanilla people can learn from kinky people about consent, and monogamous people can learn from polyamory about talking through boundaries and working through jealousy. In the end, in an ideal Anarchist society, none of this would be remarkable. There will be no “queer Anarchism” just like we have no need for “blond haired Anarchism” – without oppression there is no need to develop specific organising around identity and we can all get on with our awesomely diverse and meaningful lives together.

Social Model of Spoons?

November 4, 2014 1 comment

Social Model of Spoons?

Spoon theory is a way some people with disabilities, visible (eg using a wheelchair) or otherwise (eg chronic pain) talk about their every day experiences of trying to get through life. There have been critiques of able bodied folks using spoon theory just because they’re tired or stressed by life, and how this is appropriating the term. Anyway, I was thinking about all this, and also about the social model of disability, and how they were connected.

What is the social model of disability?

I’m lucky that some of my friends with disabilities (especially two of you – thanks) took the time to explain to me why I was wrong in my misconceptions that some people couldn’t do things simply because of their physical state. I’m going to use a person who can’t walk as an example.

If someone can’t walk, in the UK they might get a wheelchair through the NHS. If they’re in London theoretically they can then get about – public transport is (too slowly, and due to disabled rights activism) being adapted so that wheelchair users can access it. We have pavements and buildings have ramps and lifts. Its far from perfect: at his local station a friend regularly has to physically pull his wheelchair off the train, as he slides off it on his bottom, because despite booking in advance, he is almost never met by the person with the ramp. But imagine that same person being born in rural India. Even if they had access to a wheelchair, what use would it be on narrow dirt tracks?

Anyone who’s seen me without glasses or contact lenses knows I’m pretty useless. If I’d been born a few hundred years ago, or in a place where I couldn’t access them, because of cost, or remoteness, I’d be scuppered! I couldn’t have foraged, or found my way about, or even been safe walking around without falling over even more often than I do already. But as a UK resident, it hardly affects me at all.

The ability of a person to go about their life is hugely determined by how society is structured. Someone could be disabled in one society, yet not in another.

What about spoons?

I think one of the problems that those of us without disabilities have with spoon theory is that it claims that we have unlimited, or effectively limitless number of spoons available to us, and this just doesn’t reflect our lived experiences. We do get worn out. If we push ourselves one day, we do feel drained the next. We do have to make decisions about where to spend our energy. Its just that the rough number of spoons we have fits in with the number that society is set up for. We are walking in a landscape filled with stairs, but as we can step over them, they are hardly noticeable.

I think the number of spoons a person has is a spectrum. It probably fits a left skewed bell curve – this means its distributed like the normal distributions of attributes like height or intelligence that you’re used to seeing, but has a long tail off to the left representing a substantial number of people who do not have much in terms of the attribute being measured.

source : http://saravanan.org/category/human/page/2/

source : http://saravanan.org/category/human/page/2/ – don’t know where trans people fit into that, but it was surprisingly hard to find a graph showing adult heights :(

For women (I presume just cis :/ ) in that graph above, most are between 150 and 175cm. There’s folks either side, but the vast majority fit within that range. I’m 155cm, so shorter than average, but within the normal range. Society is structured around us normal height folks – we don’t bump our heads into doorframes, and shop counters aren’t too high for us to see and be seen.If I’m in a crowd of cis men, suddenly I’m much shorter than average. My face is full of elbows. Things are put on shelves above my reach. I can’t get served in a pub – nobody sees me, as I’m way below their radar. Its unpleasant and awkward to operate. I haven’t changed, but because I’ve now got much less height than most people around me, my life is more difficult.

And I think that’s how it is with spoons. Society is structured around those of us with average numbers. The workday is set to be what we can manage. Social expectations fit in with that too. And things like lengths of checkout queues are based around how long we can stand for. Its not that we have limitless spoons, though there are those folks that we all know who never seem to get tired, but society is set up so that we rarely come up against the true limit of our spoons, so we don’t have the same dilemmas that those whom society does not privilege face.

Take clothing. In the original article, Christine describes how she has to choose her clothes carefully as it can exhaust her so much just to get dressed in the morning – for instance doing up buttons can be impossible depending on how her lupus is. That’s never a decision I’ve had to make, because clothing is designed with people like me as the default model. There are 7-10 buttons up the front of a shirt, which is an amount I might be expected to do up without it being a serious task. If there were 30 buttons on the back, some people would be able to manage, but I wouldn’t.

For me, thinking about spoons as a social model makes more sense than statements such as able bodied people have unlimited supplies. Because the latter just isn’t true, and the former shows me ways I can challenge the structural oppression that those with severely limited spoons face. Its not just that the latter can never participate in society, its that we should have a society that recognises and includes people based on their individual conditions and abilities. Why have a working week of 37.5 hours broken up into 8 hour days, when that puts it beyond so many people? Could we have more flexibility and understanding of those who do not have the default, majority number of spoons so that we do not have the same expectations and demands on everyone, but see that there is variety and diversity? We can and should judge societies by how everyone does within them.

On squatting, homelessness and haircuts

October 27, 2014 Leave a comment

When I was eighteen I moved back to London on my own, away from my parents and the small town in which I’d survived my teens. Working as an office runner for Saachi and Saachi in pre minimum wage days, the pay was terrible – all my coworkers were young guys still living with their parents. A platonic friend had let me stay in his spare room until I could find something better. That plan was shortlived – within a couple of weeks he’d acquired a new girlfriend, and she was not keen on me staying there. Refusing to give up on London so quickly, I spent a few days rotating amongst my new workmates’ sofas and then discovered by chance that there were a lot of squats out in East London, where folks were protesting the building of the M11 Link Road, so I headed over and ended up living there for a few months.

I lived in a few different places along the route, until I ended up in a big old shop which had been abandoned years before. The shopfront was huge, and above it there was a 2 floor apartment that would have originally been used by the shopkeeper. The flat looked to have been abandoned years before the shop itself, and had been reoccupied by pigeons. The squatters were taking a room each and doing the disgusting cleanup needed. I couldn’t face that though, and stayed in the shopfront, keeping my stuff out the way during the day and pulling out my bedroll at night. The original squatters were super sweet, and looking back on it, had probably seen my vulnerability as a young female, and so invited me in. We had communal meals, rotated tasks and talked about green politics, the state of the world, philosophy and history. I quit my shitty job at some point and threw myself into the campaign against the road, and against the Criminal Justice Bill which was about to become law.

To get to the shop from the rest of the protest site I would shortcut across a small park with some benches in the middle, always occupied by a few street drinkers. They felt threatening to me, though I don’t recall them ever even saying anything to me. They had unkempt shaggy hair and filthy old clothes and random bags of belongings. As I hurriedly walked past, they stank of stale sweat and alcohol. One evening I got back to the shop and, to my horror, was introduced to one of them, John, who was coming to live with us. I felt like me home was being invaded by one of the people I looked to it to escape from. The squatters had taken me in however, and though I felt really uncomfortable about this old alcoholic moving in, I didn’t feel able to say anything.

As I said above, though I really should probably have taken responsibility for cleaning out one of the rooms above, the stench and filth of years of being used as a pigeon loft had put me off. John however just got stuck in. Full of enthusiasm he carried out to the bins bags and bags of yuck, and began bleaching the surfaces, which I had to admire. I was out most days working on the campaigns, or skipping for food or whatever. John didn’t seem to notice how warey I was of him, and was friendly and welcoming when I got home.

One evening he asked me for a favour. Could I please cut his hair for him? He had scissors ready and insisted he trusted me, though I kept telling him I’d never done it before. His hair was below his shoulders, neglected from living on the streets. I had no clue where to begin, but he was kneeling on the floor expectantly, telling me he was sure I could do it. Ok, here goes!

It was actually easier than I thought it would be, and kinda fun! I quickly chopped off the ragtails, and copied what I’d seen hairdressers do, took chunks of it between my fingers following the arch of his head upwards, I shaped a close crop, leaving it a bit longer on top. It took a while, as I experimented and figured out how to not leave choppy steps, but sort of merge it all together. My fingers were covered in grease from his unwashed hair, but I figured I could wash them and they were still cleaner than his were after he’d been cleaning the upstairs rooms! Afterwards he was really thankful, and had a shower and a shave. I felt much more relaxed around him too. But for other reasons, a few weeks later I moved out as I’d found a new place.

***

A few years later I was at a demo in London. I can’t remember what about. A pleasant looking middle aged couple approached me, the man seeming really pleased to see me, but I had to admit to him that I couldn’t remember who he was. Well, of course it was John. Story was, after I’d left, he’d began a romance with the florist next door and now they were happily married. He’d spotted her and had wanted to smarten himself up, I presume hence the haircut! And then I learned even more. He had been much younger than I’d first thought, and had only been living on the streets for about 18 months. In a really short time he’d lost his job, and then his partner had left him and he’d lost his home and that was how he’d ended up out there. He was drinking because it was cold and miserable and suddenly he’d gone from having a half decent life to being outcast.

***

He thanked me, but never knew how much I had judged him. How much I’d just seen that stereotype of street drinker and hadn’t thought about how he’d ended up there, or how he might move on. The squatters who’d taken us both, and who knows how many others, were making good use of abandoned buildings, creating a home and small community that transformed John and I in different ways. For John it saved him from a brutal and probably short life on the streets. Though his eagerness to get his life together was what made most difference to him, as I can imagine others wouldn’t have found such a dramatic change. That he was relatively newly homeless must have helped – he didn’t yet have years of drinking and ill-health to contend with. I don’t know why the squatters invited John particularly in to the shop – maybe they’d already interacted enough to realise that it would be mutually beneficial. I was brought face to face with my prejudices, and also experienced communal living in a non capitalist environment. Squatting is now much more difficult due to laws brought in to target such terrible people. Did I mention yet how the building was empty, abandoned, given over to pigeons before the squatters moved in and transformed it into a home? That the only reason at John and I ended up there was due to poorly paid or insecure work?

Anyway, I didn’t want to end on a downer as to me this is a really uplifting memory. I’ve probably got some of the details wrong, but I’ll never forget the sensation of John’s greasy, matted hair as I snipped it off, nor the shock of the handsome, happy man he was just a few years later. :) Yayy for the squatters who took us both in and who put so their time and energy into creating such a great little communal home.

Buddha cafe, Mamallapuram. Western travellers with the world at our feet

February 2, 2014 1 comment

My previous post, on how I don’t feel guilty, just deeply aware, about my privilege hopefully frames this post.

In Buddha cafe, Mamallapuram eating scrambled eggs on buttered toast, in a nice hippy setting, watching Otthavadai Street below me. We really do have this part of India (/most of the planet) well set up for us Westerners :/ Everybody is trying to cater to our wants and needs. Trying their hardest to tempt us to part with our over valued hard currency with seductive consumerist offerings.

image

We are in luxury here. Tropical setting. The best locations are converted into hotels for us, rooftop restaurants styled and catering for us along the seafront. Whatever goods or postcards or trinkets might suit our Western tastes for that exotic flavour of India (with questionable authenticity. Guys you’re in Tamil Nadu not Tibet!) are endlessly brought before us by locals to whom what is mere pennies to us, is life sustaining rupees to them. We irritably say No, if we acknowledge them at all, until we need something at which time it is effortlessly there for us. These endless pretty “ethnic” trinkets that we can casually wear in trendy bars back home as nonchalant evidence that we are in the ranks of the sophisticated and have travelled, have floated around exotic places: “Oh this? I picked it up for pennies from a local in a saree on a beach in Mamallapuram. Isn’t it darling!”

image

And me? Here I sit drinking coffee made to suit my western tastes at 5x (£0.50) what I pay when I sit in a local cafe, but instead of a whitewalled, metal tabled place on the street, I have a wooden table, yellow half walls, framed with bamboo and thatching so its bright and airy, pretty lights, gentle music, cushions on the floor if I want to sit at one of the floor tables, and, if I choose, fellow travellers around to share smug tales of where we’ve been and what you really must do, see, experience in the next place.

image

My scrambled eggs and buttered toast were 3x what I paid for yesterday’s breakfast of idli (steamed rice cakes) and omelette in a cafe otherwise entirely filled with Indians. But the eggs were done (more or less) to my Western tastes and instead of constant curious stares from locals* making me feel a self conscious novelty item as I eat alien food, I’m in a Western environment eating comfort food from my childhood, looking down on Othavadai St and its UK festival or Brighton style colourful hippy shops. Today I’m leaving the Indian and international tourist hub of Mamallapuram and so I’m treating myself to the easy comfort of a place much like one I’d hang out in Glasgow (imagine mono in the tropics) and not feel too challenged about my place in the world.

* Polite greetings in the local language together with smiling connections with local women relaxes the subject, and object, of their staring.

Privilege, oppression and guilt

February 2, 2014 Leave a comment

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.