Privilege?! I’ll Give You Privilege, You Tyke!!

For everyone, the self and the lived experience are a patchwork of privileges and discriminations, abilities and limitations, opportunities and disadvantages[1]. We all enjoy some advantages over some less fortunate people, but we are so pre-occupied by the disadvantages that threaten our happiness that we take our blessings for granted. We fail to experience them[2]. Most people thoughtlessly enjoy non-amputee-privilege in comparison with amputees; non-diabetic-privilege in comparison with diabetics; vision privilege in comparison with the short-sighted… 

For example, The Black Rights activists whose work I am familiar with are Afua Hirsch, Otegha Uwagba and Renni Eddoh-Lodge. All three are graced with youth, good-looks and vigorous intellects. All three are articulate, perceptive, successful and influential: people listen to and respect what they have to say (rightly so); the first two are both graduates of Oxford University. A private school in London claims Afua Hirsch as an alumnus[3]

I know nothing else about their backgrounds, but it is clear from these facts that some things went right for them, through genetically endowed or learned intelligence and determination, or a supportive family or school, with a good work ethic, or through luck or contacts. They’ve clearly played their cards brilliantly, but they must have been dealt a playable hand in the first place. Most people don’t even get the chance to screw up a shot at Oxford, let alone get in, work hard, display their ability and graduate with honour. 

In contrast, I was born with innumerable advantages, although not exactly with a silver spoon in my mouth[4]. My parents were both graduates and I assumed I would have a good chance at going to university, although I was a lazy oaf whose only interest in intellectualism was that it helped me talk to girls.

One day, at lunch, I mused, “do you think I could apply for Oxford or Cambridge?” The whole family fell off their chairs laughing. I said, “What?! What’s so funny?!” My dad said (something like), “It’s a bit late for that, isn’t it? You’d need to have shown a bit more interest in school-work. And aptitude.”

That was the end of that idea. But that’s ok. My myriad of advantages far, far outweighed that momentary sense of injury, let alone my indolence, mediocre intellect, lack of confidence or resilience or independence of spirit. I was accepted into a well-respected university, although I gained mediocre grades that, nowadays, would no longer give me that opportunity. I didn’t deserve it.

Neither Afua Hirsch nor Otegha Uwagba can have had an identical experience to me, because they did attend Oxford and something must have impelled them through that process. Perhaps they had innate and irrepressible intellectual flair. If their family or community was discouraging, something must have driven them to fight against this; something must have given them the self-confidence, because my experience is that if your own family don’t think you’re up to something, you probably aren’t. You believe them, because they, of all people, ought to know. 

Oxford is one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Going there must confer an advantage, as must having the capacity to get through the rigorous process in the first place. The political Right condemn people like Ms Hirsch, Ms Uwagba and Ms Eddoh-Lodge, and dismiss what they have to say, because of the advantageous positions they now occupy. That is the argumentum ad hominem, remember? And that is a fallacy. If privilege should silence you, then nobody on the planet could speak. And that is the aim of tyrants. 

What matters, surely, is the validity of what they have to say. Their advantages and abilities put them in a better position for saying it with clarity and reach. We need them. 

[1] But not with an equal amount of light and dark, unfortunately.

[2] This is probably a survival trait: we have developed to pay more attention to threats than to the harmless. Don’t beat yourself up: it’s natural not to count your blessings!

[3] This is not an attempt to undermine their opinions on inequality. As I mentioned in my previous post, what’s important is the truth of the message, no matter who makes it. Attacking the speaker, because you can find no fault in the speech, the argumentum ad hominem, is a fallacy and suggests they have a point.

[4] More like a mid-range chromium-alloy stainless-steel teaspoon, set of six for £5.

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