Tag Archives: privilege

Creating Safety

If a community space is to be inclusive, it has to feel safe for everyone. Most of us do a decent enough job of making spaces that feel safe for people who are a lot like us. We start from what we know, which means our own requirements for feeling safe inform what we think everyone else will need.

The more privilege a person has, the less insight they are bound to have into what less privileged people might need. This can be a major barrier to creating safe space because it is so often the people with the most privilege, power and resources who get to define community spaces in the first place. You need resources to run anything, which automatically influences the whole situation.

Well meaning people can make a terrible mess of this sort of thing. The vast majority of humans start from the assumption that they are good and that what they do is also therefore good. Flagging up sexism, racism, ableism… does not reliably go down well with people who are sure that what they do is fine. It’s not uncommon to find the people who are in places of power acting as though they have been attacked when someone tries to flag up the shortcomings.

To make people feel safe, we have to be willing to listen to why they might feel unsafe in the first place. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable, because without being open to that discomfort we’ll hang on to our privileges and we won’t improve anything. We may have to lay down our prejudices and assumptions. So often, lack of safety starts with someone saying what they think of ‘that sort of person’ while oblivious to the presence of exactly that sort of person in the room. I’ve been the only pauper in the room when affluent people had things to say about the ignorant and ungrateful poor. I’ve been subject to casual sexism and to ableism. I know there’s plenty out there that’s far worse.

Anyone who has the power to create safe space, and chooses to perpetuate things that are unsafe, needs calling out on it. It helps a lot when the people who do this are the ones who have some privilege to work with. Please support your less privileged friends by listening when they raise issues and by not accepting the excuses of your more privileged friends. Or co-workers. Or family members.

If you hear something by way of feedback that makes you feel uncomfortable about your own behaviour, please take the time to at least think about it. No one enjoys being called out, but swallowing enough pride to be able to learn and do better is an honourable choice worthy of respect. Doubling down on your scope to make other people feel unsafe is never a good choice.

Self Esteem and Privilege

Self esteem has far more to do with privilege than it does with either your innate worth, or your sense of self worth, or anything you might do to try and feel good about yourself. The more privilege a person has, the easier it is for them to feel good about themselves. Not only are they practically lifted by their advantages, but they will be praised and socially rewarded for having those advantages in the first place. At the extreme end of this we have the example of the UK government – murderously incompetent and full of self praise. No matter how they fail, they demonstrate arrogance and supreme self confidence.

At the other end of the scale, those who are struggling are socially punished for struggling. To be poor, or ill, is to be blamed for being poor and ill. If you belong to a minority, mainstream culture will punish you for existing – as trans, queer, Black, neurodivergent, disabled… To have been unlucky, got into debt, struggled with addiction or become homeless, been a victim of abuse or other crimes is to meet with blame, shame and stigma. How can a person have good self esteem when their society punishes them for their lack of privilege?

If you have a lot of privilege, no one demands much of you. If you have little privilege, then society measures your worth in productivity and encourages you to feel bad about inactivity. If you don’t currently have a job, or are too ill to work, or too ill to work full time, or you need to rest, you won’t be encouraged to feel comfortable about that. Government ministers will call you lazy and workshy, and begrudge you enough support to afford food. If your work isn’t well paid, you will be treated as though you don’t deserve to be able to afford food and shelter.

All the self esteem advice is about not pinning your sense of worth to external things. I’ve never seen anyone talking about how much of a privilege issue this is. Without privilege, you aren’t allowed to do that thing. Feeling like you have intrinsic worth is difficult when your society treats you like that isn’t true. For anyone who faces disadvantages, self esteem isn’t something you can just magically grow and without external validation feeling good about anything can be really difficult.

Privilege and slavery

The language of slavery is something to be incredibly careful with. It’s not something to use casually, or as a metaphor. It’s really not ok to describe things as slavery that really definitely aren’t slavery – doing so undermines the meaning of the word, which in turn may cause people to take the whole idea less seriously. 

It’s important to talk about historical slavery and the ongoing impact that has in the world – both for those who remain disadvantaged and damaged by its impact on their ancestors, and for those who continue to benefit from the profits their families made. 

There are other historical, oppressive systems that were horrible – indentured servitude being an obvious case in point. It’s not equivalent to Black experiences of slavery in America and people who want to talk about it on those terms often have a racist agenda, so it’s worth being clear that these are not the same thing. If a person who has entered this kind of contract is constantly facing new debt sources so that they can never escape from their ‘employer’ then we’re looking at something a lot closer to slavery. Very bad working conditions are not the same as slavery, but both historically and in the present there are those who truly push those lines.

Modern slavery exists and is defined in terms of being forced to do unpaid work. This often goes alongside human trafficking and organised crime. People who aren’t legally in a country, and who have no recourse to support are exploited hideously. I will never forget the Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe bay who died in 2004, killed for someone else’s profits. Disregard for life is one of the hallmarks of slavery. 

There is a grey area when it comes to people who are forced, through poverty into work that pays them so poorly they can never escape from it and that compromises their health – to a potentially fatal degree. A risky job where efforts are made to protect you is entirely different. However, if you could change job, if you have prospects, if you aren’t at risk of death then ‘wage slave’ isn’t a good term to use. Being trapped in oppressive capitalism is vile, but it isn’t slavery. Being owned by a company or a person so that you can only do what they permit you to do in all aspects of your life, is slavery. If you can choose, and if you can leave, you aren’t a slave.

Most importantly on the personal level, we need to stop describing ourselves as ‘slaving’ over things. We aren’t. Plenty of other, better language exists to describe hard work, considerable effort, personal suffering and discomfort. If what we’re talking about looks at all like a first world problem, a middle class problem, or a minor discomfort alongside our privilege, we should not be describing it in terms of slavery at all.

Distress as a community issue

The worst experience you’ve ever had is going to inform your sense of perspective. I ran into this a lot when James was young, and it’s quite a process giving a child a framework in which to consider their experiences without invalidating how they feel about things. Distress should not be competitive, and the idea that you shouldn’t make a fuss because other people have it worse, is abhorrent.

How distressing something is depends a lot on how resourced you are. If you’re already at the margins, smaller things will have more power to break you. Getting the flu as a basically healthy person is different from getting the flu when you were already ill. From the outside, it isn’t easy to tell how overloaded someone else might be. 

Even so, in my experience it is often the people who are most privileged and most comfortable who make the most fuss about their setbacks. The more insulated a person is in a bubble of comfort, the more intolerant they are likely to be of other people’s struggles, too. Most of us are challenged and knocked about by life and most of us have more compassion and empathy for other people than that. Unfortunately the UK government appears to have a lot of whinging privilege in it at the moment.

Community is really important in all of this. Investing care in others – humans and non-humans alike will give us a context for our own experiences. Very little is new, most of us aren’t desperately original about the things we struggle with, and I think there’s a kind of beauty in that. We share so much common experience in our flawed humanity. When we talk about that and make the stories of our trials available to each other, we open up to compassion and empathy. It’s also a way of sharing knowledge, and if you’ve seen someone else go through something you’re much better prepared to deal with it if you encounter something similar.

I’m always uneasy about the people who constantly need to prove that they’re the biggest victim, the most hard done by, and the only one who should be getting attention. It’s not healthy. It’s vitally important to be able to look around and see what’s most urgent right now, or most fixable. When we look out for each other, we build resilience and resources. If we all sat in little puddles of self pity demanding that we be recognised as the one with the best sob story, nothing good would come of it. We all need room to express our woes, but doing that together is far more powerful. 

When we rage, and grieve and struggle together we can build things that are more than the sum of our misery.

Dealing with disbelief

I made the mistake of starting to suffer from chronic fatigue at a point where it wasn’t reliably being diagnosed. My doctor at the time did not believe it existed, and treated me accordingly – with scorn, suggestions that it was all in my head and the assumption that I just wanted to get out of PE. And yes, I did want to get out of PE because PE was hell, for a whole bunch of other reasons no one knew were issues. Whatever else was going on, my distress never seemed plausible to him.

I had no idea, as a small child, that most people weren’t in pain. Other kids did the things I couldn’t do, and seemed to be ok. I’m not sure why I concluded that they were all just making less of a fuss about it, but that’s child brains for you. I certainly had plenty of encouragement to think I was just making a fuss and not trying hard enough.

Now we know how hypermobility impacts on people, what was happening for me is no great mystery. Everything takes me more effort than is typical. Many things cause me pain. I hurt and damage easily. Taking my weight on my hands really hurts me. Also I have a lot of issues with being upside down, I still hate it, I still find it stressful but as an adult I don’t have to deal with people forcing me into those positions.

At this point I’m fairly confident that I don’t express pain – be that physical or emotional – in a way that makes much sense to a lot of people. My default is to explain, but I tend to be calm. This is to do with my coping mechanisms, and being used to pain. It meant I had a lot of trouble persuading anyone I was in labour, and went a long time with no pain relief as a consequence. It may have coloured all of my interactions with the medical profession. There are a number of people in my history I am fairly sure had a problem with it.

I’ve been told I come across as cold, unfeeling, uncaring. I’ve been told I seem manipulative. I guess if you expect people to present pain in more dramatic ways it might be hard to believe a person who is saying calmly that they’re in more pain than they can bear. Panic can make it impossible for me to present this way, but I’m not always panicked. 

Somewhere along the way I missed all the memos about appropriate expression of feelings. What seems normal to other people doesn’t always make much sense to me. I’ve spent a lot of years trying to figure out what it is that gets some people’s distress taken very seriously, and other people ignored. From what I read, I’m fairly sure privilege is a big part of it. The more advantages you have, the more likely you are to be taken seriously about problems you encounter. White men are more likely to get their abdominal pain taken seriously. Black women die in labour in disproportionate numbers. 

How we expect people to behave is clearly informed by all sorts of things. But it isn’t a fair measure. Ignoring distress because it isn’t being presented the way we expect, or assuming a person will overstate because of who they are, is really problematic, and there’s a lot of it out there. Much of it is far worse than anything I’ve had to deal with, but these are the illustrations I have to work with and I hope they are useful.

Spiritual unease

The pandemic seems to have pushed rather a lot of New Age folk into the arms of the far right. At first glance this all seems very strange – what are the peace, love and light brigade doing cosying up with white supremacists, and people who seem to be all about conflict, hatred and control? And yet there they are, shoulder to shoulder at anti-vax protests and sharing the pages of publications.

I honestly wish I was more surprised, but I’ve been aware for some years now of the many issues in peace-love-light culture. There’s the toxic positivity, which really crushes people who are struggling. There’s the mistaking privilege for having the magical power to manifest good fortune. There’s like-attracts-like thinking which is a brutal and unjust philosophy to apply to people who are poor, disabled and otherwise disadvantaged. The idea of pre-life contracts make it seem ok to ignore people in distress because hey, they chose these lessons. The New Age movement has always had a problem with appropriating from other cultures, treating the global majority with disrespect, feeling entitled to take anything from anyone… 

Perhaps the most problematic bit is the assumption that if you’re all about peace and love and light, the people around you are good. Feeling that you can afford to be uncritical of yourself and others, and that you can just assume that goodness is what’s around you. If you think like attracts like you’re hardly going to want to consider that you’ve become attracted to Nazis. 

To be genuinely spiritual, you have to be willing to keep an eye on yourself for smugness, self-importance and feelings of superiority. The spiritual life will only stop you turning into a total narcissist if you’re actually invested in the idea of not becoming a massive, self-serving ego. To be spiritual you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. Learning and growth are pretty much impossible if you aren’t able to be uncomfortable sometimes. If you only seek out things that make you feel good about yourself, you can end up with more of an ego trip than a spiritual journey.

It does matter who you associate with. The people we spend time with have a huge impact on us. Do the people we encounter really help us become our best selves, or are they making us feel like we’re above criticism? What does the freedom we demand cost other people? Who is hurt by what we do? If we aren’t willing to ask awkward questions sometimes, our desire to have everything pleasant and easy can turn us into monsters.

First Frosts

While the first frosts can come a lot earlier in the autumn than they have this year, they are always a sign of the winter to come. For me, they never feel like a good sign. Granted, there is a kind of sharp beauty and clarity that also tends to come with the frosts. Frosty mornings tend to be bright and crisp, and can feature some intensely blue skies. However, cold weather tends to hurt.

My body doesn’t handle the cold well. I get stiff more readily, and I hurt more. I’m never going to appreciate the prettiness of frost with uncomplicated feelings of joy. At the moment I’m enjoying a life where I don’t have to head out on frosty mornings. It’s easier to enjoy the light and the sparkles while not being out there dealing with slippery surfaces. I’m also in the fortunate position of being able to afford to keep my home warm enough not to suffer at the arrival of frosts.

Being able to enjoy the winter tends to involve privilege. Enough money for heating and a body that isn’t threatened by the conditions are key. For some people, the reduced amount of sunlight causes depression. For many, winter is isolating. If you can enjoy the season, that’s lovely and you should do so. But please remember not to berate or shame people who express difficulty. And yes, while it’s true that there are no bad weather conditions, only unsuitable clothing, it is also true that you have to be able to afford that clothing, and not everyone can. A winter without a substantial coat is tough. I’ve been there. 

If it gets cold enough, you can’t wear enough jumpers to make up for not being able to afford to heat your home. If your home is a van, or a boat, if you sleep in your car, or are living in a tent or rough sleeping, winter is a very hard season. You can’t always tell by looking who is dealing with such issues. There are working people in the UK who live in cars and tents and hide it well. Please be gentle with the people who find winter difficult.

Permission to be awkward

Like a lot of people, I grew up understanding the importance of being co-operative. Don’t make a fuss, don’t be difficult, don’t ask for what isn’t available. Like what you get. If I’m not paying attention, or feeling confident, I still default to whatever’s cheapest, whatever is most convenient for everyone else. It’s taken me a while as an adult to make the headspace to explore my own preferences. What do I want to wear? What do I prefer to eat? What don’t I like?

I’ve made some startling discoveries. I find loud food really stressful. I suspect I’ve always found it stressful, but I’ve never taken it seriously before. There are things I really don’t like having in my mouth because of how they sound. There are textures I don’t like. 

I don’t like bright light, the noise the strip lights make is stressful. I hate the hum of the desktop computer, I have a hard time sleeping if there’s any light source in the room. I’ve known for a while that there’s only so much noise and movement I can process before my brain has a bit of a meltdown. When I’m tired, I can’t figure out where the ground is by looking at it, which is awkward on non-flat surfaces. None of this is new.

I’ve given myself permission to be awkward. I’ve given myself permission to not like things, and to say no to things. To let go of things that don’t work for me. I’ve even given myself permission to say when I don’t like how a food sounds inside my mouth, or something else is bothering me. Having given myself that permission it is easier to pay attention to what’s happening to me, and to take some control of that. It’s taken me a while to figure out that I am allowed to do that, and no one minds.

There’s a class aspect in all of this. I think children from more affluent backgrounds tend to be allowed to be fussy, to have preferences, not like things, to want things. I think there was, and still is, more willingness to think that an affluent child may have a condition, need a diagnosis or special treatment or accommodations. When what there is, is what you can afford, a fussy child is a problem. A fussy child is going to have to get over it and eat what’s there because there isn’t anything else. You wear the hand-me-down clothes because that’s all there is, there’s no point having feelings or preferences about it. If you’re poor, you may not be allowed to be delicate, or sensitive. You may not be allowed to say no to things.

Being allowed to be awkward feels like a luxury, and looks like a privilege. I’m glad to have that now, and for the opportunities to be more comfortable that it will allow me.

Identifying Privilege

One of the trickiest things about squaring up to your own privilege is that the very nature of the thing makes it hard to spot in the first place. Privilege is the stuff we assume is normal and take for granted and don’t realise other people might not have. Many of us won’t see ourselves as privileged because we see all too well the ways in which we are struggling.

Recently I discovered just how much toilet privilege I normally have, and this was an eye opener. A couple of health issues combined to make it hard to get on and off the loo. Managing your own continence is such a basic thing, so easy to take for granted and not notice. But for many people, that’s not a temporary problem, that’s daily life. Those of us who can use the loo independently and with little trouble won’t see that as privilege because it just seems normal. Most of it works this way, give or take.

However, having more privilege does not mean any kind of increase in the ability to spot it. Those who have most seem to take for granted their level of wealth and comfort. The idea that what we have is fair, deserved and appropriate becomes really problematic when we’re talking about people who have far more than their fair share. Rather than see themselves as advantaged, the richest amongst us seem to see those who have least as failing in some way and personally at fault for their circumstances.

The more you have, the harder it may be to empathise with anyone who has less. People who have experienced hardships and losses of the things they might otherwise take for granted at least have some basis for understanding what others may be going through.

We have people with such extreme wealth that they could personally fund the solving of the world’s biggest problems. They could end hunger and homelessness and sort out climate chaos. I find it hard to imagine that a person could have that level of privilege and fail to see it.

For most of us, an exploration of privilege is going to mean thinking about things we take for granted that other people don’t automatically have. It’s a useful subject to explore, especially on your own and when there isn’t someone who is suffering and being obliged to educate you. Any setback is an opportunity to think about what life is like for someone who is stuck with those issues all the time.

Ideally, the process of understanding privilege is about finding ways to give more to those who have less. For most of us, it’s not going to be about reducing our own privilege, but seeing how we can extend those same privileges to others. There comes a point however, where a person has so much wealth and privilege that what they’ve accumulated is actively harming others. Rather than celebrating extreme wealth, we need to start challenging it, and recognising that there have to be limits to how much privilege a person should have.

Druidry and Privilege

Back when I was first exploring ideas of privilege, there was a person who used to show up on my blog to argue with me. I’ve since deleted most of her stuff.  If I talked about body size, she’d be in to tell me how hard things can be for thin people. I talked about the social issues around being found unattractive, and she responded by telling me how hard things can be when you grow up pretty. I remember her writing about her home, and big garden, and driving to get to the farmer’s market, and me raising the issue of privilege and being told that she wasn’t privileged.

We were all fairly new to the privilege conversations at this point. I did not then know how normal this type of conversation would become – that people who have considerable amounts of privilege are often incredibly resistant to seeing it, or to imagining what life would be like without those things. I know at this point how normal it is for people with massive privilege to dismiss the challenges faced by others, to treat the inconvenience they experience as being comparable, and to minimise the suffering of those who have significantly less.

These days I would have both the confidence and the insight to call out someone for this kind of crappy thinking. At this point I know that I am right about this stuff, and was right at the time. I never owed anything to the poor little rich girl who wanted to feel sorry for herself over how her attractiveness made other people jealous. One of the things massive privilege likes to do is whinge when it looks like the focus of attention is moving somewhere else. Immense privilege is used to being centre stage, and feels entitled, and resents the suggestion that something else matters more, so dammit, if the way to compete is to prove that really you are the disadvantaged one, then that’s what you do to stay firmly centre stage and most important.

For me, justice is an important part of Druidry. The work of seeking justice begins in yourself. If means being anti-racist and starting by looking hard at your own prejudices and assumptions, for example. It means looking at your privilege and the differences between what you have, and what others do not have. Justice requires a willingness to be uncomfortable. This includes a willingness not to be centre stage, and to recognise that other people may have bigger problems. Yes, thin can bring issues and criticism, but it will not usually mean a doctor automatically ignores your symptoms and attributes them to your body shape. 

For there to be justice, we have to listen to each other. One of the easiest ways to derail a bid for justice is to insist that something else is more important. When men insist on foregrounding violence experienced by men in response to someone trying to talk about violence inflicted on women by men, for example. At the same time, if someone is talking about issues with no reference to the privilege involved, that actually needs derailing. No, we can’t all drive to the farmer’s market to buy local organic veg. Not all of us can drive, or afford that kind of food, and it isn’t that we aren’t trying hard enough.

And today, justice is allowing myself the space to feel angry on my own account that I had to deal with all of that. Angry that someone persistently worked to undermine me, to derail me, to minimise genuine issues and to put themselves centre stage in this space that is mine. I’m allowed to be angry, but it’s taken me a lot of years to be able to hold that for myself.