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Wednesday 14 June 2017

Prejudice Declared

I was wrong.

I've recently had a learning experience, and it's sufficiently important that I felt I ought to share it.

Here's the story:

I approached one of my favourite people on Twitter, as I've been mulling over how to approach the topic of prejudice, which I know will have to be covered at some point, because it's one of the central principles dealing with how we think about things, the core of what I talk about (said post will have to wait, as I have much in the pipeline and this was far more important). The person I approached is a marvellous, level-headed African American woman, whose gentle approach to discourse with believers is a model of empathy. That's not to say she can't get pointed on occasion, but she has great patience, even in the face of treatment that shouldn't be countenanced, and would generally be met with one of my trademark rants if directed at me.

Anyhoo, I tentatively asked if I could run through some ideas with her, as I wanted to test the waters with some of what I wanted to say before I made it public, and somebody with her patience was more than I could hope for. This turned out to be problematic, for reasons that will soon become clear. The problems, I should state up front, are entirely with me and my approach to this subject, and it's exposed something that I'd generally thought I was able recognise and mitigate: Privilege.

Anybody who knows me well will know that I've always been pretty much a universal ally, and a staunch fighter for equality. In my younger days, I engaged heavily in political and social activism, including anti-deportation campaigns, social development work in the aftermath of the race riots of the '80s in the UK, LGBTQ campaigning as far back as the preposterous Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, and numerous other activities.

The point of all this potted history is that I, somebody who has been an ally to pretty much every minority in society at some point, and somebody who spends so much time thinking about thinking, can completely fail to think properly about an issue because of something that I wasn't even aware of.

It's a shock, I tell you.

It stems from some of my own experiences as a youngster. I've talked before about what it was like growing up in 1970s England with the most obviously Irish name available, to the degree that I hated my name and the attention it brought. I encountered beatings and abuse at the hands of peers and superiors alike (insofar as anybody is or can ever actually be superior, but that's a topic for another post). I was always wary of giving my name in new crowds of people, and it made me somewhat reticent generally, which may come as a surprise to some, not least because reticence isn't among the top ten characteristics of my personality that people would bring to mind now. That was then, though, and I was very much a different person then. I simply wanted to hide away, and not to be noticed. Above all, I wanted people not to notice the different thing about me from all the other children around me.

In any event, this approach informed my general strategy for dealing with people, and I was of the opinion that, once we start recognising the differences between people, we start to ignore the things that make us the same, and that way lies the sort of treatment that I'd been subjected to.

Of course, in all of this, I had an advantage, in that the only thing that made me recognisably Irish was my name. I couldn't be distinguished by my accent, or my skin colour, or indeed any other characteristic, only when people discovered that I was called Murphy could the vilification begin.

So, I wanted to approach the subject of prejudice and, aware that my friend had far more experience of it than I did, I first asked if she minded discussing it and, with her assent and without going into explicit detail of what I asked, I broached the topic. I was met with silence.

I was a bit flummoxed at first, so I sent another message, and still got no response. I began to suspect that something was wrong, so I sat down and had a thunk.

I wondered what might be the problem. I played through my own experiences, looking for a clue as to what might have garnered no response. I looked carefully at the motivation behind my strategy for dealing with the prejudice I'd experienced as a young person, and then I had an epiphany:

I realised that, all along, I'd been working from the premise that it was possible for me to hide. The realisation hit me like a steamroller and, when it did, it was such a tautology that it put me in mind of Huxley's famous assessment of evolution. How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of the fact that, to somebody like my friend, that option is simply not available. Sure, I could easily not tell somebody my name. My friend was simply unable to exercise the option of not telling somebody that she was black, or a woman.

What a complete and total fuckwit I'd been and, moreover, an insulting, dismissive fuckwit, and entirely driven by the thing that many of us completely fail to notice; my privilege.

And here it is, ladles and jellyspoons. This is the thing that people in my position, even those of us who've suffered some measure of prejudice, will always struggle to recognise, namely that we DO have privilege. That we are in a position that we can circumvent the prejudices that others cannot. 

If we want to be effective allies and advocates, it's simply not enough to treat everybody the same. We have to recognise those differences, because they represent the lived experiences of those who are different from us. We have to be prepared to listen when they tell us about their experiences. We have to avoid being defensive when they tell us that X group of people is, in their experience, a problem. We have to acknowledge that we ARE the problem. We have to recognise that, when criticism is levelled at a group that we identify with, that criticism has been earned, and to inspect our own justifications for feeling defensive. We have to be aware that their positions are mostly justified, whether we feel part of that justification or not. We have to recognise our privilege, and own the criticisms that arise. We have to stop mansplaining, whitesplaining, CISplaining, and every other kind of splaining. We have to become better allies, better advocates, better humans.

I still think that treating everybody the same is a noble aim, but I also recognise that this aim can only be met when the lived experiences of the oppressed are consigned to history, and equality is no longer a privilege, but a right. That aim is not yet met, and the struggle continues.

I hope that I can, in future, be a better advocate and ally than I have been. We're all in this together, and it's beyond time we recognised it.

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