Yes, privilege is a real buzz word these days. Normally I shy away from trends (I refused to watch Friends until around 2000, my convictions were so strong), yet this is one that while I feel tremendously uncomfortable with it, owing to my own privilege which I am increasingly becoming aware of, I feel responsible for forcing myself to face it.
I was riding on the train this morning, for some reason thinking about being an ex-patriot. I have left my home, not due to difficulties or dangers, but because opportunity showed up and I had the resources available, either of my own possession or via contacts who had them. I have lived in the UK for nearly twelve years and in London for almost nine. London is an inhospitable place for anyone, so I am very alert to the fact that I have exceeded many people’s capacity to remain, and that mostly due to the love and support of others who have provided for our work to continue.
But I’ve always had a place to return to if it doesn’t work out. I have credit cards to fall back on if I can’t even afford a flight or place to rest my head. I have family with space to spare.
Through no work of my own I have started life out on a better platform with regards to material resources and education. I am privileged. My skin is white, my faith is Christian, my nationality is American.
There was a time during my first years here, during the Iraq war, that being an American was anything but good internationally. American travelers were advised to put Canadian patches on their backpacks. I remember being scared witless by an activist who came into our internet cafe at the community centre, and this is before my days becoming an activist myself, who was looking at graphic pictures of casualties caused by American troops. He looked at webpages that spoke out against Americans in a way that made me very uncomfortable. I heard people talking disdainfully about Americans on the bus and I kept my mouth shut, fearing for my own safety (or possibly just my own comfort). I stumbled on a rally in Trafalgar Square where people held placards decrying Bush as a murderer. It was an intense period as an American ex-pat who was vastly more conservative.
But at any time I could have retreated to a ‘safe’ place.
Now, when people query my accent, a warm California glow spreads across their face when they learn of my ‘home’. In their estimation, quite often, I rise in value and interest just based on my birthplace, though they think I am absolutely mad for ever leaving.
I question if my accent was different, if my skin was darker, if my trajectory was East to West instead, would I be so well received. Would I be labelled differently?
In reality, the humans who are making journeys across dangerous waters, across lands whose people will not accept them, they are Ex-pats just like me. We have different reasons for our migrations, but I reckon that theirs is more valid if we need to make comparison or judge merit. Yet my privilege ups my credit score in terms of my humanity, my trustworthiness, what I have to offer. This may be utter bullshit but it is the case.
I may have had to jump through hoops to get where I am and to remain here, to proudly wear the label of ex-pat, but others have been prohibited from access to those very hoops. All based on fear. Fear of differences. Privilege.
I could offer to strip off the badge of ‘ex-pat’ in exchange for that of ‘migrant’, but even that is a privilege I’m afforded. At this point, writing this is becoming an unfolding discourse in my own mind and one not destined to get very far on its own. I suppose as a woman I can see that a man cannot disavow himself of his privilege by exchanging labels, and doing so will not further my status in life. His working to ensure that the privilege he possesses goes towards creating more equal power structures perhaps is the only answer I can imagine. Ensuring others are equally educated, equally rich, equally given opportunities. Working to change the minds and prejudices of people, privileged or otherwise, will take a very long time. But we’ve got to keep trying to win incremental battles.
How you deal with your own privilege? And to those who find themselves less privileged in various ways, how can people best change the world without seeming like patronising fools?