Something I’ve noticed during my years attending predominantly white schools and living in white suburban middle-class neighbourhoods is that the people I’ve encountered within this environment are very quick to claim that they aren’t racist or sexist without really understanding how these deeply embedded societal issues and forms of oppression operate. Failing to understand that racism and sexism go beyond directly expressing a disdain for another ethnicity or sex.
Oppression is a system in which one group maintains supremacy over another, simple enough. Although a question that isn’t asked enough is, how? How exactly does one group maintain supremacy over another? Supremacy is maintained through a set of socially constructed attitudes, behaviours, social structures, and institutional powers. Institutional oppression takes the form of historically rooted discriminatory treatment which are normalised through unfair policies and inequitable opportunities based on ones race, sex, sexual orientations or physical appearance.
The result of unfair policies and inequitable opportunities based on ones race are evident in Britain and America’s prison cultures – According to Gov.uk’s Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System 2012 “In 2011/12, for those aged 10 or older, a Black person was nearly three times more likely to be arrested per 1,000 population than a White person, while a person from the Mixed ethnic group was twice as likely”.
Hegemonic cultural stereotypes also play their part in perpetuating and aiding these oppressive structures. Phrases like “acting black”, “bitch”, “retard” and “that’s gay” may be normalised but it certainly doesn’t excuse their usage in everyday conversation.
I’m currently living in Brighton, about a forty-five minute drive from Surrey, my home county. The short distance makes it pretty easy for my friends from back home to visit as and when they can. A couple of months ago a few friends from home came down to Brighton for a night out and as anticipated, the night was eventful and as usual we had a lot of fun, with the exception of an instance in the smoking area while my close friend and I were engaged in a lighthearted conversation. A young Sri Lankan gentleman confidently strolled over, interrupted our conversation and asked if I wanted to buy any weed. My friend politely ensued to ask for some details, the Sri Lankan gentlemen turned to me and said (loud enough for my friend to hear) that he doesn’t talk to or do business with “white boys”. Once I declined his offer, the tension subsided and the Sri Lankan gentlemen headed back into the club after shaking my hand and maliciously dismissing my friend. I turned to my friend and saw that he was incredibly agitated, exclaiming that the Sri Lankan dealer was a racist. Being sufficiently inebriated I thought it best not to initiate a drunken discussion with my friend about social mobility and white privilege in order to affirm that although what the Sri Lankan gentlemen said was hurtful, there is in fact no such thing as what is popularly and wrongly referred to as, ‘reverse racism’.
Since this particular incident, I’ve become increasingly aware that a lot of my friends and acquaintances talk about feeling hard done by the concept of equality by way of making statements such as: “National Women’s day? When is National Men’s day?” – I suppose we should also discuss dates for Able-Bodied awareness Day, White Colonial History Month and Hetero-Pride? No.
I’ve learnt that discussing ‘equality’ is just as difficult as discussing any concept that doesn’t truly exist, although I’ve found that privilege is a good place to start. As the world currently stands, the pinnacle of privilege is to be white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class, English-speaking and male. Meaning that if one were to identify with one or all of these dominant groups, one would enjoy a form of social mobility that would allow them to manoeuvre freely between socio-economic groups.
James Bloodworth, Editor of Left Foot Forward wrote in his article for The Independent entitled, Meritocracy is a Myth, highlights that “The children of wealthier parents are more likely to go to the best schools, eat the best food, have access to ‘high culture’ and have a quiet place to do homework when they get home from school. As a result, poor but bright children get overtaken by their less intelligent classmates from wealthier backgrounds in the very first years of schooling, according to a 2007 study”.
Dr. Barbra Love, social justice speaker and writer on multicultural organisational development argues that “Racism is a system of structured dis-equality where the goods, services, rewards, privileges, and benefits of the society are available to individuals according to their presumed membership in particular racial groups”.
Like the Sri Lankan gentlemen, a person of any race can have prejudices about people of other races and orientations, but only members of the dominant social group can exhibit racism, sexism, etc. Although racism and sexism are forms of prejudice, they are backed up by institutional powers and deeply felt historical and cultural contexts that have and continue to enforce mass inequality.
“Privilege operates on personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels and gives advantages, favours, and benefits to members of dominant groups.”
In my experiences, those who identify with privileged groups tend to be the ones who are eager to initiate a conversation highlighting the flaws of equality – “Why is he/she allowed to say/do that and I’m not allowed to say/do that?” These statements are carelessly made, recklessly assuming that equality exists and has existed for a long period of time; a detrimental misconception. In truth the seeds of equality cannot be sown and appropriately nourished until individuals who don’t identify with privileged groups are frequently and accurately represented in politics, media, and single demographic dominated industries. Until then, making claims that women’s liberation, LGBT and organisations that celebrate and support ethnic minorities are exclusory and thus sexist/racist is simply a grand display of bigoted ignorance.
To understand ones privilege is not to feel guilty about the outcome of a genetic lottery. On the contrary, to understand and accept ones privilege is to develop a critical understanding aiding a profound self-realisation that the world presented to you is simply not the same world encapsulating the same opportunities that have been presented to another, opening the gate to a greater sense of empathy through the acknowledgment of ones unearned advantages.
If one is to truly consider themselves an egalitarian, a believer in equal rights and opportunities for all, there must be a willingness to educate oneself about oppression. There ought to be a readiness to listen to and learn about who are targets of these oppressive structures. There must be a compliance to examine and challenge prejudices and stereotypically driven assumptions you may encounter on an everyday basis. There must be a sense of responsibility towards working through feelings of guilt, shame, and defensiveness that may surface while confronting your own privilege in order to understand and uncover what is beneath these feeling and what needs to be healed. Finally, there must be an initiative to act collaboratively with members of the target group to take truly progressive steps towards dismantling these oppressive social structures and creating lasting social change.