How not to be a douchebag when discussing privilege

‘Privilege’ is a sticky topic, particularly when it concerns dominant cultures.

Not surprisingly, however, most of us hate having our privilege pointed out. I suspect much of the discomfort stems from the realisation that even our liberal democracies suck, big time!

After having what may be a bazillion conversations about privilege, I feel like I’ve heard all sorts of really odd statements in relation to “political correctness gone too far”.

So, I thought it might be helpful to put together a list of tips that will help you sound like less of a narrow-minded douchebag next time the topic of privilege arises. I should note that none of these scenarios are made up – I’ve really heard them all.

This list is by no means exhaustive.

1. Never begin a sentence with “if I were [insert cultural background/gender/religious affiliation/sexuality etc. that you are not].”

If you happen to be a white woman then, for the love of all things good and holy, please don’t begin a sentence with ‘if I were a black man…’.


Just no.

No. On so many levels.

The very simple explanation is that by beginning a sentence with, “if I were (something I’m not)”, you assume that you know how to do the ‘otherness’ better than the person who is actually doing the, in the above example, ‘blackness’ or ‘maleness’. Since you cannot know what their circumstances have truly been like, it’s hard to know how you would behave or what you might be like in that situation, precisely because you can never be anything except that which you are. Tres philosophical.

Being an ally in somebody’s fight for justice is important. Recognising that you will never have that lived experience is equally important. What it means in practical terms is that you are, under no circumstance, allowed to make the conversation about you. It means the conversation is not permitted to occur on your terms. Being an ally means taking a backseat and primarily accepting that people from within the group will take the reigns. Your job is to support, not to lead.

2. Never make a claim about the oppression of the dominant group.

So, apparently, considering the needs of minorities is oppressive to the dominant group. It must be difficult to occasionally have to consider that the way you do something is not the way everybody else might do something. It must be difficult to discover that, for hundreds of years, institutions and societal structures were built to the advantage of the dominant group. It must be difficult to think of other cultures as entities that bring more than exciting new food and music.

The recognition that different people need different things to successfully flourish in a society is not oppression, it’s called equity. Oppression is ignoring these differences and forcing everyone to pretend that being white and middle class and male works for them. Sound familiar?

3. Do not complain that ticking a box on a form in identification with being an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander gets someone an ‘extra’ something. And then adding, “because it’s insulting to them”.

Are you kidding me?

Before you try to justify your ridiculously ignorant comment, think about what you’re actually saying. Effectively, when you complain about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders getting an extra five(!) ATAR points for the HSC, what you’re saying is:

“I am outraged that after 200+ years of dispossession of Aboriginal land, which all migrants to this country benefit from every single day, years of oppression, numerous attempts at genocide, consistently being told that you’ll never be good enough based solely on the colour of your skin, that you get five ATAR points because it insults your intelligence and because I care about your feelings.”

If you don’t understand why this is screwed up, I know we can’t be friends. Ever. Like don’t even bother sending me abusive Facebook messages.

4. It’s racist that I can only tell ‘white’ stories because I’m white.

No. It’s not.

Some stories are not ours to tell regardless of how much money we will make by telling them. Unless you have the permission of someone to tell his or her story, then I’m of the belief that you shouldn’t. Not because I wish to stunt your creative expression, but because if you genuinely believed that the story should be told, you’d find people from within that community that are already working on telling the story (believe it or not you’re probably in no way original), and see whether or not, under their direction, you can assist.

If you do tell the story (whatever your reasons for doing so) then you should be working closely with consultants from within the community that you’re aiming to depict or represent. This doesn’t mean a few focus groups. It means lengthy communications, and probably arguments, about what is and what is not acceptable. This isn’t a way of stifling art; it’s first and foremost acknowledgment that you do not own that story. You might be a vessel and you might do a fabulous job, but that will never make it yours.

Categories: Politics

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