My friend Emily is one of those special people who can give constructive feedback without making you feel like shit.
We were WhatsApp-ing, and I was asking her what she thought of my posts. Amongst lots of feedback, was this:
“I don’t know the relevance of this, but I read something interesting about minimalism as an aesthetic being ‘a privilege’, and how only people who have money can afford to have minimal living spaces and declutter by getting rid of things they don’t use a lot – poor people hang onto things because they fear they might need it and won’t be able to buy it when they do.”
Of course, she did know the relevance, she was just softening the blow.
Bringing up privilege was something I needed. Of course, writing a blog about ‘learning to live with less’ is privileged – it comes from a starting point of having the option to have more than enough in the first place.
Facing up to this privilege could make me squirm. What a self-indulgent pastime. Not only can I afford the time to write about my thoughts, but I’m writing about having too much. How the heart bleeds!
But face up to it I will.
It’s taken me a long time to start recognising my privilege. All four of my grandparents were refugees, and I always took a certain level of pride in my identity as someone who was ‘middle class but not really’. Someone who, despite having a financially comfortable upbringing, didn’t rely on inherited wealth and worked hard themselves to earn their own money. Someone who had the luxury of private education with the local elite, but was ‘grounded’ by parents who were ‘self-made’.
So when the idea of ‘white privilege’ began to stream into the common consciousness, I railed against it – albeit privately. “How can people say I was privileged when I worked so hard to become successful?” I thought. “And anyway, my grandparents were white, but they were refugees, and my parents grew up with nothing.”
I think several things (at least) were happening here – all misguided.
First up, I was scared that recognising my privilege would undermine my own achievements and – in a world where we are judged on our success – automatically detract from my own feelings of pride and self-worth. Not only is this misunderstanding the concept of privilege, but it’s also – somewhat egotistically – turning the focus back to me. Now I realise that recognising my privilege does not detract from my achievements, it’s simply part of the story, like it or not.
Second, I was seeing privilege as a binary concept – you either have it or you don’t – and failing to see that different types of privilege can exist at the same time, and that the existence of one does not automatically negate each other. I wasn’t recognising that white privilege can exist as well as the lack of privilege afforded to migrants of any colour, and many other types of power structures. And recognising my privilege doesn’t mean that others don’t have even more, either.
Third, I was partly co-opting my grandparents’ life experiences based on bloodline alone (like this guy is trying to do), when I really had an upbringing entirely unaffected by their refugee experience.
So what changed in my thinking?
In the years since I have had the opportunity to widen the diversity of voices I interact with, and to see, read and hear things that have broadened my understanding. I’ve lived in different countries and seen how systems are in place that celebrate some and oppress others. I’ve begun to see a little more of the bigger picture. I’ve begun to better understand how we don’t actually live in a meritocracy, but in a world where the odds are stacked firmly in your favour, or against you. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but it’s a start.
So with that in mind, I’ll go back to Emily’s comment that Exploring Enough could be a blog with a privileged perspective.
She is 100% right.
In many ways, Exploring Enough is ultimately a blog about privilege, and aimed at people with privilege.
This isn’t something to deny, or to be ashamed of – it’s something to build on. Because in a world where resources are finite, we need to get better at sharing fairly. And if we want to avoid never-ending conflict, the people who currently hold privilege, power and resources need to learn to live happily with less.
And that’s people just like me.
Photo: Bradford Grammar School – where I studied from 8-18