What is privilege? In the context of inclusion and diversity, privilege is the cultural bias towards white, male and straight people over black, female or queer people; towards particular abilities over other abilities, and towards fitting in to an unjust system. My Friend pointed out that my initial definition, above, missed out intersectionality, where one may have more than one disadvantage: change that to the unprivilege of black, female and/or queer people. And/or other things, too, of course, socio-economic origin has an increasingly chilling effect on some people- but we have difficulty adding other disadvantaged groups when some Friends do not seem to accept this definition of privilege at all.
On class, a Friend pointed out that the Attlee Government’s reforms, allowing so many people to get a good education and be the first in their families to go to University had permitted her (as well as my father) to get a degree and join the middle classes. The Tory government is tearing these opportunities away. Another was distressed by one question about privilege. “Did you have more than fifty books in your home when you grew up?” She had, because her working class parents were leading lights in the Workers’ Educational Association.
This view of privilege is closer to the 1993 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary definition, a right, advantage or immunity granted to or enjoyed by a person or class of people, than to a looser use which seems closer to “something good which I enjoy”. The right, advantage or immunity is granted by the culture, rather than by law, and it may be invisible to many people, giving Queer studies, Women’s studies and Critical Whiteness or Black studies academics the impetus to bring it out into the open so it may be problematised and deconstructed. Men having more senior positions in scientific and technical careers is a result of our sexist culture rather than differences between men and women. Everyone is the poorer because of this: society loses the benefit of individual women’s gifts.
I feel the Yearly Meeting of Britain Yearly Meeting was a missed opportunity, this year, because of an inability to be clear about what “privilege” is. The Epistle made it completely unclear: The word privilege has been used in two ways this weekend: as a blessing we experience and as the unearned advantages a person can inherit from birth and/or accumulate over time. One Friend referred to having a good brain as a “privilege”, but that is not a right, advantage or immunity: kings, barons and villeins, white and black, will have easier lives if they are highly intelligent, but the kings and the whites will still have an easier life because of privilege however stupid they are.
In documents in advance, the YM programme used the word “privilege” without defining it. The document “preparing for yearly meeting” referred to the toolkit for action, Owning Power and Privilege, which gave a clear introduction.
I am grateful for the first ministry from the floor. My Friend said how she felt great love for the Friends present, and how this was a fraction of the Love of God. I thought of my Friend’s love, and was strengthened by it, sometimes when I saw her in the room. Strengthened and corrected: sometimes I was harsh as the impatience I felt manifested in my words or actions.
When I spoke in the business session, I divided people. A Friend had shared something deeply personal, showing vulnerability. Asked to share something about her privilege, she had said joining a Quaker meeting at the particular time she did was a “privilege”. No, it was a blessing. Joining a Black pentecostalist church might have affirmed and strengthened someone else in a similar way. I stood and stated my understanding of privilege as the source of oppression of BAME people and women. I stated my own privilege. I named class privilege, the ability to appear like an educated, middle-class person; and residual male privilege, having the confidence to speak, and being called. As a trans woman I do not suffer from sexism in exactly the same way, I said, though I also said I do not speak for other trans women.
This split the meeting. A Black man thanked me effusively. My Queer friend said he had heard a lot of positive reactions to what I said. And I was eldered, as I had spoken harshly after a Friend had exposed her vulnerability. She had; but she had set back our work towards Inclusion and Diversity, which requires all of us to be aware of privilege and to subvert it.
On the Sunday, there was an Event on “Ten years of Quaker marriage equality”, when Michael Booth explained the work done in the Society towards lesbian and gay equality from the 1960s, leading to Yearly Meeting in 2009 in York when we agreed marriage was God’s work, and if God made a marriage between two men or two women who were we to gainsay God? So much work had to be done to prepare the way for that Minute. I was not there, but I have been often told how the Spirit brought us together, and our Unity was palpable.
The work has to be done. We have not come to a common understanding of privilege, leave alone a common purpose to subvert it and work for BAME people to have true equality, which might bring as many BAME people into membership as we have LGBT people. Yet, seeing how much work has been done, with a full time Inclusion worker at Friends House for the past year, conferences on Diversity, and that Toolkit, I see the YM as a missed opportunity. Did we not notice the work? Do we still not see our privilege?
Of course working against privilege means a change in our relations with everyone, which is far greater than the change needed to accept gay marriage. Gay marriage is a matter of belief, and only of identity in the sense that someone might have a sense of being a bible-respecting Christian meaning “being uncomfortable with homosexuality”. You can still be a bible-respecting Christian and accept equal marriage. Working against privilege involves seeing the advantages you have from being white, educated, apparently higher on the class hierarchy, and/or male etc, and working to reduce the disadvantages of others. How may everyone be heard and included, and treated as equal?
The Minute we produced on Inclusion was beautiful, but I have an acid phrase for it: there was more Unity in the minute than in the Ministry. Not all of us understood our privilege. Some spoke about gifts rather than privilege, and confused the issue. I stood to offer an alteration, and was not called. Had my suggestion been accepted, the minute would have to be redrafted, to say that some say privilege is oppression, but others say other things.