“So I will ask you what I asked my partner as an ally, when have you given up your privileges to another person who lacks that particular privilege to the potential detriment of yourself and the benefit of the other person/group?”
My ex-Professor Dori Tunstall put this question to me last week as part of her ‘white privilege love letter’ and I feel compelled to give an answer – despite the lack of design content which this blog was supposed to be about – however design is largely about ‘crafting the future’ and the socio-political situation is the forum in which we express it so the starting conditions are none-the-less an important consideration.
It’s undeniable that those who fit the dominant social and cultural paradigm the best have the most to benefit from engaging in it. Any sort of deviation from ‘middle Australia’ will put you at odds with this dominance. Some of these deviations will be nature, some will be nurture based; it’s the ‘nature’ based ones over which you have the least control. However, how and where you are born is random, and any concept of hierarchy and privilege that you are born into, you have absolutely no control over. It just so happens that I was born in sunny Footscray, to fairly middle class English parents. I’m a 191cm red-haired, ungainly and fairly talentless trouble-marker. There’s not much I can do about that. I can’t ‘give up’ any of that as Dori asks me to do.
So what notions of heirarchy and privilege can I actually give up? Well, I can refuse to recognise most traditional hierarchical systems, and not actively engage with my privilege, real or perceived, as a result of circumstance. I could refuse to recognise any importance of ‘race’ – the idea of race to me is arbitrary and superficial. I could recognise the negative aspects of the dominant cultural and social paradigms and refuse where I can to ‘aide and abet’.
Often when I’m thinking about the big picture and the world of design and our future, I probably have a harder time than almost anyone I know of dealing with the cognitive dissonance I see between what we should be doing – what makes basic sense as human beings for our collective betterment – and what we are actually doing. Every time I put a bag of rubbish in landfill I feel angry at myself and us. Every time I see yet another unnecessary consumer good providing a solution looking for a problem I think we have no hope. It may not look it on the outside but I feel the human condition quite deeply. I want us to be more than an infestation on this planet and I’m constantly at odds with the chasm between my will and what needs to be done. I often think that if I’m engaged and aware and fail miserably, what chance does ‘Joe Average’ have?
Closer to home, I also realise how my situation fits into the global scheme of things. The ridiculous part of the Occupy movement for example, is that in the West you may be part of the 1% or the 99%, but we’re all still part of the richest 30% of people in the world. 70% of the population of the Earth couldn’t afford to live in this country. I recognise how privilege works not only on a street level but also globally, and how ideas of sustainability and our very future involves not just the rich 30% and how they enact ‘austerity’, but how this has an effect on the other 70%.
A friend of mine Helen about 10 years ago packed up and shipped off to Lilongwe, Malawi to work for the UN. Her background is in social work so it was something very close to her and was a good fit for her professional skills. Me? Well, that’s just not my thing, and even if I agreed with the notion of ‘white privilege’ (which I don’t) I don’t think going somewhere ‘less white’ to help is the only way to ‘give up’ your hierarchy and privileges. If you’re anti-establishment (and nobody has ever called me ‘pro’) and you have and open and active intellect then I believe the best way to dismantle or debunk the negative aspects of hierarchy and privilege is a) be understand and be aware of them, and b) don’t recognise or engage in them.
So, am I doing all that I can? Well, no. Who is? I’m not living in a classless and bigotry-less utopia.
Do I want to? Bring it on, I say.