As I get older, I find it increasingly difficult not to turn and look the other way.
I find it harder and harder to bear witness to the suffering of people and creatures and our planet: The decimation of forests, the poaching of endangered animals, the neglect and abuse of babies, the lack of education of our children, the ravages of extreme poverty and the rank unfairness of excessive inequality. I used to be able to look at all this and it used to enrage me to the point where I would act.
But recently I have found myself less and less able to keep my eyes
open. I have found myself turning away. In fact, I think this could be a very
neat description of privilege: The option to turn away.
At times like this I need a good dose of Pink Floyd. They remind me that turning away is no way to live. This is a Momentary Lapse of Reason. This is the Dark Side of the Moon. They remind me that turning away can never be an option.
Be reminded too – and enjoy! Watch the video here
On the Turning Away – Pink Floyd
On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won’t understand
“Don’t accept that what’s happening
Is just a case of others’ suffering
Or you’ll find that you’re joining in
The turning away”
It’s a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
And casting it’s shroud
Over all we have known
Unaware how the ranks have grown
Driven on by a heart of stone
We could find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud
On the wings of the night
As the daytime is stirring
Where the speechless unite
In a silent accord
Using words you will find are strange
And mesmerized as they light the flame
Feel the new wind of change
On the wings of the night
No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away
From the coldness inside
Just a world that we all must share
It’s not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there’ll be
No more turning away?
The notion of white privilege challenges many of us wit ou’s
deeply. It seems that no greater offense can be levelled at us than an
accusation of white privilege.
I heard a definition of privilege that came originally from
one of my gurus Dr. Brene Brown. I found it useful. She says that privilege is
simply the degree to which we have choice. As a rule, white people through
history have had varying degrees of greater choice/freedom/access – whatever
words you wish to use. Put simply, we have had greater choice in terms of where
we can “live, move and have our being”.
I find it difficult to deny that this is true – however
unpalatable I may find it. I just don’t want to think of my skin colour
privileging me over other human beings. But it does. I know that because I was
white I could move anywhere during apartheid. I could go to the beach. I could
visit any restaurant I wanted to. I could walk freely into any place of
worship. I could be up late at night in any area. I could go to any night club
or bar I wished to. I could vote. And
all of this was done with no fear of being arrested and jailed without reason,
beaten-up, tortured or even killed. This freedom to choose is the basis of all my privilege. At this point it has
nothing to do with money or hard work. It just is what it is because I am
Then I had the choice to study what and where I liked, I
could walk into any job interview, I could command a decent living wage – all
these choices, because I was white. I naturally got paid more because I had had
access to better education and because white people generally get paid better. I
could buy any shampoo or soap I wanted because most products were made for
white people. I could even put on a Band-Aid that blended nicely with my skin
By the way, nothing has changed materially since the demise
of apartheid/colonialism here or anywhere else in the world. White people still
have many more choices than most black people. Because white privilege is
systemic in the exact same way as racism is.
So, what am I meant to do with this knowledge? I think my
main task is to acknowledge that I have – and still do have – many more choices
than most black people. When I do this, I can begin to heal – myself and the
world around me. I can let go of the need to defend myself as a white person –
telling people how hard I worked and the struggles I had to “make it”; I can
stop telling people how tough my parents or grandparents had it. I can begin fresh
new conversations that are at their core humble and enquiring. I can start to play a meaningful part in
addressing the deep-seated imbalances of our world.
A black woman and another of my gurus once said this to me:
“Justin, enjoy your privilege, but use it to help others less privileged.”
What a challenge!