It’s curious how linked things seem to come together – one might almost think someone is trying to tell me something when I’ve been thinking about “privilege” for a week or two, someone posts in a private group about coping with the guilt of being white and male, and I also find a criticism of “colourblindness” on my main feed and an article about balancing religious conviction against ethnic identity.
I don’t really feel significant guilt about being white or male, both being things which I have not chosen. I do not accept concepts of inherited guilt, such as original sin; I am inclined to rely on Ezekiel 18, particularly vv. 1-9. OK, I am aware that it is possible to be transgender, thus perhaps stopping being male, but this is only feasible if you have a mismatch between your physical body and your internal mental image; I pass quickly over those who claim to self-identify as being of a race which they don’t appear to belong to; they tend to look foolish in the eyes of others of both races, though I will come back to that. I have enough guilt arising from my self-identification as Christian, given the long history of persecution of other religions and of slightly nonstandard theologies which Christianity as a body should rightly be ashamed of and guilty about, and from my participation in a neo-liberal financialised capitalist state, given that I consider that to be little short of supporting Satan… Those are things which I could, in theory, change, though in the first case I would have immense difficulty in not identifying as a follower (albeit a bad one) of Jesus, and in the second it would be substantially difficult to extricate myself from the system in which I live – I have spent a lot of time working politically against the slide towards neoliberalism, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse completely.
I could, I suppose, still change the fact that I was born British (subset English, though about half Scots, subset Yorkshireman). That comes with another potential load of manure stemming from the country’s colonial past and a lot of wars. Indeed, I’ve contemplated that – I feel very much at home in France, where I can cope fine in the language, and have also considered a number of other European countries where I’m less linguistically able. I’ve particularly contemplated it given the results of the last two elections, which have cemented the political slide into neoliberalism and given the Brexit vote, which I consider toxic – but it isn’t really a live option now given mine and my wife’s age and mental and physical disabilities. That said, I’m inclined to think that the negative effects of past colonialism have been balanced against a significant number of good things; I don’t know where the balance lies, but it isn’t actually unmitigated evil.
But, past colonialism has had an impact in meaning that I am privileged in at least one way; I live in a first world nation, and though not particularly rich by the standards of the society I live in, I’m very rich compared with the vast majority of humanity. That privilege isn’t built entirely on colonial exploitation, of course, it’s also built on the inventiveness of past Britons and on our exploitation of each other – one side of my family clawed their way up, over about 200 years, from being distinctly among the exploited in the mines of Yorkshire to being, arguably, among the exploiters. My grandfather was the first generation to be an employer, and my father and myself have also been employers, and while we have all had a distinct tendency towards regarding employees more as family than as opponents or material to be exploited, nonetheless we have benefited from the “surplus value” of other peoples’ labour.
Actually, having done one of those “check your privilege” questionnaires a while ago, I find that overall I’m not particularly privileged – I have enough negative privilege points to counterbalance the huge “privileges” of being born white, male, first world and middle class. The questionnaire didn’t advert to the fact that I was also endowed by genetics and upbringing with a fairly high intelligence and a very good memory, nor to the fact that I happened to be born, worked and retired during a period in which it has been possible to provide decently for my retirement, which is probably a privileged position compared with that of my children. I have, therefore, significant “privilege” in my own eyes.
But should I feel guilty about that? I tend to think not, as long as I haven’t got there by means which are unfair to others, and I’ve tried very hard to be fair to others since my mid teens. What I do feel, and I think it is right to feel, is an increased obligation to help those less privileged than me. I have, due to the privilege, some ability to do that, and I answer that call. Probably not to the extent which would be ideal, but I answer it nonetheless.
My felt obligation to be fair to others, however, does mean that I feel it right to be at least somewhat colour blind. Referring to the article I linked to earlier, it didn’t actually occur to me when watching “Thor” that Idries Elba is black and therefore could be regarded as a rather strange Norse God. To my mind, he makes a perfectly convincing Norse God; he is a very fine actor. The article, however, suggests that by not noticing his skin colour, I am denying him his heritage.
The thing is, for that role, Elba’s skin colour is not (and to my mind should not be) a factor. He is an actor, and he is portraying someone (granted a mythical someone) from a different milieu – which is what actors do all the time. In most of my interactions with other people, their ethnicity is just not a factor – unless it impacts on what the interaction is about. It was, for instance, irrelevant in considering who I might employ or with whom I did business. My own ethnicity was equally irrelevant. In point of fact, so was my gender and that of employees and employers. At least for the most part – there were times when I had to consider (for instance) if a client would be more comfortable with a black, or asian, or female advocate – but that was acknowledging that the client was not colour-blind. I will grant that I was occasionally considering whether the tribunal would react better to an advocate of a particular sex, which does concern me as it was potentially playing to the sexism of the court, but cannot recall having ever considered that a jury would think of a black advocate (for instance) as anything other than just a barrister. While there were times when I needed to consider the ethnicity (or, sometimes, just religion) of an advocate due to the fact that the case revolved in some part round that ethnicity or religion, that impacted on what the interaction was about, and so falls into my earlier exclusion.
Should someone, just based on their skin colour, be forced to adopt an ethnicity which the rest of us consider consistent with that ethnicity? As I mentioned earlier, adopting an ethnicity apparently at odds with the way you appear can invite ridicule from both camps – but that generally only applies where the individual in question is by appearance from a majority ethnicity but wishes to adopt a minority ethnicity. Personally, I’m entirely happy to accept any ethnicity someone wishes to adopt, irrespective of whether their skin colour or facial features seem to me to be a “good fit” for that ethnicity. There are other ways of displaying most ethnicities via appearance which can be changed – dress, for instance, or hairstyle, or patterns of speech (though that latter is problematic, as, for instance, those who have a different native language often cannot adopt a new one without perceptible accent). When playing a Norse God, Elba is not wanting us to consider his African heritage, he is wanting us to consider his assumed Norse ethnicity, which is amply displayed by the way he is costumed and the way he talks.
I will grant that I wouldn’t contemplate saying something like “I don’t see your colour, I just see you”. Of course I see someone’s colour, just as I notice if they have ginger hair or are seven feet tall (I did for a while have a client who would say that he was six feet fourteen tall; his height wasn’t something you could remotely ignore on first acquaintance, but where it didn’t impact on the work I was doing for him, the only result was that I tended to warn him about doorways where I wouldn’t have for a less vertically endowed individual). Is it relevant to my interaction with someone? Usually not. My seven foot two client mostly didn’t want to talk about his height, and if he did, he could introduce the topic. However, when he injured himself walking into a road sign which would have cleared the head of anyone in a more normal range of height, and wished to sue the council, clearly it was a factor.
In the same way, if someone is clearly suffering because of some physical aspect they have, I have to consider that. Mostly, that’s been because someone else has made a comment or acted in a way which is prejudicial. Of course I’m going to notice that. The article does, however, make me worry slightly that because I don’t immediately assume that the most important thing about someone is their physical appearance, I might miss some systematic bias against them. That’s true, but the alternative would be to force on people an identity which they might not want to accept.
And that is because there’s what I regard as a flaw in the beginning of the article. It conflates “race” with “skin colour”, and then talks about the two interchangeably. A lot of the time, when it refers to “race”, it’s actually referring to ethnicity. I don’t think ethnicity should depend on skin colour, or that for a lot of people (in my country, at least), it does.
Ethnicity is another matter. It’s the overlapping set of ethnicity, culture, nation and (if you really dig deep) tribe which is significant; “race” is a corrupted term which tends to allocate ethnicity on the basis of colour, and it shouldn’t – as witness this clip from “Crocodile Dundee”.
What tribe are YOU from? I’ll be coming back to this…