What is privilege?

Dulwich_College,_College_Road,_Dulwich._-_geograph.org.uk_-_58443When people hear about my background, they immediately think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I went to Oxford, you see, and before that to a pretty exclusive private school (pictured), and even before that to a private primary school. Add in some high-flying jobs and a master’s from an Ivy League university in the US, and people form a mental image of something between Prince William and the Great Gatsby.

This talk of privilege often makes me defensive. The implication is that I was handed everything on a plate, and that’s not true. I won scholarships to both of those posh private schools, and Oxford was free in my day. (We had this crazy socialist notion back then that access to education should be based not on your ability to pay but on your ability to think. Wild, huh?) As for the master’s degree in the US, that cost $30,000, but I paid it myself from the money I’d saved enduring a corporate banking job I despised.

Being a published novelist, too, is not something I was given by default because I am an “Oxbridge” man. I worked hard, took the rejections like everyone else, and got my break as a result of winning an award which was judged blind.

But maybe I shouldn’t be so defensive. You see, in other, important ways, I am privileged. Let me count the ways.

1. The brain I was born with

531px-PET-imageI am privileged to have been born with a brain suited for passing exams. To tell the truth, I never had to work that hard to win those scholarships or get those qualifications. From an early age, I aced every exam I ever took, while others worked much harder and got lower marks.

I’m not saying I’m more intelligent than other people. To me, intelligence is a very different thing from the ability to pass exams. I’m just saying that I am lucky enough to have a brain that is a well-tuned exam-passing machine. I have the kind of intelligence that is rewarded in this society.

I know this may sound arrogant or boastful, but to me it’s the very opposite. It’s something I was born with, and so it’s not something I can take any credit for: it’s simply a privilege to acknowledge.

2. The easy setting

I am a straight, white male, so by default I got the easiest setting on the game of life. In addition I am six foot three, and I’m not overweight, and I am in good health and I have no disabilities. All of these things affect the way people see me, the judgments they make either consciously or subconsciously, and these judgments can bestow significant privilege in terms of jobs, passing interviews and being given opportunities of all kinds.

3. Being British

It’s funny that I should talk about being British as a privilege, because I am about the least patriotic person you could ever meet. I don’t mean it in a misty-eyed, flag-waving, sceptered-isle kind of way. What I mean is that Britain is a stable, wealthy country, and I grew up without fear of civil war or famine or dictatorship or militia insurgencies or any of the other things that millions of people in other countries have to live with.

Union_Jack_1606_ScotlandBeing British also gives me access to great opportunities, both within the country and globally. When I lived in New York, simply having a British accent made many people instantly see me as intelligent, cultured and even sexy. I’m sure it contributed to me getting several successive promotions in the corporate banking job I was really not much good at, and then being given a job at The Wall Street Journal despite having no journalism experience.

Elsewhere the effect is less extreme, but still Britain seems to have a very positive image in the world at large, despite its extensive track record of slavery and genocide. And English is the default global language, so being a native speaker gives me more opportunities. Being British is another privilege to acknowledge.

4. My family

Finally, and most importantly, being born in the family I was born in was a tremendous privilege – but not in the way people sometimes think when they hear Dulwich and Oxford.

My parents and me at the launch of On the Holloway Road

My parents are retired civil servants who worked very hard all their lives to achieve the security they now enjoy. Growing up, we always had enough for the basics of life, but not much for luxuries. My parents are the very middle of the middle class. They gave me comfort and stability, but never had the wealth or connections to fast-track me into the world of privilege.

But they gave me another, more important privilege. They worked hard, sacrificed, supported me and loved me, and put me and my education first. They took an active and thoughtful role in my development, both intellectual and emotional. For that and many more things I am extremely grateful to them, and it’s for this reason that, when people describe me as being from a privileged background, I don’t get defensive any more. I just smile and nod.

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There are 4 comments

  1. I can relate to this enough to understand where you’re coming from and the frustrations being stereotyped without merit can bring. The place in life we are born into really boggles the mind, because unless there’s some sort of pre-life game to play then it’s an odd draw that we can do nothing about but change/alter through determination, if that’s possible. This said in the context of everyone being the same at heart – all human beings etc.

    If there is a “right” way to be privileged, then what your parents enabled for you is surely it. Support and love is worth so much.

    1. You’re right, Charlie, it’s a very odd draw and we can do nothing about it. That’s why I don’t understand how people can be proud of things they are born with and had no control over. I think that’s why some people believe in things like past lives influencing how you’re born in this life – it makes sense out of something that’s unfair and arbitrary.

  2. Hi Andrew, What an interesting post. My first thoughts were about what could have prompted you to share this with your readers. After some more thought I walked away thinking that one way privilege (on an individual level and not on a level of social justice) might be defined: is something we receive which is beyond our control and for which we should be grateful. It seems to me that if the word bears any negative connotation it can only come out of envy. If anyone sees any of your points as a boast so be it. This post is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a humble brag. 🙂 I know we’ve only met once and for a very brief time. But in that time I’d already learned some of what you shared here. I never got the impression that you hadn’t earned what you’d work toward or were somehow undeserving. I most certainly didn’t feel like you were lording anything over me. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders my friend. You’re always gracious, kind and very encouraging of your readers and fellow writers. Keep smiling.

    1. Thanks Charles! I really appreciate your words. Sorry I’m only just replying – took some time off from the internet over Christmas. I think your definition of privilege is perfect, and is just what I was trying to say in this post. To me it’s impossible to take credit for or boast about something I have no control over. Anyway, I will keep smiling, especially now that I’ve read this comment!

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