Updated: Feb 27
I cannot take credit for the title of this piece, or indeed for the original quote from where it comes. That belongs, I believe, to Dr. Adam Rutherford in his book “How to Argue with a Racist.” I have to say though that amongst the many books I have read on the subject of addressing the difficulties and challenges of bias and racism in all its forms, his quote is the one that not only resonates with me the most, but one which I see play out on a daily basis. The quote is simple and eloquent, but hits hard at the root of what I have come to understand is the backlash from all directions when addressing diversity, inequality and race in modern Europe…
“When all you have known is privilege, everything else feels like an attack!”
The first thing I must ensure the reader knows whilst pondering my words are the facts that I am white, Scottish by birth so as white as we brits come, but multicultural (I speak several non-European languages) and well-travelled by choice. The reason I state
this now is that some may see the slant and subject within this piece as not
the traditional stance of a white, middle class British male. In fact, I know many who wouldn’t believe it, even if we showed them. You see, I wish to address that uncomfortable quote and to further examine the deep-rooted and powerful survival instinct that many white individuals display whenever they are faced with anyone trying to readdress the privilege they have become so accustomed to having.
It’s easy to state that privilege does not exist using sleight of hand, clever language and poorly articulated excuses, to deflect attention from your truth on to the hardships that we all face in life. It is a simple fact of life that when a human feels pressured or cornered, we display our greatest asset, the ability to deflect attention away from us personally. “I was poor growing up.” “I have had to work hard.” Or, my personal favourite of late, “all lives matter.” Now this is a statement I happen to strongly agree with, wholeheartedly, all lives do matter. Whenever I am faced with an aggressive, typically white European individual who questions why I am working hard to create an inclusive and diverse workforce within our National Health Service at their expense when all lives matter, my reply is swift and a categorical agreement. I agree. I agree with them quite firmly! I insist I am with you my friend and that all lives matter. Now that we are in tune and in agreement, will you listen to me and understand that YES all lives matter, but all lives do not currently matter equally!
You see I work in a particular environment. I am surrounded by fellow Europeans, the vast majority of which are Caucasian and highly educated, yet sometimes I forget this. How can a large group of mostly pleasant and intelligent individuals get so so deeply defensive and angry at the mere thought of an individual of the opposite sex or sexual orientation—let alone someone from another culture—gain something that has been repeatedly denied to them due to innumerable barriers, often for generations? Despite the fact they personally don’t see it as an issue. The reason I fear, is that they actually do understand their
privilege. They are well aware of both the imbalance and the injustices. They are acutely aware of the positions they hold, and they see any attempt at rebalancing the table of morality, equality and inclusion as a threat to what they have and what they have no intention of letting go of without a fight. Yes, I agree for some this is unconscious. They have bumbled along through a privileged life without a thought or a care for anyone other than those close to them. They see the injustice of black Americans and pre-Mandela apartheid Africa as a world away from the Europe they live in. They ignore historical issues of homosexual British soldiers being stripped of hard-won medals and dishonourably discharged from serving their country, because it’s easier to do so. But if you talk to them openly, and start to unpick privilege, their poker face begins to crumble and their tell is written in their deflection, their discomfort and their anger at the mere mention of the subject and mostly their anger. At the heart of every single member of the human race is that instinct to survive, at all costs and against all enemies. When a white individual pushes back with weak arguments like “you are deflecting attention away from woman’s rights and gender equality” or “all lives matter” or “where is my privilege?” then I suddenly hear the ringing words of Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much methinks!” (Shakespeare 1998 3.2:10).
For me, the push back, the weak arguments and the deflection are simply to appease their own guilt, used in the hope that you, the real human being who is driven by respect and understanding for everyone who graces this wonderful planet, will stop your attack on them personally and leave them with what they have. Yes, you, the ally and champion of the real morality card that every white privilege player in the game dreads you placing on the table. They are aiming their attack at you because to them you are way way more dangerous than any individual from any other race or culture, you are the enemy within and an enemy they now realise has both the skill, the intelligence, but more importantly, the ability, to win this battle from within.
How do we win this battle? Well, I personally play them at their own game. I accept no amount of deflection. I never weaken by repeated anger, poor arguments or tired, overused excuses. I maintain my resolve, counter with the language they understand, and for every
comment from those individuals who state we should concentrate on gender inequality for women, I counter with, do you know that for every 100,000 babies born in the UK to white parents, eight of the white mothers die within six weeks?! Shocking, but now try and understand that the rate for black mothers is 40 deaths per 100,000 (MBRRACE, 2021). For every comment that all lives matter, I educate them with the fact that for every one pound of wealth a white person in the UK has, black Caribbeans have 34 pence, Bangladeshis have 10 pence and black Africans have just seven pence… Yes there are still issues with gender inequality, from a lack of executive roles to economic imbalances in pay packets, but black, Asian and ethnic minorities in the UK, particularly women, cannot leave their skin tone, their culture, their sexual orientation or their hair at home and come to work for your convenience. Just as a woman, they carry everything else proudly along with them. We have to educate and drive home hard to these individuals that if we get true equality for our black, Asian and ethnic minorities, we will get equality for everyone. And, when the playing field is finally levelled, this will not feel so much like a battle anymore, but a friendly game of cards where no one has the chips stacked in their favour.
Rutherford, A. (2020). How to argue with a racist, London: Orion books.
Shakespeare, W. (1998). Hamlet. Edited by Kevin Bryant. London: Penguin.3 .2:10.
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Patrick Farrell - As Salam alaikum, Namskar, Sat Sri Akaal, Sawbonna, Ba Wo ni and hello friends, my name is Patrick and I, like Karla, work with the National Health Service as part of the Elective & Emergency Care Improvement support team. A role that also includes being the Equality, Inclusion & Diversity lead. I am a little different from many in my field, where, on first sight I appear to be a typical middle class white male in a very typically middle class white male environment. The people who take the time to stop and chat, often find something refreshingly the opposite. Diversity, Inclusion and more importantly respect for my fellow humans, is not only a passion of mine, but an intrinsic part of what makes me who I am today. This comes in part from my buddhist faith, but mostly from good parenting. I love to travel, but not to acquire a Tan (I am scottish, the chips are stacked against me), I love music of all types and Play guitar as often as I can. I also have a deep deep love of language and its true use in communication across faiths, boundaries, differences and the way in which it often removes all barriers and forges lasting friendships.