A Matter of Privilege

I’m tired. I’m so tired. Not physically tired, although the exhaustion tendrils creep around my body sometimes, too. This means I’m in less than perfect health. I’m sick. I’m sick and tired of your bullshit. Yes, you and me too. We are all so full of shit.

It seems it’s far more important to work really, really hard to defend our positions, than to open our ears to learn something new, or unlearn something old and no longer useful. I wrote a softer version of this column a few weeks ago, a kind of phase one, framing it as being the butt of some joke. But funny didn’t work. I wasn’t clear. So now that I’m angry – yes, at you and at me too – let me be clear. Let me break this down for us.

Some of us are born with all the sweeties. What did we do to earn these sweeties? Nothing! Not a damn thing. They were just our sweeties from birth, just to have, just ‘cos. And we learn that other people don’t have as many sweeties – or even any sweeties at all to speak of – and we have a choice: to tilt our heads and go “Aw, that’s sad. But that’s just how life goes,” while shovelling sweets into our mouths, so many that they block up our ears so we don’t have to listen. To pop After Eights on our eyes so we can be said not to see. To acknowledge, intellectually, that we have certain privilege points, while choosing not to enjoy them responsibly. Or we can choose to share the sweets we did nothing to get. We can be accountable.

I speak about my own privilege as a kind of veil: I have been barely aware of it but, whenever it lifts another little bit, what’s seen can’t be unseen. I wasn’t aware the veil was there – it was so comfortable and familiar I barely noticed it – but I didn’t seek for it to lift, either, so I’m complicit. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t mean any harm, now’s my chance to learn. But recoil in defence, and nothing changes. And from the reaction to “Gerrygate” this week, I’m not sure it ever can. I’m disappointed. I’m depressed. I’m tired.

This isn’t about Gerry Adams himself, or his past, or even whether he’s racist or not (although, sorry, Gerry, you’re definitely white), it’s about the many intellectual arguments which followed his recent use of the N-word. A lot of people shouting from atop a lot of sweetie piles about free speech. I call bullshit.

Many of you know that my husband, Carl, is African American. That’s right, a black fella. I made a satirical video about abuse that he got. It’s called Racist B&B (NB not a real B&B). Now, I studied linguistics before running away to join the actors, and, in the past, I have definitely taken part in theoretical discussions about using certain words to take away their power. But where the N-word is concerned, this is a luxury. This is privilege. I have never nor never will I be referred to by this most vile and oppressive of terms. It is not my word. To have seen firsthand in my husband’s face, in his shaking hands the to-the-hurt core it engenders chilled me to the bone. No, white people: you can’t use it. Or rather, of course you can – you can do what you want, sweetie-folks – but why on earth would you want to?

You are racist. I am. As the hilarious Avenue Q song goes, “Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes/ doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes”. Here in Ireland, how can we not be? When I was growing up, there were Black Babies charity boxes in every classroom. That’s what they were called. The N-word was dropped right and left: even in the playground, “eenie meenie miney mo” still had it right in there, right before “You. Are. It”.

We are all a little bit sexist, too. Classist. Ableist. Ageist. And so on. The bit of homophobia we all share was beautifully called out by Panti Bliss in her now globally famous noble call. All of the above “isms” or “obias” have one thing in common: they’re so deeply engrained they can feel “normal”. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept them.

White people choosing not to say or write n****r is not “wussing out” or “immature” or “inequality” against you. Rather it is a stance that says “I’ve heard what you said. I am listening.” Even if, as I do, you believe we are all equal, it’s vital to acknowledge that we are not all treated equally. You, with the dolly mixtures clinging to the soles of your shoes, are a lot less likely to find a reservation you made over the phone evaporate into a mysterious “double-booking” upon your arrival, or to be incarcerated, or shot in the back for no reason.

But if you want to keep the sweeties in your ears, there’s not a damn thing anyone can do to stop you.

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