I get asked by a lot of other white men where to start with equity.
I’m not the one to ask. Ask those who have been marginalised, minoritised and racilialised. Read their books; follow and learn from their social media posts. If you are close, ask those who are in your life, your family or friendships, but if you do, understand that they are under no obligation to devote their time to your education.
Learn from them not me.
But when I am asked, I tell them what most of my own marginalised colleagues told me – acknowledge and understand your privilege. It might not be the step that brings about immediate positive action or policy change, but it is the process by which you build a foundation of empathy, community and allyship.
Acknowledge your privilege. White privilege. Class privilege. Male privilege. Acknowledge it and understand it. And understand its intersectionality. I am mainly speaking to other white men, as we have benefitted from the most accumulated privilege, but privilege is not reserved to us.
I understand how hard it is to acknowledge privilege. I have white, male, cishet privilege. Those are not easy words to write or to say. Partially, that is because I feel guilty saying them, but it is also because it challenges the story I tell about myself. I did not grow up with class privilege. I grew up poor. My wider family still is very poor. And I had to fight for everything. I lived in fear of fucking up my grades, my life, my scholarships; I had part-time jobs to pay for my education; I worked absurd hours through High School and College to get the best test scores and grades to grab the few proffered opportunities for class mobility. Debt and finances shaped my life choices, and so I worked hard to make the most of every one of those choices; I moved far from home, moved countries twice to advance my career; I compromised – and in some cases sacrificed – relationships.
That is a common story for many of us. It is a particularly common story in academia when every opportunity is absurdly competitive, becoming moreso at every stage of your career, from University, to PhD, to postodoc to permanent job. I earned it. You earned it.
And so I understand how acknowledging your privilege feels like giving some of that away. I understand how hard that is when you have had to fight for everything; fighting for things teaches you not to give them away casually. I understand that when you are told by society, the elite and your employers to be grateful for the few scraps you have, it becomes hard to concede that any of your achievements were anyone’s but your own.
I understand how hard it is to say that part of your success is due to luck or privilege, to say that it is partially due to a broken society and at the expense of someone else.
It feels like you are undermining the story of your self. And for some of us, it feels like theft.
But it need not be.
But let’s pause for a moment. Although this commentary is focused on our feelings and our identity, facts care for neither of those, and white male privilege in western society is a fact. I am tempted to direct you to any one of hundreds of studies explaining the facts of privilege. The studies of unconscious bias and structural inequities; the clear factual evidence showing the glaring disparity in wages, opportunity, housing, education and health – and the structural racism that created those; the individual, institutional, and societal structural obstacles faced by women, by racialised and minoritised groups, by disabled or LGBT+ people; the consequential lack of diversity in politics and leadership, media, research and education; the evidence for inequities in our own discipline and the lack of progress for decades. But if you are reading this, I suspect you have read those studies (or at least know where to find them). They are true across nations. They are true in the higher education sector in which I work. They are true in the discipline I love, the Earth Sciences. They are true in yours.
And in many cases, they are related to white supremacy – from which, through privilege, many of us have benefited:
“It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.” From Black Reconstruction in America, 1935
But convincing the reader that white or male or abled or class privilege is real is not the goal of this essay. Those of us who have benefited from our privilege need to accept those facts.
Instead I want to explore the widespread reluctance and fear of acknowledging privilege. Not the reluctance from the racists or those who knowingly use their privilege to cling to power but by those who are committed to EDI and fairness and justice but seem unable to use the phrase white privilege.
By almost any definition, I am a fairly successful Earth Scientist, and I achieved that by being smart, working hard and leaning on my working class toughness when faced with obstacles. That is my story.
But my achievements are also due to being white and being a man. They are due to the fact that I speak English and work in an international sector where English has hegemonic influence. They are due to luck – in winning grants, in getting jobs in well-funded labs.
These privileges complicate my story but they do not erase it.
In my 30 years of being an academic, I have read a lot of acknowledgements. I have read the acknowledgments in dissertations and those in papers. I have heard so many speeches filled with thanks and gratitude. We are obliged (rightly) to acknowledge our funders. We freely acknowledge our students, collaborators, colleagues and technicians. We acknowledge our mentors and our inspirations.
We acknowledge our families – those we are born with and those we find; and our friends and loved ones. Parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles; wives and husbands; children; our friends back home and our those who endured our PhDs or postdocs or tenure with us.
We acknowledge a musician whose album was played on an endless loop while we finished off our PhD dissertation. We acknowledge a poet whose words healed us through difficult patches. We acknowledge the club where we went dancing with friends to let off steam or the cafe where we hid with a coffee to clear our thoughts. We acknowledge parks, forests, and museums; directors and actors and writers and painters.
And yet so many refuse to acknowledge our privilege.
Are we giving something away when we acknowledge these other influences and connections and support networks? I suppose that in some sense we are. We are yielding only a small bit of our story of individual success, but we are yielding it nonetheless, and yielding something that has been hard won. But we are getting something in return. We are giving away a sliver of the myth that we succeeded all on our own, due to individual brilliance, determination or grit. But we are gaining community by recognising that we are part of something greater and we are acknowledging that we are not alone.
It is wonderful to acknowledge those we love.
And it is wonderful to acknowledge the music or poetry or comedy to which we connected when needed. I think there is something beautiful in the idea that Miles Davis helped a self-doubting microbiologist discover a new form of metabolism or that a local cafe and its friendly staff were the safe havens for a social scientist exploring the effectiveness of a new education policy. I envision Master’s students re-watching a favourite film or maybe just re-watching that video of Tom Holland Lip-Synching to Rhianna’s Umbrella and using that joyous dopamine hit to carry them through another paragraph of their thesis.
Acknowledging the things that help us reinforces our connection to the world; and so does acknowledging our privilege.
Of course, acknowledging our privilege means acknowledging a sinister rather than joyous aspect of our world. It requires us to acknowledge that we have not only benefitted from loving family or friends, but from racial prejudices and sexist biases, that we have benefitted at the expense of others.
But it does not erase it. It does not erase what we achieved and our associated personal narratives any more than any other acknowledgement. It contextualises, elaborates and contests, but it does not take it away; and by contextualising our achievements it insists that we understand that we are part of something larger than ourselves.
Acknowledging our privilege insists that we are part of a community and a society, and it insists that we accept the associated obligations to understand and rectify the harms that our society inflicts; but in doing so, it also affirms that we are not alone.
I know that these arguments will not persuade all.
Some are too indentured to their own myth of greatness and achievement. Their self-story is too much of ego and rugged individualism to allow for collectivism. For them, it is likely that their acknowledgments of family and friends are performative and said through gritted teeth. You know these men. Some of them have built tiny homes on this myth, while others have built vast empires; but all are built on a foundation of fragile ego and all can become dangerous if that is threatened. Others are unwilling to accept the responsibility that such a realisation imposes. Acknowledging privilege inevitably leads to reflection, engagement and learning; and that must inevitably lead to change, both within ourselves and within our sphere of influence. That requires work, and consequently many hide away from the concept of privilege not because it seems wrong to them but because they are unwilling to change.
I have little sympathy for either. I do not trust such people to have empathy and so I do not trust them to lead. I do not trust such people to change and so I do not trust them to get out of our way. I certainly do not trust them to place a community – any community – above themselves; their generosity is contingent, their service obligatory, their altruism self-serving.
However, I truly believe that they are in the minority. I truly believe that most of us can look at ourselves and recognise that we have been shaped not only by the struggles we have faced and obstacles overcome, but also the friends and family, luck and privileges that have aided us. I believe that most of us can look out at the world and see others who have shared our privileges and others who have been cruelly and viciously denied them.
Acknowledging your privilege – verbally, publicly, honestly – is an act of empathy and love. It will not tell you what policies are effective, train you to be a strong, active and interventionist ally, or bestow the resources necessary for structural reform; alone, it will often mislead you into white saviourism, motivating you to speak out when instead you should step back; it alone will not make your workplace or community more diverse or equitable. But it will be the foundation for reflection and learning how to do all of those things; it will be the motivation for action; and most of all it will provide the empathy and humility to cede to others the opportunities and platforms that they have been denied.
Further reading the origins of the term ‘White Privilege’. Finally, although Dr Peggy McIntosh is credited for giving enhanced prominence to the term, the intellectual foundations are widely attributed to W.E.B. DuBois, and so I leave you with this final provocation from him:
“There is but one coward on earth, and that is the coward that dare not know.”
― Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept