Monday, 14 December 2009

Invisible Privileges

Margaret Thatcher believed she had pulled herself up by her own bootlaces and she owed none of her success to anyone else. Arrant nonsense. Pull hard on cheap bootlaces and they snap. It’s one of the most pernicious threads that you can find woven into the fabric of every self-justifying perspective- the idea of the meritocracy which starts at birth, and which makes all the world’s injustices fair and reasonable to some smug git somewhere. We in a Western democracy may not be born on to a level playing field, but at least we’re on the pitch at all.

Why do we tend to believe that we deserve our blessings when we have them, but never our sufferings?

I think it’s when our privileges are invisible to us that we find it so hard to be grateful. One of the invisible privileges of life in Aishalton, for example, is that I am not ‘a woman’, I’m me, Sarah the development worker. I don’t get any hassle except the occasional smiley catcall up at Burning Hills. I didn’t even notice that as a privilege until I went to Georgetown last month.

Here are a few of the privileges that I have understood retrospectively about being a Westerner.
In Britain, I never had to perform tasks I was bad at. I missed out on the humility (humiliation?!) of playing the guitar in concerts (playing?!- imagine a cockroach running up and down a badminton racquet. 'Scritch sss- scritch sss- scritch scritch'). Of running training in fields about which I know little.

Throughout our time here, we know that we can always leave. I remember a British politician living on the minimum wage for the seven weeks of Lent, and proudly discovering that, whilst it was not easy, he could manage fine. I wonder if he kept accounts in the weeks before and after? I wonder did he buy any clothes, any furniture, any trips to the dentist? I wonder about his social calendar before and after too. I would bet that he went to at least one big public entertainment (play, opera or football match depending on proclivity) within a week of finishing that. He seemed blind to the stamina that comes with temporariness. Poverty is not primarily about limited money- it’s about insecurity and fragility, the tedium, powerlessness, debt, and most of all, a sense that it will never ever get better. I am anxious when the well runs dry, but not despairing anxious. It’s novelty anxiety.

Cheap groceries. It’s such a shock to live in a country of low salaries, in a village where hardly anyone has any formal employment, and pay AT LEAST double for every single item. 'Tesco value'-quality pop for £1.50. Rubbish shampoo that makes your hair squeak for £3. A can of tomatoes for over £1. In a way I knew this, but it’s so blatant. We watch the film “Amazing Grace” with pride, thrilled at the abolition of slavery, as though we don’t have slaves, because all of the people who make our lives cheap and simple are invisible to us.

Perhaps the greatest invisible privilege of all is that we don’t accept other peoples’ prejudices about us. Paolo Freire says that oppression survives because the oppressed collude. So did Robert Tressell in ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist’. If I ever doubted it, I would no longer. Coastal Guyanese believe Amerindians to be passive, lazy, over-indulged, dependent, unmotivated and bad at everything. ‘Backward’. Many Amerindians return from Georgetown with a disdain for their culture from which they will never recover. The rest don’t return at all. But the sight of Wapishana young adults aping black DJs and tarty Brazilian dancers makes me cringe with a deeply embarrassed pity. People despise you because of your race. So you accept their superiority and copy them. So now they despise you even more. But it’s a rare person who starts down that road and ever turns back.

What do we do with this knowledge? Because it is not our fault, and we cannot fix it.

For me, the provisional answer is this. I suspect that most people are a seagull perched on the iceberg of their own lives, observing its exterior and drawing conclusions with great confidence but a minimum of information. Only the wise can be a diving penguin, seeing the iceberg’s looming hidden bulk, knowing the seen and the unseen intimately, and predicting their impact on each other. And the rarest, rarest ARE the iceberg, feeling its mutability from far inside. And maybe that’s why we in the West are not happy despite all our privilege. We even boast about being miserable. In a highly developed society, one of the great lost gifts of being human is the sheer, simple, wordless joy of not being uncomfortable, or in any pain, or there being any big thing wrong; the state of being that equates ‘nothing is wrong’ exactly with ‘everything is right’. Finding ways to be penguins or icebergs, to remind ourselves of our privileges, to learn contentment, is an obligation. You cannot have this, you cannot feel it, in a state of permanent ease. Maybe that’s why an easy life is not easy to live well.

1 comment:

  1. What a remarkably self-aware and enlightened essay. I am quite unaccountably proud that your time in Guyana has brought you to this point (even if the raw materials must have been there before).

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