I used to be on the board of an organisation based in the United States, which had board members from around the world. We once had a session at one of our board meetings about privilege and, as part of the preparation for the session, we were asked to do some online exercises on the theme ‘Check your privilege’. At the board meeting, I was alarmed at one point when the conversation seemed to shift to a discussion about the rich white women on the board versus the rest of the board members from the global south. Fortunately, during and after the session, we were able to have frank discussions about all our individual and group privileges regardless of our backgrounds, and what this meant for us working together as a diverse group of women.
Recently, at a seminar on abuse of women and children, the gentleman sitting next to me, who happens to be a senior lawyer in a very important position turned to me and whispered, ‘Are people really that poor that they would resort to handing their own children over to strangers or people who end up abusing them? Do we really have this many cases of abuse?’. I took a deep breath mentally and chose my words with care as I responded. I asked him if he was aware of what was happening around him. How many children does your driver have? Are all of them in school? Can your messenger afford the fees of his children? Do you know where your cleaner lives? Can she afford her rent? Do you know what your colleagues in the office do to their female colleagues or junior female staff? I was basically asking him to check his privilege.
When I was doing my National Youth Service in 1984/85, I was posted to Nbawsi Girls High School at Nbawsi, which used to be in Imo State but is now in Abia State. I have written about my experiences in my youth service year in my autobiography, ‘Speaking Above a Whisper’. I was a very young graduate in a school where even the Principal had not been to University. The only University graduates in the school at the time were male, and they were worshipped by teachers and students alike. One day I found myself arguing with a male colleague who was counselling a bright female student who had just made 7 credits in her school certificate examination that she should choose a College of Education and become a teacher instead of going to the University or Polytechnic as she wanted, to study Accountancy. When I challenged him over this stupid advice, he said, ‘She is a woman, who will marry an Accountant’? It was one of the most ridiculous things I had ever heard. I was brought up by an Accountant father who gave me every opportunity I wanted and who had taught me that there was nothing beyond my reach. You can imagine my indignation hearing that a smart young girl could not pursue her dreams because she was female.
I did not understand then that millions of girls were brought up that way. To aspire for less, to reach for less and dream of less. And here I was, a Lagos girl from a sheltered middle-class background who only had to present a list of demands for fees, pocket money, books, clothes and shoes to her parents and all would be met. My parents were not rich but they were comfortable and I lacked nothing – love, attention, support, I had it. When I was in secondary school and later at University I was with people who had less than me or more than me but I never felt out of place. Not till when I spent that one year for my NYSC in a rural area, and came to terms with what life was like for what I would come to understand to be a majority of women and girls. My first reaction was to feel guilty. Then it became clear that my guilt was unnecessary and served no purpose. Then I started to figure it out.
I shared a house with a number of other Youth Corpers and graduate teachers. Our young landlord Chidi had just inherited the house from his father who had died in a car accident. One of Chidi’s uncles had also just died recently and he was asked by the family to provide space for the man’s widow in the building. Chidi apparently did not want the young widow staying in his house ‘free of charge’ so he started to harass her. One night he went to her room drunk, asking for money for the electricity bill which the poor woman did not have. She would pluck Ugu vegetable leaves which grew wild around our neighborhood to sell in the market to sustain herself and her little boy. We all left our rooms to find out what the ruckus was all about. I was so angry to see the poor woman being hounded this way. I asked the landlord how much her bill was. He said it was Twenty Naira, which was a lot of money at the time. I went into my room and got the money and gave it to him and warned him to leave her alone. That act was one of the most empowering things I had ever experienced in my young life. I was far away from home and my parents made sure I was taken care of, so I certainly had a lot more than the poor widow who was being hounded into an unwilling liaison with someone who was meant to be a benefactor.
Today, when I am in gatherings where people keep telling women, youth or poor people to ‘pick themselves up’ and ‘have confidence’ and be ‘go getters’ and so on, I cringe. We all need to check our privilege. The same way in which we call white people out for their racism or men for their sexism, all of us who have certain privileges on the basis of our age, status, wealth, education, class, ability, and so on should recognize the privileges we have and how this might sometimes cloud our judgement and minimize the empathy we ought to feel for others. Not everyone is in a position to ‘pick themselves up’. They might need help, perhaps more than we could ever understand. Yes, we need to encourage people to work hard and be determined to succeed, but we need to do more than put out calls to action, we need to be prepared to go the extra mile for others. We can open doors, mentor, coach, advocate and change the rules of the game if they are unfair. Some of us were brought up to have a lot of confidence and self-esteem. Some have had their dreams and dignity squeezed out of them. We do not need to feel guilty for the privileges we have. Except for those born into royalty, privilege is usually earned through hard work and using opportunities wisely. What we need to do is recognize those privileges and use whatever access or platforms it provides to support others.
A good dose of humility is good for the soul and helps manage what I call ‘the drivel of privilege’ that comes out of some people’s mouths. The male executive who claims, ‘None of the women who work with me are discriminated against’, – check your privilege. The senior female executive who says, ‘Gender is not important, look at me’ – check your privilege. The leaders of political parties who say, ‘women are their own worst enemies, they don’t win elections because they don’t vote for each other’ – check your privilege.
Privilege is good. Being alive to the responsibilities it brings is even better.
•Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a gender specialist, social entrepreneur and writer. She is the founder of
Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at [email protected]