Before someone gets started, white privilege is a thing. It just is. It affords those of us fortunate to be born white (and for people like me, straight and male) with better educational opportunities, better jobs, better pay, longer life expectancies and a million other advantages.
On the flipside of privilege, there is disadvantage. Disadvantage for those of different skin colours, different religious affiliations, low socio-economic background, different gender and different sexual orientation, among many other things.
I am the beneficiary of many privileges courtesy of the ovarian lottery that gave me a skin colour, sexual orientation and sex that is preferable in the society I live in. I had no choice in any of these things, but I have and will continue to have, many advantages over those who were born with different characteristics.
One privilege that we (and by me, I mean others who won the ovarian lottery alongside me), need to give up, is the privilege to say “Because I did it, you can do it too” or to say “Because I have seen someone from a different background achieve success, so everyone from that background should forfeit their right to complain.”
Disadvantage occurs at the starting line of life, comparing the finish lines of success between those of privilege and those of disadvantage is giving false positives to the opportunities available to those who experience disadvantage.
The path to outrageous success is paved with hard work. There is little doubt that to achieve great things and have success, even as a white, heterosexual man, you need to work hard.
We desperately need to acknowledge however, that the paths look very different.
My path to success, is wider, there are cracks, but they are manageable, there are hills, but I can get up them with a bit of grit and focus, there is room for me, and those like me to walk beside each other and help each other along. It’s not necessarily an easy path, but it is one that has been carved out by generations of white privilege before me, and is well trodden. Guidelines are available at certain points, as well as maps. We have seen plenty of examples of people like us going forward ahead of us, and we know what to expect. The people we meet along the way have opportunity to help us, and some are inclined to help us get to the pinnacle of success.
Some of us, despite our privilege will stop en-route to the top. Happy with being high enough, happy with having walked far enough. There are plenty of places to stop along the way, while still being comfortable and supported. We have peers lining the path at every level of success, to join us and help us find a space wherever we may decide to stay. If we decide down the track to make our way up a bit further, the wide, well-trodden path affords us this opportunity.
The path to success for those of disadvantage looks very different. It is narrow. It is not well trodden, often there are no maps, and very few people to help along the way. There are many, many opportunities to fall, and often it runs under the paths of the privileged who intentionally and unintentionally dislodge rocks to fall onto the paths of those below them. You start from further away, and often take the toughest routes to the top. Sometimes you do it without shoes, without ropes, without jackets and without food. The path to the top for those at a disadvantage looks very, very different. There aren’t lots of places to stop, and settle down. If you don’t make it to a certain point, your only option is to head back down, if you do make it to a point where you might like to settle, on your way to the top, there may not be much room. You might not have any company. You might be isolated, on your own, a community of one.
The top of the mountain, the point of success, looks much the same for everyone. Those of us with privilege need to recognize the path well-trodden as being that, well-trodden. It is still work. It still takes time and effort to get to the top, but realise the path to the top for a person like me, looks a lot different to a female, indigenous, lesbian woman in Australia.
This is the privilege we need to acknowledge. We don’t need to look to the top for examples of equality and opportunity, we need to look to the paths. We don’t need to look at individual success as the measure of equality, but at the opportunities afforded to others from the same situations.
Standing at the top, we could probably find some kind of representation from every walk of life. There are women, people of colour, people of different ethnicities, religious affiliations, socio-economic backgrounds and levels of education, but there are far less of them.
Looking to the paths that got as all there, we will see nothing but outrageous disparity. The width, quality, difficulty and availability of the different paths to the top are the reason why we need to acknowledge our privilege.
There are log jams at the top, where limited spaces for women prevent others from getting to the top. There are log jams at various stages of the climb where indigenous Australians are stuck because they cannot read and write. People are jammed at the very beginning, where refugees aren’t even able to get onto any path at all because we have them, men women and children, locked up in detention.
The most dangerous execution of this belief of the privileged is to make the path MORE difficult for those of disadvantage. For example, shaming individuals on welfare, claiming they are all ‘bludgers’ and threatening to take away support, rather than add more, is akin to removing their shoes and jackets, and driving them further from the starting line, all while demanding they get closer to the pinnacles of success and self-reliance. We lock people into unsupported communities and wonder why they feel and act isolated. We allow talk of suspending the rights of people of certain religions, forcing them onto different, more difficult paths, then demand that they don’t complain. We pay women less, and tell them it is their responsibility to get to the top, with less support, and less resources as a result of pay inequality. These things are dangerous, and only further degrade the paths to the top for people who are already at disadvantage through no fault of their own.
I am obsessed with improving the equality of opportunity for people who aren’t lucky enough to experience the privilege I did nothing to get. There is, and always has been limited space at the very top, equality of outcome is an impossibility.
We can however, improve the paths for everyone, and give space to people to find their niche on the way up, without having to sink back to the bottom because no one is waiting for them at any point along their journey. We can use our privilege to lend a hand, and bring someone onto our path, rather than leave them to climb the path less travelled, or build their own path as they go.
We are all climbing the ‘Ladder of success’, but our ladders all look different. Let’s tidy up the ladders of those who need help, and do away with the privileged notion that
“Because I did it, you can too, so I don’t want to hear your complaints”.
“I’m sick of hearing (insert disadvantaged group of people here) complaining, (Successful person of this background) made it, they just need to work harder.”
Disadvantage should be assessed at the starting line, not the finish, and people of privilege need to do a better job of understanding that. We also need to do a better job of fixing it. Bringing more people to our starting line, and improving the conditions and quality of the paths that exist for people of disadvantage.
It certainly won’t happen overnight, but it can happen over time. We simply need to give up the privilege from the top of the pile, telling those below us that because we are here, they could be too.
Remember to be grateful of your privilege and mindful of those who aren’t fortunate to have it, and as always Just Be Nice.
Josh Reid Jones - Founder of The Just Be Nice Project and Odin Sports