Trust, empathy, kindness: my experiences of discussing privilege

Over the past few months I have had the honour of hosting and facilitating a number of sessions with colleagues across Government Communication Service (GCS), looking at how our individual experiences shape the way we interact with the world.

It has been deeply humbling to listen to and encourage people to share their journeys and understanding of society and privilege, and to reflect on how we can use our own unique experience to ensure we are creating diverse, inclusive and accessible workplaces.

Amrita Devaiah, Head of External Affairs and Engagement, Cabinet Office.

Difficult conversations made easier

Just the thought of talking about societal privilege can make some people feel deeply uncomfortable, causing them to make excuses and shy away from a seemingly difficult conversation.

But these conversations don’t need to be difficult – yes, they may surface feelings of guilt or embarrassment and make people feel defensive – but in the right environment, with honest, open discussion and the creation of a safe space, talking about the concept of privilege can actually support us to be better at what we do and reflect on how we can be more inclusive in our practices.

Having privilege does not mean that an individual is immune to life’s hardships, but it does mean having an unearned benefit or advantage in society by nature of their identity. Examples of types of identity that can afford an individual privilege include: race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, country of origin, language, and ability.

As a woman from an ethnic minority background, it was a moment of illumination when I realised what privilege was, and what mine was, and where it was lacking. My privilege stems from being cisgendered, from my middle-class upbringing, education, resources to food, access to health care, and familial support; all elements of my own identity that have benefitted me.

Let that not take away from the times my ethnicity, gender and femininity have put me at a disadvantage, but it doesn’t negate the many unearned benefits I was handed simply from being born with certain traits and resources.

And this is the bit that can cause a reaction of defensiveness when discussed or challenged – because people don’t want to identify with having privilege. The thing is, if you don’t have to think about it, that is privilege.

A sliding scale

So what can we do to have those conversations, reflect on our privilege and understand how we can create the space for others to succeed by opening the doors for them that may be already open for us?

Let’s start with understanding the sliding scale of privilege. We will all have some privileges by nature of birth, but different privileges hold different societal power.

Being right-handed is a privilege. I have never been forced to work on a desk that didn’t offer me the space to write, never had to wait for the one pair of left handed scissors to be available to do crafts at school, and I can open doors with twisting handles with ease. Yet, my sexual orientation and wealth hold more societal power than handedness, and by comparison the colour of my skin holds less.

The point is, our identities are unique, nuanced and intersectional. Just because we don’t have certain kinds of privileges, it doesn’t mean that we don’t benefit from other kinds of privileges. With this in mind, we start to understand the power we personally hold in society and can seek out ways to work with others to begin to address social injustices and in turn create a more equal world.

Brené Brown, an American professor who publishes on courage, vulnerability and shame says: “Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it.” I agree. Start with empathy and take some time to understand someone’s individual experience. You don’t need to feel guilty or defensive when discussing privilege.

Challenge the status quo

A direct discussion where you and your team acknowledge different perspectives and experiences – and see that the system of oppression and privilege impacts us all – is a huge starting point. Shifting our understanding of privilege and appreciating that it affects everyone in different ways can make us all agents of change, and allow us to challenge the status quo.

So my question to you is, have you checked your privilege? How are you going to take the space you have in society and use that power to make those spaces more equitable and just for others?

As communicators we have the responsibility of being the conscience of the organisations we work for, and as civil servants the responsibility of providing the best possible services to the public. So take the time to reflect on and understand your privilege, and use this as an opportunity to learn and be accountable, so that we can work toward a more just and inclusive society.

At the end of the day, inequality helps no one.

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