When I was young and ambitious I thought I could earn privilege and that it would buy me freedom; as I have now grown much older I have slowly come to realise that privilege does not buy you freedom, but responsibility.
Privilege is, by definition, un-earnt – something bequeathed to you by the happenstance of your birth, genes, gender, colour, place, and class.
I did not earn being born in a country beginning to recover from two world wars and at a time when I would be saved from having to do military service.
I did not earn my native country being one of relative great affluence and with a climate that avoided major droughts, floods, or plagues of locusts. A country which had recently launched a National Health Service and where there was a welfare net.
I did not earn having state paid education for 20 years – yes 20 years! at a time when, in other countries, many had no years of classroom education, only what life and their family could teach them.
I did not earn the privileges that came with being white, male, and a part of a country still living off the dividends of slavery and colonization – a wealth extracted from the sweat and oppressed labour of others.
I was taught to take pride in ‘my’ family, ‘my’ town, ‘my’ nation; also ‘my’ clothes, ‘my’ house, and ‘my’ garden. But I did not make or build them, just acquired them or better still to say I became the temporary steward.
Like my Father before me, I took pride in ‘my’ children’s (and later grandchildren’s) successes, at school, in sport, in work and in their offspring. As patriarchal men we saw this as ‘our legacy’.
When Edward Colston was iconoclastically dragged by a noose from his pedestal in central Bristol, history was not so much re-written, as false history was unwritten. The statue had been erected (sic) to make Edward Colston a role-model of white male success and philanthropy; to show how Bristol took pride in Edward Colston and he took pride in Bristol; to show how he shared ‘his wealth’ with the people of this privileged city. But the plaques on the pedestal that declared One of Bristol’s ‘most virtuous and wise sons’, failed to mention whose wealth it was. The riches had come from the Royal African Company and the rich triangular trade that took slaves at gun point, and then chains, to America, and then brought back sugar, tobacco, cotton and cocoa which was manufactured in Bristol and Britain and sold back to Africa and elsewhere. This company played an active role in the enslavement of over 84,000 Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died en route to the Caribbean and America. I was particularly moved by this event as my family were Bristolians, going back several generations, I had relatives who gone to Colston school and I had gone to concerts at Colston Hall. As such my family had benefited from Colston’s legacy to the city.
But beware symbolic one-off moments of iconoclastic fervour, for they alone do not change a culture. We can fall into false relief that we have toppled the ‘evil one’. But it was not Edward Colston alone who invested in this Royal Company or benefited from British slave trade and gun barrel colonization, or reaped privilege flowing from the sweat of slaves. It was all of us, born in so called ‘Great Britain’ or Western Europe, who have lived off the financial and cultural dividends of slavery and colonial oppression, and still do.
We all need to be pulled down from our plinths of privilege and our pedestals of pride.
But how, for we have to also do the pulling? Well it all starts with me, with each of us, as all social change does. These are just a few of the first small steps I have discovered with the help of many.
– From pride to giving thanks for each and every blessing.
– To realise that success is never mine alone, it is always co-created with others, and with the wider ecology and is supported by the happenstance of my privilege.
– To awakening to the realisation that racial and sexual liberation are what white men need to engage in, as we are the perpetrators and beneficiaries of Euro-patriarchal oppressive systems.
– To rewriting history with others that engages all voices and perspectives, not just those of the victors, the violators, and oppressors.
– Apologizing for what was done by our ancestors, our race, our gender, and ourselves and finding ways to make reparation.
Small things do make a difference but are never by themselves enough.
Professor Peter Hawkins will be teaching with his colleague Nick Smith for the fifth time their very popular and successful three day advanced course in “Transformational Coaching” on December 9th -11th 2020 in Bath, UK, which will address how to work with difference and privilege in coaching. Details are to found on https://www.renewalassociates.co.uk/events-training/transformational-coaching/