Friday, 11 October 2013

The White Male Blogger Apologises

There was an interesting piece from Ben Philips, campaigns and policy director at Oxfam, in the Guardian the other day, which resonated with me in all sorts of ways. His point was that as a posh white bloke, he could never really understand the privations and suffering that he was spending his career campaigning against. I recommend reading the whole piece, but here's the bit that jumped out at me...

"I've lived amongst people in poverty, too, in their houses and with their families, walking alongside them, literally and organisationally. But I could always leave. And in the toughest times I've been aware at my core that my British passport, my connections, the colour of my skin and being a man are insulators from the worst. I will never understand the tyranny of a hungry belly. I'll never fully understand exclusion."

I completely get this argument. I have all the benefits and powers that are part and parcel with being born into citizenship of one of the most powerful and richest countries on the planet. I want for nothing. I'm well-fed, clothed and sheltered, and my employer treats me with respect and pays me well. I'm not as well-off as Ben, perhaps, but on the global scale I'm absolutely one of the 5% richest people in the world.

How, then, can I write with any sort of authority about people who have next-to-nothing, who don't know where their next meal is coming from, who face abuse and worse at their workplace... if they're lucky enough to have a job in the first place?

The simple answer is that I can't. I will, fingers crossed, touch wood, spit and whistle, never know the suffering that the workers of Chinese and Bangladeshi clothes factories face on a daily basis. I pray that remains the case. I wouldn't wish that life on anyone.

And therein lies the point. I may not know how tough they have it, but I can empathise the hell out of the situation. I may not know how to lace a loom or run a sewing machine, but I understand that anyone that does has the right to be treated with the same level of respect that I have at work.

Yes, I am a very lucky man. I try not to take any of my advantages for granted. Because I have a little skill in stringing together words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, that's what I do to try and tilt the balance, however imperceptibly, back towards level. I donate where I can. I agitate when I can. I make noise, and bang a drum to bring attention to the abuses that are part of so many people's lives. It's not much, in the scheme of things. But it's a start.

As a lucky, healthy, well-off white male, I'm right at the top of the privilege tree. Being aware of that, like Ben, is the first step towards using the leverage you have in the interests of positive change. Doing nothing, or complaining about my lot in life? Now that would be a crime. And it's one that I have no intention of committing.

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