Recognising privilege

About a week ago I returned some library books to the university library. I am embarrassed to say that these books were so overdue that they were declared lost. I had put off returning the books for a couple of weeks. I had unearthed them when I excavated my desk a few weeks ago. I had procrastinated about returning them because I dreaded the ticking off from the librarian.

The librarian didn’t even bat an eyelid. She just took the books from me and kindly checked (at my request) whether there was anything else outstanding. I walked away without any rebuke and I hadn’t had to pay any fine.

As I walked away I wondered what would have happened if I had been student? Obviously I would have had to pay the fine, but I rather suspect I would have been subject to some verbally expressed disapproval. But the university is still steeped in a hierarchical culture where I as academic am higher in the pecking order than the librarian and so I got away scot-free.

But it got me thinking about positions of privilege. It occurred to me that being an English speaker is a tremendously privileged position which I take utterly for granted. I work at an Afrikaans university, but I get away with not speaking the language (or even understanding it). That is a bit ridiculous. Most meetings I attend are conducted in English. Either by habit, or because someone at the start asks if anyone doesn’t speak Afrikaans – I duly raise my hand and the language used switches to English. (There are few larger meetings which are conducted in Afrikaans by habit, but in those there is a translation service available).

I had accepted this as quite normal until it occurred to me that I would never have the luxury of not having to learn the language of my institution if I worked at an English university. I then began to notice that when I go to the garage to fill my car, or the shops to buy anything, regardless of the language spoken by the person helping me, I respond in English, and here’s the rub – I expect them to understand me.

Now there are all sorts of good reasons why I can have that expectation, but the point is that I have lived in bubble of privilege for far too long. I have not appreciated the extraordinary step up I have had just by virtue of my mother tongue.

There is also a privilege I carry simply by the whiteness of my skin. I am given the benefit of the doubt more frequently. I expect to be trusted. I expect to be treated with respect.

I am only now truly beginning to appreciate that my experience has been privileged. I am not quite sure how to repay that. But I know I need to figure out how to pay it forward in a way which is more equitable.

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