Yesterday the word “privilege” was used a great deal in social media, mostly with regard to this post by Mia Freedman, in which she defends Delta Goodrem against charges of racism following an incident involving a white man dressing up as Seal by painting himself black.
I used the word myself in my last blog, though it isn’t one of my favourites. It has a good deal of currency at the moment, with people requesting other people to first consider their privilege before expressing opinions, making judgements, behaving in certain ways, prescribing and proscribing. It’s not a bad idea, but many of those amongst us who are most privileged find it tedious, silly, and that crowning insult, it’s political correctness, usually “gone mad.”
So if I were to say, as did Mia Freedman, that using blackface in this instance is not racist, not intended to be racist, and people who are offended need to get a sense of humour, I’d do well to consider the privileged position from which I am speaking before I open my mouth. As a middle class white woman who has never experienced racism, I am the least equipped to judge whether or not blackface is a racial insult. If I then tell brown people to get a sense of humour about it, I’m skating on very thin ice indeed.
It seems to me that the easiest way to avoid offence is to first exercise the imagination. How would I feel…
If, as Clementine Ford acknowledged in her article on violence and sexual violence against women, the situation one is about to discuss is beyond one’s imagining, then one might do well to refrain from expressing opinions about it. I haven’t yet understood how it is possible to hold an informed opinion about something one cannot begin to imagine, or refuses to imagine, beyond the initial opinion that one finds it unimaginable.
Of course it’s possible to observe how awful a situation is, but that is not particularly insightful or helpful. With imagination the complexities and nuances become evident, and in situations as complex as racism, and domestic violence, the devil is in the detail.
For example, as I’ve noted many times, the simplistic gendering of domestic violence by some feminists and governments has done nothing to prevent any of it, and obfuscates the complexities of intimate relationships that turn very bad. I don’t know how it’s in the least helpful to frame this violence and our attempts at management in terms of gender, and until someone writes policy with a bit more imagination and a lot less ideology, nothing is going to improve.
I think that our primary responsibility to others is to use our imaginations about their circumstances. If we (and I mean anyone) are unwilling or unable to do this, the problem is ours, not theirs.
“Examining your privilege” might be better thought of as “using your imagination.” This latter opens up the possibility of stepping into the other’s shoes for a while, and seeing how it feels. This is probably one of the most powerful expressions of respect one human being can offer to another. It acknowledges our common humanity, and the vulnerability we all share in our embodiment. It is impossible to perform this respectful act without engaging the imagination.
When individuals and groups fail to use their imagination about the circumstances of those who are in some way different from themselves, bad things start to happen, such as excising the entire country from the Migration Act and incarcerating others for indefinite periods in far from acceptable circumstances. If we (and by we I mean everybody) don’t imagine others as human beings with whom we have much in common, and perhaps add, there but for the grace of the gods we might be, then we can’t feel as badly as we should about how we treat them.
If we don’t use our imaginations about another’s suffering, we end up feeling little more than pity, although we might call it compassion and empathy. Without imagination, it is only pity. Pity allows us to distance ourselves from the other, while compassion and empathy demand we walk with her or him, figuratively speaking.
The most compassionate people I’ve known have not suffered in ways I have, yet have never made me feel different, less than them, or pitied. I doubt any one of them ever “examined their privilege.” They are all, however, possessed of powerful imaginations. They have no difficulty putting themselves in another’s place. They may not understand some things, but they accept and respect another’s right to her or his subjective experience. They don’t “take your voice and leave you howling at the moon.”
Imagination. That is all.