In an ongoing effort to encourage conversation and inspire change, we’re honoured to share the second article from guest author Synthia Kloot, Chief Operating Officer at Clark Wilson LLP., previously Senior Vice President of Operations at Colliers International. She continues her journey with Diversity, Equity & Inclusion by exploring her own privilege. We hope the ideas shared move you to join the conversation and consider the impact privilege has in your world.
It’s at this time of the year that many of us reflect on our privilege. However, the word “privilege” isn’t often what’s used and instead “lucky”, “blessed” or “fortunate” take its place. Also, our thankfulness is generally for the things we have like money, possessions and personal or professional comfort, yet under all of those are the existing conditions that allow us, instead of others, to have or achieve them. So, let’s make no mistake that what we’re really talking about when we’re being appreciative in this festive season is our privilege and here are some of mine:
I am white,
I have never needed to worry that I might not have access to drinking water or food;
I grew up in a safe home with both my parents (and they are still married);
I had access to education from early childhood to my post graduate degree;
I see my children every day;
I can travel;
I have had the opportunity to move to a new country without having any language barriers;
I have changed my career path;
I can access information via multiple channels and methods;
my children have access to more information, knowledge and education than I did growing up.
These are some of the privileges that easily come to mind that I can list almost without much thought. It was not always this way, and I’ve had to learn, and am still learning, about what advantages I’ve had. The ones that have gone without notice for years yet have propped me up and helped me move through life.
The more I learn, the more I’m moved to discuss three kinds of privilege:
Overt Privilege – unhidden privilege that is easily observed and self-evident
They were things that at times I may or may not have been aware of. Yes, being able-bodied has always been easy to identify, especially when seeing someone with mobility aids. But did I really think about it and understand? To an extent, sure I felt sympathy! But empathy? There is a vast difference between feeling sorry for someone versus feeling with them.
Another overt difference that I have always been aware of relates to conflict and war. As I mentioned in my last article, I grew up in South Africa during the time of Apartheid. There were times growing up where I was aware of violence in close proximity, but I was generally protected and not affected. I have never lived in fear of stray gunfire or bombs destroying my home. I am fortunate: I was not born where there were soldiers in the street or military checkpoints in my daily routine. I was grateful (and still am) for being safe or being able to run up the stairs when I got home and sit down to a meal with my family.
Conscious privilege – privilege that one has knowledge and awareness of
There are less obvious privileges and advantages that never really occurred to me until I was a teenager. I have always been studious, working hard at school and university to achieve academically. I took all my university courses part-time while I worked a full-time job. This was less about need and more about my desire and impatience to achieve. For a long time, I was completely oblivious to the fact that without early access to education, university could have been impossible. In my mind, we all had the same chance of working hard, getting good grades and thus going to university. There was hardly a thought of where I would have been if I had never been able to go to preschool, primary school and high school. However, in high school I started to realize we did not all have the same experience. Never did it occur to me that I might not finish school until I learned what some of the other students had to deal with. Many of my friends’ parents were divorced, one friend was living by himself, another looked after the family. What if I had to drop out of high school to earn a living to feed my family? I was becoming aware of some unconscious privileges that I had at the time.
Unconscious privilege – privilege that we have but are not yet aware of
I am still discovering my privileges, privileges that never occurred to me as privileges before. I was unaware and unconscious of parts of my life that were just the way they were! I have always been able to use a public washroom without judgement or thought that I might not be welcome there; being addressed by the pronouns and adjectives she, her and hers has never felt odd; I do not need to seek out the alternative entrance to a building or find the ramp for my wheelchair.
Understanding increases empathy and action
Understanding my own privilege has changed the way I engage with the world, so that I am more empathetic and embrace differences between myself and others. I have more patience and continue learning how I can be an ally to anyone who does not share similar privileges to mine. Each day is a new opportunity to learn more, be better than before, be more inclusive.
Learning can also help us move to action. A simple step is making food donations to food banks, giving money to various charities, donating our time and offering our skills. A more challenging, and deeply important step is being an upstander and advocate. Being someone who takes the time to learn from people with differences in privilege and then educate others like us who have so much.
So yes, we are “lucky” and “blessed” and “fortunate”, but what we really are is privileged and let’s do more than our annual holiday reflection on this. I encourage you to reflect on what you may always have taken as a given, think about your privilege, get comfortable with it and be open to learning so that you can be empathetic, inclusive and embrace differences.
“We must not only learn to tolerate our differences. We must welcome them as the richness and diversity which can lead to true intelligence” – Einstein