We live in an unequal world. But to tackle oppression and social injustice, we must also challenge privilege. To find out how, Leading Change spoke to Bob Pease from the University of Tasmania, and two of our 2015 Queen’s Young Leaders – Nosipho Bele and Patrice Madurai.
Australian social scientist, Bob Pease has been researching issues of privilege – and how to undo it – for over 40 years.
He concedes some people actively want to maintain their privilege, but says, “Most people are likely living their lives not necessarily thinking of themselves as privileged, or racist, or sexist. But through ignorance of their privileged position, they end up reproducing those structures.”
Over in South Africa, Nosipho Bele has life experience of this. As well as running Mentor Me To Success, Nosipho studies Education. She says university structures in South Africa are outdated.
“White supremacy, the patriarchal mentality – all of these things, we feel them. But for the people that [the structure’s] designed for, like maybe a white male student, they wouldn’t necessarily see it because it accommodates them.”
Unconscious privilege stretches across the world, even influencing the behaviour and decisions of the most well-meaning.
South African, Patrice Madurai is studying in the United States, where she also networks and promotes her organisation, the Cupcake ReSolution. She is amazed at how many donors and organisations are misdirecting money into ill-considered social projects, simply because they assume they know best.
“So they’re ticking a box but money is falling through the cracks,” she says.
And so are some people – the least privileged, those whose existence isn’t even on record. The Cupcake ReSolution helps these people register as citizens.
Patrice is sensitive to the feelings of those she wants to help. “We don’t want to go into a community and have people think we are there to ‘save’ them.”
To avoid this, the Cupcake ReSolution works with the children of a community first. This helps gain the trust of their parents, who are then more open to discussions about their rights.
What Patrice describes as a “battle to educate, inspire and empower” however, doesn’t just apply to the communities she works with – but to herself and those who have the resources to make change. Because, as she says, privilege is “an incredibly noisy factor in our lives”.
Since the 1980s, Bob has been running workshops to make people more aware of their privilege and how it affects others. He started with racism awareness but now focuses on sexism.
He uses several exercises. In one he asks men to work together to note down their combined knowledge of oppression against women through the ages. He also asks them to think about the women in their lives who may have been impacted by abuse, mistreatment and violence.
“Every time I’ve done that exercise, it brings up powerful emotions in the men. They surprise themselves with how much they know. And for the first time they understand what women have been saying to them.”
After his workshop, Bob hands out a list of things men can do to contribute to change. “They’re practical things like writing letters to newspaper editors challenging sexism, not using pornography, not interrupting women when they’re talking, listening to women.”
He suggests that leaders look at how their work places are organised in respect of disadvantaged people, and think about how to challenge prejudice within their organisations.
In South Africa, companies are being required to be more representative of the wider population. But there is a question mark as to whether some appointments of theses are merely tokenistic.
“Does that black female have a voice in the boardroom?” asks Nosipho. “Or is she simply the face to show we’re complying?”
Movements for change
Research shows that countries with the most progressive gender policies are those with the strongest women’s movements. This demonstrates, says Bob, the power of joining social movements that fight oppression – as a man supporting women, a white person fighting institutional racism, a heterosexual fighting homophobia.
In South Africa, some privileged students have become aware of how the traditional structures discriminate against poorer, mainly black students and women. “They too are challenging the universities,” says Nosipho.
But the legacy of Apartheid makes Nosipho more aware of inequalities between different races than many of her white counterparts. She feels the country hasn’t moved on and will remain stuck until white communities – the traditionally more privileged – “acknowledge the gravity” of what happened under Apartheid.
“Part of the reason white people in our country do not acknowledge that,” she says, “is because they never apologised.”
By contrast, in February 2008, the Australian government apologised for historic injustices to the Australia’s Indigenous People on live television. Bob remembers it as “deeply moving” and a “very powerful symbolic moment”.
Such apologies, he says, wake people up to the nature of oppression. He adds people need to understand how they are implicated as a first step to solving the problem.
“The argument is that people ought not to feel ashamed of things they haven’t done. But if you understand that these inequalities and oppressions are perpetuated, [you realise] no one’s innocent here.”