Yesterday I cycled from my parents’ house to the railway station. I was flying, pushing the biggest gear feeling fit, strong and good about myself. It was only later on the return journey that I realised I had been riding downhill with a backwind without noticing. I made disappointingly slow progress to get back. Reality sucks!
I can’t claim to speak for others, but I am acutely aware of barriers to my progress (headwinds and uphill sections) and am probably blissfully oblivious to factors not attributed to me personally that have hiddenly contributed to my success (backwind and downhill) – privilege!
I was born in and grew up in Trinidad in a multicultural school. When I was 5 I made a friend called Norbert Youchin (If you are out there Norbert, please get in touch!) and my mother, trying to work out where he was from, asked me what colour he was. I couldn’t tell her, didn’t even understand the question. Cute you might think and similar to these two below but possibly an early sign of privilege according to this research
My parents then moved back to the UK to a small town near Grimsby (I have not forgiven them) and I started school. Although genetically as Grimsby as it is possible to get – My family can be traced back to the 1500s as generations of farm labourers in the area. I was beaten up for looking and talking differently. My world was rocked I was no longer ‘normal’, I was an outsider.
I wonder how many white, heterosexual, cisgender, males like me go through life without realising that they may be cycling downhill with a backwind and wondering why others are not keeping up with them. This does not mean that they haven’t had to cope with adversity or had to work hard, but that they may have had it easier than others due to their gender and skin colour. From my point of view, given the choice of thinking that I have been successful because I am privileged or that I am amazingly talented, the latter is a much more attractive option.
White, male, heterosexual is my normality and I only become conscious of privilege from what is missing from that which I see or hear happening to others.
- When I say things in meetings people don’t usually appear to ignore me and paraphrase exactly what I’ve said a few minutes later to approval from the group. I sometimes deliberately paraphrase those who have been ignored – Usually women, or men of smaller stature – and then point out who said it.
- I have never been mistaken for the tea person or the cleaner
- If I am with a female colleague people usually address me first
- Unlike all of my brilliant physicist female friends, no one ever expresses surprise that I am a physicist
- No one ever finds it hard to believe that I surf, ride a motorbike or do dangerous or cool things.
- I’m never underestimated (and I should be)
- People do not think I’m representing white males when I do things, nor do I
- I have never had to consider how public displays of affection towards a female partner would be perceived by others
There are many more things I am not aware of because they dont happen to me and I’m probably not observant enough to notice them happening to others.
A couple of years ago I was appointed as a member of a Gender Balance Team of extremely talented women. I then had to consider that I may only have been given the job because they needed a token male to balance the team -but after some consideration, I realised it was because I am amazingly talented – Confirmation bias is a wonderful thing!
One of many revelations to me came from my Gender Balance role when numerous girls said to me they didn’t answer questions in male-dominated classrooms in case they got it wrong and the boys thought that girls couldn’t do physics. Some women in my gym told me they wouldn’t publicly pick up weights in front of men in case they thought all women were weak. I met an all-female group of mountain bikers in the Forest of Dean. I asked them at the top of a slope if I could interview some of them at the centre which was at the bottom. I left sometime before them and admit to being surprised when many of them blasted past me on a downhill section. (despite my, or maybe because of my, years of going downhill with a backwind) Nearly all of them felt that they were representing women and if they publicly looked bad then men would think women cant ride mountain bikes well.
This whole world of performance pressure that anyone from any group other than mine suffers – That of being a representative of their group had been totally missed by me. That possibly is the biggest sign of my privilege of all – The feeling that I only represent myself and if I fail I only let myself down.