“Think for yourselves, and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too” Voltaire
Take a look at the first image. This is a very old artwork, dealing with the issue of racism, made in 2005. The artist’s book contained three images based on the Isihara test used by opticians to determine colour-blindness. Each image, made of coloured dots, contains a racist insult, two in English and one in Urdu. The obvious reading for this work is that someone who cannot see the insult is colour-blind, they are not prejudiced and therefore see no need to offend. But the artwork is more subtle than this, because, actually, if one is unaware of the issues and differences around racial experiences and culture, then one also does not see why there is an issue at all. It is the unawareness of prejudice that is the subtext.
Recent events and consequential media coverage have highlighted the concept of white privilege: something that all white people have, often without recognising it. But privilege is a wider construct, and more insidious than we might think.
I belong to a socialist choir. We sing about issues such as austerity cuts, the government’s policies, classism and more. We’re pretty cool and I love singing about those things I really care about, I really get angry about and often feel powerless to do much about. But since joining I have become increasingly aware that, fantastic as the songs and intentions are, we could be accused of singing to ourselves. Our gigs tend to be for other well-meaning middle-class lefties with the same concerns as us. Don’t get me wrong, many of our audience will be actively involved in trying to make the world a better place, either through social justice, politics or protest. And there is nothing wrong with enjoying a good sing whilst reminding ourselves of why we do what we do. Isn’t that partly the purpose of church music?
When I chatted with our choirmaster about this, he agreed, saying that “it’s vital that we have art to embolden and strengthen us not just to 'convert'. That we have art to tell our stories and express solidarity and togetherness and let us know there are lots of us and we can change things…our conversation is with the people who are ever-so-slightly to the right of us, the people who mostly agree with what we might say but not totally, the people who just need a small shift to change their minds on certain things. And when they change, they can change the people next to them, and down the line it goes. That's how change happens, not by trying to change the minds of those directly opposed to us.”
In a recent virtual choir practice, one of our members called us out. We were talking about possible song themes and she raised the whole issue of privilege. Not just white privilege, but privilege in general. She pointed out that, even by being able to meet on zoom, or sing in a choir, we had certain privileges. Interestingly, her comments were followed by a static silence. I think we were all uncomfortable.
I work with a grassroots charity in Bradford in one of the poorest wards in the country. During early lockdown, we tried to take our face to face activities online for our community, but with limited success. One of the issues was that most people may have a smart phone, but they do not necessarily have data or Wi-Fi at home. A local member of staff remarked that zoom is actually a very middle class platform: not only does it take certain technology and finance to be able to access it, but it’s very format is alien to a working class culture, where conference calls and the accompanying etiquette are just not an everyday experience. Again, we so easily presume because we do not see our own privilege.
Take a look at the second image, which is by Grayson Perry. In his recent TV Big American Road Trip series, he seeks to tackle privilege. In the first programme he looks at black culture and white privilege. But it is his second programme which feels a lot closer to the bone for me, and I suspect for many of us. In this show, he looks at, as he freely admits, his ‘own species’: the liberal elite. One delightful scene sees him invited to a dinner party on Martha’s Vineyard, where he proceeds to try and talk about the ‘elephant in the room ‘of privilege. You can actually see people squirming in their seats and, to me, this feels eerily akin to my choir zoom session. No one denies what he is saying, some people try to justify themselves and their lifestyles, but mostly there is silence.
A recent online event called From Survival to Resistance hosted by Bradford Transformed finished with a set by Joe Solo, a socialist singer songwriter from East Yorkshire, who also is a washing machine engineer. When asked why, after all his success, he hasn’t gone ‘professional’ (i.e. given up the day job), his reply was that it kept him grounded in his class background and stopped him becoming disconnected from those people who he really cares about and wants change for.
So, I’m thinking about the elephant in my room. Writing this blog demonstrates the privileges I have, those of further education, the luxury of time to ponder, and access to good quality technology. I am middle class through and through. Like Grayson’s picture, which show his many liberal concerns, I worry and even protest about the climate, austerity, civil liberties, justice. But unless I take the time to listen to those who are truly affected by such issues, I cannot speak about them. Unless I keep myself uncomfortable, always questioning my attitudes and presumptions, I do not have the right to say anything. It’s what the bible calls humility, and what Henri Nouwen calls the ‘ultimate hospitality’. I hope there is always room at my table for the awkward question.
Take time to look at the pictures and consider these questions:
What are your privileges?
What is your ‘elephant in the room’?
How can you listen more?
What can you change?
You will need pencil, felt tips, a piece of paper and a circular object.
- Draw around the object with your pencil to create a circular shape on the paper
- decide on a word which represent your ‘elephant in the room’
- draw this inside the circle with the pencil
- using felt tips, follow the word with small dots to create a coloured version. You will need to make a decision about which colour you want to use for the word, and which colour you want to use for the background. Most traditional Isihara tests use red/green combinations.
- Use the other colours you have selected to fill the background in your circle in with dots. Think about the background to your particular privileges.
This meditation is commissioned by Leeds Methodist Mission