Reading this post by Natalie Reed on privilege made me think about the experiences in my life that helped me understand my own privilege.
I was born white in apartheid South Africa, where being white came (and still does come) with enormous advantages. I grew up in an affluent home where I was waited on by servants and received an excellent education that today enables me to make a comfortable living virtually anywhere in the world. I grew up during a time when homosexuality was becoming widely accepted throughout the Western world, which meant that I was free to express my feelings and choose to live with a same-sex partner. As a woman I have benefitted greatly from the achievements of the feminists of the previous generation, and can now demand the same salary as any man working in my field.
In my twenties I was able to live for a few years in the UK, in itself an amazing opportunity. I spent some of my time there doing temporary and part-time menial jobs to fund my travels in Europe, South America and Australia. This experience made me see for the first time just how much I had been taking all my good fortune for granted. For the first time in my life, people looked down on me. I was a foreigner, working at unskilled jobs for minimum wage, I spoke with an accent, and people treated me as if I was uneducated or even stupid. Employers tried to cheat me out of wages and co-workers humiliated me.
It was jarring. I had been used to being treated with respect. I regarded myself as educated and sophisticated and felt that I deserved to be listened to. And here were people that I would have looked down on at home, people who had dropped out of high school and seemed to think domestic abuse was normal, desirable even, who treated me like scum!
It was a revelation, no, rather, it was an education. I didn’t enjoy it. I felt very, very sorry for myself. But today I am really grateful for having lived through it, because I don’t think any other experience could have taught me as much about how different other people’s experience of the world can be.
Most of all, it taught me a level of empathy that I see in very few of my peers. It baffles me when I see my friends and co-workers expect the poor and uneducated to behave as they would. They express irritation at what they perceive to be the irrational actions of striking workers, and seem unable to fathom the level of desperation that drives people to protesting in the streets.
I sometimes think the world would be a better place if all of us “haves” could spend just a little time as a “have not”. The world really does look different in another person’s shoes.