Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Comparing privilege - or lack of

Once upon a time, I wrote an article for an American collection, and I used class as an example of inequality. The response was that this would not be understandable to an American public, so I was asked to use ethnicity instead. That was however not something I felt confident with, so I used gender, which was accepted.

Since then, I have tried to understand why being asked to use ethnicity or, to be frank about it, race, as an example of inequality troubled me so much.

There are a couple of simple and obvious explanations, of course. Growing up in a very homogenous Norway, where the family had defined their ethnicity away by deciding we were all Norwegian, I did not have a language to explain some of the lived experience, and so when I tried to see what was happening my tools were all those of an analysis of social class. I quickly found that these were exceptionally functional and flexible, and did embrace a lot of those other differences, which today are spoken about and analysed as intersectionality:
“All of us live complex lives that require a great deal of juggling for survival,” Carty and Mohanty said in an email. “What that means is that we are actually living at the intersections of overlapping systems of privilege and oppression.”
When later class, a common topic in education, public discourse and political activism in the sixties and seventies in Norway was combined with gender, an increasingly debated topic, it offered a type of intersectionality that was easy to understand and deal with. Why then, the problem with ethnicity?

First, the problems with systemic ethnic bias in Norway were very well hidden. After WW2 large portions of the Sami population had redefined themselves as Norwegian when they reregistered and moved back to their home areas after they had been evacuated and Finnmark scorched. Many of them had already been using Norwegian names. My father's fathers had been Morten Mortensen for several generations at this point. At this point they registered as Norwegian speaking, a vital marker for ethnicity.

Second, even within these communities, there was bias. The settled, combined fishing and farming sea sami of the coast resented the nomadic reindeer herders who came with their flocks through carefully nurtured, sparse fields and farms. The nomadic herders resented the settled farmers for closing off their traditional paths. And so being Sami became something backwards, exotic and different, alien to the lives of contemporary Norwegians, apparently a lifestyle choice rather than a culture.

It took years to understand that my own ethnicity blinded me from understanding that of others. Experienced and internalised racism blocked the understanding of other expressions of it. After all, we had just left it all behind and moved on, why couldn't others?

But had we?

Trying to understand what I experienced as a child and how it has designed the understanding of intersectionality I am struggling with today is not a simple task, but we clearly had not moved on. The ethnicity of the past kept rearing its head, for instance in the way my father's dyslexia was treated as a result of him being sami, and so my sisters' dyslexia was never acknowledged, and that meant recognising the same problems in our childrens' generation was that much harder. Reading was a waste of time anyway, right?

Which brings me to the comparisons of privilege. My understanding of the struggles of other ethnicities are still just theoretical, they are learned, not lived. But I have learned that privilege is not simple and one-sided, and so I have a problem when this is not accepted. Being told that I am too white to understand racism when I have my entire life lived in a society where racism is not based on colour, but on language, education, naming and geography, is confusing. I don't quite believe that privilege is that simple. Instead we benefit from something, but are stopped by something else, and the mathematics of privilege becomes as complex as the mathematics of hedons and dolors in Bentham's Felicific Calculus.

While being aware of privilege is extremely important, we need to acknowledge that like the struggle of complex lives, privilege is also relative and varied, and should not be a simple and automatic stamp. And that is what bothered me with the demand to leave class behind when discussing inequality, because class is as important as ethnicity or gender in this arithmetic of privilege. And this is what makes call-out culture and the emphasis on being "woke" such a problem to translate, because both practices focus on relatively narrow understandings of privilege and inequality.

But until we all have an intersectional understanding of privilege, we can make a stab at memorising Bentham's nonsense verse to aid the calculation of hedons and dolors to guide our moral actions:
Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure—
Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure.
Such pleasures seek if private be thy end:
If it be public, wide let them extend
Such pains avoid, whichever be thy view:
If pains must come, let them extend to few.