For people with a lot of it, the word privilege can first feel accusatory. But it’s important to know its definition and role in your life. News of late in popular culture, specifically the film and music industries, has surrounded issues that could be more thoroughly discussed if we were all aware of our privilege and other’s lack thereof. So, this week’s post is an amateur lesson in privilege from someone who is still learning themselves and a comment on the stories that have been floating around the web recently.
So what is privilege? Well, it’s the groups we belong to that are systemically and historically given more agency and power in society. Sex, gender, sexuality, race, citizenship, ethnicity, class, educational attainment: these are all labels that our social stratification deems as either a help or hindrance.
Four days ago, Parasite made history at The Oscars for being the first film to win Best Picture that wasn’t in English. Taika Waititi also made history as the first Māori to win an oscar – his for Best Adapted Screenplay for Jojo Rabbit. This was no doubt an incredible win for Bong Joon-ho and Parasite‘s cast and crew. But the Academy Awards have still been under scrutiny for its lack of diversity. Many people pointed out the complete lack of female nominations for Best Director and the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite trended for its fifth year running.
While progress and history have been made, it’s ridiculous that we have marginalised groups still begging for seats at the table. Why are white Western cisgender straight men afforded more attention, opportunities and awards than anyone else?
Often, people who fall into that category are quick to remark that it is because they are “making better films” than women, people of colour, or anyone else. But this isn’t the case! Diverse casts and craws are doing incredible work. Not only are their movies engaging and interesting: they also sell. Think Blank Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, Captain Marvel, Little Women: these movies fared excellently at the box office and were received with much enthusiasm from their audience – and they’re only a handful of the brilliant films that have been created by systemically overlooked people.
Recently, performers have taken to awards shows and used their speeches to encourage social justice. Joaquin Phoenix comments on the racial disparities in nominations quite eloquently in the speech he gave after winning Leading Actor at the BAFTAs. All the nominees were white. Watch it and read along below; I bolded the parts I felt were most important for this post.
“I feel very honoured and privileged to be here tonight. The BAFTAs have always been very supportive of my career, and I’m deeply appreciative. But I have to say that I also feel conflicted because so many of my fellow actors that are deserving don’t have that same privilege. I think that we send a very clear message to people of colour that you’re not welcome here. I think that’s the message we’re sending to people who have contributed so much to our medium and our industry and in ways that we benefit from. I don’t think anyone wants a handout or preferential treatment, but that’s what we give ourselves every year. I think that people just want to be acknowledged and appreciated and respected for their work. This is not a self-righteous condemnation because I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem, I have not done everything in my power to ensure that the sets I work on are inclusive. But I think it’s more than just having sets that are inclusive, that are multicultural, I think that we have to really do the hard work to truly understand systemic racism. I think that it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it, so that’s on us.“
There is debate whether performers will act on the meaningful words they give in their speeches, or whether it’s merely lip service to the critical audience holding up hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite for the white winners to see. However, although I do have my reservations about Joker, I do think Pheonix makes a very genuine, compelling argument here. People with privilege need to be aware of it, account for it, and break it down.
The Oscars is not the only event under scrutiny. English music festivals are releasing their summer lineups to an outraged audience. Out of four examined, not even one of them has a quarter female performers. This isn’t due to a lack of female talent. There are hundreds – thousands – of women singing and creating music that would be perfect for a live act lineup. But they are excluded by an industry run by men. These tweets by musician Leadley put it simply:
Last week I talked about Taylor Swift’s journey into speaking and acting politically. I briefly mentioned her lyric video for “The Man,” noting that there were many details inside to be unpacked. The whole video obviously shows a woman’s struggle in a land dominated by men and the extra lengths she must take to keep up. I found the uninterrupted forward trudge of the men quite telling: the woman is almost stepped on and is later nudged off a cliff by men who do not realise what they’ve done. They do not understand their privilege and how it affects both themselves and people who are not like them.
People who belong to particular groups are more aware of their oppression than people with the corresponding privilege. So women are more likely to raise feminist issues, people of colour are more likely to point out racism, and immigrants are more likely to speak about xenophobia. If the first step to dismantling privilege is to realise your own, the second step is to start talking about problems other people face.
In Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, a course-assigned book I referenced in my last post, author Erin Wunker encourages people to situate themselves. Our theories, values, and behaviour are as important as the situations we act in. Speaking about your background and labels helps you to see the privileges you do and do not have. If I were to imitate the paragraph she writes on herself, mine would look like this:
I am a cis-gendered able-bodied woman. I am white. My first language is English, although I can speak French and Afrikaans conversationally. I am studying at university and plan to get a graduate law degree. I don’t currently work, but I do have a summer job and a job for the next academic year. I was born in South Africa. I have lived in four different countries and travelled to several others. I am a South African citizen and a Canadian permanent resident. I currently live in Ontario. When I’m not cooped up in my dorm, I live at home with my mom, dad, two sisters, two cats, and two dogs.
Write this kind of paragraph yourself. Read between the lines. Start learning about what privilege you do have – I am white, educated, and live in a developed country. Acknowledge the privileges you don’t. Speak up for your rights and educate yourself on how to speak up for the rights of others.
This isn’t a perfect post, but it is a start. And we all need a place to begin looking at hidden privileges.
PS: Here are some links to resources they may help you better understand this post!
Here’s some commentary on #OscarsSoWhite in its fifth year.
Here’s an eye-opening portrait of the gender inequality at Reading & Leeds Festival.
Here’s some more context on why women are excluded in live music.
I mentioned it a few times, so you may be interested in my last post if you haven’t read it already.
And finally, here’s a link to Taylor Swift’s lyric video for “The Man”.