With privilege comes context

This month, Philip considers the question of whether we should use our privilege – either for our own benefit, or for the benefit of others.

I’ve been reflecting on privilege over the last week since it came up during the last session of Be. Leadership. The questions I’ve been grappling with are: Should you use your privilege for your own benefit? And how do you use your privilege for the benefit of others and the betterment of society, even humanity. Having just watched I, Daniel Blake, I have some answers.


The movie is a testament to privilege — particularly its contextual complexity. It’s raw and British-made — the story of a middle aged carpenter who is denied state welfare after having a heart attack and who supports a single mother in a similar scenario. Notably, it critiques a cruel, unfeeling bureaucracy that is designed to create enough resistance to make people give up fighting and go without welfare assistance. It also presents an older man, Daniel Blake, who is unwell and a younger solo mum, Katie, both of whom have different forms of privilege, as well as a lack of it.

I’ve always recognised my privilege as a white, middle-class, well-educated man. I have also been marginalised because of my sexuality and unique function. So I’ve seen the world from both sides of the coin. It would be easy to just play on my oppression, but that’s only half of my reality. I have to be honest and recognise that I have — and will continue to  have — privilege and all that goes with it.

I have used my privilege to my advantage and I’m not ashamed. I’ve worked the “system” to get what I’ve needed to live a comfortable life. I’ve benefitted financially from the disparity of income between men and women. And, most importantly, I’ve used my intelligence, communication skills and social dexterity to challenge systems and build relationships with decision-makers and influencers.

For this — and the personal benefits I have received as a result — I offer no apologies. I didn’t ask to be privileged, just as no-one asks to be under-privileged. It is what it is. And I’d be a martyr were I to not use my privilege, especially given I face barriers due to other characteristics and circumstance over which I also have no control.

However, the responsibility I do have is to share my privilege to support others to get what they need to live as comfortable and privileged a life as they can. Not a good life. Not an ordinary life. The best life they can possibly live. Isn’t that the ultimate responsibility we all have to each other?

How do I do that? To use the tired metaphor, I put my own mask on before assisting others.

Then, I share my knowledge. I support people to find solutions. I donate to many charities and causes. I introduce people to service managers and influential leaders — I tell them to say I referred them — and if they still don’t get what they need, I follow up personally. I’m not always successful, but I like to think — I hope — I do my best.

If you want to witness a defensive reaction, tell someone they’re privileged. Nine out of ten times you’ll get a successful outcome. For some reason, be it guilt, shame or hubris, most people will deny their privilege.

The thing people don’t realise is that privilege is contextual. There’s always someone more and less privileged than you. I’m more privileged than a straight, common functioning Syrian, because I’m not at (as much) risk of chemical warfare or retaliatory US military strikes. Bring that Syrian to NZ and set them up in a house with steps, a well-paying job and a heteronormative nuclear family? Well, the privilege balance may shift.

Privilege is nothing to be ashamed of or guilty about. It should be celebrated. And, as I, Daniel Blake so articulately demonstrates, an awareness of mutual privilege is, can and should be, the position from which we can support each other to have the best life we can possibly live, together.


This blog was originally posted on www.philippatston.com.  It has been re-posted on DPSN with permission.

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