Standing in opposition to the dominance of privilege

Being aware of one’s own privilege doesn't detract from the struggle - working to ameliorate its effects can only enhance what we are trying to achieve.

At risk of sounding recursive, I’d like to highlight problems with a New Statesman blog entitled “The problem with privilege checking”. Its author, Tom Midlane, won the privilege lottery, and reckons that we should stop highlighting problematic language and behaviour displayed by those with the luxury to not have to think about it, as it lets the right dismantle the welfare state while we’re not looking. 

Now, first of all, let us acknowledge that this exact assertion is very much untrue. The wheels have been in motion for a long time, long before the coalition came into power. None of these things happened because the opposition was too busy arguing over privilege to do anything else; they happened because we live in a system which is set up to benefit the people with the privilege. It doesn’t help that the tactics which may have historically worked - the marches, the boycotts, the coordinated letter-writing campaigns - don’t really work so well any more, as time marches on and the system develops resilience to these approaches. 

As it stands, those in power are comfortably conserving their social order, and making themselves a little more comfortable at the expense of everyone else. This must be opposed. All of it. Yet by avoiding checking our own privilege, the best possible outcome is that the social order will continue to be conserved, with those at the top taking less from everyone else. 

For those who benefit from the existing social order - the white, able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual middle-class men - this is enough. For many of the rest of us, it really, really is not. A lot more needs to change before we stop facing oppression, and that revolution begins in the mind. The conservatives are happy to dismiss this pressing need and continue doing what they are doing without a care in the world for the people that will be harmed. For the most part, it is not malice that motivates them, but sheer negligence. They just don’t care.

Those of us standing in opposition to this dominance cannot and must not fall into the same trap, or we run the risk of creating something which is merely another movement representing the interests of the privileged. This movement can never be as strong as the dominant order, as the majority of its target audience will inherently be part of the dominant order. So we need to do things differently. 

Far from detracting from struggle, being aware of one’s own privilege and actively working to ameliorate its effects can only enhance what we are trying to achieve. We must be willing to be radically different from those in power if we are to avoid alienating those less privileged than ourselves. It is utterly urgent that we listen to those who we claim to be fighting for and avoid contributing to any continuing oppression. Without getting our own house in order, we are coming from an inherently weak position.

Oppression is far more than hate speech. It is insidious, it comes in the form of words and deeds which we were unaware could ever be a problem. The effect of negligence can be exactly the same as the effect of malice. It is our responsibility to mitigate these effects: ultimately, I too hope for the day to come where we no longer call upon one another to check privilege. For me, this will only happen when my allies in social justice are doing this for themselves. 

In reaching this understanding, we will be far, far stronger. It is interesting that the phrase “fighting with” carries a double entendre. At present, it is a struggle against resistance from those unwilling to rescind their own privilege and act in solidarity. However, “with” can also mean “alongside”. And in the future, I hope that we all fight with each other a lot more.


"Fighting with" can also mean "fighting alongside". Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”