Privilege; Definition a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.
I’m a lucky person. I get to go on vacations. I also take a lot of photos while I’m away, not on an expensive camera now, but on my iPhone. It’s become a habit to share some of them on Facebook while I’m away.
I also go to quite a few HIV-related conferences, some in Canada, some further away. Again I take photos and post them on Facebook.
I sometimes feel guilty about doing so. My work intersects with those these less privileged. How will they react, I wonder? Will the photos gender resentment, anger or worse? Should I apologize for them or present a sanitized version of my life which plays down the outward signs of a good life well spent?
The questions go deeper than this. Is my work with PositiveLite.com, the U=U campaign and elsewhere coloured by the fact that as a white gay male of a certain age who has survived the plague, I undoubtedly come from a position of privilege? Am I able to identify with the vast majority of people living with HIV who do not? Can I ever speak for them? Do biases creep into my work because I enjoy privilege? Should I be acknowledge this, how often and when? Or is privilege best ignored, as most privileged people ignore it, for fear it sounds like boasting rather than an acknowledgement of inequity? Is it best addressed instead by fairness and equitable treatment extended to all?
I’m not sure I know the answers. Certainly in the case of privileges that come with the job. I make a point of acknowledging the privilege of attending conferences. It’s appropriate to acknowledge that only the lucky ones get there, or the well-connected or those who can pay their own way. It’s often much harder, for a variety of reasons, for the more marginalized to attend. That’s why sharing and report-backs on the part of those lucky enough to attend are essential.
That's not nearly enough though. If they can’t be at the table itself, the work we do must always reflect the needs of those not at the table. Ostensibly we are good at that but conflicts sometimes bubble when the privileged are believed to be both visibly in charge (this is common) and insensitive to the needs of the less privileged. The Prevention Access Campaign, for example, with a highly visible white gay male at its head, early on faced accusations from GNP+, a global network for people living with HIV, that the U=U campaign was not addressing needs of those from the Global South, that its message was overly slick, too westernized. It was cast as a battle of the haves versus the have-nots. No matter that the Global South subsequently embraced the campaign like few others; the accusation had been levelled; white gay males of privilege could not and did not understand the situation outside their own ivory towers.
The politics of privilege can get quite messy.
Closer to home, I have been accused of privilege myself. My advocacy work has never focused on the needs of the privileged though. (Why would it?) From day one it’s been the reverse. I tend to stick up for the under-dog, always have. Recently, for example, I took issue with the majority view of recent changes to the criminalization scene in Ontario. Most thought that no longer laying charges against those who have an undetectable viral load was a step in the right direction. I thought it penalized those who were not undetectable and so a different response was appropriate. I used my privileged position at PositiveLite.com to make that viewpoint heard.
The undeniable truth though, and it is best acknowledged rather than ignored, is that almost the entire response to HIV is in the hands of people of privilege. From bureaucrats to funders, to policy makers, to doctors, to nurses, to the staff of your local AIDS Service Organization - these are all people of privilege. They have jobs, they have money, they go on vacations, they take pictures. That makes them neither bad people nor incapable of doing their work in fair and equitable ways. It does however, suggest that without empathy, the system will not work well
The bottom line? I live in a nice house my partner and I bought together after decades of hard work and sacrifice. We each have a car. We are white. We live in a civilized country with good healthcare. We are not harassed by anybody, ever. We experience many layers of privilege. We know it – and we say it.
Saying it is not enough. And ignoring it doesn’t work either. Privilege is, after all, something we can and should use to do our work better, to understand people and ourselves better. It shouldn’t be a liability.
But what do people think? I’m curious to know.