Holding One’s Privilege in Check

closeup of the hands of a young man with a piece of paper with the text human rights written in it, with a dramatic effect

Every morning when I wake up, I have this question in my head.  What sleight of hand resulted in my being able to wake up in a comfortable and warm bed, my loved ones intact, my fridge brimming over with staples and a car filled with gas waiting to take me to wherever I want to go?  That I can go about my day not fearing for my physical or emotional well-being.  Sounds rather banal and yet not so for millions across the world.

Amnesty International (Amnesty) in its Annual Report for 2016/2017 released today warns that the rise of scapegoat populism around the world could portend the collapse of universal human rights around the planet.  How then do we address this?  The solution, according to Amnesty, lies with us not letting the rhetoric of fear, blame and hate erode the vison for an open society based on equality.  If each individual takes a stand and acts to protect our human rights, together we can turn the tide.  It points to peaceful movements such as the International Women’s March, the pro-democracy protests in Gambia and Ayotzinapa student protests in Mexico as inspirational examples.

We are aware of this every day in the work we do at MCIS.  We are a social enterprise working hard to give people their voice so they can actively engage in civil society enjoying all its rights and privileges.  We know from examples around the world referred to in this report, that people who live in the fringes could become both victims and perpetrators of inequality and human rights violations.

As a starting point, we all need to hold our privilege in check. Here is a recent example from my life of what I mean by this.

A few days ago my daughter called me.  She never does unless something is bothering her, she is upset or super excited.  This time, in a deceptively calm voice, she said “I had the worst morning and had to talk to you.” “Why what happened?” I asked, quite startled.  “Well you know I had this new guy come in to clean the apartment.”  As an aside, this busy career woman has a cleaning person come in to clean her match box sized apartment in London a couple of hours every week. They are usually immigrants or people without legal status, living on the fringes of society. This is often their only means of earning an income. My daughter grew so close to Iryna, her previous help that they looked out for each other.

When Iryna moved to the suburbs, my daughter’s apartment saw a bevy of colourful characters, all nice but not all gifted at cleaning.  So this was the first time for this young Brazilian man who had been referred by her friend.  My daughter continued “You know that diamond tennis bracelet I have?  Well I usually leave it in the bathroom.  But when he finished cleaning, I went in the bathroom and I could not find it.”  She continued in one breath “I was so upset and flustered that I just stopped short of accusing him.  Poor guy was shaking and opened his bag to show me he had not taken it.”  Curious as to how this story was going to end I could not resist “What happened then?”  “Well, after we had turned the apartment upside down, I found it safe in a box in the kitchen drawer, where I then remembered I had placed it.  I felt so bad that I had suspected him that I began to cry, apologizing profusely.  And he began to cry too, probably from sheer relief.”  “Well that’s good,” I said. “Yes mom, but it taught me so much about myself. I now realize how easy it is to not hold one’s privilege in check and how horrible it is for the person at the receiving end. I cannot imagine what he must have gone through during those few moments when he was so vulnerable, wondering if I would report him.  He speaks very little English and would not be able to defend himself.  Also, who would they believe? Him or me?”

When we have a society where there is so much inequality, we must be conscious of our power and privilege all the time so we don’t run roughshod over people who are vulnerable.  However, that is not enough.  We need to go a step further and stand up for what we believe to be universal values and rights.  If we do not act, it is only a matter of time before the other shoe drops and we witness the collapse of all our democratic institutions and destruction of civil society as we know it.

To her I said “I am proud of you for this reflection.  Bad morning for you, but one with a good ending and some great learning.”

Latha Sukumar | February 22, 2017 | Toronto, Ontario

Source: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2017/02/amnesty-international-annual-report-201617/

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