Disclosure: I am a white male and I recognise that I’ve been of a privileged class during different times of massive change the world has experienced over my lifetime. This post holds my own observations, experiences and musings. It’s my perspective.
I take continuous regulatory and management training in my professional capacity. A big topic recently has been that of inclusion and diversity. A standout realisation to me has been around the focus on and the treatment of minorities and the marginalised. Their needs and feelings matter most. If you are not defined by one of these groups, then you do not have the right to express your opinion in a way which is deemed oppressive or offensive by these groups.
Agree or not, this is the way it is. I don’t believe that much has changed throughout the ages. There have always been groups of people brought up in a bubble of privilege, they become aware of the existence of an oppressed community and over time, through a process, concede or give this community a voice, acceptance and legitimacy. After this is done, the privileged then realise that true change not only requires freedoms and opportunities given to the previously disadvantaged, but it requires a change within themselves. Herein lies the difficulty.
I grew up during the height of Apartheid South Africa. I had access to the best the state could offer me, the best education and hospitals in the world for example. Across the other side of town, another person the same age as me, born in the same country as me, did not have the same legal rights and opportunities that I had. Worst of all, they were considered less of a human and it was believed that they would squander the same rights bestowed upon me. It was said that it was in their best interests to be subservient to me. If they fought against this, they were being ungrateful and were required to be brought into line.
Fortunately the propaganda fed to me was exposed as the evil that it was, I was able to imagine myself in the shoes of that other person and how I would have fought under their circumstances. I discovered empathy for my fellow human and in 1990, my first time being allowed to vote, I voted to give equal freedom to all South Africans. Four years later in 1994, every South African had the right to vote for their own political representative, regardless of ethnicity, political beliefs, religion and colour.
In that moment the balance of power changed, there was an anticipation of civil war, following the pattern experienced in other ex-colonial African states. The previously persecuted, now with a voice and empowered could take their revenge. They could use their new position to exact their revenge, to persecute those that represented the oppression and abuse on them and the generations preceding them.
What prevented this in South Africa? It’s a subject of much study and opinion and perhaps a story not yet concluded. In my view, it was through the inspired leadership of forgiveness, inclusion and unity. The prisoner, extending a hand of forgiveness and friendship to their captor. This was accompanied by a national programme of reconciliation, The Truth and Reconciliation Commision. Here victims and perpetrators of gross human rights violations could share their experiences, sometimes in public hearings and where perpetrators could request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. It provided a release for the hurt and the wrongdoing of the past to be recognised, acknowledged and most importantly dealt with and left in the past.
Unfortunately there are always those who fight to the bitter end, either resistant to change, looking for revenge or those with their own agenda. It plays to the narrative of these to keep the fears, deep seated fear, hurt and pain of the past alive.
During a time of fundamental shift in society, there are those that gain a voice and those with a fear of losing theirs. It’s very hard for all to understand the actual trial and persecutions of the past versus the fear of perceived loss and recrimination in the future. These shifts and fears I see repeated over and over in many different contexts across history. The society and the time in which I live has shifted to accept that people can determine for themselves who and what they are and how they are to be addressed. Like any newly acquired voice, it does not come without its fears, challenges, polarisation of opinions.
I was asked recently if I thought I was racist? After some reflection, I admitted that yes I was. I could immediately recall times in my post Apartheid life where I found myself making racially biased decisions. Along with my answer to my daughter I said, “I hope that I catch myself when this happens and that I set out to treat every person in the same way I hope to be treated”. I am no saint, I have made poor choices in the past and there is all the probability that I will make more in the future. What I hope is that those around me will help me to consistently make better choices. What is not in the spirit of real long term change, are those with an agenda that continue to persecute from their righteous pillars of newly acquired privilege.
For me, I must be honest about the prejudices I’ve grown up with. Like an addict, if I can’t recognise and admit to the struggles I have, how can I overcome them. There are always going to be things that I will never relate to or even understand. Echoing words from a tweet I read recently, a little empathy cost’s nothing and I don’t need to understand someone, what the reason for their needs and desires are to accommodate them in the way they prefer and to treat them with respect.
I conclude that for me, on balance, the needs of minorities and of the marginalised trump the fears of the privileged. So when there is a change in the balance of privilege, those with newly acquired privilege and a voice now hold the mantle of responsibility for tolerance and inclusion. To follow in the example of Nelson Mandela.