Thursday, March 26, 2015

Privilege. Framing. Rhodes must fall.

Here are two ways of telling the same story.

Version 1.

When I left school, my parents couldn't afford to send me to university - and, anyway, I didn't get matric exemption (of course, my parents couldn't afford to send me to the best schools, so this isn't really so surprising). 

I really valued education, though. I realized that being educated was something something important. So I registered for my undergraduate degree in Philosophy through UNISA.
Every day, before and after work, I would study. I would get into work at least an hour early, read, and then get going. Eight or nine hours later, I'd leave for home where I'd spend the rest of the evening studying. I'd average about 3.5 hours university work in the week, and about 10 over the weekend. I had no social life -- I made the choice to give it up.
I graduated in about 4 years with my BA, distinctions in both majors. 
I repeated this with my honours, again in philosophy, where I graduated in 2 years, again cum laude.
I then started a company, so I began working far harder with much longer hours. Even so, I was able to finish my Masters in cognitive science in 2 years, again cum laude

I did this all on my own steam, on my own dime, without anyone's help, working full time and only ever taking time off to actually write exams (I've never taken off whole weeks of "study leave").

Version 2.

I messed around in high school. Although we didn't have a lot of money, I never really wanted for anything. If I needed books, clothes, musical instruments, whatever, my dad would make a plan.
I never really worked that hard in high school because I spent most of my time either dreaming about girls, playing basketball, or playing in bands.

At the end of matric, when a not insignificant number of my friends went off to university (where they received tuition discounts because of their marks), I couldn't go, I didn't get exemption.  
I knew, though, that if I'd worked hard there was a good chance I could have received a bursary -- hell, a good few of my friends got them. Still, I wasn't much worried - I knew a lot about computers, I mean, I'd been messing around with them since I was about 11 years old, when my dad bought me an old XT with a monochrome monitor. It wasn't the best -- as I mentioned, we weren't the richest people we knew -- but it was enough to get me started, so that by the time I was in grade 12, I knew far more about computers than most my age (and most people, in general).

Off the back of my knowledge of computers, I managed to find jobs pretty easily. When I'd go into interviews, nobody questioned my intelligence. The fact that I'm English probably helped here, though, because I've seen native English speakers say the dumbest shit and get away with it, and people speaking the most profound truths written off because of their accent. Weird, no?

Now that I had a job, I could afford to buy stuff - I still lived at home, and I was only expected to contribute a token amount of cash for rent, so I could buy clothes, eat takeout, party. The usual. 
Around this time I bought a whole load of books with my spare cash. One of them I bought was Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid". I read it and had a kind of intellectual revelation. I realized that there was all of this fascinating stuff that I knew nothing about, and that I had probably missed out on because I chose to mess around and not go to university. I could have, you know. My teachers told me. Dumbass me. 

What was cool, though, was that now that I was working, I could afford to spend some of my money (obviously not all of it - how would I afford Steers???) on studying. UNISA was relatively cheap back then, and so I signed up -- did an access programme -- and was a registered BA student.

My mom had given me her old car, a Fiat Uno Fire, so I could drive through to work really early to study. No need to waste any time on buses or taxis. The roads are completely empty if you get up early. 

Sure, I'd work 9 hours a day, but I worked in an air-conditioned office, so while it was a mission getting home and studying, I wasn't too wiped. I could even spend time hanging out with my (then) girlfriend (now wife) watching television at her mom's house. 

I got my degree, eventually, and I loved the stuff I studied so much that I registered for two more degrees. It's not my job, but it's something of a passion.  

Your point

Well, if you can't see the point, I don't think I can help you. But I think it's important to remember how easy it is to frame your own life story in a way that obscures the role of privilege. Both of these are brief, but true, accounts of a large part of my 20s. And yet framing it as I do in the first version makes it seem as though I triumphed in the face of adversity, where the truth is that I've not really experienced any adversity other than my own stupid distractions and bad decisions when I was in high school. And even after that act of self-sabotage it was relatively easy for me to get myself back on course. Sure, I couldn't really be a full time student, but the kind of work I do leaves me with a fair amount of free time, so it wasn't really a problem. You can read a lot of books if your day job doesn't involve backbreaking manual labor and you're willing to give up a couple hours sleep.

This is a story of privilege. My privilege. As a white male my privilege is multifaceted, and quite difficult grasp all at once. Of course, it's not my fault that I've been privileged -- but that's not the point. The point is that I've benefited in ways that people unlike me have not, and would not have unless they were like me. When you're privileged it's easy to discount this fact.

I encourage everyone to consider how they frame their own life's narrative, how they present it to themselves and others. What are the details you leave out? Where has it been easier for you than it would have been for someone with an accent, with different hair, with a different sex/gender, skin of a different colour, of a different sexual orientation, someone who can not walk, someone who can not hear, or speak at all.

Human beings are not the rational animal. They're the post-rationalizing animal. We're not that great at reasoning, but we're bloody brilliant at making up stories after the fact. This super power means that it's really, really easy for us to plaster over our privilege. We need to resist this urge.