Privilege is a word that is uppermost in many minds at present. It drips off the tongue, coated in caviar, champagne and cocaine, and no-one can really decide whether they want it or not. Does it help? Does it condemn?
I consider myself privileged and feel guilty for being so. I’m not privileged enough to feel confident about it, though, which does detract from any benefit; so I thought I would think a little more analytically about my level of privilege, and what I should do about it.
My awareness of privilege began when I was at school in Scotland, and got told I was a snob because I had an English accent, something I found upsetting. My mother told me it was much better to have an English accent, which I also found confusing, especially as we seemed to have a less affluent lifestyle than some of my convincingly Scottish friends. As a result, I didn’t know how to talk and always felt self-conscious. I used to want to live in England, as I felt I would fit in, but suspect I would have then been the Scottish misfit. This has never really left me, and I think this was a misunderstanding of privilege.
I was white and female, and good at school work. My parents were a university lecturer (science) and a school teacher (maths), and doing well at school was their mecca. I went to a private girls’ school in Glasgow, and I learnt the piano (I was mediocre) and violin (only slightly less mediocre). We lived well out of town; school fees were less crippling in those days, but we were less flush than some neighbours. In the summers we drove thousands of miles over Europe, camping, as my mother claimed Scotland had no sun. My main memories are of dubious campsite toilets and fear that our tent would burn down with us in it (we ate the same meals as at home, cooked over two gas rings).
I was privileged compared with many – I always had food, and I always had clothes (often sewn by my mother). But I never really knew – and still don’t – whether there were any disadvantages in my life. In my twenties I developed a severe mood disorder, and there was much thought, by family, friends and some professionals, as to whether my background had contributed. Was this nature or nurture, and if it was nurture, how could a girl with so many obvious advantages be susceptible? More guilt.
I was not particularly pretty as an adolescent girl – mouse brown hair, a slight tendency to put on weight, short in stature, spectacle-wearing. I was quiet, with my little English voice, and physically not very adept. I was very bad at sport. There were no terrible happenings in my home life, but my parents were exacting and controlling, and argued a lot. There was no feeling of modern culture, or of interest in my music – no-one else played, and it was one more thing to be criticised about. The other strange thing – and I still don’t understand this, looking back – was that my parents were very anti pop music, and neither my brother nor I felt able to listen to it at all. I wanted to, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go against them. I also wanted to get a job, but options were limited where we lived, and my mother dissuaded me, saying far better to work for her (she would pay me), something that resulted in some terrible rows.
So I was that posh little English girl, living in Glasgow, who played classical music (but was hardly Nicola Benedetti), had no knowledge of life and modern culture, yet was never posh enough to actually be posh, if that makes sense. Even now, I don’t react well to teasing about my music taste or penchant for playing the viola.
My main privilege has been that of academic facilitation, provided by parents with academic roles themselves. My mother’s father was a doctor (who would not allow her to study medicine) and my father’s father was a tenant farmer. I would not deny that this has been a great advantage, without which I could not possibly have studied medicine myself. Yet I always feel I should be apologising, for not being working class, for not being the first in my family to attend university. I have tried to make the most of what I have been given, and am lucky that I have been able to do so.
But I was dealt other cards that were less gentle. It has become obvious to me as I have grown older that members of my family have struggled with life, some with mental illness. My parents did not come from easy backgrounds, and our family life was at times quite difficult. The mood disorder I developed, be it through nature or nurture, has had a profound effect on my life. My experiences of pregnancy were terrifying, especially following a late loss. At the time this seemed unfair, coming hard on the heels of a prolonged perinatal illness, but life doesn’t deal events out in neat little parcels. I hope I learnt something from all this, and I hope it didn’t inflict too much trauma on my daughters.
My life now is relatively privileged, in that I can work part-time (due to my illness), I can play my music, and I can write what I want. I am lucky, because there is much to make me happy, and I hope I can still be of use to others. What still disturb me are the misunderstandings and the guilt – I don’t want to be criticised for my accent and for my cultural choices (if indeed that is what they were). I don’t think I like the word privilege when it implies moral choices and judgment, but we are never going to all be the same. We must work to protect children and give choices, but we must also refrain from criticising the consequences of the choices made by our parents.