Notes on privilege

I had much of this post sketched out when I saw that the roguelinguist Alison Edwards has published a thoughtful thesiswhisperer post (and excellent round-up of links) on the privilege of slow academia:

Slow academia represents privilege, they say: it’s for those who can afford it, who have already reached the scholarly summit, and it comes at a cost to those below them on the academic food chain … Slow risks acquiring the stink of self-righteousness.

I edited this post in response, because I think the conversation should continue, and there is much nuance and complexity to consider. The value of slow academia lies in its emphasis on care and wellbeing; its risk lies in reinforcing the inequities of academia.

One point I want to make: much of the slow academia I blog about here is the experience of navigating academic work while caring for a sick child. Having my daughter unable to attend 20 weeks of school over the last year has enforced slowness on the entire family. I am privileged to be an academic, which has made combining work and care more manageable than many other professions, but my view of slow academia is not one of unmitigated privilege. Sometimes slow sucks.

I recently read Helen Hayward’s A Slow Childhood: Notes on Thoughtful Parenting. There were aspects of this book I really enjoyed. Its vision of unhurried parenting was  tantalising in what has been, frankly, a bit of a shouty week. Here’s an extract:

I wanted [my children] to build towers from wooden blocks, fly kites, make cubby houses, play tricks, have adventures, tease each other, roll down hills, be tickled, make cakes, get bored, read picture books, ride scooters, climb trees and make sandcastles … Before this comes over as a rosy, have-it-all, guilt-inducing story of family life to make the most relaxed working mother seethe, there was always one hitch … I never found work-life balance. I’ve never reconciled my personal ambitions with love for family. They were always chalk and cheese. Thankfully what I have found is a small still voice that guides me through family life.

I struggled with parts of the book, and the author’s unacknowledged privilege was a factor. (This book review by Nicole Avery captures the mixed feelings thoughtfully). At one point, the author refers to her time as a student observing psychiatric patients:

Most of the patients had been damaged – by themselves, by life, and too often by both. Many of them were disadvantaged both materially and emotionally. Yet none of them were wholly damaged. The light still shone through.

But the vast gulf between her ideas about childhood, and the experiences of others, is only alluded to in passing: “I don’t think that I’d have been as loving and responsive with them, if the world hadn’t been loving and responsive to me.” She also talks of feeling overwhelmed with family life, but was able “to climb out of the Heffalump trap all by myself”.  And two other comments gave me pause, for the distance I felt from my own ideas and experience:

I didn’t just welcome my children into my life. I invited them into my mind as well. From their earliest days they’ve inhabited my deepest self, taking up residence there.

Being sick was a sanctuary away from the hurly burly of daily life. It was a chance [for my children] to let go of what they were supposed to be doing – an island they stepped off the moment their temperature came down or sore throat vanished … Spending time in bed sick is good for the soul – children grow strong from the experience of getting better slowly. The world really can wait.

Writing about slow academia risks similarly alienating readers. I have previously posted on the privilege and slow academia—how it can shut down dialogue, the difficulties of  casual or sessional employment, and the imperative to act. A couple of years ago I had a (white middle-aged male) professor tell me that the university was not hierarchical because he could call the Vice-Chancellor by his first name. First names aside, I think universities are among the most hierarchical of institutions.

(This image is the ceremonial mace at my university, a symbol of formal authority at graduation ceremonies.)

And that’s the thing about privilege: it’s far easier to see other people’s than be aware of your own. (An example:  I was talking about reading with a friend, and mentioned my love of dystopian fiction. She said: ‘I can tell you had a happy childhood.’ She doesn’t need to read dystopian fiction; she’s already lived it).

This checklist on white privilege by Peggy McIntosh is a helpful tool for reflection. It focuses on race, but can be adapted for class, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, age, employment, indeed any social, cultural or symbolic capital. Here are some of those statements applied to privilege in the academy:

  • I feel welcome in this institution/ discipline/ department/ classroom
  • I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps professionally
  • My chief worries at work do not concern others’ attitude towards me
  • I can go home from most meetings of organizations/ groups/ teams I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.

I want to keep thinking about this and have recently signed up for this Cultural Competence – Aboriginal Sydney MOOC, which aims to “bring to light marginalised narratives of Aboriginal presence in Sydney”.

One thought on “Notes on privilege

  1. Pingback: Welcome to the Slow Academic | The Slow Academic

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