Thoughts on privilege

I am socially privileged – a white, middle class, home-owning, Internet-shopping, credit card-toting person wth a university education. I struggle with reconciling my privilege with my work in Autism advocacy. I guess this post is my attempt at unpacking some issues related to concepts of privilege in my experience.

I wasn’t always privileged which puts me in quite an interesting position. In fact over the past 15 or so years I have gone from being disadvantaged across a number of domains – ex-prisoner, long-term unemployed, poorly managed mental illness, ableism and discrimination around autism, homelessness etc. Most people don’t move from that place to where I am now in terms of social perceptions, but I did.

I should just note that we are all human. We are all born, then we live and then we die. That’s it. Having power or money or influence does not excuse you from any of those three activities. Nobody is more important or better or more deserving of respect than anyone else. We are born naked and helpless, from the most disenfranchised person to the most powerful. Social standing and privilege are not a given or an absolute. They are a construction, entirely devised by people. A wealthy person is essentially no better, no more deserving and no more wise than a poor person. There are reasons why we have our different statuses but none of these are ‘real’.

The dichotomy of my own privileged status can result in interesting thoughts – I will find myself criticising someone for their middle class attitudes only to remember I share a lot of that person’s experience. Or I find myself trying unsuccessfully to convince disenfranchised people about my own ‘credentials’ around disadvantage. There is another complexity around this for me as well: While at this point in time I am privileged in terms of employment, ethnic background, income and social standing, I am also an Autistic woman who has a significant mental illness. When I am in the psych ward I can assure you I experience invalidation and disempowerment regardless of how much I earn or how many awards I have won! My privilege goes out the window as I become disempowered through social perceptions around mental illness and through that, people who are mentally ill.

Unlike me at this point in time, many people on the Autism spectrum are socially and financially disadvantaged. The employment participation rate for autistic people in Australia is a little under 36 per cent. Think about that and then think about how ‘employment participation’ is defined in the statistics: Employment participation means working for one hour or more per week and /  or actively seeking work. As such, that 36 per cent participation rate includes unemployed or underemployed people. Autistic full-time employees like me are a smaller percentage within a small percentage. A job is the passport for a future but many Autistic people – despite having the necessary skills and attitudes – cannot find work. A range of issues feed into and result from this. In practical terms it can mean things like living in supported / crisis / insecure housing, having no choice in healthcare services or not being able to afford school supplies or clothes for your kids. It often means people are unable to acquire a timely Autism diagnosis for themselves or their children. Not having an accurate diagnosis means people are unable to access available supports and can also impact negatively identity. Unemployment and poverty are two of many disadvantages facing those on the Autism spectrum.

There is another measure of disadvantage which is known as intersectionality. Hopefully this example will help explain the concept of intersectionality if you haven’t encountered it before: I was checking my social media on the way home a while back and saw a complaint from a white, male admin for an Autistic-run group in the USA. He was complaining that ‘feminists’ criticised him because he had eleven other white, male admins on his group and no women or people from other ethnic or cultural backgrounds. This fellow commented that ‘Autism has no gender.’ I was furious and raced home to write a blog post on why Autism has a gender and a class and an ethnicity etc. Intersectionality means that disadvantages tend to compound other disadvantages and make life just that much more difficult. The experience of an Autistic woman who is a refugee is likely to involve disadvantage and prejudice based on more than her Autism alone. My American acquaintance was seeing the world through the lens of his male and white privilege and felt attacked by the ‘feminist’ because presumably he didn’t understand that he had privilege.

This brings me to what I see as the crux of the privilege issue. Privilege is often something a person is born with. It wasn’t intentional and they didn’t choose it. It becomes an issue only when the privileged person fails to understand others’ experiences who do not share their privilege or where they do not understand that they are privileged at all.  I tend to think it is more complicated than the equation privileged = bad, disadvantaged  = good. It is what you choose to do with your privilege and how you approach it which counts I think. Privilege in the form of influence can actually be a useful thing for an advocate to have, as people making decisions are more likely to listen to an advocate who shares some of their experience. While that is quite a distasteful thing for me to think in terms of my own advocacy, I know from experience it is true.I guess it is just an extension of doing what works to achieve an objective.

For me I think I can accept being privileged in some areas as long as I never, ever lose touch with how most people experience life. As long as part of my memory is still being powerless and disadvantaged, as long as part of me knows what it is like to not buy necessary medication because it costs too much, or to live in horrendous housing conditions but to be unable to move out because private rental is too much. As long as I remember bullying and abuse and times when I had no agency in any decisions about my life, I should (hopefully) be OK. Hard things to reconcile but it is always worth assessing and reflecting on where one fits in the world and how to work towards making the world a better place.


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