When my daughter told me I wasn’t a modern feminist because I didn’t include everyone in my version of feminism, I thought she was wrong. I was insulted. I said something along the lines of, ‘What are you saying? I’m nice, I don’t care what people’s colour or sexuality is, I just see people as people.’
And that was exactly my problem.
As my wise daughter said, ‘If you don’t see colour or sexuality, you also don’t see how much harder life is for some people and you’re ignoring all your advantages and that isn’t fair.’
When I stopped sulking, I started to think. And then I started to ask questions. I realised that if I wished to consider myself the fully rounded, inclusive, and emotionally literate human I wanted to be, had a duty to be as a children’s author, I had a lot to learn.
I’m not alone in finding this stuff difficult. A lot of people find the concept of inclusivity, intersectionality and affirmative action hard to get their heads round. I’m a white, cis woman who, from a difficult-ish start, has done okay for herself. I used to think, ‘Yay! Go me, look what I did.’
My daughter was right. I didn’t recognise how much help I’d had on the way. I didn’t think about it, because I didn’t even see it. I still get a lot of stuff wrong but I try and challenge my own ignorance now. I’m less embarrassed too because I’ve learned that if you say to people, ‘Hey, can you help me understand this?’ Generally, even if they’re sick to the back teeth of having to explain themselves, they will try and help you understand if they think you really want to.
I know, however, that they get pretty tired of saying the same old things over and over, so if this saves one of my friends from having to do that, it’s well worth writing and well worth risking looking like an idiot ( if I’ve got any of this wrong my woke friends, call me out, please, you have my unending permission to do so.)
This is my understanding of ‘privilege,’ told in the best way I know how: through metaphor.
Imagine life is a huge bumper car rally.
Right when you are born, the race marshal assigns you a vehicle from an arbitrary list of criteria.
If you are white, rich, male, non-disabled, straight and cis gendered you are given a fully armed tank for the race. You get spinning tyre cutters and smoke bombs to confuse other racers – you name it, you have it. We are talking top of the range bumper car tankness. Pretty much everyone in the race is going to get out of your way without you even trying. You probably won’t even have to deploy any of your fancy on board arms , because others know they are there, and that’s enough to keep them at bay. Most people will be nice to you, because maybe they’ll get a ride in the tank and in this rally, the tank is the safest place to be and let’s face it, the most likely to finish the course.
Maybe you don’t quite fit all those criteria – you’re still white and rich but you’re female – you still get to drive a tank but it’s not fully armed and it’s not quite so big. Most people are going to get out of your way – everyone in fact, except Big Tank Guy. Your tank is still a pretty good place to be.
Not everyone gets a tank. Everytime the race marshal sees something that’s a little bit different – maybe you’re poor or a person of colour, maybe you have a disability , hidden or otherwise, maybe you’re gay or trans on non-cis gendered. Maybe you’re one or all of those things – well, that’s bad news for you because everyone of those effects which vehicle you get given.
If you’re lucky, you still get a pretty good car. You have a chance in the race but maybe you have to work really hard to keep the car because track rules say you have to have constant driving tests along the way to make sure you’re conforming to the system. You’re going to be super careful, especially around the tank owners, because you could easy lose your car under their big crushy tank tracks.
Maybe you get a small, shonky car that hasn’t got great airbags to protect you in a crash. Track rules mean you have even more tests in case your car breaks down and gets in the way of the really nice cars, or worse, the tanks. It’s a bit of struggle and you have to stay out of the way of those tanks because if you screw up, you could lose your car and whatever health you have .
Maybe you only get a bike. You have very little chance of winning the rally and you are very vulnerable amongst all the cars and tanks. If you’re super gifted at navigating around obstacles, you might just be able to stay alive around the course. You might just get to finish the rally.
A lot of people don’t get any kind of vehicle at all. They’re walking. Maybe with a dodgy hip and quite possibly without shoes. Some people, through incredible talent and determination , will still find a way to do okay in the race – aren’t they incredible? But for most of the Shoeless People, the best they can hope for is to stay alive. It’s entirely possible they’ll get crushed because most people don’t even see them. Tank Guy definitely doesn’t see them. He’s in a tank, visibility is poor.
To be fair to Tank Guy, he’s been in a tank all his life. Everyone gets out of the way for him. He thinks that’s how life is for everyone because he’s never known any different.
That tank is his privilege.
The tank gifts him a clear road. He doesn’t have to think about who’s in the way. He rides right over them with barely a bump. He can’t even see how easy the tank makes the race for him because, like I say, his life has never been any different. He might not mean any harm, he just doesn’t see the damage his tank might cause.
We’re not done yet.
Tank Guy has a family. In fact, Tank Guy has a whole load of ancestors and guess what? They laid the original tracks for the rally. They even made up all the rules about how the race should be run. His family are seriously important to the running of the rally. Tank Guy knows that in every fibre of his being. To his core he knows he deserves that tank, he was born to it. He never questions it. The track was even designed for his tank which surely proves it. It’s wide and straight with a few rolling bumps for fun and it’s covered in gravel which is absolutely perfect for a tank.
Gravel is not so great for a car. Cars easily skid on gravel. It gives them a poor start and throws up tiny stones that can chip the windscreen and mark the paint and that can lead to crazed glass and rust spots.
Gravel is pretty terrible if you’re on a bike. It throws the wheels sideways and if you come off the bike, it skins you. It’s also pretty dangerous when there are no cycle ways – you could easily get thrown under a tank.
But gravel is the absolute worst for Shoeless People. It cuts their feet and slows them down. They might even get an infection and of course, with no dedicated paths, they’re at risk all the time of being run down, especially if they fall on the track when it just hurts too much to walk.
Imagine how different it would be if Shoeless People had designed the track? They can see the tank so they’d allow a central gravel road. They can see the cars, and the bikes, so they can allow for a smooth separate run for them. And they know the safest place for pedestrians is a footpath with an even pathed surface that won’t trip them up.
That doesn’t stop the tank.
Tank Guy still has all the privilege his tank brings him, but now, the other people in the rally at least get a real chance to survive and thrive.
Isn’t that fairer? Isn’t that better? Who knows, one of those Shoeless People might be a genius who develops a cure to cancer, or they might create music to melt your soul, or write words that will transform your life – but even if they don’t, isn’t it still better? Isn’t it still fairer? Doesn’t it make a nicer world to not have all those people crushed under the tanks?
Affirmative Actions like BAME initiatives, or support for LGBTIQ people, or efforts to try and get more super bright state school kids into our top universities doesn’t mean taking away anybody’s tank and giving it to someone who hasn’t got any shoes. It just means, after a tricky start in the race, someone without any shoes gets a bit of tarmac on the road to help them catch up a bit, or they’re given a path so they don’t get crushed on the journey.
It means that kids who aren’t handed a tank on the day they are born, might at least see that the track has space for them too.
Grateful thanks to my patient daughter, Emily Evans, for help with this, and my even more patient friend, Patrice Lawrence, who always makes time for my stupid questions. Any errors are entirely my own.
Kathryn Evans is the UKYA author of More of Me, Nominated for the 2016 Carnegie medal and winner of the EIBF First Book Award and the SCBWI Crystal Kite. Her latest book, Beauty Sleep, has been described as a ‘fast paced gripping thriller’ – Sunday Express and a ‘Black Mirror take on Sleeping Beauty ‘ – The Book Seller.