This is the penultimate episode of the first series of Muselings. In it, I give some thoughts on the experience of privilege and get the name of Jamal Harewood’s performance wrong – I should have referred to it as The Privileged (and, incidentally, if you get the chance to see The Privileged, you should).
There is some swearing in this episode so I have marked it as explicit on Apple Music.
Edit: Having listened to this episode again, I have noticed that I have misgendered Hari Ziyad, whose pronouns are they/them.
The links I promised:
Jamal Harewood’s website
Information about The Privileged (which I have misnamed throughout this episode)
A critical view of the impact of Live Aid in The Guardian
Hari Ziyad writing about empathy and oppression in Black Girl Dangerous
A link I didn’t promise:
A super interesting reflection on privilege and guilt by Eula Bliss in the New York Times Magazine
A transcript of this episode is below.
You can find the podcast and subscribe on Apple Podcasts here.
Right. Let’s start with this…
A couple of weeks ago – so, at the beginning of November, 2015 – I cycled through some fine, Autumnal, London rain to the National Theatre Studio to see a performance that was part of Arts Admin’s Spill Festival. It was by an artist called Jamal Harewood – who’s great, by the way; I recommend that you look him up – and it was called Privilege.
The performance started with Jamal lying on the floor in a polar bear costume – breathing beautifully, by the way: he was lying on his front so we could see his back rising and falling – and it ended, as far as I’m concerned, with Jamal making his way through a bucket of fried chicken. And the reason that I left at that point was that I was feeling uncomfortable and guilty and angry and resentful and unsure of how I could possibly retain my position on any kind of moral high ground given what had been happening and how I’d reacted. And because I thought it might be about to get really unpleasant and I didn’t want to see that. And because several other people were leaving at the same time and I’m a coward and I need cover. And, as I wandered off to find some lunch – where did I have lunch, actually? Oh yes, I went to Yo Sushi on the South Bank… which was surprisingly quiet for a Saturday afternoon – I thought to myself: ‘Yah. This is exactly how I experience privilege.’ Or, to refine that a little: ‘This is how I experience having my privilege pointed out to me.’
Because this performance really did strike me as a stunning distillation of the experience of privilege. The way it’s set up – and I’m going to be deliberately vague here so that I don’t spoil it for anybody who might see it in the future – the way it’s set up, we, in the audience, have agency, we have a handy excuse in case things go wrong and, if we really don’t like what’s happening, we can leave. Oh, and if we feel bad about any of that, there’s no-one to absolve us of our guilt. It’s a very nice microcosm of a privileged existence, I think.
And, of course I’m reading some of my own preoccupations into this, but one of the things that I loved is that I feel as though Jamal Harewood takes us to a place where not to act becomes as problematic as to act, and where we have to acknowledge that we are the ones who have set this in motion at the same time as being able to argue, with justification, that we never intended for any of this to happen.
Because that’s one of the paradoxes of privilege, I think. There are, let’s say, very few evil geniuses working out how to game the global system for their own advantage but there are lots of us who benefit just because of where we find ourselves. Or, rather, not just because of where we find ourselves but because of where we find ourselves and because we don’t do anything to mitigate that. Or, if we do do something, we don’t do enough. And, in any case, very often, we do it wrong or badly and we end up making things worse. Do no harm is a very nice instruction for living a good life but, as soon as you have any power, even accidentally, it seems to me that it’s almost impossible to follow.
So I think that guilt and resentment are quite natural reactions to having this situation pointed out but I happen to know, because I’ve read a lot about it, that they don’t help anybody either. Emotions in general, although nice, are a notoriously treacherous guide to doing the right thing. I’m tempted to put a link in the description to some stuff about the aftermath of Live Aid in case you are in any doubt about that.
An article that I’m definitely going to link to, though, is one by Hari Ziyad that a friend of mine sent me the other day. It’s called Empathy Won’t Save Us In The Fight Against Oppression and it was published on Black Girl Dangerous.org on the 11th of August this year. And in it, Hari Ziyad, who regularly writes wonderful things about privilege and oppression, points out, among other things, that relying on empathy as the thing that should drive people with privilege to start dismantling systems of oppression only perpetuates the centring of privileged experience at the expense of the lives of people who are oppressed. He puts it much better than that, obviously. But that constant, boomerang centring of privileged experience is, ironically, what we come back to time and time again whenever the topic of privilege comes up.
It’s what I’ve already demonstrated by talking about this performance that I went to see – Jamal Harewood’s Privilege. My experience of discomfort is the news story here. I mean, I imagine that Jamal Harewood, the performer, was also pretty uncomfortable at moments although he didn’t express it, and there were other people in that audience who did express their discomfort. But knowing that just makes me feel worse. Because I’m empathic. And I care. It doesn’t change the fact that I didn’t do anything. And it doesn’t show me what I could have done.
My reading around the subject, on the other hand, has taught me that one thing I could have done was to listen. There was a post-show talk but I didn’t go to it because I was feeling too uncomfortable at that point. So, in that sense, where this performance is concerned, I think I’ve failed twice over.
And I should probably say at this point that my first impulse, when I was planning this episode, was to list ways in which I’m privileged and then to list all the ways in which I am failing to contribute to making the world a better place for people who are not privileged in those ways. As a way of saying: ‘I am such a bad person! Stand witness all of you to what a bad person I am!’
And weirdly, perhaps, it’s Birdman, the film starring Michael Keaton, that’s given me the clearest example of why this is counterproductive in this context. Because I’ve had the same argument with a couple of different cis, white, straight men about why I found that film so tiresome. And stick with me for this. You see, I said that I found the almost uninterrupted focus on this narcissistic, whiny, entitled, privileged, straight, white, cis man close to unbearable. And both of these guys pointed out, separately, that he doesn’t get it all his own way: at one point Emma Stone’s character really lays into him, she spends some time telling him what a shit he is. And both times I said – and I’ll be honest, I’m still proud of this – “But while she’s doing that, he’s still the centre of attention; it’s a narcissist’s dream to have someone spend time telling him what a shit he is.”
And, you know, I’m gay, so I like to think I’m one of the outsiders here. But – and here’s the list after all – I’m also a cis, white, healthy, wealthy, educated, middle-class, western European man. And a narcissist into the bargain. And so I have to accept that even by making this episode, I’m pulling on the Birdman’s shoes.
And you might ask, well then, why are you making this episode? And I’d have to admit that, essentially, I’ve just felt as though, if I’m going to make a podcast series about the way I experience the world, I have to address this topic somehow. I mean, if you’ve listened to this podcast before, you might well have noticed that privilege is the elephant riding the waves of all the other episodes. And I don’t like the feeling that people might dislike me without my permission so I wanted to make an episode that said, at the very least: I know. I see it. I see the elephant.
Now, I’ve been planning this episode for a couple of months now. I’ve been recording it and re-recording it in different ways for the last couple of weeks. And it’s Wednesday today. And I want to put this out tomorrow, Thursday. And this evening I’m going to a podcaster’s Christmas party. And I haven’t even had a shower yet today. So I need to get on and do this. Oh, and I don’t have a broadband connection at home at the moment, which is a whole other story.
But I suppose I just wanted to share with you that this has been the most difficult episode for me to write so far. Because I’ve had to ask myself: ‘Beyond simply holding my hand up, what do I have to say about privilege that nobody else has said, and said better?’ And there’s nothing really. It’s not up to me to say anything. It’s up to me to read and to listen and to try to learn. And I’m doing that. But slowly. Painfully slowly.
All the same, I do want to share one more thing, which I think is interesting, and challenging. And it’s about representation. I’m a firm believer in the importance of representation. I mean, I realised as soon as I came out, back in 2001, that I had a desperate need for positive gay role models just as part of the process of trying to build up a strong, healthy self-image so that’s part of it. But the other part of it is the normalising of a visibly diverse population as a way of breaking down unexamined prejudice and, hopefully, evening out the playing field.
So, back in June of this year, I was in the audience for an event called Act For Change at the National Theatre – in the main building this time, not the studio – and during the Q&A session a woman stood up and said: ‘I’m an Iranian woman and I’m not getting any work’. And Adrian Lester, who was on the panel said something that I thought bears repeating. He said: ‘Look around you, at your part of the industry, or the part of the industry that you are trying to get into, and, if there are no Iranian women getting work, then you can say that there’s something going wrong there. If there are Iranian women getting work, then all you can say is: I’m not getting work right now. It’s a tough industry.’ I’m paraphrasing, by the way, so I hope I’m not doing anybody an injustice.
But it seems to me that, in a roundabout way, this speaks to the concern of many privileged people that, if we are forced, in the spirit of political correctness, to give up our positions for token… women, BME people, disabled people, trans* people, gay people, etc, then how can we be sure that this is fair? And I guess I would say that maybe, fellow privileged people, we could look around at our part the world, or the part of the world that we want to get into, and say to ourselves: if there are no people with my privileges represented in those places, then there’s a problem here. If there are people with my privileges represented in those places, then maybe I don’t need to spend quite so much time worrying about who else might be taking my place.
I don’t know. It’s just a suggestion.
In any case, whatever you think of this – and I’d love to know – it has been the 7th Museling. It’s the penultimate episode of this series of episodes. Please go to muselings.uk for more information about the podcast in general. Thank you so much for listening. This exists on iTunes and Soundcloud. I’m Charles Adrian and you can find me on twitter as @charldrian.
[Outside noise – sound of cars going past, wind, heavier breathing.]
OK. So, a little postscript here, er, while I’m on my way to upload, um, the episode. I woke up this morning, um, and I suddenly thought: ‘Ah. That word world might have colonialist overtones in that little section at the end.’ Um. Which is clumsy. That’s not at all what I intended. Um, I… you know, I was thinking of something much more abstract. Um… my world, your world, the world of information technology… you know, something like that. Um. And so, honestly, if I’d had time, I would have re-recorded the whole episode again. Um. But, um, yeah, as I say, I’m… I’m… er… I want it to go out today so… um… Wow… it’s really… it’s really difficult, um, speaking into a microphone and walking at the same time. It’s not like speaking on the phone. There’s obviously an awful lot more breath control involved and I’m not on top of that. Um… OK… I’m… Er… That’s it. That’s it. Yeah.
 In fact, Jamal Harewood’s performance piece is called The Privileged. I have misnamed it throughout this episode.
 I have misgendered Hari Ziyad, whose pronouns are they/them.
This web page and its contents © Charles Adrian Gillott October 2020