LOUISE O'NEILL: The phrase ‘check your privilege’ is over-used and mocked in some quarters but its ubiquity should not diminish its importance

I became interested in the power of positive thinking when I was 17 and found a copy of You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay on our bookshelves at home.

After a week of repeating ‘I love myself’ while I stared in the mirror — as deeply uncomfortable as it sounds — I abandoned the book, and didn’t return to new age spirituality until The Secret was released in 2006. It was based on theories of quantum physics, theories I couldn’t understand and therefore was wildly impressed by.

And so, despite other people rubbishing the book’s claims one could simply imagine great wealth into existence, I began to believe that success was based on wealth consciousness; that if you wanted something enough and you worked hard, then you were destined to succeed. It was that easy.

After that, I used visualisation techniques and positive affirmations and vision boards and I worked harder than I ever worked before and guess what? It was that easy for me. It was that easy for a white, straight, middle-class, cisgender woman with no real financial impediments or responsibilities to achieve her goals. I know. Amazing!

The phrase ‘check your privilege’ has become over-used and mocked in some quarters but its ubiquity should not diminish its importance. When I check my own privilege, I can see that there were certain expectations for me.

I was brought up in a family where there was a great deal of love, where there was enough money, where education was valued, and where my ambitions were treated as worthy of respect.

I thought university was mandatory until I was 16 and a classmate told me she was dropping out of school. I have always believed the gardaí were there to protect me, and as a teenager I felt sure that if I committed a minor misdemeanour, I wouldn’t get in that much trouble.

When I first moved to New York, I couldn’t understand why a friend of mine (a young black man) would visibly tense when we passed a person in uniform; I also became aware of how another friend, also a person of colour, was ‘subtly’ followed as she walked through a clothing store in a way that never happened to me.

When I decided to write my first novel, I took a year out and moved in with my endlessly supportive parents who told me that I could do whatever I put my mind to as long as I had faith in myself. I believed them.

I know that I am, at times, disadvantaged because of my gender. There is a certain faction of white men who bristle when they hear that, retorting that they are the ones who are becoming minorities in this Brave New World of ours. (Interesting how afraid they are of becoming minorities. Could it be because they sense that minorities are not treated as well as they are?)

It is vital to acknowledge that there is inequality between the sexes and how unfair that is but it is also important for me (and other white women like me) to acknowledge that I have certain advantages in life that I have done absolutely nothing to earn.

It is easier for me to pass through the world than it is for a person of colour, or someone with disabilities. A member of the LGBT community. A fat person. Someone who is working class. Someone who is born into a cycle of poverty or addiction.

I can say that I have worked hard (and I do), I can say that I’m talented (and I hope I am), and that I have overcome personal challenges (and I have), and yet I know that there are other writers who work harder, who are more talented, and who have overcome more obstacles but who won’t get the same opportunities that I have because of an arbitrary twist of fate.

Perhaps it is because of class or race. Perhaps that person has never seen someone who looks like them earning a living as a writer so they don’t think it’s possible for them. Perhaps writing has never been presented to them as a viable option. Whatever it is, their voices will be lost to us forever.

Of course, there will always be examples of people who have succeeded despite their circumstances. The Oprah phenomenon, if you will, someone who has accumulated vast wealth despite experiencing poverty and abject abuse.

She is the epitome of the American Dream (a view of society that is deeply problematic as it seems to equate poverty with laziness) and if Oprah can do it then ‘why can’t the rest of them?’

As the actress Naomi Harris said in an interview with the Sunday Times in 2015, “What people say about our society is that you can come from any background and, if you work hard, you can come out of your social circumstances and achieve pretty much anything. That, actually, is a lie. Because you have to work so much harder than people in other social circumstances to achieve that same level of success. It takes an extraordinary will to be able to do that — and drive, and ambition, and focus. You have to make huge sacrifices to leave people in your social circle behind in order to move to a different one, and that’s very isolating. Not everybody is willing to make those sacrifices, and now everybody should have to. Why should they?”

Why should they?

This is the question we need to ask ourselves as we move forward, especially under the leadership of a man who declares that he represents people who ‘get up early in the morning’.

A man who launched a campaign to tackle social welfare ‘cheats’; which many believed would further marginalise thousands of people on benefits who are struggling to survive.

How is this helping to eradicate discrimination in Irish society?

What will we do in the future to tackle systemic inequality? And how are we going to create a compassionate Ireland that ensures all citizens achieve their full potential, regardless of class, ethnicity, or economic background?


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