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Privilege: other people’s eyes

In the space between finishing university and starting my first proper job I had a minor revelation. With my bank account running low and a few weeks before my first pay cheque would arrive I walked into Marks and Spencer* and experienced – I think for the first time in my life – the feeling of not being able to afford to buy anything in what I thought of as a “normal” shop.** It changed how felt (I shrank), how I looked at everything, and how I felt the staff looked at me. The feeling of being on the outside looking in stayed with me for some time.***

So what?

  1. Most things in life are hard to understand without direct experience.
  2. This is really important to bear in mind as we seek to see clearly in discussions around the social exclusion of poverty, race, gender-bias, and disability. The barriers that don’t affect us directly are often invisible to us at the best of times – and any prejudice we happen to have makes them even harder to see.
  3. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the barriers are wrong. My example is obviously a trivial one: my “exclusion” was temporary and trivial, limited to a small part of my life, immediately visible only to me, and largely within my own control. But the less these things are true (i.e. the longer an exclusion lasts, the more it permeates every aspect of life, the more widely visible the signs are, and the less control someone has over it) the greater the damage exclusion does, and the more urgent it is that we address it.
  4. Bigger problems cost more to mitigate (let alone fix) and progress is slow, but the price is worth paying and the journey worth taking.

*The quintessentially middle-class-English stockist of things like shirts, trousers and underwear – and not so long ago a dynamic and disruptive innovator in fashion and food retail.
**This is probably reveals as much about my lack of ambition as a shopper as it does of a privileged childhood.
***The irony of this ‘trauma’ of being marginalised… from M&S

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