What am I supposed to do with privilege?

What am I supposed to do with privilege?

Matt Shanks

Matt Shanks

Principal Product Designer & Author/Illustrator for children. I'm out to improve the quality of life for everyone who uses the things that I make.

Or, how just acknowledging it isn’t good enough

First, in case you don’t get to the end because you’re too busy, I want to thank you for your time and attention that you’ve spared. This is a very personal journey for me and I feel glad that you’ve considered that it might be useful for you. Now, on with the show…

So, it turns out I’m about as privileged as you can get. I didn’t know this a few years ago. Like most privilege, it was hidden to me because of the friendship groups and workplaces in which I’d grown up and spent all my time. But over the last couple of years I’d like to think I’ve become more self-aware than ever. Part of that is down to my incredibly progressive workplace who have brought privilege and diversity in to focus for me. I’ve also put a lot of personal time and attention toward identifying and coming to terms with this massive blindspot of mine. I’ve gone through guilt, anger, frustration, anxiety and fear. At first, I resented that all my hard work in school, university and the workplace was now being undermined. Surely, historically-discriminated groups made ‘privilege’ up to make those who have worked their arses off feel bad. If you want a better life, spend less time complaining and more time doing something about it, right? Just like I did! But, like most knee-jerk reactions to learning something new, there’s a lot more jerk in the response than you’re aware of in the moment. And, since then, I’ve immersed in reading, some reflective writing, and, well, truly listening to other humans’ experiences (historically-discriminated against and otherwise). In that way that humans evolve and change, so have I.

Another advantage of being tall, is you get breathing space on packed public transport.
Another advantage of being tall, is you get breathing space on packed public transport. Photo by Corey Agopian on Unsplash

Just how privileged am I?

The short answer is ‘about as privileged as a human being can get’. Have you heard of a ‘triple-threat’ in show business? They’re a performer who can sing, act and dance. Well, as far as privilege goes, I’m at least a quintuple threat:

  1. Heterosexual. Check.
  2. Tall. Check.
  3. White. Check.
  4. Male. Check.
  5. Anglo-Celtic name. Check.

I thought about linking to all the evidence for each of these from here but I fear the list will distract from the point of this article. Let me assure you though, there’s study after study to prove it. And my personal experience shows that these without doubt exist. Whilst being a quintuple threat comes with plenty of advantage, it also comes with some pretty massive questions to deal with. The main one being, “How much of my current state of being is down to the actions I’ve taken versus the fact that I happened to be born in a society that values every single one of those traits that I can’t change about myself?” I don’t have the answer and I’ve had to accept that I likely never will. For someone who spends their career having answers to questions, that’s hard.

I’m not here to feel sorry for myself though. As you can see, I’ve got far less to complain about than, I don’t know, about 98% of people on the planet. But, for me, just knowing that this privilege exists is not good enough. I need to do something by deciding how to use it to help those who aren’t as privileged as me.

I hear time and time again that people like me are the solution. Us tall, white males are the ones people listen to with the least amount of prejudice/bias. Our opinions matter most and if we suggest something, or take some action, then it’ll spread far and wide and over time, society will change.

Well, now it’s time for action.

I’m a full-time designer and, more recently, a part-time picture book maker. All I’ve ever wanted to do is make a positive impact in the world. As a person of immense privilege, I couldn’t be in a better position to make this happen. So, for the last few months I’ve been reflecting deeply on this very thing. How on earth can I take advantage of my privileged position to help other humans? Well, it turns out, what it boils down to is that there’s just a couple of ways. I can donate time or I can donate money.

Time or money

Who’s got the time?

Another short answer: not me. One of the perks of being a software designer is that I get to help people. I get to listen to people’s problems, then make those problems go away through the decisions I make along with the team working on a project. I’ll be honest, it’s a freaking great job. It keeps my brain busy and I see real positive change in the world. I try to make most of my design work about health, education and energy — things I care deeply about. I don’t want this part of my life to change right now because it’s ticking all the boxes. It’s good for me and for those who use the things I make.

Outside of my day job, I spend nights and weekends dedicating my time to picture book writing and illustrating. It’s an accidental career that I stumbled upon after uploading a few doodles to Instagram and being ‘discovered’ serendipitously by a publisher. You could spend a lifetime trying to unpack how my privilege has contributed to making that possible, but that’s a whole other post. My work in picture book making is driven by trying to improve childhood literacy and numeracy. Picture books play an incredibly important role in a child’s visual and aural development. Two more things I’ve completely taken for granted. And, for whatever reason, I’ve been given this gift (or, if you’re not religious, my genetic code has been randomly arranged in a way that’s made me more likely) to be able to construct stories and draw things that people find empathy toward. So I feel I have no choice but to continue this work, too.

As you can imagine, between these two vocations, there’s not a lot of time left. In my ‘downtime’, I eat, sleep and spend time with people who are important to me. Beyond that, there’s not much else. So, I can either give up those two vocations (which I know are doing positive things), to create more time to use my privilege in other ways, or, I can use a by-product of them, money.

It’s about the money, honey!

Or should I say, It’s about the money, gender-neutral human!

Obviously, the advantage of working two jobs and not doing much else means I’m financially remunerated for that time. It also means that I don’t have time to spend training myself in how to do all the things I could do to make a small but heroic impact in the world. You know, those careers where there’s a coal-face element to helping people – social work, early childhood education, nursing, teaching and so on. Low paying, largely thankless jobs that we all agree are an incredibly important necessity to save those in a failing social system. Trust me, I’ve thought about taking this path.

What if I quit my current jobs and went to volunteer in remote Australian Outback schools where I could help close the literacy gap for indigenous children. I could use my design skills, my story-telling skills, and my illustration skills to bring about localised change to a small number of lives. The question still remains, “If I change just one life for the better, would it all be worth it?”

If designing software has taught me one thing, it’s creative problem solving. Why create something new if you can stitch together pre-existing things to achieve your goal? Well, folks, it turns out money is that glue and that earning to give, at least for those of privilege, is a real choice that’s available.

Earning to give

The gist is that I believe I can have a bigger positive impact on the world by taking advantage of my own privilege. I have two careers, and my privilege is at least partly responsible for enabling that. So, what if I use the financial return from those to fund pre-existing organisations who are better equipped at delivering life changing services than I will ever be. It’s not a new idea, but right now, I can’t think of a better way.

Take, for example, improving childhood literacy for indigenous Australians. I could quit my two jobs right now. I could spend a period of time up-skilling in the credentials needed to work with children. Then I could go and live in a small, remote Australian community and address 12 kids in a class for year to help them. If I do that for the rest of my life, I’ll probably impact about 700 or so kids.

The alternative is that I can donate to The Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation where it’s conservatively estimated that for every dollar invested in early childhood education, there’s a cumulative saving of $7 that would otherwise be spent on interventions in the short term (e.g. special education support), mid term (e.g. support for early school leavers), and the long term (e.g. additional job readiness training resulting in lost productivity). A less conservative estimate from Nobel Prize winning Professor James Heckman suggests that for every $1 spent in the early years, a return on investment of up to $300 can be expected. (Greley, B. (2014)).

I don’t know about you but the answer is pretty obvious to me. Money does in fact talk. Actually, it shouts from privileged rooftops!

Choosing what to support

There’s still a question about to who, when and how much money I should give. And to be honest, I don’t have the answer to that. All I can do is look inward at my own personal set of values and make decisions that are important to me. These decisions are based on the empathy and compassion I have for humans and the planet that we happen to inhabit. I think this will be different for everyone and I believe it’s so important to avoid putting a moral judgement on which cause is ‘better’ than another because I also think there’s no objective answer. For me, right now, it’s about refugees, indigenous Australians and the natural environment. As my life continues on its way, these priorities might change, and they might not. Things may become more or less important and I’m OK with that. What’s important for me is that the organisations whom I choose to assist are providing effective and evidence-based support to the people and environments they aim to help.

This isn’t a call to arms, or some sort of high-horse gallop through the internet to yell about my privilege and how I’m choosing to spend my money. In fact, I questioned whether I should put this very personal journey on to the internet at all. But, if the internet is anything, it’s a place where the privileged, like me, spend a large chunk of their day. It’s a place where those who are privileged enough to have access because they themselves are privileged with literacy can engage and share in the multitudinous viewpoints of an entire planet of humans in order to make the world a more tolerant, equal and better place. So this is why it’s here. Thank you again for your time and attention.

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