THE BURDENS OF PRIVILEGE

Much has been written recently about the necessity of confronting and reconciling legacies of privilege in Canadian society.  Just last week, posters went up in public schools in a school district in the BC Interior and at the Ontario University Institute of Technology in Oshawa asking students to reflect on their own privileged status, be it health, gender, race or sexual orientation.  Students, parents and members of the broader community were predictably outraged by the message.  However, while I would argue that students under the age of 21 are probably not the right audience for this reminder, it is not an inappropriate ask of those of my generation.  As uncomfortable as it is and as confrontational as it often feels, coming to terms with the impact of privilege in our society is long overdue.

My own life is absolutely the product of all of the privilege that has and continues to be afforded to white healthy heterosexual males.  I have seen it starkly many times.  When I was a teenager, a Black (and devoutly Christian) friend from work and I were shopping at a sports store and he was suspected and held for shoplifting simply because he was wearing an NFL jersey that was of a type sold in the store, AS WAS I.  As a young first year lawyer, I sat uncomfortably as an older client repeatedly insisted upon directing his questions to and obtaining answers from me RATHER THAN THE FAR MORE SENIOR FEMALE LAWYER THAT I WAS WITH.  And those are just two more glaring examples that fly into my mind quickly.  There have been countless other that I could list.

My only concern is with the generational fairness of how we as a society address the legacy of privilege.  The world is changing, and changing fast.  That is as it should be.  And there will be a necessary realignment of leadership in our society that will mean that those who have been the beneficiaries of privilege must be disproportionately excluded from the opportunities that were previously disproportionately bestowed upon them.  But in doing so, we must be careful to avoid creating yet another class of people who are to be unfairly excluded from opportunity on the basis of their identity.

I am 57, and have reaped the benefits of my privilege for virtually my whole career.  It is fair and appropriate that I recognize my privilege and forgo the types of late stage career leadership opportunities (politics, corporate boards) that have traditionally been extended to and claimed by people like me.  That is not to say that I will have no role in the transformation of our society.  I share my views in this blog, I mentor and encourage young people from diverse backgrounds that I come across in my work, in my not-for-profit Board work and anywhere else I find them.  But I will leave the formal leadership opportunities to others. I will make space for others, and allow the voices that are emerging to take precedence over mine. The more angry voices of those seeking change often bluntly state that it is time for people like me to shut up and stand down, and although I am often unsettled by the tone of the request, it is not an unfair expectation.

I do so because it is the right thing to do not only for society, but also because it is a generational imperative.  I have great confidence that the transformation of society that is ongoing now will rightfully negate the bulk of the privilege that my son would have historically enjoyed as a white heterosexual male.  Happily, that will not bother him; in my experience he and the vast majority of his generation reject the tribal mythologies that were so much a part of my own childhood.  The millennials will certainly not enjoy the full benefits of their historically privileged status, but if those of us who are older, who have enjoyed those benefits for at least a good portion of our lives and careers, do not step back and allow the disproportionate allocation of opportunities that are required to reorder society, it will be left to the millennials to unfairly bear this cost.  And so the cycle of righteous grievance will continue.

It is tempting both intellectually and opportunistically to believe that we can best serve the cause of the disenfranchised to use our privilege to be the leaders of the required change.  Even if that was true, and I do not think it is, too many will see that as yet another paternalistic expression of privilege.

Having said all that, I also recognize that my views are conveniently sanguine because I have already enjoyed a great run down the highway of privilege.  Those ten and twenty years younger than I are caught betwixt and between in this thesis.  For those, the correct personal strategy for reconciling privilege is less clear cut.  However, I do hope that such enlightened men in positions of power will find a just path to manage their careers in a fashion that balances their own aspirations with the demands of societal transformation and intergenerational fairness.

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