Giving Thanks to An Un-Subscriber: Breaking Bias. Building Community
After Nurture Volume 4 was released, two readers gave feedback that highlighted their different perspectives.
In writing these short articles the objective was that they needed to be valuable for you, the reader. It should be a fair exchange. You invest your time reading and hopefully receive value and even inspire a conversation.
That failed for at least one reader in the last issue, and it took much longer than I expected to re-evaluate and begin again. Some of that reflection continues below.
While another reader said her day would be experienced differently after reading the last issue, another reader advised she’d like to un-subscribe.
I’m grateful both women took the time to read and give feedback, and in particular, to the un-subscriber. She said that she preferred not to read material written by “privileged white men” and that her “work and skills are better served reading blogs from BIPOC and LGBTI people”.
No offence was meant or taken, but her comments spurred deep reflection and research. I’ve read more about BIPOC and LGBTI in the last few weeks than in the preceding 60 years. I’ve also watched videos about the Treaty of Waitangi (an agreement between the Queen of England’s representatives and New Zealand Māori that has served to define the governance, ownership of land and associated customary rights in our beautiful country) to try and understand if I am truly a white privileged male. Despite having swung hot and cold on writing about the three words: privilege, white, and male, it feels important to do so (within the self-imposed limitations of this article format).
Being white and male are baked into my essence with little scope for change, but the word privilege needed more investigation. Yes, I'm privileged to live in New Zealand, but the real question evoked was, "Am I advantaged?"
New Zealand is many miles away from the hotbed of racial and political tension overflowing in parts of the US and in many other global hotspots, but we also have a violent, sexist and racist past. Despite being the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote in parliamentary elections we still have a long way to go for equal representation in our political governance.
My understanding of the word privilege is deeper and broader now. I accept there are many perspectives to privilege. Some are due to my ethnicity (NZ European), my working to middle-class upbringing and education. Other privileges are thanks to my parents, grand-parents and extended family, who instilled values that meld into my philosophy of living. That largely centres around consideration for others.
But my ethnicity could be seen as a disadvantage by some in New Zealand, because I have no customary rights.
I recall in my late teens wanting to fish for a local delicacy in a river on the West Coast of New Zealand with three friends. We had just turned on to a shingle side road and were heading down a narrow bumpy access way to the river, in search of a local delicacy called whitebait. We had a large fine-mesh scoop-net commonly used for catching the juvenile form of these small schooling fish, migrating from salt to fresh water throughout New Zealand at that time of year, while swimming upstream to complete their life cycle.
With a short fishing season, we were keen to catch our next meal and taste this delicacy. But no sooner had we unloaded our scoop-net than we were confronted by an angry arm-waving elderly Maori woman. Without elaborating detail, the message was very clear.
We hurriedly packed up and left the river, well before getting our net wet. Later that day we discovered we would have been welcome on that river if we had customary rights conferred by heritage.
So what does it mean to be privileged? In its most simplistic form it describes a single or group of advantages. A personal trait of societal position may be seen as an advantage by some and yet a disadvantage by others, depending on their perspective. For example an heir to a leadership position includes expectation of added responsibilities, ways of behaving, or adhering to a certain set of rules. Which for some might be intolerable, perhaps that's why Meghan and Harry have stepped away from their British Royal roles.
And what is the impact of using the adjective “privilege” on either the labelled and the labeller? If the label is broadly accepted, does that exclude the labelled person from certain communities? If so, are we then creating barriers for sharing knowledge or resources which might help to connect these communities and so, avoid entrenching separatism?
Building a community, at its heart, needs a group of people with similar interests, a unified purpose, and a way to communicate easily and clearly. Implicit is the acceptance of all people who share these desires and values, irrespective of the colour of their skin, their gender or sexuality. To do this we must connect and, as powerfully described by Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the best ways to reach that goal is:
“seek first to understand”
Living by this philosophy, bypasses the risk of pigeonholing people through quick judgement or assumption, and will reduce exclusion and separatism. Engaging in conversation and asking questions also bypasses our conscious and unconscious biases, which are counter-productive to building an inclusive, welcoming and safe community.
How can we break down the discomfort of being an outsider, new to or on the periphery of a group and eagerly wanting to join in but fearful of disapproval, rejection or direct confrontation? How can we be more inclusive, welcoming and yet still foster vibrant debate that might advance us all?
With the objective of building community, it may serve to accept and leverage any privilege held by individual members for the good of the community. Seeking to understand, yet not tolerating any voiced racism, bias or prejudice. How might your community improve the way it welcomes new people, regardless of their gender, race or identity.
As always, your thoughts and feedback are invited.
There are so many things about this article that I am trying to unpack. I’m trying to take it slow because I don’t want to have a snap reaction and miss nuance.
This comment jumped out to me:
But my ethnicity could be seen as a disadvantage by some in New Zealand, because I have no customary rights.
Who sees this as a disadvantage?
What I hear is that you, as the descendent of European settlers who systematically took land and rights from the Maori, are complaining because you don’t have customary (custodian?) rights over a part of that land that your ancestors first stole from, but then granted back to the native people. Your example of the fishing expedition sounds more like a case of trespassing on private property than encountering “privilege” as described by the Un-subscriber.
I think equating advantage with privilege serves only to take away nuance. I know that in Australia aboriginal people are given certain advantages, such as financial incentives for companies to employ them. (That was the case some years ago at least.) These so-called advantages only serve to further emphasise boundaries along racial and cultural lines. In addition, the individuals who find themselves the beneficiaries of these advantages are often considered to be incompetent and only in the role because of their race. Akin to saying a woman occupies a position of power only because she slept her way to the top. The woman is dismissed. The aboriginal employee is dismissed. This is an essential element of privilege: the ability to dismiss the minority, even when going through the motions of inclusion. A person can be there, in the room, but muted.
Going back to your fishing example, I might say that you dismissed the Maori custodian in favour of your desire to be able to go and do wherever and whatever you please. Saying its tough at the top – the royal example – is…I can’t even put that into words right now. Will continue to ponder that one. I think using the term privileged, as meant by the Un-subscriber, is important. People who have privilege should acknowledge that. Otherwise we have endless empty platitudes and earnest confusion: “Why didn’t she just speak up?” “Why don’t they just make a place for themselves in the community they wish to be a part of?” “Aren’t we all reasonable people here?”
Carol, thank you for your comment. I agree there are many aspects and perspectives to this discussion. It is important, challenging and worthy of seeking to understand.
I identify as a New Zealander. It is where I was born and is my home. As the last country to be populated and with a history only dating back just over 700 years, the sense of what it means to be a New Zealander is still evolving. The focus in the essay was on the word “privilege” and my fishing example may not have been written clearly enough to act as an example, so a fuller explanation is warranted.
My belief is that privilege is context dependent and therefore not enduring.
The word privilege has been defined as: a special advantage or immunity or benefit not enjoyed by all or a right reserved exclusively by a particular person or group (especially a hereditary or official right). The Un-subscriber was referring to my privileges of being male and white. In this essay I wanted to share a situation where the white privilege I accept I have, is not permanent because in different circumstances it does not exist.
This fishing expedition took place just over 40 years ago. Having grown up on the east coast of the South Island of NZ, where you can jump into or walk along any river, we were four young men ignorant of the west coast’s common knowledge and greedy for a taste of the “Coast’s” legendary speciality.
We were aware of competition for prime white-baiting stands, which is serious stuff on the “Coast”. We were in open water and in clear site of the state highway bridge. We’d driven our car down a public access track to park close to the river but should have realised that something wasn’t right when no one else was fishing there, rather than visualising our catch already bagged within 10-15 minutes.
I accept we were in the wrong and we should have been more respectful by seeking someone to ask if we could fish there.
The Treaty of Waitangi* was signed and at least 500 years after the first Māori discovered and settled in this country.
Fortunately, two versions of the Treaty of Waitangi document were used to gather approximately 540 signatures of Māori chiefs, including 13 women, with all but 39 signing the Māori version. Each written version held the cultural meaning each party understood but which the translated words failed to define.
It is important to understand that customary rights are tribe dependent. What this means is that this particular river and all its resources are governed by a single tribe whose descendants continue to enforce their customary rights against all comers, including Māori from other tribes.
There has been a dark history of racism in New Zealand and sadly it has only been since the 1980’s that the governments have openly accepted this and become willing to address historical injustices.
Many grievances arising from the implementation of the Treaty have been heard, negotiated and settlements reached. Some continue to this day and hopefully will be resolved fully in the near future.
* The Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document, was meant to be a partnership between Māori and the British Crown.