This piece is something of a sequel – the aftermath of a Women@Imperial week interview in FELIX about a month ago. I spoke about my experience at Imperial as a woman of colour, my reaction to sexist comments that were made as “jokes”, as well as the issue of gendered insults, particularly when it comes to female lecturers. I did this so I could tell those that participated that it was not okay. It didn’t work.
Encouragingly, the department reacted well; there were discussions about the topic in the student-staff committee meeting, and our class rep sent an email asking anybody who felt as if they’d been marginalised to report it. The issue was more to do with ignorant behaviour and comments being normalised and accepted, but the recognition of it’s existence was a start. In any case, the email didn’t go down very well with many people – they reacted by making jokes about marginalisation, which have continued even since I’ve made it clear I did not like them.
I’m still not sure whether these comments were sarcastic or ignorant, or maybe a bit of both. Generally, I think it comes from a misunderstanding of what marginalisation is, the effects it has, or the fact that it is subtle and pervasive. To understand marginalisation, we need to understand privilege.
What does it mean to be a minority? From a young age we consume images of “successful people” from every field, and the default person represents an unrepresentative sample. In Britain, these are usually white males from the Home Counties, because even accent plays a role in perception. Somebody speaking the Queen’s English comes across as intelligent and well-reasoned, while Essex accents are seen as “chavvy”. Having a European accent of any kind is interesting and sounds “cultured”, but Asian or African accents are mocked. This is just one small example of how privilege affects the way you are perceived.
Our successes may not be down to personal responsibility
How does privilege manifest itself? Getting to Imperial can be considered to be the result of privilege. The way your family encouraged you, even passively, by being a certain class. The school that you went to, and the support you had is all a privilege, and not something that everybody gets to experience, which limits access to things. This happens to different extents for different people, and it is important to remember that we are not on a level playing field. Not everybody is lucky enough to have a smooth path to university, or to get a second chance if there was adversity along the way. (Shout out to Materials Dept, I appreciate it).
It’s difficult to accept the fact that our successes may not be entirely down to personal responsibility, and are more a product of circumstance. They are only slightly due to hard work, and are mainly a result of living in a privileged world. I’m not saying that you should give up all your privileges, or that a privileged person is not worthy of their successes. What I am saying is that you should acknowledge your privilege, and understand you are not better than somebody who is disadvantaged.
Perhaps if this was considered, people would understand why jokes about suicide, disability, AIDS, socioeconomic background, or race are not okay if made by an uninformed privileged observer. Why having a “slave auction” for fun is twisted, or why “jokes” about women making sandwiches are sickening. If your “jokes” are trivialising or laughing at a struggle that is not your own, they are not funny. Jokes like this foster a culture where disadvantage, prejudice and inequality are made light of, and can continue.
Refusing to recognise the effect of privilege and how it disadvantages people, and exacerbating it with ignorant comments, leads to entire groups of people being made to believe their contributions are not important or necessary. That is marginalisation.
Ideally, just saying this would be enough to open the eyes of those that don’t believe they were ever wrong, misinformed or ignorant about anything. People would understand why it is important to be empathetic towards others, and would stop talking over other people. Regardless of any social awareness, wouldn’t this just be good sense?
I wish that people would enjoy supporting and helping others when they can, rather than tearing them down for fun. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that’s the case, and a few people will actually be encouraged when they see people react adversely to offensive comments; they thrive off being “outrageous”. When they are actually criticised for this behaviour, they will play the victim and say that they are being constrained.
Saying that these “jokes” are unacceptable is not a restriction of your freedom of speech, it’s an expression of mine.