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Navigating privilege

  • 23 August 2023
The English language has never met a tongue it couldn’t borrow from. Jodhpur, pyjama and bungalow arrived via India; the American frontiers gave us maize, moccasin, moose, having borrowed them from native languages; while Australia took words such as dinkum, cobber and digger from its original English inhabitants, turned them around and fed them back again with a new depth of meaning.

It’s one of the reasons the English language has so many words to describe the same thing. With the Norman invasion of England, the French language of the nobles and rich overlaid that of the English, especially when it came to food. In English the word was for the animal – cow, sheep, deer, pig; while for the French it was the prepared meat – beef, mutton, venison, pork. As broadcaster, presenter and author Melvyn Bragg says in The Adventure of English: The biography of a language (2003), ‘The English laboured, the French feasted’.

With such a wealth of different words it can be difficult when one word does not satisfy its shades of meaning.

I have a friend who loathes the word privilege, especially in the context it is often given today – ‘white privilege’, ‘middle-class privilege’. For her, being told she’s privileged negates the years of hard work she and her husband put in building businesses and raising their children. She feels it undermines the difficult choices and compromises she made in juggling long hours and family requirements. Nor does it encompass the financial risks she undertook to build her business. If her business fails, she has no trust fund or family to bail her out. It was her risk, so she feels she should get the reward of business success without any finger-pointing or comments about having it easy.


'We should never discount the privilege of being able to negotiate our way around society.'   

I completely understand her reasoning, but for me it is a narrow view of the word. Privilege is more about having the time and ability to negotiate your way in society relatively easily. It is things such as being able to speak the language, to read and write competently, to know where to go for help, how to ask for that help, and to have the time and energy to get that help. And yes, sometimes it’s acceptance that the colour of one’s skin can confer reasonable doubt rather than automatic blame.

Recently, I had two instances where I reflected