Although it’s important to understand where we do and don’t have power and privilege, it’s also important to learn about solidarity.
Society unevenly distributes agency (decision making power, clout, ooompf) so some of us are given more freedom than others. This is key thing to learn from identity politics – power and privilege. However, that’s not enough. We also need to learn about solidarity, how we collectively join our agency to change the world. So this is why this article is so important, especially if (like me) you are a white, straight, cis, man.
Create Six Characters
This article involves you doing a creative task. I’d like you to create 6 different characters, ideally a mix of different kinds of people with different identities.
You can draw them if you want or just draw stick characters. You could also pick 6 characters from a TV show that you know really well. Like Game of Thrones, Friends, Brooklyn 99, Fresh Prince, This Life (just me then) whichever. Or use your imagination, which is probably more fun.
You could use these drawings as a basis for your characters if you wanted.
With each character give them:
How they like to look:
What they do:
Their class background:
How much money they have:
Who they like to hang out with:
Five words to describe them:
Try to have an idea of their back story too. What was life like for them at home, at school, or in their community. Were they treated well by the people around them? How fairly were they treated? What was expected of them? How do they feel about their body?
Notice that I’m not just asking you to label their identities, you are creating realistic characters. Each of them has their own unique experiences, understandings, and values.
What can your characters do?
Once you have these characters lay them out in front of you. Consider these questions:
How easy is it for your characters to: Ask for what they want. Have sex with someone. Want kids. Wear what they want. Hold hands in public. Feel safe. Be outside by themselves. Have private time. Snog in public. Use a public toilet. Be visible to people. Choose to be single. Have their rights respected. Be called the right name. To let family meet their partner. Get married. Be in love. Have a career they want. Have personal space respected. Get healthcare. Find someone to date. Be taken seriously. Do add your own too.
Move each character forward depending on how easy it is for them to do it. If they can’t do it or it would be too difficult for them to do it, don’t move them. If they can do it easily, move them on 3 steps. If it helps you, use this grid and move your characters on there.
Once you’ve been through all the statements you will probably find that some people have moved further than others. Probably not really a surprise to you I bet. Society is unequal and it’s more unequal for some people than others. A lot of this is to do with someone’s identity (gender, disabilities, race, sexuality), some of it is to do with background and life experiences (bullying, how ‘popular’ or ‘attractive’ someone is), and a lot of it is to do with money and class.
Let’s be real, if you’re the Duke of Westminster, Jim Ratcliffe, or another billionaire, you can do whatever you like. It just so happens that the really rich people are also usually already rich, white, cis, straight, and not disabled. Crucially, unless we can all live in a world where we can all do these things we’re not free. We’re not free till we’re all free.
Oppression and privilege
Back to your characters. So because of eg: disablism, racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, biphobia (which we call oppressions) many many people can’t do things that other people can. Some people have more freedom to do things than others. This freedom to do things is known as agency (and this is really important when we talk about consent). Oppression happens all the time and at different levels. Government and policy. Media, social media, and culture. Employers, schools, universities etc. And from people around us.
You will also notice that many people face more than one oppression at the same time. They interlock (or intersect). So if someone is black, trans, and a woman they are oppressed by racism, transphobia, and sexism. Depending on the situations we are talking about they could all happen at the same time, one or two could happen at the same time.
Have a look at your characters above, when do they experience not being able to do things? What does that tell you about how oppression works for them in various situations?
If your characters are all out in a row like this you can see how these oppressions add up. It’s a useful reminder that society is unjust and that some people are given more status or power, or clout, than others – this is the term privilege.
Adding together all the privileges that someone might have like this is one way of looking at it, but it doesn’t always motivate people to do good. People might feel guilt, or shame, or despair which aren’t often very useful emotions.
It also fixes the power relationship: so that one person is privileged and another isn’t. Also privilege is not a fixed thing, in some situations we might have it, in some we might not. In different situations, it is a good idea to think about how this changes and who is further ahead, or “up”.
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So another way of thinking about privilege is to say ‘Who’s Up?’ In moments of oppression who are the people who can most give support to the people who most need it? Who has the most agency at that moment in time? Who’s up? Those who are fighting for justice, for their rights, and for their right to exist are often also being attacked for who they are. Often they say that they find this exhausting and traumatising.
For those of us who have the privilege of (for example) feeling safe in a public space, we can use our freedom, and power to help out. Asking ourselves ‘Who’s Up?’ means that we can roll our sleeves up and provide what people need. Whatever that is (support, protest, money, amplification) if we have it we can give it. Even better is to listen to what folk need in that moment and listen.
Read: how to support someone
You might think that this means that some of us would have to be ‘Up’ more than others. And yeah, it’s definitely on those of us with more freedom or agency to give more of it to others. However when we say ‘Who’s Up?’ for each situation it empowers everyone who does have freedom and power at that moment so that they can stand with those who don’t. It means that there’s more people doing more to help more people. This is solidarity.
Solidarity: making the pie bigger
To understand solidarity think of what happens when you are hanging out with your friends. Maybe you’re playing a game together, like Call of Duty, Animal Crossing, Fortnite, or Horace Goes Skiing. None of you might be playing exactly what you might choose to do if you were by yourself, but you like hanging out with everyone and it’s a laugh, so it’s worth it.
Read about anti-capitalist sex education
You get more joy from hanging out together than you would if you were by yourself. It’s like a football team where they don’t have any star players but they work really well together – like Leicester City that one* time. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Solidarity is like this, but with people you don’t know on a much bigger scale. It’s about working together to create the possibility of everyone having better lives. More fun, more joy, more intimacy, less stress, less worry, for all of us.
Rights and freedom aren’t a pie where if one person is allowed a bigger slice you get less. Solidarity is about creating a better world where there is more pie for everyone a) so that everyone has enough and b) we can all have fun eating the pie together. Mmmmmmmm pie.
Just like when we are having a nice time with our friends because of what we do together, more of us might have a nicer time in our lives generally if the pie was bigger. Solidarity is not just about giving something up, it’s in our interests so that we can all have a nicer time.
Sadly, the people in charge do think that pie should only be so big. They want to make the pie ‘so big’ and make us fight each other for slices. This results in one oppressed group oppressing another. But if we keep asking ‘Who’s Up?’ and standing up for each other we can make the pie bigger. Making the pie bigger is not an act of charity, it’s good for us too. We will enjoy the pie more if others also have pie.
*Derby County have won the league twice, so ….
Hopefully you can see that you might be asked to be ‘Up’ more often than other people. I’m also hoping that you agree with me how important it is that we use our freedoms and power to help others. But even if you don’t, can you see that it’s in your interests to do this too? More pie for everyone is better for everyone, and that includes us. Solidarity is good for all of us. But it’s also going to be good for cis-men too.
As you will have discovered men can experience oppression too eg black men, disabled men, bi men all experience oppression. If you’re poor, or don’t have wealth, or a secure future being a man can be very difficult.
The term privilege is useful but it can turn a lot of people off because most people really don’t feel like they have much privilege. For example, there’s a real crisis in mental health for everyone, especially young men, that’s being caused by the societies we are living in.
Although the identity of cis-man has more status than most, a lot of us really really struggle with it. All the rules about what you have to do in order to be a man (be tough, not talk about your feelings, be in charge, be a provider etc) are really tough. But where do you think these rules come from? They come from the same place that the oppression for other people comes from.
Watch: how to be a man
So although, understandably, men are not at top of the list of social justice movements we can still suffer. But the system that makes our lives harder is the same system that makes everyone’s lives harder. If we help make the pie bigger and help others to have the same size slice as us, it helps them and it helps us. It’s a win win. So when someone says ‘Who’s Up?’ get involved. Make friends, be part of something. We have made this society, we can also remake it.
“the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”
― David Graeber
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© Justin Hancock, 2022
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.