Although it’s important to understand where we do and don’t have power and privilege, it’s also important to learn about solidarity and mutual support.
This article involves you doing a creative task. Think of it as school work (hey what else have you got to do?) I’d like you to create 6 different characters, ideally a mix of different kinds of people with different identities.
Create Six Characters
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?
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 white cis-straight and not disabled men (like me, do keep reading there’s a bit here for you too). 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 (it’s also known as intersectionality, but I like the term interlocking). 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. 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”.
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 privilege at that moment in time? Who’s up? As I’m writing this there are a couple of really clear examples: black people experiencing racism and trans women experiencing transphobia. They are fighting for justice, for their rights, and for their right to exist all while 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. Rights and freedom aren’t a pie where if one person is allowed a bigger slice you get less. Asking ‘Who’s Up?’ means we all benefit and we all get pie. The whole is the greater than the sum of its parts. A pie that gets bigger and bigger. Mmmmmmmm pie.
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. That’s what happens when one oppressed group oppress another. But if we keep asking ‘Who’s Up?’ and standing up for each other we can make the pie bigger.
*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. 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.
Solidarity to everyone protesting this weekend and solidarity for trans folk who are living through yet more transphobia atm.
© Justin Hancock, 2021.
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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. Find out more about Justin here