LOUD WHISPERS: Checking Privilege

I am part of an organisation based in the United States which has board members drawn from around the world. A few months ago, we had a session at one of our board meetings about privilege, and as part of the preparation for the session, we were asked to do some online exercises on the theme ‘Check your privilege’. At the board meeting, I was alarmed at one point when the conversation seemed to shift to a discussion about the rich white women on the board versus the rest of the board members from the global south. Fortunately, during and after the session, we were able to have frank discussions about all our individual and group privileges regardless of our backgrounds, and what this meant for us working together as a diverse group of women.

Recently, at a seminar on abuse of women and children, the gentleman sitting next to me, who happens to be a senior lawyer in a very important position turned to me and whispered, ‘Are people really that poor that they would resort to handing their own children over to strangers or people who end up abusing them? Do we really have this many cases of abuse?’. I took a deep breath mentally and chose my words with care as I responded. I asked him if he was aware of what was happening around him. How many children does your driver have? Are all of them in school? Can your messenger afford the fees of his children? Do you know where your cleaner lives? Can she afford her rent? Do you know what your colleagues in the office do to their female colleagues or junior female staff? I was basically asking him to check his privilege.

When I was doing my National Youth Service in 1984/85, I was posted to Nbawsi Girls High School at Nbawsi, which used to be in Imo State but is now in Abia State. I have written about my experiences in my youth service year in my autobiography, ‘Speaking Above a Whisper’. I was a very young graduate in a school where even the Principal had not been to University. The only University graduates in the school at the time were male, and they were worshipped by teachers and students alike. One day I found myself arguing with a male colleague who was counselling a bright female student who had just made 7 credits in her school certificate examination that she should choose a College of Education and become a teacher instead of going to the University or Polytechnic as she wanted, to study Accountancy. When I challenged him over this stupid advice, he said, ‘She is a woman, who will marry an Accountant’? It was one of the most ridiculous things I had ever heard.  I was brought up by an Accountant father who gave me every opportunity I wanted and who had taught me that there was nothing beyond my reach. You can imagine my indignation hearing that a smart young girl could not pursue her dreams because she was female.

I did not understand then that millions of girls were brought up that way. To aspire for less, to reach for less and dream of less. And here I was, a Lagos girl from a sheltered middle-class background who only had to present a list of demands for fees, pocket money, books, clothes and shoes to her parents and all would be met. My parents were not rich but they were comfortable and I lacked nothing – love, attention, support, I had it. When I was in secondary school and later at University I was with people who had less than me or more than me but I never felt out of place. Not till when I spent that one year for my NYSC in a rural area, and came to terms with what life was like for what I would come to understand to be a majority of women and girls. My first reaction was to feel guilty. Then it became clear that my guilt was unnecessary and served no purpose. Then I started to figure it out.

I shared a house with a number of other Youth Corpers and graduate teachers. Our young landlord Chidi had just inherited the house from his father who had died in a car accident. One of Chidi’s uncles had also just died recently and he was asked by the family to provide space for the man’s widow in the building. Chidi apparently did not want the young widow staying in his house ‘free of charge’ so he started to harass her. One night he went to her room drunk, asking for money for the electricity bill which the poor woman did not have. She would pluck Ugu vegetable leaves which grew wild around our neighborhood to sell in the market to sustain herself and her little boy. We all left our rooms to find out what the ruckus was all about. I was so angry to see the poor woman being hounded this way. I asked the landlord how much her bill was. He said it was Twenty Naira, which was a lot of money at the time. I went into my room and got the money and gave it to him and warned him to leave her alone. That act was one of the most empowering things I had ever experienced in my young life. I was far away from home and my parents made sure I was taken care of, so I certainly had a lot more than the poor widow who was being hounded into an unwilling liaison with someone who was meant to be a benefactor.

Today, when I am in gatherings where people keep telling women, youth or poor people to ‘pick themselves up’ and ‘have confidence’ and be ‘go getters’ and so on, I cringe. We all need to check our privilege. The same way in which we call white people out for their racism or men for their sexism, all of us who have certain privileges on the basis of our age, status, wealth, education, class, ability, and so on should recognize the privileges we have and how this might sometimes cloud our judgement and minimize the empathy we ought to feel for others. Not everyone is in a position to ‘pick themselves up’. They might need help, perhaps more than we could ever understand. Yes, we need to encourage people to work hard and be determined to succeed, but we need to do more than put out calls to action, we need to be prepared to go the extra mile for others. We can open doors, mentor, coach, advocate and change the rules of the game if they are unfair. Some of us were brought up to have a lot of confidence and self-esteem. Some have had their dreams and dignity squeezed out of them. We do not need to feel guilty for the privileges we have. Except for those born into royalty, privilege is usually earned through hard work and using opportunities wisely.  What we need to do is recognize those privileges and use whatever access or platforms it provides to support others.

A good dose of humility is good for the soul and helps manage what I call ‘the drivel of privilege’ that comes out of some people’s mouths. The male executive who claims, ‘None of the women who work with me are discriminated against’, – check your privilege. The senior female executive who says, ‘Gender is not important, look at me’ – check your privilege. The leaders of political parties who say, ‘women are their own worst enemies, they don’t win elections because they don’t vote for each other’ – check your privilege.

Privilege is good. Being alive to the responsibilities it brings is even better. Have a great week.


Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com



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18 Responses to LOUD WHISPERS: Checking Privilege

  1. Femi Diipo December 18, 2017 at 2:50 pm

    Such wonderful thoughts and as making sense as ever. It’s just always very hard for the higher and middle class people to imagine what the lower class is going through but if we all just do check our privileges, a lot really could be done to make things better for those less privileged. Ma’am you’re just always amazing

  2. Dom Dom December 18, 2017 at 2:54 pm

    Indeed, check your privilege. Try to get to know more about other people’s life and what they go through before you judge them or make assumptions about their lives. There’s really nothing more to add to this great piece. Check, check and keep checking your privilege everyday. Thanks ma’am

  3. DSEED December 18, 2017 at 10:17 pm

    So incredible. What I like must in this article was the way you asked the lawyer sitting beside you. Is not that they don’t know what is happening in there surroundings but its just that they don’t care about it. And I think women of nowadays are now wise to make a rightful decision for there lives and not been dictated for.

  4. Nneka December 20, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    It is when you know where you are coming from that you can speak distinctly.

  5. Victoria E December 20, 2017 at 1:05 pm

    Checking privileges enable one to seek and find. I keep saying that most of these motivational speakers haven’t been to the ghetto. They don’t understand where one is coming from, they can’t seek because the background is different and the talk just doesn’t correlate.

  6. Iniobong Akpan December 20, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    God bless you mammy. All well said as usual. We must relate with where we are coming from to know how to function!

  7. omilola Adeleke. December 20, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    This is the real deal. When we go for women conferences and I see the way the speakers speak about women doing this and that I just look because the position they occupy is quite different from half of the women in the room. It is okay to keep talking about empowerment but how many women have you empowered directly? It is a matter of checking privilege!

  8. Olajumoke James December 20, 2017 at 1:14 pm

    @omilola, you are very right. The status quo is very different when I heard a story about Tara Durotoye and the loan she got from a particular bank with no equal collateral, I was shocked and then I wasn’t when I heard who her mentor is and the connection she has. Then, the speaker said, tread on dangerous places, ask, go for it and in my mind I was like, You don’t know what you are talking about… so you think I will go and get such and the bank manager will attend to me? Pleasssssssse!

  9. georgina December 20, 2017 at 1:17 pm

    I just love this woman, she says it as it is!

  10. Wilson December 20, 2017 at 1:19 pm

    There are a lot persons who need extra help. A lot of entrepreneurs who need that connection, a lot of women who need a woman like you to go in and bring their twenty naira to get them out of oppression. Not everyone can go in take what they want, some people need Help!

  11. Elaine Nwosu December 20, 2017 at 1:21 pm

    I don’t even know what to say with all these great comments right here. Sincerely, You are one very wise and blunt woman. God bless you for us.

  12. veronica Imaseun December 20, 2017 at 1:28 pm

    Even as I read Loud Whispers book, I read the online column also and I must say, You are changing lives!

  13. Bisi Alawode December 20, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    I bought the book and hubby took it and didn’t drop till he finished the book. He started asking series of questions and I directed him to the site and after he read this he called and said I must read this asap. Mehn! Just when I thought my husband won’t take it seriously. I am so happy that the book changed his orientation in divers ways

  14. Olakunle Olajide December 21, 2017 at 1:11 am

    I just got blessed reading this. Privileges.. Infact before any statement, check your privileges. Thank you for this privilege ma’am.

  15. Sharon Miller December 21, 2017 at 12:12 pm

    Checking privileges, understanding status quo, seeing the opposite and functioning in the present makes one a real game changer. Thank you for sharing

  16. Gloria Olaniyi December 21, 2017 at 12:14 pm

    Like some people will say, they can never do this and that and I keep telling them, if you have worn the shoes of those who have seen what you haven’t seen, you will keep mute.

  17. Evelyn Otabor December 21, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    My husband is now an Above Whispers addict, he gets to read through and we now sit down to discuss these issues. You are changing lives ma.

  18. Eric Onuoha December 22, 2017 at 8:29 am

    I am short of words. This is an eye opener for me. One major thing I have learnt from this is that if you find yourself in a good position, don’t forget where you came from before achieving such feat and extend a helping hand to others. Don’t abuse your privileges


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