Once, I sat down for evening drinks with a group of people on a night that I quickly realized I should not have gone out to drink as soon as within the first ten minutes of sitting down. I had followed peer pressure (Millennials, sigh. We all do sometimes) and just happened to have been paid from a digital gig and I thought I deserved a drink. But since I was already there I decided that I would stay and at least finish my beer. In a moment of boredom with voices buzzing around me, I heard my somebody mention my name. My attention drawn, I turned around and asked why they had said my name. It appears two people were having a conversation and opportunity in this country and therefore mentioned my name as an example of names which are likely to be accorded ethical privilege. I quickly agreed.
Suddenly intrigued by the people who were having this conversation or out of sheer curiosity, I asked one of them, a man, if they acknowledged their male privilege like I had a few seconds ago acknowledged my ethnical privilege. The response I got should not have shocked me, considering my experience speaking to men about their privilege, this one too in particular; but it still caught me by surprise. It was a classic male denial: “But what privilege do I have? Nobody has ever given me anything.
Everything I have and where I have gotten to, I’ve had to work for.” I wondered how a person can comprehend institutionalized discrimination in one move and vehemently deny its similar, even form in another. It was ridiculous to say the least.
Yet when I thought about that response today, it was not as unbelievable as it was that night. Not because it was true, but because once I placed myself in that situation 7 years ago, I realize that I could easily have given the same response to a challenge of my privilege. That I had in fact, given it sometime. I had to write a short essay describing my journey to realizing my privilege and I remembered how much it used to irk me in high school when students and people on the street during the 2004 elections spoke about Banyankole all gaining wealth from the ruling party.
I knew that my parents had worked really hard to attain the not-so-many assets they had. I often got that drive-to-school lecture about studying hard because they were sacrificing lots of luxuries so I could attend good schools. So more than anything, I was angry that anybody would even insinuate that everything I had my parents had was given on silver platter.
Over the years, because of the people I surrounded myself with, the books and articles I read and in the wake of budding activism; I became increasingly aware of where those people were coming from. But it was one unexpected event on a trip to a neighboring country by bus that put my privilege into undeniable perspective for me.
In a queue at the border customs office in the night cold, I stood listening to the loud voice of the officer behind the glass window as he literally barked at the next person to produce their documents, sent the other back because they were still searching their pockets for an identification card and yelled at one girl who wrongly placed their finger prints for scanning. Twice, I checked my form, passport and mentally prepared myself for a scolding for something I would certainly do wrong. Except to my pleasant surprise, as soon as I passed my passport under the window and the agent turned to the back where my name was, he smiled at me and said a greeting in my local language. I responded. He then almost immediately passed back my passport and wished me a nice stay.
As I walked away, it hit me. My ethnical privilege had just been manifested right before my eyes. This man did not know who I was, he simply read my name and decided he was going to speak to me kindly; something he had failed to do for the six people that were before in the queue. All those years I was angry at other students for insinuating that my life was somehow better because of my ethnicity, not once had I stopped to look deliberately into my life with the intent to find where that talk was coming from. Yet, it was evident now that something like this had happened many times in my life and I had failed to notice. Tonight, I realize that many a male subject are me 7 years ago. That while I have for certain reasons got to the point of acknowledging my privilege, they still struggle, are still on the journey to hopefully some day see and acknowledge it.
If you’re that man, I write this for you. That you may purpose yourself to check your privilege by observing your life intently, so that next time somebody speaks on it, you don’t sound shocked. It sure is no walk in the park; you must purpose yourself to read, observe, learn, unlearn and above all think critically- a task that many a man seems to abhor. So maybe society has not handed you capital for your startup or a free education. So you have less money in your bank account than the girl with ten blessers on her way to the Arab Emirates for leisure and somehow for that reason you feel that you have no privilege at all. It does not matter because nevertheless, you have been accorded a set of benefits that you have not earned by mere virtue of the fact that you identify as male.
The same way a white street beggar remains racially privileged above your city tycoon by virtue of the color of his skin. The next time you sit in a bar with your girl pal, notice who the waiter or waitress greets. Should you walk through downtown on a given day, look around and see how many girls’ arms are grabbed by idlers and street traders alike while you walk by freely. Or maybe take an evening stroll past your bodaboda stage in the evening, stand nearby and watch for any girl who walks by and how she is verbally harassed, something none of the boda men ever did to you. That my friend, in addition to other countless scenarios, is your male privilege.