Has the world always been divided into haves and have-nots? Communism was a failed attempt at reducing inequality. We know from ‘Animal farm’ by George Orwell that some animals are in fact more equal than others. And yet, problems of equality and diversity awareness are inescapably present in the background of intercultural work. A few weeks ago I visited a friend in Mumbai, India. I was incredibly hungry in the morning, so after waking up at the crack of dawn, I went to the kitchen to sneak into the fridge and satiate myself. I was greeted by the cook and I politely addressed him in English. It became apparent that we did not have any language in common. Using some gestures I tried to indicate that I was starving. Luckily, my friend Perissa came to the rescue as she walked in and swiftly spoke Marathi to the cook. This was the moment when we both realised (and felt!) that speaking English in India determines social status. Higher classes can afford to send their kids to schools where the language of instruction is English. Until then my friend did not really consider whether or not her cook spoke English. In that exact moment we both became acutely aware of our status in society. As I travel the world, I am more and more conscious of how lucky I am. It awakenes a sense of social responsibility in me, so I wonder how to promote dignity and respect worldwide.
When talking about privilege I like to use the concept of RANK developed by Arny Mindell. He defines rank as the sum of the privileges we have. I would like to bring your attention to several points raised by Mindell in his book ‘Sitting in the fire’ that I wholeheartedly recommend.
Where there is diversity, there are rank differences.
Whether we want it or not, our global and local communities have implicit systems that assign value to certain characteristics. Starting in nursery, there are kids that are fun to be around and there are some that are quiet outcasts. It begins early and continues throughout life as we bring ourselves into every new situation along with the ranking that society unconsciously gave us.
Rank is context dependent.
In some places it may be advantageous to have particular abilities or traits. The rank we have will change depending on circumstances. For instance, when I’m in Poland I have more rank than an English-speaking person. However, when I’m in the UK, I have less rank due to my accent. I am somewhat an outsider. I manage to sort of save myself by being eloquent…phew! However, people who speak with a thick accent are seen as less intelligent and less competent.
Rank is like a drug – the more you have it, the less aware you are.
For many years I would question my abilities. People used to tell me that I was intelligent, but I would brush it off. Despite having four degrees, I did not feel and own the power that came from my skills and knowledge. It changed after my therapy and I let go of the game of false modesty. It seems to me that we often overlook what we are good at because we take it for granted. Think about your school days. Surely, there were some kids in your class that were good at Maths and would solve an equation in no time and just sit there bored. They thought it was normal and they were unaware of their rank that came with ability.
Insensitivity to rank creates abuse.
Let’s continue with the smart kid situation. If you were sort of average in Maths, English or any other subject, how did you feel when the smart kid announced that something was easy…? You may have felt inadequate or jealous. The smart kid did not mean to hurt you, but it was implicit in the situation that you were not as good. Similarly, some men are unaware of their privileges, such as being treated more seriously or having access to leadership positions. They might say to their female counterparts “Oh, come on, inequality? It’s 2019 now! It’s a thing of the past.” Men only partially appreciate what it is like to be on a lower pay scale just because you raised a couple of kids… That really angers some women who feel inferior and discriminated against. It’s a bit like when you go on holidays to a less developed country raving about how cheap it is, without really noticing how people actually live there. This makes the locals feel like less of a person. It is abusive.
Belonging to the majority group gives you rank.
We have all heard the statistics concerning US prisons and the institutional racism that is endemic in many countries. A white person would statistically expect a shorter jail sentence. True and tragically unfair. However, when I walk into a comedor (cheap restaurant in Latin America) with my Mayan friend David, he is the person that is first addressed by the waiter. He has more rank in Guatemala where around 60% of people are indigenous. I have less rank, I’m just a gringo here.
Rank modulates self-esteem.
Needless to say, we take on board the messages given to us by our culture and internalise them. If we belong to a minority, we are then marginalised. We become withdrawn and left out. At the top of the social ranking system we would usually find a white, middle class and educated heterosexual male. For instance, many LGBT folks struggle with self-esteem and may feel excluded in society.
Awareness of rank reduced struggles in relationships and communities.
Let’s come back to the example of the smart kid. Some of these kids were kind and used their rank wisely. They gently explained what they knew to others without putting them down and making out that they knew it all. This approach values everyone and invites belonging, which are vital when creating a community. Imagine a relationship where one of the couple is very independent and does not need much support (more rank). The other one needs reassurance and is more dependent (less rank). When the independent one becomes aware of their rank, harmony, connection and understanding will ensue.
Rank is a double signal.
Double signals are moments of communication when things don’t add up. For instance, a client might say to me in a session “I feel so stupid” and smile at the same time. It may be that she is showing a sign of resignation to her fate… or maybe she has to welcome her true abilities, which will bring her joy. Another example of a double signal is killing a difficult colleague with kindness. You may have some rank by the virtue of being calm, collected and in control. The colleague may be disorganised, inefficient and struggle with low self-esteem. Imagine they’re looking for some documents. You happen to find them and you pass them on to them with a quiet smirk of superiority. On the surface you’re kind, but your smile is a double signal that indicates the unconscious need to dominate. That’s why we have to be aware of the rank we have, so that we can act wisely. In this case, perhaps you would like to lead and your task is to do it shrewdly… by strengthening those around you!
Let’s put it altogether now. While I of course disagree with the notion that some social and ethnic groups should be favoured over others, this is how society unconsciously classifies us. Have a look and consider your rank based on your traits. The aim is to become aware of the factors that create a power imbalance resulting from rank differences. Hopefully, the more everyone is conscious of these, the weaker their grip over us.
Mindell gives us some tips how to deal with rank differences:
“Most of us are aware only of the rank or power we do not have.”
“Unconscious use of rank shows in a tendency to marginalise the problems of others.”
“If you use rank consciously, it’s a medicine.”
I am struggling as I write the ending. It shows me that rank is a powerful concept that does not lose its grip easily. We are educated into perceiving a particular version of reality. It takes a conscious effort to act against the forces of society. My blog post is a small drop in a whole ocean of influences that I have no control over. However, I can choose to be aware of the privileges I have, so that I see humanity in every person I meet.