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Being Privileged

Hello. My name is Mike, and I am privileged. 

This is not a confession. I am trying to beat neither my breast nor your brow. I am, instead, hoping to understand better the kinds of privilege that I enjoy, the effects that they have, and the ways in which I hide them from my own attention.

Most of what I say will long have been obvious to other people, in its general application, but no doubt also in its specific application to me (if for a much smaller audience). Late to this party, I am trying to catch up – but I thought it might be helpful to try catching up in public, just in case there are others around as slow on the uptake as me.

All the forms of privilege that I am going to talk about are widespread; they are general to the point of being banal. The ways in which those generalities play out in any given life are, however, particular. In order to talk about my privilege, I am therefore going to have to talk in some detail about myself. Making myself the centre of attention is (to say the least) not the most obvious antidote to the problems I am about to describe, but I have managed to persuade myself that it makes sense in this case. I have, after all, been trained to write as if with neutral authority, downplaying the specifics of my identity and position – and that is itself one of the patterns of behaviour that helps to keep my privilege undisturbed. I am hoping this particular endeavour will be more self-subverting than self-serving, though I wouldn’t like to take bets.

This is going to have three main parts. I am going to begin by describing some of the kinds of power that I enjoy as a senior academic. (I first typed ‘relatively senior’, then ‘fairly senior’. It was a struggle to delete the adverb, and not just because I am denial about the big birthday that is not very far away.) I will move on to describe various kinds of privilege that feed into and shape that power – an Argos catalogue of unearned advantages that have helped me get to the position I’m in, that help me stay in it, and that reinforce the power that I exercise now that I am here. Finally, I will turn to my obliviousness to that privilege – and to some of the factors that conspire to keep my privilege out of sight and mind.


I have considered sticking a post-it note to my bathroom mirror, saying ‘Remember: you’re the establishment now.’ I need reminding that I occupy a position of considerable academic power, whether I acknowledge it or not.

This is difficult to write about without falling into laughable self-aggrandisement, but as a senior academic (there’s that shudder again), I am inevitably a gatekeeper. I mark students’ work; I conduct vivas; I vet applications for PhD places; I write references for students’ and colleagues’ job applications; I sit on appointment panels; I contribute to my department’s promotions committee; I review book proposals for publishers and articles for journals; I scrutinise grant applications. I have more opportunities than I can quickly name to influence who gets to enter my corner of the academic world, who gets to speak here, and who gets to be taken seriously – and those opportunities are built in to my job.

Alongside all this, there are the activities more obviously connected with my role as a university teacher. I have very considerable freedom to set the syllabus for my own teaching, to choose reading lists, to design assignments, to specify what I am looking for from students in those assignments, and to mark the results. I get to tell a whole bunch of people what counts as academic knowledge, and to do so in a context where I have some power over their results, and so over the course that their lives might now take.

I don’t want to overstate the case: I exercise this power only in a small domain, I exercise it alongside many others, it is properly limited in any number of ways, and there are some fairly robust systems of accountability that hedge me about. But the power I wield is nevertheless considerable and, whatever fantasies I may entertain about my responsible exercise of it, I need only look about me to see the possibilities for irresponsibility that it brings with it.

In my own case, this power is dramatized to an almost absurd degree by my role in the Common Awards partnership. Durham University is the validating body for a wide network of Theological Education Institutions, working with the Church of England’s central bureaucracy to monitor academic standards for thousands of students and hundreds of staff all across the UK. A constant stream of requests for my approval of changes and new endeavours crosses my desk, and I get to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to each one. Again: I am not alone, there are quite a few checks and balances, and were my purpose different I could explain just how limited this power turns out to be in practice. There is, however, no denying the fact that in this role I carry the rubber stamps saying ‘valid’ and ‘invalid’, and that I am required to use them pretty constantly. The power could hardly be clearer, even were my metaphorical rubber stamps to be replaced with literal ones.

At a subtler level: however much I fear (and I do) that the academic world is full of people who know that I am a second-rate scholar – people who have seen through me – I do believe that, on the whole, I am taken seriously. That doesn’t mean I regard myself as a big name. I don’t think, for instance, that future generations of PhD students will (or should) be writing theses on me, or that my surname will ever turn into a widely used adjective. I do recognise, however, that I get to play a visible role in the evolving conversations of my discipline. (We’ll need to come back to the fear side of this equation later, not least because it is bubbling up even as I type. I’m itching to take back what I have just written, or to qualify it out of existence, even though that very itch plays its part in my ability to deny the power that I wield. For now, however, I am forcing myself to leave the claim in place.)

One way of summarising all this is to say that my position brings with it power to shape the reproduction of the academic institutions of which I am a part. I get to shape the next generation of my discipline, of my department, of my university, of the professional associations of which I am a part. And I get to shape them by drawing on the standards of judgment that I have internalised and that I inhabit. I get to shape them such that those standards are preserved and passed on. In that sense, I get to influence the reproduction of these institutions so that the next generation looks like me.

I am the establishment now. And, yes, that is a scary thought.


From power, we turn to privilege. By ‘privilege’, I mean the basket of factors that have given me an advantage over others, in my journey towards the position of power that I now occupy. I mean the factors that help me stay in it, and that make the exercise of that power easier and more effective. In particular, I mean those factors that sit beside the kinds of formal qualification, accumulated expertise, and institutional experience that get named in job descriptions and CVs, and that are discussed in job interviews.

In this section, I’m unavoidably going to sound smug – unbearably so. I’m going to be talking about all sorts of things that work in my favour, things that make my academic life easier. This is meant to be an acknowledgement of unfair advantage, not a flaunting of my capital – but I recognise that the effect might still be somewhat sickening. I only hope it is also useful to see how privilege functions in a case like mine.

First, I look the part. I am a middle-aged White male. I have never had the experience of turning up for an academic event and having someone assume that I am the assistant, the driver, or the person delivering the food. I have had the experience, when standing next to an academic who is not a middle-aged White male, of having people wrongly assume that I must be the researcher or the speaker that they were looking for.

In fact, I look the part so thoroughly that I can get away with a lot. You could think of my whole academic career as an experiment in how scruffy I can look before I cease to look the part – how dishevelled I can be before people start thinking that I can’t be the serious academic that they were expecting. Of course, I go in for an obviously middle-class scruffiness, so I’m not pushing the experiment all the way – but the answer turns out to be that, if you look like me, you can get away with a lot.

And I was trained on a diet of theologians who looked like me. Not only do I benefit from other people thinking I look the part, I benefit from knowing myself that I look the part. I was trained on a white, Western canon of theological texts. It was a training in which Black and Asian writers were, if they appeared at all, confined to their own week (often just after the week on feminist approaches): they were niche, not normal; nobody expected me to identify with them, emulate them, or look like them. These eccentric bodies did not perturb a curriculum that orbited a White sun: a system in which I learnt to think that theologians looked like me, and that I looked like a theologian.

Second, as well as looking the part, I sound the part. I speak with some kind of generic received-pronunciation accent. No doubt there’s a Henry Higgins out there who could position me more precisely, but to most ears (including my own) I probably just sound middle class. I was once at a restaurant in Italy with my family, and after the meal a German man from the next table came over to ask us where we were from, because we sounded just like the clearly enunciated audios for the English language training course he was taking. (I’m also, by the way, the kind of person who can unthinkingly throw references to My Fair Ladyand to Italian holidays into a paragraph like this, and assume that he won’t distance himself from his audience by doing so – and that’s another point I’ll have to come back to.)

I grew up in Southend, on the Thames estuary. At school (though not at home or church) I spoke with some kind of estuarine Essex accent. I wasn’t particularly aware of it at the time, and made no conscious effort to leave it behind, but it has now completely vanished. I can’t even fake it now, without sounding like a generic Guy Ritchie mobster. Now that it has gone, I sound like most people expect English academics to sound, and no-one has ever told me that I don’t sound like a professor.

There is another way in which I sound the part. I do a lot of writing and speaking as part of my job, and I know that I pass pretty convincingly as a purveyor of the kind of English that an academic should produce. And yet I think of myself as writing and speaking in a voice that is my own. I am not adopting a tone or style that foreign or uncomfortable to me. The kinds of English I leant at home, at school, and at university were a good preparation for the language I now speak – because academic English has deep entanglements with White, middle-class speech.

There’s an interesting side-effect of this. Because I sound the part – or, rather, because I have so seldom had to worry about whether I sound the part – I can experiment with speaking in simpler, less academic registers without worrying that people will stop recognising me as an academic. I can try to cut down on the long words and the technical vocabulary. I can focus on simple explanations and colourful analogies. My success in that may be very uneven, but I have never had to worry that, if I succeed, I will stop sounding like I belong behind my podium. I can also get away with jokes, sarcasm, and puns, without worrying that my audience will stop taking me seriously (another claim that I regularly test to its limits). I can even be self-deprecating, and (as I did right at the start of this whole piece) describe myself publicly as ‘slow on the uptake’ without worrying that I’m going to reinforce anyone’s worries that I’m not a real academic. I am (without really noticing it) too secure to worry about that.

So: I look the part, and I sound the part. I also have the right background. Most obviously, I went to university in Cambridge. I don’t think I’ve ever got in a door simply because some hearty figure explicitly favoured a fellow ‘Cambridge man’. I am certain that I have never secured an advantage by wearing a college tie, because I don’t (see above, under scruffiness). But I have lost count of the number of occasions on which I have discovered that a fellow academic was at Cambridge at a similar time to me, and that we have some shared reference points, some shared history – and we have relaxed a little more quickly in each other’s company than we might otherwise have done. That has to have had at least a subliminal impact on the extent to which we recognise each other as belonging in a shared academic world.

I also benefit from one of the key features of a Cambridge education, as I experienced it: a rigorous training in getting away with it. I went through the Cambridge supervision system – which, in my case, meant a regular experience of reading and discussing my essays one-on-one with senior academics. That was, for me, a training in speaking the right kind of language, and in bluffing my way through when I had only a thin skin of knowledge to draw upon. Of course, my own experience of that system was shaped by the fact that I was treated like I belonged. I didn’t have to put up with a barrage of micro-aggressions – all those subtle and not-so-subtle signals that I wasn’t quite what my supervisors expected. And it helped that I entered the process with an accumulated stock of academic confidence, drawn from my previous educational experiences. With that background and that confidence, it proved to be an extensive and effective training in sounding like I know what is going on.

More specifically, doing a PhD in the Divinity Faculty in Cambridge meant that I was part of a large enough residential cohort that I got used to intense conversation directly in my sub-discipline. And thanks to Cambridge’s power of invitation, I also got to hear many major names from the wider theological world – and not just to hear them. I got to meet, to talk to, and to be part of small-group discussions with, a whole roster of big names. It was easy to come out of that experience (given the confidence with which I entered it, and the absence of experiences of exclusion within it) feeling a sense of belonging in my own academic discipline. I can therefore walk into, say, the reception at the start of a Society for the Study of Theology conference and feel that this is my crowd: the conversation is of a kind I recognise, the references are ones I get, the names mentioned are people I know. I’ve had a training in feeling part of this conversation.

I have also internalised standards of judgment that constantly reinforce my sense that the conversation I am a part of is the theological conversation – a sense that has been bred into many of those around me, too. I was, for instance, trained in an academic community in which, on the whole, everyone read the same books – or at least one in which we read strongly overlapping collections of books, knotted together by a forest of cross-references and citations. We each, that is, read selections from the same established canon of White, western theology. And because we were all reading the same things, it was easy to think that what we were reading mattered – and that most of what mattered was somewhere within our ken. We were trained to think that seriousness was not just illustrated by but consisted in an ability to engage in depth and detail with that canon – and we were trained to display just that seriousness, and to recognise it in one another.

There is, however, another, less academic sense in which I have the right background. I am well-rooted in a certain kind of White culture. I can quote Monty Python, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Flanders and Swann, and Tom Lehrer; I can discus Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who; I know my way around Harry Potter, The West WingBuffy the Vampire Slayer, and Battlestar Galactica; I can dig back to Blue PeterJohn Craven’s Newsround (i.e., the real Newsround), Ivor the EngineBagpuss and the Clangers. In lots of UK academic contexts – especially in conference bars – this provides a shared world of references and jokes that are clearly generation-specific, but that otherwise pass as generic. We all know this stuff, don’t we?

And, more generally, I drop references all the time that probably signal that I am a middle-aged, middle-class White guy – remember Henry Higgins and the Italian holiday, for instance – and expect that in the average university common room in the UK, most people will recognise what I am on about.

Because I look the part, sound the part, and have a recognisable background, I fit easily into White, middle-class, English academia. As far as I am aware, most of the other White, middle-class, English gatekeepers in that world have to spend very little energy negotiating how to respond to me. I am, from their point of view, recognisable; I am safe.

And I could go on. I’m cisgender and heterosexual, and although I get into serious and sometimes upsetting conversations about gender and sexuality, I can always walk away from them: they are seldom conversations about my experience, my body, or my right to live as I do. I am cis in a world built on cis assumptions, and so the people I engage with don’t have to expend energy on establishing and remembering how to engage with me, or what pronouns to use for me. As a man, I can travel around the UK, walking in the dark from train stations to hotels to restaurants, without it occurring to me to worry about my own safety. I have never been stopped and searched, never had to explain myself to the police. (Actually, there was one incident many years ago, when I was part of a group of friends heading off in on holiday together in a minibus. The police pulled us over, possibly on suspicion that we were heading off to sabotage a hunt – but we sent such unmistakable signals of respectability that they politely let us go on our way the moment they had seen our clothes, heard our accents, and registered our general demeanour.)

All of these factors – and many more – are woven around any actual academic ability, labour, and achievement that I display. They seem to mean that, on the whole, people in the academic worlds that I inhabit give me the benefit of the doubt. People tend to assume that I know what I am talking about, even when the evidence is thin. If I am quiet in a meeting, people are (it seems) pretty likely to assume that I understand what is going on and even that I am judging the other people in the room, rather than that I am lost. If people don’t understand me, they are fairly likely to assume that the problem is theirs, not mine.

And this sense of academic belonging is written deeply into my body. A year or so back, I was showing the daughter of close friends of mine around the university – and I took her and her family into a lecture room, to show her something of the kind of teaching space she could expect. Everyone else went and sat on the ranked seating; I headed to the front – and automatically took on my teaching persona. I stood differently – I am told that I changed shape, embodying my academic authority in my posture and deportment. That’s my space, up there at the front, and I know how to inhabit it. I belong.


My first section, on power, risked sounding laughably self-aggrandising. My second section, on privilege, risked unbearable smugness. In this section – on all the ways in which it is easy for me to overlook or deny both my power and my privilege – I have to risk sounding like I am offering a series of excuses. Again, that is really not my intention. I have been slow on the uptake – slow to acknowledge the power I have accrued, and slow to recognise the forms of privilege that enable and reinforce it – but I could and should have been much faster. I am not trying to exonerate myself, but to understand the processes by which – with others’ help – I have managed to hide these things from myself, or persuade myself that I didn’t need to take them seriously. By offering this analysis, I’m hoping to make it harder for myself – and perhaps some others in similar situations – to get away with this kind of inattention in future.

There is one very good reason why I (and others like me) might need that post-it note stuck to the mirror. It turns out to be very easy to convince myself that I am still a member of the rebellion even though it should by now be obvious to everyone that I work for the Empire. (Or the First Order / Final Order – pick the Star Wars reference that works best for you.) There are, in other words, many of us pillars of the establishment who are still telling ourselves the story that we are part of a scrappy insurgency.

In myself, I can identify two main factors contributing to this. The first is simply the fact that succeeding to power does not feel like you image it will feel. It is similar to becoming an adult: few of us end up feeling the kind of confidence, the kind of stability and responsibility, that we imagined our parents to be feeling. (I realise this is a comment that makes sense for someone who grew up in a protective and supportive household, where I really could trust that there were adults who would sort things out if they went wrong. That’s another advantage that I enjoy.) We become adults, but we never become what we imagined adults to be. It is the same with academic power. When I was a student, and even when I was an early-career researcher and teacher, I projected on to the senior members of my department all kinds of security and mastery – and although I have now become a senior academic myself, I have never become what I imagined a senior academic to be. I still struggle with social awkwardness and anxiety; I still feel like an impostor – and it never occurred to me that my own teachers might feel that way.

The second factor is simply that I carry with me the memory of being an outsider, and that it is more vivid than the knowledge that I now belong. I am still the boy who – with the hand-eye co-ordination of a pineapple and the physical grace of a radiator – was picked last for sports teams in school. I am still the teenager who came from a context in which it was unheard of to go to Cambridge, and who arrived at university knowing himself to be on foreign soil. I am still the student who, having arrived at university to read maths, believed the story that admissions for maths were more truly meritocratic than those for other subjects, and that it was intellect rather than privilege that had taken him there.

These stories go deep. I still remember the slight disappointment I felt (alongside some delight) when I realised that my maternal grandfather had been to university in Durham, as part of his ordination training. It disrupted the story I had told myself (and others) about coming from a non-university family – and I was reluctant to let that story go. I also know that I tell myself the story of having been an outsider in Cambridge even though I also know how quickly and how deeply I learnt that I belonged. I used, for instance, to go on restless night-time walks around the city. On one of the very first of these walks, within a few days of arriving in Cambridge, I found myself in a dark alleyway, and saw the silhouettes of two large men standing at the far end. It occurred to me (for once) to feel slightly nervous – it was, I think, the small hours of the morning, and they were definitely looming. I carried on, however, and as I passed them heard one talking earnestly to the other about the difficulty of mapping between certain kinds of Riemann surface and the complex plane (or something like that). I remember thinking, with a small burst of relief, ‘Oh, this is my place! These are my people!’ (whilst also realising that this response might not be quite universal). Finally, I remember that, by Christmas of that first year, I was already thinking of Cambridge as home and of Southend as a place to which I was returning for a visit – and feeling irritated resentment towards those of my new friends who expressed homesickness, or who still found Cambridge intimidating, or who spoke of the snobbery that I had expected but not in the event encountered.

That last comment, by the way, reflects a pattern that I have also seen in myself in other contexts. After feeling very much out of place and anxious – and doing things like giving myself a (low) numerical target for the number of new people I would force myself talk to during my first couple of conferences – I began to feel unexpectedly but delightedly at home in the Society for the Study of Theology (and especially its bar). And I felt irritated resentment towards those who pointed out the forms of exclusion, the power games and bad behaviour, that continued to mar its life. It took me a shockingly long time to recognise the part that various of the forms of privilege mentioned in the previous section had played in my own experience of welcome – and to see how very uneven was the reach of that welcome. (I’m pleased to say that SST has, in recent years – though not through any effort of mine – been taking very seriously the need to put its house in order in this regard.)

More generally, there are still so many easy ways of framing myself as the outsider, the person on the low end of various gradients of power. I work in universities rather than in business or in politics, which automatically makes me someone who critiques from the sidelines, with much more knowledge than power. I’m an academic rather than someone in university management – and so on the receiving end of diktats and initiatives that I can’t easily influence. (And even though I am now, in my Common Awards role, somewhat closer to management, I still don’t wear a suit and tie, so you can see on which side of the divide you will find my heart.) I’m a theologian – and theology is (I still tend to assume) a discipline looked down upon by other academics. Among theologians, I think of myself as not really having a sub-disciplinary home: I’m not a proper dogmatician, or a theological philosopher, or a historian: I’m a generalist, a dilettante, who doesn’t quite belong anywhere – or so I can still tell myself. And – like, I think, the majority of my colleagues at all levels of seniority – I still fear being found out. Most days, I think I’m only just getting away with it, passing as a successful academic only because no-one is looking too closely at what I can’t do, what I don’t know, what I’ve not managed to understand.

In other words: I never really have to face up to having power. I never have to ask myself about the privilege that has enabled that power – because I don’t see the power, and because I do see everything in my past and present that resembles a disadvantage. And I inhabit academic spaces in which I am not often faced – or was not often faced until recently – with challenges to this comfortable delusion. I could think I was reading everything that mattered without reading voices from outside my bubble; I could think I was hearing all the voices that mattered without hearing from people who did not sound like me; I could think I was seeing all the faces that mattered without noticing the absence of people who did not look like me.

In fact, it’s not just that I am not often faced with questions about my position – I am actively encouraged not to take those questions seriously. The academic training that I received deeply shaped my sense of what questions are interesting, what kinds of evidence are telling, what kinds of rigour valuable. And that sense was very narrow in scope. I emerged from this training, for instance, much more likely to see merit in an analysis that really gets to grips with the logic of anhypostatic Christology than with one that really gets to grips with the social location of people who talk about Christology in that way. I was trained to see high-octane intellectual skill in the former far more easily than I see it in the latter. Imagine, then, that I am shown two pieces of work. The first is superb on the technicalities of high Christology, but is frankly rather slipshod where it touches on that Christology’s entanglement with Christian lives and politics. The second is superb on the entanglement with life and politics, but frankly rather slipshod on the technicalities of high Christology. I emerged from my academic training ready to dismiss the latter as not being serious, while treating the former as brilliant but flawed – or perhaps just as brilliant. It was, in other words, a training in looking elsewhere. It was a training in thinking it a distraction or an irrelevance to pay too much attention to the politics of my own academic work. I was formed to be a member of an academic community that maintains its power by strategic inattentiveness.

One last thing. In academia, there is always someone more irresponsible than you – someone who pays less attention, someone who draws boundaries around their world more blatantly, someone who wields their power more destructively, who does more to exclude and marginalise those who don’t look like them. It is therefore easy – very easy – to go on telling yourself the story that (compared to them) you’re one of the good guys – and then quietly to drop the parenthesis.

So what?

The story I have just told is primarily psychological – a story of the mental work I do to hide my privilege from myself, and of the personal history that fuels that work. The story is not simply psychological, however. My story takes the form it does in part because of the way intellectual work is perceived in our culture – which means it is very common for people to arrive at academic power trailing stories of outsiderdom. My story takes the form it does in part because of the way the academic community I entered systematically hides its own power, the better to exercise it – the result not so much of individual scheming and manipulation, but of the long-term emergence of self-protective structures by something like institutional natural selection. My story takes the form it does in part, perhaps, because of the way that the whole university sector is set up to reproduce our societal status quo while fostering the ineffective development and expression of critique. We are a safety valve that keeps business as usual from boiling over.

Nevertheless, the point of writing all this is to help myself think through the workings of privilege in my own particular case – and perhaps to help others who recognise parallels in their own cases to do the same. And the point of doing that is simply to encourage us to do something about it: to encourage us to work to find out how to inhabit differently the power that goes with our position, to take more notice of what it is that we are helping to reproduce, to challenge the exclusions and the gradients of respect and attention that shape our academic world, to listen to a wider range – a much wider range – of voices.

That work is already being undertaken by a huge number of people. It is varied, complex, deep, and ongoing. And so the next step for someone like me is not particularly to initiate or to innovate, but to learn – and to join in. I have put myself at the centre of this particular piece of writing, but nobody (including me) should think that this places me anywhere near the centre of the ongoing endeavour to make the academic world more diverse, more welcoming, and more open.

I am, as I said at the start, playing catch-up – and I know I have a very long way to go.