Questions to and Answers from Barbara Bethune

Karen White asks: Barbara, when you started questioning your relation to nurses did you see your situation as privileged?

No. I felt I had earned the position I had. All the schooling. All the hard work. Why not? Before gaining new insights, what I had seemed to me to be what I had earned. In fact, I thought it was less than I had earned, the owners took too much.

At that time, if I had been confronted by people telling me to give up my privilege, things I didn’t deserve, I would probably have gotten defensive. I certainly encountered anger and militance, but ultimately, renounce yourself, jettison your privilege, wasn’t the message I heard. What I heard was that what I had wasn’t privileges people shouldn’t have that I should give up, but was something good that everyone should have. Logically, it is true that for some who said it renounce your privilege meant renounce your monopoly on empowering work and that meant the same as share the benefits, but emotionally, hearing it, the two messages were very different.

Of course to share the benefits required that we eliminate the coordinator class monopoly on empowering work, but that didn’t mean I had to give up making decisions, doing interesting and enriching tasks, and using my skills and knowledge, it just meant others had to be ensured the same desirable benefits – which meant empowering work had to be shared, and therefore I had to do my share of disempowering work too.

I think it was the same in other realms. Give up your white skin privilege or your male privilege…what does it even mean, a person hearing it will wonder. What am I supposed to give up? I am poor, but privileged? Why communicate in a way that will polarize and likely be misunderstood? I can even understand encountering that feeling like reverse racism or sexism. In contrast, saying we need to overcome racism and sexism mainly identifies a systemic cause, not a personal one. The same holds for the class instance.

I am not saying there aren’t individual personal aspects, there are. I’m saying there are more and less effective ways of identifying those and urging their correction, and pointing at people saying give up your privilege is a less effective way, or certainly seems so to me.