Ruminations on a blip.
“Entitlement is the residue of privilege.”
The words cut through like a blade. There I was, navigating my shitty car through Chadstone shopping centre’s afternoon traffic, parroting them back to nobody in particular.
“Entitlement is the residue of privilege.”
Originally the words came from the mouth of Deborah Frances-White - a comedian and broadcaster whose intelligence and wit far exceed my own - on an episode of How To Fail With Elizabeth Day. The women had been discussing the very things that seize our podcast every week without fail: feminism, social structures, inequality.
That was on Saturday. On Monday morning, I erroneously picked up that very same blade with my bare hands. I didn’t inflict a big, weeping wound - but in my haste I'd left a paper cut, and it stung just a little.
In the first segment of this week’s episode of Shameless, I had used the word “gypsy” to describe the “vibe” of something I saw on Instagram. This was a mistake, and one that a handful of people highlighted in the Facebook group.
Truthfully, I don’t know why the word came out of my mouth. I’d seen some of the controversy around influencer Sarah’s Day using the term in a marketing campaign last year - and made a mental note to investigate the Hows and Whys - but I didn’t follow through and actually do any research. Life moved on. I unconsciously put it in the 'too hard' basket. I suspected, somewhere on the outskirts of my mind, that the word “gypsy” is offensive, but that still wasn’t enough to stop it from slipping out of my mouth, into the podcast, and then into the final edit that you all heard.
According to an article in the New York Times last year, “to many, the word Gypsy, referring to Roma people who migrated from India centuries ago, is pejorative, no matter the context.” Carol Silverman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon, describes it as “an ethnic slur.”
To the listeners who politely complained about this word’s place in what is a socially conscious podcast, you were absolutely, unequivocally right to speak up. I'm sorry, and I’m bloody glad you all asked for better, even if I didn't have the temperament to respond in real time.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that my instinctive response to the first complaint was to feel irritation. Why? In short, I felt like the scrutiny was unjustified when my tone and intentions were clear. I meant it in a visually beautiful way! I thought. I was describing something ethereal!
I felt… entitled.
As a white woman - even one who tries wherever she can to be cognisant of the forces that shape us - I foolishly assumed on the most basic level that the word was OK to use. That I was a rightful owner to it. That, as long as my heart was in the right place, I had nothing to answer for.
And that, with hindsight, was my privilege talking.
Sure, I had no malice when I said it. I had no ill intentions whatsoever. But that is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is that the word is steeped in history - a dark history that has been whitewashed with Instagram-worthy selfies of headscarves and nose rings. A history that I ignored when I lazily hijacked it to describe an image on my feed.
That word is not my word. No matter how pure my intentions, it simply isn’t mine. The task of finding another adjective is a tiny price to pay when the usage of “gypsy” inflicts unnecessary (and totally avoidable) pain.
It was a little blip - and these things can happen when you’re broadcasting your thoughts and opinions for hundreds of hours a year. But it’s still a blip, and one that I wanted to correct here.
I'm sure it won't be the last mistake I make. You, reading this right now, might make a similar mistake tomorrow, or next week. And while that's not ideal, it also won't be your hamartia. We will all stumble and trip up and say things we shouldn't. We can't expect perfection from each other - perhaps a burning desire to be better and do better is all we truly need.
It’s timely, I suppose, that on today’s In Conversation episode we speak with Rowi Singh about cultural appropriation, and why she feels uncomfortable when white women wear bindis as a fashion statement. Hopefully, Rowi’s words - and the words of PoC more generally - will start to be acknowledged and heard beyond this space.
As for me? “Entitlement is the residue of privilege” is a phrase I’ll keep repeating over, and over, and over again.