How Jameela Jamil taught Scarlett Curtis to check her privilege

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A piece of advice about privilege Jameela gave fellow feminist and friend Scarlett Curtis at 17 has stuck with her ever since

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that having someone tell you what happened in their dream or their nightmare is one of the most boring experiences humanity has to offer.

As soon as anyone utters the phrase, “OMG, I had the weirdest dream last night”, my brain immediately switches off and starts playing the Spice Girls at full volume while I try to nod along and pretend I’m listening. 

I think one of the reasons that ‘dream stories’ are so mind-numbingly dull is that the human brain has a really hard time processing stories we aren’t even remotely a part of. I’m not sure who the main character of our world is – it’s probably Oprah, or maybe even Jameela, or maybe it’s the very tired-looking barista who made me a coffee this morning. 

With 7.7 billion people on the planet, the only option we really have for survival is to write ourselves as the protagonist in each of our own narratives. My own story is the story of a white girl, and over the past few years I’ve become painfully aware of just how hard white people find it to remove ourselves from the centre of stories.

It’s a new mental game for us, because up until now, we really haven’t had to do it. Since birth, we have been told, repeatedly, that we are the protagonists of the world. We are told this by the books we read, the TV we watch, the films we love, the advertising we consume, the history we are taught. We are used to being told that we matter, that this world is built by us, for us, about us.

The experience of being represented is an amazing, massive privilege – and it is a privilege that we’re far too late in acknowledging. To be told that you possess privilege is not an insult, it’s a fact.

I’ve got a lot of the stuff; I’m white, I grew up in a family with money, I’m able-bodied, I have quite nice, thick hair and good skin. I also missed out on bits of it. I spent three years of my life in chronic pain and in a wheelchair, I suffer from severe mental illness, I was born with a vagina, I have IBS. 

The privilege I have doesn’t eradicate the privilege I lack. Just that the privilege I lack doesn’t cancel out the privilege I have. The two exist together, an intertwined spiral of experience that makes me the human I am. I’m not an expert on privilege, no white person is. It’s a topic we find hard to talk about because it’s a topic we’ve never really had to talk about until now.

There’s only one thing I really know about how to acknowledge privilege and it’s something that my best friend, the amazing guest editor of this Stylist issue, was generous enough to teach me when I was 17 years old: SHUT UP AND FUCKING LISTEN.

Shut up, because you’ve spoken enough. Society has been speaking on behalf of you for the history of humanity. You don’t need to say any more stuff. It’s time to shut that mouth. It’s time to stop talking. Your story isn’t important here. So please don’t interrupt.

Listen, because it’s the only way to learn. Listen to the stories of those who are willing to tell them. Don’t ask to be educated, don’t demand to be answered, don’t expect to be forgiven, just listen. Listen and take notes; vigorous, detailed, illustrated notes. 

Read different books, watch different films, reposition the lens with which you have watched your entire life. Realise that this story, the story of 2019, might not be about you. Acknowledge that not everything is built for you. Know when to leave the room. Accept others’ anger, you probably deserve it.   

It’s really hard to listen to someone tell you the story of their dream, because it’s really hard to care about a story that isn’t about you. But it shouldn’t be. And it doesn’t have to be. Listen to dreams and listen to nightmares. Learn to love them.

It’s Not Okay To Feel Blue (And Other Lies) curated by Scarlett Curtis (£14.99, Penguin) is out on 3 October

Jameela says:

“Scarlett talks so interestingly about white privilege, especially because she comes from high privilege herself.” 

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