Spoken Word Column: Poetry versus privilege

Credit: Christian Sinibaldi

It’s a word that’s been used an awful lot over the last month or so. And in many of the conversations that I’ve been having online, it’s often been the most problematic. But that’s one of the key definitions of privilege: not realising that you have it.

One thing that’s become increasingly apparent in the wake of George Floyd’s murder is the urgent need for education. And whilst some, including myself, are petitioning the government to update the school syllabus, it’s equally vital for us as adults to self-educate.

Floyd’s murder sparked the biggest rise in black civil rights protests since the 1960s. ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests have dominated the headlines on both sides of the pond. And for everybody supporting the campaign, whether it’s with banners, or black squares, or hashtags, there are an equal number of people expressing outrage. We all know what the counter slogans are, and I don’t want to repeat them in this column.

But this outrage just underlines the need for as many people as possible to self-educate. Now, I realise that the chances of any self-proclaimed football hooligans on far-right counter-protesters choosing to do such a thing are incredibly slim.

However, recent events have proven to us that simply “not being a fascist” is no longer good enough. Systematic racism is something that we’ve all grown up with, and without specifically looking for it, we simply don’t see it.

To clarify, I’m writing this as a white person. And whilst I’d never want to speak on anybody else’s behalf, it does appear to me that it’s not only white people who’ve simply accepted this systematic racism as “the way things are”.

So, onto the spoken word poetry element of my column. I’ve spoken in the past about how valuable poetry is as a “window into somebody else’s world.” It’s a fascinating insight which is provided by the most vibrant corner of the poet’s brain. And much as we love poetry that we can intimately relate to, quite often it’s the opposite that provides the most enjoyment.

Now, I’m not saying that simply reading poetry by somebody who differs from you in some way provides a comprehensive understanding. No amount of poetry by female-identifying writers could ever erase the fact that I’ve lived for 31 years with male privilege. Same goes for my white privilege, able-bodied privilege, and so on and so forth.

What I am saying is that it’s a fantastic way to gain that level of insight, empathy, and understanding that all of us need more of. You might take more from a hundred-word poem than you would from an hour-long documentary. Or take more from a sonnet than you would from a seminar. Not always, obviously. But it’s one of poetry’s greatest powers.



As I was making notes for this column over the weekend, The Guardian posted this article: showcasing and interviewing some of Britain’s leading black poets. This includes Kayo Chingonyi, Grace Nichols, Raymond Antrobus, Malika Booker, Vanessa Kisuule, and of course Linton Kwesi Johnson.

It goes without saying, but if you’ve yet to read any of these poets, you should do so ASAP. A few weeks prior to that, The Guardian produced another great piece which interviewed Roger Robinson. His fourth poetry collection ‘A Portable Paradise’ is sweeping up awards and nominations. From our history of slavery to the Windrush scandal and Grenfell, it’s a scathing swipe at England.

You also need to read ‘The Good Immigrant’. It’s not a new book, it came out in 2017, but that doesn’t detract from its importance. It features razor-sharp insights from 21 writers which each highlight white privilege in their own way. My personal favourite, of course, is ‘Shade’ by Salena Godden.

Across the pond, there are several poets whose work is essential reading. Morgan Parker’s 2017 collection ‘There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé’ had a huge impact, and her 2019 collection ‘Magical Negro’ won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

I’ve heard several leading UK poets say that Danez Smith is the best writer on the planet right now. Danez is a black, queer, non-binary, HIV-positive writer and performer whose ‘Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems’ collection came out to phenomenal acclaim in 2017.

I’d also like to mention Fatimah Asghar. Fatimah is perhaps best known for co-editing the web-series ‘Brown Girls’, but my first experience of her work was her 2018 collection ‘If They Come for Us’. It’s one of the most visceral and moving collections I’ve ever read and only gets stronger with every read.

Those of you who are already fully immersed in the spoken word poetry scene will already know these names. I’m hardly unearthing undiscovered talent here. All I’m trying to do is to simply shout about the work which I feel has helped me to gain a deeper understanding of white privilege, and how that privilege has framed my experience of the world.

It’s a slow process. And with the amount of content that’s immediately available at our fingertips, it can feel like an overwhelming one as well. But that’s why poetry sits at the top of the pile for me. Concise, potent, epic, heartfelt, tender, fierce: it can be all those things at once or none of them at all. But as with pretty much any issue going, if you want the strongest insights, it’s the poets you should turn to.

On an extremely basic level, one of the main responses to a poem should be, “oh, I never thought about it like that.” Now that can apply to absolutely anything: it could even be a poem about the place in which you grew up. But, as I gradually self-educate and do more to understand my white privilege, I find myself uttering the exact same response.

“Oh, I never thought about it like that.” Poetry versus privilege.


Matt Abbott is a poet, educator, and activist. His debut collection ‘Two Little Ducks’ navigates the working-class Leave vote, the Calais Jungle refugee camp, and life in a northern tumbleweed town. The stage show earned a string of 5* reviews at Edinburgh Fringe and on a UK tour, and the book was published by Verve Poetry Press in 2018.

Matt’s debut kids’ poetry collection ‘A Hurricane in my Head’ was published by Bloomsbury in 2019. He runs spoken word record label Nymphs & Thugs and fronts alternative indie band Skint & Demoralised.