Wednesday, April 20, 2011
PRIVILEGE & SUBCONSCIOUS DISTORTION
"Let me explain something to you about Jersey. There is North Jersey. And then... there is South Jersey. Dirty." ~ Bad Girls Club, Season 6, the Oxygen Channel.
Will someone kindly explain to me our proclivity to jockey for status, no matter how silly? I mean, North Jersey. South Jersey. Who'd want to come from any part of Jersey? Just kiddin,' Linda.
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Today on my facebook wall I found a discussion between two white guys who each called the other "racist."
Discussions like this are particularly common these days for two reasons. First is conservative animosity toward our black President Barack Obama. Such animosity sometimes leads to false accusations of racist bias against conservatives by liberals. On the other hand, this general conservative animosity also tends to provide cover for actual racists, simmering in the wings, awaiting a socially sanctioned opportunity to spew.
Second, because government traditionally provides essential services to the poorer members of our society, when we discuss deep budget cuts we are by extension necessarily debating the reduction of benefits and essential services that fall disproportionately to minorities. Minorities make up the largest share of our indigent population
So, back to my facebook wall.
About tossing around the word "racist" or any other perjorative label:
The moment you stop talking about behavior and start labeling each other perjoratively - that is the same moment listening stops, walls go up, the possibility for learning ends. You immediately end any chance that you will be heard by the other person. After that, why waste your breath? If you're still talking, you're talking to a stone. Since I assume if you're still talking, you still want to be heard, consider ditching the name-calling, no matter what you think.
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One of the men on my wall suggested that a caucasian who loudly makes race an issue is suffering from "white guilt." White guilt. I figure it's something like survivor's guilt, but you know me. I look it up.
UrbanDictionary.com says White Guilt is,
"...a belief, often subconscious, among white liberals that being white is, in and of itself, a great transgression against the rest of the world for which one must spend their life making atonement. It is often exemplified by embracing the cultures and philosophies of various other ethnic groups while neglecting one's own roots."
I have a friend who spent a lot of years wishing she were Latina, but I think it was because she was attracted to the sexy macho reputation of Latino men. Does that count? Are Latino men really....
More interestingly, French author Pascal Blanchard, an anti-marxist intellectual according to reviewer Eric Kaufman for The Prospect, says,
"[W]hite guilt is 'a condition imposed upon us by the high priests of the left' who are 'heirs to the Christian tradition of original sin'..."
It is so tempting to take up this question of whether the Left's thinking is the product of Christian - rather than secular - tradition, Christian traditions that leak into politics being so firmly a characteristic of the Right, rather than the Left, these days. The switcheroo tickles me. But since I don't even accept the premise, I shall restrain myself.
Instead, let me offer an alternative.
When I hear a caucasian speaking out against about racism, unlike Blanchard, I do not hear "white guilt." I hear a comment on privilege.
I wonder if people really understand how privilege - the perk of being part of the majority - works. Privilege is most often a quiet, subconscious distorter that shifts society's opportunities toward the privileged and away from those who lack it. Below our conscious radar, privilege works against equality without our even knowing it, making it that much harder for those without privilege to fulfill their potential.
Take gender privilege, for example, which still skews a majority of management promotions toward men, despite decades of feminism and women's rights work. A study done by the Cohen et. al. in 2004 to discover why only three Federation offices nation-wide had a woman at the helm is especially revealing. After reviewing promotional practices in 14 headquarter cities, and conducting 93 face-to-face interviews, researchers found,
"[T]he representation of women professionals in Federations increases as job prestige declines, from the chief executives in the largest cities (0% female) to the chief executives in the large-to-intermediate cities (16%), and from the sub-executives in the largest cities (28%) to the sub-executives in the large-tointermediate cities (47%)."
Researchers found that this state of affairs was in no way a reflection of fewer numbers of female employees, but rather as a result of gender schemas, or subconscious perceptions that men make better managers.
"[G[ender schemas [are] defined by Dr. Virginia Valian, of the Graduate Center of CUNY, in her research as “non-conscious hypotheses about sex differences.” Gender schemas “lead men and women alike to overvalue men and undervalue women.” In the corporate, professional and academic arenas, these unconscious assumptions result in "advantages men have that are small but numerous, molehills that accumulate over time to produce a mountain of advantage for men.”
How did they know that gender schemas were at play? In interviews, men said things like, "I just have a gut feeling that men are better fundraisers."
"I never ask for money on the first date. I go and hang out with people. It’s very interesting and intimate work. It’s a lot of seduction. The structure is inappropriate for women. They’re not well positioned to do the bullying. There’s a lot of machismo that makes the major gifts concept work. The major donors push each other in a way they wouldn’t between a male and a female."
"There’s a paternal way of thinking, wrapped around tradition and family values. It’s hard to break that family model because this represents the strength and legacy of Federation as well as a liability for women’s advancement."
"There are sexual overtones to that kind of thing. But just because a man might look at a woman as a sexual object doesn’t mean that he’s not taking her seriously professionally. I mean, does every woman have to be Golda Meir? My advice to women is to be presentable and play to your femininity. Men want to preen and they will respond favorably to the right package."
"There is no problem here with women getting ahead. We’re trying really hard to identify women. It’s difficult to find the right ones…They just can’t make it with senior lay people. But nothing is holding women back. Not with guys like me around."
These men think they are hip, unbiased, helpful in the cause of gender equality. They take their privilege for granted and do not understand how their attitudes perpetuate a hiring and promotion bias toward men.
This blind contribution to the perpetuation of male privilege undermines the arguments made by conservatives that anyone can pull themselves up by their strappy little sandals if they just work hard enough.
Of course, not all men are like this. My favorite male mentor - come to think of it, my only male mentor - Marvin Cohen, may he rest in peace, saw my potential and helped me find my wings.
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So what of racial privilege? It, too, skews opportunity. Just one example among many:
Study after study demonstrates the expectancy effect - that teachers come to teaching with the belief that minority kids will do more poorly than their caucasian peers, and so do not encourage minority children to reach for the moon. As far back as the 1960s, researchers have been trying to figure out why minority children disproportionately fail in school. By the mid-70s, ample evidence had been documented that primarily white teachers perceived minority students to have less academic interest and ability than their caucasian counterparts, and also that a relationship existed between teacher perception of student ability, the student's self-perception of his or her own ability, and the student's actual achievement. See, e.g. St. John, N., (1975), "School Desegregation: Outcomes for Children (New York: John Wiley) and more recently, Good, T. L., & Nichols, S. L. (2001). Expectancy Effects in the Classroom: A Special Focus on Improving the Reading Performance of Minority Students in First-Grade Classrooms. Educational Psychologist, 36(2), 113-126.
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Privilege means you never have to be insulted by jokes about how people of your faith control all the world's money (still waiting for my cut over here, btw).
Privilege, in fact, means a million little things we take for granted when we have it. Things we never think about. While at Welsley College in 1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote a powerful, if now somewhat dated, list of small but important ways caucasians enjoy privileged without even knowing. Click here to read the full article. The first part of the article describes both gender and racial privilege. The list itself begins on page 129, and has been excerpted and reprinted many times under the title, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."
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Those of us who are fortunate enough to be among the privileged - the white, the wealthy, the male, the heterosexual, even the handsome and the beautiful among us - need to become aware of all the ways the luck of our birth benefits us. Helps us when we walk into a room or a store or a business meeting without our even being aware that we have one up on those in the room who don't share these characteristics.
There really is only one answer for privilege - the only way the perks of privilege will ever be extended to those who do not have it is if those of us who do offer to share it - infact, insist upon it.