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Unearned privilege: It stops now

02/05/2010

This will be the first of (probably) many posts inspired by the Women in Astronomy meeting I attended last Fall. I know, it’s a long time in coming; I’ve been busy with general grad student hell. Anyway, it was an awesome experience, simultaneously enlightening, encouraging, and depressing. (Specifically, while the number of women in astronomy is increasing at each stage of career development, there are still distressingly few minorities in astronomy and related fields.)

The final day of the conference, Peggy McIntosh gave a talk (for me, it could be described as life-changing) describing her 1986 paper, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” in the context of women and minorities in science. Essentially, the punchline is that people who are on the upside of discrimination are not only free of disadvantage, but are actually given an advantage. This means that meritocracy is a farce (as anyone who has been disadvantaged could probably tell you), and that because of any unearned privileges a person has, their successes are not only due to their hard work, but also due to the circumstances of their birth.

For one thing, this opened my eyes to white privilege I have experienced and moved me deeply in the direction of systematically removing white privilege. For another thing, it sheds some light on the behavior that white men exhibit in academic settings.

White men are subtly educated in our society to believe that they are the smartest, the most powerful, the most fit for leadership, etc. This happens on a day-to-day basis during one’s life, much as the opposite is told to women, people of color, homosexuals, etc. It’s not that our teachers necessarily say (nowadays – they certainly used to), “Little girl, you’ll never amount to much. Women just aren’t as good at math, science, and other hard things as men are.” (That said, as recently as 1994, a talking Barbie was manufactured that said, “Math is hard!”) But the message is still propagated subconsciously and picked up subconsciously, apparently as early as first grade. Likewise, when boys are encouraged more than girls, they on some level come to believe that they really are the best.

Why does this make so much sense to me? I have to say that I’m very comfortable in my department; the guys in my group are great, and if they’re awkward, I certainly don’t sense that it’s because they don’t think women belong. It’s probably more of a scientist thing. (A friend of mine commented that she’s less socially adept now than before she spent so much time around scientists.) I don’t feel that I’m treated as less than equal by male colleagues. And some of the men I know sound like they consciously have the same issues surrounding lack of self-confidence, even the Impostor Syndrome, that I and my female colleagues suffer from.

But when some of the white men around me profess (and believe in) their own awesomeness, I just wonder if they would feel that way if they did not have the unearned advantage of being raised to think they were the best.

As much as this is a problem, my eyes have been opened to the reality that it is much more of a problem for other underrepresented minorities. We white women are quite aware of being marginalized by privileged males, and we also have the unearned advantage of being white, which tells us that it’s OK to speak up and change things. For some reason, though, we are happy to ignore the plight of other underprivileged groups. I’m disgusted that I’ve been doing the same things to others that men (and, frankly, other women – we perpetuate these unconscious biases against each other) have done to me.

So it stops now. I’m becoming an ally, and you should too.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Julia permalink*
    02/07/2010 12:40 pm

    Erin, thanks for writing this, I loved reading it. I hope you will be writing more about the conference!

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