Archive for category privilege
My experiences dealing with other people, as well as my own recollections of how my opinions have changed over the years, have imprinted upon me the need to be as even-handed as possible to those whose positions oppose mine. As hard as it is to do sometimes, I have to constantly remind myself that it is entirely possible (and more than likely to be the case) that my opponents really do believe the nonsense they defend sincerely. Sometimes the opinions expressed are so batshit insane that I am sorely tempted to suspect that my interlocutor doesn’t really believe what she/he is saying, but is simply trying to get my goat.
More often than not, disagreements between people are rooted in ignorance. There are a few people to whom I quite regularly lose arguments, and 95% of the time it is because I don’t actually know what I am talking about. Once I am educated about what piece of evidence or alternative argument I have overlooked, I eventually either concede the argument or revise my position. This kind of discussion is only possible when the opponents respect me enough to not simply dismiss my arguments out of hand.
And so it is in this spirit of extending the benefit of the doubt that I address those of my readers that don’t accept the existence of white privilege. I know they’re out there (at least 2 of them have said as much), and many people who haven’t heard of the concept before find it hard to spot. It’s one of those seeming Catch-22s that one of the ways privilege manifests itself is that it prevents you from seeing it, which directly leads to you denying it. Hopefully this will help change some minds:
Seattle University researchers who posed as “secret shoppers” to test customer services at the Department of Social and Health Services gave the agency a failing grade. Their report card, released this month, showed that DSHS treated whites and people of color differently, failed to provide basic information on programs when asked, failed to keep confidentiality and made things difficult for the disabled and those who don’t speak English.
The researchers, who are of different ethnicities, visited all 54 DSHS offices around the state between July and December of 2009. Of the four female researchers, the African-American received the worst treatment, according to the study. Many DSHS receptionists also assumed the Asian-American investigator was a foreigner and asked questions about her citizenship status, even though she was born in America and had no accent, said lead investigator Rose Ernst, Ph.D., an assistant political science professor at Seattle University and the study’s author.
It is rare that such a blatant example of this effect manifests itself, and I’m sure using this example will open me up for criticisms that this is not representative of average experience. To make it clear – I don’t believe that this magnitude of racism is widespread and normative; however, this kind of racism exists everywhere. The level of service experienced by these researchers varied based on their race – to an almost comically absurd extent. This isn’t in the South either – this is Washington state! Super-liberal latté and arugula Washington state. I’ve said this before, but I should probably re-iterate: being a liberal is not a magic pass to being non-racist. Liberals are racist too, just in a different way to conservatives.
There are two distinct phenomena happening here that I think must be explored and highlighted. First, there is the experience of the researchers of colour. They posed as women needing information and assistance – the purview of the DSHS. What they received instead was dismissive and rude treatment:
The African-American investigator encountered rude or dismissive behavior in roughly 40 percent of her visits to DSHS offices compared with 25 percent for Ernst, the white investigator. At times, staff members raised their voice to “shame” the African-American investigator by broadcasting her question to the entire office, the report says.
This is your classic racism, which strictly speaking is not privilege, except insofar as being non-white is a barrier that a white person doesn’t face. The consequences of being non-white are palpable in this case study, and were not experienced by the white researcher. There are a number of other embedded barriers here – poor women are likely to receive inferior treatment compared to middle-class or rich women, women with unaccented English will be treated better than women with accents, men will (probably) be extended more respect than women (although that might not be the case here, given that many DSHS users are abused women – men might be a bit unpopular). That’s only half of what is going on though.
There is a second phenomenon that clearly demonstrates the manifestation of white privilege:
“I never had a single question about my citizenship status,” said Ernst, who is white. “On the flip side, there was an assumption if I was in the office, I had a very legitimate reason to be there, that I really needed help,” Ernst said. Ernst said office receptionists asked if she had a domestic violence problem or drew her into hushed conversations about others in the waiting room.
Not only did the white researcher not face the same kind of overt discrimination that the others did, but she received preferential treatment because of her skin colour. This is not treatment that Ernst had demanded or otherwise solicited – the fact of her white skin gave her a leg up that, if she had not been looking for it, would have been completely invisible to her. In other words, had she been unaware of the phenomenon of privilege, there is no way she would have seen her experience as anything but typical. She would have been, from her own perspective, right to say that she didn’t receive any special treatment because of her skin colour – why would she suspect otherwise?
It is precisely that aspect of privilege that is most galling to people on both sides of the debate. It bothers anti-racists because it is so shockingly obvious once you see it, but its existence is denied to high heaven. It bothers deniers because it seems like a non-falsifiable hypothesis – denying it is proof that you have it. My hope is that this example might provide a clear illustration of not only what privilege is, but how it works as well.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!
Crommunist is back from vacation, at least physically. I will be returning to full blogging strength by next week. I appreciate your patience with my travel hangover.
You don’t have to look far for instances of people lying to themselves. Whether it’s a drug-addled actor or an almost-toppled dictator, some people seem to have an endless capacity for rationalising what they did, no matter how questionable. We might imagine that these people really know that they’re deceiving themselves, and that their words are mere bravado. But Zoe Chance from Harvard Business School thinks otherwise.
Using experiments where people could cheat on a test, Chance has found that cheaters not only deceive themselves, but are largely oblivious to their own lies.
Psychology is a very interesting field. If I wasn’t chasing the get-rich-quick world of health services research, I would have probably gone into psychology. One of the basic axioms of psychology, particularly social psychology, is that self-report and self-analysis is a particularly terrible method of gaining insight into human behaviour. People cannot be relied upon to accurately gauge their motivations for engaging in a given activity – not because we are liars, but because we genuinely don’t know.
Our consciousness exists in a constant state of being in the present, but making evaluations of the past and attempting to predict the future. As a result, we search for explanations for things that we’ve done, and use those to chart what we’d do in the future. However, as careful study has indicated, the circumstances under which we find ourselves is far and away a more reliable predictor of how we react to given stimuli than is our own self-assessment. This isn’t merely a liberal culture of victimhood, or some kind of partisan way of blaming the rich for the problems of the poor – it is the logical interpretation of the best available evidence that we have.
Part of the seeming magic of this reality of human consciousness is the fact that when we cheat, we are instantaneously able to explain it away as due to our own skill. Not only can we explain it away, but we instantly believe it too. A more general way of referring to this phenomenon is internal and external attribution – if something good happens it is because of something we did; conversely, bad things that happen are due to misfortune, or a crummy roll of the dice. When seen in others, this kind of attitude is rank hypocrisy. When seen in ourselves, it is due to everyone else misunderstanding us. This is, of course, entirely normal – everyone would like to believe the best about themselves, and our minds will do what they can to preserve that belief.
The researchers in this study explored a specific type of self-deception – the phenomenon of cheating. They were able to show that even when there was monetary incentive to be honest about one’s performance and cheating, people preferred to believe their own lies than to be honest self-assessors. However, the final result tickled me in ways that I can only describe as indecent:
This final result could not be more important. Cheaters convince themselves that they succeed because of their own skill, and if other people agree, their capacity for conning themselves increases.
There is a pervasive lie in our political discourse that people who enjoy monetary and societal privilege do so because of their own hard work and superior virtue. This type of thinking is typified by the expression “pulled up by her/his bootstraps” – that rich people applied themselves and worked hard to get where they are. The implication is that anyone who isn’t rich, or who has the galling indecency to be poor, is where they are because of their own laziness and nothing more. It does not seem to me to be far-fetched at all that these people are operating under the same misapprehension that plagued the study’s participants – they succeed by means that are not necessarily due to their own hard work, and then back-fill an explanation that casts themselves in the best possible light.
Please do not interpret this as me suggesting that everyone who is rich got their by illegitimate means. If we ignore for a moment anyone who was born into wealth, there are a number of people who worked their asses off to achieve financial success – my own father is a mild example of that (although he is not rich by any reasonable measure). However, there are a number of others who did step on others, or use less-than-admirable means to accumulate their wealth. However, they are likely to provide the same “up by my bootstraps” narrative that people who genuinely did build their own wealth would, and they’ll believe it too! When surrounded by others who believe the same lie, it becomes a self-sustaining ‘truth’ that only occasionally resembles reality.
The problem with this form of thinking is that it does motivate not only attitudes but our behaviours as well. It becomes trivial to demonize poor people as leeches living off the state, and cut funding for social assistance programs as a result. People who live off social assistance programs often believe this lie too, considering themselves (in the words of John Steinbeck) to be “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” who will be rich soon because of their furious bootstrap tugging. While it is an attractive lie, it is still a lie that underlies most conservative philosophy – which isn’t to say that liberals aren’t susceptible to the same cognitive problems; we just behave in a way that is more consistent with reality, so it doesn’t show as much.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!
I am depressed.
I am depressed for two reasons. First, I am depressed that no matter how hard I work, I will likely never get as good at talking about issues of race and racism, history and the importance of advocacy as Tim Wise is:
The second reason I am depressed is that it seems like the forces of reason are losing the fight to the forces of revisionist history, post-hoc rationalization and short-sighted self-interest. I realize this post is much longer than what I usually post for Movie Friday (and has fewer jokes), but if you’ve found any of my posts on “the good old days” or the importance of recognizing black history, or really anything that I’ve said about race to be interesting (and the numbers suggest that at least some of you do), then you’ll absolutely love this clip.
Any of you who have watched any black beat poetry or other forms of spoken word, you’ll recognize that Tim uses a lot of their cadence and punctuated rhythm to get his points across. It’s not just a lecture – it’s verbal poetry. Amazing stuff, and I really really hope you watch it.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!
There is an age-old adage when it comes to argument – “turnabout is fair play”. Basically, the idea is that if an argument is reasonable in one direction, then it’s entirely reasonable when turned around and used the other way. When a homeopath demands 100% positive proof that homeopathy doesn’t work, it is an entirely fair argument to ask them to provide 100% proof that gremlins and faeries don’t exist. Because neither argument is reasonable, they can be scrapped. Similarly, when religious people invoke scripture to prove that something or other is ordained or banned by God, it is reasonable to turn that same argument around and show where the scripture ordains or bans something that contradicts the believer’s position.
Turnabout is entirely fair play in most cases, save one – when privilege is in play. Regular readers of this blog will probably remember my previous discussions of how privilege manifests itself in religious people, in discussions of racism, and even in the atheist movement itself. Privilege, for those unfamiliar with the term, is what happens when belonging to a particular group gives you an automatic advantage over those who are not in that group. The characteristic of this advantage is that it is not inherent to real differences between the groups (it is not, for example, an example of “tall privilege” that tall people can reach high shelves easier than short people), but due to some undeserved social assumption or historical advantage (the fact that tall people are considered more trustworthy and attractive than short people would be perhaps an example of “tall privilege”).
Members of a privileged group are doubly-cursed (or blessed, depending on your perspective) since the usual kind of advantages that accompany privilege are completely invisible to those inside the group. White folks will angrily rant until they are blue in the face (as only they can be) about how they earned everything they ever had, and how life wasn’t handed to them on a silver platter, and how the real racists are the ones who think that white people enjoy privilege at all! Men will insist that men are the truly oppressed sex, since they are no longer allowed to use sexual banter in the office, and that feminists are neutering their manful impulses. Meanwhile, those of us not in the in-group will patiently wait until they run out of steam and point out that the phrase “mighty white of you” exists for a reason, as does “crying like a little bitch.”
It is in cases like this, where privilege is in play, that turnabout doesn’t function as a reasonable argument. For example, imagine this (not so) fictitious exchange between two people:
Boy: I don’t understand why you’re mad
Girl: That guy just slapped my ass!
Girl: So it’s degrading and basically sexual assault!
Boy: I would love it if girls came up to me and slapped my ass. I don’t see why you’re making such a big deal out of it – you should take it as a compliment.
I doubt that anyone would find this sample conversation bizarrely unrealistic. Boy is trying to set up a bit of “turnaround is fair play” to illustrate that Girl’s position is unreasonable – being sexually objectified is a compliment and Girl should not be offended. Boy is doing this by showing that when the situation is reversed, there is no offense felt by the objectified party – indeed there is a positive reaction to the same stimulus. Any feeling of offense must therefore be purely in Girl’s mind, and all she has to do is adjust her bad attitude.
And of course this would be a completely reasonable position to take but for the existence of male privilege. Boy exists in a world where women are not sexually aggressive in the way that men are. As a result, he has rarely (if not never) had cause to feel as though his merits are judged solely on his physical appearance. He is not constantly bombarded by messages that make his sexuality the sine qua non of his entire existence. He is not meant to feel stupid for simply being born a man. Perhaps most frustratingly (to Girl, at least), nobody ever condescendingly tries to “woman-splain” to him that his totally reasonable objection to being physically and sexually assaulted is just because of his bad attitude.
Boy is not necessarily a bad person, he has simply not taken the time to consider the real differences between his default position in any social situation and the position of Girl. There are a great number of other forces at work on Girl that Boy doesn’t even have to think about. By assuming that those forces, because he can’t see them, simply don’t exist, Boy is preserving the conditions that creates those forces in the first place.
This isn’t an abstract concept for me – I’ve been Boy more than my fair share of times. It’s a tempting trap to fall into, because then problems become everyone else’s fault and you can sit back and pass judgment on the rest of humanity. This type of thinking definitely runs outside of sexism, to be sure. Anyone who has ever said that black people need to just “get over” something are operating from that exact same position of privilege – racism is someone else’s problem! Anyone who has ever said “this is a Christian country, and if you don’t like it you can leave” is, in addition to being sorely deluded about their facts, operating from another position of majority privilege – civil rights are someone else’s problem!
This is why I harp on about privilege so much – failing to recognize its presence forces us to spend a lot of valuable time pointing it out. There will always be those who stalwartly refuse to recognize that it exists, being much happier to mischaracterize it as a device used by bleeding hearts to make white Christian men feel guilty (which is a crock), but there are others who are genuinely ignorant and are willing to put in the work to see how things might look from another perspective.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!