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Owning your privilege

Disclaimer: This musing is almost certainly naive. Nonetheless, I consider the issue worth musing on. Feel free to critique me when I deserve it, but please be moderate in your critiques. My intent is good

The other day, the CS department hosted a discussion of inclusion in computing. I had many reactions to that discussion. I’ve described one in a prior musing. Let’s consider another. Maure Smith-Benati, our Director of Intercultural Affairs, noted that we don’t realize all of the things that give us privilege. She gave two useful examples. Approximately,

I had to deal with people regularly telling me You’re a girl. You won’t do well at math. Avoid the sciences. What don’t you try the humanities?

Getting up this morning, I had to think about whether or not to wear this pink shirt, because there are gender assumptions with that color [1].

I thought to myself, Wow, I’m privileged. No one has ever questioned whether or not I could do math. And, in general, as long as I’m not too much of a slob, I don’t have to worry all that much about what I’m wearing.

So I shared these examples with some of my male-identifying students. Their reactions were not what I expected. One said,

Growing up, I regularly felt like I was told that I could not succeed at math. All of my math teachers were women. We were regularly told, both explicitly and implicitly, that the best students were girls [2].

Another said,

In high school, I always worried about what people would say about what I wore. I knew that they would make fun of me, so I always chose something obvious that they’d make fun of.

It strikes me that we all experience some forms of privilege and some oppression. Some people clearly experience more privilege, and some clearly experience more oppression. You should acknowledge your privilege. You should certainly try to find out about the ways in which others have less privilege. However, as these cases suggest to me, you should not make assumptions about what privilege others have or lack. Perhaps we should say Own your privilege, not others’.

Of course, I am speaking from a place of general privilege [4], so my understanding is incomplete.

[1] Implicit in her comment was that she regularly has to think about how others will perceive what she is wearing.

[2] I note that male students may continue to receive these implicit messages; the majority of students who get honors at Grinnell High School are women and it looked like the majority of Grinnell College’s Phi Beta Kappa electees are women [3].

[3] It is, of course, quite possible that women are smarter. But other explanations also exist.

[4] Are there ways in which I lack privilege or suffer misunderstandings of my privilege? Certainly. I lack the privilege of living parents. People think I have the privilege of summers off, but I work almost as hard in the summer as I work during the year [5].

[5] 40-hour weeks vs. 60- or 70-hour weeks.

Version 1.0.1 of 2017-05-09.