“I didn’t choose to be straight, white and male”: Blinding privilege

The Pew Research Center found in July that while 63% of women surveyed found gender still posed obstacles for women’s progress, 56% of men said such challenges were mostly history.  Then, this week, a headline in The Guardian put a human face on that divide with this: “’I didn’t choose to be straight, white and male’: Are Modern Men the Suffering Sex?”

Uh, no. 

The Guardian’s article helps explain what the Pew Center found: namely, that to the extent that some men see sexism, it’s as a problem directed at them.  Or, as one of the men quoted in the article said, “’women were still having their cake and eating it too.’ Feminist advancement had led to double standards, meaning that women were now getting away with stuff men never would and it wasn’t fair.”

This astounding and unsupported statement echoed critiques of affirmative action, or any other race-based remedy. Even though such programs remain constitutional as a matter of law, most recently upheld by the Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas, they also are highly controversial, and the target of a much larger campaign to eliminate any and all policies designed to address racial inequality.

Such efforts resonate because on a surface level, they pretend to be about fairness.

As in, “Equality means treating everyone exactly the same”; or, as Justice Roberts once said (in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District): “The only way to stop discriminating on the basis of race, is to stop discriminating on the basis of sex.”  Put differently, the laws that sanctioned or even required discrimination are history.  Let’s wipe the slate clean and move on. Focus on merit and let the best person succeed.

The newest version of denial and resistance triggered a memory for me.  My very first job hunt.

I was a junior in high school, anxious to start earning my own money for movies, clothes, and records (vinyl to hipsters), whatever I wanted.  I closely monitored the new construction just five minutes away from my house.  A shopping center—Livingston Square.  It boasted a Dress Barn, Recordland, and Irving’s Sporting Goods – all places that would be in great need of zealous teenage part-time assistance.  I applied to each of these stores unsuccessfully.  Well, except for the last one.  Irving’s was promising simply because I hadn’t heard yet.

Most of my friends had gotten jobs there.  Shannon (not her real name), my best friend since seventh grade, and I were still waiting to hear.  We had applied together and went to the mall together to check on the status of our applications.  Shannon and I were very similar:  academically inclined, competitive, and definitely non-athletic.  She was number 10 in our class; I was number 11.  She was white.  I was not.  We went in to talk to the manager and explained that we hadn’t received the verdict yet.

“Oh, you both applied, eh?”  The manager was a short man with a face like crinkled sandpaper.  He looked us both over with a strange malevolent smile.

“Yes!” We sang simultaneously, enthusiasm for employment infusing each letter.

“Well,” he said.  “You’re hired,” pointing his fuzzy chin at Shannon. “You’re not.”

At this point, I just recall the long walk back to Shannon’s station wagon. Her steps were considerably lighter than mine.  The words “you’re not” echoed in my ears.  That odd smile flashing Cheshire-like.

Did Shannon get the job because she was more qualified?  Or, was it face value – the value of her face at that moment — that gave her the edge?

When I shared this memory with Shannon a while ago, she told me that it was one of the worst recollections of her life. Looking back, she realized how she’d had no clue at the time about her race privilege and its role in her job success.  She was embarrassed and apologetic.  She didn’t have to be.  I was equally clueless.   The decision stung; I had no tools for understanding it.  But I definitely felt as if there were something I lacked that Shannon didn’t.

Neither of us thought of or even mentioned race, but it was part of the ultimate hiring decision.  And, if Pew had surveyed Shannon at the time, she likely would have said that racism wasn’t much of an obstacle to someone like her best friend, me.

Privilege prevents us from seeing the world from the perspective of others.  I say this as a person privileged by my sexual orientation and able-bodied status, among other things.  What we  need is the ability to see things through lenses other than our own, or at the very least acknowledge that our experiences are not universal.

Maybe the next iteration of Google Glass could make that a possibility.  A girl can hope.

Author: Verna L. Williams

Interim Dean, Nippert Professor of Law, co-founder and co-director of Cincinnati Law's Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice. Professor Williams joined Cincinnati Law's faculty in 2001. She teaches Constitutional Law; Gender and the Law; and Family Law. Her research examines the intersection of race and gender in law and society.

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