On privilege, awareness, debate and moving forward

You might say that my antennae are finely tuned to issues of gender in the workplace as reported by the media, but the latest crop of interesting reads has been, if ever, more depressing than usual. I will not dwell on the vicious backlash against women who brought to the media’s attention physicist Matt Taylor’s poor outfit choice in a press conference about a comet landing – if only because I tend to defend women’s right to wear whatever the hell they want -, other than to quote writer Roxane Gay (someone I will return to) and her essay “Blurred Lines, Indeed” (previously published as “What men want, America delivers“): “It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. ”

So, here is a multi-industry selection of recent articles pointing to the inescapable fact that, again in Gay’s words, “the problem is not that one of these things is happening, it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly”:

  • In finance: “When I was younger, I assumed that it would change. […] The results of this generational experiment are now in and they are pathetic.” From “Men alone should no longer run finance“, John Gapper, Financial Times, Dec. 3, 2014.
  • In asset management“One in five women in asset management has suffered sexual harassment at work… another third of female asset management staff had experienced sexist behaviour at work on a weekly or monthly basis… 15 per cent had felt pressured to exploit their sexuality at work…” From “Sexism still plagues fund management“, Chris Newlands and Madison Marriage, Financial Times, Nov. 30, 2014.
  • In architecture: “In the UK […] one recent survey found the number of women in architecture firms fell from 28% to 21% between 2009 and 2011.” From “If women built cities, what would our urban landscape look like?“, Susanna Rustin, The Guardian, Dec. 5, 2014.
  • In technology: “Women make up a tiny fraction, roughly 15%, of people working in technical roles in the tech industry. And amazingly, that percentage is dropping, not rising. Multiple studies have found that the proportion of women in the tech workforce peaked in about 1989 and has been steadily dropping ever since. […]The women I know in tech are tough, resilient and skilled [… ] The women who quit tech aren’t fragile. I think they’re fed up.” From “Why women are leaving the tech industry in droves“, Sue Gardner, LA Times, Dec. 5, 2014.
  • In videogames: “The campaign grew and morphed and got a name, “gamergate.” Very few people came out looking good in the ensuing hashtag war—an example of social media at its worst, with childish insults, sarcasm, disingenuousness, and threats of rape and other violence. […] Unfortunately, law enforcement hasn’t shown a willingness to take online threats seriously.” From the weirdly titled “The Gaming Industry’s Greatest Adversary Is Just Getting Started” (does one really become the greatest adversary of the industry by way of cultural criticism?), Sheelah Kolhatkar, BloombergBusinessweek, Nov. 26, 2014.

This latter article prompted an interesting discussion among some of my Facebook friends, in particular a (male) friend claiming that videogames aren’t really that bad in their depiction of women, and that the academic in question – Anita Sarkeesian – was overrreacting to online haters’ threats, since they are rarely carried out. I find it hard to describe the frustration I felt. Here was a man – a good friend, and not someone I believe would indulge in online hate – telling me, a woman, that another woman was wrong to fear for her safety. Perhaps this is what black males in Ferguson feel like when they are told by white authorities that the police is there to protect them, I replied.

But the point is, I don’t really know what black males in Ferguson feel like. I can attempt the necessary exercise in empathy – as one does, for example, in storytelling of many sorts -, but outside that exercise I can only truly speak to what I feel, if and when I am able to articulate it. If the lottery of life has allowed me a privilege, it is my job to be aware of it, just as it is for others who have a different type of privilege. I learned this in another of Roxane Gay’s essays, “Peculiar Benefits” (you can find it, along with the one quoted above, in her collection Bad Feminist), which suggests the beginning of a personal agenda for each of us who is somehow privileged:

There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege and the list goes on and on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold because everyone has something someone else doesn’t. […]

We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy and because life is hard for nearly everyone, we resent hearing that. Of course we do. Look at white men when they are accused of having privilege. They tend to be immediately defensive (and, at times, understandably so). They say, “It’s not my fault I am a white man.” They say, “I’m working class,” or “I’m [insert other condition that discounts their privilege],” instead of simply accepting that, in this regard, yes, they benefit from certain privileges others do not. To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. […]

You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it. You don’t need to diminish your privilege or your accomplishments because of that privilege. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about. They might endure situations you can never know anything about. You could, however, use that privilege for the greater good–to try to level the playing field for everyone, to work for social justice, to bring attention to how those without certain privileges are disenfranchised. While you don’t have to do anything with your privilege, perhaps it should be an imperative of privilege to share the benefits of that privilege rather than hoard your good fortune. We’ve seen what the hoarding of privilege has done and the results are shameful.

This should be, perhaps, if enough people in good faith agree, a way to move forward.

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Photo: https://www.facebook.com/roxane.gay

 

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