Saturday, April 16, 2016

Understanding white male privilege

I wasn't brought up as a racist or misogynist, but I was born and raised in a virtually completely white part of the Chicago suburbs, in Dupage County.  As it turned out, that "purity" wasn't accidental.  The community was that way because that's the way the people who lived there wanted it to be.  My father was predominantly of English ancestry, and my mother was predominantly Swedish, so my ancestry is virtually lily-white.  There were few people in my town who weren't Protestant or Catholic but we did know two Jewish families, at least.   It wasn't until I was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam era that I encountered much of human diversity.  We were thrown together by the military and had to learn how to deal with the challenges of getting along with people having different backgrounds as best we could.  Curiously, it worked, for the most part.  A lot of the attitudes I grew up with were revealed to be without any real basis.  I still found people with whom I didn't get along, but before you could decide about someone new, you had to get to know them.  Knowing only their skin color and ethnic origins didn't provide much in the way of useful information about that individual.  Some people might fit a stereotype, but you wouldn't know that until you knew the actual person.  I learned I even could get along with those who did fit a stereotype, more or less.  It might be one of the most positive aspects of my time in the Army!

Once I reached upper level undergraduate status, I put my head down into my studies and pushed on to my professional goals (apart from my "sabbatical" in the Army).  Without even thinking about it, I've been living in predominantly (if not totally) white neighborhoods all my life, in the company of mostly white male colleagues.  The key is that this fact never really came to the forefront of my consciousness.  Since my family and I could afford a decent home, there was no need or reason to live in a ghetto of low-income housing.  Thus, I'm still mostly insulated from the diversity of our nation to this very day.  When I went back home for my 50th Anniversary Reunion of my high school graduation class, I found the school to be much more ethnically diverse than it was when I was there.  The area is still mostly white, but apparently there've been significant numbers of non-whites who have moved in.  Good.

The whole point of this brief personal history is to suggest that I've been the beneficiary of white male privilege all my life.  The accident of my birth has put me into a privileged position to become a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) professional, and it took me a long time to realize my good fortune.  It's only been through the slow accumulation of non-white, ethnically diverse, and female friends that I've become able to see through the fog of my situation, and to appreciate it for what it has offered me.  In exchange for that privilege, it seems to me, I have a responsibility to be an advocate for truly equal opportunity for all.  It's why I identify as a "liberal" - it's not so-called "liberal guilt" I feel, but rather the need to do whatever I can to help break down the barriers that have limited the opportunities for non-white people and women in general.  My friends, over time, have shared their experiences and viewpoints with me, allowing me to see things through their eyes.  Although my friends and I tend to agree about many things, there are still points where we can disagree and still maintain our friendship.

The challenge is to be able to feel empathy for someone without actually having their experiences.  Learning how ethnic profiling is made manifest in the lives of the non-privileged is something I feel we should all try to do.  If we can't literally exchange our gender or ethnicity with someone else, then we should at least seek to know people who've had to live in the absence of white male privilege, and how they have to deal with it.  Talk with them.  Ask them about their experiences.  Listen carefully to what they say.  Think through what they've said and try to imagine yourself having such an experience and how you might react to it.

I feel no particular guilt for having benefited from white male privilege all my life without even realizing it.  Does a fish really appreciate the water in which it swims?  But if I can do something to help someone achieve what I have achieved, should I ignore that person's troubles if they're not a white male?  Of course not!  Most of the non-privileged people I know are not asking for any special favors - far from it, in fact.  They take pride in their ability to overcome the unnecessary, stupid obstacles that have been put in their path, along a road that isn't necessarily easy, even if you are a white male. Their accomplishments mean more to them precisely because they were achieved in spite of the pointless obstacles put in their path.  But we need to be concerned with removing those obstacles.

As I write this, Ken Burns is airing a new documentary on PBS about the life of Jackie Robinson.  His story is far more complex than what most people know - I certainly have learned things about him I didn't realize (or remember, if I ever knew them).  His life is testimony to the ignorance and falsity of gender and ethnic prejudice.  Jackie Robinson had to endure awful things visited on him by his teammates and baseball fans - without responding.  His entire life, right up to end, was heavily committed to seeking equality for Americans of African descent.  It was pointed out in the documentary that his entry into Major League Baseball was the death knell for the Negro Leagues from whence he came. 

It's interesting to me, then, that I have a distant personal connection to the Negro Leagues:  a Dr. Raymond Doswell is an official of the Negro League Baseball Museum.  He's of African descent.  I don't know his genealogy, but it seems there's a chance one of his ancestors carrying the Doswell surname was a slave in Virginia under one of the "Virginia Doswells" [English folks who came to the US before the Revolution and became landed gentry - that isn't my direct ancestral line, however.].  Slaves sometimes took the surnames of their masters, or were children who carried the master's surname, being a product of the master having his way with his female slaves.  I'm pretty certain the surname Doswell didn't come over to Virginia from Africa.  We might even be distantly related.  I know of several black Doswells around the nation, many of whom are successful, educated, and prosperous members of their communities.  I'd be proud to claim them as distant relatives but in any case, they reflect credit on themselves and the name of Doswell!

Let's abandon the outdated tendency toward tribalism and associated bigotry we've inherited in our genes from a time when tribalism was a survival trait for our primitive ancestors.  Tribalism has outlived its value, and we can overcome our genetic tendencies.  There's no good reason to limit opportunities to anyone.  We humans need all the help we can get, and limiting our abilities to those of a minority on the planet (white males) is now extremely counterproductive.  We should be doing everything we can to encourage all people to pursue their dreams as best they can, and not be putting pointless barriers in their path.  We share a common humanity, after all.