Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Assertive Privilege

I think we've all had moments where we desired for recognition. I want the teacher to put my art work on the wall. I want to be on that committee. I want to be considered for that award. Obviously we shouldn't understand our worth based on external recognition, but at times its helpful to place ourselves in the social hierarchy, to not get too big a head (or to further inflate the one we've already got).

I think we're more aware these days of privilege - the notion that straight, white men are more likely to end up getting chosen or recognized or empowered when these choices are made. It's part of the reason why CEO's and politicians and Nobel Prize winners are primarily part of these groups. This kind of self-reflection is often part of the equation when we engage in such decisions - do I belong on this panel? Do I really deserve this recognition? Is there some voice or perspective we're going to miss if I serve here?

It's wonderful progress, even if it is hard, sometimes, to answer those questions in the right way. We do still, generally, want recognition. Sometimes we even deserve it. But the question of who's most deserving or the "right" choice is real difficult to parse. You've got two parties responsible for parsing things out - are the people in charge considering the effects of privilege in the same way I am?

What often trips me up, though, is the second, more often hidden layer of privilege. It's not just that being a straight, white male gives me a leg up; culture and society also teach me to ask without guilt when I think I deserve recognition. If I've gone through all the appropriate mental gymnastics and conclude this is something I should and want to do, I'm far more prone to ask or volunteer than someone who doesn't enjoy my privilege.

I wonder how often we miss out on great contributions because there's a societal expectation for certain people to pursue opportunities and others to be invited. Now this is a little easier for me, since I tend to have a pretty low evaluation of myself and avoid putting myself out there to avoid rejection, but even if I believe that I am the best person for a position - after considering those in marginalized, hidden, or overlooked groups - it's become a discipline (one I don't think I exercise very well) to sit back and, if its going to happen, let opportunities come to me.

Men, particularly educated, white men, are taught to sell themselves. I'm not sure that's a natural inclination, at least not for me. If it's an evolutionary, survival-of-the-fittest quality, I might be in trouble. I think it's far more likely assertiveness is learned, or at the very least, cultivated sporadically. Those with the most privilege are also those who've most been taught to sell themselves. The people who could most benefit from assertiveness are those who are more likely to have it trained or punished or intimidated out of them over time.

I'm not really sure what the point of this post is, other than to highlight something I've been particular noticing recently. For those of us used to this system, it feels so natural it's often hard to notice. It would be very good if we did, though. We need to recognize the ways in which our mores and patterns have been created the benefit some more than others. It behooves us to actively change the way things work rather than expect people primed for an underprivileged place in the system to adapt.

Just because things are the way they are, doesn't mean they always have to be.

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