White Privilege

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Poster Child for White Privilege

W.J. Astore

As a concept, “white privilege” is disturbing, contentious, insulting, take your pick, assuming you’re a white guy like me enjoying “advanced middle age,” as one of my old friends recently put it.  Me, privileged?  I come from a working-class background, grew up in a triple-decker in a decaying city, started working at age 15, went to college on a ROTC scholarship, served in the military for twenty years, and so on.  I didn’t “succeed” because I’m a cis white male, right?  Where was “my” privilege?

Of course, privilege is often invisible or barely visible; it’s stealthy.  It may mean you’re not being watched because you’re white.  You’re not being stopped and frisked because you’re white.  People don’t cross the street because you’re white.  Maybe you’re not shot at or choked out because you’re white.

The clearest illustration of white privilege I can think of is Donald Trump, and it’s not because I’m a Trump hater.  (I’m opposed to Trump and Biden.)

Think about Trump.  He’s been married three times.  Has had five kids with three different wives.  Brags about pussy-grabbing.  Has had documented affairs with a Playboy playmate and a porn star while paying them hush money.  And none of this behavior has ruined his political chances, even among the “family values” evangelical crowd.  Indeed, evangelicals generally love “bad boy” Trump.

Now, imagine a black candidate for the presidency with Trump’s record.  The multiple marriages, the adulterous affairs, the pussy-grabbing talk.  Would this black guy have a ghost of a chance at being nominated in the USA?  Recall that Barack Obama needed to have the “perfect” family image, monogamous, faithful, wife, two kids, by all accounts a loving relationship, the prototypical nuclear family.  They even had a dog, unlike Trump, who seems to despise pets.  (Trump’s a germaphobe.)

Now, let’s imagine a woman of any race or creed.  What would America say about a female candidate who’s had five kids with three different husbands?  Who’s had adulterous affairs with porn stars and Playgirl centerfolds?  Who’s bragged of grabbing males by the you-know-what?  Would she have a chance to be our president?  To be embraced by evangelicals as their candidate of choice?  Of course not.

With Trump, all this doesn’t matter.  As a rich spoiled white guy, he’s been given a blank check by society to do whatever he wants.  Sure, he’s been criticized for his more outrageous comments and actions, but he still won the presidency — and may yet win again.  You simply can’t say the same of any woman or any person of color with the same baggage as Trump.

It’s amazing what Trump gets away with.  But this is not about partisan politics.  It’s about societal norms and expectations.  Consider John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.  Both were philanderers; LBJ was especially vulgar.  But all was accepted or at least tolerated because they were white males acting in “manly” ways.

This is just one obvious but nevertheless compelling illustration of white (male) privilege in America.  As my better half reminds me, for white men it’s easier walking down the sidewalk, buying a car, renting an apartment; basically, living.  And that is privilege indeed.

Tulsi Gabbard Is Invisible!

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The Invisible Woman

W.J. Astore

Last night, I caught a snippet of MSNBC as the panelists talked about the upcoming debates between two white men in their late seventies.  Nobody mentioned that a woman of color in her late thirties had also qualified for these debates, and an Iraq war veteran to boot: Tulsi Gabbard.

Today, I saw an article at the New York Times with the plaintive title: “Was It Always Going to Be the Last Men Standing?”  Here’s the online summary of the article:

A two-man race? Women aren’t surprised

“One of the hardest parts of this,” Elizabeth Warren said as she withdrew from the presidential race on Thursday, “is all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years.”
The senator’s exit essentially winnows what had been a diverse Democratic field to two white men, and the debate over an enduring question — can a woman win the presidency? — remains unresolved, our politics reporter Lisa Lerer writes in a news analysis.

I like that little caveat of “essentially winnows.”  Because Tulsi Gabbard is still in the race, has qualified for the debates (under the old rules), and is being treated like a non-person by the cynical, corporate, manipulative, and dishonest Democratic National Committee.

People are still telling me to “vote blue no matter who,” even as Tulsi is denied her right to be heard, and even as the DNC conspired to eliminate all moderate challengers to Joe Biden so that they could block Bernie Sanders.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden, to put it gently, has shown serious signs of decline and will be 82 years of age in 2024.  He has called for cuts to social security and has been a water boy for decades for credit card companies and their usurious interest rates.  He voted for the Iraq War, supported job-eliminating trade agreements, and is a servant of Big Pharma and the health insurance industry. among other faults.  And has everyone suddenly forgot his creepy tendency to touch women, to sniff their hair, and otherwise to invade their personal space?

If only we had a woman of substance to challenge these two ageing white men, Biden and Sanders.  If only she was principled, perhaps even a different religion (Hindu?), perhaps even a woman of color, perhaps even a war veteran, perhaps even principled in her stance against wasteful, regime-change wars.

But where are we to find such a woman?  Because I’m sure the DNC would embrace such a paragon of diversity committed to truth-telling.  Wouldn’t they?

Update (5:05 PM EST): Tulsi eliminated from the final two debates with a new DNC rule:

https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/486348-new-standards-eliminate-tulsi-gabbard-from-next-democratic-debate?__twitter_impression=true

For what it’s worth, I posted this personal note on social media:

I know politics is divisive or boring to many. But here’s the story. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) has changed its rules to muzzle Tulsi Gabbard, eliminating her from future debates. Remember when the DNC rewrote its rules to allow billionaire Mike Bloomberg to debate?
We’re left with two old white guys, aged 78 and 77, to represent Democratic diversity and “wokeness.” Meanwhile, Tulsi, a woman, an Iraq war veteran, and a Hindu, is cast into the darkness. And while I like Bernie Sanders, I would love to hear a young woman speak against the stupidity and wastefulness of America’s wars, which is the core of Tulsi’s message.
And, of course, look when the DNC announces this rule change: late on a Friday afternoon, when they assume it will go unnoticed. It’s all so cynical and sad.
When the Democrats lose to Trump again in November, remember this moment, among so many other cynical decisions by the DNC.

That Google Diversity Memo

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W.J. Astore

What does “diversity” mean in the workplace as well as American society?  Are women at a disadvantage in technical fields and, if so, is this due primarily to biology or gender or sociological/cultural factors?  These questions have grabbed headlines lately due to a memo written by James Damore, a young software specialist at Google.  Damore’s memo, which you can read here, accused Google of creating and sustaining an ideological echo chamber that favored liberal/left-leaning ideas to the detriment of conservative viewpoints.  He further suggested that biological differences are a key reason for the under-representation of women in technical career fields, and that diversity efforts are too focused on surface differences like sex and skin color.  The memo led to his firing, after which Damore became a martyr of sorts within conservative circles.

In his memo, Damore is careful to say he respects diversity, that he recognizes gender and racial discrimination, and that he’s committed to fostering discussion.  Rather than summarize his memo, I’d like to make a few comments on it and the general subject, drawn from my experience as an engineer in the U.S. Air Force and my time as a professor teaching lessons on gender and technology.

But first I’d like to recall my time in engineering school in the early 1980s. It was a mostly male environment. “Woman” was a term thrown about as a tepid form of insult. (I recall one male student telling another who lagged, “Hurry up, woman.”) Female students, I sensed, had to “prove” themselves more, or at least to explain why they wanted to be engineers (male students had nothing to explain, since engineering was supposedly “natural” to them).  To be a female engineering student was to be in the minority, and since almost all of the professors were male, role models for younger women were scarce.

In my experience in the military, I worked with female coders, engineers, and managers. All were well qualified, and indeed as an officer managing a project, I couldn’t have cared less about gender. I recall an effort at the MITRE Corporation to recruit and mentor female engineers by female managers, which made perfect sense to me.

Based on my experience, it was easier for men to be promoted in technical jobs simply because there were more male mentors around. I also think women in tech had and have it tougher (in part) because their roles were and are more constrained/restricted by society’s expectations. Put simply, in American society it’s easier for a man to be almost anything than for a woman to be almost anything. Society “tells” women what is appropriate for their gender far more than it dictates to men.

That said, let’s tackle “diversity,” a term that in American discourse is overloaded with baggage.  For some on the right, it’s equated with “reverse discrimination” against (mainly White) men.  For some on the left, it’s equated with gender, skin color, and similar biological as well as ethnic/physical differences.  For me, diversity ideally should focus on abilities, points of view, talent, creativity, and the like.  As an engineer or manager, I’d like a diverse team, with a range of talents and skills and viewpoints, able to work creatively to solve problems.  That should be the goal.

James Damore, in writing his memo, didn’t help himself by suggesting women are more neurotic and anxious than men (which echoes the old “hysteria” argument that women are biologically less stable and flightier than men).  If you start citing studies on neuroses and anxiety that are allegedly prevalent more in women than men, you must be aware of prior uses of hysteria and similar ideas to mark women as unstable and unreliable when compared to allegedly unhysterical men.

(An aside: I suppose I could construct an argument suggesting that men are too violent to be hired because statistics show they’re much more likely than women to commit a mass shooting in the workplace. Sorry, guys. It’s not discrimination — it’s “biology.” You have too much testosterone-driven anger to be reliable.)

Damore’s memo, I think, suffers from his own sense of outrage: the writer is fed up with Google diversity policies, which perhaps make him (and many others) feel like he needs to apologize for being male. This has led him to focus on alleged biological differences as the driver for his memo.

I do agree, however, with his point that too often diversity efforts are simplistic.  So many differences interact and combine to make us who we are as humans.  What about class differences, for example?  If a tech team consists entirely of college-educated members of the upper-middle class, and all American, and all in their twenties and thirties, is it diverse even if it’s 50-50 male/female?  Which qualities do we privilege in a push for diversity?  Gender?  Race?  Class?  Nationality?  Age?  (As an aside, it’s not easy for older engineers to get jobs; they’re often assumed to be both overqualified and out-of-touch.)

Damore could also pay more attention to history.  He suggests, for example, that women as women seek promotions and higher pay less often than men.  They don’t “lean in” as much as they should.  But it’s hardly that simple.  It used to be (and still is?) that men were promoted and paid more not necessarily because they “leaned in,” i.e. were more macho and demanding, but because it was assumed a man was the breadwinner for a family. Whereas if a woman worked at the same job, it was often assumed she wasn’t the primary breadwinner.

That is, it wasn’t that women were simply too “weak” (biology/psychology) to demand a raise; they didn’t ask because they knew they wouldn’t get it. Or, if they did ask, they weren’t too surprised when a man got it instead. It wasn’t always due to a conspiratorial old boys’ club (though those existed), but rather the societal/cultural bias that a man, as head of a family, needed the extra money more. Also, bosses tend to promote underlings like themselves. Men in charge tend to promote younger men who are mirror images, especially if the latter play their cards right (are properly deferential, let their boss win at golf, and so on).

When we look at why women are under-represented in technical fields, biology is arguably the least important factor to consider.  Historical, cultural, sociological, and gender factors all weigh heavily on efforts to increase women’s participation.  In short, Damore’s memo is perhaps most valuable not at pointing a way forward, but in revealing the persistence of certain attitudes and biases that still need to be addressed in the drive for a fair and equitable society.