Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Blind Spots Created by Privilege

Over the years, I have been struck by the assumption that those who are not white, male, and heterosexual do not have professional standards. Of course, no one comes out and says this, but the power of this belief is everywhere apparent. The environment I know best is academia—the supposed bastion of intelligence and critical thinking. Yet, it is in this environment that I have heard several versions of the following:

A white male who does feminist scholarship explains why he has had problems getting his work published: "Well, women are suspicious of me. It's annoying, but I get it."

On the surface, this sounds liberal and critically engaged. After all, he seems to be acknowledging what feminist scholarship does not shy away from admitting: that gender matters. However, what really motivates this comment is, in my view, the height of sexism. The speaker assumes that women scholars could not possibly have intellectual reasons for not being impressed with his work. Supposedly, they only respond to gender. What is the basis of this assumption? Why, the fact that they can't see his brilliance, of course! Only anti-male prejudice can explain his not having been catapulted to the top of his field. He cannot even imagine the possibility that his work is simply not that impressive—that when readers encounter his work, it doesn't at all strike them as brilliant.

What allows such a blind spot, such unjustified arrogance? Partly, it is a refusal to admit that being white and male has helped with every achievement. Whites are constantly assumed to be qualified, so before they even start, much of their job is done for them; people have few problems deferring to them, and it seldom enters anyone's mind to question their qualifications.

There are very few professions in which those who are white (especially if they are also male) do not seem to be the obvious best choice, so when whites venture into those arenas, they are susceptible to deeming themselves to be especially admirable. An understandable self-image forms: I don't have to care about minority issues and/or women's issues, so the fact that I do means I'm exceptionally enlightened. (Again, that's understandable.) Unfortunately, it is also easy for those in this position to fancy themselves oppressed. When their whiteness does translate into an automatic assumption of competence, they think that they are encountering hostility. They think that the injustices about which women and "minorities" complain are happening to them. But there is an enormous difference between discrimination and not being assumed qualified because you are white and/or male and/or heterosexual.