Societal and institutional privilege – smoothing the way for In-Groups and erecting obstacles for Others – is a pervasive and daunting challenge. But we can move past derailing tactics and make progress … by looking in and speaking out. (More)
Derailing Privilege, Part V: Looking In and Speaking Out (Non-Cynical Saturday)
This week Morning Feature looks at derailing, common rhetorical gambits to deflect and disrupt discussions of privilege. Tuesday we began with derailing by denying that privilege exists or justifying it with claims of group superiority. Wednesday we saw derailing in claims of “reverse privilege” that portray the socially dominant group as “the real victims.” Thursday we looked at derailing that admits the existence of privilege while claiming no personal benefits from or responsibility for it. Yesterday we unpacked arguments that privilege is innate and inevitable. Today we conclude with working past derailing to constructive engagement and change.
“No one has pure thoughts … but it’s about recognizing when you have thoughts that aren’t right.”
Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban was roundly criticized for saying he would cross the street to avoid a young black male wearing a hoodie. At the Atlanta Blackstar, political science professor Maruice Mangum called Cuba “Jim Crow Jr.”
In hindsight I should have used different examples. I didn’t consider the Trayvon Martin family, and I apologize to them for that. Beyond apologizing to the Martin family, I stand by the words and substance of the interview. I think that helping people improve their lives, helping people engage with people they may fear or may not understand, and helping people realize that while we all may have our prejudices and bigotries we have to learn that it’s an issue that we have to control, that it’s part of my responsibility as an entrepreneur to try to solve it.
And while his example was ill-chosen, his larger point was worth considering:
I know I’m bigoted in a lot of different ways. If I see a black kid in a hoodie and it’s late at night, I’m walking to the other side of the street. And if on that side of the street, there’s a guy that has tattoos all over his face – white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere – I’m walking back to the other side of the street. And the list goes on of stereotypes that we all live up to and are fearful of.”
No one has pure thoughts … but it’s about recognizing when you have thoughts that aren’t right.
“It would require a re-evaluation of my mind”
Larry Jacoby is a renowned experimental psychologist whose work has focused on how human memory works. In one study, he gave subjects a list of names from a phone book, including “Sebastian Weisdorf,” and asked them to rate each name for ease of pronunciation. The next day, the subjects were given another list with some famous people, some from a phone book, and some names from the previous day. Dr. Jacoby asked if they recognized any of the names. Many remembered having seen the name “Sebastian Weisdorf” … and thought he was one of the list’s famous people.
That study intrigued psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji, who wondered if people would make the same mistake had “Sebastian” instead been “Susannah.” She repeated Dr. Jacoby’s test and found that people were far less likely to mistake “Susannah Weisdorf” for someone famous. Even more intriguing, when she interviewed subjects after the test, none of them even considered that gender might have played a role in how they recognized names.
Dr. Banaji’s work grew into Project Implicit, a now decades-long study of how unconscious biases shape our perceptions. In one of the most famous tests, words are paired in the upper corners of the screen and a word like “Happiness” or “Suffering” is displayed in the center of the screen. Subjects press the letter E to match the center word to the word-pair in the upper-left, or I to match it to the word-pair in the upper-right. The computer not only tracks how subjects match the words, but also the delay between the display of the test word and the key stroke.
In an interview at Boston.com, she describes her first experience with that test:
I was quite certain that if I took a black-white test, to associate black and white with good and bad, I was certain that I would come out associating black with good. … I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about these issues. I am, myself, an immigrant. I was aware of the history of black-white relations; I had strived in my own life to practice what I believe. And among my peers, I have the reputation of someone who understands these issues and cares about them. I should certainly not have trouble.
So when I took the test … it was stunning for me to discover that my hands were literally frozen when I had to associate black with good. It’s like I couldn’t find the key on the keyboard, and doing the other version, the white-good, black-bad version was trivial.
So the first thought that I had was: “Something’s wrong with this test.” Three seconds later, it sunk in that this test was telling me something so important that it would require a re-evaluation of my mind, not of the test.
To move past derailing and begin to reduce privilege, we must first look inward at our own attitudes and actions. How often do we give one reason for making a choice … without even wondering if we may have other, less defensible reasons?
For example, last night I watched part of the NCAA Division I Women’s College World Series game between the Oregon Ducks and the Florida Gators. Florida State knocked out my alma mater in the qualification tournament, so I was pleased when Oregon defeated Florida State in the opening round of World Series group play. I also wanted the Ducks to beat the Gators, as Florida are also in-state rivals.
But maybe that wasn’t the only reason, I thought as I watched last night’s game. College softball players are young, healthy, and athletic, so they tend to also be attractive. But softball players come in all shapes and sizes, and it struck me I found the women from Oregon more attractive than those from Florida. Was I rooting for the Ducks, at least in part, because of the halo effect?
Or consider the Twitter response to the contestants in this week’s National Spelling Bee. While some of those tweeters might admit they think only whites are really ‘Americans,’ the research suggests most of them would deny that if asked directly. But while watching the spelling bee they began rooting the contestants they found most attractive – the white children – and that implicit bias became explicit in their tweets.
“My idiotic emails during my fraternity days”
Then there’s Evan Spiegel, founder and CEO of Snapchat, who found himself in a media storm this week after ValleyWag published copies of emails he’d written in college. Most were emails to his fraternity brothers at Stanford, and many were appalling. But that was Way Back Then, he told The Huffington Post:
“I’m obviously mortified and embarrassed that my idiotic emails during my fraternity days were made public,” Spiegel said via the Snapchat spokesperson. “I have no excuse. I’m sorry I wrote them at the time and I was jerk to have written them. They in no way reflect who I am today or my views towards women.”
But Spiegel is only 23, and the emails are from 2009 and 2010. Could he really have shed that much sexism, that quickly? And more’s the point, why didn’t anyone confront him on it back then, as Stanford Provost John Etchemendy asked yesterday:
I have no reason to doubt [Spiegel’s] statement or the sincerity of his regret. But that does not change the fact that the emails were sent. And in my mind, that raises a troubling question for the rest of us. Because the emails were also received, and no doubt received by others who found them crude, offensive and demeaning to women – others who had already matured enough to see them as, in fact, worse than “idiotic.”
This is what concerns me most. We can choose to turn a blind eye to such statements and chalk them up to youthful indiscretion. Or we can be more courageous, and affirmatively reject such behavior whenever and wherever we see it, even – no, especially – if it comes from a friend, a classmate, or a colleague. Only if we choose the latter will we create the kind of university culture we can all be proud of, all of the time.
There will always be members of the Stanford community who arrive here without the maturity to recognize the corrosive effect of crude or hateful language, and the attitudes that give rise to it, on a community like Stanford based on mutual respect.
So I am asking that each of us choose the more difficult path whenever we encounter such attitudes. It does not take many strong and vocal objections to communicate what we consider acceptable and what we do not. Members of our community should learn now, not many years from now, how abhorrent those attitudes are, whether real or feigned.
While looking in, we must also speak out. We must choose that “more difficult path” and confront expressions of bias … “even – no, especially – if it comes from a friend, a classmate, or a colleague.” Or, as First Lady Michelle Obama noted last month, from a family member.
Yes, that will take time. Yes, that will be difficult. And yes, that may fracture some friendships. No one ever said activism would be easy.