Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Please don't try to play the "socioeconomic class" trump card

Today's guest blogger is Caitlin Casey, a McCue Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Irvine who studies galaxy formation and evolution, including discovering and characterizing diverse types of starburst galaxies and how they relate to more "normal" spiral galaxies in the early Universe. Caitlin recently cowrote, along with Kartik Sheth, a NatureJobs article entitled The Ethical Gray Zone, based on an extensive community poll on ethics and diversity. She is also involved in STEM outreach and mentoring within her department and throughout astronomy.  

I recently found myself in a heated internet debate on the concept of white, male privilege and whether or not affirmative action was necessary. The person I was arguing with -- who happen to be a white male, let's call him "Joe" -- was explaining to me that he hates the term "privilege" since everyone has privileges of different types and it's next to impossible to correct for those privileges fairly in job hires. Joe then gave me an example: "Obama's daughters have every privilege in the world next to my white, male cousins who will probably never live above the poverty line, but guess who'd lose when affirmative action comes into play?"

He had a point, but it wasn't one I was completely comfortable with. Joe was right that socioeconomic class can have a huge impact on our educational goals and career successes. Anyone living below the poverty line suffers from enormous lack of opportunity. If you have ever, for a moment, thought that poor people have a lack of motivation or intelligence, I strongly recommend you go out and read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. It's a baffling and poignant account of what it takes to get by in America on next to nothing.

But socioeconomic class isn't the only great segregator of society, and those of us who fight daily for equity in the workplace on gender, or racial grounds can sometimes be at a loss for words when someone tries to play the "class segregation" trump card. This is what happened in my rapid-fire internet exchange with Joe. He was arguing that class inequity was a perfect counterexample for affirmative action. Joe actually laid out his argument pretty clearly: "Because there's so much poverty out there, why do we bother fussing over gender and minority ratios in the Ivory Tower? Everyone who's there is smart and deserves their spot. Let's not muddy the water with unfair comparisons and labeling some as privileged and others disadvantaged when they're all in the top 5%."


While there is some solid literature showing that the income gap is probably among the worst causes of academic underachievement for children today (check out Figures 5.3 and 5.4 of this paper), Joe's sentiments still bugged me. I've heard Joe's opinion many times over the years, but I often failed to explain on the spot how his argument fails to recognize that opportunity comes in many packages and isn't just based on what's happening today. There are different flavors of privilege. Class privilege is a big one in 2014, but just because it's big doesn't mean we can dismiss other major, centuries-old inequities. And its these old inequities that have led directly to today's class inequities, especially in the U.S.

So I challenged Joe to consider how Obama's daughters might actually be disadvantaged with respect to his impoverished cousins. I sent him a copy of Peggy McIntosh's classic essay, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." In it is a list of 50 privileges which white people benefit from on a daily basis yet probably don't consciously realize are even benefits. It points out, for example, that African Americans probably aren't given the benefit of the doubt when asking strangers for favors or applying for jobs. A similar compilation on male privilege points out, for example, that women often live in fear when walking in public at night and are often blamed for being financially careless.

Image credit: http://www.freelanceglobalmedia.com/
At this point, you might say "Hey, but Obama's daughters are rich and famous; they probably get the benefit of the doubt and they never have to walk down dark alleys at night." But, really, do you think they will never have to fear racial discrimination? Do you think Michelle Obama, a recognized lawyer in her own right, has been immune to gender stereotyping as her role as First Lady and declared fashion icon?

Gender and racial stereotypes like these represent a much different, and often more potent form of discrimination than social class. Everyday, they pervade our culture where we work and live. They are built from centuries of injustice that taught the world that dark skin was inferior to light, and women's minds were less capable than men's. Systematic oppression doesn't vanish overnight despite our 21st century, self-professed good intentions.

We have the opportunity to change inequity down the hall in a way that we cannot change poverty in the villages of west Africa or on the streets of East St Louis. Would Joe suggest that we should not call the police when our neighbor's house is being robbed because the crime rate in our city is so high?

Stereotypes create micro-inequities, and they can (and do) affect everyone, including Obama's daughters and those of us in the Ivory Tower. Just because one inequity--poverty and access to education-- is of major concern, it doesn't mean that we can or should ignore other, deeply intrenched inequities. Especially inequities we're born with, cannot change, and are the written mantra of our history books, still actively disenfranchising women and minorities today.

So whenever we're comparing privilege, Joe, please, don't play the `class segregation' trump card. Next time I'll come prepared.

1 comment:

Stuart said...

First of all Caitlin, thanks for mentioning socio-economic class with regards to people working in science. It is something I've rarely seen discussed and, when it is, mostly only to be dismissed as irrelevant.

Massive inequalities due to class are not an argument against doing something to stop long existing discrimination based on race and gender. They should all be tackled rather than doing nothing because more than one of them exists.

I come from the UK. We have a centuries old class system that seems harder, more cruel and pernicious than the US one. In the UK we all consciously and sub-consciously use thousands of tiny signals (appearance, accent, word choices, time of meals etc) to assess where people fit in this hierarchy. The lack of "class mobility" has been a massive issue for our nation for a very long time and doesn't appear to be improving despite some (from privileged backgrounds) claiming that we are now a "classless society".

Unlike many from a UK working class background, I went to university. People at university from more privileged backgrounds (most of them) benefited from lots of things they would have considered inconsequential or trivial e.g. I didn't know any of the terminology of university. When everyone else appears to already know the language, and how the system works, it is difficult/degrading to constantly point out your own ignorance to ask it to be explained. It can be isolating to know that few others are from similar backgrounds. Hearing (thankfully, rare) derogatory comments about working class people doesn't help. I'll note that unlike gender and race, it *is* possible to try to mask your class background although that can leave you with a feeling of betrayal to your family/heritage instead.

I was an astronomy postdoc but have now given up. Amongst the many factors that made me quit: massive imposter syndrome that I've battled for years (and lost); survivor's guilt; feeling isolated and 'different'; not being able to deal with constantly moving away from friends and family due to 2-3 year contracts; the lack of representation of women/minorities; constantly reading the term "white, male privilege" and feeling that my existence in the field made me part of the problem.

To Joe, one reason why it is important to fuss over representation (race, gender and class) in the Ivory Tower is that it highlights a much bigger problem that stems from much earlier (secondary school and before) and affects large proportions of the population. One example: girls, on average, are losing interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) subjects far more than boys. The problem shouldn't be tackled from one end only though. If girls see no people like them in STEM jobs, going into those careers appears to be fighting against society's norms. We need varied and visible role models to alter perceptions. The same goes for race and class.

It is extremely important that gender and race inequalities are tackled and that groups with historical dominance are not continuing to be massively over-represented at the expense of others. It is important to me that class discrimination be tackled too.