Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Astronomer Privilege

  by Jessica Mink, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

As a person who has voluntarily given up one of the two most widely recognized privileges in order to be more honest with the world, I have given a lot of thought to the nature of privilege. I would define "privilege" as having advantages in life based on a single characteristic which is deemed more of value to others than not having that characteristic. It is usually totally unearned, but even if "earned", it may offer advantages in social situations that are out of scale with its relevance. A significant part of privilege is not being aware that you have it. All too often, that includes denying that you have it or that it even exists.

In the US, having "white" skin and being of the male gender are generally acknowledged, especially by those who don't possess those traits, as conferring privilege on those who have them. But there are other traits which confer privilege, recognized more by those who don't have them than by those who do. I would never equate the various types of privilege, but have learned that having other privileges can alleviate the effects of lacking major ones (and not having them can make things worse).

Cis-gender privilege for those who continue to live as the gender they were assigned at birth is not necessarily obvious, but when you don't have it, it is both much harder to deal with the world and for the world to deal with you. I have found that unearned privilege accorded me through other traits has helped to balance my life.

Performing as Sophia Ripley, cofounder of the
Transcendentalist Brook Farm Community, with
other "Women of Brook Farm" in October 2015
For example, there is privilege of height, which I have seen tall people assume and short people struggle against. Having lived my life as a medium tall person, but having short friends for much of my adult life, I didn't take seriously their lack of privilege for a very long time. Over the last few years, I became aware of how ignorant (and sometimes downright nasty in my heightedness) I once was. When I first mentioned this in my post last December, most of the sources I could find on the Internet were putdowns of the very concept by taller people, but this past January, there was a more enlightened discussion on Quora, where privileges were compared in a mostly reasonable way. While I face a few problems being a tall woman that I didn't before, such as finding clothes that are long enough and sticking out in a group, there are advantages in social situations, such as being able to look men in the eye (or maybe higher).  Tall people are hard to ignore, and it has turned out (Surprise!) that being obvious is more productive than being overlooked.

Does being astronomers give us privilege in our interactions with the rest of the world? The denial of such a privilege by colleagues led me to think more deeply about it. In my own experience, being an astronomer has led to better acceptance of me as a trans person in the world at large.  There may be other things about me which have helped, but the curiosity of the general public about our science seems boundless, and it seems that people meet fewer astronomers than they do trans people.  As I become the target of their questions about the sky, my identity as an astronomer overrides my less-understandable and less-accepted identity as transgender. This has happened to me frequently enough that I suspect that those who don't notice it either don't get out or are less introspective than me.  Astronomy seems to be easier for lay people to relate to than other sciences, so in my life anyway, I have designated it "astronomer privilege". Have you noticed this? I know that sometimes people will ask if you can do their horoscope by conflating astronomers and astrologers (and as a positional astronomer, I'm closer to being in that tradition than most), and that sometimes the idea that we actually study things unbelievably far away can be intimidating, but in general, astronomy is accessible. Do you have any stories to share, or do you think this doesn't really happen?