This is going to be a post about identity politics, and what it means to identify with a privileged group. Since it wades into the morass of present day politics, it’s not likely to brighten your day. So I will give the backstory to how this thought came about, since that does involve information that might brighten your day. We here at Rated Zed care about our readers, especially when that care can come about through my preferred writing trick of *starting* every piece with a long, irrelevant aside.
It starts last year, when I saw a paper about complex organic molecules being intuited to exist in the underground ocean on Enceladus based on mass spectrometry on the Cassini spacecraft. I don’t know much about planetary science, so I don’t know if I should find this exciting. But I did find it exciting, and it made me feel better.
So, to share the positive feeling, I thought I would go on social media and post a link to the paper. Here is the link, in case you’re interested. Unfortunately, the social media platform I chose for the purpose was twitter. Twitter is a social media platform that I used to like, but that has taken steps in the interim to become worse in every way as a way to maximize rage-based engagement. The top tweet that I saw on my feed was this:
But yeah, could you imagine ANY white dude asking himself without prompting, “is it REALLY that we’re that good that we win 80% of the awards, or is patriarchy and white privelege giving me an unfair advantage???” Hahahahah
As a white dude, I am precluded by rules of internet engagement from going “well, actually” about this tweet. I, unsurprisingly, disagree with the premise that this is a question white dudes don’t grapple with, but that’s neither here nor there. Talking about it isn’t a good use of anyone’s time.
Instead, I want to focus on what such an unpromptedly introspective white dude would do, if he did come to ask himself this question. Whether such a person really exists is something we will have to agree to disagree on.
So okay, imagine yourself a white dude who is writing sci-fi (this is a stunningly easy exercise of the imagination for me btw, not sure about you), and you notice that white dudes are winning a lot of the sci-fi awards, like way out of proportion to the amount of white dudes that there are, or even white dude sci-fi writers that there are.
One possibility is you look at this and go “hey, us white dudes must be pretty good at sci-fi, huh?” and you start identifying with white dudes, and being proud of your identity as a white dude. This is kind of bad because it’s a failure of analysis (ignoring white privilege and so on), and also because it sounds like you’re about to join the Proud Boys, which is never a good sign.
So hopefully the outcome isn’t starting to identify with white dudes in general. Another possibility is that you notice the trend and think it’s bad, but absolve yourself from it. *I’m* not a white dude, you think. Or at least, I’m not one of *those* white dudes. And, like, maybe you have another identity you can use. You’re a Russian Jew (probably, if you’re reading this blog). And that’s a way better outcome than ending up a White Nationalist, but it’s still a failure of analysis (claiming to not be a white dude, when you are in fact a white dude).
The third possibility is that you notice the trend, think it’s bad, and include yourself in it. You realize that you winning a sci-fi award would be more of the same, so you decide not to publish your book, for example. Except that this is kind of a huge sacrifice and I don’t think anyone should actually make it. If you’re a writer, it doesn’t make sense to stop writing simply because you belong to an over-represented group. Nor does it make sense to stop trying to advance your career: the fact that lots of other white dudes are doing really well for themselves isn’t actually that helpful to you in this instance. You think that people like you should hold fewer prestigious positions, but that’s not going to stop you applying for prestigious positions.
And as a result, there is a disconnect. When a black writer wins a sci-fi award, she’s winning both for herself and for her cause. When a white dude in this category does, it’s good for him personally but bad for his cause.
This doesn’t just apply to writing sci-fi. For instance, I’m someone who likes teaching physics, and I’ve recently been applying for physics teaching jobs. For a teaching job I applied for, part of the application was to give a diversity statement about how hiring me as an applicant would advance the diversity goals of the college. I did answer the question truthfully in a way that played up what I could offer (open educational resources initiatives which help poorer students, focussing on accessibility in online courses, etc.). But realistically, one great way to advance the diversity goals of the college is to hire someone from an underrepresented group. That works in two ways: it directly increases the number of underrepresented physicists at the college right away, and also gives a role model for students from underrepresented groups to emulate. I can’t provide that. I can fall back on non-white-dude identities: I’m Jewish, I’m an English language learner, an immigrant, etc. But Russian Jewish dudes are actually not underrepresented in physics in any way (this is what I like to call the art of the understatement). Would physics be better off if fewer people in physics were Russian Jewish dudes? The answer is obviously yes. Except in the case of Russian Jewish dude #83024, me, because I’d like a job teaching physics.
In other words, it’s not true that I can’t escape the privilege of being white and male. I can, very easily! But escaping it is actually a very large sacrifice and I am absolutely not willing to make it. I can be cognizant of that. But how much does that buy anyone? If privilege helps me get a job that someone else could have gotten, does me feeling bad about it help? I don’t think so.
I’m not trying to complain here. It’s a better situation to be in to be at an unfair advantage and agonize how to respond to it than being at an unfair disadvantage. All I’m trying to point out is that there isn’t an honest option. And maybe that’s okay. Shut up and calculate. If you end up in a position of power, do more to promote underrepresented voices. But if getting your dream job, winning awards, doing well in your field, all of that, is supposed to go against your ideological beliefs, something’s gonna give. Either you live with a huge amount of cognitive dissonance, or your ideological beliefs change.