Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Privilege in Academia

Much has been made of the Princeton kid who argued white kids at prestigious schools aren't as privileged as everyone thinks they are and many many people have done point by point takedowns of why he is an idiot. Nevertheless, the question of privilege in the academy is a valid one and I would like to share my perspective.

Anyone who knows me knows I came from a poor socio-economic background. There are limitations you face coming from this background, but it is different than being a person of color in academia by a mile. This is true for one very important reason, poverty may leave a mark on my soul but with the right clothes and right manners and right language it can be erased so that no casual observed would even know or believe my background is any different than an upper-middle class, white, happy valley nuclear family.

It took me transcending the circumstances with which I entered college and obtained my first two degrees to really get this. By the time I attempted my PhD, I was married. I had worked for several years and had both a nice car and a nice house. I didn't really feel like I had changed, but people's perceptions of me had. I got my first inkling of this when my department chair made some comment about how I couldn't understand poverty. When I asked him why he said this, he pointed across the parking lot at my car as evidence of my privilege. For him, having met me only at this place and time in my life, it was impossible to see years of fear of hunger and homelessness. I was a nice car. Last week, I was reminded of this experience again at a conference. I had met a faculty member from a prestigious university on one of the pre-conference field trips. We became good friends because I could discuss art, literature, music, etc with him. I mentioned I rode horses for relaxation during graduate school, so when we turned to a discussion of poverty in the US, he seemed shocked that I had any direct knowledge of it. He asked me how I could be so cultured if I had grown up poor. I think these examples clearly illustrate that whatever barriers to participation I have had, they've been erased by 10 years of relative ease (compared to many in the US) and privilege provided by my husband.

Race, sexual orientation, ability (or disability), and to a lesser extent gender do not disappear no matter how one dresses, or what one drives, or how "cultured" one is or appears to be. Therefore, the barriers to participation are more difficult to overcome because one must overcome them on a daily basis. I can't pretend to understand how much added stress that adds to the equation or how frustrating it must be to be held to a higher benchmark than everyone else. My view on these issues is limited. But I hope to be an ally. I hope to help ease the barriers to participation for those scientists I work with and for those who come after me. Privilege in America and in the academy is real and every single white person benefits from it.

Therefore, it is our responsibility to acknowledge our privilege and do our best to check it and provide fair opportunities for those who come from different circumstances that we do and who must overcome so much more that we do to be successful. I hope I don't offend those to whom I am trying to be an ally with by posting this. If I do, please let me know and I'll work with you to say things better and make it right. I just feel compelled to tell people that White Privilege in America and Academia is real and it needs to be remedied, especially in the sciences, so that we can have equal opportunity for all persons regardless of their race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin.