Grappling with privilege

In less than 24 hours, two seemingly unrelated events triggered me to sit down and write about something different than data. It took multiple drafts and I am still not satisfied but this is about getting at least some of the thoughts into the open, not perfection.

Washington DC, June 24

The US Supreme Court released its opinion on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning Roe vs. Wade that Friday. Soon, it was all over the news, and people took to the streets and LinkedIn feeds to protest (or celebrate).

I wasn’t on the streets. I am not a “let’s go protest” type of guy by nature. So it was in the safe virtual space (where it’s easy to be brave) that one particular message caught my eye.

This message summarises very well how I feel about Roe vs Wade. Abortion rights are not a straightforward topic. But before one begins debates on the definition of a person/life or who should have the right to decide in a family, I think it’s important to see the bigger picture – specifically, the type of the world we live in.

That world is still a man’s world. From gender pay gaps to domestic violence, the world we live in is not designed to favour women. Most of the time, they are the ones who face an uphill battle just making sure they have the rights and privileges. And it’s not just the bans on driving in the Middle East or genital mutilation in Africa (Not so) fun fact: Did you know that the last Swiss canton to remove voting restrictions for women did that in… 1990?

Given such a “world design”, it shouldn’t be surprising that the negative outcomes associated with the lack of abortion rights fall predominantly on women, too. Yet, many (white men – but not only!) tend to skip over the negative outcomes and focus on other topics in this debate. Why? I’d argue that one reason is not understanding their own privilege. In this case, the privilege of not needing to worry about all the negative outcomes.

Quite some truth in this!

It’s easy to debate the origins of life when you do not need to consider what it means to be forced to commit to taking care of a child for the next 18 years instead of pursuing an otherwise planned life path. Or carry a reminder of rape within your body for 9 months. Or be forced to bring another member to the family knowing that it will negatively affect the ones who are already there. Be in that situation because it was the man who insisted on skipping protection measures.

However, if you understand this inequality and the state of the world, abortion rights become more than a debate about unborn babies. Instead, it can (and should) be seen as an opportunity to tilt the scales towards fairness.

If you recognize that there are systemic disadvantages against women, no matter your personal/religious beliefs, the answer should be simple. Women should be given a right to decide on what happens in their bodies. For one, they are the ones who get suffer from the negative consequences otherwise. But even more importantly, them not having these rights becomes just another drop in the ocean of existing inequalities.

For a man to take such a view, however, requires admitting that they are the privileged one. And that’s not that simple.

Oslo, June 25

#walkwithpride

The news of the Oslo gay bar shooting shook me. Badly.

Depending on your background, you may not relate. But here is the thing – gay bars, even in 2022, are safe spaces. I was over 30 the first time I entered one. My partner insisted we go despite my hesitations; I’m not a bar person nor, at the time, I was fully comfortable going to a dedicated LGBTQ+ space. But somehow, a bar full of people dancing to Lady Gaga made me feel safe, understood, and in the right place. There is something magical about being surrounded by a community that you belong to, the people you can relate to.

To go after people enjoying such a safe space the day before the Pride festival is the equivalent of targeting people enjoying a Christmas market just before Christmas. If you ever had an apartment broken into, you will know a similar feeling. It’s not the fact that a TV gets stolen that hurts the most. It’s that someone entered your safe space – your home – and tore it apart, looking for valuables in the most private places, including your underwear drawers.

Except that this wasn’t a random burglary. It was a crime aimed at people for who they are.

It is events like these that make it clear why Pride festivals are relevant and important even in 2022. The LGBTQ+ community still faces discrimination. We lack equitable civil rights. We are worse off in the workplace. We may not be able to even simply hold hands while walking on the street and not worry about being shouted at. We can’t go to a bar on a Saturday night and not worry about getting shot, for that matter. It is for all these (and many more) reasons why we walk the streets. To celebrate who we are and to remind everyone else that the world is not yet the place it could be.

Yet, not everyone is okay with Pride festivals, even folks that do not fall into the “simply homophobic” category. Some don’t like the nudity. Others don’t understand what the big deal is (“we don’t have Straight Parade, do we?”). The reasoning and root causes for such attitudes vary but there is one common aspect that links it together with Roe vs Wade debate… Privilege.

In the case of Pride, it’s about the privilege to be certain of society’s acceptance (and support!) of the type of love they are able to give, and the type of relationship they decide to enter into. After all, that is how the world works for most people.

Yet, there are some who do not have that privilege. They are less equal among the equals, and that’s why they march. That is why Pride is so much more than the occasional half-naked buttock. It’s a reminder that some of us are deprived of a very basic human need. To give love without being judged.

Acknowledging privilege is uncomfortable

Privilege is a concept that can invoke strong emotions. It can be very uncomfortable to realize you are a beneficiary of the current world design despite ever consciously aiming to be one. Most people believe in fairness (right?…), and understanding that you are privileged just smacks you in the face. Suddenly, you have the cake and can eat it, too, except the cake makes you feel guilty and you never wanted the damn cake to begin with. Oh, and you’re likely somewhat addicted to it and don’t want to give it up either.

I know that feeling myself. I am a well-educated, 193cm tall white guy – exactly the type of person who benefits the most from the current world order.

For a long time, I never realized that the way I experience the world is not the same as some others do. I don’t mean the obvious things; it’s easy to understand that some people/countries are richer and can afford things or that one who grows up in a city will have a different experience than one from a rural background. The ones that make me uncomfortable are the more subtle ones.

When I go on holiday, street touts call me ‘Sir’ and don’t pretend I don’t exist, unlike the woman who is walking side-by-side. When I am on a bus, I simply find a seat and observe the changing cityscape, no one calls me slurs and shouts “Corona! Go away!” as I am not Asian. When I have promotion conversations at work, people judge me on merits rather than repeatedly bringing up “but can he handle the pressure” no matter what the past track record I may have. When I apply for an apartment, I am evaluated solely based on my financial status and my references. When I am on dating apps, I do not need to worry about being “filtered out” based on race or fetishized because of my origin. I could go on. Point is, I have some things easy just because I am a tall white male.

It’s easy to assume everyone experiences the world the same way. After all, street touts are supposed to be interested in all tourists, people shouldn’t randomly assault you on public transport, and dating is allegedly about finding your soulmate, no matter their race. But that’s not how it works and it has nothing to do with the individual in question. I try to be a good citizen. They do, too. But the world is not a fair place (unfortunately), and they don’t get to enjoy the same experience as I do.

In a fair world, this would not be the case. Your skin colour, sexual orientation, gender and other attributes you are born with would not influence what you get and what you don’t. Yet, in this world, I have it easier than others. Not that I asked for it. I just got lucky.

And so every time there is a public debate that involves a minority group, I pause. Because maybe, just maybe, it is my privilege that doesn’t allow me to see what is actually at stake. Maybe that minority group experiences the world very differently than I do and it is that experience that takes them to the streets.

With power comes responsibility

There is more to privilege. It’s one thing to acknowledge it and stay silent while being self-aware; it’s a different ball game to intervene. Like fighting fire with fire, one of the most effective ways to make a world a fairer place is by making it less fair to the ones enjoying the privileges.

One of my favourite examples is affirmative action programs. At first glance, they make no sense if you are a believer in merit-based systems, competitiveness and the whole shebang. Why would you prioritize someone just because of their gender or race when they, according to objective evaluation metrics, are worse than some other candidates?

Take a broader view, however, and it is not that difficult to see that the underrepresented minorities simply have lower chances to be good candidates. They may have had worse access to schooling, lived in less stable families and communities, or did not benefit from inherited wealth and connections. Yes, they may be worse candidates but if you are a top-tier school with a 10% acceptance rate, how much worse off will you be if you admit the 150th best candidate instead of the 100th? What about 250th? With an insignificant impact on graduation outcomes, such policies can move the needle on improving fairness disproportionately. It’s a no-brainer (caveats on the right implementation aside). But only if you are willing to sacrifice some privilege for that. That 100th candidate will lose their spot without ever doing anything wrong. Just, perhaps, being a tall white male.

That’s what makes such policies controversial. They take away privileges. Nobody likes that. Yet, some of them stick – like gender quotas in the boardrooms. On the other hand, some parts of the world go the other direction. Florida’s ban on teaching topics that “may make students feel guilt or shame about their race because of historical events” is a good example of a completely opposite view. Instead of teaching schoolchildren to understand their role in the world, it aims to leave them ignorant of the privileges they have. As much as I could not get on board with views expressed in So You Want to Talk About Race, I think Florida’s ban is a much worse alternative.

One last thing. It’s not always easy to differentiate between a privilege rightfully earned and the type of privilege this post talks about. After all, I am not arguing that professional or other rightfully earned success should never confer benefits. I don’t believe in a kumbaya world; I think competition is healthy. It’s OK to work hard so you can afford that fancy holiday. It’s just not OK that when you want to enter that nightclub, you are allowed in because you ‘look rich’ and someone else doesn’t.

And then there are deeper questions that I don’t have answers to, such as “is it OK to earn 5x teacher’s salary as a consultant, given your added value to society? And if not, isn’t that perpetuating a privilege?”. It gets hairy and quite philosophical. Yet, what if running away from these questions is simply benefitting from a privilege?