Privilege (Part 1): Feminism takes women for granted.

As a resident tutor at Harvard, I get tagged to help students prepare for all sorts of things. Giving mock interviews is my favorite student service. Firstly, I honestly believe that students who master this form of conversation will be better prepared to navigate the system after graduation. And that’s important to me. Plus I love playing the part of a disinterested panel member who mercilessly questions a student about deeply meaningful issues. As a bonus, I usually learn something new about my student and the world in the process. Earlier this spring one student asked me to quiz her before an interview for the Women’s Leadership Award. (Sadly, she didn’t get it.) It was my job to ask difficult but thoughtful questions as a representative of the liberal left to a self-proclaimed traditionalist from way over on the right. And so I did.

I started off with what I thought was a low-ball question, “How has your leadership advanced, strengthened or otherwise benefited the causes of women on campus?” After a few long pauses, I reframed the question. “What is feminism and how is your leadership aligned with your definition?” Now I should admit that I have no formal training in women or gender studies, or, for that matter, in any other field that qualifies me to judge her response with any authority. I was just genuinely curious to know her answer and thought her interviewers might be interested, too. So I wanted her to have an answer ready at her fingertips for the real thing. But when she started to define feminism in terms of women, I thought her description might be too limiting.

As I see it, feminism is a misnomer. The field studies the general mechanisms of oppression and societal priority and, if done well, tries to figure out how to redirect and/or obliterate those forces. Without knowing anything about them, I’d say the same goes for African American studies, queer theory and the like. They might differ in the details, but the spirit is the same. That’s why WGS departments routinely host courses on masculinity, reality TV, urban sprawl, colors, and boats. The point is to figure out what society thinks is important, how those prioritizations are implemented in daily behavior, what the consequences of those choices are, and then to do something about it if necessary. Each of us makes lots of choices everyday—from what to eat, where to be seen, what to wear, and who to smile at—and all of those choices communicate information. Consequently, we should rename women, gender, and sexuality studies to something more general, less political, and more honest. How about ‘social dynamics‘ or ‘advertising’?

Because it deals with the fundamental question of how large groups of people value things in society, gender theory is widely applicable wherever large-scale disparate treatment exists. Since taking that course this winter at the Ed School, I’ve decided that urban education tries to tackle fairly identical problems. Our urban public schools are flooded with poor students of color, while their privileged white (putatively all-male) counterparts escape to a protected life in the suburban lands of milk and honey. How did this happen; how can we fix it; and what do those questions even mean?

The rhetoric in class focused largely around some vague thing called privilege. As far as I can tell, privilege in this context amounted was code for having money and the things that money can buy. And there’s compelling evidence that at least some differences in education are simply a matter of money. The international PISA test results are pretty damning when disaggregated by poverty rate. It goes without saying that the physical conditions of many urban schools are deplorable. What these kids endure is heartbreaking, criminal. But to write off the problem to a matter of resource allocation is lazy, a little self-righteous, and doesn’t help kids. What’s money good for if you can’t keep it? The staggering poverty of some former NFL players provides a good case in point. What we need is to think carefully about the systems that generate and maintain wealth for some but not others. As a clumsy first step, we need to unpack that elusory notion privilege.

At the end of the day, privilege is the ability to avoid hardship. Money can get you out of a lot of difficult situations. That’s why I think that people often regard privilege as a heritable good like money or real estate. But its power really derives from interpersonal interaction. No man is an island; it takes two to privilege. As I see it, privilege is different depending on who originates the interaction. In one case, privilege is granted—like when a car stops to let a pedestrian cross the road. In the other, privilege is exerted—as when a family moves from one neighborhood to another that suits them better. Of course the two types are intertwined. In the first example, the driver noticed the pedestrian and stopped, granting the right of way. The pedestrian had to recognize the situation and then exert her privilege to cross the street. Like I said before, it takes two to privilege. More complicated feedback can and certainly does exist in real life. In this post I’ll focus on granting and leave exerting privilege for another time.

In education, it’s useful to know the sources of privilege so that we can teach our students how to leverage what they’ve got. If a student has good teeth, her smile is going to gain her, largely through the accident of her birth, an upper hand over her peer with a crooked smile. People will trust her more. She’ll get more attention from teachers and bosses. As a result she’ll be rewarded for the success others, in part, have granted her. If she learns how to exert this privilege, she can cash these chips in for more success down the road. Once you prime the pump, success flows more easily. (Anyone who’s been job hunting knows well that a good resume begets a better resume.)

And so positive feedback will reinforce the small but noticeable advantages she started out with, like her winning smile. We might believe her success comes from dispositional traits, like hard work and politeness—and to be sure, those pieces need to be in place as well. That’s the American Dream, after all. But we need to step back and see the system for the trees. People respond to visible traits like speech, posture, height, hair style, skin color, gender expression, and dress. They read social cues and reply in turn. When lots of people all respond to these cues in a sustained and coherent way, they generate full institutions of systematic advantage and disadvantage. That’s what urban education is trying to understand and rectify. But it’s hard not to judge a book by its cover. If you know that, it’s easier to game the system. I’ve personally benefited immensely from misread social cues, which I’ve gone on to exploit.

On paper I fit the urban stereotype, minus the urban part. I’m Mexican, from a poor, single-parent family in a rural suburb of Boston. My friends and I drank in the woods to the light of homemade bonfires on the weekend. But I look white. My body type is slender; I have blue eyes, fair skin and brown hair. People, even Europeans, regularly assume that I’m British or Scottish. (I’m not, but thank you.) In college I learned to play squash, developed a taste for sherry, and started wearing bow ties to formal events. When I walk into a room, people grant me all the privilege a white man could want, even if my family were homeless for a time while I was away in college. What’s on the outside matters first, because that’s what people experience first. In my case, my exterior purchases me privilege because that’s what people are willing to pay to someone who looks and acts like me.

Changing what society thinks is worthy of reward is a long, hard seed to sow. And we need to continue on that front. It goes without saying that the same positive feedback that has helped me time and time again could easily have hurt if I looked different, talked differently, or dressed differently. Systematic disadvantage is real and consequential. But as educators, we can hasten the process of useful change if we teach our students the rules society plays by explicitly. We can give them generative tools to acquire and maintain privilege for their own ends. It doesn’t require expensive smart boards or computers or even books. That’s why I love giving mock interviews, write tutorials for paper writers, and askers for letters of recommendation. The best part about this approach is that the rules themselves can help to suggest actionable points of intervention. (Yes, I know I haven’t pointed any out yet. I’ve been setting up the system. The opportunities for change are coming, I promise.) But we’ve only read half the the story. Students need to be able to generate, identify, and exert privilege when the circumstances are right. And who better to teach them than educators?