Letter to a successful white male May 11, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality.
Congratulations! You’re a successful white male. Or, as you might prefer to put it, you’re a successful person who just happens to be a white male — why would anyone think your gender and race have anything to do with your success? That’s textbook sexism and racism. You worked hard to get where you are. You never asked for special treatment, nor do you recall ever receiving any.
Of course, you don’t deny that women and people of color were once officially discriminated against in our society, with fewer rights and opportunities available to them as a matter of policy. But that’s all in the past. Today, the law requires that everyone be treated equally, and indeed, you yourself would never dream of discriminating against anyone, nor can you recall ever witnessing discrimination. If anything, the pendulum seems to have swung too far in the opposite direction: you’re always hearing about special programs and organizations and scholarships for the benefit of women and minorities, and everyone’s under pressure to increase “diversity” — who knows how many qualified white males have been discriminated against due to “political correctness”?
You naturally assume, then, that if women or minorities are underrepresented in certain fields, they must generally be less suited for them, or less interested in them, or less inclined to do the work necessary to succeed in them. Those who complain about being victims of discrimination are whiners, looking to blame others for their own shortcomings. Perhaps you yourself have suffered rejection in the past, say from astronaut school — at which point you didn’t accuse NASA of discrimination, you simply faced facts and got a different job.
Nevertheless, you keep hearing talk about “privilege” and “unconscious bias” from people who seem unimpressed by your logical reasoning. In order to silence the agitators, perhaps there is some scientific way to demonstrate the absence of discrimination in our society?
We could perform a controlled experiment. For example, we could send emails to university professors from fictional prospective students seeking to discuss research opportunities prior to applying to a doctoral program, varying only the name of the fictional student to signal gender and race — and discover that faculty ignored requests from women and minorities at a higher rate than requests from white males (particularly in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions). Or, we could send fictitious resumes in reply to help-wanted ads, varying only the name on the resume to sound either white or African American — and discover that white names received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews. Or, we could ask university science faculty to rate a fictional student application for a laboratory manager position, varying only the student’s name to be male or female — and discover that the male applicant was rated as significantly more competent and hireable, and was offered a higher starting salary and more career mentoring, than the (identical) female applicant. And so on.
Please understand: the fact that you are privileged does not mean you don’t deserve your own success, didn’t work hard for it, or ought to feel guilty about it; nor does it mean that you are to blame for the inequities of our society. There are, however, things you can do to help. You can support programs that encourage young women and minorities to pursue fields where they’re underrepresented and lack role models and encouragement. You can make an effort to seek out qualified women and minorities when considering candidates for a job, conference, etc. You can avoid perpetuating unjust stereotypes.
But before all that, before we can fix our society and make it more just and equitable, there’s a simple yet crucial step you can take right now.
You can acknowledge the problem.