“Through work to bring materials from women’s studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to women’s statues, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages that men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened, or ended.”
Peggy McIntosh’s commentary, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” begins with these assertions. She continues later, after discussing how she came to understand, the concept of white privilege – that using racism as a mechanism by which Black people and other people of color were disadvantaged meant that it was also a conduit through which white people received advantages. It is true that even if we do not actively work to advance a belief system or commit harmful acts against people, even if they are not done specifically in our name we may benefit from the harm done to others. I reflect on that when I consider the many ways in which the division of labor and effort has been decidedly gendered throughout the pandemic, which no doubt, reflects these gender differences before. There have been many journalistic and academic pieces published on this. When I thought about McIntosh’s piece I reflected that these burdens are no surprise.
McIntosh says, “I have met very few men who truly distressed about systemic, unearned male advantage and conferred dominance.” This year we were treated to an interesting look into the life of a department chair at a private university in Netflix’s series, “The Chair”. It deals with the personal and professional challenges of an Asian-American woman, Ji-Yoon, played by Sandra Oh, who is the first of her ethnic group (and perhaps the first woman of color) to lead the department. There are so many points I could make about this piece, but I shall leave those for another time. What I want to discuss here is the way her colleague, Bill Dobson (played by Jay Duplass) runs roughshod over her progress, feels entitled to her support, her defense and understanding, and actively undermines her, pushes her to choose between her own career and his, and is completely disruptive. Throughout the piece he is so very consumed by his own self-pity that he never stops to think of the implications of a close association with this woman given how he is acting. He rarely takes what she says seriously, and he never seems to understand that her decisions and her success have implications for more than just her, or even him.
As academic institutions seek to diversify their spaces, I think it’s important to understand the broader implications of putting individuals in place for representation and not giving them the teams and support to be successful. If we want to create spaces that are truly diverse and where diverse leadership, such as department chairs, have longevity, there needs to be an effort not simply to put people in these positions, but to manage and hold accountable, the many individuals they will have to work with who also have considerable privilege, so that they are not undermined.