Academic Privilege: Experiences as a white cisgendered gay male atheist Engineer

Wow.  So after skipping out of PFP early on Monday to attend a talk titled “Why are you Atheists so Angry” by Greta Christina, I was going to write a post about    what angers me about the current state of academia (for those of you not familiar with Greta’s talk, anger in this context is not a bad thing, it is a powerful motivator for social change).  In the process of confirming the url to her blog, a curious random happenstance led me to this post from July, 2011, which in turn lead to here and finally to Of Dogs and Lizards: A Parable of Privilege

I’m not going to rehash the situation and subsequent discussion that lead to the first two links, but if you have time for nothing else, read “Of Dogs and Lizards” immediately after this (or earlier if you find yourself thinking that I shouldn’t be “making a big deal” about this).

This whole sequence of posts was really relevant to me because I had just spent a good deal of time last week discussing the concept of “privileged” with a group of friendly folks.  The parable did a better job of explaining it than I did, I think.

It’s important to understand privilege because it exists at all levels in higher ed, and has a profound effect on the people that don’t have it.  Before I go on, there are many, many kinds of privileged and many of us have some but not all forms.  There’s white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, cisgendered privilege, religious (in this country, Christian) privilege and so on and so forth.  Notice I’m not talking about the privilege that comes with having a lot of money (although the previously mentioned kinds of privileged have a huge effect on whether or not someone achieves financial privilege).  I’m talking about unearned privileges.  Privileges granted just by being born a certain way, or adopting a certain religion.

(Electrical) Engineering is a male dominated field, and while there have been many discussions as to why this is (and how to change it), one large reason is that it is not perceived as an inviting environment to women.

As a gay male, I tend to be sensitive to sexist comments made by professors, colleagues, even my adviser.  Not for the same reason a woman would be sensitive to them, although I can empathize, but because they make me feel like an outlier, like I don’t belong.  I really don’t understand, why would we “hire some dancing girls” to celebrate a successful paper submission?  And why would I pick a major based on the ability “to meet women”? And why is talking about how engineers can “pick up girls” such a popular topic (here’s a tip, maybe if you started thinking of women as human beings (editors note: I originally had written “human beans”, which might be the case as well)  and not some kind of alien species that you had to “trick” into talking to you, you’d be more successful).

I wish I could remember some more specific examples from the classroom.  All I can remember is numerous times feeling uncomfortable, both for myself, and for the few women around, after a professor (likely unknowingly) made a sexist comment in class.

Now, if you have read the parable yet, you’ll understand that I am not accusing the people making these comments of being bad people. They’re just unaware.  They legitimately do not understand why the comments they are making might be offensive to some people.  Because they have privilege.  It’s not a bad thing, or a good thing, it’s just the state of the world that we live in.  But because they have privilege, they also have the privilege of ignoring the people who raise concerns.

I have had good friends suggest that maybe I was just “an angsty gay boy” for feeling uncomfortable about the pervasive heteronormativity I experience in Engineering.  I have been told by colleagues, after raising concern about a sexist remark made by a professor, that “it’s not a big deal, he didn’t mean it that way, don’t worry about it”.  Well, I am worried about it.  And I’m also worried when people tell me not to worry about it.  As you know by now from reading the referenced posts, these responses are a nice way of saying “shut up”.  Subconciously that is usually often done because maybe they see some truth in what I’m saying but don’t want to admit it because they’re uncomfortable facing the fact that they have privilege, or maybe it’s to try and preserve the privilege that they have.

Academe should be an environment that is welcoming and inclusive to ALL people, and I think most of us feel that way.  So please, the next time someone tells you that a comment made them feel uncomfortable, listen to them.  And understand that it might take a while for you to understand WHY a comment that sounds perfectly reasonable to you might make someone else feel uncomfortable.

What privileged to you enjoy that you might not be aware of? And how might they lead you to say things that may make others feel uncomfortable?

What unearned privileges do you *not* have, and have you ever been made to feel uncomfortable, or unsafe as a result?