Sunday, September 17, 2017

Are height and whiteness comparable privileges?

A friend of mine recently posted this link on social media, in which an activist politely answers a question about white privilege by comparing it to “height privilege.” Here’s the conversation that ensued:

Me: This fascinates me because I see height and whiteness as fundamentally different.  If you don’t mind, I have some sincere questions for whoever is interested in entertaining them (not rhetorical, I promise, just genuinely interested in people’s perspectives here).

If height is a privilege, is intelligence also a privilege?  If not, what distinguishes them?  If so, are there any differences between people which AREN’T privilege? 

Phrased differently, is there such thing as merit?

Her response:  I'm glad you asked, Andrew! Intelligence is a complicated one to unpack. In most Western societies what is deemed "intelligence" privileges White people. The ways we are taught, the things we are taught, the ways our intelligence is assessed are all part of a larger system that, unfortunately, is based off of the notion that White people and all things they are good at are superior. Example: an SAT question that asks about an equestrian match. Or the cost of ski rentals. Or other things that have been reserved for the wealthy (in American context the wealthy = White). A kid who has never had an interaction with horses, and doesn't know what equestrian means is going to fall short. But that doesn't necessarily mean he is unintelligent.

But anyways. to your larger question. Is there such a thing as merit? YES! Absolutely! No one wants to take away the accomplishments and the excellence that exists in privileged identities. But its a matter of examining and interrogating the "measuring stick". If the measure of accomplishment and achievement is biased to see "height" or Whiteness as the pinnacle of success, then of course those who are not those things are going to seem "less than". Even if that is not actually the case. I.e. why would you judge a fish, a monkey, and an elephant on their ability to climb a tree? They are all skilled, important and useful for different reasons. Height is still a good thing. But we can't have whole societies built to cater to the tall when short people exist! Does that make sense?

And finally. There are DEFINITELY advantage-creating differences between people who are not privileged. I am privileged because I grew up middle class, I am college educated, I am able bodied, I am heterosexual and I am employed. Some of these are earned, some of these were mere luck of the draw. But these are all privileges that I must use for good. I can't pretend that my ability to walk in to a building and not worry about there being an elevator or a wheelchair ramp isn't a privilege just because I am Black. I have to own and use my privilege to listen to those who are speaking up about their oppression and then help them make changes to make a more just & fair society.

Me: Thanks for the thoughtful and cheerful reply!  It seems like you’re saying *the way we measure intelligence* is flawed in ways which benefit white people, which seems likely to me.  But just to clarify, that’s still a subcomponent of white privilege, right?  And noting that white privilege extends to the ways we measure intelligence, or to types of intelligence we value, is still different from alleging an entirely separate, racially-independent axis of experience (like sex) along which some people have socially conferred privilege over others, right?

Basically I’m asking whether “smart privilege” is a thing for you (perhaps related to “neurotypical privilege,” which I’ve seen discussed a lot).  Suppose we found ways to measure intelligence in fairer, more nuanced ways that level out the racial disparities in measured intelligence levels.  Surely, some people would still be smarter than others, right?  At least in certain ways?  And surely those smarter people would have an easier time with wide variety of tasks, which would better position them to succeed in a wide variety of endeavors?  If you agree with that, I’m asking whether the resulting inequality of outcomes is unjust and oppressive *in the same way* racial inequality is.

And if you don’t - if you think intelligence is purely an arbitrary social construct, such that no mental traits or ways of thinking are innately advantageous or objectively superior to any other and everyone’s equally smart (only in different ways) – I’m asking are there any other distinguishing traits among persons which ARE innately advantageous or preferable?  Is it ever just BETTER to be one way than the other, and if so, could you give an example?

Her: ahh. okay interesting question. I don't think that it is inherently advantageous to be one way versus another along any particular axis of identity. I honestly and truly believe that all ranges of [insert identity marker] are necessary and important to have a vibrant and functioning society. I believe that is why animals tend to not be solitary beings. Cunning in one, strength in another, skill in x, talent in y. They all come together to build a society or pack that's sum is better than the individual parts.

I believe that my position is grounded in a world where the society I live in has tackled some important issues--i.e. the eradication of fatal diseases, the creation of safe housing, etc. And although one might say "these things were achieved through the privileging of specific types of intelligence/grooming of scientists and architects and mathematicians of the *typical* variety" but I don't believe that we wouldn't be at this very point in achievement or advancement if we had a society that (from the beginning) had welcomed and appreciated ALL types of intelligence or strength or cunning etc.

The reality is that none of these identity markers in the American context (and arguably the post-colonial world at large) are free from the influence of white supremacy. Identity is intersectional. Meaning that we cannot observe and measure components of one's identity independently from one another. Even subjects like science have historically been used to privilege white supremacist values and world views (re: eugenics). Its hard to argue that our understanding of anything is *not* in one way or another a social construct.

I guess my main point is that we don't have to look at things through a capitalist framing. It doesn't have to be a measurement of the winners/losers or the best/worst. I think that people are too complex for us to have a standard set of markers that we look for every individual to have. I think this is where our society gets it wrong and this is where the conversation gets complicated. Then, how do we tap in to the full potential of individuals if we do not have a standard set of questions/guidelines? What does that society look like? How does it function? I'm not sure I have the answers. But I'm sure there's someone out there who's brain can conceptualize the solutions. They just have to have the opportunity to be asked.

I get what you're saying. And I hope I am making myself clear in my responses lol.

Her friend: I was going to say although its nice to think about things in theoretical vacuums, the reality is (as you said Ty) identity is not singular. There are many parts to each persons identity, and each one's pertinence is shaped by their experiences, upbringing, subculture, society, and other "levels of privilege" the other aspects of their identity have (i.e., black men not seeing the male privilege they have because things are seen through a racial lens). I think its similar to the way Aristotle tried to define the archetype of a perfect form of man but it was based on his perception of what perfect is. Our need to rank things as better/worse, greater/lesser, etc etc, prevents us from seeing (and valuing) things as they actually are. As to your point Andrew, about whether there are some privileges that are maybe "less privileged" than others (is this what you were going for?), because you can't untie race from gender from ability from SES from sex (etc, etc), its impossible (and inappropriate I would think) to try to look at things or compare systems of oppression like that.

Me: Great responses, both of you.  More often than not, I think the general message you’re sending is exactly what society needs to hear.  Too often we derive our personal pride through distinction, as if validating our own self-worth requires denigrating those unlike us.  It shouldn’t!  Most of us have something valuable to contribute, and a more tolerant and open society would not be so quick to label certain traits as undesirable.  If we could all just appreciate that everyone is different, without those differences necessarily making anyone better or worse than another on net, the world could make more productive use of the tremendous diversity in human interests and abilities and just be a happier place in general. So, agreed there.  I also totally get how different axes of privilege can intersect, to the compounded advantage of those with multiple privileged traits and exacerbated disadvantage of those lacking multiple privileged traits.

I still think that’s a separate question than how many axes of privilege exist, though, and the answer I’m gleaning from your responses on that is essentially “infinite” – that there are at least as many types of privilege as there are advantage-creating differences between human beings, which is as many chromosomes as there are in our DNA.  This is where our views part, and unfortunately where I’m reluctant to join in activism alongside people I typically agree with. To me, using privilege as an umbrella term for any trait which makes some people’s lives easier than others conflates very different sorts of social advantages, which are not equally problematic, and which we as social reformers should afford different levels of concern.

Some examples to illustrate…men have the privilege of going about their daily lives without worrying very much about rape or sexual assault. This privilege originates from the fact that men systematically rape women and get away with it, which in turn originates from patriarchal mindsets and toxic masculinity.  In other words, the privilege is created when some people treat others in cruel, illogical and unfair ways.  That’s unjust.  That’s oppressive.

But other alleged “privilege” seems to originate not from how we treat one another so much as from random assignment in the lottery of birth, prior to and independent of any interaction with other human beings.  Some people have good eyesight, others need glasses.  Some are born with no legs.  Some are more genetically prone to certain diseases.  Some are athletic and coordinated, others are clumsy.  Some are found sexually attractive by the opposite sex, others not as much.  And yes, I’d argue some people are smarter than others, or at least more inclined to certain types of mental tasks.  Many of these traits are influenced by social constructs, sure.  But it’s still clear to me that even if there ever comes a day when everyone treats one another with equal dignity and respect and open-mindedness, some people will still be naturally better equipped for success at certain endeavors than others.

(Of course, success can still be defined in many ways, so people will be better suited for *different types* of success.  Some may have an easier time succeeding in school, others in sports, others with making friends, others with finding a boyfriend/girlfriend, others with making money, others with attaining power, etc.  But at least within each of these pursuits, some will succeed more than others no matter how society is constructed around them.  You can conceive of that as “winners and losers” if you like, but to me it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Anyway…)

To me, that’s not oppression!  If some people are underprivileged because other people are mistreating them, whereas other people are underprivileged because the lottery of birth dealt them a rotten hand, those two situations provoke different responses in me.  If an innocent person is struck by lightning and dies, that’s a tragedy that makes me sad; but if an innocent person is murdered, that’s an injustice that makes me MAD!  Likewise, when I see a mentally disabled person struggling to find a job due to their disability, I feel sympathy because they’re unlucky; but, when I see a black person struggling to find a job due to prejudice, I feel indignant because they’ve been wronged.  We may still want to help the suffering regardless of how they came to suffer, but systematic oppression demands fixing in a more morally imperative way to me because mistreatment at the hands of other humans is clearly the culprit.

That’s what fascinated me about comparing whiteness to height.  Yes, both create advantages for some people over others.  But whereas whiteness is clearly an arbitrary and undeserved privilege resulting from the unfair treatment of black people, from my view, the advantages (and disadvantages!) of being tall are basically innate, and aren’t really imposed on you by the behaviors of other people in society.  Tall people had an easier time reaching high things long before civilization even developed!  Is it really oppression for storeowners with limited floorspace to stack items atop one another, at heights above whatever the shortest in society can reach?  To me, making that comparison almost downplays the injustice of racial oppression by making it seem no different than everyday problems faced by everyone everywhere.  As a person of average height, it’s perfectly okay to me that I will never be a starting center on the basketball team, and I think it would be silly to go around campaigning for change there.  Some people get luckier genes - ce la vie! That’s not the attitude we want to encourage for racial oppression.

I’m sort of rambling and don’t have a neat way to tie this up, so I guess I’ll try one last time with a question.  What about the identity marker of character?  Some people are more generous, others more selfish.  Some are vain, others humble. Some are diligent, others lazy. Some are more “woke” and empathetic, while others are ignorant and indifferent to the plight of the suffering.  I’ll ask again: it ever BETTER to be one than the other?  Is there such thing as virtue?  Is it okay to have “whole societies built to cater to the selfless and diligent” despite the fact that selfish and lazy people exist?  Or are all of those differences also just neurodiversity,
arising from different cultural inputs, with our personal moral preferences as arbitrary as our preferred hair color?

And, the follow up…if it’s still the latter, how can there be such thing as merit? If the work of pursuing a more just society is essentially akin to stripping anyone’s ability to succeed (or “win”) where others fail (or “lose”), what successes remain for anyone to take pride in? Isn’t that essentially telling everyone who gets good grades that they’re merely lucky society is oriented to favor people who think like them? and every basketball star that they’re merely lucky society created sports that were easier for tall or fast people? and every charity worker they are lucky their society values generosity over selfishness? and every social justice activist that the violent racists marching through the streets of Charlottesville are really no objectively worse than the peaceful counter-protestors? Taken to this extreme, doesn’t this vision of equality actually deprive our shared commitment to anti-racism of any objective moral authority?

Her friend: the issue isnt that people are born tall, the issue is that stores put all the good ish on the top shelf. As Tyler said in her first comment, its not about individuals benefiting, that's not oppression, its the system as a whole that we should push back against, in all possible ways, to change and see difference as simply a difference not a way to rank/judge/qualify people. also, in your example, a disabled person not being able to find a job is not just about them being "unlucky" (and I would bet a lot of disabled people would bristle at that description), but also very much about the fact that we as a society see contributions and worth in only one way. We choose not to be accommodating at all, we choose to not consider those unlike ourselves when we build schools and businesses and institutions. Its not about campaigning for allowing everyone to do things they are unable to, or not considering advantages like height, etc, its about being more inclusive and understanding and accepting as a whole society. IMO, morality is a totally different subject. I think there are too many contingencies and complexities to life, society, experiences, and humans to ever look at these sorts of things as finite or separate.

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