Why I avoid the p-word


I write because I want to change minds. I don’t need everybody to agree with me, but I write because I want people to be aware of the stuff that I’m writing about.

People are often irrational, often to the extent that important advice is ignored. Using facts and ideas to open people up to different ideas is an uphill task. But I’ve heard on occasion that this site has sometimes changed minds — or at least exposed people to new ideas. Stories like that are encouraging, and prevent me from stopping.

If you’re trying to reach people who disagree with you, then minds need to stay open. Bombast, indignation and overgeneralization generate readership but they also tend to close minds.

When dealing ideas that are weighed with cultural baggage, then it’s really easy to do or say something that makes people stop listening.

Which is why I avoid using the p-word.

Is privilege a concern in academia? Of course. It’s a concern in any social group. (Even among worker ants.) We all experience the benefits of privilege on a moment-to-moment basis. Some people experience massive disadvantages relative to others who have more privilege.

The way we see the term used, it can sound like a rallying call for social activists instead of something that we all need to live with on a day to day basis. Change requires moving people out of their comfort zones. In my experience, using the term “privilege” will send people running to their comfort zones instead of easing them out into thinking about new ideas.

So I avoid it because it it’s a loaded term. It’s usually associated with a (well-justified) accusation. You can’t avoid the concept of privilege, as it permeates our existence. But I want to discuss it in a manner that everybody can relate with.

I’ve got boatloads of privilege. In other words, just because of my identity, and my current position in the community, I have unearned advantages over others. That’s privilege. Let me spell out my biggies:

Gender. As a guy, I don’t have to deal with the barrage of harassment and doubt and unfair treatment that is the norm for women. (Also, I benefit from being straight and cis, which is far from a parenthetical issue for gay and trans scientists.)

Employment status. Not only am I full-time employed to do research and teaching, I also have tenure. Did my performance merit employment and tenure? Sure, I guess. Maybe. But, really, deserves got nothing to do with it. Lots of others deserved it too, but they didn’t have the privilege of landing job(s) and like I did. This is my privilege:PBS16Aug2009

It’s funny because, really, it’s true. Ask Geoff Marcy.

Ethnicity. Few people will claim to be racist, but most people harbor substantial unconscious biases. Get yourself tested if you haven’t done so. If you’re wondering what it’s like to lack the privilege of being white in America, there are a jazillion things you can read. (For what it’s worth, I learned much from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest book.) People who are in ethnic minorities get tenure at lower rates than white folk like myself, and minority women fare even worse. There’s no rationalization in the world that can substantiate the notion that it’s because they deserve it any less. (Note that I avoid the term “intersectionality” even though it’s highly relevant, because the people who really need to understand these ideas aren’t probably in the mood for a sociological vocab lesson.)

The world hasn’t been uniformly wonderful to me, and I’ve had my share of hardship. But I haven’t carried those hardships under the weight of sexism and racism that face the vast majority of Americans.

It’s no surprise that people who benefit the most from their privilege are either blind to it, or don’t fret too much about it. That’s what privilege is about: Not having to worry about privilege.

In the grand scale of things, I have little to complain about. In the research community, I am clearly lacking the privilege that comes with a tenure-track faculty position at a research institution. I am routinely judged on the basis of my institution, and rarely in a positive light. If nothing changed about me whatsoever, but if I chose to move to a well-recognized research institution, then I would be on the positive end of those same biases. People are impressed when you have an impressive employer, and by corollary, are less impressed when your employer isn’t thought to be prestigious. That doesn’t affect my happiness or quality of life, but it is a slight drag when I get judged by my employer instead of by my merits. It does reduce my ability to do my job, and gets in the way of sciencing. Of course, I recognize that this is an infinitesimal problem compared to the day-to-day issues that face women and underrepresented minority scientists.

When I am on the raw end of of this biases, I’m not inclined to “call out” people on their privileges. At least, not using that terminology. If I do that, then the people who I most need to influence won’t be inclined to listen.

People can’t lose biases unless they know they have them, and but it’s really hard to make people aware of their biases without shutting down conversation. I don’t really know how to do this. I just haven’t seen the p-word working out too often for the issues that I deal with.

One way to identify the consequences of bias is the “bingo card,” which I recently resorted to. I don’t think it’s a good way to open conversation with people who are biased against you. There are other bingo cards for other circumstances, such as the exclusion of women from conference panels, discussing equity for people of color, cultural appropriation, and — apparently — privileged white vegetarians (as a white veg person I come up empty on that one, though).

I don’t think discussing “privilege” is politically correct. There is no such thing called “political correctness,” because whenever someone shows dismay at “PC” terminology, that tends to be rhetorical shorthand for saying that they’d prefer to not be concerned about the feelings of other people.

I’ve been accused in the past of giving bad advice in these pages. I find that hilarious because whenever that’s happened, I haven’t given any advice at all. I just explain what I do, and why I do it. I might make a general argument, but it’s not to be construed as advice, because everybody’s circumstances differ.

Just because I rarely want to talk about privilege using the p-word in these digital pages, that doesn’t mean I think others should follow suit. We all have different ways of discussing the things that matter to us. I just think that if I’m trying to convince people about the things I write about here — research, mentorship, teaching, academia, ants, pressure cooking — then inserting the p-word will close the minds that I don’t want to close on me. Privilege is real, and discussing it is important if we are going to make progress on inequities in science. I’m just going to stick to terminology that we used when I was in college in the early 1990s before the p-word really took off.


3 thoughts on “Why I avoid the p-word

  1. The best thing I’ve ever heard anyone say about privilege is that “privilege doesn’t mean your life’s been easy. It means your life would be harder if you belonged to a different group.”

    I still haven’t figured out how to best engage with complicated, emotionally charged issues on the internet (and I don’t really think anyone has), but, some of the rules I strive to follow include: (1) try not to erase anyone else’s experiences, (2) know when to sit down and shut up, and (3) think hard about the take-away messages and where they’re coming from, even if you don’t end up adopting them.

    For what it’s worth, I really admire your writing, even when I disagree with you.

  2. Quite the Geoff Marcy zinger in there! As someone who knows him personally (as well as all of the complainants named in the media this week), I agree with you wholeheartedly. And you’ve managed to internalize something that’s missing in his non-apology apology letter. Nicely written.

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