What’s Portland’s (and your, and my) role in equity?

This isn’t explicitly bike related, but I’ve been thinking a lot about equity lately. In part, it’s because of a post over at BikePortlandthe blog for bike-related news and thoughts here, that describes a newly-created position in the Portland Bureau of Transportation: an Equity and Inclusion Manager.

As I write this, many of the comments left by various readers can be summed up as “what a humongous waste of money” — which in some cases sounds a lot like shorthand for “equity is not worth prioritizing.” Which worries me.

I get that nobody ever wants another manager, or that maybe something like equity can be prioritized without creating a whole new high-paying job. What I’m worried by is the bigger picture.

roadway not improved(unimproved roadways and lack of sidewalks, some of the most oft-cited transportation and safety disparities in different parts of Portland)

 

I’m using the BikePortland article only as a jumping-off point. As I re-read the comments I see that there are many people on either side of the issue and for various reasons, but that article is only a really small example of something I see over and over, often in online commentary but really anywhere in this world: the denial of privilege and the tacit perpetuation of  the status quo.

It sounds like this: we don’t need to explicitly think about things like equity or equality or inclusivity; we’re already trying hard enough.

Or like this: if people want the same “privileges” that I have, they should work harder for them.

Or like this: people who yammer on about equity are bleeding-heart liberals just getting off on feeling guilty about past issues that we’ve long since moved beyond.

In short, it’s the (false) assertion that everyone in this world really does have an equal shot at success.

The uncomfortable truth is that we’re still really, really far away from that ideal in the US, and if we look globally, we’re even further. As things stand now, everyone does not have an equal shot at success. Everyone doesn’t even have an equal shot at survival. But saying so threatens the self-concept of privileged people, including me, who feel they have worked hard for their success. Most of us have worked hard for our success. But hard for a person from the dominant culture, especially if that dominant culture crosses racial, class, and gender lines (i.e. a white, well-educated, well-off, straight man), does not take nearly as much work as it does for someone who does not experience privilege in those areas.

It’s like the adage about the triathlete who has trained really hard for his race. He’s prepared for months, and as he swims along he feels strong and powerful — until he turns around and realizes that he’s been swimming with the current the whole time. Privilege is like that current, helping you in mostly invisible ways that nevertheless support your own efforts. The triathlete did train, after all, and did work hard to get in good physical shape, but the swimming was still much easier when the outside world was working with him instead of against.

Does that mean every white, straight, educated, middle-to-upper-class male is going to be conventionally successful, or even that life is easy for him? No, of course not. But it does mean that he has way fewer barriers to “success” than someone who doesn’t experience the privileged positions he’s born into.

All of this makes privilege a hard issue, because no one wants to believe that they haven’t earned what they have. But you know what? It’s kind of true. Many of us have not earned what we have, not really, not the way others have. If you asked me, I would say that I’ve worked somewhat hard to be where I am in life. (Not that I’m the epitome of success here, either;) But I know that mostly, I’ve just been the recipient of unwarranted benefits because I’m white. Because my parents were able to feed me, clothe me, and send me to a good college. Because I had present, healthy, loving parents. Because, heck, I was raised in a middle-class part of the United States instead of Sub-Saharan Africa. Because I’ve been insulated from war, from disease, from hunger. I am an incredibly lucky woman, not an incredibly deserving one.

There’s absolutely no reason why I should be the lucky one and someone else shouldn’t. So what worries me, to get back to the BikePortland comments and thoughts about equity in general, is that when people are unwilling to acknowledge their privilege — when people maintain that the average person really can pull herself up by her bootstraps regardless of any social context — it dismisses entirely our entrenched, institutionalized systems of oppression. The systems that incarcerate black people at nearly 6 times the rate of white people, or that allow us to buy delicious and fresh organic produce on the backs of undocumented, uncared-for migrant workers. Essentially, discounting privilege is like saying that if someone hasn’t become as successful as you are, it’s because they, personally, didn’t work as hard. It removes everyone from their context, but more perniciously, it also works to totally erase any responsibility you may have for abdicating your own power so as to share it more equally.

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There are always anecdotes. The boy from the hood who was able to leave behind the gang life, start a successful internet company, and make millions. The poor kid who got scholarships to go to school and now lives comfortably teaching other poor kids. The insert-your-feel-good-story-here. Sure. There are cases like that. But individual cases do not the whole system make. There are always outliers. And those anecdotes are exactly that, anecdotes, because they’re not normal. Because it’s so damn hard to overcome the layers and layers and layers of oppression that are systematized into our society. Especially when people with privilege, people who benefit from that oppression, are unwilling to accept that it’s even a problem, or even that it’s something worth thinking about.

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I’m a little reluctant to post this not only because it’s a crazy deviation from the usual bent of this blog but also because I feel like if I spew all this I should also be prepared to offer a solution. And I don’t have one. But I think the hints of one begin with awareness. With a willingness to acknowledge my privilege, to look hard at it and what it’s won for me, to acknowledge that not everyone has the same experience of life and that for some people, it’s a whole heck of a lot harder. And here’s the most difficult pill to swallow: I and maybe you benefit from the fact that it’s harder for some people — because that makes it easier for us. It’s not individually our fault; we’re part of a humongous system that has existed way longer than we have. But we still play a very important role in either perpetuating or preventing it.

It’s a fricken privilege to not have to think about this on a daily basis, which is why it irks me so much when I see people pretending like it doesn’t exist, and why some of the BikePortland comments annoyed me so thoroughly. If I and many other people never think about our privilege, we will most likely happily go about our normal lives feeling good about the work we’ve done. We will simply embrace the fact that our outlook, our worldview, our skin color, or our gender identity will be accepted and shared by a majority of people, without remembering that for some people that is decidedly not the case. And those people can’t not think about privilege on a daily basis, because every day it’s rubbed in their face that they don’t have it.

But the privilege to ignore is not a privilege that I have to accept. Like I said, I’m a little reluctant to post this, but I’m going to, despite the fact that I’m still and always learning about this, despite the fact that I’ll probably read it later and marvel at how naive I was — I’m going to post it, because I don’t want to accept the privilege of being able to stay silent. For me, this is not a matter of life and death. But for some people, it is. Equity is a seemly thing to talk about if you’re in a position of power; it’s a determinant of your very quality of life if you’re not. We owe it to each other to remember that.

 

16 Comments:

  1. Just to clarify, I don’t think feeling guilty about being privileged is productive. Acknowledging your privilege, on the other hand, and then using it for everyone’s benefit, is essential.

  2. I agree 100% with everything you’re saying here (except maybe your definition of the word ‘anecdote’) but I’m still unconvinced that PBOT needs an “Equity and Inclusion Manager.” I’m having a hard time articulating my thoughts right now but equity and inclusion can’t be implemented top-down. You can’t ‘manage’ equity and inclusion. It smacks of hitting quotas–well, we’ve talked to our target percentage of minorities in relation to this project, so we can check off the ‘inclusive’ box.

    I realize this is an exaggeration but if we persist in using the language of bureaucracy and corporate infrastructure to discuss privilege and lack, then we haven’t included anybody. PBOT–and any organization that truly values equity–should be making sure that EVERYONE is invited to a seat at the table, not just adding one more seat that rules over all.

    I also realize that you didn’t actually weigh in on your feelings about this new manager. I guess I used your post as a jumping off point…back to the Bike Portland post, which was your jumping off point.

    • heh. I like the double jumping off point! :) I think what you said is one of the reasons I can imagine rational and thoughtful people for different reasons thinking that new position is either necessary or not. To be honest I haven’t read the position description or anything, but I think that despite the bureaucracy of it, it may signal a good intent.

      I’m not actually sure that you can’t manage equity, at least in some regard. If it’s only about hitting a quota and then feeling good about yourself, no, I don’t think that’s the full picture. But I think there’s argument to be made that a position that can at least start the process of making our workforce reflect our population (as one example) is a good thing.

      I guess I’m trying to say that I love the idea of grassroots equity (heh — as opposed to top-down; I’m not sure that’s exactly the word I want;) but I also sort of think that there needs to be policy behind it to back it up, which is where a position like this one can come in handy. I mean, I imagine the person in this position will not simply be determining how many of certain “kinds” of people (or whatever) need to be hired, but facilitating better conversations and thoughts about what equity and inclusion actually mean for PBOT.

      At least, that’s my hope:)

  3. <3 <3 <3

    So good, Stasia. Spot on.

    Plus, you used the word "perniciously." Love.

    • Aw, shucks! Thanks! :) (I’m pretty sure that “perniciously” is a word I first started trotting out in gender studies papers at Lewis and Clark — i.e., the pernicious influence of patriarchy and all that;)

  4. Hey….I am María from Madrid (Spain) I usually never write comments (mostly couse most articles suck) but this time I need to tell you that I loved reading this article and that I think it is a very good reflection that really worths to read….thank you very much for sharing this very mature and intelligent thoughts….=)

    • Hi Maria! Thanks for taking the time to say something. Really, I always hope people might find something of value here and it’s nice to hear when it actually happens:)

  5. Hi Stasia,
    I am from Amsterdam (The netherlands) i stumbled upon your blog and I think what you wrote is very inspiring, i think that in Holland as well as many other western/civilized countries it’s easy to forget that not everyone is born as lucky as we are. It’s nice to be reminded every once in a while :)

    • Gosh, I sure am humbled by all the people from all over the world stopping by to read this! Thanks for your comment! :)

  6. If our job in the world is to make equal opportunity for success a reality, then your blog post makes some sense.

    I don’t believe that’s your job or mine. That’s nobody’s job. And even if it were, it would be impossible. It would require us to control all parents and make sure they parent the best any parent ever could (and who has universal knowledge on perfect parenting for a diverse set of children to pull that off even if you could control parents?). Obviously, that’s impossible and absurd.

    And, let’s agree that even if all parents were perfect, there would still be unequal opportunity for success. I’m a six foot white guy. Am I going to make it to the NBA? Nope. How about the stage or the movie set? Uh, no. What about CEO of a large company? No. How about marrying the prettiest and most impressive woman America has to offer? No, not gonna happen. How about second tier jobs in those industries (or woman)? No.

    It’s an unequal world and…that’s okay. There is hope (not for equality) but for quality of life. If you want to help folks, then teach them two things:

    1. Morality (including sexual ethics) – this will, ultimately, require teaching them true Christian religion. The other gods are false. And atheism breaks down into egoism (e.g., can’t show that Nazism was wrong)

    2. Personal responsibility (have to ditch the blame game – it’s a loser)

    An unequal world can be a beautiful place. It largely has been in America (far from perfect, but points 1 and 2 had overwhelming set an outstanding foundation that has provided countless opportunity for most folks who have come to her or were born unto her).

    If you respond, please check your white privilege. It wouldn’t be equitable for you to argue with me using your superior education and family background. :)

    • Wait, but I think our job in this world is to make equal opportunity for success a reality — or at least give it our very best effort.

      If I’m not willing to step up for equality, then I have to be okay looking someone with less privilege than me in the eye and saying “despite all the ways I have been luckier than you and all the ways I could use my privilege to help, I don’t give a shit about you or your struggles.” I’m not willing to do that — are you?

  7. Hi Stasia

    Loved your article–my friend told me about it because it seems we’ve been thinking the same thing! I also recently wrote about privilege. Glad to hear I’m not alone. Keeping fighting the good fight. We’ll get there in the end.

    • Hey Clinton!

      Thanks for the link to your article too — I was exited to see you mention a bunch of people/books near and dear to my heart (Peggy McIntosh? Race Class and Gender?) that do a great job of unpacking privilege from various angles. And I like your focus on the fact that guilt isn’t helping anyone. Because the point of acknowledging privilege, as you mention, isn’t to make anyone feel guilty but to help people realize the systematic ways in which the playing field isn’t equal.

      You’re right. It may be a slow process, but we WILL get there in the end:)

  8. One of the bigger impediments to a more equitable society is the pernicious problem that those in the driver’s seat tend to only talk with their buddies in the passenger seat. There’s not a lot of conversation with the back seat. If this position was looked at (and perhaps titled) as an Ombudsman position perhaps there would be a more widespread acceptance. The position would entail being an inside advocate for those not in the inner circle of privilege. As a conduit, the ombudsman (“Ombuds-person?) would then whisper in the ears of the power elite (or shout to the entire congregation) those reminders necessary to adequately represent the voice of the voiceless. Progress would come slowly, but visibly, as the Privileged hear and discuss in public the minority concerns. Being heard is such an important and valuable first step for those who have heretofore felt invisible,and therefore not quite human.

    • You know what? I think that’s a great point, and sort of gets to what Gabbi was saying above (that it’s hard or impossible to “manage” equity from a top-down, position-of-power perspective). I do love the idea of quiet influence instead of showy leadership.

      Remembering that those in power tend to talk mostly to others in power (also the problem with politics, eh?;) will be a big challenge for whoever they hire into this position, I imagine. Thanks for the comment:)

  9. Hi Stasia,

    I really appreciate your thoughts. As someone who belongs to a marginalized community I can tell you first handedly that your awareness is appreciated. I feel privileged myself to have been able to graduate college and surround myself with people who share similar views on such important topics, when many people from my community don’t have that opportunity (thus, creating cycles of resentment and misunderstanding). However, it is posts like yours that create much-needed dialogue in communities that otherwise may not have them. And that’s crucial when on the quest (because are we on the road?) to equity.
    Something I hold close to my heart is solidarity. You mentioned that you felt like you needed to provide a solution, but I don’t think you necessarily need to. I find that with a new consciousness comes the difficulty of not being able to ignore when things aren’t ‘right’… And eventually there comes the point when solidarity is reached, and that is one of the best things to learn, in my opinion. I may not know you or know anything about your life, but Maybe your opinion and thoughts are needed to ground a community that you’re more knowledgeable of than I am, for I certainly can’t (for some of the reasons mentioned in your post).
    Keep writing and sharing your thoughts, Stasia, even when it may feel uncomfortable, because we don’t learn when everything is nice and comfortable, and know that your thoughts are appreciated!

    From the heart of Jen.

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