Sunday, August 18, 2013

Unpacking Privilege

I promised to ponder privilege as part of my response to Will Moore's criticism I received over my networking post--that is my privileged-ness.  So, here it goes.  I am aware of only some of the ways I am privileged, probably, so I can guess that I will still upset folks for the privileges I don't identify as well as for identifying any.  I mean, I tried to address man-splaining a while back and my wife was quite critical of my take on it.

When did I first become aware I was privileged?  Well aside from my family's trip to Mexico when I was five, I would have to say it was probably my first few weeks at Oberlin.*  While my mother raised me to be a good liberal beforehand, I was still a callow, shallow teen with little awareness.  I mean I brought this poster to Oberlin (my mother did not know about it).  What was I thinking?
* My daughter has already figured much of this out and more due to the internet, which happens to include some progressive content.  In our conversation over breakfast this morning, she reminded me that smashing the patriarchy is not an attack on individuals but on the social structures that constitute male privilege and related stuff.  I was stunned at how well she articulated this stuff--not because she is a girl but because she is seventeen and a year away from college. 
It didn't take me that long to realize how incredibly sexist such stuff was.  I immediately stopped referring to the females at Oberlin as girls, using women instead (even if some might find that male-dominated name problematic).  Indeed, I was and am still surprised when "girl" is used to describe an adult female.  Except when counting how many females we need on the starting line when playing ultimate (usually there are four guys and three girls, but sometimes teams will put four girls and three guys).

I was not only made aware of my male-ness and my white-ness but my straight-ness.  Oberlin was the first time I got hit on by a guy.  I also had openly gay friends at Oberlin.  I might have had friends in high school and camp that were gay, but they were not out.  

So, I left Oberlin significantly more aware of where I stood among various social divides although the privilege language came far, far later.  I moved on to UCSD, which apparently is another experience that privileges me over much of my profession since it is a highly rated program.  It had always been my impression that it was not considered a top ten school until long after I left, but as it turns out, the famous National Research Council 1993 ranking of the political science programs had it 9th!  I don't think the profession actually caught up to that ranking until a few years later.*  Even so, I guess I was more empowered/privileged than I thought because I had always believed that UCSD was ranked in the 20s until later.  So, this exercise in privilege unpacking has indicated that I was wrong about that.
* Indeed, most of the 1990s issues of PS had pieces aimed at revising the rankings--always, always, always ranking the re-ranker's school higher.  See here for an example.
However, there were limits to how privileged UCSD made me.  While the label has now become quite valuable (and I have no regrets about that label being attached to my name), at the time, a significant hunk of the IR field had just a wee bit of contempt for those at UCSD doing security stuff, especially those who considered themselves to be doing "security broadly defined."  Will has asked me to post the letters that were sent back and forth and around the discipline when certain folks were critical of UCSD and its stance on security.  I have yet to spend the time figuring how to redact the names of the innocents that were dragged through the mail.  But Will has seen them as have others--doing "security broadly defined" as I was in the early to mid 1990s was not a privileged position.  Those who held the commanding heights of the security field did not think so anyway.
     I did not leave UCSD with golden networks also because I worked with IPE professors and did not do IPE.  So, I met many of the big names who participated in workshops at UCSD, but did not get any lasting benefit.
    The big networking event that did privilege me forever after was not during my time at UCSD but afterwards.  David Lake, who arrived at UCSD while I was finishing my dissertation, organized a series of conferences on the spread and management of ethnic conflict shortly after I left town.  I heard of this by accident, if I remember correctly, and emailed David essentially saying: this is about all the work I have been doing the past few years, so sign me up.  He gave me the grant application, and I said here are four ways I can approach this set of issues.  If I remember correctly, he said do the one on contagion, and I ran with that.  The project produced an excellent edited volume, and I got to meet a bunch of really interesting people over the course of the workshops including Jim Fearon, Bruce Jentleson, Sandra Halperin, and ... Will Moore.  It also created a lasting impression that David Lake was my dissertation supervisor, but, more importantly, it did give me a connection to David Lake.  David is such an amazing supervisor to his students that they threw a party for him a few years ago at an ISA (or maybe an APSA) meeting.  He has been of much help over the years, including most recently advising me on how to manage advising multiple students on the job market.

So far, my privileges come from being white, male, straight and affiliated with UCSD.  I also come from an upper-middle income family, which meant I had no debt upon leaving Oberlin.  This meant that I could subsist in grad school on $12k a year along with my wife who was earning a smidge more than that as a literary agent (about $15k) in San Diego.  This again meant that I had no debt upon leaving grad school, which is a privilege that many others do not have.  It meant I could go to conferences even when they were not subsidized by my grad school or my first job.  I did stay with my mother in law at the APSA's in DC, which had consequences--having to leave the poker game early to catch the metro home.  But I did get to attend damn near every APSA and ISA since I finished grad school even the ISA a month after Teen Spew was born (and, yes, my wife gives me grief about this whenever that comes up).

Living in Lubbock and Montreal did help to make me appreciate just a bit what it means to be a minority.  I was a non-believer in a town where churches were the most important social networking entity, and I did not belong to any.  I didn't speak much French in Montreal.  However, neither of these minority status positions really affected me much--not my income certainly.  I definitely had smaller social networks in both places as a result, but I cannot complain too much.  The cops in Montreal even spoke English to me once they asserted their right not to do so.

What else is on Will's list of privilege potential?
  • Enjoyment of alcohol?  Check.  Not everyone feels comfortable hanging out at the bar at conferences.  I do, and I can afford (back to that socioeconomic status again) to buy over-priced hotel bar drinks. 
  • Enjoyment of controlled subtances?  Nope.  I don't know how much networking occurs at APSA while baked. 
  • Enjoyment of gambling?  Check.  The ISA and APSA poker games have been a boon to my professional development.  How so? I got to meet Pat James at a game in the mid 90's, and we have been friends ever since.  He has written letters of recommendation for me, reviewed my books, and been a mensch.  I also got to meet Sara Mitchell at these games, so I now know someone whose is laugh is almost as loud and piercing as mine.  Sara does great work not just doing IR but in networking/mentoring the next generation of female IR folks. So, these games are key networking events.  They are not exclusive, but the poker rooms (most often my hotel room) are small, which limits how many folks can play.  We have had new people cycle in and old people cycle out, but there is no systematic process by which people get invited.  It is a friends of friends kind of thing, which means that folks do not learn of the game and don't join it.  But there are probably other poker games at these conferences of which I am unaware.
  • Enjoyment of conversations that feature one-upsmanship?  Strange form of privilege.  But I sure as hell enjoy watching Will Moore and Scott Gates exchange stories while I sit and watch.
  • Interest in watching/discussing team sports?  Not entirely correlated with gender as there are males who do not care about sports and females who do.  But it is a shared conversation space that eases networking.
  • Interest in playing sports?  I discussed this in my earlier post--ultimate is the ultimate team sport as sexist teams are punished.  But again, yes, some people play and some don't.
So, by the standard measures, and Will's additional ones, I am pretty privileged.  We can add to the list--endowed chair, tenured professor, published, bearded. Not sure I would add blogger to the list as it might be a product of privilege but anyone can blog--blogger is free, easy to learn, and so on.  Same with twitter and other social media--my power position may enable me to say stuff that others cannot but the platform itself is available to anyone.  Lots of powerful blogging voices come from folks who did not start out that way--they had a voice that got picked up because of their ideas and how they expressed them.*
* Oh, and I forgot to mention in my previous post but engaging in social media turns out to be great for networking.  I met many people online who are smart, interesting, interested, and fun.  
 The real question is not whether I am privileged (despite spending the entire post on that) but how do I used my privilege and how do I take it for granted.  My first course of action is always to invoke Ben Parker: with great power comes great responsibility.  I don't have great power, but I do have power due to the privileges I was born with, that came with lucking into key strategic positions (like ending up at UCSD), that I earned through hard work or luck, and so on.  I know that I have said stuff (the man-splaining piece) that takes for granted my privilege.  My networking post took some stuff for granted, although I don't think I sinned as badly as Will suggested (how he grouped me in the "networking does not matter" crew).

I would like to think that I have generally used my position responsibly--helping those who have less power rather than oppressing them.  My last group of PhD students at my old department all happened to be women, and I think I did right by them--they all have tenure track positions.  I will continue to help them however I can as they make it through this profession. I think that is the most important and direct way I can use my position in the profession.  That and being fair when I review people's articles and their tenure packets.  I will try to make a better effort to be aware of what I say when I blog, with the caveat that my blogging is me thinking aloud and not all of my thoughts are fully formed. And I will take suggestions on how to do better.  I am always looking to improve--in my writing, in my teaching, in my blogging and so on.

I do think that if I spend all of my time trying to check my privilege that I will be wasting my time and everyone else's.  Self-awareness is a good thing, but paralysis is probably not a good way to proceed.  Anyhow, that is enough blogging for one Sunday afternoon.  Enjoy tonight's Breaking Bad--we got only seven left (and yes, I am privileged by my ability to get AMC!).

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