Letter: Perspective in a position of privilege

Posted by Matt Cowe

Humans are a tribal species. We like people who look, speak and act like we do. This may be because our brains evolved to categorize, to associate certain things with "good" or "bad," "safe" or "dangerous." This instinct is advantageous in the wild: I've never seen a tiger other than on TV, but if I see one in person, I'll run for my life.

Unfortunately, our societies evolve much faster than our brains do. If I had grown up in an all white neighborhood and my only exposure to racial minorities was through the biased eyes of the media, my instincts might take precedence, and I probably wouldn't be able to make any legitimate assumptions about them.

Yes, there has been a trend toward a more positive portrayal of minorities; I can think of at least three cartoons with highly intelligent black characters. But these shows are designed too shallowly to undermine the overwhelming amount of negative stereotypes: the murderers, the rapists, the high school drop-outs, the freeloaders who suck "our" country dry because they are on welfare. Remember that there is a difference between the idea that "stereotypes have to come from somewhere" and this endless recycling of narrow-minded dehumanizing caricatures.

As embarrassing as it may be, I admit to having prejudices of my own. It's reflexive, and although it's okay if the subject is a tiger, the same isn't true if it's a human being with all the same needs and frailties that I share. Passively absorbing these prejudices took no effort, but seeing beyond them requires constant vigilance.

I am privileged in many ways, being a white, male, native English speaker who attends a prestigious liberal arts college. But I am also unprivileged in several ways, being gay and from the only family on welfare in a town of mansions. As a result, I find myself caught in between.

Those who know nothing but privilege aggravate me. I have felt attacked without cause, and blamed for crimes I can't recall committing. I'm frustrated when the wealthy conflate their social status with personal achievement. I have been frustrated with heterosexuals who take their families' acceptance for granted, and who don't know what it is like to be the subject of constant political debate. It gets old hearing people

I argue whether people like you should be granted equal rights.

I have been on both sides of the conflict between the privileged and the unprivileged with fists and teeth clenched. But my anger isn't helping. It clouds my thinking.

Tension is mounting on campus. And although diversity discussions must be held, people don't take the time to breathe. Arguments become heated — which is understandable, given the gravity of the issue — but they need not become overly personal. There can be arrogance from both parties, an attitude that "I know all about, I'm right, you're wrong, and you are stupid and ignorant for disagreeing with me." And when this attitude emerges, it is far too easy to forget our common goal: a diverse and equitable student body.

Discrimination is dehumanizing in two ways: just as the abused gay kid is lowered to animal status by an attacker, so too does the attacker become an inhuman monster in the eyes of the victim. During these discussions, if we think of the other side as a bunch of ignorant wolves, then they will reciprocate this prejudice. If we keep our egos out of it, these discussions would be far more productive.

Finally, for those in privileged positions, have compassion for yourselves. It doesn't make you a bad person to be born into a position of power, to be frustrated by discussions on diversity or even to be ignorant to another culture or way of life. Sometimes the underprivileged don't handle these issues respectfully and will go out of their way to malign you. Some people are sensitive and are quick to get hostile. But don't get offended in turn; it's unfair, but that does not necessarily invalidate their position.

Embrace humility. Do not dismiss someone's ideas because he or she is hostile. Demand respect and patience and return it ten-fold. Read the literature. Broaden your understanding of discrimination and how it affects the lives of your peers. Go to lectures and meetings on the topic. But most importantly, set your ego aside and stop to think about what others have to say and what you can do to counteract inequality. Remember, fellow humans, remember to breathe. Deeply, and constantly.

Matt Cowe is a senior neuroscience major from Massachusetts.

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