“Equality” shouldn’t assume we’re all in the same situation

When I was in high school, there were some people who didn’t understand why we had a Black Student Union and an Asian Student Union but no White Student Union.

When I was in college, one time we were eating in the cafeteria, and a white male heterosexual friend of mine looked up at a banner that said, “This is you” (or something like that) and listed a bunch of marginalized groups, and he yelled out loudly and indignantly, “No, that’s not me!”

At the last school I taught in, some students were upset after an assembly with an LGBT panel and said something to the effect of, “That was awful. They say they want to be treated just like everyone else, but they want to be special, too.”

This is a constant tension in a society that, at least as the American mainstream media portrays it, has no systematic racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia. It’s not a system, after all. It’s just a few crazed, backward individuals. As far as some people are concerned, there is no problem that needs to be fixed. So all these groups that seek to give voice and advocacy for the disenfranchised are useless. Why have a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People if you don’t have a National Association for the Advancement of White People? Why have a Black Entertainment Television channel if you don’t have a White Entertainment Television channel?

Problems exist
Well, first of all, I have to say that it is systematic, not just some crazed individuals. If you have presumably enlightened people asking if America is “ready for” a Black president or a woman president, then, it’s systematic. If you have Hollywood constantly pumping out White-centric movies with either no or only supporting actors of color (with the occasional Will Smith exception), then, it’s systematic. If well-meaning and supposedly “color-blind” White people keep mixing me up with other Asian-Americans who look nothing like me (totally different heights, skin tones, facial structures, mannerisms, and dress styles), then it’s systematic.

The problem is that life isn’t as simple as some people would like to believe. Yes, there are some overtly extreme bigots. Those people do exist. But most acts of racism, sexism, fill-in-the-blank-ism come from systems and people working along with the system without even knowing it. You don’t have to look any further than Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to see how this is the case.

I consider myself lucky. In many respects, I am in the privileged (not marginalized) group. I am male. I am upperclass. I am college-educated. I am straight. But if I were also White, I don’t know if I would recognize how crazy these accusations of “double standards” or “reverse racism” are. I think I’d be making those accusations. It would seem logical to me. “If I can’t have a White group, why can you have a Black group?” “If I can’t have a male group, why can you have a female group?” There are a few things to think about this if you really want to know the answer to these questions and don’t want to just feel smarmy and superior.

It basically all comes down to whether you think problems exist or not. If you believe that after the passing of certain civil rights laws that we all of a sudden have equality in the US, then of course such groups would be silly. If, however, you believe that laws are only the beginning and much work has still to do be done on people’s hearts and on the culture in general, then such groups should not only be allowed but encouraged.

Think of it this way: if a student in my school were to start a campaign to raise money for earthquake relief in China, would it make sense for me to object “Why are you raising money for relief in China? Why don’t you raise money for America? We just had an earthquake here last month!”? Not really. The earthquake in China killed upwards of 60,000 people. I don’t even know how many people (if any) died in the latest Bay Area earthquake.

Treatments have to fit the problem
Treating a problem isn’t favoritism. It’s sheer logic. It’s actually equality. Treating everyone the same when a problem exists isn’t equality. It’s lunacy. If someone’s right leg needs radiation therapy to kill a cancerous growth, it doesn’t make sense to give the left arm and brain radiation therapy as well in order to be “fair.” Real fairness means treating whatever body part needs treatment. It doesn’t mean giving the same treatment to all body parts. The medicine that cures you when you’re sick can also kill you when you’re healthy.

But who is really healthy in a country where -isms abound and are even ignored? Everyone in America needs treatment but different kinds of treatment. Let’s look at marriage as an example. Let’s say you have a marriage in which the wife does everything for the husband, and he does nothing explicitly positive for her. Basically, he does whatever he wants, and she facilitates whatever he wants. He does nothing she wants unless it also happens to be what he wants. The husband clearly benefits from this arrangement in superficial ways. If he wants to be pleased sexually, she will do whatever he wants. If she wants to be pleased sexually, he doesn’t have to make the effort to do so. If he wants a vacation, they’ll take one. If he doesn’t want to do the dishes, she’ll do them. If he wants to watch TV, she won’t ask him to do something else. If he wants to have a night out together, she’ll always be up for it. He will be above criticism. She’ll never nag him. It’s quite obvious that she benefits little from this relationship, apart from never having to make tough decisions and being responsible for the outcomes of those decisions. But let’s say we want this marriage to work before the wife commits suicide or leaves him. Is it enough to send her to therapy? Is it enough for her to just say “No, I don’t feel like it” every now and then? No. The marriage of this hypothetical couple needs therapy in both directions, but the therapy isn’t the same. The therapy the wife receives needs to let her know she can assert herself, that her happiness matters, that it’s okay for her ask for things, too. But the husband cannot receive the same therapy. He already knows how to assert himself. He already knows how to ask for things. In fact, that’s the problem! His therapy would have to tell him that even though he superficially “happy,” and even though the way he’s treating his wife is morally questionable, the main reason he should seek a marriage of equality and mutualism is that it’s even better than what he has now.

Humanity is not a zero-sum game
Relationships (between races, between marriage partners, between genders, between sexualities, between classes) are a lot like the prisoner’s dilemma. The version of the prisoner’s dilemma I got in high school had a four-part matrix with arbitrary quantities outlining degrees of desirability for the outcome. You and your partner have committed a crime and are being interrogated separately by the cops. If you confess and your partner confesses, you’re both going to have less happiness (probably more prison time). If your partner confesses and you don’t, your partner will get more happiness and you’ll get a little less. If you confess and your partner doesn’t, you will get more happiness and your partnet a little less. If, however, neither of you confesses (in other words, you cooperate with and trust each other), you both get more happiness (i.e., no prison time) than in all the other scenarios.

I can attest that a marriage of equality and mutualism lacks a lot of the superficial benefits of a totally dominant/submissive marriage, but the rewards are wonderful for both parties. And this extends to demographic groups as well. Yes, as an upperclass person, I wouldn’t really want a workingclass person stealing my money, but a society in which the rich were a little poorer and the poor a little richer I believe would be far better off than the one we’re living in now.

Next steps
There are a few things people in the privileged groups can do if they’re interested in really helping and not just having arguments:

  • Recognize that advancing marginalized groups doesn’t hurt you in the long run. It’s not us vs. them. It’s us with us. After that hypothetical couple goes through therapy, both will have a better marriage in the end for it.
  • Entertain the possibility that problems may exist. A lot of times it might seem like feminists or gay people or people of color are just whining and complaining or indulging in a “victim mentality,” but all they’re trying to do is get you to recognize that problems exist in the hopes that you’ll stop trivializing things with questions like, “If you have an X group, why can’t I have a Y group?” No one is saying “Woe is me. Pity me. Oh, poor me.” They’re just trying to say “Wake up! Can’t you see there’s a cancerous growth in this part of my leg? Can’t you see the cops have caught us and we have to decide whether to cop a plea or not?”
  • Form your own groups, but make them productive. No people of color are going to complain about a Whites-only group that seeks to educate other Whites about White privilege. No feminists are going to complain aobut a male-only group that seeks to educate other males about male privilege or sexism. No gay rights activists are going to complain about a straight-only group that seeks to educate other straight people about homophobia or heteronormativity.

There. I’ve said my piece. I said what I thought needed to be said. I realize many people will disagree with what I’ve said, but I hope it’s at least made you think.


  1. I’m interested in whether you think homosexuals face more (in terms of prevalence, frequency, or intensity) discrimination than other “traditionally” recognized marginalized groups. People of color in particular, but also women.

    I see discrimination against LGBT people quite frequently among many otherwise seemingly reasonable people.

    I don’t have any firsthand experience with any of these forms of discrimination, as I’m a heterosexual able-bodied white male – I’ve experienced social condemnation as a result of my speech, overt bookishness and social ineptness, although I suppose I could change or mask those things.

  2. mc, I don’t really like to put *isms in opposition to each other. I will say that while most reasonable human beings want to at least theoretically not appear sexist, classist, or racist, there are a lot of people (at least in the US) who are more than willing to admit they’re anti-gay. They may, in fact be proud of it.

  3. There are also many people who are more than willing to admit that they’re anti-fat.

    When I read the “Problems Exist” section, I could’ve hugged you. I had a conversation with a person at work over why there was a Women’s History course at my old college, but no Men’s History course. Silly — it’s because all of history is considered Men’s History.

    Nice post!

  4. THANK YOU for this post. I, too, have been privileged in many ways (mid/upper class, educated) but have seen enough of the often unsaid, covert, and it-runs-so-deep-in-our-culture-we-don’t-even-notice-it-anymore- -isms (related to gender and color) that I cannot ignore the plight of those that have seen a lot worse than me.

    The big question that I’ve been struggling with continually in the past few months is – WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT IT?!

  5. The big question that I’ve been struggling with continually in the past few months is – WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT IT?!-Hayley

    I’ve felt the exact same thing. For the time being, reading articles like this is at least helping me become aware. I guess we have to just keep thinking and not expect instant answers.

    Great post Ubuntucat!

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