No Woman Is an Island, Part 3 (The last one, I promise): The Privilege of Not Recognizing Privilege
A friend responded to my post of last week in a way that took me aback: “You said you were trying to educate yourself about the issues faced by non-academic university employees — but that is what you were!”
She was right. I worked for a major university for several years, first as a development writer, then as a speechwriter for the president and trustees. Yet I didn’t experience even a twinge of identification with the administrative assistant who spoke poignantly about the lack of university support for her efforts to keep her job while raising a family.
My immediate response was shock. Then I began to rationalize: We all worked long hours with little time off, but it didn’t register because I wasn’t a mother then. If I had had my son, the unfairness of university policies toward non-academic employees would have been evident to me.
But of course it’s not that simple. First of all, writers were treated differently from secretaries and AAs. I had chronic time-management issues: I was taking graduate courses at night, and often stayed up late traveling home on the subway, writing papers, or cramming for exams. As a result, I hit the “snooze” button on my alarm more often than was prudent, and tended to roll in to my purportedly 9-5 job closer to 10. (I seldom left before 6 or 7 — but neither did the people who started their workday at 8AM.) My superiors weren’t thrilled with this, but it wasn’t a dealbreaker. They learned to schedule meetings at which my attendance was mandatory for 10:30 on. I also suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and simply declined to come in to the office on any day when the temperature fell below 15 degrees.
These concessions didn’t seem unreasonable to me, and maybe they weren’t—I did excellent work, and could write as well at home as in the office, though after many subsequent years of showing up on time for client sessions despite blizzards, tornado warnings, and personal illness, my behavior strikes me as somewhat entitled. But what astonishes me is that I never considered that many coworkers did not share these privileges. The women (and one man) who typed the grant proposals and speeches I wrote were expected to be at their desks, ready to take orders, during regular business hours. If they were absent, or late, it was considered A Problem. The official policy governing our hours may have been the same, but enforcement was selective.
Some of these people were friends. We went to lunch together — always careful to return exactly on the hour, so the less privileged workers would not get written up. We talked about our relationships, our coursework—since many of them were also part-time students—and our plans for after graduation. What we almost never talked about was the difference in our status. I wasn’t a member of the academic staff, but I had a faculty ID. I could eat in the faculty dining room, which was not only nicer than the local coffee shops, but was subsidized and therefore much cheaper — particularly unfair since my salary was higher than those of my coworkers. I could take out library books for an entire semester, and I was exempt from late fees—a huge advantage for a student. And I could play with my hours in ways that they couldn’t. Ever.
I considered these women my friends, but I barely noticed the significance of the difference in our situations. This, I think, is like a white person who prides herself on being “colorblind,” not registering others’ races — all it means is that she thinks of her own race as the default, and tactfully declines to notice that others deviate from this standard. It assumes that one’s own position is “normal,” and that others’ hardships are embarrassments to them, possibly brought on by their own deficiencies, and therefore not to be called attention to. It is privileged nonsense, and I am ashamed to admit that I once bought into it, albeit unconsciously — and that traces, obviously, remain.