Important Questions on Privilege and Power

In the past few months, discussions of privilege and power have come up in both professional and personal aspects of my life. I feel I am in a position to see both sides, as I have been both treated well by white mainstream culture as a minority, but have also been in a very bad academic situation which was both racist and sexist (and just terrible to students in general), and experienced a lot of racism while growing up. I have been speaking with people who feel very wronged, and with people who have no clue about differences. Sometimes I have seen reverse racism, which I think is equally as destructive as racism. I have seen outright insensitivity—and also its variant of ignorance.

Over the years, I have worked with extremely diverse populations and done a lot of work with international education in addition to higher education (in which I hold a master’s degree). So how do we heal rifts and divides? These are very complex issues, and the unfortunate Trump regime has brought a lot of negative aspects of race and privilege out of the woodwork. This has shown us that many people feel there is a downside to diversity and political correctness, and perhaps teaches us that we have left some people out of the discussion, no matter how wrong we feel they are. We have to be careful to avoid simplistic and knee-jerk responses and actions as liberals. We cannot threaten or implicate people just because they belong to a certain background. Doing so only creates more animosity and tension. We all need to inform ourselves with hard data and statistics to get the facts straight. But then we need to act with empathy.

So here are some questions that I feel are important for discussion. Unfortunately, despite my best attempts to avoid dichotomizing, I have created a dualistic model here. However, this does not simply mean white man versus minority woman. There are many white men who are in disadvantaged positions, and the recent Chicago mayoral election of Black lesbian Lori Lightfoot has raised many qualms that she is not necessarily “of the people.” Many of us may be in situations where we are in a position of privilege as well as situations in which we are not.

For those in positions of power or privilege, or who may be PERCEIVED to be in such positions, consider the following:

-Is it possible that you are not aware of the fact that you do hold some privilege due to your birth, SES, race, or favoritism? Self-awareness is key.

-Are you aware that others may feel your privilege and power as a threat? This is not to fault to you, but just to make you conscious of how you are seen.

-You and your ancestors may not at all have played a part in it, but are you aware of the roots of racism in America, especially with regard to slavery, the extinction of Native Americans, and immigration policy?

-You and people in your circles may personally be wonderfully supportive, nondiscriminatory, and nonracist. However, there is such a thing as institutionalized racism and if we look at the statistics, we cannot deny that there is still a lot of discrimination toward minority groups.

-What you might consider an innocuous comment might be perceived as a micro-aggression by the other person.

-Skin color does indeed make a difference and hold an advantage in American society. If you have never been in the physical minority before, visit a country or culture opposite to yours, and you will understand.

-I personally believe as an artist or writer that you have the right to include other cultures in your work or to create things in a style of a culture that is not your own. However, have you done it in a sensitive, informed, and culturally-appropriate way?

For those who are part of any sort of minority group or PERCEIVE themselves to be in such positions, consider the following:

-While hard data shows us it is true that white people generally hold more power and advantages in American society, be careful not to lump all white people together and make assumptions. A power-hungry white male Ivy League dean is not the same as a second-generation Hungarian factory worker in Cleveland. Many white people who appear successful now have come from disadvantaged backgrounds and worked their way up the class system.

-Rude, hurtful, or unpleasant remarks people have made to you may have come from a place of malice. Or they may have come from a place of ignorance or without any ill will. Is it possible in some situations you may be reading into things due to previous bias and negative mental filter?

-How are people really treating you/what are their actions? They may not be using the right terminology that is considered politically correct or culturally sensitive, but are they ultimately respectful and goodhearted? Don’t get obsessed with language.

-What baggage are you carrying that may affect your day-to-day life? While I agree we cannot deny the statistics that show there still is indeed a disturbing amount of discrimination on many fronts, be sure to work on your own mind, body, and soul to be able to distinguish between what is self-caused unhappiness versus that from the outside world. This is a very Buddhist/Asian perspective, and it is most important to start with ourselves, to have peace of mind before we attack or accuse others.

-Just as all white people are not the same, not all minority groups are the same. While this might sound like a no-brainer, sometimes there is a conflation of too many issues that do not apply across the board. Some minority groups might be privileged in certain ways, while disadvantaged in others. For example, an upper-middle-class gay male will still enjoy advantages if he is white and male, though he may face discrimination for his sexual orientation, as we can see with dynamic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg. Indians in America are the most economically successful minority group in the country and are highly educated; however, we have a different skin color, and most of us do not practice the mainstream religion of Christianity, so we may experience discrimination in ways that other minority groups do not.

-Many minorities are of immigrant origin and have opted to come to the United States. So, their narratives are not necessarily one of oppression as they would be for other groups who were brought here against their will, or who were already here and exterminated through genocide.

-Hostility and anger will get us nowhere. Work in constructive, positive ways. Build bridges, find allies.

We still have a long way to go with healing a lot of rifts and divides in American society. But hopefully these questions can help foster peace, communication, and constructive action.

A Response to Richard V Reeves’s Op-Ed in The Guardian

Just this morning, I read the article by Brookings Institution researcher Richard V Reeves on how elite university entrance is rigged, an op-ed written in light of the recent scandal with college prep fraudster William “Rick” Singer being caught for bribing and highly unethical activity to get children of the wealthy into prestigious universities.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/12/us-college-admissions-scandal-corruption-rigged
I am irate, as my alma mater of Stanford was one of the schools cited in “Operation Varsity Blues” (the FBI’s name for this bribing for admission scandal). Yesterday, the president of the Stanford Alumni Association sent out an email condemning what has happened:

Dear Stanford alum,

By now you may have seen news that the U.S. Justice Department has charged several dozen people around the country, including Stanford’s head sailing coach, as part of an alleged bribery scheme to try to win the admission of prospective students to a number of U.S. colleges and universities.

This behavior runs completely counter to Stanford’s core values. The university has consequently fired the head sailing coach, who later today pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering.

The university has issued a public statement here:https://news.stanford.edu/2019/03/12/stanford-statement/ and the President and Provost have published their own blogpost on this situation here: https://quadblog.stanford.edu/2019/03/12/the-sailing-case-and-our-resolve/

No evidence has been presented indicating that the conduct of the head sailing coach involves anyone else at Stanford or is associated with any other team at Stanford. However, we will be undertaking an investigation to confirm this.

As I hope you know, the integrity of our admissions process is absolutely central to the mission and purpose of our university. We will consequently continue working to actively address this situation so as to regain your trust in that process.

Sincerely,

Howard E. Wolf, ’80
Vice President for Alumni Affairs, Stanford University
President, Stanford Alumni Association

A necessary statement to assure is that the institution will not tolerate any sort of corrupt or unethical behavior.

I would like to comment on Mr. Reeves’s intelligent article. The key points he makes are that Singer’s behaviors were rightly caught and apprehended by the FBI, the whole system is corrupt and rigged in favor of the affluent, legacy children are admitted preferentially, as are the children of major donors, and that upper-middle-class families can afford to give their children tutoring, prep classes, and any sort of educational advantages possible. He also concludes by saying that these Ivy League and elite universities perpetuate socioeconomic inequality, and that the whole system is unfair. Mr. Reeves is British-educated, at the no-less-elite Oxford University (where I myself was an exchange student during my junior year, and which I would argue is even more unequal than any American Ivy League university), and holds a doctorate from the University of Warwick, a public research university. His body of work is quite impressive and is exactly the sort of highly-researched, intelligent, liberal writing that we need. He writes of his own background in a NY Times Op-Ed piece from two years ago:

which describes his own background, but again, makes some generalizations about American society. There were some things in The Guardian article that nettled me, a few sweeping generalizations again that seemed to ignore a more complex picture.

Both while at Stanford and after, I have sometimes felt that it is by and large an upper-middle-class institution, in terms of its ethos. The student body did seem to come from this socioeconomic stratum, and I have seen also how the upper-middle class is able to send their children to good private schools or live in wealthy areas where the school districts are very good but the housing costs are very high. The majority of my Indian-American peers were from well-to-do suburbs of big cities and from more prosperous families. I, in contrast, grew up in a very middle/lower-middle-class college town in the country in the Midwest, the daughter of Indian immigrants, and it was certainly a loving sacrifice for my parents to send me to a school like Stanford. I was fortunate that my parents valued education, that my father was a college professor, and that I got to visit a few campuses before applying for undergraduate admission. My public schooling was quite mediocre. My high school offered only one AP class, and I was able to take another AP exam on my own and do well enough to give me advanced standing in one subject in college. A number of students in my school did not go to college, or if so, they attended ordinary public institutions that were not at all selective. At Stanford, I often felt dazzled and bewildered, that I was truly on a different planet and with a very different social class of people. But the experience did indeed offer me mobility, as I had escaped my small town completely by my own efforts and volition. I also had other friends from the area in which I grew up who had a similar background, some of them children of immigrants, and some of them not. And some students who were quite bright were not able to apply to and attend private universities, so Reeves’s point does hold true in terms of economics playing a big part of one’s higher education.

But still, Mr. Reeves overlooks that quite a high number of students who attend the elite schools in America are children of immigrants, self-made, and whose parents made sacrifices to send their kids to top institutions of higher education. There are also a number of very ordinary middle-class and lower-middle-class students who attend elite universities (some of my closest college friends were from these backgrounds), and students who work during college in order to help support themselves. Also, the big schools’ large endowments mean that they offer loans and scholarships (if only Stanford’s generous package now offered existed when I was in college!), and the admissions are need-blind.

There is the issue of legacy students, but from what I have seen, the children are no less worthy of admission to Stanford than their parents and are highly accomplished in their own right. But I have indeed often questioned this system and felt it unfair, wondering if I did not get in to some universities because a legacy student who was equally or less qualified did. In terms of wealth, I had also wondered if I didn’t get into one of the Ivy League schools to which I applied because another girl with a similar profile came from a wealthy family. In the past couple of years, Harvard has come under fire and is being investigated for discriminating against Asian-Americans; having looked at some of the data from around the time of when I applied to college, I suspect I could be one of those who was not admitted due to this alleged racial bias. There is no question that children of donors and ultra-wealthy are being admitted and alarming fashion – Jared Kushner is indeed a prime, horrible example. At top public universities, there are also a number of very wealthy students who come from out-of-state and more and more, overseas. This has raised a lot of questions in places like California, where in-state residents have been protesting that they have been shut out due to wealthy internationals who pay more.

I can somewhat agree with Mr. Reeves’s point that these universities perpetuate elitism and inequality—but to a certain point and to a certain amount of the population. My feeling is that Mr. Reeves has commented on the recent scandal in a bit of a knee-jerk fashion, that he has overlooked the complexity of the picture of who attends Ivy League schools, that he does not see the subtleties of class mobility and class-crossing in the United States (would the son or daughter of an executive in Britain work at a pizzeria in the summer? I doubt that), and that he is overgeneralizing what is indeed true about the rich and upper-middle-class to all of the applicants to elite universities. Britain is an extremely class-conscious society, and though they acknowledge it openly unlike us here, there is a more ingrained sense of one’s place and perhaps even less mobility.

He fails to recognize that the top universities in the US also happen to draw the best minds and talents. If you are a physics genius, but happen to be the son or daughter of a doctor, are you admitted only because you are upper-middle-class? I think not. I recently have been involved with interviewing prospective Stanford students, and I have been impressed by the intelligence and ability and public service of these kids.

Stanford is very different from a Harvard which is very different from a Georgetown. This is very important to understand. Stanford is a younger university and an engineering school, and in any STEM-focused university, there is a no-BS atmosphere, due to the amount of work students must do.

In sum, does money contribute to and affect one’s higher education and class status? Absolutely. Is there inequality in the elite institutions? Yes, but not to the degree Mr. Reeves suggests, or at least not in the way he describes it. Do we need to do more as a society to work on reducing inequality? Absolutely yes, and it is dangerous how our society is becoming more and more class-stratified. Am I critical of Stanford University and other elite institutions? Yes. Am I a product of them? Yes, but I do think critically and don’t follow things blindly. And perhaps that is the first step toward reducing inequality and creating a more democratic society.

It’s Not Just White vs. Non-White: It’s Powerful vs. Powerless

The old guard Republican senator who keeps getting reelected. The Chinese real estate tycoon buying up property after property in the US, speculating, therefore causing the price of housing to become exorbitant and unaffordable – and he doesn’t even live in the the country. The lawyers in the firm that has too long a name because they have to include everyone who made partner. The entertainment star, a household name, who bullies her staff and pays them too little despite being one of the highest earners in the world. The magazine editor who promotes Eastern European teenage anorexia-chic as the ideal body image, and so Madison Ave sweeps up her aesthetic and spreads it around the globe. The Black man who headed a leading health insurance company (though 12% of Black Americans are still uninsured, according to the Kaiser Foundation) that is now headed by a man who himself endured serious injuries and feels sympathetic to customers, but the company pulled out of the healthcare exchange in many states. The tech CEO who reveals publicly his homosexuality with the hopes of encouraging others to feel it is ok, but heads a multi-billion dollar company that exploits workers overseas.

See a pattern here?

It is power. Or rather, the abuse of power, the misuse of power, by people who have too much. And this, like any sort of psychiatric pathology, cuts across cultures. Granted, we have to indeed admit and work on the sad fact that minorities face disproportionate discrimination in America, and the statistics don’t lie. A Black male has much lower odds of succeeding – even surviving – in this culture compared to his white counterparts. This intersection of class (meaning a disempowered class) and race is a continuing problem that we have seen increase over the years, and now it is heightened under the Trump regime. We cannot ignore race, especially as racial tensions and violence are increasing.

But if we look at race alone, we are not seeing the rest of the problem. We need to start looking more at class and disempowerment. This angle will allow us to see what we had been neglecting for years: disempowered white people, often from Appalachia or rural areas (the very voters who elected Trump, even after electing Obama). It will allow us to have more constructive dialogues about class and power. A white male running a Wall Street bank is not the same white male who’s a third-generation Polish immigrant working in an auto plant in Detroit. Asian minorities who are highly educated and well to do, living in wealthy suburbs, are not the same as inner city Asian minorities (such as Chinese in Chinatowns) or Asians who grew up in more rural or less-populated areas. I noticed this difference when I went to Stanford: I came from a small Midwest college town, from very modest means, the daughter of a professor, compared to most other Indian-Americans who were wealthy and from big city suburbs.

American society is becoming increasingly, and alarmingly, class-stratified. This is the elephant in the room that drives the problems that then get played out in race. We often talk about racism and racial violence, but we don’t talk enough about poverty. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice show that people at or below the poverty level have more than twice the rate of violent victimization as people in high-income households (https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/hpnvv0812.pdf). How much more proof do we need?

Political crusaders like Bernie Sanders have fought hard to address this problem. So have grassroots movements like Occupy. But still, too many Americans suffer not only from poverty, but powerlessness. We are forced to pay exorbitant fees, deal with unjust financial institutions, be cheated by our healthcare system, and receive no basic benefits such as maternity leave or quality education. The message from the last election is clear: both sides, the left and the right, are powerless compared to those who are controlling the institutions in our country.

The difference is, those who elected Trump failed to realize that social change has to happen systematically and institutionally, not willy-nilly by a madman with no political experience, who says what people want to hear in the worst manner of a demagogue. And thus, not only are the anti-Trump people disempowered by those in control – we also are also suffering from disempowerment by those who elected Trump, people who have no understanding of how to effect social change.

Truths about American Culture

Life in the United States is very often misunderstood, especially by those who come from countries that are fairly isolated from American influence, or that have a very old history of which its citizens are proud. Needless to say, the American media does much harm (and perhaps some good) in portraying life in the United States, full of stereotypes. One can only wonder how many American-hating terrorists have ever set foot on American soil or ever interacted with Americans before waging a campaign of hatred against them. Here are some characteristics about American culture that those overseas may not realize:

-Americans really ARE that friendly. Many visitors to the United States are surprised to find out that Americans in general are nice. They don’t usually have some agenda, ulterior motive, or centuries-long opinion by which to judge someone. American culture places a high value on being “nice,” friendly, pleasant, and smiling. (Americans are probably the only people who smile in their passport photos). Of course this can vary from region to region in the United States, with the brusqueness of the Northeast contrasting with the take-your-time-to-get-to-know-someone manner of the South. One must not read into the friendliness of Americans too deeply. Rather, it must be seen as the necessary social glue that holds us together, a country of nearly 320 million people made up of every imaginable culture, spread out over thousands of miles.

-All people in America are considered “Americans.” It is sadly true and hegemonic that race is based on a white standard in the United States. But the most insulting mistake foreigners make when coming to America is not understanding that “American” is a nationality, not an ethnicity, and it relates to birth and living here. This is especially difficult for Western Europeans, who generally come from extremely ethnically homogenous societies, to grasp; in their societies, nationality and ethnicity are one. Even those who accept that African-Americans are also “legitimate” Americans along with those of European ancestry fail to realize that the fabric of America is multicultural. People overseas might be astonished to find that even white Americans have a diversity of cultures in their ancestry: it is not uncommon to have German, Irish, English, Scottish, and perhaps some Native American blood in one’s “white” background.
And now, with the racial mix of America increasing further, many people have a mix of white and non-white ancestry, or a mix of non-white ancestries: many half-white/half-Asians in California, Hawaiians of European/native Hawaiian/Japanese ancestry, many individuals whose international parents of different races who met in graduate school or the military overseas (Indian and Filipino, Persian and Italian, etc.), and modern Americans of mixed races who marry others of mixed races which produce truly multicultural children (for example, someone who is half Korean, one quarter white and one quarter Cuban, someone who is Puerto Rican, Italian, and Jewish, etc.).
President Obama has brought some awareness globally to this issue, but still, American diversity is extremely difficult for many foreigners to grasp. It is of note that there are indeed other countries and cultures that are arguably more progressive with matters of race, such as Brazil, and with the recent spate of police killings of African-Americans, we still have a long way to go with creating a more harmonious society.

-America is not the same country everywhere. Many visitors or foreigners who come to the United States do not realize how regional America is in character. A Bostonian is as different from a New Mexican who is as different from a “Hoosier” (Indiana citizen). Midwesterners place a high value on community and non-confrontation; Californians value personal fulfillment and ambition; Washingtonians (from DC) value family name and status. Even among ethnic groups, one can contrast, for example, Indians in other parts of the country and Indians in California, or Jews around the US and New York Jews. Again, the homogeneity of finding the same McDonald’s, Target, or Trader Joe’s in different places may be what helps unify us when we are so physically spread out.

-The American education system, at its core, is about teaching students to think flexibly and differently. Many countries in the world, such as former colonies, place a high value on rote learning and a more hierarchical system of imparting knowledge (think Paulo Freire’s “banking model” of education). Communist countries focus(ed) on history and ideology (the verb in both present and past tense, given that there are still a few remaining communist countries). Western European countries focus on tracking students at an early age and specializing in high levels of sciences, humanities, etc. and ground students in their culture and deep-rooted history. The Nordic countries value academic as well as vocational education, and developing the whole person.
But here in the United States, what matters most is your individual opinion, even if it means challenging the system. Our heroes are individuals who did that–Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and George Washington defying the British. Being creative and innovative are highly valued traits.

-Religion plays a significant role in the United States, even if many people are atheists or not religious. The irony is that we are by law a secular society. America has a strong reputation overseas of having a very conservative, Christian right-wing religious streak. However, there are many Americans who live quite to the contrary who oppose the religious conservatives and fight ardently for a culture free from religion. They oppose the teaching of religion in schools or even wishing others a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” There are also many Americans who practice a variety of religions, who are Christian as well as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Wiccan, Native American, etc. who are rooted in their traditions and also respectful of other traditions. Many foreigners, especially Western Europeans, fail to realize that America is a haven for the religiously persecuted from around the globe. Diana Eck of Harvard has done much to shine light on America’s religious pluralism.

-Success is not a taboo. Granted, this will differ in degree in different regions of the country. More traditional parts of America that are highly community-based may frown on being too successful and regard it as being “too big” and a betrayal of one’s humble origins. But generally speaking, one is expected to be a success, there is no sin in being upwardly mobile or a social climber, countless courses, websites, seminars, and TV shows focus on how to improve oneself. The “can-do,” positive spirit is something that always takes foreigners by surprise, but again, like American friendliness, it really is true.