In the comments section of my post last Friday on women in science, a couple people were confused by the idea that bigotry and discrimination could be something done, for lack of a better word, accidentally ... even subconsciously. I can understand why that's confusing. Most of us were raised understanding that discrimination was a bad thing, done by bad people who thought that they were superior to the people they discriminated against. It's logical to look at the way we learn about discrimination and say, "That doesn't describe me, so I'm OK."
The truth, sadly, is a bit more complicated.
Good people—people who aren't supremacists of any sort—can and do act in ways that support systemic discrimination. We do this, not because we're full of hate, but because we're full of other lessons we learned as kids ... things like, "Girl stuff isn't as cool" or "people of that race aren't like me, and that's bad." We might not cosign those ideas if they were expressed directly, but they can still quietly influence the way we act. And, if we happen to have been born into a non-minority category, we have the privilege of not even noticing when those old lessons direct us to do things that discriminate—because, from our point of view, the world still looks fair.
Case in point: That post on women in science, itself. Several hours after I hit "publish", I realized that I'd managed to put together a panel on diversity made up of nothing but white people.
I didn't set out to do that. But it happened, nonetheless. And it still furthered discrimination, by making it appear as if there aren't women of color scientists worth talking to, and by implying that their perspective on the issue wouldn't be any different from a white woman scientist's. Neither of which is true. Without intending to, I left out the people who didn't look like me. And because I have the privilege of seeing myself reflected in the media often enough, I didn't notice the point of view that was missing until after I'd already published the story.
I'm writing about this now with the hope that it makes it more clear how discrimination happens, even in situations without big, evil villains. Sometimes, people with the privilege to not think about diversity don't, and they make decisions that leave out people not like them. When that same situation happens over and over and over, the people who don't look like the privileged end upmarginalized. It's simple. And, frankly, it's a lot scarier than big, evil villains, because it's harder to change. In the future, I'm going to try harder to think past my own privilege. And, whether your privilege is based on gender, race, wealth, sexuality, or culture ... I hope this post will remind you to do the same.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.