The Illusion of Equality

Equality is by my estimation a basic human right. The lack thereof has inspired wars, protests, revolutions and social change. This country was founded on such principles, but saying we believe in equality often does not translate into practice.

This has been an equality inducing week in the United States – marriage equality, age-old symbols (Confederate flags) of human rights violations and anachronism being taken down from state houses – steps that just decades ago felt impossible. Using the law to dictate equality is an important and critical first step, but it is not enough.

We will continue to observe inequality across all parameters in our world- on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, economic status, disability status, and sexual orientation. Although the laws are shifting to a more equitable place, we CANNOT stand back and allow complacency to result in self-congratulation.

We are not out of the woods yet.

The robust literature on implicit bias speaks to the attitudes which unconsciously impact our behaviors and decision making. Simply put – our attitudes about factors such as race or religion or sexual orientation impact micro-choices and actions many times a day. The only thing more dangerous than a racist (sexist, ageist, or any other –ist) is a person who doesn’t think he is racist (or any other –ist).

Ask any non-majority group member and they will acknowledge this. Whether a black man who will observe that people walk a wider circle around him down the street, a disabled woman who notices that people may not make eye contact, a person of a different nationality who notices that people speak more loudly and slowly in her presence.

I recently had a bit of luck in my travels and received first class seats (not the norm for a college professor). Both times during my day, as I stood in line with the first class group of passengers to board, I was asked to step aside, and was loudly told by another passenger in this group “you need to wait, this is first class.” (I am guessing the speaking loudly was secondary to the presumption that I either did not understand English or I was dimwitted). I smiled politely and evinced my boarding pass printed with 4A and the word “FIRST” across the pass. The accuser stepped aside, nary a word of apology (there would not be an apology – as these are unconscious biases and typically lack insight). When I finally got up to the clerk scanning the passes, I carefully watched her scan the passes of my fellow travelers – on this flight they all happened to be Caucasian or men. She did not question a single one of them, but when I appeared she looked at me and said “First – right?”.

Oy. I was dressed simply enough in nice jeans and a black sweater. Hair combed. But I couldn’t really eliminate the skin color or my foreign name with too many letters.

Friends have since asked me why I didn’t make a stink, a fuss, pop them in the face. To which I responded “to what end?” Honestly, it’s a first world problem, and I regard it as dumb luck that I was even up there in the land of blankets and free booze. However, whether it is being called out in an airport line, being followed in a store because it is assumed you will shoplift, service employees avoiding eye contact, or the assumption that a student of color is at an elite university because of affirmative action – these microinsults and slights accumulate over a lifetime and erode identities and truncate our narratives. These assumptions are implicit, ergo they will keep happening because the transgressors aren’t even aware of their conduct. At a societal level this mountain of “unawareness” can foment institutionalized inequality in all sectors.

My parents told me as a child– “you better get an education, because they are going to see your face and assume you are not competent, the education will shield you.” I get it, but that is an inequitable assumption as well, as though education should result in “better” treatment by the world at large. They were partially right, the education has helped me move through the world more easily, and when faced with such biases I can at least try to play the “doctor” card. That shuts most people up, but you can’t unring a bel, and the slights still sting. My education placed me in universities and other worlds slightly more free of such biases, but whether professor or pauper, Black or White, man or woman – we are all vulnerable to holding these biases AND being recipients of them.

As long as we use mental shortcuts to organize our world, and these mental shortcuts reflect our implicit biases – all of the laws and SCOTUS rulings in the world will still not cut to the core of our careless split second decisions and behavior. These quick release decisions can be nuisances (e.g. being asked to leave a line) or deadly (the use of unnecessary force by law enforcement). These hair trigger reactions cannot be mandated by the law. These reactions may not even be that amenable to change. The only “interventions” may require us to simply be more mindful, AND more willing to take responsibility for our words and actions on the back end. A tall order in a world where mindfulness is relatively rare, and taking responsibility even rarer.

The rulings and changes of the past week are critical – they allow people to achieve greater equality on a visible playing field.

However, it is the invisible playing fields that may still do us in.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, July 2nd, 2015 at 3:15 pm and is filed under Media and Mental Health. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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