Thursday, April 11, 2013

Teaching Sociology: Privilege Is Often The Little Things (Part something in a never-ending pop-pedagogical series)

My closet, more-or-less
Privilege comes in many forms; there's male privilege, white privilege, straight privilege, the list could go on and on. As a straight, white, middle-class (finally!), Christian male in the United States of America, I benefit from most all of 'em (if it weren't for my giant Semitic nose, I think I'd have them all).

Yet for how ubiquitous it is, it's a tricky concept to teach. Actually, scratch that, because it's so ubiquitous, it's a tricky concept to teach. Mostly because people who have it don't want to acknowledge they have it, and people who don't have it don't want to make a big deal out of it because it makes things really awkward for them when those with privilege throw their privileged hissy fits (which almost inevitably happens).

Privilege operates in some pretty impactful ways in society -- women make 77 cents on the dollar for the same work as men, in an increasing number of states women can't control their own reproductive systems, etc. Those are very big and important issues, and many people much smarter and more eloquent than I have covered them in-depth elsewhere.

But one thing I've found that has helped get the concept across to the skeptical is to save the giant, society-shaping ways privilege operates for a later date and instead focus on the tiny, micro-level ways privilege affects our day-to-day existance.

I was thinking about it this morning as I got dressed to go to campus. Today is a teaching day for me (tuesday/thursday teaching schedule ftw!), so I put on a collared shirt to show students I'm a Serious Academic. But I really only have about 6 presentable shirts that make it look like I at least tried to put some effort into my appearance. Not wanting to wear the same one repeatedly, I've come up with a tried and true method for varying my dressy wardrobe: I keep all 6 shirts in order in my closet. Each day I need to wear one, I take it from the front of the line, and at the end of the day, put it at the back of the line, assuring I'll wear the other 5 shirts before I wear that one again.

It's an awesome system that both keeps me from looking like the weirdo who wears the same shirt every class and keeps me from having to put any through whatsoever into what I'm wearing.

It's also a system that is pretty much only possible because I'm a man.

It's hopefully no surprise to anyone reading this that women are held to a different and much more extensively proscribed appearance expectations than are their male counterparts. While women are excoriated for not putting enough effort into their appearance, men are criticized for putting too much thought into their appearance (well, not so much criticized as subjected to homophobic taunts, but sic of one, half-dozen of the other). While this is undoubtedly harmful to men who do take pride in the appearance, it works out quite well for the fellas like me.

Most women I know, even the crunchy hippies and angry punx and all other variety of kooky lefties I know, put in a fair amount of time on their appearance. Not necessarily because they want to, but because they know they'll be harshly judged for not doing so. Whereas I am not only not judged harshly for spending a total of 15 seconds getting ready for the day, if anything that makes me even more in line with the gendered expectations for men (not giving a fuck about anything is a high ideal for men).

So all-in-all, not a big, earth-shattering deal by any means, but the fact that I can spend no time on my appearance and rarely if ever get criticized for it (as opposed to being force to spend a great deal of time on my appearance and still likely being criticized for it) is a clear and measurable form of privilege...


GrumpyCat69 said...

Women have systems like this, too. For a couple years, I only wore dark shirts and scarves to work. I had maybe four black shirts that I rotated in and out, and maybe like ten differently-colored scarves. People always focused on the scarves, so they never noticed (or mentioned at least) that I wore the same shirts over and over. But then again, I am a dyke and so maybe that's why I think I can get away with stuff like that ;-)

GrumpeeCat69 said...

Hey also, when do these shirts go into your laundry hamper...?