A while back, I wrote about the racial privilege associated with speaking forcefully and having your message heard. I argued—and continue to believe—that folks of color are more susceptible to racially charged interpretations of their tone of voice. In other words, a black guy offering the same message as me would, more often than not, be painted as “angry” or “militant,” while I would, more often than not, be seen as “passionate” or “engaging.” When I get into an impassioned rant, my audience—particularly white audiences—may think I’m a bit over the top; I’ll concede that. But my words and tone aren’t going to trigger the racialized stereotype of black male hyper-masculinity and irrational anger, since, of course, I’m a white guy.
A few of our thoughtful (and sharp) readers suggested that the racial privilege I wrote about was also gendered—meaning that women are not afforded the same privilege to speak forcefully without fear of negative stereotyping.
I have to admit, this was a pretty egregious oversight on my part. Given the current political climate—from Hilary Clinton to Sonia Sotomayor to Michelle Obama—it's clear that strong, prominent women haven’t exactly received the most positive national news coverage. Clinton’s been called “shrill,” Sotomayor’s been called a “bully,” and conservative blogger Michelle Malkin begins each post on Michelle Obama with a picture of the First Lady scowling or frowning—a racially charged attempt to depict her as excessively scary and militant.
Such instances are not simply relegated to high profile women; it’s a safe bet that most of our (assertive, thoughtful, vocal) female readers can relate to this pervasive stereotype. Moreover, this isn’t simply an example of a “double standard;” rather, it’s male privilege in action. If I bang my finger on the table during a rant in a seminar here at Harvard, no one’s going to call me “shrill” or “domineering.” These are words used to describe folks that defy stereotypes and resist domination or subservience. These are words used to put them in their place, to remind them they’re not white; they’re not men. These are words that evoke, employ, and perpetuate privilege.
While I can't really speak from personal experience, dating a woman in corporate America has helped make these gendered stereotypes salient. Big business—a male dominated field predicated on assertiveness and team-based problem solving—is probably one of the better examples to illustrate male privilege and the gendered interpretation of tone. Consider a corporate team planning a company’s new investment strategy. The team leader is, statistically speaking, most likely a white man. He’s leading the group in a brainstorming session, and invites input from the team. The majority of the team is, statistically speaking, most likely white and male. Everyone is generally cordial and polite considering they're working together toward a common goal. But when male and female team members assert their respective dominance, they prompt two very different responses.
See, when a male team member speaks out of turn, interrupting the flow of conversation to interject his brilliant idea, he’s a valuable asset to the company. He’s being a good team member. He’s assertive. But when a female team member tries to compete, simply asserting her equality and intellectual evenness with her male counterparts, she’s excessively domineering. She’s overstepping authority, displaying improper professional etiquette. She’s a bitch.
Ultimately, these stereotypes may—perhaps, obviously—fall most severely on the shoulders of black women. Black women that forcefully assert intellectual or physical equality with men are doubly susceptible to negative stereotyping as “ghetto,” “shrill,” or a combination of the two. Privilege isn’t an either/or phenomenon; multiple social identities create multiple structures of privilege, and black women find themselves at the bottom of this stratified order.
Look, this (admittedly oversimplified) example is not meant as an indictment of corporate America, nor is it indicative of every woman’s professional or personal experience. But it most certainly reflects decades of social science research on the perceptions of women in positions of power. And, more importantly, it most certainly underscores an underappreciated mechanism influencing social inequality.
The problem here is when privilege translates into material winners and losers; when privilege affords job promotions, favorable peer evaluations, and wage premiums, and lack thereof results in economic, political, or social ceilings. Privilege is a very real—and pernicious—component of inequality. The measures needed to correct these racist, sexist, and generally misguided notions are, of course, debatable. But the privilege is real, and it carries a material impact. Exposing and recognizing it is a necessary first step toward greater equality.