Monday, March 20, 2017

Reverse Discrimination

This weekend I've been conducting a facilitation training in Bellingham WA—Weekend V of VIII—and the teaching theme was Power and Leadership (each of the eight weekends we focus on a major aspect of what facilitators need to understand and keep in mind when trying to run dynamic and productive meetings).

While exploring the dynamics of privilege, Ma'ikwe (my teaching partner) explained that when people lose their privilege it feels like discrimination. Her essential point was that loss feels like loss, even when it's bringing everyone to even. As I sat with that it occurred to me that it might make a difference if your new position was the result of reverse discrimination… or maybe not.

In groups that work on becoming aware of how privilege skews the distribution of power, it's not unusual to consider adopting practices (at least for a time) where the group purposefully disfavors those segments who have benefited from unearned privilege and a slanted playing field. 

As an example, let's unpack the landmark University of California v. Bakke case in 1978, where the US Supreme Court looked at the affirmative action policy of the UC-Davis medical school to favor non-white applicants for the express purpose of correcting pernicious societal discrimination against non-whites. While the court ultimately struck down the UC-Davis policy for going too far, it provided the basis for supporting affirmative action programs in general, which subsequently became a legal precedent, and the underpinning of affirmative action programs today.

Two things are in play here: 

a) Recognition that there have been longstanding forms of discrimination in the society that are not what we want—I'm talking about race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, whether or not you have children—those kinds of things.

b) In the interest of hastening the process of closing the gap between what exists and where we want be with respect to those kinds of discrimination, it is acceptable, at least for a time, to adopt policies that intentionally discriminate against those segments of society that previously enjoyed the benefits of privilege.

The first point was addressed in Civil Rights legislation. It was the second point that the Bakke case pivoted around, and the focus of this essay is to explore whether there is any significant difference between how it feels to undergo a power drop because of a) alone (the loss of privilege), or because of a) and b) combined (loss of privilege plus reverse discrimination). While it's an interesting question in its own right, I am not looking at whether reverse discrimination is a good practice; I am only exploring its impact on those whose power is reduced by it.

My credentials in this regard are various. First I have been working as a consultant to cooperative groups for three decades, and understand that culture profoundly. In addition, I'm someone who has gobs of personal privilege—white, male, older, well-educated, articulate, heterosexual, Protestant—who has chosen to immerse myself in the subculture of intentional community, which is hyper-vigilant about discrimination, to the point where I am often suspect when I enter groups for the first time (How much is this dude aware of his privilege; has he done his work around it?).

Frankly, as someone who has been trying to do his personal work in relation to discrimination, it's an advantage for me to be in a milieu in which I'm more likely to be watched closely—because it so easy for people who benefit from privilege to be blind to its application. In short, I've learned to mistrust relying solely on my own perceptions and good intentions. I figure I'm more or less like other folks: a work in progress. Some things I catch; some things slide by (oops!).

Taking my credentials one step further, I have been subjected to reverse discrimination. Not often, to be sure (no need to cry on my behalf) but I've tasted it. I'm thinking in particular, of gender discrimination in the arcane world of income-sharing secular intentional communities. In that rarefied setting, where I lived for 40 years, the same action that men would be criticized for (labeled overly aggressive) were likely to be celebrated if done by women (labeled constructively assertive). It's a double standard and there have been times when I chafed at being subjected to it.

Apropos this consideration, I viewed the way I was treated as unfair and that pushed a deep button in me. Fortunately it didn't end there, but I passed through that awareness, and it was painful. By degrees I took into account the analysis that led to the choice of reverse discrimination. While I was undecided about whether or not it was an effective strategy (to accelerate the creation of the just and fair culture that the men and women I lived with agreed we wanted), getting to that more sophisticated understanding allowed me to move through my pain. Today I don't recall how long it took me to work through all that—like unpacking Russian dolls—but I recall experiencing outrage along the way. I recall that I didn't enjoy being discriminated against. 

But then who does? And I guess that was part of the point, giving me a visceral taste of what some experience as a steady diet. 

Maybe a person of privilege can get the same taste by simply losing their advantage—going straight to the level playing field. But maybe not. In any event, it took me longer to tease apart the layers of feeling when I was on the receiving end of reverse discrimination, and I've ultimately come to view that experience as both more complicated and more profound.

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