By Lauren Klauber (7/2012)
Race, class, and gender describe my preordained participation in a specifically definable, and dependably distinguishable group of similarly branded individuals. I am a white, upper-middle class, heterosexual female. I do not generally characterize these definable qualities simply because they were characterized for me rather than by me. Since I was born I was told I was white, I was told I was a girl. These qualities were designated, labeled and perpetuated. I was white, not Black, not brown, not pinkish-tan. I was a girl, unlike my brother I had a vagina, I played with dolls, and wore dresses. I did not have a penis. I was not a boy. These were all clearly made distinctions, I realized quickly that these were desperately significant distinctions that I would need in some foreseeable future. Of course these features became more concrete through time. I used the girls bathroom instead of the boys at school, I also knew boys had cooties and that my friend Simone was in fact Black. These labels were nominated, distributed and strictly reinforced by my peers. I was being branded.
My social class is does not speak to my character. It doesn’t say anything about my beliefs or conduct. It doesn’t accurately represent my abilities or my limitations. My vagina is not indicative of my character. It is not a marker of my individuality or of my behavior. My whiteness is not a quality of my personality, nor is it an indication of my potential. It does not say anything about who I am as an individual. But it is a box I have checked many times. If it isn’t important to me, it sure is important to someone else.
Who is this person that finds my race, my sex, and my class so desperately important? I suppose we all do. We are human beings. We are predictors, calculators, and manipulators. We classify and define. We structured our society in a manner of hierarchy and privilege. We establish order and rules and erect institutions that preserve these cliques. My social location, my socially structured primary status, is in fact, just that, a social status. I am an upper-middle class, white, heterosexual woman. I checked the box and I am profoundly responsible for this identity.
Being a white, heterosexual woman means being a member of a particular social and political category, one that is continuously sustained by the individuals who are indisputably and unintentionally in it. I belong to a notoriously recognized group of mediocrity, of privilege and prospect and ultimately the benefactors of the authentic experience of freedom. It is relatively easy to identify my status of privilege and to market my foreseeable naivety but that would be a vast disservice to my identity. The relative understanding that my mere existence acts as an oppressive social power that perpetuates my groups’ continued success is understandably uncomfortable. Like many others I did not choose my sex, nor my race, nor my social standing however, I unconsciously and reflexively maintain it.
What does it mean to be white? I know what mean to not be African American, to not be Latino. I know that I am not ethnic. In fact, in most cases I feel raceless, colorless, and indistinguishable. I fear that my race, or my lack of race, threatens an opportunity for individuality and uniqueness. I fear that being white holds no true strife by which character and identity mature. My lack of race has undoubtedly hindered my acceptance to any multitude of universities in search of diversity and originality. I fear that I am fiercely uniform. But while my race may hinder my projection of originality it has unconsciously succeeded in a manner I am unaware of. The uniqueness of my gender is more evenly distributed. In fact, every other person in this world shares this facet of my identity and in which cases makes me feel far less inadequate. My identity as a woman will undoubtedly influence my potential success in the work field. Besides getting better service at bars and my father’s unavoidable disappointment in my lack of a certain genitalia, I haven’t experienced the social ramifications. But I haven’t failed to recognize this unspoken competition between men and women. I have always been especially aware of men’s designated power over women but I feel that even across my generation, women have become increasingly more powerful. I have seen this change. I have witnessed successful businesswomen, and powerful female political officials. I have seen incredible female athletes and blue collar workers. According to Connell’s patterns of social gender order, our generation is experiencing a profound transformation, “The gender regimes of institutions usually correspond to the overall gender order, but many depart from it. This is important for change. Some institutions change quickly, other lag; or to put it another way, change often starts in one sector of society and takes time to seep through into other sectors.” (Connell, The Matrix Reader, p. 21) My class, however, has played a vital role in my abundance of privilege. I was born and raised in an affluent neighborhood. The majority of my peers received similar advantages. I was never hungry. I was always clothed. I knew I would go to college. These things were customary. I learned I wouldn’t have to work very hard. Perhaps my race wasn’t a defining factor in my college admittance but I know my money was.
Race may only be a social construct but a powerful one, and the concept of the white, heterosexual male continues to characterize a social jackpot of sorts. For those who are poor, ethnic, female, or any combination of three, privilege may be sparse and oppression desperately present. In America we are free. We are blindly encouraged by the prospect of opportunity and equality. But how free are we? These social institutions act as modern caste systems, perpetuating stereotypes and maintaining valuable social constructs. Discrimination and oppression are forcefully systematic and privilege so impossible to escape.