General

Diverse Advantage, and Diverse Adversity: We All Have Privilege to Check

My name is Matan Koch. I am White, and as such belong to a racial group which had effectively, if temporarily, conquered the world by the early 20th century. In pursuit of Empire, the European powers traversed the world, concurring, exploiting and enslaving. Nearly ¾ of a century after World War II signified the beginning of the end of the colonial era, whole regions of the Globe are defining themselves in terms of how well they have managed to recapture their own culture and self-rule after European dominance. In my own country, my race holds a slim majority in population but a vast majority in opportunity and economic power. Our other races, one with a not too distant history of enslavement, all with a still unfolding history of discrimination and exploitation, still experience an incredible deficit of opportunity in terms of education and economic resources. This is in addition to outright discrimination, legal until 50 years ago, and prevalent today.

My paternal grandfather, a White man, had a college degree, and worked for most of his life in White-collar careers, from business ownership to teaching. My paternal grandmother, a white woman to whom he was married from when they were each in their early 20s to his death at the age of 83, also took college courses, and worked professionally in careers ranging from music education to high school and collegiate audiovisual. My maternal grandfather was also white and also had a college degree and worked as an accountant for his entire professional life. I know less about my maternal grandmother, but she was white and, though, to the best of my knowledge, she had no education past high school, did secretarial work in office settings. They too were married from their 20s to her death in her 80s. My mother has a bachelor’s degree and graduate education, and worked for 35 years as a Jewish education professional, both teaching and running large religious schools. My father has a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a five-year professional degree, and has spent the last 35 years working as a congregational rabbi. Both of them had fairly stable home lives. So did I, and I grew up knowing that I was going to go to college, exposed to philosophy, literature, and art in the home where I grew up, while simultaneously learning everything from cultured grammar and diction to basic math and science.

My father helped me with college admission essays with greater skill than the average guidance counselor. I applied to Ivy League schools secure in the knowledge that I had all of the basic skills for which they were looking, most of which had been in my family for 3 or 4 generations. Today, I go into cultural events or job interviews with a look and sound that sociologists tell us even minority interviewers have been indoctrinated to associate with success. It is ridiculous not to acknowledge this massive source of privilege.

My name is Matan Koch. I have Cerebral Palsy. I use a wheelchair and personal care. My voice sounds a little different, and one of my hands is visibly contracted. In a country where my basic needs to survive are guaranteed only in poverty, the employment rate for individuals like me is a tiny fraction of the general public.

Until I was 10 years old, it was legal to discriminate against people like me in employment. I would be 12 before the law would mandate that places of public accommodation need to make themselves open to me, and grandfather clauses insure that, in many cases. they still do not. My ability to gain public education was only first legally proposed shortly before I was born, and is still often subject to litigation. I would still not be guaranteed accommodation in private school.

In many countries in the world, I am considered subhuman, a thing to be hidden, of no redeeming value as a family member, and certainly not as a professional. Short decades before my birth, states in my own country were forcibly sterilizing folks like me, and it was not until just before the turn of this century that the Supreme Court stated that I have a right to live in the community, rather than experiencing the warehousing in abysmal institutions that was the norm not long before and, sadly, has still been reported in this decade. Though an Ivy League graduate, I am regularly infantilized and presumed unable. When I roll into a job interview, there are times when, stellar resume notwithstanding, I know that it is over before it begins as people start hinting that I might be better and a job less demanding than whatever it is that they have in mind. I am the consistent object of systemic discrimination, and have it markedly better than many other Americans with disabilities.

My name is Matan Koch and for those unfamiliar with the name Matan, I am male. For thousands of years, my gender treated women as chattels, submissive property. Women got the franchise in living memory, and were legally vulnerable to sexual harassment on the job in my lifetime. The male bias in my culture is so pervasive that it is difficult to truly see.

I did not begin to understand that until a piece that I was given in high school English class made the point vividly. The author wrote a paragraph about a day in the life, but instead of defaulting to male terms for traditionally male professions and female terms for traditionally female professions, it defaulted to White for traditionally White dominated professions and Black for traditional minority professions. As a class, we viscerally reacted to reading about policewhites and sanitation blacks in a way that policeman and stewardess did not quite stand out. The generalization is frankly just as egregious, but we are still used to it that we do not see it.

My gender gets better jobs, gets paid more for the same job, and still dominates the senior positions in every industry. Basic biological realities experienced by my gender are normative and accounted for in employment, while rights around pregnancy and lactation still require a massive fight. My gender has boasted every single American President, and still dominates the clergy even in those religions where it does not have a monopoly. Sociologists tell me that my gender’s thought process is the norm of the business world, and that only now is corporate America beginning to stop telegraphing to women in business that they need to think more like men. I have an incredible advantage.

My name is Matan Koch. I am a Jew. The systematic slaughter of my people has persisted from Ancient Babylon to Nazi Germany. In many places around the world I am still hated and reviled, and would need to hide my religious identity. Even in this country, without a legal history of religious persecution, my people were subject to pervasive distrust and discrimination at least as recently as the childhood of my parents. I still face regular attempts at conversion, though, not, like my ancestors, at the point of a sword, and periodically, even in this country, some disaffected malcontent will do their darndest to go to kill a bunch of my people. The latest one, in Kansas, did not manage to kill any Jews while tragically killing three Christians, but, he was trying.

Corporate America and law firms had quotas and hiring restrictions on my religion well through the 1970s, and the voices on the radio routinely tell me this is a Christian country. If history is any judge, even the Jews of a society where they are doing well might eventually find themselves dispossessed, as were the well to do Jews of Spain in the late 15th century. I have known ethnic discrimination.

All 4 of these are true and accurate, to the best of my knowledge. They are integral parts of me. Unquestionably, my life would be harder were I a minority Jewish woman in a wheelchair, and easier if I were a nondisabled Christian White man. It seems to me that the flaw in the relatively myopic and immature Time magazine article that will not die, mentioned again in a discussion group in my house this week, is the failure to recognize that the same person can have both privileges to check and disadvantages to acknowledge.

If I am to have a meaningful discussion with a nondisabled African-American male, I need to check my White privilege, he needs to check his nondisabled privilege, and we should both be aware of the privilege that we have by being men. It is remarkably shortsighted to think that only those that have not faced disadvantage have privilege to check, and this appears to be the article’s biggest weakness. I strive to go through my life interactions cognizant of my privileges, even as I cannot escape my challenges, and I think no amount of adversity is sufficient to negate the value of that approach.

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