Topology of Privilege

I was born into a life of great privilege.

In addition to the unearned benefits that come with beginning life as a healthy infant in a white, middle-class family in a small American city in the mid-20th century, I am also grateful for the path that has given me a glimpse of the true topology of privilege.

As a young woman, I ventured into a field of science that 40 years later is still lacking racial and gender diversity. I know what it is like to be seated at the table and yet unable to make myself heard; to be dismissed and silenced, rendered invisible. I know what it is like to be the only one of my kind in the room, when anything I do or say is seen through eyes clouded by biases, and then twisted to confirm them.

In recent decades I have walked into rooms where I am no longer the sole representative of my kind, wondrously freed to be more fully myself. And I have been at the head of the table where my voice has been heard and listened to — even given too much weight at times.

Those who have always been silenced and those who have always had a voice cannot truly understand the difference between these extremes — it is thunderous. The simple act of being heard is life-changing; your ideas and your confidence are unshackled. It becomes possible to accomplish so much when the energy drained by fighting for basic respect can be channeled into creating and building.

Knowing this, how can I stay silent? I cannot ignore the weights I see crushing the potential of others around me — people I have known, loved and respected, as well as those I will never meet. Weights much heavier than any I have carried.

For my training as a scientist has also taught me to acknowledge the vastness of what I do not know. I do not know what it is like to be afraid for my life or the lives of my children simply because of the color of my skin. I do not know what it is like to live under the constant threat of abuse, intimidation and harassment. My body has not been worn down by the stress of living under these threats; it has not been ignored and even harmed by biases in the medical community. My confidence has not been eroded by the suspicious gaze of those in charge, by the incessant cloud of distrust and suspicion directed at me from a million sources. My imagination is strong, but not strong enough to truly understand what it is like to simply try to breathe under such conditions, let alone move forward.

What I can imagine is that change is possible, that we can work and build together to create a healthier, stronger society for all of us.

To begin, we must map the uneven topology of our world. In this I have also been fortunate. While born near the top of the mountain of unearned privilege, I have not been confined to the mesa that crowns its summit. From the level plane of this high altitude it is relatively easy to take flight, to spread your wings and reach your full potential, and many who live on the mesa see only a flat earth around them, confident in their unjustified claims of a world based solely on merit. They avoid the edge, denying its existence, preferring to erect invisible walls and fences to keep others out — and encase their own minds in a state of denial.

My privilege allowed me to safely explore a path beyond the edge of the mesa; to stand where I can feel the sharp angle of the slope and know that the mesa itself exists. To know that the world is not flat.

From here I can also see into the valley below, and I stand in awe of the brave souls who have fought their way up these steep slopes — clambering over rough terrain, dodging rocks and boulders loosened or thrown down from the mesa — the pain inflicted is indifferent to intent. I am humbled by the extraordinary strength and courage it takes to attempt this climb; outraged at the inequities that define the slope; and determined to fight for change.

For I was taught from an early age that acknowledging privilege should induce gratitude, not guilt, and even more serve as a call to action. Action that begins with working to better understand the privileges we have been given, and the challenges faced by those who have not shared these gifts — to seek opportunities to read*, listen, observe and reflect with an open mind; to look carefully at our own spheres of influence and ask what we can do in our communities, schools, and workplaces to effect change; to speak up when we see injustice; to rethink how we interact and react; and to offer support and encouragement to the efforts of others. Small actions multiplied by many individuals can create the momentum that will propel us to identify and implement the urgent changes needed on larger scales.

The strength and knowledge granted by our privilege should inspire us to build bridges and clear paths up the mountain; to use our entrée to the mesa to halt the brutal reign of boulders. It is time to open doors that have been nailed shut for too long, cheer as weights are lifted and rejoice in the accomplishments of those who now have a voice. Our humanity demands that we do so — and our world will be infinitely richer for the addition of the songs and strengths and joy of those who will then be able to fully spread their wings and soar.

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Suggested starting points for reading:

Kendi, Ibram X. How to be an Antiracist. One World, 2019.

Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. Random House, 2020

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. One World, 2015.

For my academic colleagues:

THE TIME IS NOW: Systemic Changes to Increase African Americans with Bachelor’s Degrees in Physics and Astronomy, The AIP National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy (TEAM-UP)

Particles for Justice — Resource guide

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