This post was originally published at Women in Astronomy.
I recently found myself in a heated internet debate on the concept of white, male privilege and whether or not affirmative action was necessary. The person I was arguing with -- who happen to be a white male, let's call him "Joe" -- was explaining to me that he hates the term "privilege" since everyone has privileges of different types and it's next to impossible to correct for those privileges fairly in job hires. Joe then gave me an example: "Obama's daughters have every privilege in the world next to my white, male cousins who will probably never live above the poverty line, but guess who'd lose when affirmative action comes into play?"
He had a point, but it wasn't one I was completely comfortable with. Joe was right that socioeconomic class can have a huge impact on our educational goals and career successes. Anyone living below the poverty line suffers from enormous lack of opportunity. If you have ever, for a moment, thought that poor people have a lack of motivation or intelligence, I strongly recommend you go out and read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. It's a baffling and poignant account of what it takes to get by in America on next to nothing.
But socioeconomic class isn't the only great segregator of society, and those of us who fight daily for equity in the workplace on gender, or racial grounds can sometimes be at a loss for words when someone tries to play the "class segregation" trump card. This is what happened in my rapid-fire internet exchange with Joe. He was arguing that class inequity was a perfect counterexample for affirmative action. Joe actually laid out his argument pretty clearly: "Because there's so much poverty out there, why do we bother fussing over gender and minority ratios in the Ivory Tower? Everyone who's there is smart and deserves their spot. Let's not muddy the water with unfair comparisons and labeling some as privileged and others disadvantaged when they're all in the top 5%."