Being Better People

Yesterday I wrote about how our penchant for judgment precludes the formation of a just society; when we formulate our responses to systemic injustice in terms of personal responsibility we sabotage progress and turn it instead into a blame game.  But whereas it’s all too easy to point fingers at the abdication of personal responsibility as a cause of poverty or failure or other woes, we often overlook the necessity of personal responsibility in surmounting privilege.


All of us, by virtue of living in an unjust world, participate in unjust systems; to try and claim oneself free of all such influences is to engage in a race-to-the-bottom Oppression Olympics, an event in which nobody ever wins.  Admitting our culpability in these systems can be difficult: the vast majority of us do not like to think ourselves racists, and we don’t hate people of color personally – but if we participate in racist systems, are we nonetheless upholding white hegemony?  (As I’ve said previously, the answer is yes.)


The only way to truly change disparate outcomes is to change the structures in which we all operate.  As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in her summary of the extreme gender discrepancies in literary magazines, as revealed over the last three years by VIDA’s byline count:


My guess would be that the problem is less malign, but more insidious. I’d be willing to bet that every editor of every publication on this list is, in theory at least, committed to the principals of gender equity. But I’d also be comfortable laying money on the idea that they’re equally convinced that their subconscious biases, reliance on familiar authors, and processes to sort submissions and identify new contributors are sound and don’t in any way work to produce byline inequality. They’re probably uncomfortable with the idea of quotas and target numbers, in part because they want to have faith in their own processes. In other words, they can acknowledge a problem without thinking that it’s their problem. And making that connection is what’s important.


It’s all too easy to pretend that we’re not part of the problem, that we are better than the systems in which we participate.  But such willful blindness solves nothing; indeed, it only perpetuates the injustice.

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