I am the child of privilege — or so I am being told. I am white, I am male. Put them together and you would think I’ve been sitting on a trust fund — unearned, unappreciated and unjustified. There are people who think that being male has historically been an unalloyed privilege. The many dead of our national cemeteries suggest otherwise.
Let me concede right at the top that it was always better to be white in America than black. Let me further stipulate that in the workplace, it has usually been better to be a man than a woman. Let me further stipulate — or possibly assert — that the situation is finally, belatedly improving. Hallelujah.
My first real job was with the New York office of a national insurance company. Sexual harassment was a problem, for sure. But the term did not yet exist and the problem was not formally recognized.
We had no acknowledged diversity problem, either. In fact, we simply had no diversity. African Americans, Hispanics — you name it: None. Our office was exclusively white and not by accident. When I asked my boss why we had no black employees, he told me directly that it was his policy not to hire any. And when once, by accident, a temp agency sent over an Asian file clerk, she made the mistake of using the common ladies room. Women from the office next door demanded she be fired. She was.
When my mother died, I wrote that had she been born in a later era, she could have been president of the United States. Her competence was awesome and her drive was remarkable, but she was kept in her place by discrimination and tradition. Now her place has been taken by my sister. If President Trump is limited to one term, it will be because my sister has organized most of New England to oppose him. When it comes to warnings, Paul Revere has nothing on her.
When I went into journalism, it was mostly a guy’s thing. It was rare for a woman to be a foreign correspondent, rarer still for one to cover a war. My career surely benefited from that. There are women around today who I am glad I didn’t have to compete against when I was starting out.
All this is by way of saying to women: I’m on your side. But when I see op-eds, such as the one recently in the New York Times that states in the headline that the Metropolitan Museum of Art should not have appointed “yet another white, male director,” I recoil. That’s just another way of saying that white and male is a disqualification. Diversity in the workplace is an overdue goal, but it can amount to a quota by another name. Choose a woman because she’s a woman and you’ve eliminated a man because he’s a man.
It’s not that anyone is fooled by obfuscation. Some of the resentment in the white, male electorate is based on the conviction that the deck is suddenly stacked against them. That’s Trump’s constituency, right there. (He got about 63 percent of the white male vote.) Someone has to tell those guys how deceived they are, how they have benefited all these years from being male and white. Forgive them if they do not understand.
Once I was passed over for a newsroom position I very much wanted. “We needed a woman,” an editor told me. I said nothing, although I seethed. In short order, I was made a columnist, so I didn’t even get a chance to cry. But the instant rush of utter unfairness lingers. The woman chosen was qualified, but her qualification had nothing to do with her sex. I was told she was just a needed statistic.
The way women have been treated in the workplace is wrong — everything from pay disparity to sexual harassment to outright discrimination. But the past does not obliterate the solemn obligation to treat people as individuals, not primarily as members of a sex or race. Fairness demands it. Democracy requires it.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.