The power of indifference

Yonmei has a post up about The politics of indifference which I think makes a great example of privilege in action.

I’ve excerpted a portion (with one minor edit so the text doesn’t break my layout):

I have experienced bigotry directed against the minorities to which I belong, but not often. The most common reaction of majority to minority is indifference, not hostility: in my experience, the first hostile reaction happens when the indifference is broken by a minority question that the majority cannot ignore.

Years ago, I worked in a department that had grown from five people to a dozen people quite quickly, and the manager, trying to weld us all into a team, used to organise monthly lunches for which attendance not- exactly- compulsory- but- you’d- better- have- a- good- excuse- if- you- don’t- go. Habitually, to save time, when the bill was presented, everyone used to kick in the same amount (it was usually £10) and that would cover the cost of the food/drink and a tip. I was the only vegetarian in the department. The kind of places we went to never had a particularly exciting menu, and my options as a vegetarian were usually a baked potato with cheese, a vegeburger with chips, or soup with bread. (Sometimes there was a vegetarian salad.) These were all cheap options. The cost of my meal was usually about £6-7, and paying £10 every time was irritating. I tried to suggest, several times, that I’d rather we all paid for what we bought; to this, most people responded with “Oh it evens out in the long run”. I pointed out, more than once, that it didn’t even out for me, because the only meals available to me were always less than £10: to which someone always rejoined “Oh, there’s nothing to stop you ordering what you like”. When I finally lost my temper about the situation, and got hauled up before my manager and rebuked for lacking team spirit and trying to spoil other people’s team spirit/enjoyment of pleasant lunches together, it wasn’t because I thought that my colleagues were being hostile towards me because I’m vegetarian: it was because I had been confronted with their complete indifference to the situation that my being vegetarian put me in, at far too many departmental lunches at which I was expected not only not to mind part-paying for other people’s meals as well as my own, but not to irritate other people by talking about it.

One aspect of privilege is that you do not have to be aware of being privileged. If something is set up to convenience members of a privileged group, members of the group privileged will often react with anger and hostility to any reminder that the way things have been set up is not “just how things are”: that arrangements have been purposefully made to convenience members of the privileged group, with – at best – complete indifference as to how this may inconvenience people outside the privileged group. It should be fairly obvious why this is: if this is “just how things are” then they will not change: everything will always go on as it now is. If you acknowledge that “how things are” is a purposeful arrangement made to convenience some people and inconveniencing others, the question necessarily arises: why are some people deserving of convenience, while others are not?

I would suggest reading the piece in full for the rest of the examples and analysis she gives.

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3 thoughts on “The power of indifference

  1. Thanks for posting this. I agree that analyzing privilege is really important, and that story is an excellent, easily understood example of privilege in action. I’m going to have to start sending people to read it when we start talking about privilege, now.

  2. I’ve been thinking lately about exactly what element in my own guild’s leadership has been frustrating to me lately, and after reading this, ‘indifference’ is totally the correct concept. In word they agree about inclusivity and being respectful of others, but in practice there’s a huge amount of indifference to any actual violation of those values until someone says something / gets hurt and there’s a big fight over the ‘legitimacy’ of the victim’s feelings by the majority (who generally are totally clueless).

    Thanks for the link!

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