I identify as a white, middle class, male-gendered ripple on this quasi-spatial persistent illusion we call life. As a member of the dominant group (at least in these categories) it is difficult to tease out the precise moments of acute realization that I “belonged” to any of these groups. Rather, it seems like I exist in the way things have always been: in the way my life was always meant to be. Nonetheless, the following is my attempt to unearth the scaffoldings that molded me towards this set of identities and to expose the ways in which my pathway through engineering has been (and will be) altered by them.
The most complicated of these identities is that of being male. I am as comfortable as it is possible for one to be with the chemical cocktails that pump through me and with the genitals that dubbed me male at birth. I recall an early conversation with one of my parents from which I arrived at the conclusion that the only differences between men and women was that women had more stuff attached to the top and men had more stuff attached to the bottom.
Certainly I was naïve then, and perhaps I remain in a similar state, but this clearly inconsequential difference served only to reassure me that there was no reason to want to be anything other than I am. This would prove more difficult in the coming years as I entered school and learned of what it “means to be a man” in the eyes of people outside my family, but while I harbor great distaste for societal conceptions of what manly behaviors/activities/etc… are, I never felt any reason to be less than content with my birth gender.
With respect to these expectations of what men do, I’m a little bit at odds with the norm. My parents raised me with an emphasis on doing what I found interesting rather than engaging in typical “boy activities.” I learned to sew, and knit, and cook. I didn’t enjoy playing football or war or hunting. I loved to play music and gained proficiency with the flute and piano. From my point of view, none of these had anything to do with my gender. It was only in late middle-school that I started to experience pushback for these “non-masculine” activities. I engaged in a bit of “normalizing” to better fit in. This didn’t change the fact that I see myself as male, but it was then that I realized that my gender expression (though I didn’t know the term) was less than standard.
I don’t think my gender identity had much impact on my choice to pursue an engineering career. Mom was an aeronautical engineer before she was a stay at home mom so I fully believed that anyone could and should be an engineer based only on their intelligence and wit. The only way this might have affected my choice is in the kinds of majors my high school teachers suggested. It’s possible that they suggested careers that fit their perception of male careers, and I was very much influenced by my teachers’ suggestions because they are people I respect. At college, my gender has strongly influenced my success. I haven’t experienced anyone telling me that I don’t belong in engineering.
In fact, I feel nothing but encouragement. In contrast, I’ve heard stories from my female friends that lead me to believe that this is not the case for them. I expect that this effect will only increase as I move on to my professional engineering career. It seems unlikely to me that centuries of injustice will evaporate over the next year or so, and engineering is historically a very unfriendly field for women. This will impact not only my success in finding a job, but also my emotional wellbeing. I can well remember the stresses present in early high school when I had difficulty finding other people who were cool with my love of “feminine” pursuits. The lack of this internal pressure in my professional career will undoubtedly increase my sense of fulfillment compared to a female or non-traditionally gendered co-worker.
It was also during late middle-school and early high school that I became aware of what my socioeconomic status meant. I realize now that my parents worked extremely hard to make sure that we never thought of ourselves as lesser than the other kids we went to school with. We had new clothes when we needed them, brought snacks to school, and never had difficulty getting school supplies. In middle school, Dad was contemplating moving to Michigan for a higher paying job. I was involved in that decision making process so I started to understand our financial state.
We didn’t have the money to go on fancy vacations over spring break, and Dad was concerned that he’d have to work forever before he’d saved enough for retirement. Nevertheless, we never lacked anything in a major way and I continued through life with true contentment rather than forced acceptance. After I moved away to college, my economic status shifted somewhat. I’m not directly under my parent’s care and I have to provide for my own expenses even though I have scholarships that cover a large part of my tuition. I must work at least 15 hours a week to make enough money to eat and pay rent with a net gain of about 0 each year without asking for money from my parents. This change means that I identify more with the lower middle class than ever before.
My less affluent status means that I have more difficulty balancing the time I spend, working, sleeping, studying, and socializing. It is certain that my schoolwork suffers because I don’t have as much time to devote to it and don’t have as much time to sleep each night. In extreme cases, my social life suffers and my emotional health is also impacted. None of this, however, puts me on the same level as a person who has a poorer background. I don’t have to worry about what I’ll do if I have to work less to spend more time on homework and studying because my parents are capable of supporting me if need be.
In this way, I retain a good deal of stability that I feel very privileged to have. I don’t think my socioeconomic status at all influenced my decision to become an engineer. I’m an engineer because it’s interesting, not because I want the money to live better than my parents. With regard to my eventual success as an engineer, I think the fact that I always had enough money to focus on learning instead of on surviving as a child means that I had the opportunity to better develop my knowledge base and skill at obtaining information.
In contrast to my relatively apparent economic class, my identity as white has the least simply isolatable point of origin. I’ve spent most of my life in the weensy little town of Klamath Falls. While I felt extremely comfortable there, the population is ridiculously white. So omnipresent was this whiteness that I just assumed that everyone was the same. There were occasionally a few Latino, Filipino, or Native American kids in my elementary classes, but I’d seen enough variation in people that I didn’t think a little darker skin color was indicative of much more than an increased time in the sun. I didn’t have the faintest idea of the struggles people of other races went through or of the benefits that white people enjoy simply because there wasn’t opportunity for me to see. More than the simple lack of visible (to me) people under oppression, I suspect that my parents protected me substantially from such things. We have never had a television in our house and we only occasionally watched movies when they were shown in school.
Once I got to high school, I started reading the news and I started to get a picture of the social bias towards white people. Once I realized that there was a social stratification caused by race I was forced to realize that I had a place in that hierarchy. I didn’t and still don’t think that being white is very interesting because it was mostly all I’d ever seen. As such I am fascinated with other ethnic groups and I make a point of incorporating the foods, behaviors, and languages/forms of speech that I find particularly fantastic into my own cultural identity. Even so, I don’t feel that these other groups have had substantial influence on who I believe I am. (On that note, I believe very strongly that racial identity has little to do with one’s ancestry and much to do with the people and cultures one is surrounded by and develops emotional attachments to.)
While my race has the most personally unperceivable effect on my self-image and thus an unidentifiable effect on my decision to become and engineer, I think that it has had the most substantial impact on my college experience. This gets to the heart of what I haven’t previously seen as white privilege. I don’t have to worry about a professor having an ancestral misconception that I’m not as clever as my peers. Correspondingly, I can go to office hours and expect a welcoming, helpful environment.
I can feel perfectly safe walking onto a college campus, and I don’t have any difficulty finding people who are extremely similar to me. These translate to a wonderfully uplifting overall college experience. I can imagine that this is in sharp contrast to the college experience of an oppressed minority who might find college to be a series of great depressions swimming in a sea of microaggressions. I expect this to transfer to some degree as I graduate and look for jobs in a white male dominated field. I still expect to have to fight for a good job, but I will have an advantage born of employer implicit bias.
Altogether, I feel privileged to be a part of these dominant groups and I (attempt to) use that with all of its various connotations in today’s world. I don’t feel guilty about this because it isn’t anything I’ve personally chosen, but I do feel the vague unnerving wrongness of such disparity in a loudly pronounced “equal” world. If the idea that everyone is equal is so easily believable to members of the dominant groups, then newly gained knowledge of stratification will hopefully be enough to inspire me to enact a change in my own life towards true equality