Inspired by Peggy McIntosh's Invisible Knapsack, here are some ways white privilege appears in engineering education:

  1. If I talk about or study "diversity topics" in engineering, I'm seen as open-minded rather than self-serving. ("Not everything I do will be seen as 'about [my race].')
  2. Nobody will assume I got into my program because of affirmative action.
  3. The people who grade my assignments, develop my curricula, and decide whether I graduate or not will probably be of my race.
  4. I will probably not be asked to represent the "perspective of my race" in classroom discussions or design meetings.
  5. I can flub a question, fail a test, or even drop out of a class/major without having it negatively reflect on my entire race.
  6. People are likely to assume I chose engineering as a field out of personal interest (not family pressures, financial reasons, etc.)
  7. I will not get surprised looks when I tell someone I'm an engineer.
  8. People I meet will assume I had a fairly happy, comfortable childhood.
  9. Clients for my service learning projects will probably not look like me.
  10. I can join a study group of non-minority students without being perceived as a "sellout" by members of my race.
  11. When other students are choosing who to study with, I will not be assumed to be "overly studious" (Asian) or "a stupid slacker" (Black/Latino) by default.
  12. I will be assigned to talk with suppliers/clients based on interest rather than nationality ("oh, of course you'll talk with all the Chinese suppliers.")
  13. People will not automatically assume I'm an international student. When I name my hometown, they will accept my answer rather than asking "no, where are you really  from?"
  14. I will not be asked to spend my limited free time volunteering for [Minority]-in-Engineering programs.
  15. The professor wouldn't be able to easily tell when I was absent from class.

This is a partially-remembered remix from a much longer list our class generated on Monday. My brainstorming group was (randomly) entirely composed of non-white women, which was an experience of its own -- many of our items fit the format of "if I were white, people wouldn't [do this negative thing they do to people of my minority group]." I personally struggled to think of anything that wasn't in that format -- white privilege, as opposed to non-white non-privilege that I then flipped into white privilege.

Another group entirely composed of white women was hard-pressed to think of white privilege, so they took male privilege (or rather, female non-privilege) and then tried to extend it to race -- an interesting manifestation of intersectionality, that. It was like trying to see water while swimming; we could barely do it, and even if the words were written on the whiteboard in front of us, we kept forgetting them.

1, 2, 6, 8, 11, 12, 13, and 14 are mine, by the way. (I can't claim uniqueness. Many of these were also independently brainstormed by others.)

It was only during the course of this discussion that I realized I was the only Asian in the class. We have two men (and a lot more women -- interesting, that I know exactly how many men there are but not women -- see #15), and perhaps a 50/50 breakdown between white women and nonwhite women, some American-born, some international. The race most of us would call "black" is disproportionately represented.

As I wrote that last paragraph, it felt vaguely wrong to categorize my classmates so clinically; these are all living, breathing people I appreciate and respect and am becoming increasingly close to. They're so much more than "white American-born woman" -- that phrasing stamps a clinical factuality of "truthiness" on their identity, an "oh they must be that way" association that I want to outright reject here. We so often describe people as "he/she is [category], but they're [adjective]" -- for instance, "she's Asian, but she's super-chill, she's not one of those that studies all the time." It's almost like you start with an "Asian" template and then add/subtract customizations from that in order to get a person (like a Mel).

  • She's female, but she likes martial arts and math and working on machines. (Implication: most people in the "female" category don't.)
  • She's Asian, but she doesn't speak Chinese, and she often takes initiative without asking for permission. (Implication: that's weird for an Asian person!)
  • She's deaf, but she talks and lipreads and plays music and you can barely tell. (I can see why this surprises people, but the surprise does get old after a while.)

These template people walking around in our heads -- the woman, the Asian -- where do they come from?

Anyway. Generating that list made me realize I was the only Asian, because I'd see things others were writing on the board, and my brain would go:

BRAIN: [reading out loud from the board] People will not assume I'm bad at math because of my race.
MEL: But... people don't assume I'm bad at math because of my race.
BRAIN: You don't have this problem! So you have white privilege!
MEL: No, no, it's the opposite problem -- people assume I'm good at math because...
BRAIN: You're Asian!
MEL: oh wait YES THAT'S RIGHT I had forgotten that.

It reminded me of how I often don't realize I'm the only woman in a room. Since I can't see myself, and I'm used to seeing white men around me, my subconscious goes "that's right, we're all white guys here, just like we are every day in Engineering-Land!" Until another woman/minority/etc walks into the room, that is.

BRAIN: Hey look, a woman in the room!
BRAIN: That's so weird!
BRAIN: Waaaait.
MEL: Um, I'm female.
BRAIN: Now I feel weird being here. Oh man. Do I have to associate with her? Do I need to be her "girl buddy" now? Am I supposed to... argh, what do I do? Maybe the guys are also noticing I'm a girl! GAH! GAAHHH!
MEL: I... I wanted to do work? Can we focus on the work?

It's distracting. I learned long ago to ignore it. Alas, this also meant I learned long ago to automatically ignore race, gender, etc. -- which perpetuates any issues instead of addressing them. But it takes so much energy, this not-ignoring! Why should I be the one expending that energy? (Why can't Other People Fix Everything? Boy, that'd be nice.)