(Repost of something I wrote on LiveJournal in 2010)
A while ago, Jay Lake talked about his privilege in his cancer treatment, and it got me to thinking about my privilege in a number of contexts.
I’m white, and that comes with power in our culture, but it’s not that that makes my own set of privileges interesting, at least I don’t think so.
Without further ado:
My parents, grandparents, and so forth, went to college. My mother has documented family members going to college as far back as the 1400s. My great-grandfather had three doctorates, one of them an M.D. So I never had to struggle with family to get a better education. It was expected.
Not only did my father work in the sciences when I was born, so did my mother. Not only that, my mother appeared in a science textbook in the 1950s, as though that were perfectly normal. More to the point, I was raised thinking this were normal and common, and that is a very odd privilege indeed.
My parents worked at an atom smasher:
Later, my dad worked in aerospace. He worked on one of the Viking Lander projects (his specialty was mass specs, and the GCMS project was affectionately known as the “Green-colored Martian sniffer”). An early project where I worked for him was measuring the helium line of the sun. Later, he won a NASA prize for his work on the TOMS (ozone-mapping mass spec) project.
While I certainly know people who know more decorated scientists than I’ve met personally, especially as an adult, the fact that I’d met any as a child is a form of privilege. (My father taught the Feynman course on physics as a grad student, just as one example, and was asked to write part of the handouts for it.)
When I was a teenager, my father suggested I take a programming class. After I finished it, he asked me if I wanted to do programming — that’s how I got started on my career. He thought, correctly, that I would enjoy it, and his urging me to take classes like that was partly motivated by the fact that he didn’t enjoy programming that much but did have programming work that needed to be done. So it wasn’t just a class, it was the beginning of 35 years of work (so far) in the industry.
It was a long, long time before I met another female software engineer; I’ve never worked on a team that was even majority female. In many cases, I’ve been the only woman with a group of a handful to more than 30 male software engineers.
Even when I wanted to be a musician, both my parents were willing to support that choice if and only if I got adequate education for a plan B. I got lured in by the consistent money in programming and for quite a while resented that I’d gone that way, but later came to peace with it after a summer off busking in Ireland. It met enough of the music goal that I was able to move on with my life. This is not to say that I don’t burn out occasionally — I have.
After my mom remarried, we always had a plane and a boat, and tended to travel places. I got to see a lot of places that other people just don’t. San Clemente Island while it was being shelled in a military exercise, for example.San Miguel Island, where a ton of stuff floating in from Japan landed on the long beach, and its odd caliche forest:
I didn’t realize how odd my upbringing was until I was in college and we were asked to write about our mother’s cooking, and most people wrote about white kitchens and poultry. Here’s an excerpt from my piece:
By far my favorite sea dish was the one I usually got to prepare–abalone. Abalone clings very hard to rocks and has to be pried not only off the rock but out of its shell. Once out, it doesn’t have the decency to just sit there and behave. No, it has to crawl all over. Abalone is inherently tough, so I would pound it with a meat tenderizer as it crawled across the cutting board. I’d stop wailing on it with the metal tenderizer and watch it to see if it had stopped moving, but it would curl up its edges and slide away.
So it’s hard for me to remember that some people have to fight to attend even two-year college, hard for me to remember that some people fight with their family about careers in the sciences and so on. It’s just so normal for me.
Then again, I grew up thinking radioactive hazard signs were normal, too….
So, yeah, I’m the weird kid, but I come by it honestly.