Dear Vincent,

Explaining structural inequality, more important to understand now than ever.

This ‘letter to a friend’ is a real letter I wrote to a real person, edited and adapted for this blog post. It is somewhat inspired by the format of ‘Dear Ijeawele’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It also follows the logic of Race2Dinner, to an extent — I do not believe I can persuade, inspire, or educate everyone, particularly not people who are proudly racist or sexist. But I do believe I can influence those who show willingness to listen.

I can offer my perspective to those who might listen, especially those around me, often my age or younger and still forming opinions and sociopolitical viewpoints. My friend ‘Vincent’ (name changed) has always done me the favor of listening to my long tangents and reading my long posts, and so I was confident he would hear me out.

I published this with his blessing, because we both thought more people could benefit from having structural inequality explained in this way, since in the modern era that is a word thrown around on the internet without much in-depth explanation, though others have also written thoughtful guides. Vincent taught me not to assume that other people know the language I am speaking, and instead to better explain that language. Of course, I had a few discussion with other friends about how, as a woman of color, I am not ‘required’ to do this, and we should not burden those oppressed with explaining their oppression. But I also believe it is unfortunately necessary for some people to do the explaining, and I want to do it and I am happy to do it, especially for those who are willing to listen, as well as for those who aren’t ready to speak up.

Finally, I continue to be eternally grateful to my community of female MIT alumni. I always compare notes, ask for guidance, and receive encouraging insights about the history of women at MIT from them.

I write to you this letter in the midst of COVID-19. It is a Thursday night. I spent it first looking at my tanked investments, and then reading about how two US senators cashed out, with insider information about coronavirus, right before the market crashed.

Hopefully COVID-19 has made apparent to you the same things that have been made apparent to me. Our systems in the United States are not up to this task, and the bulk of this problem is systemic. The healthcare systems are not equipped to handle the number of people who will get sick. The unemployment systems are not able to handle the number of people that have been laid off. The government is scrambling to try to do something about this, but even then, we cannot trust all of the people in power. We can imagine that, maybe if the US had different systems — universal healthcare or UBI or ranked-choice voting or <insert your favorite policy here>, it might be better at handling this crisis.

In this letter I hope to offer you another way of looking at the world — through its systems, rather than its individual components. What looks benign close up can be part of a malicious system when we zoom out and appreciate the history and context behind the way that human society has been built.

I am not asking you to adopt this method or mentality yourself, but I hope you can consider it, adding it to your toolbox of perspectives. At the very least, I hope this will help you understand how I and many others think about and see the world. I know you are someone who is open to learning about that (and not everyone is, so thank you!)

It is also a little bit of an oversimplification — the world is complicated and nuanced, after all. But I hope it can at least be an introduction, a primer, to this different type of framework.

We started talking about abstract societal issues because of Jordan Peterson, so I’d like to illustrate my overall point with gender. I hope to help make this point obvious, starting with something very familiar to you:

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MIT bathrooms.

Everyone complains about the MIT bathrooms. Throughout the older buildings on campus, there are no men’s and women’s bathrooms next to each other like in normal places; instead, there’s a men’s bathroom on one floor, and a women’s bathroom a floor below or around the corner. Because of this it’s hard to find the right bathroom, and that’s why everyone complains. It doesn’t make any sense until we think about the history of MIT.

MIT was a school full of men. So there were never many women’s bathrooms. The faculty were men, the staff were men, the students were men. Surprisingly early in 1873, the first woman graduated, but much later, in 1921, there was the first female professor. Female enrollment was only 3% until 1963, when it jumped to over 20%. At some point, the issue of the bathrooms had to be addressed head-on, and so MIT had to convert some of its bathrooms into women’s bathrooms. Finally, in the newer buildings or recently renovated buildings, there are normal sets of men’s, women’s, and even single-stall/all-gender bathrooms. The old buildings have weird bathroom locations because they just took some of the men’s ones and converted them; they didn’t add women’s ones next to them, likely because of the cost and difficulty.

So MIT was very literally not built for women. Just because a woman, just because tens and hundreds of women, enrolled did not mean that MIT became a school that met the needs of its female students, starting with the very obvious and fundamental need of the bathroom. The buildings themselves had to be physically changed to become truly accepting of women. And if they had never been changed, no matter how many women enrolled and became successful at MIT, it would never be an inclusive place. There would always be a barrier — unnoticed by the men — for women at MIT, making them walk far to use the restroom, and causing them to be worried about their basic needs all the time.

This is why statistics don’t always mean very much. We can say ‘there are x number of women in y field now’ or ‘the gender gap is only x if we account for y’. But that is not proof that there are no additional obstacles that women had to overcome to get to where they are, even if they were in fact successful in the end. There are the big, scandalous things, like sexual assault and harassment. But there are also a lot of seemingly small things, like bathrooms. And I would argue that when you add up all the small things together, they can be equivalent to, or worse, than the big things. Especially because at least if you raise a big, scary issue, people might pay attention to you and try to fix it. But if you raise a small issue…who knows?

I think you and I agree that there really was a point in time when America was generally sexist and generally racist — the time of separate schools for black children and all women belonging “in the kitchen”, banned from jobs or not being allowed to vote. However, everything that was built at that time still exists now, such as MIT buildings — it’s not as though MIT was destroyed and rebuilt when more women enrolled. If we allowed all these old structures to stay exactly the same, they would still carry all these built-in pieces of sexism and racism inside them, such as the bathrooms. We have to actually go and find these built-in pieces and change them in order for America or the world to be more just and equitable, as MIT finally did with the bathrooms. And there are still many places that haven’t updated their metaphorical bathrooms.

Buildings and bathrooms are easy to understand — they are real, physical places corresponding to real, physical needs. But I hope you can see how this also happens with processes and more abstract parts of society. There are ways society operates simply because it has always operated that way: hiring processes, evaluation processes, standard procedures, and so forth. Do you think a similar situation as the bathrooms could be hiding in any of those? Could there be parts of the processes, or whole processes themselves, that ignore the needs of huge groups of people?

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I’ll give another example, about culture and race, that might also be easy to understand: the SAT test.

I don’t know if you took the SAT test, or if you took the same version I did (it changed significantly in 2016). But there used to be a portion of the SAT reading test that covered idioms. If you did take the version I took, then I’m sure you were really frustrated by this.

The idioms section covered American sayings like ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’, or ‘the squeaky wheel always gets the grease’. The idiom would be changed slightly, or one word left blank, so you would have to choose the correct version on the multiple choice test.

This section drove myself and my friends crazy when we were studying for the SAT. Our parents were mostly immigrants, so we didn’t use these sayings or hear them very often in our day to day lives. We didn’t understand why this was included — idioms were not formal grammar rules or vocabulary. They were just idioms. To put it bluntly, they were also pretty white idioms — these were not things I’d ever heard black Americans say either. I mentioned that the SAT test changed significantly in 2016 — one of the major changes was that they removed the idioms and other questions that were likely culturally influenced, such as analogy questions, and the administrators of the test themselves acknowledged the SAT’s long history of discrimination.

Again, a great number of minorities and children of immigrants still got excellent SAT scores in spite of this. Again, that is not proof that it was not an additional obstacle. And finally, the SAT test, a very important part of college admissions, which is in turn an important predictor of wealth, status, and success, was not corrected until 2016 — very recently.

Here’s where the words people use start to come into play. Some people would call the SAT idioms section racist. Others would say that goes too far — there was no clear intention to be racist, after all. It’s the same with the MIT bathrooms; many would call the lack of women’s bathrooms sexist, and some would say that goes too far.

I think what people sometimes mean when they say something is racist or sexist is that it is a piece of that old structure, the separate-black-schools and women-in-the-kitchen structure, which has yet to be renovated. It’s not intentional — or maybe, it was built by people truly racist or sexist a long time ago, and those people have long since gone away and ceased being relevant. But the sexism, the racism, remains, even if the new director of SAT tests or MIT facilities team is progressive and forward-thinking. The discrimination is built-in just like the bathrooms, it is right there in front of us. So, is it not racist? Is it not sexist?

We should also recognize that that ‘a long time ago’ is not actually that long. Apartheid ended in 1990, just 6 years before I was born. The U.S. Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 — my grandma was 30 that year, older than I am now. The Title IX amendment banning sex-based discrimination in education was passed in 1972; someone in college or high school at that time would be in their 60s now, younger than all the current presidential candidates. These developments are actually very recent. Some of the very people who opposed all that ‘progress’ are still living, active decision makers in the workforce, politics, and society. Even my framing this as ‘old’ problems vs. ‘new’ society is an oversimplification; there’s no magic year that starts the modern era. My point is, it’s very likely that even though ‘progress’ has been made in some cases, there are still many, maybe even most, processes and structures leftover that are still exactly the same as they were and need to be changed.

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In the case of COVID-19, some have called out Donald Trump for calling this the “Chinese virus”, saying he is being racist. There was a backlash to that call-out — it may be problematic, but it’s not racist, some say, because MERS was Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, and Ebola was named after a river.

The context and history here is that people have come to realize just how stigmatizing place-related names for diseases can be. It is so bad that in 2015, five years before this COVID-19 outbreak, the WHO released a “best practices” guide on naming infectious diseases. These best practices involve avoiding place-related naming, because that was shown to clearly lead to discrimination, hate crimes, and violence, as we are seeing now against Asian people. There are legitimate discussions to be had about the faults of governments and their roles in disease outbreaks — but this does not mean we should encourage discrimination against everyday people when it is certainly not their fault, especially when we know that discrimination happens and how to avoid it. Place-based disease naming is yet another “bathroom” that the WHO was trying to “renovate”. When powerful people like the United States president essentially block this “renovation”, people call it racist, because it stands in the way of changing that built-in piece of discrimination; it stands in the way of changing racism.

Now, I agree that using the words ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ for everything is confusing, and I would understand if you still argued that these were not the right words for what Donald Trump did or for other things people call racist. Once again, I simply want you to see why and how people get to these conclusions — they are not just random accusations. You might now understand the way in which they’re looking at the world. To them and to me, it is not so much that the definition of racism or sexism has been made cheap and light. It is more so that these built-in pieces, whether unintentional or from old intentions, still have a real effect on real people — barriers to success, violence, stigma. Those real world effects, directly or indirectly because of this “refusal to renovate” sexism and racism, are not cheap or light — they are very serious and heavy. So serious that the refusal itself could be seen as racist or sexist. Why stand in the way if you are not racist or sexist, after all?

That said, there is a new word going around that does provide more clarity. The argument behind this word is, it is not enough to simply not be racist. We must be “anti-racist” — and that is the word, anti-racist, or anti-sexist. Simply not being racist means you don’t say the n-word and have no ill will towards black people. But being anti-racist means you take a firm stand against these built-in, systemic discriminators, like the SAT idioms section. It means you are walking through buildings and renovating the bathrooms — or at least you support the people who are trying to renovate. That is the choice we all face — should we simply define ourselves passively, as “not”, or define ourselves actively, as “anti”, against.

It means you understand that it is not enough to try and forget about the sexism and racism of America — and the world’s — past. Rather, we must understand that those are building blocks of everything constructed during that time. We must seek out and destroy all remnants of it, or else it will simply continue, or worse, re-emerge stronger, which many would argue is already happening.

It is always easier to follow passively along with the status quo than to do that.

Appendix

First, if or when you have the time, please listen to this episode of the 99% Invisible podcast:

It gives many more examples of the points I mention in this letter. There are many ways that women are just ignored entirely in data sets, leading to many structural issues that are built-in to our society. I think it provides even more proof of what I just described — and it’s interesting, I genuinely think you’d like it!

There are also some caveats about the facts and stories stated in this letter that I would like to share in the interest of being completely honest and transparent.

The MIT bathroom story, though I use it as a central metaphor, is one of those stories that I heard from alumni —documentation is still pending, but through accounts from women alumni this has so far been corroborated. I learned that their used to be a kind of silly student-led “bathroom tour” during orientation in the 70s and 80s, in large part because women’s bathrooms were hard to find. I have also been told that in the 1940’s, there was a more specific effort to literally walk around the building and convert the bathrooms as stated.

I used this example because I was just trying to explain the idea of structural inequality in an easy-to-understand way. There are even more physical structures we can talk about that do have clear documentation. MIT dorms are another physical barrier, because all dorms used to be single-gender, making the lack of women’s dorms directly linked to how many women could enroll. It was not until Katharine McCormick funded and established McCormick Hall in 1963 that the female enrollment jumped from 3% to over 20%.

Thanks for listening!

Written by

MIT grad, robotics engineer, mixed. A place I write.

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