According to my mother, my first sentence was "Fair." She had given my sister a Popsicle and she hadn't given me one. I wanted one but also, I knew that it wasn't fair for my sister to get one while I went without. I demanded fairness and I expected it, before I could put two words together. I tugged her pants leg and said "Fair. Fair."
I noticed early on that my male friends were treated differently than I was, that my black friends were treated differently than the white ones. I found it very confusing because the treatment was from teachers, trusted adults. Was I wrong about what fairness is? I was confused. I tried to ask why. I really did. Had I done something wrong? Yes, I was pretending.
I remember my first grade teacher, not very well, but I remember that she didn't like me. I did well on all the tests. I aced the standardized tests. She wanted to hold me back a year, make me repeat the first grade. I didn't do homework. I "refused to pay attention in class." I wasn't "mature enough to go on to the second grade." At some point, people started trying to figure me out and I had to go digging through my school records. Those words from my files are burned in my brain; they make me angry. I "refused" to pay attention in class—when I was 6. I was a daydreamer. That made me a willful child.
I hadn't started out the year that way; I just got bored. When I paid attention, I asked questions. Sometimes, I would ask a question and she would scowl, then ask if anyone else had a question. There was a boy in my class, a boy with silky blond hair; I had a crush on him. When he asked a question that the teacher didn't know, she said "That is a very good question. You are such a smart boy!" There was another boy in my class the color of dark chocolate. I don't remember him asking questions that the teacher didn't know, but I remember him asking questions that I thought were interesting. I had a crush on him too. Any question that he asked got the scowl and disdain.
I remember when I stopped paying attention in class. I realized that the cute blond boy would often reask my scowl-worthy, ignored questions and be complimented for them, sometimes without even rewording them. Then he would turn and smile at me because he'd helped. I started tuning out.
I wanted to get into gifted* so I could take some classes that were interesting. My friends were there. I didn't know why I couldn't go too. I thought I was smarter than they were, but everyone kept telling me that if I were smart, I would be in gifted. My mother finally told me that I kept failing the test, "you know, that one that you take every two years." That one that I social engineered my way out of starting in 1st grade. Since they finally told me, I bothered to take the test. My results were still invalid but this time, the invalid results were still enough to get me in. I broke the test.
In high school, I talked to the cute blond boy from the 1st grade almost every day. One day, I noticed something very odd. He kept using very large words but he kept using them wrong. I let it slide. I thought I must be wrong. He was smart; teachers had told me he was smarter than me. He had been in gifted for years and for years I'd been told that if I was as smart as I thought I was, I would be in gifted like him. I decided that I must be wrong. I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
But he kept doing it and eventually, he used a noun as a verb. A noun as a verb! I said "you don't know what that word means, do you?" He laughed. He said he was trying to impress me. "Well, that verb you just used? It's a noun." He was surprised that I'd caught him because people hadn't caught him before. He had everyone fooled, he said, everyone thinking that he was smarter than he was because he used words that they didn't understand. They didn't realize that he didn't understand them either.
He said that he hadn't actually passed the IQ test to get into gifted but he used so many big words that everyone assumed that his results were invalid and they gave him an exception. I laughed. What fools adults were! I was still young and I didn't understand. Once I got started taking gifted classes, I discovered that there were other students who hadn't done well enough on the IQ test to get in, but an exception was made because they could draw well or they did really well in a single subject. I had topped out every standardized test that I'd ever taken except the IQ test; the exceptions hadn't.
They were boys. Where had my exception been?
In some classes, I was graded more harshly than the boys. If I mentioned information in class that the teacher didn't know, I was told that I needed to stop showing off or that I was undoubtedly wrong. If a boy mentioned information that the teacher didn't know, "I did not know that. Thanks! You're so smart." In high school, teachers corrected me on my interpretations of poems, interpretations based on autobiographies of the poet and statements from the poet of what the work meant. When I tried to point out where I got that information, I was told to not talk back. When boys disagreed, she asked them why. A boy wanted to write a paper on a topic she hadn't heard of and she was interested in reading that. The same teacher in the same class period denied my term paper topic because she had never heard of that poetic form, so it clearly didn't exist. Speaking of which: patter song break!
I still hadn't put it together. I thought it was me.
It wasn't until I was older that I started to recognize the pattern. It wasn't just that boys were assumed to be smarter than me, that I was assumed to be not smart because I was female. Boys could pretend to be smart and be celebrated for that; I actually was smart and was told that I was pretending. Boys got the benefit of the doubt.
I see it so many places now. There's a rape allegation— the man wouldn't do that or maybe he did but he didn't understand; the woman should have said no louder. There's a domestic violence allegation—that nice man? She must be lying like the last three were.
A male game reporter tries to get a female game developer to give him scoop that's under her NDA and then repeatedly propositions her even though she ignores it? He must not have realized that's bad. She must have been into it if she didn't tell him to stop. She's the one who allowed him to escalate.Well, yes, he did apologize, but he shouldn't have to; it wasn't his fault.
A white woman tweets something racist about a black man being terrifying? Well, she said she obviously didn't mean to be racist so we should stop talking about it. People rush to defend her.
A guy condescendingly welcomes me to a conversation that I clearly won't understand? Another guy tells someone that he might not be able to do a business lunch with her because he's married? I think sometimes you need to give people the benefit of the doubt. Don't fault that guy for having a jealous wife! Why do you hate good husbands?
A woman writes a sympathetic takedown of guy who repeatedly insults her in stereotypically misogynist ways and calls her a stalker, plus another specific person and the trend in general; she points him to it quietly, causing him to feel misrepresented and post a flounce message? That really sucks that you got treated so badly, dude; this is supposed to be a safe space! Well, that's what happens when we let in "those people." We have access to the facts, but instead, let's all run over and attack her.
There's a creepy guy in your friend group and the women keep telling the men about it? I don't think that's what he meant; maybe you just need to get to know him better?
You might have noticed a trend in these examples: a man is accused of bad behavior towards someone and not only does he get the benefit of the doubt, the person reporting the bad behavior doesn't. In fact, the person reporting it while black or female gets attacked for doing so because unlike the guy, the reporter is female or black. The person reporting doesn't even get enough benefit of the doubt for people to wonder if she might be right.
I see it in the office. A guy disagrees with me and I have better credentials; he must be right. That guy used a bunch of buzzwords that the CEO doesn't understand; hire him instead of the woman picked unanimously by the tech staff. A job interviewer asks me a question and I answer based on literally having written a book on that; he thinks I'm wrong and refuses my offer to wait while he checks a book, any book. He laughs at me in the interview and everyone assumes he must be right; I'm told to apply again when I know what I'm doing. Three men were in the room and none seemed to find it unprofessional to laugh at an interviewee because she stands her ground in her area of expertise.
A new guy in the office asks if I will make coffee for him, even though we're both programmers and I have seniority; that 45-year-old guy has probably never used a coffee maker. A coworker tells me it's sexy that I can drive a standard in San Francisco and I pretend it didn't happen; he goes from glowing reviews of my work to trying to get me fired—overnight— and no one wonders why. How did she fool him for so long?
I lecture twice on a new language. My boss promises that any work in that language will go to me. He asks me to start a user group for that language and I do. A man walks into the office in a suit, says that he has no programming experience but he's interested in learning and he wants a job? They make work for him in the language that I was promised. I lecture on the language again and he attends with my boss. My boss introduces him, saying that he doesn't know what he's doing but they hired him because he has balls and that means he's motivated to learn. They lay me off for lack of work.
Privilege is having the benefit of the doubt. Privilege is when one side of a he-said/she-said dispute is always right because of who he is, regardless of facts. Discrimination is when one side of a he-said/she-said dispute is always wrong because of who she is, regardless of the facts.
What do I call it when men behave badly and I am blamed for that? What do I call it when my expertise is dismissed for a non-expert male opinion? What do I call it when exceptions are made for boys and not for girls? What do I call it when I can prove my case and am not allowed that opportunity because if I were right that would make a man wrong? What do I call it when the boys get a free reward that is denied to me even if I earned it, even if I'm in the right? I call it unfair.
It's as simple as a popsicle given to one child and not to another, so simple that a toddler can understand it before she can string two words together. I have just learned to not expect it.
*For those unaware of gifted programs, it's similar to having AP classes, except it starts in elementary school.