The feminist blogs I read have been going through a major upheaval over the past few weeks. It’s made me think about the issue of white privilege from an academic point of view (surprise, surprise). Not from an I-want-to-study-this POV, but from a this-happens-here-too POV. See, geography is an overwhelmingly white discipline. Over the last decade, we’ve been hand-wringing like so many white liberal institutions/organizations, trying to figure out 1) why we’re so white, 2) what we can do about it, and 3) what difference it makes to our work. The last one is relatively easy to see: we marginalize other points of view, intentionally or not, and for a discipline that’s supposed to be about the relationship between humans and the environment, we miss out on a lot of those humans. The first one is the standard story of discrimination, I would guess; the discipline is also predominantly male, with the predomination larger the higher you go up the scale, and although the numbers have changed over time, history informs and explains the present. And by now there’s a certain amount of reinforcement going on; I would imagine that people of color feel geography doesn’t speak to their interests and concerns, so they don’t join in, and so on, and so on.

But the middle point is the hard one, and it’s the same one that parts of the blogosphere are struggling with right now. Initiatives to increase minority students and faculty can smack of bringing outsiders into our cozy little discipline as token representatives, instead of expanding our field of inquiry outward to include the topics that people of color are already working on. My previous department wanted desperately to hire a Hispanic woman because so many of their students fit that demographic and they wanted a role model in place. That’s great. However, I didn’t see the older white males in the department changing their areas of research or teaching to incorporate broader perspectives. (Neither did I, truth be told.) The argument seems to be that if we only had more brown or black or red people in our discipline, we’d be diverse, hooray! Cross one more thing off the to-do list. But does that change the practices we currently have, and force us to see how we perpetuate current inequalities? I doubt it.

For example, I think that in recent years, geography as a discipline has become more inclusive with regards to people with disabilities. Or at least, there’s been a lot of literature on the topic, although anecdotal evidence tells me that it’s perceived as largely written by people from that community and that others don’t necessarily see it as relevant to their own lives. Also, there’s been a series of conferences on race, ethnicity, and place, although I don’t know how diverse the papers and participants are.

My own research tends to focus on place rather than people; I’m not the world’s most outgoing person, and it takes a lot of emotional energy to reach out to potential collaborators, interviewees, informants, etc. I also tend to prefer to approach a problem inductively, not starting with a hypothesis or problem statement but starting with a phenomenon or pattern and seeing what’s going on. Of course, it’s easy from there to let my own privilege direct my interests to neighborhoods and communities like my own, instead of trying to look at how race, class, etc., are part of the transportation and urban sustainability issues that I’m interested in. Maybe it’s time to get rid of the idea that “this” (whatever “this” might be) isn’t an issue that has anything to do with women or POC (or disabled people, or LGBT people, etc.), and therefore I can ignore gender/race/etc. For example, how does urban sustainability intersect with social justice issues? How do transportation accessibility and externalities depend on race and class? Big time, I know.

The point is, this isn’t just a personal/blogosphere issue. It goes on in all professional realms, even among those of us who profess for a living. Examining our own privilege and how it informs the teaching we do and the knowledge we construct is critical because of the students we teach and the research we produce. Now more than ever.