From bake sale to Butter

29 Sep

Let me see if I can get this synopsis right… the soon to be released movie Butter is a thinly-basted allegory about the competitors in a butter-sculpting competition (read: candidates in an election campaign).

In a clip from the movie (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSD7DxAZFVs), Jennifer Garner, who plays the wife of the best butter carver in Iowa, takes on diversity as it (in her mind) threatens “excellence in butter” and the American way. Expressing her dismay that the standard of excellence appears to be taking a backseat to “who’s the most disadvantaged,” she declares, “I’m sorry that I was born white and tall and pretty.” 

OK, enough already. The sarcasm, the histrionics, the implication that to be white and tall and pretty is to be (God bless) American is the big red herring of privilege. And we need to be able to direct the conversation back to basics:

While Garner’s character seems to make a reasonable argument, her premise is flawed: diversity is not the antithesis of excellence. In fact, diversity tends to beget excellence, in that social diversity in groups has the effect of cultivating self-awareness and more intentional, diverse thinking, speech and action, from which we can discern our best options (whereas social homogeneity can, in the extreme, produce groupthink). In the case of butter-carving, diversity is symbiotic with excellence as it casts the broadest net for talent and abilities that are scrutinized through the same lens of merit.

And implied in the character’s insincere mea culpa for being “white and tall and pretty” (WTP) is that suddenly being WTP matters. Suddenly, it is being held against her… with no acknowledgment that it has always mattered, and mattered in her favor. Tellingly, she describes herself with adjectives full of positive connotations and proven effects: implicit association studies (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/) tell us that people, regardless of their own racial identity, tend to associate whiteness with goodness; Judge & Cable (2004) and other researchers have demonstrated that we presume leadership, capability and integrity of tall people–thus we tend to promote and pay them more than their shorter colleagues ($166,000 more over a 30 year career!); and as for pretty, countless studies indicate that attractive people enjoy diverse perks, including the blanket assumption that they can do no wrong (http://abcnews.go.com/WhatWouldYouDo/video/blonde-bike-thief-damsel-distress-10589753). So in her protest against the discrimination she suffers, the character conveniently reminds the butter-carving judges of all the reasons in a biased world that she deserves to be treated better than the competition: she is white and tall and pretty. And she doesn’t even have to be fully cognizant of what she’s doing. That’s part of the privilege: being oblivious to the unfair, unearned advantages that she enjoys.

Too often, the argument against acknowledging identity as a factor in a competition, whether college admissions or a political race, hyper-focuses on the protest about how minority identities matter, without any recognition of the ways in which majority identity affords power and privilege. If we start the conversation from the truthful premise that identity always matters, whether you have a minority in the running or not, then we have a better chance of deciding and enacting how we think identities should matter. And we can talk inclusively and honestly about the complexities of privilege.

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