When we write about race, gender, and similar issues on GGWash, we often get more irate comments than the typical article, even a controversial one. I'd like to say a few things about that based on one highlight of the 2018 YIMBYtown conference in Boston last year, a workshop on inclusion by Angela Park.
Early on, Park taught us why she discourages using the word “minorities.” What's a “minority,” anyway? If people under 25 make up 40% of a group, are they a “minority”? Often people use it as a euphemism for people of color, even when they aren't even in a numerical minority, like “majority-minority counties” or “this school is 90% minorities.” Pretty mathematically ridiculous, when you think about it.
Rather, the terms Park said we need to learn are “dominant group identities” and “subordinated group identities.” A group identity is, as the name sounds, a group you identify with. For example, I am a Washington DC resident, a father, a brown-haired person. Some of our group identities are “dominant,” meaning they're more powerful in our society. Others are “subordinated,” which is the opposite.
Any of us usually holds some dominant group identities and some subordinated ones. I, for instance, am white, male, and highly educated. I am also short, Jewish (depending where you are, maybe subordinated and maybe not), and I ride a bicycle sometimes. I get advantages in society from my dominant group identities and disadvantages from my subordinated ones. I have more dominant ones and fewer subordinated ones than most people.
Park gave an inconsequential but illustrative example: being right-handed or left-handed. I am right-handed but my kids are left-handed. If you are left-handed, you're not going to be seriously disadvantaged in society, but you'll constantly notice how many small things are not designed for you, like scissors or double doors or those school writing desks. You can deal with it, but it's a constantly recurring reminder and inconvenience. Meanwhile, right-handers simply go through life using objects and never really thinking about it.
That's a deliberately somewhat trivial case, but it illustrates why people think about their dominated group identies differently than subordinated ones. To a member of a dominant group, things feel normal. It's common to see oneself not largely as a member of that group but as an individual who happens to have that characteristic, and it's easy to dismiss a discussion of the group identity as “identity politics” or the like.
Why do we have to talk about gender on bicycles, some people asked when Aimee Custis wrote about the phenomenon of people yelling at women cycling? “I guess readership is down? Is that why they keep going back to the tired social warfare well for clickbait?” said one. “Women are people, people are often jerks, thus women can in fact be jerks. You're not special or better than anyone just because you're a 'woman',” wrote another.
The level of nastiness from some commenters about this particular post was far higher in pitch than when people simply disagree about whether we should build a gondola or not, or about the architecture of a building. There was a visceral and angry reaction from some at the very idea that we should have to talk about this.
Why can't we all just treat people as people and ignore race, gender, etc.? The problem is we know that the world doesn't work that way. Like this amazing story from Marty Schneider, who one day accidentally left his emails signed “Nicole,” his coworker, and discovered clients were far more impolite and unwilling to listen to his ideas. When he pretended “Martin” was taking over from “Nicole,” a problem client suddenly became cooperative and supportive.
Marty and Nicole tried swapping names for two weeks. Nicole's productivity shot through the roof while Marty had a terrible time.
But to many people for whom the main group identities in everyday life are dominant, it can seem that life isn't about your race or gender or whatever, and therefore it can be deeply uncomfortable to be pushed to have conversations about these group identities. As Park explained, dominant groups want to just see society “get over it” so we don't have to talk about this. Like the Supreme Court justices who struck down voting rights protections. Meanwhile, members of subordinated groups feel that we never actually get to talk about their experiences.
We know that employers would call job applicants with stereotypically white names 50% more often than those with stereotypically black ones even if the resumes were identical and only the names randomly assigned. We are a long, long way from getting over it and being race blind. There's a reason it was a joke when Stephen Colbert, playing conservative pundit “Stephen Colbert,” used to say, “I don't see race. I don't even know what race I am.” He sure would know if he were treated as people of color are treated in our society.
The phenomenon of people feeling uncomfortable or attacked when discussing race is known as “white fragility,” a term coined by scholar Robin DiAngelo. Park extended it to “dominant group fragility” more generally. She said, “It's easier to live at the individual level,” meaning you are in the world as you and not you-as-representative-of-some-group, “when you're in the dominant group. Subordinated groups have to be strategic in what they say.”
The angry comments on that post, or mine about go-go on U Street, certainly could discourage many people from wanting to write about their experiences. I can take it because, besides the fact that I have comment deletion power if you violate the rule against treating people with respect, as a person who usually moves around the world as a member of dominant groups, I can jump into talking about equity and get attacked but then not be attacked talking about Metro map design, and not face the effects of subordinated group identity all that often.
It can be really annoying for me being in a group of people I don't know and see others gravitate toward talking to the tall people, for sure, but that's a pretty mild case of subordinated group treatment compared to if I were a woman of color, or transgender, or had a visible disability — or all of those.
This is important for the issues we cover. Better sidewalks, safer cycling, fast and frequent transit, more housing and more affordable housing can make for terrific cities. But those cities can't be terrific if many people regularly feel uncomfortable moving around and interacting in those spaces. We aren't for bike lanes for young white people only, for instance.
Riding a bike, in fact, is one way many white men or others who don't experience this get to briefly experience being subordinated in a significant way, but they dismount and then exist in the city as a member of dominant groups. We all need to take great care to understand how people with intrinisic subordinated group identities experience our public spaces, our public services, and our urban environment.
That's why inclusivity, equity, and “social justice” are as much a part of our message on this site as trains and accessory apartments.
So, we are going to keep writing about this stuff. It's important to me and to the GGWash staff, and by the crude measurement of traffic numbers and plaudits from elected officials, it seems like most of you find it valuable as well. We may get some angry comments, but it doesn't dissuade me. Quite the opposite; commenter fragility simply makes me think it's quite healthy for folks to be exposed to this discomfort so that perhaps they can get over it where it counts a lot more than on a blog.