I missed blog against sexism day, in line with my usual spotty posting habits of late. I suppose that's fine for this post, which is not especially focused on issues of sexual discrimination, though the sex case does provide some good examples, as I will come to.
Probably the most pernicious form of discrimination is the bias in almost every situation favoring people who fit in. Everyone wants to deal with people who are to a certain extent like them, as people like that are more predictable, easier to coordinate with, and generally easier to get along with. This tendency is supported by feedback; similarity is symmetric, so people who seem like my kind of people will likely think of me as their kind of people, and so will be more favorably inclined toward me for the same reasons I'm more favorably inclined toward them. Naturally, people prefer to have others around them who are favorably inclined toward them.
Thus, any practice that involves personal interaction, say a hiring process that involves interviews, or the process of informal coalition-building within an organization, will tend to automatically favor those who are similar to those already in power, those making the hiring decisions, those who are already part of the powerful coalitions, or whatever the particular case may be. To make matters worse, fitting in is even relevant to performance. Being able to coordinate with others is often critical to successfully carrying out projects, so selecting people who fit in will often produce a more effective organization.
Obviously, this process makes things extremely hard on members of marginalized groups. Even someone from the privileged class who is completely and sincerely convinced that the stereotypes about the inherent capacities of marginal group x are nonsense is going to have a tendency to favor someone he gets along with well, and fellow members of his class are more likely to be such people, just because people from similar backgrounds understand one another better.
Still, there are complicating factors when it comes down to individual interactions, which no doubt contribute to the otherwise astonishing ability some people seem to have to fail to notice all the advantages privileged groups possess. Perhaps this is a strange point of interaction between the present topic and the occasional nice guy discussions on pandagon (there's another one up now). If one of the great advantages of privilege is fitting in, in the sense of being able to get along with the already powerful, it interacts in important ways with social skills generally.
Thus, those who are for other reasons lacking in social skills will fail to experience many of the benefits of privilege. Someone having the same skin color, chromosomes, or having gone to the same school still won't seem like someone I want to work with or cooperate with generally if he also seems to be an obnoxious twit. Hence the men's rights activists; because nobody likes them, including their fellow men, they don't experience many of the advantages of male privilege. Further, their concerns about the system, which to an unbiased outsider seem crazy, make more sense in light of their particular circumstances.
To take an example, feminists will (rightly) point out that cases of men getting away with appalling abuses in the case of, say, sexual harassment are far more common than the cases the MRAs complain about where men's reputations are destroyed by false accusations. But this won't impress the men's rights activist, because he can't get away with anything. Nobody likes him, so he's overwhelmingly more likely to end up one of the rare cases. Women are more likely to be uncomfortable with anything he does, because they don't like him, and less likely to try to resolve any discomfort by talking to him rather than taking more serious action, because they don't trust him and assume talking to him is pointless. Further, if a serious accusation is made against him, everybody else is likely to believe it, because everybody else dislikes him and is ready to believe the worst about him. Of course, the only solution is for the MRA to not be such a twit, but their whole problem is cluelessness, so they're not going to be able to recognize that this is the necessary response. Thus, they instead make their absurd claims that the present system is actually biased against men.
Conversely, a member of a marginal group who is adept at social interaction is much less likely to notice the effects of privilege. Generally, the fiercest defenders of privilege are those who are themselves somewhat marginal (like the men's rights activists); the genuinely powerful tend to think that they have their power because of their own merits, and don't feel as much need to define themselves in terms of their race, gender, or class. Thus, the powerful are more likely to discriminate solely on the basis of who they get along with, rather than deliberately on the basis of group membership. As a result, if they get along with somebody from a marginal group, they'll happily accept that person. This will, of course, have the effect of making both the privileged person in question think of himself as open-minded ("hey, I evaluate people on the basis of their merits; look at A!") and also making the person so accepted think privilege is not such a big deal (A will think "it didn't slow me down to not be white/male/straight/whatever!"). Thus, the attitude that privilege isn't a serious problem, and doesn't need much attention, will tend to be widespread among those with privilege, even among those who have generally good intentions, and even among those from marginal groups who have managed to attain some powerful status.
It is not really clear what to do about these issues. It is because of factors like these that I don't particularly have a problem with affirmative action, but there are difficulties with affirmative action as a way of correcting these problems. Still, it is difficult to see a better alternative. In some ways, one might wish for a world in which discrimination on the basis of social skills were not such a huge factor (I sometimes wish for that myself; I fit in pretty well in an academic environment, but my social skills overall could use some work). On the other hand, it's probably good to encourage people to try to treat one another well.
In any event, I mostly posted this to address the strange fact that some people don't seem to recognize the networks of privilege which exist everywhere; I think these factors are part of the story of why they are so invisible to some.