I’ve seen it said in discussions of race or gender bias that there is a feeling common to black people or women in the workplace that they must exceed the performances of their white male colleagues in order to feel as though they are accepted as equals. The perception that they are in some way either inferior, or that they have been given their position because of some quota rather than their own merit, creates a drive to outperform their peers. Furthermore, like it or not, they are in some way ambassadors for their race or gender as a whole, and their abilities and work ethic are somehow a reflection on the abilities and perseverance of black people (or other racial minorities) or women everywhere. It’s not good enough to be on the same level as anyone else. They have to work harder, do better than anyone else in order to be taken seriously.
Being a white male, I have obviously never experienced any kind of prejudice on the basis of my gender or race. I haven’t felt those same pressures within the workplace. Insofar as my sexual orientation is concerned, I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard too. With a couple of exceptions, neither of which are pertinent to this discussion, I’ve never perceived my being gay as having any impact on my career at all. Nevertheless, I’m coming to a better understanding of what the feelings I describe above might be like. My experience of a similar perception has nothing to do with my work life, however. Where I rub up against a fear of judgment and a compensatory desire to outperform is in the parenting department.
As my glib little bio attests, I have a son and a husband (the latter not yet legally sanctioned in the state where I live). Our son is bright and curious and adorable. He is also busy and boisterous and on occasion incredibly frustrating and demanding. He is two years old, with gusto.
Our busy and boisterous and occasionally incredibly frustrating and demanding child is a normal toddler, and behaves in normal toddler ways. Often this behavior is winsome and delightful, and evokes smiles from friends and strangers alike. Often this behavior is loud and obnoxious and grating, and recently necessitated a peremptory time-out in the middle of Midway Airport. (While I am skeptical about the long-term efficacy of time-outs as disciplinary strategy, for the time being they work well enough.) While I have the normal parental anxieties about such things, I know intellectually that even his unpleasant behaviors are of a piece with his developmental stage.
However, whenever he takes off running or shrieks and kicks when I pick him up or screams like a banshee when reprimanded, I worry that people are chalking it up to his having two dads. Whenever we go out to dinner at a local chain restaurant (it features talking animatronic wild animals, which is a big hit with The Monkey), I am hyper-aware of anyone who seems to be looking overlong in our direction, and worry about what they’re thinking. (More often than not this is simple paranoia, as those same people usually end up smiling at us sooner or later.) I feel as though we are held to some unstated higher standard, and that anything that seems even slightly awry might be silently ascribed to the deficiencies of same-sex parenting instead of just the expected mishaps of raising a child.
I have those feelings despite not once encountering even the faintest whiff of overt prejudice as a gay parent. Nobody has ever said anything to me or the Better Half about our family to even hint that we are being judged in the way I fear. (To paraphrase one of America’s greatest cultural icons, I almost pity the person who is foolish enough to do so.) To the contrary, we are surrounded by friends and family who treat us with affection and offer us support. And yet still I feel this quiet, ineffable pressure to make sure I Represent Gay Parents Well. It is obviously irrational, but persistent nonetheless.
Pondering this has helped me realize that the perception of being scrutinized and judged and the subsequent self-imposed pressure to exceed those perceived expectations can exist in the absence of actual increased scrutiny or judgment. I would not presume to pronounce on the subjects of racism or sexism with any authority, having no actual experience of either. But I can understand how one can experience the lingering effects of prejudice, even in an environment that does not itself confront one with overt forms of discrimination.