Prejudice and Favoritism Don’t Cancel Out

Michael Derrick Hudson
Michael Derrick Hudson

An interesting story has been making the rounds. A guy named Michael Derrick Hudson was having trouble getting his poetry published. So he decided to use a pseudonym. That, in and of itself, is of course perfectly benign. But the pseudonym he picked was Yi-Fen Chou. So, after 40 rejections under his own name, he got another 9 under his Chinese-sounding pseudonym before landing the poem in an anthology.

You can read all the rest of the details via New York Magazine: What a Poetry Kerfuffle Can Teach Us About Bias.

Here are some lessons worth taking away. First, let’s not pretend that using the Chinese-sounding name didn’t help Hudson. Obviously it did. The numbers bear this out (a little), but so does common sense and this is born out by the testimony of the guy who picked out the poem for the anthology (he admits reading it in a different way because he assumed the author was Chinese, and therefore being more open to it.)

So, does this prove that white males are really the ones being oppressed?

No, it doesn’t. It illustrates something that should be obvious but for some reason isn’t: bias is local. When you’re applying for a job it really doesn’t matter what the aggregate level of bias in the industry is. It matters what your specific (potential) boss thinks. And this trend can vary. So, do (for example) homosexuals face discrimination? In the NFL: probably. In Hollywood: probably not. Being of Chinese descent may very well hurt if you’re running for nationally elected office (I’m speculating, but it’s reasonable) or competing for CEO. But it actually helps out if you’re tying to get published.

This should make us all be a little bit more cautious about making wide, sweeping claim about privilege and prejudice.

And one more thing: I don’t think that prejudice and favoritism cancel out. Being given favorable treatment in one area of your life does not somehow make prejudice that you face in another area of your life go away. Just something to consider.