All Height Matters: Implicit Bias and Unearned Privileges - Higher Education

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All Height Matters: Implicit Bias and Unearned Privileges


by Robin L. Hughes

A student asked me, “What does implicit bias look like? Give me some examples.”

Everyone is impacted by implicit bias — Secretary Clinton assured us during the first debate this year. Many of us have visited the Implicit Bias website, taken the exam, and were stunned by the results. Implicit bias discussions assume that we all know that racism is a part of the very cultural fabric in which we live in the United States. Racism goes unnoticed, ignored, or denied.

Implicit bias suggests that racism becomes much like the air in which we breathe … normal. What does normal look like? I used my own height privilege to describe to the student what implicit bias, or unearned privilege, might look and feel like.

Dr. Robin L. Hughes

Dr. Robin L. Hughes

I am tall and I know that I am afforded certain privileges just for being tall. Most leaders of corporations, both public and private, are tall. That reinforces my potential career trajectory. Of course I am a dean and more than likely could become a college president. I have the unearned privilege of height to assist me. Height is a sign of power and authority.

Height privilege sends clear messages to tall people that they possess something special in terms of leadership capabilities and perhaps general intelligence. My height adds significantly to my lifetime earning potential. In fact, that is exactly what I have come to know from research.

My height privilege tells me every day that this world complements and appreciates my height in very explicit and implicit ways. People assume that, because one is tall, they are great at sports, even if they never played or were not good at any sport. You do not have to be that good; you just have to be tall. And, if you never played, that is OK, because you would have been good, because you are tall. In fact, most athletes in most sports are tall. Models are tall. Models are pretty. The unearned privilege of height is ubiquitous. Sometimes pretty, good looking, handsome also mean tall.

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Oh it’s great to be tall. Tall people are complimented because they have long limbs. A normal part of my day includes, “I wish I had your long legs!” People naturally assume that I can jump higher, and run faster — after all, I am tall.

I am complimented on my nice hands, soon followed by the comment that, if I wanted to, I could become a great piano player. I am so lucky! I can carry unwanted weight without much consternation. I am also forgiven when I am overweight, because “I carry it well.” I wear clothing, it never wears me, and I rock what I do wear is the clear message. When I miss on an outfit, it certainly has nothing to do with me — it’s a design flaw. And while I may struggle to find pants long enough, there is not one week that goes by where someone does not compliment the fact that I have long limbs that are a blessing from the spiritual world. Thank goodness.

I feel great about my height most days — well, every day. There is something to be said for looking above others’ heads at most events and venues. Those constant internal and external positionalities have certainly sent subtle psychological messages to me since birth. Visits to the doctors were all about my height and how proud they were of me for having added yet another inch to my height. I did not have to do much to get that inch other than eat healthy, get enough sleep, and just be tall.

I have lived within a very positive metanarrative centered around being tall throughout my entire life. When my family, father (6’6”), brothers (6’4”) and (6’8”), mother (5’8”), and my sister and I hovering at 6’ entered a restaurant, folks would stop and stare. We all felt good. I know that I did. Those stares assured me that I was something extra, more so than the other “regular” families who were having dinner. The waiters complimented us on looking powerful, good, and asked us if we “were someone.” Of course we are, I would think, we are tall.

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Even today, friends tell me that I command a room. That has everything to do with my unearned height privilege. In fact, I do not worry when I walk into a room late. I rarely ask for forgiveness because of my lateness or interruption. I have come to understand that my height excuses me from tardiness. My height privilege provides me with an unearned confidence across the board. Being tall and the privilege that comes with my height are rooted firmly in the core of my existence. It just feels right, and I cannot think of existing for one second without my height privilege.

Height matters — I feel great.

Unearned privilege, implicit bias, and institutionalized racism work in much the same way as unearned height privilege. Race, like height, is central to our everyday interactions and sends tightly coupled and clear messages to each of us daily. Height privilege affords those who are tall with unearned privileges based on a system that rewards society’s construction of “tall.”

How we construct race is also a powerful system of privilege that benefits individuals and groups based on the color of one’s skin.

Dr. Robin L. Hughes is interim executive associate dean in the School of Education and Faculty Athletic Representative at Indiana University.

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