In her book Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law, Catharine MacKinnon raises the point that, in a man-defined society, gender “neutrality” in the legal system and the workplace is defined by the standards set by men.  In these arenas of public life, neutrality is taken to mean homogeneity of treatment.  As I see it, the long-standing man-defined social idea that women are less than men yields the following argument: if women are to be equal, women should be treated equally; it would be demeaning to a man to give up the privileges of manhood; therefore women should be held to the same standard as men.  In principle, this works.  In principle, women can acheive the same as men.  Ceteris parabus, I don’t see why this oughtn’t be true.  Of course, the advocates of equal treatment for all social identities regardless of historical oppressions tend to disregard those historical oppressions.

I have always been on the fence about affirmative action.  That is to say, I don’t doubt the need for it, but I do doubt its efficacy in the higher education system.  To say that affirmative action is not needed is to disregard the historical oppressions of women and of people of color.  MacKinnon points out that the idea that abolishing affirmative action would yield a “neutral” system continues to favor the groups that already have power and privilege, since they do and continue to have the power and privilege to define success.  Even disregarding inequality of access, the standards of success by which we measure the worth of a candidate for admissions are dictated by the social standards put in place by white men.  Outliers — minorities who are successful by the standard of the dominant — only exist where equality is evolving.  The more unequal the society, the less likely it is that we will find outliers of this kind.

I think that it is fairly common to see “neutrality” conflated with “equality.”  I think that equality is, by and large, a more complex and difficult issue than neutrality is.  We have the capacity to suspend judgment as humans.  Yet equality is not something that we have agency over as individuals.  The claim that one is “colorblind” or “gender neutral” in the sense that one doesn’t judge others on the basis of their social identities may be true, but not okay.