Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Is there a new word to add the sociological dictionary?

Discussions of racism and sexism (or any *ism, really) in mixed company can easily become heated, especially if some people in the discussion try to combat the notion that we are “all in the same boat.” I don’t think the emotional charge of the discussion comes so much from what is being described as how it’s being described.

Usually, people trying to combat the notion of us “all being in the same boat” will use one or more of the following words: power, privilege, oppression. The “all in the same boat” or “reverse *ism” people will usually counter by using words such as victim mentality or whining.

Gender and race relations aren’t that difficult to understand. I think most people understand sociological phenomenon quite well, as examples are usually not argued with—it usually the meaning made of the examples that is cause for debate, offense, and possibly denial.

The problem, as I see it, is the lack of a proper word to describe a sociological problem that can’t be accurately described with the phrases “It goes both ways” or “We’re all in the same boat.” The word power isn’t exactly accurate to describe race or gender relations, nor is privilege. To say “you have power” with the implication “I don’t have power” makes the sociological problem too simplistic. To counter this claim, all the person who “has power” has to do is give an example of how the “powerless” has some kind of beneft the “powerful” doesn’t. The same limitation of the word privilege applies as well. The word oppression also makes it sound as if the “oppressor” is doing something deliberately malicious and invites the “oppressor” to accuse the “oppressed” of having a victim mentality.

I don’t know what this new word is, but I’ll try to explain why I think we need one, lest the status quo remain, wherein many Whites and males in America (the same may apply to other countries as well, but I can speak only for the US) feel hedged in by “political correctness” and accusations of “power,” “privilege,” and “oppression”; while many non-Whites and females in America (same disclaimer) feel frustrated by what they perceive as apathy, denial, and ignorance. Clearly, there are problems (again, at least in America) with regard to gender and race. Almost everyone knows there are problems. But we need a vocabulary to talk about these problems without making it personal.

I will say, as someone who has seen both sides of this debate (as a male “oppressor” and as a non-White “oppressed person”), that no one should take anything personally in these discussions. When feminists talk about the patriarchy, they are talking about a culture that both men and women perpetuate that is more than a collection of sexist actions by individuals. Likewise, when antiracists talk about systematic racism, they are talking about a culture that both Whites and non-Whites perpetuate that is more than a collection of racist actions by individuals.

Let’s take a break from race and sex for a moment, though. I can already anticipate the blood boiling of some of my readers. I know Hari is dying to talk about dowry harassment again.

I’ve always worked in schools. I’ve worked in many schools, and I know that not everyone in a school is equal. There are students. There are younger students and older students. There are students making good grades. There are students about to fail out. There are faculty members. Some faculty have been teaching for years. Others are new. Some faculty are prized by the community. Others are on the brink of being fired. There are staff members. Some staff have a higher position than other staff. Some staff get paid more than other staff, even though they work the same hours. There’s a principal or head of school. And there may be a board of trustees or some kind of school board. Maybe a superintendent.

In a school, I wouldn’t exactly say that the teachers are more privileged than the students. Yes, the teachers can come and go without getting a hall pass. They don’t have to have “senior privileges” to go off-campus. They get paid to be in school, whereas the students have to pay (through taxes, tuition, or both) to go to school. Nevertheless, you could argue, I guess, that faculty don’t have the same privileges students have. If a faculty member’s performance is poor, she may get a warning and a little support, but basically she’ll end up fired if it continues. It’s not difficult to be fired if you’re a teacher, even if you’re trying your best.

It is, however, quite difficult to fail out as a student if you’re putting in any kind of effort. When you’re a student, everything revolves around you. You do what interests you. If you aren’t doing all your work well, you are the only one who suffers. If you’re a teacher and aren’t doing all your work well, all your students suffer.

Do teachers have more power than students? Ostensibly so. If a teacher tells an administrator or another teacher “Jenny was cheating on her final exam,” most likely the administrator or other teacher will believe that Jenny has cheated. Teachers can make arbitrary rules students have to follow. Teachers decide how much work students have to do. On the other hand, if a student tells an administrator, “Mr. Neruda touched me inappropriately and tried to have sex with me,” that student has pretty much ruined Mr. Neruda’s teaching career, whether the charges are true or not. A student can fail out of school or get kicked out of school and still get an education at another school. Once a teacher has been accused of sexual misconduct with a student, that teacher is very likely not to get a job teaching again… anywhere.

Are students oppressed? Not really. They can’t make the rules. They’re often considered less credible than the teachers. But the school is really all about them. If the students’ needs aren’t getting met, the staff and faculty are expendible and can be replaced.

Of course, there are limitations to this analogy as it applies to race and gender relations. After all, one could easily sum up what the teachers have that the students don’t have with the word authority. You can argue with power and privilege, but ultimately teachers have authority, and students don’t. Even when a student accuses a teacher of sexual misconduct, the student has to be believed by other adults, not by peers alone. You can’t say White people have authority and non-Whites don’t. Nor can you say men have authority and women don’t. Or if you do, that would be only one small part of the problem.

I don’t know what the solution is. All I know is that we aren’t all in the same boat, and I don’t really know how to convey that without people accusing me of having a victim mentality or of misusing the words power and privilege. I do know that it’s important to realize that we are all dependent on each other and that sociological phenomena is not a zero-sum game. White people were not better or happier people in 1850 in America than they are in 2008 in America. Men were not better or happier people in 1900 in America than they are in 2008 in America. But you would think they would have been if the words power and privilege applied. After all, if you consider me to have power and want me to give up that power, then I have less power. If you consider me to have privilege and want me to give up that privilege, I have less privilege.

All I know is that with all the fighting, backlash, more fighting, concessions, denial, arguments, and semantics debates, sociological problems are staying just the way they are. I don’t want America to be a place where politicians and celebrities make racist and sexist remarks or “jokes,” get protested by various activist groups, and then give a token apology or retraction.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

“Equality” shouldn’t assume we’re all in the same situation

When I was in high school, there were some people who didn’t understand why we had a Black Student Union and an Asian Student Union but no White Student Union.

When I was in college, one time we were eating in the cafeteria, and a white male heterosexual friend of mine looked up at a banner that said, “This is you” (or something like that) and listed a bunch of marginalized groups, and he yelled out loudly and indignantly, “No, that’s not me!”

At the last school I taught in, some students were upset after an assembly with an LGBT panel and said something to the effect of, “That was awful. They say they want to be treated just like everyone else, but they want to be special, too.”

This is a constant tension in a society that, at least as the American mainstream media portrays it, has no systematic racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia. It’s not a system, after all. It’s just a few crazed, backward individuals. As far as some people are concerned, there is no problem that needs to be fixed. So all these groups that seek to give voice and advocacy for the disenfranchised are useless. Why have a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People if you don’t have a National Association for the Advancement of White People? Why have a Black Entertainment Television channel if you don’t have a White Entertainment Television channel?

Problems exist
Well, first of all, I have to say that it is systematic, not just some crazed individuals. If you have presumably enlightened people asking if America is “ready for” a Black president or a woman president, then, it’s systematic. If you have Hollywood constantly pumping out White-centric movies with either no or only supporting actors of color (with the occasional Will Smith exception), then, it’s systematic. If well-meaning and supposedly “color-blind” White people keep mixing me up with other Asian-Americans who look nothing like me (totally different heights, skin tones, facial structures, mannerisms, and dress styles), then it’s systematic.

The problem is that life isn’t as simple as some people would like to believe. Yes, there are some overtly extreme bigots. Those people do exist. But most acts of racism, sexism, fill-in-the-blank-ism come from systems and people working along with the system without even knowing it. You don’t have to look any further than Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to see how this is the case.

I consider myself lucky. In many respects, I am in the privileged (not marginalized) group. I am male. I am upperclass. I am college-educated. I am straight. But if I were also White, I don’t know if I would recognize how crazy these accusations of “double standards” or “reverse racism” are. I think I’d be making those accusations. It would seem logical to me. “If I can’t have a White group, why can you have a Black group?” “If I can’t have a male group, why can you have a female group?” There are a few things to think about this if you really want to know the answer to these questions and don’t want to just feel smarmy and superior.

It basically all comes down to whether you think problems exist or not. If you believe that after the passing of certain civil rights laws that we all of a sudden have equality in the US, then of course such groups would be silly. If, however, you believe that laws are only the beginning and much work has still to do be done on people’s hearts and on the culture in general, then such groups should not only be allowed but encouraged.

Think of it this way: if a student in my school were to start a campaign to raise money for earthquake relief in China, would it make sense for me to object “Why are you raising money for relief in China? Why don’t you raise money for America? We just had an earthquake here last month!”? Not really. The earthquake in China killed upwards of 60,000 people. I don’t even know how many people (if any) died in the latest Bay Area earthquake.

Treatments have to fit the problem
Treating a problem isn’t favoritism. It’s sheer logic. It’s actually equality. Treating everyone the same when a problem exists isn’t equality. It’s lunacy. If someone’s right leg needs radiation therapy to kill a cancerous growth, it doesn’t make sense to give the left arm and brain radiation therapy as well in order to be “fair.” Real fairness means treating whatever body part needs treatment. It doesn’t mean giving the same treatment to all body parts. The medicine that cures you when you’re sick can also kill you when you’re healthy.

But who is really healthy in a country where -isms abound and are even ignored? Everyone in America needs treatment but different kinds of treatment. Let’s look at marriage as an example. Let’s say you have a marriage in which the wife does everything for the husband, and he does nothing explicitly positive for her. Basically, he does whatever he wants, and she facilitates whatever he wants. He does nothing she wants unless it also happens to be what he wants. The husband clearly benefits from this arrangement in superficial ways. If he wants to be pleased sexually, she will do whatever he wants. If she wants to be pleased sexually, he doesn’t have to make the effort to do so. If he wants a vacation, they’ll take one. If he doesn’t want to do the dishes, she’ll do them. If he wants to watch TV, she won’t ask him to do something else. If he wants to have a night out together, she’ll always be up for it. He will be above criticism. She’ll never nag him. It’s quite obvious that she benefits little from this relationship, apart from never having to make tough decisions and being responsible for the outcomes of those decisions. But let’s say we want this marriage to work before the wife commits suicide or leaves him. Is it enough to send her to therapy? Is it enough for her to just say “No, I don’t feel like it” every now and then? No. The marriage of this hypothetical couple needs therapy in both directions, but the therapy isn’t the same. The therapy the wife receives needs to let her know she can assert herself, that her happiness matters, that it’s okay for her ask for things, too. But the husband cannot receive the same therapy. He already knows how to assert himself. He already knows how to ask for things. In fact, that’s the problem! His therapy would have to tell him that even though he superficially “happy,” and even though the way he’s treating his wife is morally questionable, the main reason he should seek a marriage of equality and mutualism is that it’s even better than what he has now.

Humanity is not a zero-sum game
Relationships (between races, between marriage partners, between genders, between sexualities, between classes) are a lot like the prisoner’s dilemma. The version of the prisoner’s dilemma I got in high school had a four-part matrix with arbitrary quantities outlining degrees of desirability for the outcome. You and your partner have committed a crime and are being interrogated separately by the cops. If you confess and your partner confesses, you’re both going to have less happiness (probably more prison time). If your partner confesses and you don’t, your partner will get more happiness and you’ll get a little less. If you confess and your partner doesn’t, you will get more happiness and your partnet a little less. If, however, neither of you confesses (in other words, you cooperate with and trust each other), you both get more happiness (i.e., no prison time) than in all the other scenarios.

I can attest that a marriage of equality and mutualism lacks a lot of the superficial benefits of a totally dominant/submissive marriage, but the rewards are wonderful for both parties. And this extends to demographic groups as well. Yes, as an upperclass person, I wouldn’t really want a workingclass person stealing my money, but a society in which the rich were a little poorer and the poor a little richer I believe would be far better off than the one we’re living in now.

Next steps
There are a few things people in the privileged groups can do if they’re interested in really helping and not just having arguments:

  • Recognize that advancing marginalized groups doesn’t hurt you in the long run. It’s not us vs. them. It’s us with us. After that hypothetical couple goes through therapy, both will have a better marriage in the end for it.
  • Entertain the possibility that problems may exist. A lot of times it might seem like feminists or gay people or people of color are just whining and complaining or indulging in a “victim mentality,” but all they’re trying to do is get you to recognize that problems exist in the hopes that you’ll stop trivializing things with questions like, “If you have an X group, why can’t I have a Y group?” No one is saying “Woe is me. Pity me. Oh, poor me.” They’re just trying to say “Wake up! Can’t you see there’s a cancerous growth in this part of my leg? Can’t you see the cops have caught us and we have to decide whether to cop a plea or not?”
  • Form your own groups, but make them productive. No people of color are going to complain about a Whites-only group that seeks to educate other Whites about White privilege. No feminists are going to complain aobut a male-only group that seeks to educate other males about male privilege or sexism. No gay rights activists are going to complain about a straight-only group that seeks to educate other straight people about homophobia or heteronormativity.

There. I’ve said my piece. I said what I thought needed to be said. I realize many people will disagree with what I’ve said, but I hope it’s at least made you think.