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Donna Woolfork Cross’s fictionalized account of the life of a woman who lives her adult life as a man and becomes pope in the 9th century A. D. is by turns a page-turner and a bit tedious. At its best in the first half, Woolfork describes a very precocious girl, living in time when girls were little more than chattel and certainly never educated. Learning in secrecy and trying to avoid a brutal, dictatorial father, the young Joan displays courage, loyalty, and ingenuity — traits that will serve her well when she takes on her role as a man and becomes a monk. The book falters in the later half when the plot becomes predictable: Joan’s success will lead to a crisis, which Joan will (almost) always finesse to her credit.
Meticulously researched and cleanly written, Pope Joan will be enjoyed by anyone who likes a good story. Bonus fun if you like early church history, medieval history, in general, and/or if you hate sexism.
About a year ago, a friend of mine told me he wondered why he had bothered to get an education. He felt that the job prospects and earning potential he had did not balance against the time and money he had invested in getting his Ph.D. He speculated more broadly that college degrees were becoming less and less valuable in our country and asked why we should continue to place such a high priority on college as a nation.
My friend’s thinking, plus the fact that I teach at a California community college, got me paying attention to some of the conversation that our society having about college degrees. In particular, over the last year I’ve been noticing more and more people questioning the value of a college degree. The script for these articles, videos, rants, complaints goes something like: 1) college costs a lot of money and finishing requires taking on significant debt, including some statistics on the amount of debt taken on by college students; and, 2) a college degree doesn’t guarantee a good job like it did in the “good old days,” followed by an anecdote about a college graduate’s job search and maybe some questionable statistics.
A recent (6/13/11) Time magazine article (“Now What? Mortarboards and diplomas don’t get you as far as they used to. These new graduates are in for a bumpy ride.”) is a good example. Along with anecdotal evidence, the author cites a Rutgers University study finding that 30% of college graduates from 2006 to 2010 didn’t find employment within six months of finishing school (there’s no comparison with unemployment for folks without a college degree during the same time). Further, a Twentysomething Inc. poll found that 85% of “graduates are taking shelter under Mom and Dad’s roof.” (The timeline for this statistic is not clear—is it within one year of graduation? Or two years? Certainly, it doesn’t mean that 85% of all college grads are still living at home for the rest of our lives.) These two stats exhaust the quantitative data supporting the article’s title and it concludes that, although science and engineering majors are more likely to find jobs than their colleagues in liberal arts (U.S. Labor Department data), the nationally high unemployment numbers are promoting choosy employers.
Belying the faux-profound conclusion, the tone of the article is decidedly alarmist, ignoring that fact that people with a college degree continue to enjoy higher employment percentages than people without degrees; more education still promotes greater employment, in general, and graduates know it—the same Rutgers study found that 62% of those with a Bachelor’s degree believe that more education is needed to be “successful.” In addition, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more education tends to increase your income.
More thoughtful approaches to what a college degree means today include Sherry Linkon, at the Center for Working-Class Studies, who discusses the value of getting an education for people headed toward professions such as accounting, education, communications, and social work, for whom getting a college degree is a crucial step on the way to being certified to do the work. At the same time, Linkon points out that colleges force these essentially vocational students into general education classes that don’t seem to have anything to do with their chosen field of work. Importantly, she also discusses the knowledge that working class folks bring to these (and all) professions, much of which is not taught in school.
Then there is a New Yorker article by a college professor who tries to answer his students’ question: “Why do we have to read this book?” He believes that college should exist to educate citizens for democracy, but he’s not sure that’s how our society still uses higher education.
One could legitimately ask if we ever did use it that way. Indeed, self-improvement blogger Brian Kim writes:
Back in the day, everything that was said about getting a degree was true. If you had a degree, you separated yourself from the pack. Not many people were able to get degrees because not many people were able to afford college. It was normally reserved for the rich or upper middle class. And that’s precisely why the degree was so valued . . . because it was scarce. Scarcity creates value.
Like Kim, I think our society has always used college to reinforce the status quo elite, but I also think that in at least the last 50 or so years we’ve also used it for more democratic purposes. The facts are that in the last 50 years, our country has made a college education more available to women and people of color and they have taken advantage of it. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women outnumber men in college and in degrees earned. In addition, the number of people of color earning degrees is increasing for every group.
The blog posts and articles go on and on, including a paranoia-inducing video put out by the mysteriously obscure, apparent scam organization “National Inflation Association” telling us that our education system sucks and that we should buy gold and silver to survive the coming economic apocalypse.
At the same time, College Board blissfully continues to tell us that “one of the best things about getting a college education is that you have more careers to choose from” and produces lists of the “Hottest Careers for College Graduates — Experts Predict Where the Jobs Will Be in 2018”
Trying to make sense of this cacophony, I’ve begun to think that its purpose is two-fold: to complain about the loss of privilege for those who used to be “entitled” to good-paying jobs; and, to promote the impression that by continuing to democratize college degrees for more and more segments of our society we further devalue a college degree. It’s not a big leap to think college degrees are being devalued by white men precisely because more women and people of color have them.
But beyond the more or less explicit racist, classist, and sexist agenda, these arguments ignore the issue of what happens to degree earners when they enter the job market. It would be great if jobs were equally distributed across all demographics of the degree earners — that would imply that hiring practices had improved greatly and that race, class, gender, and other forms of oppression in our society have diminished — but I don’t believe that is the case. Instead, as we all know, in most jobs white men continue to be more likely to get hired and be promoted than other people.
That means that the crying over the uncertain job market for college grads is almost entirely a tactic to protect white male privilege and entitlement; that is, it’s the same old discrimination in play. And, the people questioning the value of their degrees — whether knowingly racist, classist, and sexist or not — at least all ignore the reality of the privilege that most of them have. As a white man from an middle-class background, my friend’s analysis of his degree may be accurate for him. But for everyone else, the statistics say that a college degree remains a viable path to a better job and economic improvement.
This blog post gives a sense of what people are feeling like on the ground. I’ve heard similar sentiments from several people, mostly white middle class folks. What it looks like to me is that as those people are increasingly competing in the work place with people with whom they didn’t used to have to compete. Makes them mad, because they feel entitled to a job — after all, they’ve been told all their lives that a college degree is the key to a good job. The result is a more or less deliberate devaluation of the college degree. That is, as some of us work to democratize a college education, others work to maintain the privilege they’ve enjoyed in the past.
At this point in the development of our culture and its history, most college-educated folks, as well as many others, know that the white-washed, reductionist history we were taught in grade school is narrow and crafted to serve the ruling classes; white men dominate that history, despite the fact that people of color, the poor, women, and others had major impacts both on the stories we were told about our nation’s origins and, especially, on the stories we were not (usually) told. At the same time, our knowledge is frequently theoretical; that is, our concrete knowledge of the contributions made by non-white males is often limited.
Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (1993) is here to change that. Organized both chronologically and by ethnic group, the book is separated into chapters that tell a single group’s history and its effect in the U.S., including a wealth of quotes and information from original and secondary sources. Connected enough by unifying metaphors to read the work through from cover to cover, each chapter can also stand alone if your interest is more focused and less general.
Among many significant insights, Takaki’s analysis of the civil rights movement as emerging from the upheaval and opportunities during World War II surprised me, because I hadn’t heard it before, and rang true. Such analysis is helpful as we continue to see the results of these developments in our culture. The current backlash in our “post-feminist” and “post-racial” society, with its roots in the 1980s, is another attempt by those with privilege and power in our country to keep the rest of us from uniting for the good of the many, rather than the benefit of a few. Such moves started early in our history (e.g., when “race” was created to divide white indentured servants from black) and, as I’ve said, continue to this day.
Takaki’s book is a classic and deserves to be. When I saw him speak in 2007, his enthusiasm, erudition, and genius were obvious. His tragic death last year was a loss to us all.
In Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (2006), Kenji Yoshino uses “covering” to mean the opposite of flaunting. Covering is a wide array of behaviors by individuals in a society that attempt to hide the way those people don’t conform to the “mainstream” idea of what society considers “normal” human behavior. Covering is assimilation, an often useful action in a diverse society of people trying to get along with one another.
Yoshino frames covering as part of a spectrum of oppressive behavior by dominant cultural groups, a spectrum that starts with demands to “convert,” then to “pass,” and finally to “cover.” Focusing largely on gay and lesbian identity, Yoshino traces some of the history of demands to “covert” to heterosexuality, followed by the demand to “pass” as straight, and finally, the current requirement to cover, potently symbolized by the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the U.S. military. Converting is about actually becoming something different; the “converted” would actually stop being attracted to same-sex partners and be attracted exclusively to opposite-sex partners. Passing is less about actually changing your preferences; instead, it’s about pretending to be something you’re not; it’s a performance of heterosexuality. Covering is not a full on performance of straightness, but rather a not-flaunting of queerness. As I said above, covering is the opposite of flaunting.
The same spectrum of oppression works outside of hetero-normativity. For example, racial minorities in the U.S. have had a similar history, though of course passing is limited to those whose phenotype allows them to do so. Covering is much more pernicious. Witness the demand for African-American’s to wear their hair more like white or Asian hair, a demand that requires painful treatments, enormous amounts of money, and hours of regular maintenance. African-American women face especially stringent requirements for what hairstyles are acceptable, requirements that deny a rich cultural history and the physical nature of their hair. (If you haven’t seen Chris Rock’s documentary, Good Hair, on the subject, then check it out as soon as you can.) Essentially, our society asks black folks not to display their black hair, i.e., not to be so black.
As a straight, white male from an essentially middle-class background, I have to cover few, if any, of what U.S. culture considers major dimensions of identity to make myself seem “normal.” That doesn’t mean I don’t need to cover parts of myself. For a relatively mild example, I occasionally like to lick my plate, not wanting to waste the delicious sauce on the dish; however, I usually (but not always) restrain that urge in public because I don’t want people to think I’m completely uncouth or crazy. More seriously, I frequently hide my urge to cry in public. I also quite consciously dress to be taken seriously at my job, despite the fact that I would often be happier in other, less “acceptable” clothing.
I mention these examples not to trivialize the oppression that people of color, women, members of the LGBT community, and others experience, nor to make light of the strong demands that our culture makes on them to cover their individuality. Instead, I mean to emphasize that we are all required to cover in one way or another. Covering mutes our individuality by obscuring the idiosyncratic differences between us. And, as Yoshino acknowledges, this is often good because it helps the world run more smoothly. As long as people are given the choice to cover or not, Yoshino has no problem. What he objects to is forcing people to assimilate.
Yoshino’s discussion of covering is most poignant when most personal, when he describes his coming out as a gay man and then his struggle not to cover. His legal analysis brings out his training as a lawyer, which is good—and, as with much legalese, sometimes you wish he had said the same thing in a lot fewer words. At the same time, his experience as a poet and his general love of language make even the driest passages a relative joy to read. I’ve never read a more finely crafted piece of non-fiction. In this way, Yoshino is refusing to cover any of who he is—poet, lawyer, son-of-immigrants, gay man, and more—he flaunts it all. His final prediction, about the end of identity politics, seems overly optimistic, perhaps even naïve; but I believe he is true to his experience and to who he is throughout. That courage not to cover is rare and I, for one, appreciate it.
In the preface to We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2004), bell hooks notes that “there is not even a small body of anti-patriarchal literature speaking directly to black males about what they can do to educate themselves for critical consciousness, guiding them on the path of liberation.” hooks writes the book, then, “as a black woman who cares about the plight of black men. I feel I can no longer wait for brothers to take the lead and spread the word. I have spent ten years waiting. And in those years the suffering of black men has intensified. Writing this book I hope to add my voice to the small chorus of voices speaking out on behalf of black male liberation.”
I read the book, not because I’m a black man, but to think about my African-American male students and how to help them succeed in my classes; I knew hooks would provide incisive cultural observation and a hopeful, loving message. I also read because I could, in the future, have a bi-racial child who would be considered by many to be black. I feel the need to prepare. I wanted to think about it with something beyond my own brain and the influence of those around me.
When I expressed these sentiments to my old friend, John, a parent, he said that he couldn’t help me think about having bi-racial children, but nevertheless he thought the most important thing a parent can do for a child is be present for him or her. He said that that the complications I was considering might be good to be aware of, but that ultimately the most important thing is to love your children and show them that you do. hooks says pretty much the same thing. The book is pretty critical of black men and points to better parenting as part of the solution. I can be a part of that solution in that I can hold high expectations for my children and give them the support to achieve them. I can love them and demonstrate that love consistently. Hopefully, I can also model what it means to be a man in a way that does not perpetuate all of the racist, patriarchal injustice against which hooks rails.
Almost a year after Barrack Obama was elected president the debate about what his being the nation’s first biracial president means rages on. Simplifying and generalizing the arguments (always a precarious thing to do): some say it signifies a step beyond race to some place where we do not have to worry about it, where race has nothing to do with how we see and judge people; others admit the importance of Obama’s election, but also speak of the continued racism that people of color face and to statistics about the disproportionate number of people of color living in poverty, failing in our schools, suffering from toxins in their neighborhoods, sitting in prison, and generally dealing with the very real effects of institutional and systemic racism in our society.
In recent weeks the debate was inflamed by the arrest, in his own home, of noted scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who publicly asserted that he had been the victim of racial profiling. The arresting officer denied the idea and refused to apologize, saying he had no reason to do so. The president weighed in; the papers and talk shows are having a field day. Predictably and revealingly, in a poll, about 3/4 of African-Americans said they thought race was a factor in the arrest; 2/3 of whites said it wasn’t; it is the privilege of the over-class to ignore the world in which the under-class lives.
There is hardly a better moment to read Cornell West’s 1993 classic Race Matters. In essays entitled “Nihilism in Black America,” “Beyond Affirmative Action: Equality and Identity,” “Black Sexuality: The Taboo Subject,” and more, West incisively and profoundly analyzes racism in the U.S. His carefully constructed prose elucidates complex ideas and stimulates further thought. He speaks truth to power in a way that is both provocative and obvious, frequently making me wonder why I hadn’t seen his point before that moment.
Among many, the idea that stands out for me at the moment is that African-Americans are intrinsically part of our national culture. They’ve been on the continent almost as long as white people. Our society has evolved with the contributions of both black and white people. To the extent that there is a “white” culture and a “black” culture (categories that clearly include a great deal of variety and individuality within them), they have evolved together, contributing to one another in both many, many ways. African-Americans are as “American” as the rest of us.
It is obvious to me that, as the title to this book suggests, race still matters in the U.S. and around the world. The sooner that white people in the U.S. accept and publicly acknowledge this reality, the sooner we will be able to take true steps to equality.