On Being a Woman in a Man’s World

The woman’s role in U.S. society has changed a great deal since the writing of the Constitution.  Less than a century ago, women did not have equal rights with men.  They did not have the right to vote, and only a few professions were open to women, for example.  Specifically, those professions that were open to women were seen as less important than the professions that were traditionally offered to men.  It was in 1920, to be exact, when women were given the right to vote, and since then, the rights of women have been increasing ever since.  Today, women can not only vote, they can also marry a man of their own choosing, they can attend college, and most, if not all, employment opportunities are now open to women too, and believe it or not, some women have obtained very high positions within the corporate and political world, so it seems that gender wage disparity may even become a thing of the past – or at least this is what ‘they’ would have us believe.  In reality, and although we’ve come a long way (baby), we women, as a group, haven’t come nearly far enough.

When thinking about where women have come from, where we are now, and where it is that we might be headed, we might also consider how this system of power and privilege (and likewise oppression and disadvantage) has come into being, how it has changed over time, and how it might continue to evolve.  This is because when we think about the differences and similarities between men and women – the main difference is the difference of power and privilege, and therefore also the distribution of resources, between these two social groups.

Now, I know that many readers will be thinking to themselves that I have missed something very important, and that the real difference between men and women is biology, as represented by their different bodies, and most especially their different sex organs.  To that, I say, it would seem that way, wouldn’t it?  Yet this is not how reality truly is.  In reality, human bodies can have a much greater range in physical appearance than a simple binary classification system suggests is possible.  In addition to there being males and females, there is about four percent of the human population that can better be classified as what geneticist Anne Fausto-Sterling has termed “herms”, “merms”, and “ferms” (Bender & Braveman, 1995, pp. 234-235.).   She explained that “herms” or hermaphrodites have one testes and one ovary, while “merms” have testes and some form of female genitalia but no ovaries, and “ferms” have ovaries and some aspect of male genitalia but no testes.  Therefore, it is clear that human bodies can vary in such a way that they do not always fall neatly into either male or female classifications, yet, U.S. culture and language has allowed for human biology to be sorted into only two sex categories.

Classifying people in this binary way has caused us to think in ‘us against them’ terms when thinking about many human differences.  We think in ‘opposing’ notions of male or female, strong or weak, and active or passive, for example.  Then we begin to classify and sort people by these ‘opposing’ notions and we think of those characteristics as gender.  We, for the most part, have come to believe that men are strong, active and dominating and we call this masculine.  We also, for the most part, have come to believe that, in opposition to men, women are weak, passive, and submissive and we call this feminine.  Yet, just as is the case with sex classifications, life is much more complex than for what these binary categories allow.  This is because there are men with feminine characteristics, and likewise women with masculine characteristics, and there are folks with many sexual differences that have characteristics that classify anywhere along this range.  Therefore, it is the assumption that there is a binary sexual difference between humans, rather than a range of biological differences among humans, that underpins how we think about the differences between groups of people.  The result is that our system of thought has, for the most part, prevented the majority of us from even recognizing or acknowledging this truth about ourselves.

Feminist Stephanie Riger, searching for the truth about gender, explored the notions of “biology as culture” and also “culture as biology” and concluded that “nature versus culture” is a false opposition.  Instead of thinking of gender as either a product of culture or as a product of biology or nature, she found that gender is a much more complex identity category that is the product of both biology and culture.  Therefore, she concluded that nature has a role and culture has a role in influencing one’s gender identity.  Riger explained in her essay, Rethinking the Distinction Between Sex and Gender, that “[w]hat is generally recognized as feminine is frequently the product of powerlessness and low status (Bender & Braveman, 1995, p. 236).  This fact is clear in the feminine characteristics of weakness, passivity, and submission.  Therefore, Riger concluded from her studies, that both nature and culture have contributed to the notions of a weak, passive, and submissive femininity as being a trait that is specific to female bodies.

Even though humans vary in both sex and gender characteristics that do not always fall into binary and opposing categories, social norms, for the most part, have dictated that we will classify ourselves into binary categories and one of those categories is known as masculinity and the other is known as femininity.  Society has also dictated that there are two categories for human sex classifications and it has attached weak, passive, and submissive feminine identity characteristics to the category of women, and social norms require women to comply with this standard.  Weak, passive, and submissive feminine identity characteristics attached to women is evidenced throughout history in the Western world, and continues here in the U.S, even today.

The U.S. legal system has historically played a large part in the enforcement and perpetuation of feminine gender role norms for women.  Yet, even more than perpetuating gender role norms, the court system has historically used the same exclusionary tactics (citing natural law, nature, history, and stereotyping) toward women (sexism) as they have with perpetuating racism.  This has been and is used as a means to deny women access to the power and privileges that men claim for themselves.

For example, in Bradwell versus Illinois (1872), in which Myra Bradwell sued the state of Illinois state bar, because they refused to grant her a license to practice law, Justice Bradley of the U.S. Supreme Court concurred that history dictates by common law (which was, of course, dictated by natural law) that “there is a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman” and that “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for the many occupations of civil life” and that the “paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother” and he also added that “this is the law of the Creator” (Bender & Braveman, 1995, pp. 264-265.).  In this judgment, Justice Bradley not only excluded women from the protections of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution, he also perpetuated stereotypes about feminine gender roles, and he used historical examples, cited the natural law, nature, and even God as a method of providing ‘evidence’ for the case in which the lower status of women in relation to men was maintained.  Justice Bradley also presumed that a dichotomy of opposite ‘natures’ exists between men and women and it is on this faulty presumption that women were (and still are) denied access to the same privilege and power that men enjoy.

This same mentality toward women, believing in their inferiority in relation to men, has been perpetuated and is present in contemporary society today, almost 150 years later.  This is evident in a speech that was given in 2005, by Harvard University president, Larry Summers (who was the Treasury Secretary under President Clinton), when he spoke at a conference concerning academic diversity.  Katha Pollitt, in her February 21, 2005 article in The Nation, Summers of Our Discontent, noted that in his speech, Summers presented three reasons (listed in descending order of importance) why tenured women were (and still are) rare in the math and science fields.  The reasons he provided were: 1) family commitments did not allow women to fulfill the demanding responsibilities of these important positions, 2) women did not possess the genetic gifts needed to meet the needs of these important positions, and 3) that women were (and still are) discriminated against, but Summers withdrew the last point as he confirmed that if one university discriminated against a women, another would ‘snap her up’.  Therefore, in Larry Summers high position of authority, privilege and power, he perpetuated the very same gender role stereotypes about women that Justice Bradley authorized almost 150 years earlier.  That is to say, that it was in the nature of things that women should and would prioritize family commitments over careers, and that they did not possess the same mental capacity as men do.  Larry Summers obviously also believes in the incorrect presumption that a dichotomy of opposite natures exists between men and women.

What is clear in the example of Larry Summers attitude toward women in regard to their low enrollment in the math and science fields is that the historical denial of women to these professions is also continuing into today, and the reason is not so much the overt discriminatory denial of access to these fields, as it is the culturally situated notions of gender role expectations and norms.  Perhaps society has changed so that women are no longer excluded by law, and are no longer discriminately denied access to the same education as men, but social norms do still dictate that women, for the most part, could not or should not pursue such endeavors.  The stereotyping of women and feminine gender roles has a very real impact on the choices that girls and women make.  The assumptions about what girls and women could do and what they should do becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because this pattern of socialization for girls limits the opportunities that many women realize later in their life.

Therefore, even though women’s roles in U.S. society have changed a great deal since the writing of the Constitution, they have not changed nearly enough.  Although men have now given women the same privilege to vote as they have always held for themselves, and now that courts uphold standards of equality that favor equality of outcome over maintaining notions of sameness and/or difference, there is a different power that is exerting force over women.  This power is now structured into the very fabric of society.  It is in how we incorrectly choose to classify very different people into binary and opposing categories, and how it has become normal for us to do so.  In reality, the differences between people is much too complex to be able to fit neatly into these binary notions of sex and gender, but the dominating and hegemonic force of mainstream U.S. culture now insists that this is the social norm.  Therefore, women, it is believed, are weak, passive, submissive, and that it is in the nature of things that women should and will prioritize family commitments over careers, and addition to all that, they also do not possess the same mental capacity as men do.  What is more is that because we now believe this myth, for the most part we now turn it into reality.

For these reasons, when thinking about where women have come from, where we are now, and where it is that we might be headed, we might also consider how this system of power and privilege (and likewise oppression and disadvantage) has come into being, how it has changed over time, and how it might continue to evolve.  Systemic sexism limits women’s access to power and privilege, and therefore we need to learn to think and act in new ways.


Bender, L., & Braveman, D. (1995).  Power, privilege, and law: A civil rights reader. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Company.

Pollitt, K. (n.d.). Summers of our discontent. The nation [Web page]. Retrieved from http://www.thenation.com/article/summers-our-discontent?page=full

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Limiting Aspect of Perceptions of Likeness and Difference in our Notions of Sex, Sexuality, and Gender

I have come to realize that our language limits our ability to think.  What I mean by this is that, for the most part, we think of folks in terms of sex, sexuality and gender, in binary and oppositional terms.  Therefore, we think that we are either male or female, we are either feminine or masculine, and we are either heterosexual or not.  We have very few words to use when speaking about folks who fit somewhere along the range of human possibilities that does not neatly fit into these binary and ‘oppositional’ categories.  I realized how the limits of our language also limit our ability to think when I began writing an essay and seriously attempted to use terms that were more gender neutral so that they would not be exclusionary.

What I came to question is, how can we make mention of a person/people (and not use their names) if we are attempting to avoid terms such as men, women, boys, girls, he, she, and him or her?  It is not easy. It is clear that our binary and oppositional thinking is an outgrowth of our very limited language – and our limited notions about the true nature of humanity – and because of this, we carry these notions of opposites (with all of its negative and even combative associations) around with us and we use this mindset in much of what we think and what we do.

Another way of presenting these ideas is in Catherine MacKinnon’s essay, On Difference and Dominance (Bender & Braveman, 1995, pp. 241-252), in which she pointed out that “gender has structured thought and perception” in a way that mainstream legal and moral authority tacitly gives credibility to notions of equality corresponding with ideas of sameness and notions of sex corresponding with ideas of difference.  This, to MacKinnon’s way of thinking, is the very thing that hinders equality among the sexes.  What MacKinnon brought to light is that the notions of sameness (equality) and sex (difference) can both be used as legal arguments and as a means to perpetuate a system of domination and, for the most part, we truly believe these notions concerning the differences between the two sexes.

MacKinnon suggested that, when thinking about situations of equality/inequality among different people, we should avoid thinking in terms of sameness and difference between people, and instead we should use the “dominance approach”.  This is because we are all different from one another – and we are different from one another to the very same degree that they are different from us.  For this reason, we should instead think in terms of domination and subordination and the equal/unequal distribution of power and resources between different groups of people.

It is interesting to see how ‘new’ ideas come from the margins – from those folks who do not necessarily fit in with the social ‘norms’ or are in some way marginalized.  These are the people that see from a ‘new’ (not mainstream) perspective and can offer us insights that are sometimes difficult for ‘mainstream’ society to see.  Perhaps when we listen to those on the margins, such as women and folks from the LGTBQ community, we can learn about the true diverse nature of humanity.  We can learn that there is a much larger range of human possibilities than what we might currently imagine.  The simple idea of masculine (dominating) males versus feminine (submissive) females is one very limiting notion, for sure.  When we understand our true diversity we might also discover new ways of living where one group no longer dominates over another as a result of our perceived likenesses and differences.


Bender, L., & Braveman, D. (1995). Power, privilege, and law: a civil rights reader (p. 266). St. Paul: West Publishing Company.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Considering the Meaning of Being a Well-Educated Person

To even consider what it means to be a ‘well-educated person’ identifies a well-educated person as one of special distinction.  This is because the privilege of obtaining a higher education sets one apart from others and provides one with special opportunity.  The learning required of an educated person is a process of gaining knowledge in a way that distinguishes one as an expert in a particular profession, calling, lifework or field.  For some, to be educated might mean to focus in-depth on an insight into a particular subject of interest.  Yet, others may find the need to expand their knowledge in a broad way in order to better understand themselves and others and our surrounding world.  Some might have the view that one approach (focusing versus expanding) is the correct approach, but in reality, each method works to fill a special need.  Likewise, identifying ourselves and others based on levels of education (educated versus uneducated) simultaneously creates notions of superiority and inferiority that perhaps might better be avoided.  Therefore, rather than attempting to define what it means to be a well-educated person, perhaps it is better for me to consider instead my purpose for gaining a particular form and extent of education and what specific knowledge I may need to achieve those goals.

My purpose for gaining a higher education is so that I can use this knowledge to create my vision of a better world.  This would be a world where folks no longer competed with each other in the increasing consumption of supposedly limited natural resources.  Instead, it would be a world in which folks acted in community and in a way that cared for one another and their environment in order to expand and share available resources, and it would be a world where all people would have their basic needs met.  My vision for a better world would be one of much greater peace and harmony.

Some important educational goals that I have are consistent with what Marcy Paulson wrote in her essay, Benefits of a Liberal Arts Education (Paulson, M., n.d.).  They are:  to have curiosity and imagination; to be able to access and analyze information; to be able to think critically and solve problems; to be able to initiate, collaborate and provide leadership; to be agile and adaptable; and to have the ability to communicate well.  To be clear, Paulson was pointing out that these skills are “essential in a powerful workforce that is ready to compete in the global marketplace (Paulson, M., n.d.).”  Yet these skills are not only essential to compete powerfully in an economic sense, they likewise are essential in accessing power for the purpose of building community, sustainability, and a lasting peace.  The education I seek is one that does not so much tell me what to think, but rather it allows me the privilege and freedom to discover the best way for me to use the gifts that our creator has given to me, and it will allow me to fulfill a very special need.

It appears that I value a liberal arts education.  William Cronon confirmed this notion of a liberal arts education when he wrote that a “[l]iberal education is built on these values: it aspires to nurture the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom . . . But what might an education for human freedom actually look like? (Cronon, W., n.d.).”  Cronon questions, and so do I, what abstract values (such as freedom or peace) actually mean, and how might a person go about discovering the answer to such questions.

Cronon reminds his readers that the original medieval list of liberal arts required courses were necessary learning before one could attain the status of becoming a ‘free man’.  Today, our notions of freedom have expanded such that we now “include a greater range of human talents and a much more inclusive number of human beings, holding out at least the dream that everyone might someday be liberated by an education that stands in the service of human freedom (Cronon, W., n.d.)”.  The liberal education that I value is one that gives me the freedom to discover, in my own way, the way in which I may best be of service to my fellow human beings.  Yet, it is clear that I cannot accomplish this on my own.  I need to lean on and rely on my broader community and their generosity, knowledge and wisdom.  It is also clear that this situation binds me in a relationship where I will also have responsibilities to my community that ultimately limits my freedom.

This notion of connectedness leads me to expand on the previous list of educational goals that I maintain.  Therefore, I desire to always have imagination and a curiosity about everything and everyone.  Because of this, I wish to read and understand what I read, and I want the ability to speak with anyone, communicating well by the use of both listening and hearing what they say and mean.  When I access and analyze information, I want to be able to think critically in order to solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems.  I want to understand how to get things done in the world and I want to nurture and empower others to do the same.  I would like to practice humility, tolerance, and self-criticism, therefore I want also to respect academic and professional rigor not so much for its or my own sake but as a way of seeking truth.  I want to be agile and adaptable to changes in the world and those around me. Additionally, I want to be able to write and speak clearly, persuasively, and movingly.  Finally, I would like to be able to connect all of this learning in community so that we together may gain the wisdom and ability to make a positive difference in our own lives and the lives of others.

To my way of thinking, to be an educated person is to be a person of distinction, for sure.  This distinction is a privilege that sets me apart and requires certain responsibilities from me.  This is because learning is not only a process of gaining knowledge of oneself and others and our surrounding world.  It is also gaining the ability to create what did not used to be and to understand what once, before, we could not see, and ultimately it is to share these new things with the broader community.


Cronon, W. (n.d.). “Only connect . . . “: The goals of a liberal education. William cronon [Web page]. Retrieved from http://www.williamcronon.net/writing/only_connect.htm

Paulson, M. (n.d.). Benefits of liberal arts degrees. Suite 101 [Web page]. Retrieved from http://suite101.com/a/the-need-for-a-liberal-arts-education-a8371

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Male Privilege Checklist by Barry Deutsch

Excerpted From An Unabashed Imitation of an Article by Peggy McIntosh
Retrieved 11/17/2013 from: http://ae.gov.sk.ca/evergreen/socialsciences/appendixc/portion02.shtml
(Source: Expository Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 2.  Copyright © 2001 – 2002 Barry Deutsch.  Permission is granted to reproduce this list in any way, for any purpose, so long as the acknowledgment of Peggy McIntosh’s work for inspiring this list is not removed25 .)

In 1989, Wellesley College professor Peggy McIntosh wrote an essay called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”.  McIntosh observed that white-skinned folks in the U.S. were (are) “taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”  To illustrate these invisible systems, McIntosh wrote a list of 26 invisible privileges (she named it the invisible knapsack) from which white-skinned folks benefit.

As McIntosh pointed out, men also tend to be unaware of their own set of privileges that they enjoy simply because they belong to the social category of men.  In the spirit of McIntosh’s essay, Barry Deutsch compiled a list similar to McIntosh’s, but his list focused not on white-skin privileges, but instead on the invisible privileges which benefit men.

Deutsch stated that “[since he] first compiled it, the list has been posted several times on Internet discussion groups and that “[v]ery helpfully, many people have suggested additions to the checklist.  More commonly, of course, critics (usually, but not always, male) have pointed out men have disadvantages too – being drafted into the army, being expected to suppress emotions, and so on.  These are indeed bad things – but I never claimed that life for men is all ice cream sundaes.  Pointing out that men are privileged in no way denies that sometimes bad things happen to men.

In the end, however, it is men and not women who make the most money; men and not women who dominate the government and the corporate boards; men and not women who dominate virtually all of the most powerful positions of society.  And it is women and not men who suffer the most from intimate violence and rape; who are the most likely to be poor; who are, on the whole, given the short end of patriarchy’s stick.  As Marilyn Frye has argued, while men are harmed by patriarchy, women are oppressed by it.

Several critics have also argued that the list somehow victimizes women.  I disagree; pointing out problems is not the same as perpetuating them.  It is not a ‘victimizing’ position to fight against injustice; we can’t fight injustice if we refuse to acknowledge it exists.

An internet acquaintance of mine once wrote, ‘The first big privilege which whites, males, people in upper economic classes, the able bodied, the straight (I think one or two of those will cover most of us) can work to alleviate is the privilege to be oblivious to privilege.’  This checklist is, I hope, a step towards helping men to give up the “first big privilege.”

Here is Barry Deutsch’s List:

The Male Privilege Checklist

  1. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favour. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.
  2. I can be confident that my co-workers won’t think I got my job because of my sex – even though that might be true.
  3. If I am never promoted, it’s not because of my sex.
  4. If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won’t be seen as a black mark against my entire sex’s capabilities.
  5. The odds of my encountering sexual harassment on the job are so low as to be negligible.
  6. If I do the same task as a woman, and if the measurement is at all subjective, chances are people will think I did a better job.
  7. If I’m a teen or adult, and if I can stay out of prison, my odds of being raped are so low as to be negligible.
  8. I am not taught to fear walking alone after dark in average public spaces.
  9. If I choose not to have children, my masculinity will not be called into question.
  10. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.
  11. If I have children and provide primary care for them, I’ll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I’m even marginally competent.
  12. If I have children and pursue a career, no one will think I’m selfish for not staying at home.
  13. If I seek political office, my relationship with my children, or who I hire to take care of them, will probably not be scrutinized by the press.
  14. Chances are my elected representatives are mostly people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful the elected position, the more likely this is to be true.
  15. I can be somewhat sure that if I ask to see “the person in charge,” I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.
  16. As a child, chances are I was encouraged to be more active and outgoing than my sisters.
  17. As a child, I could choose from an almost infinite variety of children’s media featuring positive, active, non-stereotyped heroes of my own sex. I never had to look for it; male heroes were the default.
  18. As a child, chances are I got more teacher attention than girls who raised their hands just as often.
  19. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether or not it has sexist overtones.
  20. I can turn on the television or glance at the front page of the newspaper and see people of my own sex widely represented, every day, without exception.
  21. If I’m careless with my financial affairs it won’t be attributed to my sex.
  22. If I’m careless with my driving it won’t be attributed to my sex.
  23. I can speak in public to a large group without putting my sex on trial.
  24. If I have sex with a lot of people, it won’t make me an object of contempt or derision.
  25. There are value-neutral clothing choices available to me; it is possible for me to choose clothing that doesn’t send any particular message to the world.
  26. My wardrobe and grooming are relatively cheap and consume little time.
  27. If I buy a new car, chances are I’ll be offered a better price than a woman buying the same car.
  28. If I’m not conventionally attractive, the disadvantages are relatively small and easy to ignore.
  29. I can be loud with no fear of being called a shrew. I can be aggressive with no fear of being called a bitch.
  30. I can ask for legal protection from violence that happens mostly to men without being seen as a selfish special interest, since that kind of violence is called “crime” and is a general social concern. (Violence that happens mostly to women is usually called “domestic violence” or “acquaintance rape,” and is seen as a special interest issue.)
  31. I can be confident that the ordinary language of day-to-day existence will always include my sex. “All men are created equal…,” mailman, chairman, freshman, he.
  32. My ability to make important decisions and my capability in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.
  33. I will never be expected to change my name upon marriage or questioned if i don’t change my name.
  34. The decision to hire me will never be based on assumptions about whether or not I might choose to have a family sometime soon.
  35. Every major religion in the world is led primarily by people of my own sex. Even God, in most major religions, is usually pictured as being male.
  36. Most major religions argue that I should be the head of my household, while my wife and children should be subservient to me.
  37. If I have a wife or girlfriend, chances are we’ll divide up household chores so that she does most of the labour, and in particular the most repetitive and unrewarding tasks.
  38. If I have children with a wife or girlfriend, chances are she’ll do most of the childrearing, and in particular the most dirty, repetitive and unrewarding parts of childrearing.
  39. If I have children with a wife or girlfriend, and it turns out that one of us needs to make career sacrifices to raise the kids, chances are we’ll both assume the career sacrificed should be hers.
  40. Magazines, billboards, television, movies, pornography, and virtually all of media are filled with images of scantily clad women intended to appeal to me sexually. Such images of men exist, but are much rarer.
  41. I am not expected to spend my entire life 20-40 pounds underweight.
  42. If I am heterosexual, it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll ever be beaten up by a spouse or lover.
  43. I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.

Book Review: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters MostDifficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Effective communication is important in daily life and in formal negotiations, yet conflict and therefore difficult conversations, is a normal part of human experience. For this reason, the need to learn successful communication skills so that we can better deal with the difficult conversations, which we all sometimes need to face, is quite clear. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most (Stone, Patton & Heen, 2010) is the result of years of work at the Harvard Negotiation Project, whose mission is to improve the theory and practice of conflict resolution and negotiation. In this text, the authors have explored those things that make certain types of conversations difficult, why folks tend to avoid these difficult conversations, and why they sometimes tend to handle them poorly. Additionally, Stone, Patton and Heen have provided a communication method, a particular conversational style, to be used as a guide in order to develop one’s own conversation style in a way that improves one’s opportunity of obtaining better outcomes from difficult conversations. This book is effective in making conflict resolution theory real to its readers. The authors do this by examining the structure of and then decoding difficult conversations, they help readers to understand how to reposition their ‘stance’ to be more open, and they also offer metaphors and real-life examples to demonstrate clearly, the results of their research. This book is written in an easy-going conversational style that makes it simple for readers to follow and understand the elements of conflict negotiation theory that the authors share.

Difficult Conversations is a straightforward guide that can be used for gaining the skills that are crucial in order to better deal with difficult conversations, such as asking for a raise, terminating an employee, or discussing family conflicts. The intent of the authors was twofold. It was, on the one hand, to help individuals find a way to break through difficult relationship dilemmas, while on the other hand, it was to fill a broader organizational need for change and adaptation that is an intrinsic component of an ever increasingly competitive, technologically advanced, and globalized world. The roadmap that these authors used combines a way of thinking about the particular conflict issues with a certain manner of speaking and listening, or conversational style. The goal of this conversation style is that we may initially understand, to a greater degree than before, the complex nature of conflict, and then because of this we will be better positioned to begin a difficult conversation. Additionally, it is the authors’ intent that we learn how to do this while minimizing stress. It is also their purpose that we learn how to keep the conversation constructive and focused on effective outcomes that, many times, lead to real problem solving. The authors have described how these conflict resolution techniques may be effectively applied to both interpersonal relationships and how they may also be applied at an organizational level in order to shape improved difficult conversations.

One way that Stone, et al. (2010), make real the results of their research on the theories and practice of conflict resolution and negotiation is that they have ‘decoded’ the structure of difficult conversations, revealing that there is more to a difficult conversation than what one says and what one hears. This concept is explained as a difficult conversation actually being three separate conversations that take place simultaneously. They describe the ‘what happened’ conversation as one that involves disagreement between parties and as one that concerns what events took place. The feelings conversation is about uncovering and acknowledging the emotions of each party, while the identity conversation is an internal dialogue concerning what one wishes to believe, and what one wishes to present about himself/herself to others. In addition to the three conversations, the authors explain, there are also three stories running concurrently with these conversations. There is one story (and perspective) for each participant, plus a neutral story that sees and understands from a neutral point of view. Each of these stories contains its own version of the ‘what happened’ conversation, the feelings conversation, and the identity conversation. Examining the structure of a conflict reveals the many perspectives, the identity issues, and the need to have one’s feelings acknowledged. It also reveals that all of this is tied to each point of view. Finally, when all of these elements and perspectives are combined together, this makes up a more complete picture and understanding of reality than what one might otherwise consider without having applied the practice of conflict resolution methods. Understanding the structure of a difficult conversation helps one to develop a more neutral and realistic view of a difficult communication so that he or she may enter such a conversation in such a way that it has a better chance of being well received.

A second way that Stone, et al. (2010), make real conflict negotiation theory is by the use of metaphors. For instance, in their introduction to the book, they compared a difficult conversation to war, when they wrote that there is “no way to throw a hand grenade with tact or to outrun the consequences (p. xxx).” The metaphor they used paints a violent image of the conflicts that can sometimes arise from difficult conversations. This assists the readers to appreciate that how they choose to use their words is critically important. The metaphor helps readers to better realize that if used ineffectively, words might be construed as an attack.

Additionally, Stone, et al., also explain that in order to prevent a message from being interpreted as an attack, one can consider, and possibly adjust, one’s negotiation stance. They present having a difficult conversation as, not so much one of ‘delivering a message’, but instead as one in which folks are engaged in a ‘learning conversation’ instead. They illustrate the fundamentals of the learning conversation: the need to know the purpose for entering the conversation; the reasons why one should enter the conversation from a neutral perspective; the value of using good listening skills; the importance of expressing oneself clearly; and finally, the goal of problem solving. They sometimes teach methods that at first seem counter-intuitive, such as, that in order to be heard, one must first learn to listen well and practice good listening skills oneself, then the other party is more likely to respond by listening in return. They show us that by entering a conversation with curiosity and the intention to learn about the other party we may find that their perspective is real and perhaps even valid, too.

Lastly, there are many real-life examples of the communication methods that Stone, et al., suggest. For example, instead of entering a conversation from one’s own (limited and judgmental) perspective, that begs a return defense such as, “Listen, Michael, say what you will, but the problem on that financial brochure was that after all the work I did, you treated me badly, and you know it!” one could instead use an approach that comes from a more inclusive third, or neutral perspective, such as, “Michael, I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened between each of us on the financial brochure. I found the experience frustrating, and I suspect you did as well (Stone, et al., 2010, p. 221).” It is clear that the second example has the potential to be much more effective because it is much less confrontational. Real life examples such as these allow the reader to witness the theory in action as a real-life dialogue. They can even perhaps internalize their own reactions to such statements and ‘feel’ which might be more effective.

In all of these ways, the authors bring to life the theory of conflict resolution and negotiation and make the practice real for their readers. They have decoded the structure of a difficult conversation, and by the use of metaphors and real-life examples, they help readers to understand exactly why and how they should enter a difficult conversation as though it were a learning conversation. The result is that the reader is able to see how communication is much more than just delivering and receiving messages, because they can then see how it also consists of learning about and relating to one another in a more real and authentic way, which then leads to collaborative problem-solving.

I am grateful to these authors for making their research so accessible in an easy to read format that provides real life examples that bring conflict resolution and negotiation theory to life in a truly meaningful way. As a result of reading Difficult Conversations, I have begun to notice a transformation in my own thought process. This is altering the ways in which I think about others, and myself and this has changed the ways in which I interact with others, too. For example, I no longer assume that because I know that I am right, and because ‘their’ view is different from mine, therefore, they must be wrong. Instead, I am able to take an ‘and stance’ and by doing this I can see how both perspectives theirs and mine, may have validity. I can also now see the difference between the intent of a message sent and the impact of a message received. Therefore I am less likely to assume that I know what another’s intent is, based solely on the impact that I happen to feel. I now take all of this new knowledge into account when I deal with others. I have begun to effectively use this knowledge in my own interpersonal relations at home and at work to diffuse potentially difficult and stressful conversations. I have become more effective at maintaining a constructive conversation that is focused on effective outcomes, and I have, as a result, become a better problem-solver. It is clear that the authors have been very effective in meeting their goal of offering a way to help both individuals and organizations by offering them a method that breaks though difficult relationship dilemmas. For that, I am truly thankful.

Stone, D., & Patton, B. (2010). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. Penguin.

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© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Was the Notion of ‘Race’ a way to Justify the Morality of Slavery?

I was in a discussion in which we were examining our ideas about what came first, slavery or notions of race.  The question was posed,

“Was the Notion of ‘Race’ a way to Justify the Morality of Slavery?”

Answer:  I am not sure.  Perhaps for some, maybe even in many circumstances, this statement could be true.  Yet, because slavery has been with us humans since times of antiquity (and it is still with us today), I am certain that some humans always have and always will find ways to justify the oppressions of others whether by race, sex, age, etc.

I think that race (I’ll define ‘race’ for this discussion as an assignment of a superiority/inferiority status to certain groups of people based on perceived, yet untrue, biological differences) is not the exclusive manner in which folks justify oppressing others, yet it is clear that ‘race’ was (is) used for that purpose and I believe that ‘race’ is but one of many ‘moral justifications’ for doing so.

The reason that I say this is because we can look at sexism as one example, and the reality of child laborers both abroad and here in the U.S. as another example.  Women have been oppressed for millennia.  They are the first group of people to find themselves owned by others and even sold and traded as chattel.  (Think about how the traditions of dowries and ‘bride price’ originated.)  Also consider the fact that if I choose to drink coffee or tea or choose to eat chocolate that is not fairly traded (there are many, many more examples), I probably had slaves working for me producing that stuff.  The same thing happens in our (U.S.) agricultural system – child laborers – who have no choice but to work – harvest our food.  These examples are just a different form of slavery – and we find ways to condone this reality in our own minds – not unlike the manner in which ‘white privilege’ is perpetuated.

I think of a movie line in Dreamworks Prince of Egypt, when Moses finally acknowledges the enslavement of ‘his people’.  He said, “I didn’t see because I did not wish to see.”  What was his moral reasoning?  Simply that he did not want to know.  This line has stayed with me and keeps returning time and time again.

The moment when Moses discovered that he was family to those he thought of as inferior slaves, he was filled  with fright and ran.  I believe that the fear he displayed was based on the realization of the cold hard reality of his own personal part that he played in the oppression of people (equals – not creatures of lesser worth).  It is a difficult thing to acknowledge because it is against how most folks wish to think of themselves – as oppressors – and therefore because it causes them an identity crisis, they choose not to see.

This helps me to understand why we are ‘stuck’ in our own curent system of hierarchy of privilege and oppression today.

So, is race a way to justify the morality of oppression?  Yes, it is, but it is not the only way to do so.  There are many, and we all do it even as we do it unaware.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Legalized Racism Alive and Well

This is a recent CNN news report about the Gulla-Geechee people of Georgia’s Sapelo Island, where descendants of African -Slaves are being forced off their ancestral home (by means of new property assessments and increased taxes).  This situation is a good example of how institutionalized racism ‘works’ and how our political system and the legal system work together to support those who already have the power and privilege at the expense of those who do not.  Racism not only works through overt bigotry, but rather it is likely to be covertly embedded into systems that continually work to further advantage those who are already privileged at the expense of those who are not.

Property tax avalanche threatens homeowners on historic coastal island

By Rich Phillips, CNN
updated 3:21 PM EDT, Wed October 30, 2013
  • Fewer than 50 of the Gullah-Geechee people remain on Georgia’s coastal Sapelo Island
  • After property taxes were increased by as much as 600%, many fear they will have to sell
  • The community “is a part of history. It will be a shame not to preserve” it, a resident says
  • “We have to follow the law, and assess at fair market value,” the county attorney says

Sapelo Island, Georgia (CNN) — It’s a culture struggling to survive. Fewer than 50 people — all descendants of slaves — fear they may soon be taxed out of the property their families have owned since the days of slavery.

They are the Gullah-Geechee people of Sapelo Island off Georgia’s coast, near Savannah. This small, simple community is finding itself embroiled in a feud with local officials over a sudden, huge increase in property assessments that are raising property taxes as much as 600% for some.

Many say the increase could force them to sell their ancestral properties.

“That’s part of the American history. That’s part of what built this country,” said Charles Hall, 79, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who was born under a midwife’s care in the same home he lives in today.

“Sapelo being the only intact Gullah-Geechee community in the country that’s left, that is a part of history. It will be a shame not to preserve” it, he told CNN.

McIntosh County’s decision to reappraise homes on the island sparked the problem.

Continue reading article here:

News Source:  http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/26/living/georgia-island-tax-avalanche/index.html?hpt=hp_t2

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Proud to be an American?

I did a small ‘ethnoraphic study’, and spoke with a young lady who I assumed to be an African-American.  When she questioned me about racial discrimination in the southern states, I suggested that perhaps she might know better than I.  This is when she explained to me that she was from one of the Caribbean islands and came to this country when she was very young. I apologized and told her that it was very wrong of me to have made an assumption based solely on her skin color.

It is interesting to consider that how we think about race in ‘America’ is unique.  We, many times, use a hyphenated distinction to clarify an ancestral heritage.  For example, we might distinguish some ‘Americans’ as African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and even Native-Americans.  Yet, we rarely do so for those with a European heritage.  We should ask ourselves why this may be.  We might even ask ourselves what we mean when we use the term ‘American’.

I would suggest that using the term ‘American’ to describe U.S. Americans is quite ethnocentric, for sure.  There are two entire continents that are named America, in which there are many, many countires.  When ‘we’ refer to the U.S.A. as ‘America’ it is not acknowledging that there are other Americans who are, in fact, not U.S. citizens.

I think that it is good for me to identify myself as a U.S. American of European descent.  This is not unlike my recent and intentional use of my white-skin racial classification.  If I intentionally acknowledge my dual privileges as a U.S. American of European descent and my white-skin privilege, then I am more likely to be acknowledging others’ disadvantage.  Then I might be more likely to work to change the unjust system of power and privilege.  Attempting to be ‘colorblind’ does not acknowledge others uniqueness or their possible disadvantage.

I think it very important to acknowledge my extreme privilege because then I find myself acting with much more generosity toward others who do not enjoy the same privilege.  I have found the need to take this position because I have learned of the difficult life of Bolivian coffee growers, the Mexican migrant farm workers, and the Mexican women working in the maquiladoras just south of the U.S./Mexico border, for example.

Coffee growers, for the most part, live a very impoverished life – even as they grow one of the world’s most profitable commodities – and even as many of us are willing to sip Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks at $2.00 per cup while the growers, many times, do not even earn enough to cover the costs of growing.

Mexican migrant farm workers (including children) are oftentimes used for the harvest of the foods we eat (affecting their education that contributes to a cycle of poverty for these families).  The harvest of tomatoes (here in the U.S.A.) is one very good example of the use of child labor in agriculture.  The film, The Harvest, documents the unacceptable condition of child-workers that live this life.

The stories of the young women, who are exploited as they work in U.S.A. owned ‘American’ factories just south of the U.S./Mexican border (maquiladoras), are documented in the anthology, Ethnography at the Border, by Pablo Vila.  These stories have given new meaning to the description, ‘American Made’, for me.

Acknowledgment of my own extreme privilege in relation to these American neighbors of mine prompts me to now be aware of how my shopping decisions affect them personally and this encourages me to make changes in my actions to either better their situation, or else minimally, to not contribute further to the hardships they already endure.

For example, I now purchase my coffee from Equal Exchange, a cooperative of growers and distributors that was created so that coffee growers could avoid the use of ‘coyotes’ (middlemen) in the marketing of their product, and thereby realize a greater profit for the growers.  I now grow a larger and larger garden of my own each year so that I am not relying so much on the exploitation of child-labor for my food needs.  Additionally, I now make an attempt to know about the working conditions of those that produce the goods and services that I consume such as is the case in the maquiladoras.  This way, I can support the businesses that I believe offer working conditions that are less exploitative and offer greater equity of profit for their workers.

When we, U.S. Americans, do not acknowledge that there are, in fact, very real differences in the life circumstances between us and our less-privileged American neighbors, we are much less likely to see our own position of domination in this hierarchical system of oppression.

If any of us drink coffee or tea, or consume chocolate that is not ‘fairly traded’ or if we eat foods that we did not grow ourselves, or used goods that are produced overseas in ‘developing nations’, there is a very real possibility that we are, through our purchasing decisions, oppressing and exploiting others.  We all play a part in a hierarchical system of domination, but for the most part, are completely unaware of this fact.  In the very same way that many white-skinned folks are ignorant to their position of racial privilege, so are most U.S. citizens ignorant to their position of extreme privilege in world wide affairs.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Construction of Power and Privilege Entitlements

I’ve learned that, because of my heritage and ancestry, I have received an inheritance.  This birthright consists of an unacknowledged set of special privileges that provide me with certain advantages in life, even when these benefits are not intentionally redeemed.  They have been bestowed on me, not because of any special deservedness, but rather they are determined by something of which no person has control – skin color.  This bequest helps me to ‘get ahead’ in life, perhaps through better opportunities in schooling, employment, and living communities, for example.  I had always taken these privileges for granted.  I thought of them as rights that were offered to all citizens equally.  Part of my inheritance is that I was taught to think in this way.

As a little girl, I learned that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed as a self-evident truth “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Our founding fathers, I was taught, established a form of government for the United States of America that guarantees all individuals equality under the rule of law.

Yet, in the year 1987, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall (Bender & Braveman, 1995, pp. 135-141.) excellently argued that this is not how the founding fathers acted out their stated beliefs.  On the contrary, the framers of the U.S. Constitution, he explained, intentionally omitted slaves and women as part of the ‘whole number of free persons’ when they wrote of ‘We the People’.  At the time of the framing of the Constitution, all individuals were not guaranteed equality under the law.  He stated that, “the government [that] they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, that we hold as fundamental today (Bender & Braveman, 1995, p.135)”.   Furthermore, Justice Marshall made clear that the framers also carefully avoided documenting the words slave or slavery, and instead used terms such as ‘free persons’ and ‘other persons’.  The founding fathers were cautious to choose language that would avoid calling attention to the contradictory moral principles for which the American War of Independence from the rule of Great Britain had been waged.

In this same way as the founding fathers, the U.S. legal system has historically used such manner of expression to create a system of power and privilege for the dominant and controlling members of society, and simultaneously denied members of less dominant groups from participating fully by limiting their access to opportunity.  Bender and Braveman (1995) give examples of the legal parlance that they name as the “rhetoric of exclusion,” for which I will provide a few examples in the historical case described below.

In Person v. Hall (1854), in which the Supreme Court of California established that Chinese-Americans and Chinese immigrants had no right to testify against white citizens, there are many examples of the ‘rhetoric of exclusion’ present.  The ruling was based on the (1850) Criminal Proceedings that stated, “No black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against a white man.” In light of then current anthropological evidence that American Indians and Asian Indians were not of the same race, it was held that racial terms were to be taken in the general sense where “Indian” indicated those of the mongoloid race and that “black” applied to anyone not white.  Justice Murray argued that,

The European white man who comes here would not be shielded from the testimony of the degraded and demoralized caste, while the Negro, fresh from the coast of Africa, or the Indian of Patagonia, the Kanaka, South Sea Islander, or New Hollander, would be admitted, upon their arrival, to testify against white citizens in our courts of law.

To argue such a proposition would be an insult to the good sense of the Legislature.

The evident intention of the Act was to throw around the citizen a protection for life and property, which could only be secured by removing him above the corrupting influences of degraded castes (Bender and Braveman, 1995, p. 143).

Additionally, Justice Murray stated,

The same rule which would admit them to testify, would admit them to all the equal rights of citizenship, and we might soon see them at the polls, in the jury box, upon the bench, and in our legislative halls (Bender & Braveman, 1995, p. 145).

Present in this case is the rhetoric of self/other in which the real or imagined differences between the races was addressed.  All non-white races (them) were assigned a lower status than the white race.  The differences were generalized as opposed to being absolute (racial terms were to be taken in the general sense), and this was done in order to justify the privilege of denying the testimony of a non-white person. Explicit group-targeted difference language and stereotyping included the verbiage pronouncing non-white people as ‘the degraded and demoralized caste’ (also present here is racial stratification) amongst other such derogatory language.  It was claimed that social problems would be created if the mongoloid race were given equal rights, which for a degraded and demoralized race would likely lead to a slippery slope, indeed.  Additionally, the precedent and reliance on historical discrimination is evident in that the 1850 Criminal Proceedings were cited.  In using this citation, it was shown to be the framer’s intent to deny privilege of equality under the rule of law to all people who were not classified as white. 

It is this type of exclusionary rhetoric that creates systems of power and privilege and the resultant systemic racism, and there are many ways in which this rhetoric can be embedded into legalese discourse.  Through the crafty use of language, a legal structure of entitlement was designed that served to benefit those very designers, at the expense of great number of people whom they oppressed.

Our contemporary notion of equal rights under the law is the product of change over time in the way that we understand our own humanity and the humanity of those we think of as being others.  This can be demonstrated by looking at the historical record of the manner in which language played a part in the construction of U.S. legal argument.  Regardless of the failures of the past, when we see potential for the justice and fairness that is inherent in the U.S. Constitution and U.S. law, such as is the case with Justice Thurgood Marshall, it can be demonstrated that U.S. law is a reflection of how we think about social issues, and this can and does change over time.

I’ve learned that, because of my heritage and ancestry, I have received an inheritance.  This birthright consists of a set of special privileges that also demand a certain responsibility from me.  My responsibility is to work to ensure that all citizens may equally count as rights those very privileges that are extended to me.


Bender, L., & Braveman, D. (1995).  Power, privilege, and law: A civil rights reader. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Company.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.