Good Neighbors

On May 28, Kristina Bravo reported in takepart that for the first time in sixteen years, the Colorado River has reached its final destination, returning to the Gulf of California. Finally, we in the U.S., are learning how to be good neighbors. For years, we have been denying our southern neighbors their right to fresh water. We have done this by building dams and diverting the Colorado River to places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles. This has prevented the river from flowing into Mexico as it once did, naturally and historically. This action violated treaties between the U.S. and Mexico, and has caused drought conditions, the loss of crops, the loss of livelihoods, poverty and many other social ills for the Mexican people.

In addition to limiting the availability of fresh water in Mexico, the U.S. also disrupts Mexican food markets in other ways. This is because the U.S. federal government subsidizes U.S. grain producers. That means that the taxpayers of the U.S. fund the grain producers, so that the prices of grain are kept artificially low. By this arrangement, commodity traders are able to flood the world markets with ‘cheap grain’, thereby displacing the farming economies in other nations, such as Mexico. These U.S. policies have negatively impacted the wellbeing of our Mexican neighbors in many ways.

The consequences of U.S. economic policies, such as these, are the impoverishment of our neighbors. Farming families in Mexico become no longer able sustain themselves, as they once did for generations.  Therefore they flock to border cities, to maquiladoras, the manufacturing facilities in the so called Free Trade Zones. They go to the maquiladoras looking for factory work. The Free Trade Zones are areas in Mexico where ‘American’ factories are set up in order to capitalize on cheap ‘foreign’ labor. Yet, these new jobs in the maquiladoras do not provide the Mexican people with an adequate compensation or means for survival.

The major labor force, in these maquiladoras, is that of young female workers, because they will work longer and harder, for less money, and with less protest than men will. This is the typical situation in any industry where the main labor force is that of women. In any industry that is mainly sustained by the labor of women, with very few men laborers, you can be fairly certain that the working conditions are such that men refuse to tolerate them. This is because young women are more willing than men to work in oppressive and exploitative conditions for poverty wages, and this is a perfect opportunity, for those with the power and desire to do so, to profit from capitalistic gain at the expense of vulnerable others.

Furthermore, the living conditions that surround the maquiladoras are meager. They are slums, without adequate housing, plumbing, electricity or fresh, clean water. This condition exists because too many displaced farming families have fled their homes hoping to find an economic means of survival elsewhere, but the jobs that they do find do not compensate them adequately so that they can improve their living conditions. It might be questioned why the displaced Mexican farmers migrate to such areas. An important consideration in this forced migration situation is asking where ‘elsewhere’ might be if one’s skills for their traditional way of life do not easily transfer to a new economy. What are the options that exist for the Mexican people in light of the affects of U.S. policy?

In order to survive, some Mexican people have risked their lives to come to the U.S. looking for work. The work that they find is generally in industries that citizens of the U.S. refuse. That is, many immigrants become migrant workers, working in dangerous conditions, harvesting crops that are grown here. Likewise, many become domestics, cleaning the homes of the privileged who can afford such luxuries..  These are professions that are essentially working in servitude.

Regardless of the work that they do find, the professions they take on are generally those of hard, backbreaking work for very little pay. This means that others benefit from their labor, while they barely survive. Because of U.S. economic policy, many Mexican people have found themselves trapped in a situation that offers them few choices and very little opportunity.

Therefore, it is clear that U.S. taxpayers subsidize the oppression, exploitation and abuse of the Mexican people, in order that we, as a country, may profit from commodity trading, and the cheap goods produced elsewhere, and also the cheap labor here for those tasks that we prefer not to do. It is good to see that our policy and actions are beginning to change. Restoring the Colorado River to more closely resemble its natural flow is a move in the right direction. Yet, restoring 1% of the river’s pre-dam flow is not enough. More still needs to be done, if we are going to become good neighbors.

© 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.

Succumbing to Group Pressure

I can see that as I have aged and gained in knowledge and life experience I have found myself caring less and less about ‘fitting in’ with social norms, but this was not always so.  At this point in my life though, I think ‘peer pressure’ only has so much effect, in that I will many times, simply give an impression of fitting in, and then just go ‘do my own thing’. I do not believe that I would inflict harm on others because of social pressure.

Then I watched an HBO film about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard (a man who was gay) titled, The Laramie Project.  The Laramie Project originated when members of The Tectonic Theatre Project went to the small town of Laramie, Wyoming in order to interview the residents concerning the circumstances surrounding the murder of Matthew and their reaction this event, in order to put on a production concerning it.

The film version of The Laramie Project revealed to me that many folks in the community of Laramie harbored a great deal of hatred and animosity against people who were gay, not unlike how I grew up. It also revealed a great deal of silence from those who were not opposed ‘to the gay lifestyle’. In the end, the community sentenced the murderers to life in prison.  Yet, most of these folks probably did not understand how they were also complicit in the crime themselves, simply by maintaining beliefs and taking actions that stigmatized people who were gay.

I don’t claim that this explains or justifies what occurred at that place and time – the brutal murder of a young man plus the fact that two other young men’s lives are now limited to existence rather than living (and how this effects their families and their loved ones) – but it does shed light on how social pressure to conform can play out in a very, very bad way.

It was interesting to see that it was through the interviewing of folks, and speaking to them about their individual beliefs and feelings, that they eventually came to a place where they were able to outwardly show support to (now deceased) Matthew.  It did appear in the end, that more of the community supported people who were gay than those who did not.  Yet this would have never been known in a situation of silence.  In this way, it seems that a very small minority of haters had control of the entire community, and by breaking the silence they (and perhaps all of us) are now becoming more free.

© 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 Connection Between Privilege and Disadvantage

Situations of privilege and disadvantage are connected in that one situation cannot exist without the other, and they lie on opposite ends of a spectrum. Privilege happens only in relation to disadvantage, and likewise disadvantage happens only in relation to privilege. This does not mean that social dynamics cannot change, because they certainly do change not only for individuals, but also for groups and even societies.

Systems of privilege/disadvantage (which is a very different social dynamic than individual acts of discrimination) have been historically created in such a way that certain members of society automatically receive benefit for the simple reason that they were born into the membership of a privileged group. What this means is that in the U.S. (as in other countries) we, as a society, have historically created social systems that automatically privilege certain groups of people – those groups being the group of men  (male privilege) the group of white-skinned people (white-skin privilege) the group of non-disabled people (able-ism), and the group of heterosexual people (heterosexism), for example. Being born into these groups automatically entitles members to certain privileges:

  • higher paying jobs for men (translates to less poverty for men).
  • less likelihood of incarceration for white-skinned folks (translates to less poverty for white-skinned folks).
  • ease in mobility for non-disabled people (translates into greater work opportunity and less chance of poverty for nondisabled folks).
  • tax and insurance benefits, plus the ability to make medical decisions for heterosexual partners (translates into less poverty for heterosexual couples).

Non-privileged group members do not have the same opportunity to enjoy these benefits to the same degree as members of privileged groups do. This inequality can be seen in socioeconomic status statistics, for example.

In other words, members of marginalized and stigmatized groups (women, people of color, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ community, for example) are generally excluded from participating FULLY in mainstream society, sometimes by discrimination, sometimes by group dynamics that create social ‘norms’, and sometimes even by law. One cannot ‘give up’ the privilege even if the privilege is not wanted, because it is bestowed onto members of certain groups by society in general. The group of white-skinned, non-disabled heterosexual men is the most privileged group in U.S. society.

It is important to understand, though, that a person can be privileged in one area of their life and simultaneously also be disadvantaged in another. Additionally, one can be a member of an advantaged group and NOT FEEL privileged. Likewise, there can be folks who are members of disadvantaged groups who DO realize areas and degrees of privilege. These few exceptions do not negate the reality of the systemic violence that is embedded into the domination systems that we know as sexism, racism, able-ism, heterosexism, and classism, for example. Although we cannot escape the privileges that society bestows on us, those who do enjoy privilege can use their privilege to empower others. Indeed, it is the folks who do have privilege who have the greatest ability (power) and opportunity to change the unjust systems.

A good resource for understanding these social dynamics is Privilege, Power and Difference by Allen G. Johnson.

© 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.

Theorizing the Nature of Forgiveness

The idea of forgiveness is complex because it has several dimensions.  For many, forgiveness is considered a human virtue that can act as a path toward healing for victims, transgressors and relationships alike.  In addition to viewing forgiveness in this way, it may also be thought of as an alternate choice to a human inclination of a fight or flight response toward a transgression.  It can also be understood that there are different types of forgiveness in addition to different theories on the purpose of forgiveness.

First, different types of forgiveness may be thought of as having different characteristics.  This way of thinking about forgiveness has been explored by Michael E. McCullough & Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, in The Psychology of Forgiveness (2002).  They have categorized the notion of forgiveness as a psychological construct consisting of several dimensions.  They identify the application of forgiveness as: 1) a characteristic of social units, 2) as a personality disposition, and 3) as a response.

What this means is that forgiveness is socially contextual.  That is, the nature of forgiveness depends on the types of relationships in which they occur in addition to the nature of the transgression being forgiven.  Therefore, forgiveness is a characteristic of relationships or social units.

Additionally, a person with a propensity to forgive is a relatively positive and agreeable person.  There is a correlation with the advancing of age and a relatively positive and agreeable personality that has a propensity to forgive.  In this way, forgiveness correlates with a relatively agreeable and positive personality disposition.

Also, forgiveness takes place when people experience a change concerning how they think about, feel and act toward those who have hurt them.  This happens in such a way that their ideas, feelings and actions become more positive over time.  Forgiveness in this way is a response to a transgression.

Therefore, the act of forgiveness can be thought of as an intersection of the increasingly positive attitude and actions of someone who has been harmed as a result of their own personality disposition, and their response to the social relationships in which the transgression occurred, including the nature of the transgression.

Yet, there are not only different characteristics or types of forgiveness, there are also different theoretical perspectives concerning the purpose of forgiveness.  For example, forgiveness may be understood as a relationship-building tool.  As cited by Snyder and Lopez (2007, pp. 279-282.), Robert Enright, one of the earliest researchers on forgiveness, understood forgiveness as a process that may be used to build and maintain interpersonal relationships (Enright & Zell, 1989, p. 99.).  Thought of in this way, the act of forgiveness takes place when one develops a kind attitude toward a transgressor such that one has “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly hurt us, while fostering the underserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her” (Enright, Freedman, & Rique, 1998, pp. 46-47).   Because Enright believed that the purpose of forgiveness was to build community, he asserted that forgiveness could only be directed toward people, and not situations (Enright & Zell, 1989, p. 53.)  To Enright, the purpose of forgiveness was to build and maintain community.

Another theory on the purpose of forgiveness is that it may be understood as a way to free oneself from a role as a victim.  As cited by Snyder and Lopez (2007, pp. 279-282.), Tangney, Fee, Reinsmith, Boone, and Lee (1999) understood forgiveness as a change in one’s thought process and emotional state whereby a transformation takes place in which one gives up living the role of the victim.  This sort of transformation takes place by freely letting go of negative emotions (including anger and resentment) toward a transgressor, and freely letting go of a desire for revenge, punishment and even restitution.  This change takes place even after a realistic assessment of the harm and an acknowledgement of the transgressor’s responsibility.  To Tangey, et al., forgiveness in this way, is a cancelling of all debts, so to speak, in order to free oneself from the bonds of victimhood.

An additional way of thinking about the purpose of forgiveness is that its application may reduce interpersonal conflicts and increase the likelihood of more agreeable interpersonal relationships.  As cited by Snyder and Lopez (2007, pp. 279-282.), according to Mc Cullough and his colleagues, forgiveness has a pro-social motivation such that an avoidance of a transgressor and/or a desire for revenge toward a transgressor are both lessened, while at the same time, a desire for positive action increases.  In this way, and over time, a victim’s benevolence toward a transgressor increases (2000; McCullough et al., 1998, 2000a, 2000b).  According to Mc Cullough’s theory, the purpose of forgiveness is to reduce interpersonal conflicts.

Although there are various perspectives and theories about the different purposes of forgiveness, forgiveness may, in fact, be a means of healing from any hurtful situation or event.  As cited by Snyder and Lopez (2007) Thompson and her colleagues (Thomson et al., 2005), offered a very broad understanding of forgiveness as a “freeing from a negative attachment to the source that has transgressed against a person (pp. 279-282.).”  With this understanding, the act of forgiveness may be applied to oneself, another person, a group, or even a situation or event that is harmful or out of one’s control (Snyder & Lopez, 2007, pp. 279-282.).  This perspective or theory on the purpose of forgiveness offers inclusiveness such that forgiveness may be the way to heal from any harm.

The complexity of the subject of forgiveness includes the intersection of types of forgiveness and the purposes of forgiveness.  Forgiveness should always be understood within the context of the relationships in which it is applied, and the nature of the transgression.  Forgiveness may be a characteristic of relationships, a personality disposition, and/or a response to a transgression.  The purposes of forgiveness may include to heal oneself, others, and/or relationships from any harmful situation or event.  The notion of forgiveness is multi-dimensional in that it is a response to a transgression that is dependent upon one’s perspective and personality disposition in addition to the social context in which it occurs (including the nature of the relationships and the transgression), and its intended purpose.

Yet this very inclusive view of forgiveness can be expanded even more.  For example, in his speech, The Psychology of Forgiveness, (2008) Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, approached the subject of forgiveness through a scientific lens, by which he offered insights into the healing powers of forgiveness.

Dr. Luskin’s understanding of forgiveness is inclusive in that it is an intersection of the forgiveness ‘types’.  To him, forgiveness is a response to harm, such as interpersonal unkindness, human failings, life’s unpredictability and difficulties, or simply the horrors experienced as part of being a human being.  The response is that the victim of harm alters a negative disposition by practicing the elements of forgiveness such as goodwill, patience and compassion.  This practice results in a transformation toward an agreeable and positive disposition and it has many benefits including the reduction of harmful stress and the improvement of emotional, physical and relational health and wellbeing.  Therefore, Luskin understands forgiveness to comprise of each of the three types:  forgiveness as a response, forgiveness as a disposition, and forgiveness as a characteristic of social units, but he also understands forgiveness in another sense.

Theoretically speaking, to Dr. Luskin, forgiveness is a psychological therapeutic approach to letting go of the stress of un-forgiveness as a way to regain and maintain emotional, physical, and relational health benefits.  What Dr. Luskin proposed in his speech is that the ‘practice of forgiveness’ can be taught to individuals (and groups) such that as they apply the elements of forgiveness to their daily lives, they will realize the associated health benefits such as cardiovascular health improvement and breathing improvement, and therefore live healthier and happier lives.  In this way, Luskin’s theory concerning the purpose of forgiveness is much like Tangney’s:  Forgiveness is a transformation of one’s own way of thinking and feeling that frees oneself from a role of victimhood and restores health and wellbeing to the individual(s) who practice forgiveness.  Luskin’s approach to the subject of forgiveness is also broad and inclusive and in this way, he also aligns with the theories of Thompson, who understood forgiveness as a way for anyone to heal from any type of harm.

To Dr. Luskin, the act of forgiveness is one of purposefulness.  His intention is to teach a method of forgiveness in such a way that anyone may use it in order to receive the emotional, physical and relational benefits that it has to offer.  His broad and inclusive approach to the subject of forgiveness has the primary focus of teaching others how to use forgiveness as a means of releasing stress that is caused by any type of harm in order to increase one’s own emotional, physical and/or relational health.  Dr. Luskin’s very inclusive view on the subject of forgiveness is that it can help anyone heal emotionally, physically, and/or relationally from any type of harm.

My own perspective concerning the subject of forgiveness is that forgiveness is purposeful, personal and multi-dimensional or multifaceted.  I can see this by the different lenses with which I view forgiveness:  The different dimensions (purposes) for which one chooses to forgive, and how the ‘types’ of forgiveness intersect.

For example, I discussed the emotion of anger in the subject of forgiveness as it relates to a nonviolent social change ideology, explaining that anger toward an injustice may used in a purposeful way in order to fuel a thoughtful response, such that situations of greater social justice may result.  I also related forgiveness as a kindly and healing response to harm when I explored this concept in Zora Neale Hurston’s short story The Gilded Six Bits (n.d.).  I also related forgiveness to process that takes place over time, and may even be an ongoing practice.  I explored this when writing about Albert White Hat’s story of forgiveness, Native American Survival Challenge:  Forgiveness v. Anger (One Sky Above Us, 1996).

In these examples, I viewed forgiveness as a purposeful response to an injustice and/or a harm (depending on the social context), plus a change in attitude and action (personality disposition), and as a characteristic of social units in that the initial harm may be transformed into a greater social good either by improved personal wellbeing, improved social relationships, or greater social justice in general.  For this reason, I tend to think of forgiveness as layered or multi-faceted rather than being of different distinct types.

Additionally, in the examples of forgiveness that I examined, I found that the purpose of forgiveness might include healing oneself, to heal others, and/or to heal relationships from any harmful situation or event, depending on context.  For this reason, my ideas concerning forgiveness align with Tangney’s theories (as cited by Snyder and Lopez, 2007, pp. 279-282.):  Forgiveness is a transformation of one’s own way of thinking and feeling that frees oneself from a role of victimhood and restores health and wellbeing to the individual(s) who practice forgiveness.  I also understand forgiveness with a broad view, attempting to take in many perspectives.  Therefore, my ideas concerning the purpose of forgiveness also align with the theories of Thompson (as cited by Snyder and Lopez, 2007, pp. 279-282.), who understood forgiveness as a way for anyone to heal from any type of harm.  And my ideas of forgiveness also aligns with Luskin, in that forgiveness can be a purposeful method of healing oneself, others, and relationships.

To me, forgiveness is a personal choice, and sometimes relational response to any possible harm, such that an ongoing process of moving toward an increasingly positive attitude (and perhaps actions) occurs in a way that brings about greater emotional, physical and/or relational healing to those harmed, to the transgressors, to relationships, communities and even societies, depending on the context of the transgression and the social relationships in which it occurred.


Hurston, Z. N. (n.d.). The gilded six bits [Web page]. Retrieved from

McCullough, M. E., & Witvliet, C. V. (2002). The psychology of forgiveness. Handbook of positive psychology, 2, 446-455.

One sky above us: The West, a film by Stephen Ives. (1996). Films On Demand. Retrieved February 1, 2014, from

Snyder, C. R., Lopez, S. J. (2007). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

“The Psychology of Forgiveness”. (2008). (Theology Institute Annual Conference: Forgiveness ) [Audiovisual Material]. Retrieved from

© 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 Gilded Six Bits: A Complex Story of Forgiveness

The Gilded Six Bits, a short story written in 1933 by Zora Neale Hurston, is tale about forgiveness.  The story takes place in a small African-American town of Eatonville, Florida, in the early 1930s.  It is a complex tale of love, desire, indiscretion, anger, fear, uncertainty, disappointment, bewilderment, need, reconciliation, and finally, acceptance.  The main plot is that Joe Banks reconciled with his wife, Missie May, who betrayed him and bore him a son, which may not even be his child.  In this story, a complex process of interdependence and forgiveness is revealed.  Yet this simple plot contains many subtle layers.

The Gilded Six Bits from Frank Scallo on Vimeo.

When thinking about Missie May’s betrayal, it is important to question, “How could an African-American woman buy her husband the sort of gift that (presumably) white-skinned women provided to their loved ones during that time and place?  Where did any woman find paying jobs during that time and place?  What kind of jobs were they?  Who were the type of women that got hired?  What sorts of jobs were offered to uneducated African-American women at that time? Were good paying jobs available to African-American women who lived in isolated African-American communities?”  The situation is very complex.  Embedded into the story are social dynamics (and inequalities) that are connected to economics, race, and gender.  I think it would do us well to not apply our own contemporary standards of ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ to Joe and Missie May’s actions.  Instead we can learn from their responses to the injustice that existed all around them.

Consider the injustice in the intersection of gender/economic inequality.  At that time in history, it was a social norm that women depended on men to provide income for the household.  Consider also, how Joe Banks treated his wife under those circumstances.  Joe Banks initiated a game with his wife each week after he was paid.  The game was that he would throw money at her and she was to chase him and catch him and search him to find the gifts he was hiding in his pockets.  This resulted in a playful sparring and displays of affection and love.  Yet, in a way, Joe Banks bought his wife’s affections and set the stage for future outcomes.

I wonder if Joe was truly aware of what his actions communicated?

Joe would throw money to the floor (to the floor ! ! !) for Missie May to retrieve and place next to her dinner plate.  Missie May would say,

“Who dat chunkin’ money in mah do’way?” . . . “Nobody ain’t gointer be chunkin’ money at me and Ah not do ’em nothin’.”

Why did Joe do that?  What message did that send to Missie May?  Joe treated Missie May like she was for sale and he was buying her affections.  Was he aware of that?  Perhaps not.  I suspect he was just living life in the way that history and society shaped it for him.

I believe that Missie May was coerced into positions of prostitution because of a situation of desperate poverty.  Remember, this story took place in the southern U.S. in a very poor African-American community during the Great Depression.  This was only 70 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, and 31 years before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s success with the Civil Rights Movement.  This context indicates the level of oppression and poverty that these folks endured.  Consider the description of the community, the house, the yard, and the rather bleak disposition of that time and place.

It was a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement that looked to the payroll of the G. and G. Fertilizer works for its support . . . But there was something happy about the place.

This was an impoverished place during a time of great austerity.  Missie May relied on her husband to provide for her, and he treated her like a prostitute in return.

Joe degraded Missie May in other ways, too.  Consider the way he encouraged a game of touch-me-here and touch-me-there search-my-pocket-for-trinkets.

“Unhhunh! Ah got it! It ’tis so candy kisses. Ah knowed you had somethin’ for me in yo’ clothes. Now Ah got to see whut’s in every pocket you got.”

Joe smiled indulgently and let his wife go through all of his pockets and take out the things that he had hidden for her to find. She bore off the chewing gum, the cake of sweet soap, the pocket handkerchief as if she had wrested them from him, as if they had not been bought for the sake of this friendly battle.

“Whew! dat play-fight done got me all warmed up!”

Isn’t that the sort of grooming that dirty old uncles do with their nieces and such?  I see no love in this, only manipulative behavior.  The actions speak, “If you want what I have – then give me what I want in return.”  Joe bought his wife.  He owned her.

Joe not only treated his wife, Missie May, as though she was a prostitute and for sale, he also dominated over Missie May in other ways.  He controlled what she was allowed and not allowed to eat.  Consider how he denied Missie May of the spicy potato pudding that she made.

Missie May reached for a second helping of the tater pone. Joe snatched it out of her reach.

After Missie May had made two or three unsuccessful grabs at the pan, she begged, “Aw, Joe, gimme some mo’ dat tater pone.”

“Nope, sweetenin’ is for us menfolks. Y’all pritty lil frail eels don’t need nothin’ lak dis. You too sweet already.”

“Please, Joe.”

“Naw, naw. Ah don’t want you to git no sweeter than whut you is already.

He also controlled what clothes she would wear and what activities they would enjoy.

We goin’ down de road a lil piece t’night so you go put on yo’ Sunday-go-to-meetin’ things.”

Missie May protested that she did not want to be objectified, but that she wanted to be treated with respect, instead.

“Don’t you mess wid mah business, man. You git in yo’ clothes. Ah’m a real wife, not no dress and breath. Ah might not look lak one, but if you burn me, you won’t git a thing but wife ashes.”

Yet, Joe insisted that she go, and he paraded his wife as an objectified showpiece to a known womanizer, “Mister Otis D. Slemmons, of spots and places–Memphis, Chicago, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and so on.”

“Go ‘head on now, honey, and put on yo’ clothes. He talkin’ ’bout his pritty womens–Ah want ‘im to see mine.”

Missie May had no interest in meeting this man, or in his money, but it was Joe that insisted that she go.

“Joe, Ah hates to see you so dumb. Dat stray nigger jes’ tell y’all anything and y’all b’lieve it.”

All throughout this story, Joe was in control, manipulating Missie May, leading her to where she would go and what she would do, even sometimes against her will.

Missie May had no interest in the man or the lifestyle of Mr. Slemmons.  It was Joe who desired riches, and recognition.

“Good Lawd, Missie! You womens sho is hard to sense into things. He’s got a five-dollar gold piece for a stickpin and he got a ten-dollar gold piece on his watch chain and his mouf is jes’ crammed full of gold teeths. Sho wisht it wuz mine. And whut make it so cool, he got money ‘cumulated. And womens give it all to ‘im.”

“Ah don’t see whut de womens see on ‘im. Ah wouldn’t give ‘im a wink if de sheriff wuz after ‘im.”

Missie May did not want the gold coins for herself; she wanted them for her husband.

The impression I received was that Missy May was raised the daughter of a prostitute, and it was feared by her mother-in-law that Missie May would follow in her mother’s footsteps.  Joe’s mother said, after the baby was born,

“You ain’t ask ’bout de baby, Joe. You oughter be mighty proud cause he sho is de spittin’ image of yuh, son. Dat’s yourn all right, if you never git another one, dat un is yourn. And you know Ah’m mighty proud too, son, cause Ah never thought well of you marryin’ Missie May cause her ma used tuh fan her foot round right smart and Ah been mighty skeered dat Missie May wuz gointer git misput on her road.”

Missie May might very well have come from a home where her mother lived a life of prostitution.  If so, this is the way that Missie May learned to survive.

It is a fact, that for millennia, women have sometimes used the only way they could see possible to earn an income.  One reason that they do this is because society excludes them from other forms of gainful employment.  They want or need to provide for their loved ones (or even themselves), but see no other way to do that.  It is also a fact, that for millennia, men dominate over women.  Many women learn that it is safer to submit quietly, as then they are less likely to experience a violent reaction from a rejected man.  Additionally, women are expected to submit to a purity culture, and men are not.  Women who do otherwise are many times stigmatized and penalized.

Consider also the injustice of the intersection of racial/economic inequality.  Joe was impressed with the display of wealth and braggart personality of Mr. Slemmons.  Joe desired what Mr. Slemmons had.   Because Missie May loved her husband, she wanted him to wear fine gold decorations as Mr. Slemmons did – and Mr. Slemmons explained that white-skinned women gave their loved ones gold coins.  So Missie May devised a plan so that she could give a fine gift of gold coins to her husband, but her plan backfired when Joe arrived home unexpected.  If Joe had not been so impressed with the trappings Mr. Slemmons displayed, perhaps Missie May might not have made the choice that she made.

I wonder if Missie May would have chosen different actions if life was different for African-Americans in that time and place, than it is was.  If Missie May wanted to provide her love with fine gold coins (as she was told that white-skinned women did) where would she have access to such?

In the face of their imperfect responses to the gender and racial economic injustices, the husband and wife spent some time in anger, fear, uncertainty, disappointment and bewilderment over what had taken place.  Yet their dependency upon one another kept them together.  They each filled a need for the other.  It was the recognition of their need for one another that allowed them to reconcile and realize a new place of acceptance in their lives. Both Joe and Missie May learned to accept their imperfect responses to the oppressive situation and desperate poverty in which they found themselves.  They came to a place of acceptance that each of their actions rose out of situations of great poverty and the racial injustices that had shaped their lives.  They learned to forgive their individual and collective responses to unjust social systems.  One was not ‘more guilty’ and in need of greater forgiveness than the other.

Social pressures shape an individual’s actions. Recognizing a larger perspective may soften the hurt and open the door to a process of forgiveness.  It is easy to rush to a judgment concerning Missie May’s guilt and Joe’s good heart.  It was good that he was able to forgive Missie May and he even pointed out to Missie May that she should forgive herself too.  I believe that the main point of the story was that these folks should forgive themselves and each other for the very difficult situation in which they currently found themselves.  Their actions rose out of situations of great poverty and the racial injustices that had shaped their lives – people for sale !  They learned to forgive their imperfect responses to an unjust economic system.

Applying this teaching to our own lives, we can understand that none of us are perfect and that we depend on one another for our own wellbeing and survival. When we realize our own imperfections, we can find it easier to accept others’ imperfections. Additionally, other’s actions may be the result of how we treat them. Joe and Missie May came to terms with each other’s imperfections. Joe forgave Missie May for her indiscretion and accepted the gift of a son. Missie May forgave her husband for paying her for affections with the gilded coin when she once again joined in with the playful payday routine of coin tossing and searching for gifts. Forgiveness is being able to see beyond one’s own and pain and suffering and being able to take in the perspectives of others.  Forgiveness is about recognizing that we need each other, and its about acceptance of human imperfections in both self and other.

By this tale, Zora Neale Hurston communicated the complexity of human interdependence and relationship.  Perhaps one of the author’s intents was to explore the social injustices that take place where the intersection of racial, gender, and class inequalities meet.  These are all evident in her very short story.  Perhaps another intent of the author, was to also examine the injustice in the systems so that an individual’s imperfect responses and actions to an unjust system can be forgiven.

© 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.

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

© 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.

The Male Privilege Checklist by Barry Deutsch

Excerpted From An Unabashed Imitation of an Article by Peggy McIntosh
Retrieved 11/17/2013 from:
(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.

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.

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Thinking About Justice and Equality

Martha’s Minow’s discussion in her essay, Making all The Difference (Braveman, 1995, pp. 91-106) concerning the Pregnancy Discrimination Act sheds some light on our own thought processes that may either hinder or contribute to situations of justice.  In this essay, Minow noted the need for clear definitions of terms used and also the consideration of many perspectives when attempting to consider situations of justice/injustice.

Minow wrote that when considering how pregnancy relates to sex-discrimination in the workplace, debates arose over the definition of the term discrimination.  Was discrimination really differential treatment? If so, then favorable treatment toward pregnant women would be a form of discrimination, too. She explained that from one perspective, “any distinction on the basis of sex – would perpetuate the negative stereotypes long used to demean and exclude women” while another perspective considered was that “denying the facts of pregnancy and the needs of new mothers could only hurt women; treating women like men in the workplace violated demands of equality (Bender and Braveman, 1995, p. 96).”

This last statement concerning ‘violating demands of equality’ is another important aspect of justice that needs to be considered. What exactly does the term equality mean in a world that is filled with different people, all having different backgrounds, cultures and histories, and different body types, different experiences, and different ways of understanding their world, etc?

Perhaps when the term equality is used, there should also be a definition offered. Equality may be thought of in many different ways.  Conley (2011) described four standards of equality:

  • Ontological Equality, or ‘the notion that everyone is created equal in the eyes of God”
  • Equality of Condition, which is “the idea that everyone should have an equal starting point”
  • Equality of Opportunity, which is “the idea that inequality of condition is acceptable so long as the rules of the game, so to speak, remain fair”
  • Equality of Outcome, which is a “position that argues each player must end up with the same amount regardless of the fairness of the ‘game’ (pp. 234-238)”

When I consider the above definitions (and I know that there are many more), I am left wondering if ‘equality’ is even something that ought to be considered.  I think that perhaps, instead, the real issue at hand is one of justice – which is a completely different matter.

In her essay, Minow also described how California’s pregnancy disability leave statute addressed this issue as one of attempting to achieve justice – by using a different measure of ‘equality’ than what had previously been considered. Under this statute, men, as well as women, were extended (comparable) benefits following maternity or pregnancy leaves.  It was necessary to change one’s perspective and to use women as the reference to which ‘others’ were to be compared in order to resolve the conflict and achieve justice. (Thank you Justice Marshall!)

What I find most interesting in this story is that there existed an unstated assumption that women should be compared to men (but not the other way around), until Justice Marshall ruled otherwise.

Sometimes we may find it very difficult to even ‘see’ alternative ways of thinking.

Matthew 13:15
New American Standard Bible (NASB)

For the heart of this people has become dull,
With their ears they scarcely hear,
And they have closed their eyes,
Otherwise they would see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart and return,
And I would heal them.


Bender, L., & Braveman, D. (1995). Power, privilege, and law : A civil rights reader. St. Paul, Minn.: West Pub. Co. Retrieved from Library of Congress or OCLC Worldcat.

Conley, D. (2011). You may ask yourself : An introduction to thinking like a sociologist. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Retrieved from Library of Congress or OCLC Worldcat.