Understanding Influence in the Workplace Under Competitive Markets

Psychologist, Robert Cialdini, PhD. author of the popular book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (1993), wrote about six rules or principles of influence. Among these is the rule of reciprocity. The rule of reciprocity is understood as “one of the most widespread and basic norms of human culture” that “requires that one person try to repay what another person has provided (Six Principle of Persuasion Summary, n.d.).” This social norm creates a social obligation such that the recipient of a gift is expected to repay the giver at some time in the future. According to Cialdini, the rule of reciprocity can be beneficial to a society because it creates in a person a sense of future obligation that assists them in the development of relationships including exchanges and transactions that are beneficial to society.


We can think of baby showers as one type of social exchange, and we can think of taxes and social security as another type of exchange or transaction, for example. These types of transactions ‘work’ when we believe that we may/will receive a future payback ourselves.  Because of the rule of reciprocity, we are more likely to give when others have need. It is understood that this sense of future obligation helps us to be more giving and sharing human beings.

Yet, the rule of reciprocity may be used not only in beneficial ways, but instead it may be used in coercive ways, too. Many times, it is the rule of reciprocity that calculating and manipulative marketers use to trap their victims. This is because it is known that the reciprocity rules can motivate exchanges in such a way that one side is able to extract profit (that is realize a gain, not an equal exchange) from the other. This coercion works because the recipient of a gift is generally eager to remove the feeling of indebtedness that they feel when they receive a gift.

Understanding the mechanics and using the rules of reciprocity can influence an unsuspecting victim of influence. I will share with you an imaginary experience of this type of coercive behavior that might occur in the workplace.

Imagine, if you were a woman, how you might respond if you were given, by your new supervisor, a single stem rose on your first day of employment.  Would you feel warm and good, like the giver really cared about you and others who worked for her?  Imagine also, if the employer you worked for was a distributor of consumer goods, and the common practice was that the supervisors passed out ‘discards’ – that is the product that will no longer be sold, but discarded – was handed out to employees in small quantities, items such as paper plates, napkins, stationery, etc. instead of being thrown into the trash.  Would this make you feel good because it demonstrated that the company cared about the environment and did this as a form of recycling?  Might you also think that your employer cared enough about you that they were willing to give their products, (which are the best, of course!), to you, free of charge?

What I have come to realize is that small gifts such as these – trinkets and trash really – can prompt overworked and underpaid workers who receive very little benefits to be very, very loyal in return. This loyalty can be so great, that it can result in a situation such as one that I have become aware – a company policy that its part-time employees receive communication each time they work that they are required to report all time spent in work-related activities. Why would an employer need to reinforce with their work team that they need to submit all of their work time? That is a very good question. Perhaps it might have something to do with an employer’s manipulation and coercion methods.

I have heard descriptions of such manipulative work conditions, which some women I know endure.  The example I have heard is that in this job (this is a job that very few men will accept), the women sometimes work even without receiving financial gain.  This is because they work within their ‘budget hours’ and yet they comply to the demands to do what needs to be done to accomplish what is told to them to be ‘their required’ tasks.  This means that it is common practice that they work ‘off the clock’ (perhaps through their lunch ‘break’) to get their tasks accomplished.  I’ll explain why they might be doing this.  Their loyalty (gained by methods such as those described above), as part time employees, includes ‘ownership’ of their departments.  Part of that ownership is ensuring that payroll budgets are complied to, that required tasks are completed, and that the employer (and the big-box-retailer which it supplies) makes a profit requiring growth over last year’s sales.  Sometimes, the ‘required’ work shifts consist of so few hours (even a half-hour or less) that financial gain to the employee is ‘used up’ in transportation costs to and from ‘work’.  This means that the part-time crew that keeps the product on the shelves work in various situations where only one side of the relationship is receiving profit at times.

It seems that this particular company is a very good marketer, indeed. It is considered the number one industry leader in its category, and it has developed the same style marketing tools to manipulate its workforce as it uses in persuading its customers to buy its products. I have now become more aware of how employers may use manipulative methods to coerce and manipulate their workforce. I will no longer live with the cognitive dissonance that results when my work duties require that I act in ways that coerce or manipulate others.  Additionally, I will no longer allow small gifts and trinkets to manipulate or coerce me into feeling a sense of loyalty to somehow repay.  In fact, as a personal protest against such unfair business practices, I choose to gain knowledge concerning the business practices of those companies with with I do business, and I favor the companies who better maintain fair business practices.  It is very clear to me that understanding how the rule of reciprocity works can help people avoid coercive and manipulative behaviors of others and their negative impacts.


Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. Six Principles of Persuasion Summary. (n.d.).

Six principles of persuasion summary. [Web page] Retrieved from https://moodle.esc.edu/mod/page/view.php?id=47185

© 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.

Challenge Those in Power to Share Resources More Fairly

Chasing Out the Moneychangers

Illustration by Daniel Zollinger  Image Source:  Beware of Images

Challenge those in power to share resources more fairly, isn’t this what the stories of Jesus teach us? We can read in the stories of Jesus life, that he taught those disempowered people who lived on the fringes of Jewish society – those who were stigmatized and excluded from society, such as the gentiles, the women, the disabled, and the widows, for example, a way to regain their power. These folks were disempowered and poor because those in power created systems for the purpose of excluding them from fully participating in society. To address this injustice, Jesus taught marginalized peoples to come together and challenge those in power to live more socially responsible lives: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the ill. He also challenged all people to make friends with their ‘enemies’ and share the earth’s blessings with them.  We can relate the stories of Jesus teaching people about social responsibility and methods to create greater social justice to our own lives today.

Today, the ‘1%’ are keeping too much of the profit and wealth (which their workers actually produce) for themselves, and this great wealth is the source of their great power. This creates an imbalance in power and also an unequal access to resources, resulting in a disruption to the functioning of the ‘ecosystem’ of the economy by limiting diversity. Limited diversity is not resilient or sustainable. We can see how this is true in the example of nature and relate that to economic theory.  When there is a population explosion (think of economies of scale), a die-off (think of times of economic downturns) always follows.  We can see how this is true with the ‘ecosystem’ of the economy when we see that unrestricted growth produced by ‘economies of scale’ is not good in the long term.  Consider the economies of scale, and how large entities have limited diversity such that when one entity faces risk, all of the population is at risk.  This risk is why some entities are considered ‘too big to fail’.   To have a healthy and sustainable ecosystem (including economic ecosystems), it is necessary to maintain diversity. We would do well to learn from and imitate nature. When those in power do share their power and resources more equally, they allow for increased diversity, increased resiliency, increased productivity, and increased wellbeing for all.

Image Source:  https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=774784989216153&set=a.206138056080852.56660.205876559440335&type=1&theater

© 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.

If One has Forgiven, Why Might it Then be Necessary to Forgive Daily?

Sometimes, forgiveness is an ongoing process.  For example, in Native American Survival Challenge:  Forgiveness v. Anger (chapter 12 of One Sky Above Us:  The West, a Film by Stephen Ives, 1996), Albert White Hat (1938-2013), a Lakota man and teacher of Lakota language, at 16 years old, went to St. Francis Jesuit Mission School, a boarding school.  (Before then, he grew up in his traditional Lakota culture ‘of stories’.)  The boarding school system killed the native Lakota language stories, and their culture, and for Albert White Hat, shame resulted.

The policy and laws, of which Albert White Hat spoke in this short film, were those imposed by the white-man’s government and the white-man’s schools upon the native people.  These policies and laws systematically exclude(d) Native-Americans and their culture and history from mainstream U.S. culture and society.  The policies and laws were/are imposed by the dominating culture and were/are unjust and they were/are intended to destroy native people and their culture, and appropriate native people’s land and resources for capitalistic gain and to the benefit of the rich, property-owning (property-stealing) capitalists.

The impact to Albert White Hat, as a result of these injustices to Native-Americans and their culture, was an overwhelming anger where he felt that he had no choice but to kill in order to honor his ancestors.  Yet, he wanted to live and be happy.  He felt that he deserved to live and be happy.  He knew that he had to forgive in order to do so.

For the Lakota people (as is the case with other Native-American people) it is a daily reality to forgive what was done/is currently being done to their people, their culture, their land, and their entire way of life.  Because Native-American people live daily with the injustices imposed upon them by mainstream U.S. culture and its government and policies, forgiveness is an ongoing process that will not end for hundreds of years.


One sky above us: The West, a film by Stephen Ives. (1996). Films On Demand. Retrieved February 1, 2014, from http://digital.films.com.library.esc.edu/PortalPlaylists.aspx?aid=1667&xtid=44418;

One sky above us: The West, a film by Stephen Ives. (1996). Films On Demand. Retrieved February 7, 2014, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tG7hEVUCwiU

© 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.

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.

Privilege: The Choice to See or Not to See

For most of my life, I thought of myself as a typical or ‘average’ and ‘normal’ person.  I ‘fit in’ with most of the social norms that existed in the specific area in which I lived and also in the greater society in general.  For example, I grew up in a working middle-class family that lived in a working middle-class neighborhood that existed in a society that emphasized the importance of ‘middle-class’ social ideals.  I attended their schools and I participated in their customs and rituals.  One of their most important rituals was related to entertainment and consumption.  What I ate, what I wore on my body, the toys that I played with, and where my family vacationed, for example, were all a part of the customs and rituals that confirmed who I was in relation to the greater society in general.  If I did as they did, namely consume as they dictated and enjoyed the entertainments that they valued, by my actions I confirmed that I was one of them.

Fitting in with this social norm was the expected behavior, because doing as such was the best way to ensure one’s position of safety and security within this society, the one in which I was born.  So I did make myself fit in, or at least I attempted to.  My line of sight was narrowly focused on my own personal existence and my own survival.  I followed the number one rule, to work hard so that I might ‘get ahead’ in life.  From that vantage point I had never thought about the violent nature that is embedded in those strange notions.

I, at one time, had wanted to be just like them – ‘just-folks’.  Yet I simultaneously maintained contrary goals of wishing for great achievement, of getting ahead and of becoming the best I could be and of acquiring the most and the best of what the world had to offer.  I could  would see two (and only two) options – average and better.  Yet notions of comparison, such as typical, average, and normal also carry with them unstated assumptions that there also exists the less-than-average and the abnormal, and herein lies the root of the evil.  I was unwilling to see, to acknowledge, that in order for there to be an average, or middle-class, that by definition then, there must also necessarily be a less-than-average and a lower-class.  This situation is less-than-just, for sure.

I lived my life blind.  I used my language in a fashion that allowed me to frame my ideas in such a way that it permitted me to use myself as a point of (normal) reference.  Therefore, it was normal to live in a house with a car in the garage in the suburbs.  It was normal for the children to go to school each day, while the parents went to work.  It was normal to have ‘three square meals’ plus snacks each day.  Adults worked.  Children played.  This, to me, was normal.  These were things to which I was entitled and I could fairly expect that it would always happen this way.  The system was designed to meet my needs and I followed my roles and played the game.  From my limited experience and my clouded point of view, I wished to believe that ‘everyone’ lived this way.  I did not even consider that others may not enjoy this same entitlement.  My notions about my own normalcy and average-ness clouded my ability to see that, in reality, I lived with a great many privileges, advantages and opportunities, many of which I did not ‘earn’ and of which many, many ‘others’ were denied.

Of course, I was aware of the ‘others’ because I knew that there were poor people, but such thoughts are rather unpleasant and therefore I pushed those thoughts far, far away.  On a few occasions I chose to leave my secure little world.  These were the instances in which I sometimes found myself faced with the reality of people living less than exemplary lives.  One example is the time, when I was traveling on vacation.  I arose unusually early in the morning and left the hotel in search of my morning coffee.  To my surprise, I came upon people sleeping outdoors, seeking shelter in the doorways of public buildings.  When confronted with incidents such as this, I had a tendency to contemplate about what sort of choices it might have been that these folks must have made that resulted in their terrible circumstance and unfortunate quality of life outcome.  I might wonder about the possibility of drug and alcohol use, for example.  I still believed in the myth of the meritocracy, a philosophy which holds the belief that personal responsibility and personal choice are the sole determining factors of a person’s social standing.  I was young, and full of hope, and very, very naive.

I had learned a rather mythical version of a patriotic U.S.A. and it’s history – the home of the brave and the land of the free, a place where it is believed that all men are created equal.  This myth is prevalent in mainstream U.S. culture.  It exists in the stories we pass from generation to generation.  We share these stories in many ways, such as by the celebration of our national holidays – Columbus Day, for example.  I was taught to be a patriotic citizen by celebrating Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of America.  Yet, from a different perspective, it is perhaps more true that Native Americans discovered Columbus, who was lost at sea.  If I do choose to celebrate Columbus Day (and I do have that choice), I must likewise choose to ignore the reality of the rape and pillage of the American natives.  My community and my culture, has provided me with a convenient story, a myth if you will, that allows me the privilege to choose to only partially see.

Being a member of dominating groups that maintain the better part of unequal power distribution allows me to take advantage of many such privileges, that I previously did not see.  I receive benefits from the existence of ‘white privilege’ and also from the Christian right.  I benefit from systemic forms of racism, classism, ageism, and many other isms that provide special opportunities and privileges that it was especially convenient for me to simply choose not to see.  My special position in this social hierarchy allows me the choice to either see or not to see.

For example, my special position of privilege has now allowed me the opportunity to attend college.  There I began to learn of the many other stories and perspectives concerning the history of ‘America’.  I had only a very little knowledge of the ever-present oppression – the denial of choice, the denial of opportunity, the denial of meeting one’s basic needs – of women, of children, of people of color, of immigrants, of the aged, the disabled, and more.  I have learned of another ‘America’, one that sustains a system of structural violence.  Furthermore, once again, I have the privilege to choose if I wish to see.  I may, if I wish, choose to use this system to ‘get ahead’ or I may choose, if I wish, to ask myself, “Ahead of whom?” and “Why?”

I have come to understand that the manner in which I use my language is imbedded into my very culture, and because of that, I hardly notice it.  Yet my use of language structures what I have come to realize is a violent thought process.  I think perhaps, that I should enjoy learning a new way of using my language and a new way of structuring my ideas.  What a wonderful choice that would be.

© 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.

Identities: Markers of Power and Privilege

The subject of identity is complex.  Identities are situational and relational.  Identity is at once fixed, fluid and dynamic.  They are created through a process of socialization.  They are self-determined, and sometimes they are not.  Identities are, many times, used to label and classify people who are seen as having binary or oppositional difference.  Identities are also constructs that are used to create social hierarchies of domination and oppression, and where some groups realize advantage of power and privilege while at the same time others realize situations of disadvantage.  These hierarchies of domination and oppression and power and privilege in my own life and circumstance are becoming progressively more apparent to me, and I also increasingly recognize this social phenomenon in the lives of others, too.

Identity is the conception of one’s individuality expressed through group affiliation.  For example, one’s nationality, ethnicity, race, class, sex, gender, and sexuality are common expressions that make up one’s thoughts concerning one’s self.  The many groups to which one belongs determine ideas of individual expression, and they collectively form one’s individual identity.

Additionally, identities are a mixture of inner and outer qualities and characteristics that are both fixed and dynamic.  One might think of one’s self as having qualities or characteristics such as those of being outgoing or shy and tall or short.  Yet certainly one could not have always thought of one’s self as outgoing or shy, tall or short.  One develops and grows into thinking of one’s self as outgoing or shy and tall or short, in comparison or relation to others.  Even if one’s personality does not change, or if one’s height stabilizes at adulthood, one’s perception of one’s self may change in relation to how one compares one’s self with others.  Perhaps one who considers one’s self shy meets someone considerably more shy, or perhaps one considers one’s self tall, until meeting someone taller.  This may force one to re-evaluate how one thinks of one’s self.  Perception of one’s self is situational and relational.  Therefore one’s ideas concerning one’s identity may shift as a consequence.

Similarly, identities also change according to what one learns.  Perhaps one’s identity is as having a ‘green thumb’ or as an airline pilot, for example.  One cannot have always had a green thumb, neither is it possible for one to have always been an airline pilot.  One first has to learn how to grow plants or how to fly an airplane before one can assume the identity of having a green thumb or as being an airline pilot.  Therefore, one’s identity and how one may think of one’s self, is dependent upon what one has learned and what one does.  Once again, identities can change over time.  Identities are dynamic.

Shifting identities occur as one grows and physical/mental characteristics change, too.  As people grow, mature and get older, their identities change according to age, health or wellness, and physical/mental ability and disability, for example.  A young girl becomes a teen, then a wife and mother, and later a grandmother, a widow, and perhaps even later an Alzheimer’s patient might be one example of the progression of identity changes related to growth and aging.  One’s identity evolves.

Identity is also created through a process of socialization.  Our families teach us about our familial, gender, racial, religious, ethnic and national identities and roles, for example.  Our peers reinforce group social norms.  Our primary and secondary education reinforces the dominant social identity ideals and roles while our higher education teaches us our work and professional identities and roles.  The media reinforces dominant social ideals (such as gender role norms) and constructs new realities based on historical myths (such as a ‘traditional nuclear family’ or ‘patriotic rugged individualism’) while at the same time it creates new social ideals such as ‘consumerism’.  The socializing affects of our families, our peers, our education and the media work together to influence how we think about ourselves and others, even when we do not realize this process is taking place.

Yet, identity is not only what one thinks of one’s self, it also consists of how one may classify people who are different from one’s self.  For example statements such as, ‘they are criminals’, ‘they are illegal aliens’, and ‘they are terrorists’ indicate groups of people who do not have the same social values or social standing that one holds.  Perhaps those thought of as criminals, illegal aliens, and terrorists are classified differently within their own social groups, perhaps even in a positive manner.  Labeling others is one means of creating identity.  How one thinks of one’s self can be defined by how one classifies and labels others.

Many times we use labels to describe and classify binary or oppositional qualities and characteristics of identity difference that develop harmful social consequences.  As previously stated, some very common classification labels are those of race, class, sex, gender, sexuality, and nationality.  Many times we think in terms of either/or, binary or oppositional labeling.  We may be either white-skinned or not.  We may be male or female, masculine or feminine, heterosexual or not, or a U.S. citizen or not, and we may be rich, middle class, or poor, for example.  These types of either/or binary or oppositional labels work to create ideas of binary or oppositional separateness that do not easily allow for individual identity and expression outside of these dominating social ideals.  This way of thinking has created a dominating hegemonic force that stigmatizes (and penalizes) folks who do not fit into the dominating social categories.

Identity concepts are used to sort and classify people into groups who realize differing degrees of power and privilege.  Notions concerning one’s race and gender, for example, are not biologically based, as is commonly believed, but rather ideas concerning race and gender change over time and place.  Yet one’s race and gender are important symbols and features of one’s identity.  People use the concepts of race and gender to classify and sort:  Who are the most intelligent, who are the most empathic, which is strongest, and who are weak, for example.  The ideas of race and gender, people’s opinions, perspectives and viewpoints, are cultural and social constructs that folks use to define themselves and others.  Dominant groups have historically used notions of race and gender to label others and to construct and maintain oppressive class and power structures at both individual and systemic levels.  Identities are social constructs that may communicate one’s position in a hierarchical social order.

Therefore, one’s identity, who one is and what makes each one of us an individual and distinct from one another, is the complex and cumulative sum of one’s affiliation to the many groups to which one identifies.  Additionally, it is also the characteristics and group affiliations which others attribute to us.  Identity formation takes shape through a process of socialization, and as a process it is fluid in nature and changes over time.  It happens consciously and subconsciously as we make judgments and compare our similarities and differences to one another and this has resulted in a condition of social hierarchy in which differing degrees of power and privilege and advantage and disadvantage exist.  Each individual has a position within a complex set of interconnected hierarchical strata and we each realize differing degrees of power and privilege in some areas of our lives and disadvantages in others.

As an example of this phenomenon I will consider my own identity and that of my partner.  I am a U.S. citizen.  I am also a white-skinned, married female who is the biological mother of my two children, and who (at almost 50 years of age) is attending her second year of college, long overdue.  I am married to a white-skinned, male.  He is the father of our two biological children, who is also currently a student, working toward his second degree (a PhD), so that (hopefully) he will once again be gainfully employed.

There is an interesting paradox in describing my and my husband’s individual identities.  I have used labels to indicate a few of the most dominant groups to which we individually and collectively belong.  We both are U.S. citizens.  We are both members of the white-skinned race.  I am female and he is male.  We both are heterosexual.  We are married and are members of the ‘middle class’, and we are the heads of a ‘traditional’ ‘nuclear family’.  I am a ‘baby boomer’, while he is not.  I am a high school graduate and now I am an adult learner and a first-time college student.  He is a high school graduate, a college graduate, and now once again he also is a college student, but this time as an adult learner. The paradox is that the many groups with which we each identify determines our unique individuality.

Yet even more interesting than this paradox is the degree of power and privilege offered and assigned to the group affiliations with which we identify.  Below is a list of what I consider the most defining group affiliations (determined by degree of social privilege and power) to which we belong and a brief explanation concerning the embedded power that is offered through that group membership.

  • We are both U.S. citizens, and therefore we are not European, or Irish, although we both are of European and Irish descent and maintain a cultural affiliation to these locales and ethnicities.  Yet, we are not from an African country, nor are we from Asia or Central America.  Instead, we are members of one of the most privileged ‘first world’ countries and one that dominates in world affairs.
  • We both are white-skinned.  We are members of the most privileged race (especially in the U.S.) and one that frequently dominates members of other races.
  • I am female, and therefore I am a member of the less-privileged and generally more submissive sex.  My husband is a member of the most privileged and primarily dominating sex, because he is biologically male.  Neither of us are a member of the socially stigmatized group of individuals who do not easily classify as either biologically male or female but rather somewhere in between.
  • We are heterosexual and part of the group considered ‘the norm’. Our society offers us many social sanctions for the lifestyle we live, while folks who identify differently are many times stigmatized, criticized, ostracized, bullied, beaten and even murdered for their difference.
  • We each easily ascribe the ‘appropriate’ gender norms that are assigned to our sex, that is, a masculine (dominating) male, and a feminine (submissive) female.  We have been socialized to do so.  This, perhaps, allows us to function comfortably within larger social groups who expect certain characteristics and behaviors from males than it does from females.  We realize a greater degree of acceptance and social sanctification than those whose gender identity does not fit what is viewed as a ‘traditional’ social ‘norm’.
  • We are the heads of a ‘middle class’ and ‘traditional nuclear’ family, the idealized type of family in the U.S.  We receive many benefits from this situation such as tax savings, insurance benefits, and survivor benefits (to name only a few) that other family types do not receive.
  • I am a ‘baby-boomer’ and realize privilege of being a member of the hegemonic force that this group maintains, although my husband is a few years younger and is not a ‘baby-boomer’.  We both still realize a great deal of privilege and benefits that this dominating group has designed and implemented in society.  One example is that industry and retail markets cater to the large ‘baby-boomer’ demographic, so we have many consumer goods and services that are designed to appeal to our age group from which to choose.
  • I am a high school graduate, a status and privilege that many of my sisters in other less privileged nations are not able to realize.  I am a college student, and therefore even more privileged, although I am realizing this privilege at a late point in my life, I still recognize it as a privilege, especially considering worldwide circumstances where many girls are not allowed to obtain a formal education.  In relation to my husband, though, my status is lower than his.   He already has two college degrees (and his income reflects this) and now he is working toward his first graduate degree.  This situation of privilege and power is most interesting, because my husband’s educational ‘stipend’ is greater than my income from employment.  This circumstance is a reflection of the power and privilege of both being male and of being educated.

The judgments we make as we compare our similarities and differences to one another has resulted in a condition of social hierarchy in which differing degrees of power and privilege and advantage and disadvantage exist within and between societies.  Each individual has a position within a complex set of interconnected social hierarchies and we each realize different degrees of power and privilege.  In some areas we realize relative advantage while in others we realize relative disadvantage.

I will use my personal circumstances to demonstrate this point in a different way, by attempting to rank my position of privilege and power on a scale from 1 to 10 (1 being the least and 10 being the most) in various areas of my life.  I will consider my relation specifically to other U.S. citizens because I know that in worldwide relations, my reflection on my own ranking would be a great deal different.  I would rank my status, as a citizen of the most powerful first world nation, in the uppermost position in all categories.  Therefore, for the purpose of determining a social ranking for myself, I will focus only on my relationship to other U.S. citizens.

Financial wellbeing may be one way to think of the degree of privilege one has, because financial wellbeing allows one to access the goods and services that they need to live well.  Financial wellbeing may be understood in different ways and their sum adds up to represent one’s socioeconomic status.

  • In terms of personal wealth, and in relation to others in the U.S., I would rank my privilege status at a 4, because I have a small positive net worth in the form of home equity, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, at my level of net worth, more than half of the U.S. population has a larger family net worth than my own, and almost one third has less (Wealth and Asset Ownership, n.d.).
  • In terms of income, and in relation to others in the U.S., I would rank my privilege status at a 2.  This is because my family’s income is just above the 2013 poverty guidelines of $23,550 for a family of four.  The U.S. “poverty guidelines are updated periodically in the Federal Register by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under the authority of 42 U.S.C. 9902(2)” (Poverty Guidelines, n.d.).

Yet financial wellbeing is not the only indicator of privilege.  Privilege might be thought of in terms of opportunity.

  • In terms of the opportunity for earnings potential, I would rank my privilege status, in relation to others in the U.S., at an 8 because both my husband and I are currently enrolled in college full-time.  We both are working toward a degree that (hopefully) will be marketable in the near future.  With my husband’s Multidisciplinary Science PhD specializing in Computer Science, a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mathematics, Computer Science, and Finance plus my Bachelor of Art Degree in Social Theory Social Structure and Change, (if we successfully complete our programs) we should be able to realize a secure old age, even if we are not able to fully ‘retire’ (Educational Attainment, n.d.).  Perhaps we will never be in the top “1%”, but to my way of thinking, this is not a detriment.  I would be ashamed to have amassed such great wealth when I know that others’ needs are not being met.
  • In terms of racial opportunity, I have drawn the lucky card, so to speak.  I would rank my privilege status, in relation to others in the U.S., at a 10. This is because I carry an ‘invisible knapsack’ of privileges and opportunities that I may tend to take for granted as a white-skinned person.  I have privileges that others do not have the same opportunity to enjoy. The ‘invisible knapsack’ is the way in which Peggy McIntosh described in her essay, White Privilege:  Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, the “special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” for example, which white-skinned folks enjoy that are neither in broad public view or even intended to be seen (1988).  These unearned resources (that provide special opportunities) are not distributed equally or shared by individuals of other races.
  • In terms of gender opportunity, I rank my privilege status, in relation to others in the U.S., at an 8.  This ranking is not without problems. I have grouped biological sex, gender and sexual orientation all together (as is the ‘norm’) even though they are very separate elements of one’s identity.  I am considering the fact that I am biologically female (the lesser socially esteemed sex), but not as low as those folks who do not fit into binary sex categories.  I am also considering the fact that I am heterosexual – the sexual orientation that is considered socially ‘normal’.  Finally, I am considering gender, which is many times thought to be personality characteristics naturally inherent to specific male or female body types, which is to say, masculine men and feminine women.  I classify as a feminine female, which is the social ‘norm’.  Because I fit into the social norm categories, I am a more privileged person than those who do not.  I move comfortably in social groups because my identity is a representation of the social norm.  Others may not have this privilege.  For example, feminine men or lesbians are many times stigmatized, ostracized, bullied, beaten, and sometimes even murdered because others disapprove of their identity differences.  Additionally, although I am a member of the less-privileged sex, I am the wife of a white, college-educated male.  By this affiliation I realize a portion of the many benefits that society affords to him and his privileged class.  This circumstance would place me (statistically) at a higher social standing than a female not married to a college-educated white male.
  • In terms of ability opportunity, I rank my privilege status, in comparison to others in the U.S., at a 9.  This is because a person’s mental and physical ability/disability correlates to a family’s financial wellbeing. The ‘Disability and American Families’ report stated that the 2000 Census “counted a total of 72.3 million families and found that nearly 28.9 percent of them (about 2 in every 7 families) reported having at least one member with a disability” (Disability and American Families, n.d.).  The report also stated that families that have members with a disability had lower median incomes, they had lower levels of employment, they were more likely to receive income from Social Security and public assistance, they were less likely to own their own home, and they were more likely to live in poverty (Disability and American Families, n.d.).
    • No one in my family has any serious medical issues, yet at my age it is common that health does decline, and I now have begun to ‘feel’ my years.
    • Mental health is an interesting thing to consider.  I have come from family with a troubled history, and therefore I carry all sorts of unwanted baggage.  My husband has his own difficult past situation, too.  What we have discovered is that education can help to reverse some of the negative impact that our upbringing has imposed on us.  So although I would not rate either of us as perfectly well – we have no major issues, and none that affect our ability to work and care for our families.
    • I have NYS provided Family Health Plus health coverage insurance that would provide myself (and my family) a degree of security in the event of illness or injury.  Access to both healthcare and healthcare insurance is a privilege not all individuals currently have the opportunity to enjoy.

There are many forms of privilege one can realize, that of financial wellbeing, mental and physical wellbeing, and opportunity name only a few. Yet these few examples demonstrate another important social phenomenon:  Where there is privilege, there is power.

  • When identity resides in groups that are considered the social ‘norm’, hegemonic forces work to create even greater privileges through a type of majority (mob) rule.
  • Those who have the privilege of mental and physical health have greater opportunity to increase wealth through education, employment, investments, etc.
  • Those who have racial and/or gender privilege realize greater opportunities in family, education and employment situations.
  • Those who have financial wellbeing are better positioned to take advantage of opportunity of higher education, and the rewards of asset ownership such as a home or business or financial investments.
  • Those with the highest education levels have the opportunity to take advantage of careers that pay substantially above the average or median income.

Privilege offers opportunities that work to create additional privileges, and in turn these increased privileges offer greater opportunity in a cyclic fashion.  This is the relationship between privilege and power.  Having one permits the other to increase.  Wealth and education are two such areas that allow a person to have a high social standing, one in which they have the opportunity to make decisions that affect not only their own wellbeing, but also the wellbeing of many others.  This phenomenon is apparent in our larger social institutions such as the world of academia with its research, and the corporate world with its government and military support.

First we will examine privilege and power in the world of academia and research.  For example, we can consider the ‘gender gap’ circumstance in the U.S.  The gender gap, or the systemic differences between males and females in education and the labor market, as represented by educational opportunity, occupational choices, opportunities for upward mobility, and differences in pay rate and income, is the result of many factors.  These factors may include the type of position held, the difference in education and experience that these positions require, but perhaps they also may include the social pressure that men and women encounter, which encourages them to make the career decisions they choose.

Broverman, et al. (1970), examined the nature of this social pressure more than four decades ago.  They found, for example, that although there was no significant difference as a function of the sex of the therapist, it was a common belief among clinical psychologists that the characteristics of healthy males and females differed as a function of one’s sex.  These differences paralleled gender-role stereotypes.  Additionally, it was shown that characteristics and behaviors considered healthy for an adult (no sex specified) resembled those considered healthy for men, but not those considered healthy for women.  Broverman, et al. reasoned that the “double standard” of mental health was a function of the “adjustment notion”, that is, one’s good health was dependent upon being well adjusted to one’s environment (1970).  The implications in this finding were and still are astounding.

We should consider how the authority given by society to the social scientists allowed them the power to exert influence on social standards and attitudes.  Their privileged and highly educated position provided them with the ability to engage in ‘expert’ advisory functions not only for their clients, but also for government agencies, private institutions and the general public.  By the authority given to them, these clinicians even had the power to perpetuate harmful stereotypes.  The ‘adjustment notion’ that the social scientists suggested, placed women in conflict with their choices.  They could either choose between positive identity characteristics that were associated with adults (and men), such as competence, or they could choose identity characteristics that were more socially accepted for females, such as empathy.  Yet, feminine gender norms held a lower social ranking than those of men.  Choosing identity characteristics such as competence, which was considered more socially accepted for adults (and men), would classify that behavior as pathological for a woman, and therefore would still position a woman at a lower social ranking than that of a healthy, competent man.  Either identity characteristic choice would marginalize a woman and consequently, women were left with very little privilege of choice or power in relation to men.  The overall social stratification between men and women still persists today.  The high social standing, the status, given to highly educated professionals, allows them a great deal of privilege and power, even the authority to make decisions that negatively affect the lives of many others.

This example of the relationship between privilege and power (and status) demonstrates how social hierarchies can be created, reinforced, and enforced within and through our social institutions such as the world of academia, research and healthcare.  We can also find a relationship between privilege and power in the corporate world and the institutions that support it – the government and the military.

Paul Street, in his ZNet commentary, Savage Inequalities (2002), provided an excellent illustration of the interconnected privilege and power structures of the corporate world, the U.S. Government, and the military.  Street’s observations were that the U.S. response to the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the flight that was presumed to have been headed toward the White House is a perfect example of the ‘savage inequalities’ that exist in U.S. culture.

Street wrote of the ‘fast track’ manner in which the Victim’s Compensation Fund (VCF) was created and how the way it operated was a perfect example of the unequal valuation of human life in this country.  He brought to light the fact that families of the victims of the 9-11 terrorists attacks each received very different financial awards.  Victim’s families were compensated as determined by a scale that did not represent individual and intrinsic human value or social value.  Instead, the compensation valued the victims as a human resource.  This was represented in the compensation valuation being determined by a formula quite similar to the income replacement formula that life insurance companies use to advise their customers when selecting life insurance policies.  He also elaborated on the fact that this seemingly unequal way of determining human value was rather egalitarian in relation to the real wealth distribution in the U.S and how airlines generally compensate victims of crashes and their families.  It is interesting to consider that if the administration at that time had not created the ‘fast track’ (taxpayer funded) VCF, the compensation awards would have been left for the courts to decide, and the typical payout for this type of incident generally ranges from zero dollars to 30 million dollars – much less equal than the VCF formula.  Paradoxically, the VCF, as unequal as it seemed on the surface, was actually much more equalitarian than the typical ‘American’ way of doing business (Street, 2002.).

Additionally, Street brought to light another important post 9-11 issue, that our ‘War on Terror” primarily functioned to provide welfare for those who needed it the least, and it decreased assistance to those who needed it the most.  He asserted that the VCF was created as a type of corporate welfare, designed to benefit the airline and insurance industries, and those who were already at the top of the social hierarchy, while at the same time, nothing was created to benefit the now unemployed airline workers (another negative social consequence of the 9-11 tragedy).  He also cited the thriving state of corporate welfare, in the form of billions of dollars of retroactive tax cuts for already profitable corporations, in the midst of decreasing budgets for social services, welfare reform’s lifetime limits, increasing food insecurity, high child poverty rates, and new standards of ‘academic achievement’ being enacted in what was to become the ‘No Child Left Behind’ legislation (which, in reality, defunds those schools and students most in need of assistance).  Post 9-11 government support was primarily provided, not to people in need, but rather to entities that would maintain strong GDP for the U.S. economy.  In the response to the 9-11 tragedy, we can see that the systemic and structural inequalities of U.S. society are rooted in what Street called the “inherently amoral and in-egalitarian pinball machine of capitalism” (Street, 2002.).

Perhaps these are the very entities that were being targeted in the attacks that day – the World Trade Center (a symbol of corporate power), the White House (a symbol of government support of industry) and the Pentagon (a symbol of the military that serves to protect the institutions of government and industry) – and the dominating nature of the ‘American way of life’ as Street named it (Street, 2002.).

The United States of America is a country where its citizens profess to value human equality as among one of their highest moral standards.  It is written in the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal”, yet in reality the U.S. is one of the most highly stratified societies.  We identify with equality, yet at the same time structural inequalities are built into our most dominant and interconnected social institutions – our economy, our education systems, our governments, and the military, amongst others.

Identity construction has a complex and dynamic nature.  Identities are many times related to group affiliation.  Group dynamics create both intended and unintended situations of domination and oppression.  This creates a social stratification where individuals each realize different degrees of power, privilege and status within and among societies.  Paradoxically, this type of hierarchical structural inequality can take place in societies that simultaneously strive to value human equality as one of its highest moral standards.  Because of this paradox, others may identify the U.S. (and its culture and its citizens) as a nation that maintains a double standard.  In reality, the U.S. is one of the most highly stratified (unequal) societies in the world, and additionally it also dominates in world affairs.

For this reason, when considering my own identity, and my position of status hierarchy, I place U.S. citizenship as the highest on the hierarchical list.  This is so that I remember my current position of extreme privilege, power and status in relation to others.  This helps me to also remember others position of disadvantage and also quite likely, their situation of need.  With this understanding and perspective I can begin to deconstruct the hierarchies that are present in my own life and social circles.  Perhaps, when considering identity, instead of thinking in terms of group affiliation, personal traits and qualities should be the primary consideration.  Yet, as is the case with the harm in attempting to be ‘colorblind’ when dealing with unequal race relations, ignoring the fact that marginalized groups are, in fact, realizing situations of disadvantage, this desire is more of an idealistic goal than it is a desirable current reality.  Perhaps someday soon, we may be able to think of our own and others identities based solely on individual characteristics and traits.


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