So Yesterday

In this blog entry, Allan Johnson, author of The Gender Knot and The Forest and the Trees writes about how things have changed—or have not—since the last editions of his classic Temple University Press books.

Awhile back I received an email from a college teacher using one of my books, The Gender Knot, in her class. She mentioned a disagreement among her students about whether my account of male privilege still holds true. One of the students settled the argument by flipping to the front of the book where the copyright date is found and pointing out that, well, there it is, the thing is eight years old.

That was easy.

Gender Knot 3e_smApparently, there is a ‘believe until’ date on descriptions of reality, or at least ones we’d like to see go away. And social systems can change almost as fast as Apple puts out a new iPhone, except, unlike Apple, no one has to actually do anything to make it happen. I don’t know exactly how many years it takes for a book to lose its credibility, but for some readers it is shorter than the average length of time that people own a car.

Sometimes I hear from a student who wants me to know that however bad things may have been for my generation, things are different now. That was then and the new generation has left all that behind.

There is of course change, and there is good research showing that most of it happens between generations, but the idea that we can go from up-to-your-necks to past-all-that in the space of a few decades, not to mention years, is something else.

What might account for such sudden and dramatic change they do not say, as if it somehow explains itself. It’s not that I don’t get it. When I think back to being nineteen or so, I don’t think it occurred to me that my generation might have been a continuation of anything remotely connected to that of our parents. We didn’t have to do anything to be unlike them, to break from the past, to start all over, because something new is what we were in spite of all those years of going to school and reading books and watching tv and everything else that goes with being socialized to fit the world into which we are born.

And don’t adults give graduation speeches exhorting young people to go out and be the hope of the future by being different from them?

It speaks to the power of both individualism and wishful thinking that we can sustain what amounts to a myth of self-invention by which each generation starts out fresh and decides who they are without having to deal with any historical or emotional baggage that they didn’t pack themselves. If everything is all about my experience and I don’t experience the thing myself, then it must not be there. “I have never been discriminated against as a woman,” she says. “I don’t see color,” says he. “If I can do what I want then so can anyone else.”

The myth of self-invention is connected, in turn, to the idea that everyone is different from everyone else. I’ve never really known what that means, or, more precisely, why it matters so much. Why should we care that no one out there is an exact match for us when the thing that makes our lives possible is all the ways in which we are alike—presenting ourselves and behaving in ways that other people will understand and accept as familiar. So what if there are dead ringers for me somewhere in the world?

And if everyone is supposedly unique, then it follows that everyone must have their own opinions and perceptions. I suppose that’s true in the sense that everyone has their own underwear, but, again, what does that mean when those same opinions and perceptions (not to mention underwear) show up in millions of other people, there being only so many possibilities?

And yet, we persist in the idea that our experience and what we know are somehow both unique to us and independent of the world through which we come into being and exist. I think, therefore I am—not I belong, connect, relate, share, participate, or continue some form of what came before.

Which brings me back to expiration dates on reality and how easily unpleasant things get relegated to a ‘past’ where they no longer apply, as if we can give them up as we would a habit or a fashion. And if problems like race or gender or poverty persist, it must be because there are individuals who, for whatever reason, have decided to be different from the rest of ‘us.’

The thing is, though, that social systems, and systems of privilege in particular, do not continue from force of habit, inertia, or individual choice. They are more than a collection of self-conscious attitudes or beliefs or styles that come and go on their own or through individual self-improvement.

Systems continue because of powerful forces exerted across generations, including adaptations to new circumstances so as to preserve the underlying structure and effect while seeming to have changed. “Power does not yield except by demand,” wrote Frederick Douglass more than 100 years ago, and as far as I can tell, recent history records precious little of that.

Layout 1The illusion of change is on my mind because a new edition of The Gender Knot, along with another of my books, The Forest and the Trees, has just been published. I spent months digging into the latest data, reviewing what’s been published in books and journals. And has anything changed? Well, of course. We have a black president, for one, and same-sex marriage is gaining support, and words like ‘transgender’ have entered our vocabulary.

But the evidence is also overwhelming that the basic structures of male privilege and white privilege and class privilege and even heterosexual privilege remain solidly intact. The epidemic of rape everywhere from the military to college campuses, the almost complete lack of progress toward gender equity for more than 20 years, the devastation of people of color in the most recent economic collapse, racial segregation and discrimination in hiring and the criminal justice system, the dramatic surge of economic inequality, the almost complete dominance of state and national politics by corporations and the wealthy, the patriarchal capitalist juggernaut that continues its systematic destruction of the Earth . . . you get the idea.

This is not to say that we don’t have the potential to reinvent ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. After all, that is what my work, both public and private, is all about. But such invention comes only from our active engagement with the reality of what has been and how it continues into the present, however much it may shape-shift into forms that give the appearance of change. And however much we might wish it otherwise.

“The past,” wrote William Faulkner, “is never dead. It’s not even past.”

What we know about gender, race, and STEM – African American women

Sandra Hanson, author of Swimming Against the Tide explains that African American women are interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

A recent publication (in Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology) by a group of psychologists found that race and gender intersect in understanding Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) attitudes and participation. The research team was headed by Laurie T. O’Brien and focused especially on African American women. The researchers and subsequent media reports on the findings (e.g. in Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education) expressed surprise at the high interest and participation in STEM among African American women. Several decades ago I began doing research on African American women in STEM funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Although some researchers have not focused on the way that race/ethnicity and gender interact to affect STEM experiences we have known for some time that we can expect the unexpected when it comes to African American girls and women in STEM. Some have argued that because women do less well in STEM and minorities do less well in STEM, there will be a double disadvantage for African American women.

Layout 1The argument of double jeopardy sees race and gender as additive. My findings from a representative sample of young African American women (published in a number of journal articles and in my book, Swimming Against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education) suggested otherwise. Quantitative data from my sample and larger NSF surveys as well as open-ended questions and responses to vignettes were critical in measuring the young women’s experiences. They loved science. The young African American women signed up for science classes, loved doing experiments, went to science camp, and had posters of scientists on their walls. One young woman said that “science was like opening up a present from your favorite aunt.” My findings provided considerable evidence for the African American family and community as key in understanding this love of science. African American families have always made considerable investment in and had high educational and occupational expectations for their daughters.

African American women have historically combined work and family roles. The answer to young African American women’s high level of interest and participation in STEM does not come from schools and teachers. In fact, the young women in my sample experienced considerable difficulty in the STEM classroom. One young girl reflected the opinion of many when she described the attitude of science teachers –“They looked at us like we weren’t supposed to be scientists.” The young women reported not being called on in the classroom and not being chosen as lab partners. Somehow, in spite of the chilly classroom climate, a disproportionate number of African American women manage to “swim against the tide” and persevere in STEM education and occupations.

Data from NSF show that African American women persist in many areas of STEM at a higher rate than do white women. My recent research on the male dominated area of engineering shows that even here African American women earn the largest share of doctorates relative to men (when looking within race/ethnic groups). In my testimony to the U.S Congress (Subcommittee on Girls in Science) I suggested that we need better teachers, science classrooms, and science textbooks. When young African American women look around them and see white teachers and white scientists in the science textbooks, they do not feel welcome. The considerable agency that African American women show in the context of a white, male STEM culture is encouraging. One can only imagine the increased number of talented African American women who would participate in STEM education and occupations in a more welcoming climate. The major science organization in the U.S. – the National Science Foundation – has recognized the problem and is funding a good number of programs to encourage minorities and minority women in STEM. After all, diversity in science makes for better science.

Only Fans Can Ban Racism Among European Soccer Spectators

This blog entry reprints Sportista co-author Andy Markovits’ January 9 column from The Huffington Post about racism and sports.

Perhaps the most promising factor in the recent incident involving Kevin-Prince Boateng — the Ghanaian-German midfielder for the venerable Italian soccer club AC Milan, kicked the ball into the stands and walked off the field in the middle of the game after having reached his limit of being subjected to the vile racial abuse by some fans of Milan’s opponent Pro Patria — was the loud and demonstrative cheer that other Pro Patria fans accorded the Milan players when they joined Boateng in solidarity thus ending the game.

One thing is quite clear: The open — even prideful — use of the ugliest racist invectives imaginable that has become a ubiquitous staple of Europe’s soccer grounds will not disappear via legal steps and institutional interventions by the relevant authorities such as teams, leagues and federations. Rather, they will only do so if and when the fans themselves will find such language and behavior unacceptable. Only the fans can raise the threshold of shame which will eliminate this scourge and make the public expression of racism an iron-clad taboo. What European soccer needs is a “London, Ontario” moment in which a racist fan who had abused Wayne Simmonds, a black Canadian hockey player for the Philadelphia Flyers, by, among others, throwing a banana on the ice was turned in by other fans which subsequently led to the racist fan’s prosecution by the authorities. As long as a majority of fans tacitly tolerates racist invectives towards players (and opposing fans) by a vocal and assertive minority that often enjoys legitimacy for being viewed as the team’s only true and most loyal fans, this scourge will not disappear from Europe’s soccer stadia.

Taking pride in racist chants and behavior is, after all, not part of general European culture and discourse. Indeed it barely exists in any other European sports besides soccer. Why there? Because winning in this most important cultural icon attains a special importance, especially for men. And this constitutes the toxic brew.

Since sports are almost always adversarial, and since they are competitive contests, winning plays a crucial role. The importance accorded to winning creates an atmosphere in which contestants and their supporters will do everything to achieve victory. This includes deriding the opponent, taunting him, making him uncomfortable and insecure, trash talking and “getting into his head”. After all, these are among the most powerful components of what is “home field advantage,” “the 12th man” to stay with football (of the American or Association variety). And who is to decree what constitutes permissible language and behavior in the act of exercising partisanship? If fans can make fun of a contestant’s looks or the colors of his uniform, who is to say that they cannot deride his race? Who is to draw the line of properness and with what logic?

The more important the sport’s cultural standing is in a society, the more important winning in it becomes. With soccer being by far the most culturally dominant sport in Europe (and Latin America as well, where European-style fan behavior is also commonplace) winning in it becomes paramount and non-negotiable. As to the role of men: they have been massively overrepresented in the production and consumption of soccer (and similar culturally dominant team sports) since its modern incarnation in the late 19th century. Women remained excluded from the sports world on both sides of the Atlantic until the major changes wrought by the feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s which, in the meantime, have rendered women close to men’s equivalents in terms of their numerical presence as athletes. However, women’s involvement as fans has thus far assumed a different trajectory in that their following of sports varies both in its quantity and texture from that of their typical male counterpart.

Moreover, it is on this dimension that there exists a major difference between the venues in American team sports and European soccer with the former featuring a much larger presence of female spectators compared to the latter’s continued paucity, especially on the grounds of lesser pedigreed teams. And even though the ugliest expressions of racism, xenophobia and homophobia have been subdued — though far from eliminated — at Europe’s top-tier leagues where appearances do matter for the global product that these leagues are hawking to a global audience, the event from Pro Patria’s ground which caused Kevin-Prince Boateng to exit from his torment remains quite the norm in the venues of European soccer’s lesser leagues. Not coincidentally, there are far fewer female spectators attending matches in these leagues as there are in the fancy stadia of the top leagues. There is no question that a larger percentage of female spectators in European soccer would help diminish, if not eliminate, the abominable behavior and language that have continued to mar “the beautiful game” as soccer fans so proudly — and quite plausibly — like to tout this sport. It would not be the first time that women would assume the role of men’s civilizing agents in human history.

Sportista_smAndrei S. Markovits teaches at the University of Michigan. His latest book is SPORTISTA: FEMALE FANDOM IN THE UNITED STATES co-authored with Emily Albertson and published by Temple University Press.

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