Same difference

In this blog entry, Mary Thomas, author of Multicultural Girlhood, answers the question, “Why can’t we all just get along?” by insisting that it’s an idealized fantasy to say that “We’re all the same.” 

“We’re all the same.”  With this statement, a teenage girl in Los Angeles voiced her frustration to me.  A racially motivated fight between hundreds of Latino and Armenian boys had wrecked her high school campus just two months earlier.  Why, she and other girls asked, did these “stupid boys” fight when really “we’re all the same”?   

The girls went on to tell me many stories about their lives that were layered with resentment against other racial and ethnic groups at school and in LA.  How has it become so easy for youth to articulate such strong opposition to racial violence and advocate for peaceful humanism, at the same time as they live such highly segregated lives?

While American youth are insistently taught that everyone should get along because of their underlying sameness, they are also embedded in everyday contexts saturated with racism, hostility against migrants, and class hierarchy.  In Multicultural Girlhood, I suggest that youth all too often must adopt these mixed messages of race and ethnicity they are given in the United States.  They are told in schools to be proud of their differences and cultures, but also to remember that we are all the same.  The problem with this form of multiculturalism is that being the “same” is almost always determined through hegemonic forms of whiteness.   Thus, youth of color and youth who have recently migrated to the US – in other words, the girls in my study – see that the values of their differences are no values at all. 

Being “the same” is actually a quest to be white, which they cannot ever achieve.  This becomes a paradox –celebrate differences but behave according to the rules of whiteness that insist that “we’re all the same.”  Celebrate your Mexican or Armenian heritage, but compare yourself to whiteness constantly.

The conflicts that this paradox instigates are all too personally felt by girls, both in terms of their own self-esteem and through their relationships to their families and friends.  They do not understand why they feel deeply uncomfortable or even unsafe venturing into territories at school controlled by “other” cliques.  They sense that girls who they thought were their friends are actually talking about them in hurtful ways in languages they do not understand.  And they tell story after story of the unfair treatment they receive at school, while the kids of other racial and ethnic identities benefit from “special” treatment.  At the same time, they often unwittingly degrade their own families and explain that white kids get all the luck – they get to date earlier, have cooler and more laid back parents, and make a lot more money.

Girls strongly denounced the racialized violence at their school through their multiculturalism, and they pointed to “stupid boys” in blame.  In this way, girls distanced themselves from culpability in the fight and relied on a familiar narrative about the violent perils of masculinity.  Here, too, a paradox emerged in girls’ stories.  They faulted boys’ fighting, placing themselves above the fray.  Yet, they looked to boys to protect them.  They saw boys as the front-line defense in racial solidarity, even though the results were “stupid.”  And they liked boys who fought – fighting, especially over girls, was a supreme form of showing heterosexual desire, in fact.  Boys were sexy when they fought because then it was evidence that boys liked girls.  Coupled with the sexiness of boys’ strength, girls sided with boys from their own racial-ethnic group over other girls when there was conflict between groups.  Racial difference trumped gender solidarity in service to an elevated heterosexism: male strength, female passivity.

In the 21st century, girls are told that they have special capacities to be whatever they want to be, that they can shape their futures through individual choice and girl power.   Post-feminist messages about girl power show sexy, smart, and smiling girls taking charge of their bodies and aligning together to enjoy femininity.  Ideal girls are never passive, but active in shaping their futures.  Further, girl power’s representations in educational programming or in consumer advertising rely on a rainbow-hued line-up of girls arm in arm.  Certainly the ideal of girls enjoying their diversity and being strong is meant to help girls and to advocate for the undoing of sexism (not to mention to sell millions of dollars worth of girl-centered media and material).  But in Multicultural Girlhood, I explain that no matter the intent of emphasizing girls’ agency, in actuality these sorts of messages place a burdensome responsibility on girls to fix society’s prejudices.  

Girl power asks girls to oppose the very social meanings that also give them their identities.  Girls cannot possibility untangle the complicated paradoxes that shape the everyday spaces of American life and education.  We should not ask them to.  That is why I advocate for a different sort of girlhood in my book – one rejecting the trendy allure of girl power and instead starting with the premise that girls can be conflicted and still merit feminist consideration. 

To this end, I argue that US education should give up on the idealized fantasy that “we’re all the same.”  We must recognize that the spaces of families are increasingly global in scope and come to bear on school life and the racial-ethnic relationships formed there.  And we must contend with the unsurprising fact that all people come to understand their identities and places in the world through processes that are not always self-evident and easily comprehended by any one individual.  The paradoxes that frame American society are not extrinsic but are inherent to self-understanding.  Instead of pushing paradox under the table and calling those who don’t “stupid,” more can be done to expose the definition and appeal of sameness.  In order to “get along” perhaps emphasizing difference is what youth really need.

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