“We don’t learn the importance of anything until it is snatched from our hands.”
Malala Yousafzai, “The Daily Show,” October 8, 2013
Malala Yousafzai, the courageous and tireless champion for the rights of women and girls throughout the world to access quality education, has never swerved from her message even after the Taliban in her Pakistani town hijacked her school bus and pummeled bullets into her skull critically wounding her at the young age of 14.
The “it” to which this remarkable young woman refers in her quote above denotes not her life, as one might expect, but rather, represents “education” in the formal as well as the informal sense. Today Malala’s resolve shines ever brighter as she knows full well the consequences of fighting brutal patriarchal oppression. More importantly, though, she recognizes that women’s equality and their very lives depend upon and demand educational access and equity.
Malala’s remarkable story ruminates in my mind as I contemplate the process currently underway with students in my undergraduate Educational Psychology course.
During the first week of class, I presented a visual puzzle composed of nine dots placed evenly three down and three across. To solve the exercise, students must connect all nine dots using only four straight lines without taking the pen or pencil off the paper and without tracing over a previous line to form a new line. The only possible way for students to solve this puzzle according to the rules as written was, in the parlance of psychology, to think in terms of “figure and ground,” to look beyond the nine dots alone, and to conceive the blankness behind and around the dots as comprising part of the puzzle. In other words, students must look and think “outside the box” to attain success not only in solving this two dimensional brainteaser as well as getting the most out of our course, but more importantly, to fully understand and to live the larger mystery of life.
I do not only ask students to think “outside the box,” but I also practice what I teach. My pedagogy looks and acts beyond, behind, and around other common teaching practices, which, unfortunately, contradict that which “education” was intended.
I have never forgotten one essential point my Educational Psychology professor related to my class back at San José State University when I was working toward my Secondary Education Teacher’s Certification. His point crystallized for me the intent of true and meaningful learning. My professor explained that the term “education” derives from two Latin roots: “e,” meaning “out of,” and “ducere,” meaning “to lead” or “to draw.”
“Education,” he said, “is the process of drawing knowledge out of or from the student or leading the student toward knowledge, rather than putting or depositing information into what some educators’ perceive as the student’s waiting and docile mind” — what the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Reglus Neves Freire (1970) termed “the banking system of education.”
I believe that for genuine learning to occur, for it to be transformational, it must be student centered — grounded on the shared experiences of the learners — and composed of at least two essential elements or domains: the “affective” (feelings) and the “cognitive” (informational). I, therefore, design and implement my courses on a dialogic approach within a social justice framework in which students and educators cooperate in the process, whereby all are simultaneously the teacher and the learner. Russian educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1988) referred to this process as Obuchenie.
Education, as I have gained from Freire, is a path toward permanent liberation in which people became aware (conscientized) of their positions, and through praxis (reflection and action), transform the world.
Educators, to be truly effective, must spend many years in self-reflection and must have a clear understanding of their motivations, strengths, limitations, “triggers,” and fears. They must thoroughly come to terms with their positions (“positionalities”) in the world in terms of their social identities: both the ways in which they receive (often unearned) privileges and benefits as well as how they have been constructed as the targets of systemic inequities. They are not afraid of showing vulnerability and admitting when they are wrong or when they “don’t know.” They have a firm grasp of their content areas, and they work well with and are accessible to students and to their peers.
In the ideal classroom, the overriding climate is one of safety. This is not, however, the same as “comfort,” for very often, comfortable situations might feel sufficient, but do not necessarily hold pedagogic value. By “safety” I am suggesting an environment where educators facilitate a learning process: one in which one can share openly without fear of retribution or blame; where one can travel to the outer limits of one’s “learning edges” in the knowledge that one will be supported and not left dangling.
In keeping with these basic tenets of education, I transformed (which is very different from “relaxed”) a number of pedagogic practices of previous instructors of this Educational Psychology course at my university, practices that contradicted many of the foundational theories within the field of Educational Psychology.
I tried as best I could – given the enormous size of this course of over 300 students, sitting in fixed-seated arranged rows, who were to take on-line and in-class “objective” quizzes and examinations, and where 10% of the course grade was allotted to mere classroom attendance – to connect my educational philosophy with the realities and limitations arising from the organization of the course. The most I could possibly hope for amounted to mere reform as opposed to true transformational change.
My reform efforts included suspending taking attendance, previously recorded by students’ use of an in-class electronic clicker (iClicker) system; encouraging students to form and work in out-of-class study groups for a deeper and fuller understanding and appreciation of the course material; granting students the option of joining with one other class member in working within cooperative partnerships to take all in-class examinations; and the suspension of classroom monitors who had in semesters past circulated throughout the room during examinations to inhibit cheating behaviors. I actually gave students the option of taking examinations outside the classroom in a quieter place anywhere they chose.
The primary change I made was in the pedagogic underpinnings of the course. Previously, students were to read basically a chapter per week in the course textbook. Past instructors created a PowerPoint from a rudimentary template of each chapter provided by the textbook publisher, and they stood in front of the students reading from these PowerPoints. Since instructors chose not to upload these presentations onto the course on-line Moodle system, often students sat rather rigidly at their fixed desks taking notes.
For me to maintain any semblance of personal and professional integrity, I simply could not, no, would not abide by this “banking system.” I, therefore, informed students they were to take more responsibility in their learning, possibly somewhat more than in any of their other courses. I prepared PowerPoints, actually much more extensive, deeper, and broader than some past instructors’ presentations, and I uploaded these onto our Moodle system for students to view and use. I suggested to students that during their reading of the chapters and the PowerPoints, they were to write down all questions and bring these to my attention during class.
I then organized our in-class sessions as if they consisted of a group of, say, 20-30 students, in which we would engage in small seminar-like critical discussions. I selected some of the most important concepts from the individual chapters, explained them in some detail, supplemented these with examples and situations that connected to and amplified them, and facilitated in-class discussions.
Soon after I followed this route, I received emailed compliments from a number of students. Some representative samples include:
“I just wanted to let you know how I have enjoyed your lectures that are not the mundane traditional Powerpoint based lectures.”
“I feel like I have incentive to come to your class in the hopes of learning something new as I find you to be a very compelling teacher.”
“I just wanted you to know I think you are a great teacher and have made me think A LOT about my education this semester. Thank you for that.”
“I wanted to thank you for having such an interesting class today!”
“Thank you so much for treating us like adults!”
So Why Relatively Small Attendance Rates?
During the first few weeks of classes, I followed suggested procedures by setting aside time to take roll with students using their iClickers, which they were mandated to either purchase or rent at considerable expense. I usually employed this method of taking attendance half-way to toward the end of class.
For me to better understand students’ motivations in coming to class, however, I experimented on a few occasions by having students employ their iClickers at the very beginning of class. At the conclusion of this exercise, in each of these instances, large numbers of students unabashedly rose to their feet and effortlessly and unapologetically walked out the doors in back of the classroom, and also in front of the room only a few yards away from where I stood.
Students’ email correspondences began to answer the questions that swirled in my mind as I witnessed this behavior:
“Since you are not going to go over your PowerPoints in depth in class, and because you post them online, there’s no reason for me to come to class after you take roll.”
“I learn better on my own, and I only come to class because it is required.”
“The tests usually only cover the textbook and the PowerPoints, so I don’t need to attend the classes.”
As part of my attempt for students to take more responsibility in their education, I provided them with the option of deciding whether they would attend class sessions by suspending the practice of tabulating attendance, and informed students that all would automatically receive the 10% of the course grade dedicated to their coming to class. Since I instituted this policy, on average 50 – 75 students out of the 300 regularly attend class.
Recently, a student came to class to turn in an extra credit assignment: a large poster graphic of an educational psychology concept. When I asked the student to bring it back at the next class session because I would not be going to my office following class, and the poster might get damaged if I took it to another university where I was invited as a guest lecturer. At the point, the student smiled and said, “Sure, no problem,” and then immediately turned around and walked quickly out the door. I simply could not grasp what I had just experienced: a student who came to class only to give me an extra credit assignment.
“No Child Left Behind” or “All Children Kicked in the Behind”
While there have always been familial and social pressures to perform academically, and while some people have always attempted to get or attain something with the least amount of energy expended, I would ask what effects has our age of “No Child Left Behind,” an age of standardization, corporatization, globalization, privatization, and deregulation of the business, banking, and corporate sectors have on learning? Standardized curriculum and testing were initially intended to gauge students’ progress, but have, unfortunately, metastasized into benchmarks for student advancement through the levels of education, for teacher accountability, as well as criteria for school funding from the government. Our schools have become mere sorting machine factories geared to funneling or allocating potential workers into the corporate sector. Schools drive individuals to fill certain roles or positions, which are not always based on their individual talents or interests.
The educational buzz word (or, rather, buzz acronym) is now STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math). Actually, since the time of Sputnik forward, we hear from the White House, to the school house, to the houses of industry that for us to achieve and maintain personal and national security, we must emphasize and rigorously promote STEM education in our schools and jobs in our economy.
As we understand in agronomy that stems cannot take root and grow unless planted in a fertile nutrient-abundant soil, likewise I submit that STEM fields cannot take root and grow unless planted in a fertile foundation of the social sciences, humanities, the arts, and all in the context and development of critical thinking skills.
Where has the love of learning for the sake of learning gone in our students? Oh, we see a brilliant flame of learning in young children, but typically by the age of seven, or eight, or nine, it seems to wane. By middle and then senior high, the flame often flickers. Often when students enter university, for some, time has since past for us to assist students in rekindling any remaining embers. For others, though, I believe it is never too late to reignite that spark that can ultimately shine brightly once again.
Will students as individuals and we as a country have to be threatened with our education being taken from us to understand the value of learning for the sake of learning, and learning for the sake of knowing ourselves and our world at a deeper level, rather than simply finding a well-paying job?
We would do well to learn the remarkable lessons taught to us by my teacher and my hero: Malala Yousafzai.
Freire, P. R. N. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Harrisburg, PA: Continuum Publishing.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1988). The collected works of Lev Vygotsky. New York: Plenum Press.
Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).
Even before the Cold War and the so-called “McCarthy Period” (named after Wisconsin Senator, Joseph McCarthy), individuals and groups on the political and theocratic Right have flung the term “Socialist” from their metaphoric sling shots into the faces of their political opponents to discredit their characters and dismiss their political ideas and policies, and to sway the electorate toward a Conservative agenda. This continues to this very day as evidenced by the Tea Party’s representations of President Obama and various other Democratic politicians.
As destructive and as freedom-killing as the Right would have us believe, according to the World English Dictionary, Socialism involves “a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole,” where each of us has a stake and advances in the success of our collective economy.
No country in the world today stands as a fully Socialist state, but rather, some of the most successful economies combine elements of Capitalism with Socialism to create greater degrees of equity and lesser disparities between the rich, the poor, and those on the continuum in between.
I, therefore, would say to those who thrust the term “Socialist” as an epithet, if a Socialist is one who advocates for a governmental single-payer quality universal health care system, which includes safe and reasonably-priced prescription and over-the-counter drug therapies, then I am a proud Socialist!
If a Socialist is one who demands that our country protects and enhances our Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid safety nets, then I am a proud Socialist!
If a Socialist is one who advocates for the further nationalization of our parks, forests, mountains, rivers, streams, shores, and off-shore waters, rather than allocating increased corporate mining, drilling, and timber rights, then I am a proud Socialist!
If a Socialist is one who advocates for free and quality education, not only through grade 12, but throughout higher education and after for everyone who desires and works to achieve their fullest potential, then I am a proud Socialist!
If a Socialist is one who advocates for a government-sponsored program that guarantees our seniors a retirement system that ensures a high quality of life free from economic burdens, then I am a proud Socialist!
If a Socialist is one who advocates for the rights of workers to organize and to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions, then I am a proud Socialist!
If a Socialist is one who battles to eliminate workplace and larger societal inequalities based on race, nationality, citizenship status, age, sex, sexual identity, gender expression, disability, socioeconomic standing, religion, and other social identities, then I am a proud Socialist!
If a Socialist is one who works to ensure that everyone is guaranteed a comfortable and secure place to live, and one who fights against a banking system that forecloses people’s homes through scurrilous business practices, then I am a proud Socialist!
If a Socialist is one who supports effective governmental regulations on food producers to safeguard our food supply and protect against the maltreatment of animals, and on corporations, companies, and individuals to defend our environment, then I am a proud Socialist!
If a Socialist is one who supports severe restrictions on the political process to prevent mammoth contributions by individuals and corporations to buy and own politicians to influence public policy, while locking out individuals and groups unable to amass large political funds, then I am a proud Socialist!
If a Socialist is one who challenges a military industrial complex that marches to the beat of industry, and a prison industrial complex that perpetuates the racial and socioeconomic class inequities pervasive throughout the society, then I am a proud Socialist!
If a Socialist is one who contests and advocates for effective restrictions on the so-called “free market” economic system that enables the creation and enhancement of mega monopolies, outsourcing of jobs, manufacture of defective products, and inhibition in the development of clean renewable energy technologies, then I am a proud Socialist!
If a Socialist is one who demands a true progressive tax structure where everyone pays their fair share, one that inhibits massive inequities in the overwhelming accumulation of wealth by the top one percent of the nation as is currently the case, then I am a VERY proud Socialist!
This year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development conducted its “Better Life Index” to determine the “happiest countries in the world,” according to its residents. Based on an 11-measure survey assessing quality of life, including housing, income, jobs, community, education, the environment, health, work-life balance, and life satisfaction, all the Scandinavian countries, plus The Netherlands and Austria, and only one North American country, plus Australia and Israel reached the top 10 countries.
Included in descending order are number one, Denmark, followed by Canada (which provides a single-payer health care system unlike its North American neighbor, the United States), Norway, Australia, The Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, Israel, and Austria. I am saddened, but definitely not surprised, that the United States did not make the cut. Therefore, we might do well to look to these countries for some of their “Socialist” policies that sustain high levels of quality of life issues for their residents.
So, I will never again allow those who wish to continue the economic and social status quo to use the term “Socialist” as a means of intimidation flung as an epithet, but, rather, I welcome and embrace the term as a declaration of empowerment, pride, and hope for a better social structure in a better tomorrow.
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).
I truly love the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and I have ever since my first visit here in the early 1970s, through my residential doctoral program and the earning of my degree, and to this very day as I have returned as an educator in my semi-retirement.
I love the campus and most structures old and new, the bright, passionate, inquisitive students, the world-class faculty, the ahead-of-the-curve research, the demographic and intellectual diversity, and, of course, the duck-rich pond that quiets my soul each time I take respite by its gentle shores.
Though I declare unequivocal admiration for our institution, I am troubled, nonetheless, by some longstanding issues that I cannot seem to reconcile revolving on a name, symbols, and a motto.
What’s In a Name?
“What’s in a name?,” the Bard asked in his timeless classic “Romeo and Juliet.” “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Yes, and while this holds true for Romeo Montague and for roses, the town in which we find our great university could, in fact, find a much sweeter smelling namesake to honor!
The town took its name from Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the Commander-in-Chief of British forces between 1758 and 1763 during the French & Indian War. For Amherst’s victorious service in appropriating Canada for the British realm, King George III rewarded Amherst with 20,000 acres of confiscated Indian land in New York State.
Amherst’s brutal military methods against indigenous populations included callous germ warfare, tactics forever branded in the annals of shame and infamy. For example, referring to an uprising against British forces led by Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa nation, who fought with the French, historian Carl Waldman (1985) wrote: “Captain Simeon Ecuyer had bought time by sending smallpox-infected blankets and handkerchiefs to the Indians surrounding the fort — an early example of biological warfare — which started an epidemic among them. Amherst himself had encouraged this tactic in a letter to Ecuyer” (p. 108).
In addition, Amherst, on another occasion in a letter to Colonel Henry Bouquet, wrote: “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them” (in Parkman, 1886, p. 39). Amherst continued in a postscript to Bouquet in a letter dated July 16, 1763 referring to his Indian enemies: “..to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.”
Amherst’s letters also discussed the use of dogs to hunt Indians, the so-called “Spaniard’s Method,” but, alas, he was not able to implement this plan due to a shortage of hounds.
On the other hand, though he opposed the French as well during the war, Sir Jeff had no apparent inhumane disregard for the French, but rather saw them as his “worthy” enemy. “It was the Indians who drove him mad. It was they against whom he was looking for ‘an occasion, to extirpate them root and branch’” (Long, 1938, p. 187).
How ironic that the great seal of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst profiles the image of an Indian. Maybe I am missing something, but this so-called “honoring,” taking “pride” in, and “respecting” Native Americans by the cultural descendants of Lord Jeffrey Amherst and others who engaged in forced evacuations, deculturalization, and genocide of First Nations people strikes me as hypocrisy at best.
Symbolic, but Wait a Minute!
The brave Minutemen, members of that valiant colonial militia ready at a moment’s notice to fight the British before and during the Revolutionary War of Independence, served as the vanguard of our burgeoning nation. While all due respect and honor need be granted to this early troop of citizen soldiers, I question whether the symbol of “Sam the Minuteman” as the university’s mascot and our sports team athletes, known as Minutemen and Minutewomen, as well as the motto on our university’s great seal, which reads Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem (“By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty”) are appropriate symbols and words to represent an institution of higher learning. Both the Minuteman symbol and the motto seem better suited to the United States Department of Defense than to a great university.
After a long absence from the campus, upon my recent return, I was frankly quite startled to witness the relatively new addition of a large statue of Sam the Minuteman, holding high his elongated-barreled musket on central campus. Even before contemporary incidents of high profile gun-related violence have surfaced, I have long felt uneasy and have questioned the appropriateness of militiamen, guns, and “swords” serving as the literal and symbolic face of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I am uncomfortable with the messages these weapons send.
Higher Level of Inquiry
While I have ruminated on these questions for many years, and I have reached my own conclusions on what steps I would like to see the university sanction, I hesitate here to offer any proposals. Within this current era of colleges and universities reexamining their mascots and mottos and the ways in which they represent themselves to the larger society, my intent here is merely to raise concerns and questions to a higher level of public inquiry, something I have attempted to do on numerous issues most of my life.
I have had the privilege for many years as a student and later as an educator to read and discuss ideas with engaged and motivated students and committed professors, and by so doing, I have been able to make better sense of life around me. It is in that spirit that I now raise these questions.
d’Errico, P. http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/amherst/lord_jeff.html
Long, J. C. (1933). Lord Jeffrey Amherst: A Soldier of the king. NY: Macmillan.
Parkman, F. (1886). The conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War after the conquest of Canada. Boston: Little, Brown.
Waldman, C. (1985). Atlas of the North American Indian NY: Facts on File.
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).
When people wish others a “Happy Holiday Season” or just “Happy Holidays,” what exactly do they mean? This “season” usually begins around Thanksgiving and lasts through December until the first day of January, “New Year’s Day.” Thanksgiving in the United States commemorates that mythical occasion when the “Pilgrims” and the “Indians” shared a joyous meal together. If we are wishing people a “Happy Holiday Season” between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, whom are we including?
I suppose we cannot include Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs, some of whom celebrate Diwali (Festival of Lights), observed beginning in late Ashvin (between September and October on the Christian Gregorian calendar) and ending in early Kartika (between October and November). And what about the estimated 16 percent of Americans (according to the Pew Research Center) who define themselves as “religiously unaffiliated,” “atheist,” “agnostic,” “freethinker,” or “non-believer,” as well as members of some religious sects, for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses, many of whom do not celebrate any holidays?
What events are we including in our “Season’s Greetings”? A major happening that comes to mind is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere: that exact split second — usually occurring on December 21 or 22 on the Christian Gregorian calendar — when the earth’s axial tilt is farthest from the Sun. Also called the “first day of winter” in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice marks the seasonal reversal when days begin their gradual lengthening and nights shorten. Many groups celebrate the winter solstice in a number of ways, from sharing a meal to lighting candles, hanging lights, and having song and dance fests.
Also in December, among many other celebrations, there’s Chanukah, also known as the “Festival of Lights,” an eight-day Jewish holiday observing the rededication of the Second Holy Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 3593 on the Hebrew calendar (167 BCE on the Christian Gregorian calendar), when the Maccabees conducted a revolt for independence. Chanukah begins at sundown on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which falls anywhere from late November to late December on the Christian Gregorian calendar. Celebrants light candles each night on candelabra called “menorahs.”
In addition, Kwanzaa, created by Maulana Karenga and first celebrated in 1966, honors African heritage and culture. It is commemorated annually between December 26 and January 1 on the Christian Gregorian calendar. The name was drawn from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning the “first fruits of the harvest.” Celebrants light candles each night on candelabra called “kinaras.”
And then there’s Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Though no one knows the actual date of the birth of Jesus, most Christian denominations — though not all — celebrate it on December 25 on the Christian Gregorian calendar.
Christian Cultural Imperialism
Earlier and earlier each year, often now following Halloween in late October, merchants and media begin proclaiming “Happy Holidays.” While many holidays, both religious and secular, occur around this time, “Happy Holidays” is in all actuality coded language for “Merry Christmas” and “Happy (Christian) New Year.” In fact, most non-Christian major holidays do not fall in December.
How many people in the United States really care about or are even familiar with the non-Christian holidays and celebrations that fall around this time of the year? What are these “Winter Parties,” “Winter Concerts,” “Winter School Breaks,” and “Winter Vacations” really about? I would ask, how many Christians would even have heard of Chanukah had it not usually fallen in December on the Gregorian calendar? In actuality, Chanukah is a relatively minor Jewish holiday — equivalent to, say, Arbor Day.
What we are experiencing is a form of Christian cultural imperialism (hegemony): a promotion of the larger Christian culture, celebrations, values, and beliefs. I define Christian hegemony as the overarching system of advantages bestowed on Christians. It is the institutionalization of a Christian norm or standard, which establishes and perpetuates the notion that all people are or should be Christian, thereby privileging Christians and Christianity and excluding the needs, concerns, cultural practices, and life experiences of people who do not define themselves as Christian. Often overt though at times subtle, Christian hegemony is oppression by intent and design, as well as by neglect, omission, erasure and distortion.
While some of its religious significance has diminished over time as traditional Christian religious practice has entered the public square, on critical analysis, the clearly religious meanings, symbolism, positionality and antecedents of generalized holiday observances belie any claims that they have become fully secularized.
The effect of the so-called secularization of religion, in fact, not only fortifies but indeed strengthens Christian privilege by perpetuating Christian hegemony in such a way as to avoid its detection as religion or to circumvent constitutional requirements for the separation of religion and government. Christian dominance, therefore, is maintained by its relative invisibility; and with this invisibility, privilege is neither analyzed nor scrutinized, neither interrogated nor confronted. Dominance is perceived as unremarkable or “normal,” and when anyone poses a challenge or attempts to reveal its religious significance, those in the dominant group brand them as “subversive” or as “sacrilegious.”
Examples of Christian cultural imperialism during the so-called Holiday Season are many:
- The constant and prolonged promotion of Christmas music in public spaces and on radio stations; Christmas specials on television throughout November and December each year.
- Christmas decorations (often hung at taxpayer expense) in the public square in cities and towns throughout the United States.
- The highly visible and widespread availability in retail stores of Christian holiday decorations, greeting cards, foods, and other items during Christian holiday seasons.
- The president and first lady lighting the “National Christmas Tree” on the Ellipse behind the White House.
There are many other examples, truly too numerous to list.
Our society marks time through a Christian lens. Even the language we use in reference to the calendar reflects Christian assumptions. A few years ago, with increasing rapidity, we heard and read of the coming of the “twenty-first century,” “The year 2000,” and the dawning of “the new millennium.” Among the definitions of millennium in the Merriam-Webster’s Eleventh New Collegiate Dictionary (2003), definition 2a is: “a period of 1000 years” (p. 789).
Let us not forget, however, that the year 2000 is calculated with reference to the birth of Jesus, and it is therefore the beginning of the next Christian millennium. In fact, definition 1a in the same dictionary defines millennium as: “the thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20 during which holiness is to prevail and Christ is to reign on earth” (p. 789).
This fact is brought home each time we hear someone mention the date followed by “in the year of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” The century markers BC (before Christ) and AD (anno Domini) are clearly Christian in origin. Therefore, the year 2000 is one important milepost, though for many religious traditions it also marks a heightening of their invisibility.
An attempt to decenter Christian hegemony in terminology related to the marking of time is replacing BC with BCE (Before the Common Era) and AD with CE (Common Era), although the renaming does nothing to end the marking of time before and after a “common” (Christian) era.
Actually, this is the year 5775 on the Jewish calendar, a lunar-based calendar that began on the first day of Tishrei (the seventh month on the Hebrew calendar, or September 8 this year on the Christian Gregorian calendar). In addition, we are coming up on the year 4705 on the Chinese calendar (February 2 on the Christian Gregorian calendar). The Chinese calendar is both a lunar- and solar-based calendar. The New Year on the Islamic calendar, or Hijri, announces the year as 1438, which began on the first evening of the month of Muharram, or December 7, 2013, on the Christian Gregorian calendar.
The “Grinch Alert” or “Cultural Pluralism”
Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, a few years ago organized a movement to call the season what it really is — the “Christmas Season” — and he asserted that businesses who display “Happy Holidays” greetings are simply stooping to “political correctness.” Jeffress created a “Grinch List” on his website (GrinchAlert.com) to expose businesses that he contends are taking Christ out of Christmas. Simply stated, the pastor is positioning Christians as the real “victims” in the current “Happy Holidays” epoch. In his effort to purge “Happy Holidays” from modern parlance, Jeffress is attempting not only to maintain but also to fortify Christian cultural imperialism — though by all indications he has nothing to fear, since this form of hegemony has a long way to go and most certainly will not be placed on the endangered list any time soon.
We as a society face some choices. We can commit to issues of multiculturalism: we can learn about and value of other peoples and others’ customs and cultures, ways of knowing, and ways of viewing the world, and we can work for a true realization of the concept of cultural pluralism — a term coined by the Jewish immigrant and sociologist of Polish and Latvian heritage, Horace Kallen, to challenge the image of the so-called melting pot, which he considered inherently undemocratic. Kallen envisioned a United States in the image of a great symphony orchestra, not sounding in unison (the melting pot) but rather one in which all the disparate cultures play in harmony while retaining their unique and distinctive tones and timbres.
If we are unwilling to begin this journey, however, then as offensive as it is, Pastor Jeffress may have hit on something. At least Jeffress is demanding honesty in expressly naming the reality and calling it what it really is — “the Christmas Season” — and in insisting on the greeting “Merry Christmas” rather than the transparent idiom “Happy Holidays,” which clearly was created to give the impression of inclusivity.
An individual can appropriately wish a Christian “Merry Christmas,” of course. Can an individual’s wishing others “Happy Holidays” in December be considered that individual’s intent to work toward inclusivity? Of course! Can an individual wishing others “Happy Holidays” in December amount to that individual’s intent to decenter Christmas and Christianity? Of course!
My argument, however, focuses upon a critique of the systemic (and not necessarily individualistic) structures that promote Christian privilege and hegemony within the United States (and I would argue, many other Western countries) in the expression of “Happy Holidays” in the context of the month of December, considering that most cultures’ major holidays do not fall in the month of December on the Gregorian calendar and a large segment of the population celebrates no holidays, religious or otherwise. I argue that the systemic structures themselves promote Christian imperialism (hegemony), in which individuals are often unwilling and even unknowing conspirators. Wishing people “Happy Holidays” simply glosses over the Christian assumptions inherent during this particular time of the year.
Wishing another “Happy Holidays” in December certainly can be very nice, well-meaning, and well-intentioned. If one really wants to be sensitive and inclusive while acknowledging others’ cultural and religious (or nonreligious) perspectives, why not wish people of other faiths “Happy Holidays” during their holidays that are actually important? Or if they celebrate no holidays, why not be mindful of that fact?
When we as a society use the generic greeting “Happy Holidays” in December, many of us may intend to promote intercultural awareness and sensitivity. But I would argue that this actually has the exact opposite effect by giving most of us the excuse not to do our homework in truly investigating other cultures and other forms of celebration. When we wish others “Happy Holidays” in December, we do not have to think about when others’ major holidays actually occur, and we do not have to acknowledge that many people are not affiliated with religion at all.
While the intent may certainly be well-meaning and heartfelt, the impact is often exactly the opposite. The concept of oppression, then, constitutes more than the cruel and repressive actions of individuals upon others. It involves an overarching system of differentials of social power and privilege exercised by dominant groups over subordinated groups, based on ascribed social identities and reinforced by unequal social group status. And this is not merely the case in societies ruled by coercive or tyrannical leaders but occurs within the day-to-day practices of contemporary democratic societies such as the United States. “Unpacking” the knapsack of privilege (whether it be Christian, white, male, heterosexual, owning class, temporarily able bodied, native English speakers, and others) is to become aware of — and to develop critical consciousness of — its existence and to recognize how it affects the daily lives of both those with and those without this privilege.
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).
Controversy is swirling around a long-overdue public debate whether to change the name of the Washington Redskins football franchise. On one side, some news outlets, like the San Francisco Chronicle, have announced they will no longer use the word “Redskins” when referring to the team. Recently, the D.C. City Council voted overwhelmingly to change what the original form of the resolution termed as the team’s “racist and derogatory” moniker.
The team originally took the name “Boston Braves” at its inception in 1932, but changed it one year later to “Boston Redskins.”
At the center of this maelstrom, team owner Daniel Snyder is holding firm by announcing he has no intention of changing the name, referring to it as a “tradition” and as a “badge of honor.” In fact, on the wall of the organization’s Ashburn, Virginia, offices hangs a commemorative plaque given to the team’s former coach, George Allen announcing: “Washington Redskins is more than a name we have called our football team for over eight decades. It is a symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect — the same values we know guide Native Americans and which are embedded throughout their rich history as the original Americans.” http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-10-09/local/42848059_1_native-americans-redskins-name-football-team
As a Jew like myself, I ask Daniel Snyder to turn the tables on himself by imagining the name of his team as the “Washington Hebrews” under the team symbol of an old orthodox Jewish man, elongated full-nostriled nose, long white beard, and side locks streaming from his tired face, head covered with a black hat. In his right hand he has gently lifted a gold coin from a full leather pouch clenched in his left hand.
Well, Mr. Snyder, this is exactly the image I encounter when I visit my ancestral town of Krosno, Poland and throughout the country when I conduct Holocaust and genealogy research.
On my last day in Krosno when there in 2011, I walked casually around the town. On one of the main streets, I recognized a small jewelry shop where I had purchased an amber pendent for my mother in 2008. This time I went into the shop to look for an amber ring for myself. (Poland is renowned for its silver and amber jewelry.) As I perused the glass cabinet at the back of the store, I looked upward and saw a picture hanging on the wall of what appeared to be a Hassidic Jew.
Taking me by complete surprise, I asked the owner, “Is that a Jew?” He responded, “Yes, it is.” The young women employee standing beside him, with a broad smile suddenly appearing on her face, looking my way said, “Yes, money, money,” rubbing together the thumb and index finger of her right hand. I then noticed in the picture that the Jewish man held a large coin in his right hand.
I bought the ring, but I left the shop with a tense uneasiness in my stomach. That evening at dinner, I asked my friend Kasia, a Polish native, what this image in the shop meant. She expressed to me what I had anticipated, that the image represented and exemplified the stereotypical notion of the “rich Jew.” I later learned that one can find similar pictures in non-Jewish Polish homes, banks, businesses large and small, work offices, and studios as supposed “good luck” symbols to bring wealth to those who own and enter the space. Some of the pictures contain the caption: “Żyd w sieni pieniadze w kieszeni” (“A Jew in the room, a coin in the pocket”). Either one day per week (usually on the Jewish sabbath between Friday at sunset and Saturday at sunset), or on January 1 of each year, the pictures’ owners hang the Jew upside down for a while to assure them greater wealth during the week or in the new year.
In Europe, by the late 19th century CE, Jews had come to be viewed by the scientific community as a distinct “racial” type with essential immutable biological characteristics — a trend that increased markedly into the early 20th century CE. Once seen as largely a religious, ethnic, or political group, Jews were increasingly socially constructed as members of a “mixed race” (a so-called “mongrel” or “bastard race”), a people who had crossed racial barriers by interbreeding with black Africans during the Jewish Diaspora. Many thought that if Jews were evil, then this evilness was genetic and could not be purged or cured. Therefore, converting Jews to Christianity, as once believed by many Christian leaders, could no longer answer “the Jewish question.”
According to Jewish historian Sander Gilman (1991), Jews were not considered as white during much of U.S. history as well, but rather they were often seen as being Asian or “Mongoloid” and were considered primitive and tribal. Gilman also found prevailing dominant discourses constructed Jews as the “white Negroes” in European society: “In the eyes of the non-Jew who defined them in Western [European] society the Jews became the blacks” (Gilman in Thandeka, 1999, p. 37). Thandeka added that “the male Jew and the male African were conceived of as equivalent threats to the white race” (p. 37).
When I traveled to Poland in 2011 with my cousins, Gary and Bert, after checking into our hotel in Krakow, we explored the area around the hotel. Within one block, we found disturbing graffiti spray painted on an apartment building, which was obviously anti-Jewish in tone, especially the words spelled out in English “Hitler Rules,” and the words “Jebac Żydów” (“F*** the Jews”), and a Star of David enclosed within a circle, written in red and later spray painted over in black.
During our bus ride to Krosno, we engaged in some very intensive discussions including what we were feeling as Jews in Poland. A young Polish man seated in front of us named Pawel asked if he could join in our conversation. He provided us with a very interesting and informative snapshot of contemporary Polish/Jewish relations.
He informed us that while Polish anti-Jewish attitudes most certainly endure in the larger Polish society, some Poles see their homeland culture as diminished, currently not as rich and vibrant with so few Jews remaining in Poland, from approximately three million before the Nazi invasion to about only ten thousand today. Pawel explained to us that while this graffiti has a very complicated explanation (coming somewhat from a sports team rivalry), it can be seen as a visible example of the tensions currently underway in Polish society in coming to terms with its past and how it moves forward.
Some young people of the current generation like himself are working to ensure a brighter future for Jews in Poland. Pawel, who stated that he is not Jewish himself, worked for a few years at the Jewish Museum in Krakow because he is motivated to learn as much as he can about Polish Jewish history and culture.
No Jews have resided in Krosno or in the surrounding Subcarpathian region of southeastern Poland since the 1940s. Since then, a dynamic tension has developed between those, especially in many of the older generations, who bask in the monoculturalism evidenced by the longstanding Polish Catholic cultural heritage. Others, though, many in the younger generations born during the past few decades, yearn for an earlier time in Polish history, one where many cultural traditions enriched the overall national culture.
Ever since that day I first noticed the Jew hanging on the wall of the jewelry shop, a gnawing sensation has overtaken my consciousness because I failed to speak up to the shop owner. While back in Krosno this past October, I walked into the shop and expressed to the owner, while I donned a rather friendly though assertive tone, that I considered the picture to be offensive to myself as a Jew. “Oh no,” he replied, “Not offensive. My Jew is my talisman bringing me money.” At this point he removed the picture from its hanging spot, and turning it upside down, placed his hand beneath to symbolically catch the coins pouring from the Jews leather pouch.”
I repeated my initial statement, though he simply smiled and actually laughed at me. Though I knew he would probably never understand, at least in the short term, I walked from the shop with my head held erect, with my dignity and integrity fully intact, an ease coming over my soul once again.
The few Jews who currently reside in Poland comprise a virtually invisible minority to most Poles, and while literally millions of First Nations people inhabit the United States today, they as a group remain largely invisible to most other U.S.-Americans. The image of the rich Jew in Poland and the brave savage “Redskins” and “Braves” in baseball, and countless others sports teams, were constructed through a historically revisionist and romanticized lens, back to some fairy-tale time and place where the Pole treated the Jew as an equal and respected member of Polish society, and where the European “settler” (a.k.a. “invader”) broke bread in some mythological first Thanksgiving, which set up conditions for peaceful coexistence and trade up to this very day.
I believe this so-called “honoring,” taking “pride” in, and “respecting” Native Americans by the cultural descendants of those who engaged in forced evacuations, deculturalization, and genocide of native peoples, and those hanging pictures of Jews in places where Jews had been shunned, scapegoated, and slaughtered previously strikes me as hypocrisy at best, and more like justification for further colonization and misappropriation of cultural symbols, in addition to racist stereotyping.
As a genuine step in the direction of truly honoring and respecting other people, the cultural imperialism must end.
Gilman, S. L. (1991). The Jew’s body. New York: Routledge.
Thandeka. (1999). The cost of whiteness. Tikkun, 14(3), 33-38.
The justices of the US Supreme Court heard testimony Tuesday, October 15, 2013 on an Affirmative Action case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, which involves the constitutionality of a Michigan constitutional amendment that virtually guts previous Affirmative Action policies in college and university programs. It says that Michigan “shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.”
Currently Michigan and seven other states ban affirmative action: Arizona, California, Florida, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Washington.
Speaking with USA Today, Michigan Attorney General, Bill Schuette, asserted: “Anything a university does that has racial discrimination ought to be thrown in the trash can.” (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/10/15/supreme-court-affirmative-action-race-michigan/2969443/)
In a related civil rights case this past June, the Supreme Court in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, Attorney General, et al., effectively killed a critical provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, releasing nine states, primarily in the South, to alter their election laws without approval by the federal government.
As in the Voting Rights Act example, the Michigan Affirmative Action case raises many vital questions, including one that for me raises to the very top of the list: Have we as a nation come far enough for us now to terminate the important and necessary actions (for example, Voting Rights Legislation and Affirmative Action policies) that have served us well to reduce the cavernous gaps in equality of opportunity especially for minoritized communities: most notably people of color and women?
If you ask many people, including the Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, the response is a resounding “NO!” Since the Supreme Court’s decision this past summer, Holder’s Justice Department has become a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups and Texas lawmakers against a Texas redistricting plan. The Department has also separately issued a suit challenging Texas’s new law requiring voters to show photo identification. The plaintiffs in both cases argue that Texas is by intent and impact discriminating against racialized minority groups.
Affirmative Action for White People
Why is it that we seldom hear widespread calls to eliminate Affirmative Action for white people, mainly men? Take for example the nationally funded G. I. Bill of Rights, which Karen Brodkin (1998) terms “affirmative action” for white people:
“The G. I. Bill of Rights, as The 1944 Serviceman’s Readjustment Act was known, is arguably the most massive affirmative action program in American history….I call it affirmative action because it was aimed at and disproportionately helped male, Euro-origin GIs….[Benefits] were decidedly not extended to African Americans or to women of any race. Theoretically they were available to all veterans; in practice women and black veterans did not get anywhere near their share” (Brodkin, pp. 38, 42).
And what about the so-called college and university “legacy preferences” policies? Most higher education institutions offer some type of admission slots and scholarships set aside for alumni’s family members available to children and stepchildren, grandchildren, and in some cases to siblings, nieces, and nephews.
John Brittain, former chief counsel at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and attorney Eric Bloom (2010) have shown that legacy preferences go disproportionately to white students while hurting students of color. Underrepresented minoritized students comprise 12.5 percent of the applicant pool at selective colleges and universities but amount to a mere 6.7 percent of the legacy-applicant pool. In reality, legacy preferences reduce the chances for racial and ethnic diversity on campuses throughout our country. Daniel Golden reminds us that legacy preferences are “virtually unknown in the rest of the world”; they are “an almost exclusively American custom.” (http://chronicle.com/article/10-Myths-About-Legacy/124561/)
Though we certainly have made progress over the years, in addition, women continue to earn only 77 cents for every dollar made by a man doing the same work (U.S. Bureau of Census, 2010). The current recession has hit black people extremely hard. They continue to have twice the unemployment rate of white people. According to Bowen & Bok (1998), if affirmative action were completely eliminated, the percentage of black students at many selective schools would drop to only 2% of the student body. (http://www.understandingprejudice.org/readroom/articles/affirm.htm)
Jennifer Gratz, a white student who won her own anti-affirmative action case against the University of Michigan in 2003 has been promoting the constitutional amendment in her state to end the practice statewide.
Interviewed this week at the Supreme Court, she stated: “Much progress has been made over the past 15 years in challenging discriminatory policies based on race preferences and moving toward colorblind government. The Schuette case offers yet another opportunity to keep the country moving toward this goal. It was clear today that the court is ready to recognize that Michigan is moving in the right direction.” (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/10/15/supreme-court-affirmative-action-race-michigan/2969443/)
A “Colorblind” Society?
With the ascendency of Barack Obama during the primaries and his election as the forty-fourth president of the United States in 2008 and to the current time, on numerous occasions the media have asserted that the United States can now be considered as a “post-racial” society, where the notion that “race” has lost its significance, and where our country’s long history of racism is now at an end.
For example, National Public Radio Senior News Analyst, Daniel Schorr, during the presidential primaries on January 28, 2008 on All Things Considered noted that with the emergence of Barack Obama, we have entered a new “post-racial” political era, and that Obama “transcends race” and is “race free.”
And according to MSNBC political analyst, Chris Matthews, responding to Obama’s State of the Union message on January 27, 2010: “He is post-racial by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he’s gone a long way to become a leader of this country, and past so much history, in just a year or two. I mean, it’s something we don’t even think about.”
These commentators and others imply a number of claims in their statements: The first that we have become a “race-blind” or “colorblind” society – that race has become unimportant, that we don’t see “race” anymore. The second implication states that racism (i.e., prejudice along with social power to enact oppression by white people over people of color) is a thing of the past.
Is the United States now a “colorblind” society? Or even more importantly, should the United States be a “colorblind/race-blind” society? The very notion of “race-blindness” is deeply problematic.
Though when we tell another that “I don’t see your race; I just see you as a human being,” may seem as a righteous statement, what are we really telling the person, and how may this come across: “I discount a part of you that I may not want to address,” and “I will not see you in your multiple identities.” This has the tendency of erasing the person’s background and historical legacy, and hides the continuing hierarchical and systemic positionalities among white people and racially minoritized people.
In addition, the assertion that we have fully addressed and finally concluded the long history of racism in the United States with the election of Barack Obama is simply unfounded.
Anti-racism consultant Valerie Batts (1998) discusses what she terms as “new forms of racism.” While the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954), the Civil Right Act (1964), and other judicial and legislative actions have criminalized a number of past realities (for example, slavery, “Jim Crow” laws, lynchings, cross burnings, segregated educational, employment, business, and governmental institutions, and more), many forms of racism continue.
While some of these conditions continue today on a de facto basis, Batts lists these “new forms” as “Dysfunctional Rescuing” where White people “help” People of Color” in a condescending way believing they can’t help themselves; “Blaming the Victims” of systematic oppression for the oppression itself; “Avoidance of Contact” where White people self segregate in their personal and professional lives from People of Color, and where White people show little interest in learning about the cultures of Communities of Color; “Denial of Cultural Differences,” the notion of “color blindness,” which minimizes the cultural and behavioral difference among people, which simply mask discomfort with racialized differences; and “Denial of Political Significance of Differences,” in which White people deny the profound impact regarding the social, political, and economic realities of the lives of People of Color.
I add to the list of conditions that perpetuate systemic racism the concept of stereotyping. A stereotype is an oversimplified or misinformed perception, opinion, attitude, judgment, or image of a person or a group of people held in common by members of other groups. Originally referring to the process of making type from a metal mold in printing, social stereotypes can be viewed as molds of regular and invariable patterns of evaluation on others.
With stereotypes, people tend to overlook all other characteristics of the group. Stereotypes of out-group members by in-group members depersonalize them, in effect seeing them largely as members of a group and not as individuals with unique and distinctive qualities and attributes. This often results in the tendency to diminish the humanity of out-group members relegating them to the category of “other,” and as “different.”
Individuals sometime use stereotypes to justify continued marginalization and subjugation of members of that group. In this sense, stereotypes conform to the literal meaning of the word “prejudice,” which is a prejudgment, derived from the Latin praejudicium.
This is the case, for example, in actions explicitly intended as a mockery of Black History Month just a few years ago when a number of institutions around the country, and most recently a group of students at the University of California at San Diego, throw off-campus “ghetto themed parties.” Attendees were advised to come wearing chains, cheap clothing, and speak very loudly, and where female students are urged to come as “ghetto chicks.”
In part, according to the invitation UCSD student organizers sent announcing what they referred to as the “Compton Cookout”: “…For those of you who are unfamiliar with ghetto chicks — Ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes, they consider Baby Phat to be high class and expensive couture. They also have short, nappy hair, and usually wear cheap weave, usually in bad colors, such as purple or bright red….” The invitation continued: “We will be serving 40’s, Kegs of Natty, dat Purple Drank, which consists of sugar, water, and the color purple, chicken, coolade, and of course Watermelon.”
Students of color on the UCSD campus banded together and constructed a list of demands to ensure that these blatantly racist and sexist incidents are appropriately addressed by the administration and by the entire campus community. Many of them felt emotionally and physically unsafe on their own campus.
We must not and cannot dismiss these incidents as simply the actions of a few individuals, for racism and other forms of oppression exist on multiple levels, as enumerated by authors Rita Hardiman and Bailey Jackson (2000), on the individual/interpersonal, institution, and societal levels. These incidents are symptoms of larger systemic national problems.
In their book Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (Brown, et al., 2003), the authors show how the concept of “colorblindness/race-blindness” attempts to deny and further entrench hierarchical and deeply rooted systemic racial inequities and privileges accorded to white people that permeate throughout our society.
We must as a society get beyond this false and counterproductive notion of “colorblindness/race-blindness” and confront head-on our past history and current realities of racism and transcend, to use Mica Pollock’s term, “colormuteness” by engaging in honest and open conversations on the impact and legacy of race relations in our country.
Until and unless we fully resolve this collective denial of the very real racism and sexism continuing to permeate and saturate our nation, civil rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act and Affirmative Action policies must not only remain intact, but need to be expanded and strengthened.
Batts, V. A. (1998). Modern racism: New melody for the same old tunes. Rocky Mount, NC: Visions Publication.
Bowen, W. G., & Bok, D. (1998). The shape of the river: Long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Brittain, J., & Bloom, E. L. (2010 ) Admitting the truth: The effect of affirmative action, legacy preferences, and the meritocratic ideal on students of color in college admissions. New York: The Century Foundation Press
Brodkin, K. (1998). How Jews became white folks & what that says about race in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Brown, M. K., Carnoy, M., Currie, E., Duster, T., Oppenheimer, D. B., Shultz, M. M., & Wellman, D. (2003). Whitewashing race: The myth of a color-blind society, Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Hardiman, R., & Jackson, B. (2000, 2010, 2013). Conceptual foundations for social justice education. In Adams, M., Blumenfeld, W. J., Castañeda, R., Hackman, H., Peters, M., and Zúñiga, X. (Eds.). (2000, 2010, 2013). Readings for diversity and social justice (3 editions), New York: Routledge.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. (2010). Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the United States, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Dear Speaker Boehner,
I am writing to you in the deepest respect to your office and to you as a person of integrity and intelligence. I admire your rise from humble roots to become one of the most powerful people in the United States government, and your courage in defying social convention by openly and unapologetically weeping in public when reflecting upon the pride you feel for your family of origin and for the nation you love.
It is to that sense of integrity, pride, and profound patriotism that I contact you now.
I have witnessed how a relatively small band of extremists within your Republican caucus in Congress has placed you in a seemingly untenable position of following their uncompromising and fanatical positions bent on shutting down the government and the potentially catastrophic action of defaulting on our national debt. Essentially, this group is holding our country hostage. If they are allowed to do as they wish unencumbered by people of courage taking a stand, they will do what international terrorists could only imagine: bringing the United States of America to its knees economically, socially, and politically.
I call on you to show your true courage, and take a stand by calling a press conference and telling the people of this country the full truth: that a band of extremists who campaigned for and were elected to Congress by promising a radical downsizing of government and governmental programs have heretofore taken from you your voice and your ability to lead. But no more!
Now you are exposing their diabolical plans to defund the Affordable Care Law, which if destroyed, would prevent an estimated 27 million people from access to affordable health care in addition to Medicare and Medicaid, which currently establishes a valuable safety net for our seniors and for people of all ages; to abolish the food stamp program in which people in need across our country, including many children use and depend; to privatize and make Social Security voluntary leaving our people vulnerable; to end all regulations on the business sector and continue the massive tax breaks for the superrich; to end grants for research and development of clean energy sources and expansion of subsidies to environmentally polluting fossil fuel companies; to terminate the U.S. Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Commerce, Consumer Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, in fact, all regulatory agencies, which if allowed, would put all humanity and the planet on which we inhabit in peril.
Mr. Boehner, I realize that exposing these basic truths will be difficult and potentially career ending, but whether you retain your speakership and your House seat are minor considerations compared to the great service you will provide the country to which you have often expressed your commitment and your gratitude. If you stand up and do the right thing at this critical historical moment, you will live with the lasting knowledge that you saved our country from political and possibly economic meltdown. You will live and be forever remembered carrying the lasting and indisputable legacy of working to narrow the gaps in equity that currently run rampant throughout our society — gaps that will become permanent if the so-called “Tea Party” has its way.
I call on you now Mr. Boehner to do what only you can do, and do the (moderate) right thing!
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld
While a small posse of extreme right-wing ideologues have ultimately fulfilled their campaign pledges to their red-district constituents to close shop on the federal government, even months prior, through intransigence and mayhem, they have successfully stalled any sort of legislative action on vital domestic issues, like the high jobless rate, immigration reform, global warming, renewable energy independence, collapsing infrastructures, unacceptable delays in military family services, voter suppression, and tragic gun violence, among many others, that plague our nation.
During the media’s near obsessive fixation on the Donnybrook among brawling “Representatives,” a new law in Iowa recently went into effect and seems to have glided stealth fashion beneath the radar of many national outlets of the Fourth Estate. As reported in Iowa, recent changes in that state’s laws prohibit government officials from denying individuals gun permits on the basis of physical ability, including those with low vision and total blindness, unless they have prior felony convictions.
Proponents, including many legislators who sponsored the new law, argue that to do anything else would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (signed into law in 1990), the Second Amendment of the Constitution, and the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
As someone who has experienced relatively low visual acuity and limited depth perception following four surgical procedures, I question whether the lawmakers were genuinely concerned about upholding the civil and human rights of people with disabilities, or whether their motivation centered on political ideology dictating no controls on gun ownership except for documented past criminal convictions.
I wonder how many of these Iowa legislators actively favored the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I wonder how many of them actively support women’s reproductive freedoms guaranteed by the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision (1973). I wonder how many of them would have voted for the Civil Rights Bill in 1964 and the Voting Rights Bill in 1965 had they served in the U.S. Congress, and how many of them actually oppose the piercing through the heart of that same Voting Rights Law by the current Supreme Court this past summer.
So I ask again, is this law really about protections against discrimination, or rather, is this primarily about politics?
Would carrying a fire arm had been the better option for Lindwood, a blind man, who heard shots ring out around him in the atrium of Building 197 at the Washington Navy Yard, or rather, would it be better for more of us to act like the courageous Omar Grant who came to his aid telling his colleague “I’m not going to leave you. We’re going to get out of here”? And indeed they did!
I suppose brandishing a weapon (a knife) worked well for Andrey Hepburn in her starring role as Susy Hendrix, a blind women, who in the film “Wait Until Dark,” subdued and killed a thug who broke into her apartment by smashing the light bulbs and unplugging the refrigerator light, thus plunging the scene into darkness and, thereby, neutralizing the attacker’s advantage. Who knows, she might have had more immediate success if she had hidden a hand gun in her bedroom night stand or an AK-47 among tuna cans, rice, and non-dairy coffee creamer in her kitchen pantry. But tell me, how many real-life folks with visual disabilities find themselves in this type of Hollywood-contrived drama with successful outcomes like that of Audrey?
It makes about as much sense to grant the right of a person with significant visual limitations to own a gun as it does for us to drive a Mack Truck! Yes, it is true that our Constitution gives no one an automatic right to drive a vehicle as it does to own and carry a firearm. However, avid Second Amendment enthusiasts often neglect to acknowledge a certain phrase written into the statute that reads: “A well regulated militia….”
Unfortunately, the Iowa law fails to abide by this standard, which further places us all in the severely out-of-focus crosshairs.
As a student of history, and a former longtime resident of Boston, I am very troubled by the so-called “Tea Party” movement’s actions and its current misappropriation of the term.
The original direct action protest on December 16, 1773 by British American colonists was the culmination of longstanding grievances against the British government under the battle cry of “no taxation without representation.” According to the British Constitution, only Parliament could levy taxes, and since colonists were prohibited from voting for members of Parliament or of sending their own representatives to serve in Parliament, they considered the series of taxes, including the tea tax, a violation of their rights as citizens of the British realm.
The current movement contains no well-developed political philosophy other than extreme hatred of what they consider “Big Government,” which they view as the cause of the nation’s troubles.
Speaker of the House, U.S. Representative John Boehner (R-Ohio), referred to Tea Partyers as “great patriots,” and stated: “It’s not enough, however, for Republicans to simply voice respect for what the Tea Partyers are doing, praise their efforts, and participate in their rallies. Republicans must listen to them, stand with them, and walk among them.” Unfortunately, that is exactly what Boehner is doing.
The Tea Partyers with their Republican allies have very deftly used the rhetoric of fear verging on paranoia to exploit people’s anxieties about their economic well being and, quite ironically, even to vote against their own economic interests.
In Iowa, for example, the local Tea Party affiliate fronted funds for a billboard poster depicting Obama as the “Democrat Socialist” alongside Hitler as the “National Socialist” and Vladimir Lenin as the “Marxist Socialist” all above the ironic caption “Radical Leaders Prey on the Fearful and Naïve.” This is a recent example of how the political Right distorts and misuses the term “socialist” not only by conflating German Fascism and Soviet Communism (contradictory and oppositional political philosophies), but also by demonizing the notion of collective responsibility and communitarian values.
Tea Party leaders espouse all forms of dire warnings, and Boehner asserted that the Affordable Health Care Law “is Armageddon” and “it will ruin our nation.” To the contrary, the law, while unfortunately severely neutralized over the past few years, actually serves middle class and working class people by limiting insurance companies from restricting coverage to people with previous conditions, it increasing the rights of parents to continue covering their adult children on their policies until the age of 26, it provides greater choices in health care coverage, and as projected by the National Budget Office, it will reduce the deficit over the next decade.
I do see, however, a clear parallel between the protestors aboard the ship on Boston harbor and the recent Tea Partyers. Through a collective mythology, many of us were taught in school that the protesters donned Indian clothing and face paint for their tea dumping actions. In actuality, while the majority did not dress as Indians, some did. I find this problematic since they were acting out racist stereotypes of the so-called “thieving heathens.”
While I would hope that the vast majority of current Tea Party Members would not personally condone oppressive actions, a number of followers have engaged in racist, homophobic, ableist, and misogynistic name calling and other acts of violence.
For example, at a rally held in front of the U.S. Capitol shortly before the House was to vote on the impending health care legislation, a protestor spat upon Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), another called Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.) a “ni—,” and someone called gay Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.) a “fa—ot” through distinctive lisppy intonations. And supporting the protestors, Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) held up and physically swatted a picture of Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from atop the Capitol balcony. Protesters carried posters of President Obama represented as an African medicine man replete with feathers and loin cloth and bones pierced through his nostrils.
In 2010, protestors throughout the country hurled bricks through windows of some Democratic representatives and a Democratic Party office, sent death threats and racist faxes, and even delivered a coffin to one congressperson’s office.
At a Tea Party rally held in Columbus Ohio, some protestors heckled a U.S. veteran who sat on the ground holding up a sign “I Support Health Care.” Screamed one Tea Partyer: “If you’re looking for a handout, you’re in the wrong damn town.” Another threw five-dollar bills in his face shouting: “I’ll decide when to give you money!”
In a March 23, 2010 tweet, in reference to the passage of the Congressional health care bill, Sarah Palin commented: “Commonsense Conservatives and Lovers of America, Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” In addition, on her website, she constructed a page listing vulnerable Democratic Party elected officials projected through the cross hairs of a rifle. While I do not connect the current spate of violent actions to Palin’s words, I wonder how her statements constructively contribute to the debate.
I actually agree with Tea Party follower’s contention that great economic disparities exist and are widening in this country, though not for the reasons they assert. So-called “Big Government” is not the cause of the problem. The relatively unregulated and unfettered Wall Street, banking, and “free market” systems constitute the actual threats.
According to the organization, United for a Fair Economy, by 2004, the top 10% of the population owned 71% of accumulated wealth in the country. Subdivided even further, the top 1% owned 31% of the country’s wealth. The wealthiest 1% own approximately 45% of all stocks and mutual funds. In addition, the very rich pay less in taxes than at any point in recent history. Overall, the concentration of wealth is even more extreme today than during the Great Depression.
I find it unbelievable that one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world failed previously to provide quality health care to an estimated 47 million of its citizens. I also find it unbelievable that a majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives are so beholden to the Tea Party and their followers that they are holding the government hostage to defeat the health care law.
While tea leaves contain multiple anti-oxidants beneficial to the human body, the Tea Party, conversely, pollutes the body politic. Therefore, collectively, we cannot allow the merchants of fear to distort and manipulate the facts and divert our attention away from the genuine problems we currently face.
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld, is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press), co-editor of Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), Editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge).
Depending on our multiple identities, society grants us simultaneously a great array of privileges while marginalizing us based solely on these identities. Inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s pioneering investigations of white and male privilege (1988), we can understand dominant group privilege as constituting a seemingly invisible, unearned, and largely unacknowledged array of benefits accorded to members of dominant groups, with which they often unconsciously walk through life as if effortlessly carrying a knapsack tossed over their shoulders. A number of researchers have developed extensive lists (e.g., heterosexual: Ketner, 2007; white and male: McIntosh, 1988; Christian: Schlosser, 2003) charting the benefits and privileges accorded to individuals within differing dominant identity categories.
This system of advantages confers dominance on some social identity groups, for example in a U.S. context, males, white people, heterosexuals, cisgender people, Christians, upper socioeconomic classes, temporarily able bodied people, people of a certain age range (young adults through the middle years), U.S. born, English as first language speakers, and others, while subordinating and denying these privilege to other groups, for example, females, racially minoritized peoples, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans* people, intersex people, those who do not hold to Christian beliefs and religious traditions, working class and poor people, people with disabilities, young and old people, non-U.S. born, and non-English as first language speakers, among others. These systemic inequities are pervasive throughout the society. They are encoded into the individual’s subconscious and woven into the very fabric of our social institutions, resulting in a stratified social order privileging dominant groups while restricting and disempowering subordinated group members.
The relative invisibility of this privilege to members of dominant social identities helps to keep this system firmly in place. I often use the analogy of dominant group privilege as the water in an aquarium where the fish neither see nor feel the water because it is so pervasive and taken for granted. For our society to move forward with greater equity, however, we need to be conscious of the water of dominance that saturates our environment.
With the above as a starting point, though, I caution us not to conceptualize dominant group privilege monolithically, for we must factor into the equation issues of context and intersectionality of identities. I contend, therefore, that we need to view forms of privilege along a continuum or spectrum rather than conceiving them as binary opposites.
One day, when I was very young, I sat upon my maternal grandfather Simon (Szymon) Mahler’s knee. Looking down urgently but with deep affection, he said to me through his distinctive Polish accent, “Varn, you are named after my father, your great-grandfather, Wolf Mahler. I lived in Krosno, Poland with my father, Wolf, and my mother, Bascha, and 13 brothers and sisters, and aunts, uncles, and cousins.”
Simon talked about our mishpocheh (family) with pride, but as he told me this, he revealed an obvious sadness on his face. I asked him if our family still lived in Poland, and he responded that his father and most of the remainder of his family were no longer alive. When I asked him how they had died, he told me that they had all been killed by people called Nazis except his mother, Bascha who died of a heart attack in 1934. I questioned him why the Nazis killed our family, and he responded, “Because they were Jews.” Those words have reverberated in my mind, haunting me ever since.
I have since come to learn that the Nazi’s constructed European-heritage Jews, in fact, all Jews of every so-called “race,” as constituting a separate and lower “race” as justification for extermination as if we were vermin.
I first attended a workshop dealing with issues of white privilege in the early 1990s, and for me at least, looking back now, it seemed to have taken me somewhat longer than, for example, many European-heritage Christians to come to an acceptance that by dint of my skin color, hair texture, facial features, and most importantly, my European genealogy, U.S. society grants me a host of privileges denied those constructed as “persons of color.” My initial and continuing questions for years arose as, “In European society, my mishpocheh, in fact, all Jews then and in many areas still today, were and are not considered ‘white.’ If this is so, if the Nazis ruthlessly murdered the man after whom I was named because he was not white, how then can I have white privilege?”
After talking with many other Ashkenazim (Eastern and Central European-heritage Jews), and after conducting an extensive doctoral dissertation on the topic, I have come away with the insight that privilege is conditional, contextual, and intersectional.
I will present my argument in the form or numerous critical questions:
Do I have the same or different degree and depth of white privilege in the United States as I do during my frequent trips to Eastern Europe, in particular, to Poland and Ukraine? (I was to learn that the reason some people hesitated to shake my hand in Europe was their belief that I was fathered by the Devil!)
Did I as a European-heritage, Jewish, gay man have the same or different degree and depth of white privilege when I resided and worked in the overwhelmingly white, rural, politically conservative, and Christian-dominated state of Iowa as I do now living and working in the more diverse and politically progressive Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts? (Some of my Iowa students expressed to me both in person and on their final papers over the years that though they enjoyed me as their professor, they nonetheless felt obliged to inform me that I will be spending eternity in Hell if I do not stop being a “practicing homosexual” and if I do not accept Jesus as my “personal savior.”)
Do I have the same or different degree and depth of male privilege being a gay and somewhat more stereotypically “feminine” man than do traditionally “masculine” heterosexual men?
Do black and Latino men have the same or different degree and depth of male privilege within the larger society as do white men?
Do white men have the same or different degree and depth of white privilege as do white women?
Do I as a white gay Jewish 66-year old man have the same or different degree and depth of privilege as a white gay Jewish 40-year old man, for example, when it comes to applying for a job position to which we are both highly qualified?
Do I as a college educated white man having earned a doctorate degree have the same or different amount and depth of privilege as a white man without a college degree?
I could continue in this vein for numerous pages, but I think by now my major assertions become evident: that we need to factor issues of context and identity intersectionality when we investigate issues of dominant group privilege.
I must, nevertheless, be very clear: my intent is not to deconstruct out of existence the reality and enormity of dominant group privilege and its effects on both those with and those denied it. I hope, however, that we will not only continue, but more importantly, expand our interrogation of the issues theoretically and empirically in the day-to-day lived experiences of people, and that as we move forward, we will undertake a somewhat more nuanced approach. As I have done this in my inner personal work and in my teaching, I have discovered a deeper more complex understanding, and I have experienced less resistance within myself and within my students when addressing issues of unearned privilege.
Though we can never fully quantify privilege, by discarding the bifurcated polar perspective while charting privilege along a continuum taking into account context and identity intersectionality, I believe we will come to a fuller and deeper awareness of issues of power and privilege, marginalization, and oppression as we work toward a more socially just society and world.
Ketner, L. Heterosexual privilege. http://members.aol.com/ahotcupofjava/hetero.html, retrieved 11/16/07
McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.
Schlosser, L. Z. (2003). Christian privilege: Breaking a sacred taboo. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 31(1), 44-51.
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld, is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); co-editor of Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), Editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge).