Thinking About Gender

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The other day my daughter was hanging out with two of her best friends in our backyard. It was her birthday, and they had surprised her with an early morning birthday breakfast. As I puttered in the kitchen, I glanced out the window and saw the three girls squeezed into my daughter’s parachute-like hammock, limb upon limb. I thought to myself, “Teenaged boys would never do that.”

As a young feminist and subscriber to the tabula rasa school of thought on human development, I used to resist the idea that gender roles had any basis in biology. Girls and boys are different, I insisted, because they learn to be. To be sure, it’s hard to separate nature from nurture in the way children develop because even as infants, children are handled differently based upon their sex.

But as the parent of both boys and girls, I’ve had to admit that there seem to be some inherent differences between the sexes. My boys have always been more active and challenged authority more than my girls. The nature of their friendships with others of the same sex is different too. My girls have always felt social slights more deeply than have my boys. And seeing a group of girls braiding each other’s hair does resemble the grooming behavior of our primate relatives, the chimpanzees.

I realize there is wide variation in the way individual children develop. Not all girls like dolls, and not all boys like sports. And the science of human development is discovering the many nuances that make gender much less of a binary phenomenon than has previously been assumed. Such discoveries are making people uncomfortable and opening up debates about gender identification on birth certificates and surgery on intersex children. I think what’s most important in these debates is the idea that we are each unique individuals, and our identities should be respected and viewed as the complexities that they actually are.

Still, it’s been interesting for me to see the way my sons and daughters have developed over the years and to admit to myself that I don’t know the half of it when it comes to gender. I remember when my oldest child tried to be a tomboy. Her best friend was rough and tumble, so my daughter eschewed more girlish clothing and activities. Ultimately, though, her identification as a “girly girl” won out. I also remember my daughter and her friends dressing my younger son up in girls’ clothes and putting barrettes in his hair. That adorable little boy has grown up to be a burly football player.

Gender identification is important. It’s a big part of who we are as human beings. I believe that if we are open and loving with our children, we will raise them to be exactly who they are meant to be: themselves.

 

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A Safe Space

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In the past few months, protests have roiled college campuses as many students have become fed up with a system that fails to address racism and cultural insensitivity on the part of both students and staff. From Yale to Missouri to the Claremont Colleges in California, these students have assembled to demand change and, in some cases, to force college administrators to resign.

Many in the media have decried what they see as political correctness run amok, particularly in the demand for “safe spaces” on campus for students of color and other minority groups, such as gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals. While I agree that creating these permanent safe spaces for minorities is a bad idea, I disagree on the reasons put forward by these pundits.

Critics of the safe space movement argue that students these days are too sensitive and should not be coddled. I disagree. When students are subjected to racial epithets, culturally denigrating costumes, and exclusionary attitudes, they are not being babies. College administrators need to be firm about disciplining acts of bullying, whether they be physical or verbal. A young woman subjected to leers and catcalls, a Hispanic or Asian student told to go back to where they came from, or a student mocked for his or her sexual orientation all deserve to be protected from such bullying.

Critics will argue that these prejudices exist in the real world, so students may as well get used to dealing with them. I have news for these critics. Minority members are all too familiar with discrimination in their so-called real lives by the time they get to college. There is nothing wrong with a college fostering some sensitivity towards people’s differences.

Another argument is that minority students’ demands have shut down debate and true academic inquiry on college campuses. While there may be cases where students have gone to extremes in their definitions of hate speech, for the most part, students just want to be respected. There is a big difference between an argument in a college course over a racially sensitive issue, for example, and hurling racial slurs at each other.

Whites need to concede that most colleges intrinsically cater to their culture. Because whites are in the majority on most college campuses, white culture is seen to be the norm while other cultures are looked upon as different or even alien. A case in point is the protest that erupted over Claremont McKenna College’s dean of students referring to “the CMC mold” in an email to a Latina student. (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 17, 2016) The dean meant well. She was trying to explain her determination to assist minority students, but her language betrayed the reality of many college situations. There is a “mold” that non-white and non-heterosexual students do not fit.

All those things being said, I think designating permanent safe spaces on campus for individual groups is a mistake. For one thing, all students should have access to all campus facilities. It’s not right to say that a certain space is only for, say, Asian students to congregate in. I also think providing so-called safe spaces puts the administration in the business of promoting segregation. While I firmly believe individuals have the right to associate with whomever they want, I don’t think such segregation should be encouraged by the college administration.

All colleges should be safe spaces in which students of varying races, religions, cultures, and sexual orientations should be able to explore, learn, meet, argue, and grow as individuals. College administrators should absolutely address students’ grievances, and I applaud these young people for standing up for what they believe in.

Our society seems to be at a crossroads. On the one hand, we have our first black president, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of gay marriage. On the other hand, we have frustration and underemployment for many middle class Americans. It’s not hard to see how such uncertainties can create a backlash as we look for a scapegoat. But our colleges are a key part of our future, and we need to pay attention to the needs of all students, regardless of background, if we are to continue our tradition of excellence in America.

 

Affirmative Reaction?

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Kwasi Enin (source: myjoyonline.com)

Last week the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state of Michigan, whose voters recently passed legislation barring the use of racial or gender preferences in public university admissions. Since the advent of the term “affirmative action” in the 1960s, there has been a steady erosion of support for policies that use race as a factor to help minorities gain greater access to higher education. While I am not qualified to question the constitutionality of the Supreme Court decision, I do feel that affirmative action has been a necessary and successful way to help minorities achieve equity with whites.

Since 1976, the percentage of minorities in American colleges and universities has increased. From 1976-2011, Hispanic enrollment in higher education increased from 4 to 14 percent; Asian/Pacific Islanders from 2 to 6 percent; blacks from 10-15 percent; and Native Americans from .7 to .9 percent. (National Council of Education Statistics) At least part of this increase has been due to more aggressive policies on the part of university administrators to diversify their student bodies.

Yet whites, especially white males, have cried foul. They object to what they see as the injustice of minorities taking spots in top universities despite lower test scores and inferior credentials. The problem with this argument is that there are thousands of highly qualified candidates competing for enrollment in schools such as the University of Michigan. In 2013, only 33% of the 46,813 high school seniors who applied were accepted at UM. (NCES)  Clearly, universities must use criteria other than test scores or GPAs to make admissions decisions.

The question then is what other factors should come into play? Activities? Participation in extracurricular activities often unfairly disadvantages minorities or lower income applicants. Many of the tools colleges use in admitting students are subjective, including teacher recommendations, essays, and in some cases nebulous characteristics such as “character.” Fairness has little to do with it.

The case of Kwasi Enin highlights the prejudices our society still harbors about minority students and their place in higher education. Enin was admitted to all 8 Ivy League schools, a rare feat that impressed many and with good reason. He scored in the 99th percentile on his SATs, was in the top 2 percent of his high school class, is a musician, and volunteered at a local hospital while in high school. Yet naysayers were quick to assume that his race was the deciding factor in his acceptances. And even if his race did help him in getting admitted to some of these schools, what of it? I never hear people complain when someone gets into Harvard or Yale because a parent or grandparent went there.

According to the Harvard Gazette, in 2012 there were 34,302 applicants and only 5.9% of those applicants were admitted. More than 14,000 of the applicants scored 700 or above on the SAT in math, and more than 17,000 scored 700 or above in writing. Furthermore, graduation rates of first-time freshmen at Harvard are in the 90s (NCES), clearly demonstrating that the students who are admitted are more than capable of achieving success in college.

I also find it interesting that white males don’t complain about affirmative action for males, which has become commonplace in recent times due to their higher dropout rate. A recent story on usatoday.com stated that the US Department of Education estimates that 57% of current college students are female and that “colleges are struggling to keep male/female ratios even.” Indeed, a college administrator with whom I am acquainted has said that his school does try to admit more males than females to retain gender balance. Where is the hue and cry?

I would love to live in a color-blind world in which people were judged, in the words of the great Martin Luther King, Jr., “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Until then, we as a society need to recognize and address the inequities that impede the achievement of our fellow human beings. In the end, we will all be the richer for it.