Difference Matters


I am trying another of my text books for my upcoming course tonight. This one reads better.  It also seems to be hitting some themes that I recall from my previous class of organizational communication. Let’s start with the below example:

Due to socialization, children will accept social identity categories as real and natural. Yet, they are not. Persons in power across history have constructed categories and developed hierarchies based on group characteristics.

In 1795, a German scientist named Johann Blumenbach constructed a system of racial classification that arranged people according to geographical location and physical features. He also ranked the groups in hierarchical order, placing Caucasians in the most superior position. Although scientists have since concluded that race is not related to capability, many societies in the world still adhere to various racial classification
systems because the idea of race has become essentialized. Essentialism refers to assumptions that social differences stem from intrinsic, innate, human variations unrelated to social forces. For example, so-called racial groups are viewed as if they have an “ultimate essence that transcends historical and cultural boundaries.” Thus, while we accept social identity groups as real and natural, we also perceive them as fixed (essentialized) and unchanging. However, these categories are not only artificial, but they also are subject to change. In different times and different places, categories we take for granted either did/do not exist or they were/are quite unlike the ones that we reference in the United
States in the twenty-first century. Currently, the same person identified as black in the United States may be considered white in the Dominican Republic; in the nineteenth century choices for racial designations in the United States included gradations of enslaved blacks: mulattos were one-half black, quadroons were one-quarter black, and octoroons were one-eighth black.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 13). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

While that was a long quote, I thought it was essential to illustrate the idea of essentialism, and the “normative”.constructed items gain a sense of being natural and unchanging. Getting outside that fixed frame of reference is the first step to being able to see possibilities and make real and significant changes.

I am only in the introduction, but already I feel a more even-handedness to her dealing with issues than the other book I started reading last night. I am actually interested in what she has to say, though still starting with skepticism, about white privilege, which she will explore in chapter 4 as part of a discussion of privilege. In the opening chapter she does a reasonable explanation of what privilege is:

One way to understand differences in status based on social identity is the concept of privilege. Sociologist Peggy McIntosh coined this term to refer to men’s advantages in society, based on her experiences teaching women’s
McIntosh noticed that while men in her classes were willing to concede women’s disadvantages, they were unaware of advantages they enjoyed simply because they were men. She later extended her analysis to encompass race, and she developed the concept of white privilege, which I discuss in
chapter 4.
In case you’re not familiar with this concept, one way to think about privilege is handedness. Are you right-handed or left-handed? Did you know that people used to consider being left-handed as deviant, sinister, and dangerous?
I’m left-handed, and one of my elementary teachers tried to change me to being right-handed. Of course, Ma didn’t allow that. In our society, being right-handed is the dominant expectation. Although neither of these is better than the other, we have structured society in favor of right-handed people (primarily because of numbers). And, right-handed people rarely are aware of the benefits they receive as they move around in a right-hand world. They enjoy the privilege of not knowing, until someone points it out. As a lefty, I often have awkward moments with tools, utensils, scissors, desks, and other things designed for right-handed people. And, people have told me, “Your handwriting looks good, for a lefty.” We use our right hand to pledge allegiance to the flag, to shake hands when we meet someone, and to take oaths. Right-handed people can’t avoid the benefits of being right-handed. We all inherited a system handedness that benefits some and disadvantages others.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 14-15). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

I think that is a good introduction to privilege, but it leaves out a couple of thoughts I am curious if she will address in chapter 4. First, I am a lefty, and while I have run into certain clumsy moments she mentions, I have found that, today, being part of the “non-dominant” group is actually an advantage — it means I have greater flexibility in our culture that the dominant group doesn’t have. I can do things both ways. Perhaps because being left-handed is not a visible trait that people pick up on and classify you as, this works better. But I wonder how often the “dominant” group actually has a disadvantage from being the dominant group.

And I am still trying to decide whether the word Matters in the book title is a noun, a verb, or both.


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