Category Archives: inequality

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 12.09.13 PMThis was good and I’ve yet to read something by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that I haven’t been impressed by or hasn’t provoked me into thinking about something slightly differently than I did before. This thin, little book is composed as a letter to a friend who was seeking advice on how to raise her daughter as a feminist. Adichie offers 15 suggestions, specifically linking them to Nigerian, Igbo, and western cultures, but even these specific examples are still universal. Adichie admits that these tenants may be hard to accomplish, but we must strive to embody them to create feminists in our children and in ourselves.

A few choice quotes are below:

“Be deliberate about showing her the enduring beauty and resiliences of Africans and of black people. Why? Because of the power dynamics in the world, she will grow up seeing images of white beauty, white ability, and white achievement, no matter where she is in the world. It will be in the TV shows she watches, in the popular culture she consumes, in the books she reads. She will also probably grow up seeing many negative images of blackness and of Africans.” (p. 40)

“We ask of powerful women: Is she humble? Does she smile? Is she grateful enough? Does she have a domestic side? Question we do not ask of powerful men, which shows that our discomfort is not with power itself, but with women.” (p. 24)

“If we stopped conditioning women to see marriage as a prize, then we would have fewer debates about a wife needing to cook in order to earn that prize.” (p. 15)

“Don’t think that raising her feminist means forcing her to reject femininity.” (p. 43)

“Social norms are created by human beings, and there is no social norm that cannot be changed.” (p. 51)

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

hillbillyelegyI began reading this book for fun and then found that it was relevant to some of the work I’m doing so yay — a very pleasant surprise! A lot of people have chosen to read this book to understand the “hidden right” post-election cycle. I chose to read it to see how the author’s experience lined up with my own background. Despite not growing up in Appalachia, many of the situations that the author described were extremely familiar to me. I grew up in a working-class family and spent 5 years of my childhood in a rural town, population: 800. While the author categorizes his experiences as being particular to Appalachia, I would say they also extend to rural southern living conditions, including my area of Northeast Texas.

I related a lot to Vance’s description of trying to learn how to portray himself as being of a different social class than the one he was born into — like Vance, I was the first in my immediate family to go to college, becoming upwardly mobile, and I found myself struggling to fit in when ‘everything from your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.’ (p. 207)

He also spends time detailing Christianity in Appalachia and how he (at one point) and many of the churchgoing people have (either at one time or persistently) felt like persecuted minorities by ‘elite liberals’ who some believe are making the world a scary and foreign place. His commentary on Christianity and many of the contradictions present in Appalachia were revealing in that many of the residents don’t belong to a church, but vastly report high church attendance because of perceived social pressures. His own experience emphasized that the persecuted minority feelings are salient in the churches, but less so in how individuals believe and practice faith in their own homes.

Chapters 14 (particularly) and 15 were most relevant to the work that I do, but the links from the previous chapters are needed to feel the full heft of the messages in those later chapters. These chapters discuss the traumas that working-class children regularly experience because of a myriad of factors: unreliable income, inconsistent parental support, violence in the home, etc. and the massive effect they have on child outcomes and development of mental and physical health conditions later in life. I also found the writer’s description of his limited relationship with his parents for survival purposes particularly refreshing — it’s something I have also adopted for my own self-preservation purposes, but haven’t read detailed in another work so precisely.

I’ve read many similar books that attempt to describe the plight and lives of America’s working-class through studies and home observation vignettes, but I found this memoir to be the most revealing and authentic… perhaps because it was written by someone who experienced this lifestyle rather than being written by a researcher looking in and trying to understand class and lifestyle differences. While the author doesn’t push for specific policy changes, he does admit that we collectively need to strive to make things better, particularly for working-class youth while their worlds and expectations for themselves are still malleable.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

betweentheworldandmeThis is a book that I instantly wish I owned multiple versions of because I feel like I need to consume it in different ways for the weight of its words to fully sink into my consciousness. I finished the audiobook version of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates a couple of weeks ago and it was MARVELOUS! The book is part memoir, part current American history and is written as a letter directly to the author’s son. Because I knew that the book followed this format, I opted to purchase the audiobook from Downpour (if you like audiobooks and you aren’t a subscriber to Downpour, you need to get on board!!) as the author was the narrator and I wanted to hear the author’s intonations and emotions as he spoke his words.

Coates is both a powerful speaker and writer. While he detailed the lessons that he was forced to learn as a black man growing up in America and contrasted them from the lessons his father had to learn and the lessons his son has already learned or will have to learn was incredibly poignant. The world has shifted significantly since his father was a child, but there is still so much room for the world and America’s culture to grow and improve. While his son currently leads a privileged life because of his father’s wealth and their family’s residence in Paris, France (all privileges Coates acknowledges), this doesn’t eliminate the ways that his son must prepare for how he will doubtlessly be seen as a young black man when he is in America. Regardless of any of his own characteristics or intentions, people will cast stereotypes upon his body and his mind and he will have to know how to evade or protect himself from them; hence, why Coates has chosen to write his son a series of lessons he has learned in his own life.

As a white woman, Between the World and Me truly illuminated the world that black parents must build and teach to their children — something that I never had to be taught by my own family. When I was a child, my innocence and piety were often assumed by strangers, but this isn’t the case for many black children who are often undeservedly assumed to be devious or guilty. One of the vignettes that stuck with me most clearly was when a white adult was extremely rude to Coates’s young son and Coates struggled to contain his anger in the face of assumptions and rights incorrectly projected onto his child. To hear this told from a parent’s perspective was heartbreaking and I admire Coates’s ability to so poignantly and clearly discuss how this affects him and his family on a micro-level, while simultaneously situating his personal experiences within historical and societal contexts. 

Between the World and Me is very of the moment (because of the renewed, necessary spotlight on racial tension and inequality in America) and also of America’s history. I believe this book will be a touchstone that people reference decades from now when trying to convey the state of race in America in the early 2000s and Coates has done a remarkable job creating a piece that will last. 

While I loved listening to this audiobook, I wish I also owned a physical version of this book so that I could highlight and come back to the most touching/provoking pieces with ease. I greatly valued hearing the author beautifully speak his story, something that most authors who aren’t trained entertainers struggle to do well. The audiobook was also quite a quick listening experience and clocked in at about 3.5 hours. My recommendation is to consume this in whatever way that it comes into your life and then consume it again and again. I’ll likely be purchasing a physical copy when I get the chance and will re-read it again in the coming years. Clearly, I profusely recommend. 

Publication date: 14 July 2015 by Spiegel & Grau. Format: Audiobook from Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group.

Author/Narrator: Ta-Nehisi Coates @twitter/articles

our kids: the american dream in crisis by robert d. putnam

Our KidsA lot of press have published very enthusiastic and positive reviews about Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam, but as someone who works in the education field, has a background in family, youth, and educational sociology, and is a frequent reader of nonfiction, I must strongly disagree with the bubble of positivity surrounding this book. The book covers what the author believes to be the disintegration of the “American dream” which, for the purposes of the book, is essentially the belief that individuals can achieve upward social and economic mobility through increased educational attainment.

Everything covered in the book isn’t new to anyone that works in education or is in tune with social inequality in anyway. I concede that this book is likely not meant for people who are already interested in and informed of these topics, but is rather meant to serve as an introduction to the general public of the troubling conditions that surround young people who are trying to advance themselves within society. However, the tone that Putnam adopts within his book is incredibly condescending. Within the work, he highlights the different life and education experiences that typically occur for youth in different economic classes, ranging from upper-middle class families to those who are living below the poverty line. I’m happy that Putnam (or rather his graduate student, Jennifer Silva, who actually conducted all of the interviews detailed in the book) included a range of representations of what it’s like to grow up in America today in comparison to what his and his high school classmates’ lives were like in 1959 in his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. However, what really irked me is when the author would write calls to action with an air of assumption that anyone reading the book helms from something above a working class background. When this happened, it seemed to me like Putnam sometimes lost sense of the humanity of the populations that he doesn’t personally identify as and assumed that anyone reading his book would be of the same social social class as him. Because of this, I felt like the calls to action were particularly alienating.

The main argument Putnam makes throughout the book is that class influences a child’s success in the American schooling system and subsequent career and education trajectory more than race does. While I agree that class is incredibly influential on these outcomes, race can also greatly impact how children are treated by their peers, community, and educators, and this cannot be brushed aside as easily as Putnam makes it seem. I wish Putnam had spent more time digging into how the intersection of race and class can impact certain children, but he seemed to cherry pick stories that supported his main thesis instead of looking to include a representation of different experiences.

Below, I’ve included two quotes that I found particularly troubling in order to provide examples of why this book rubbed me the wrong way. They are only included in this review because I feel like they can help potential readers decide whether or not this is a book they would like to read.

When describing how a poorer individual relates to his parents’ political ideologies, Putnam states, “David lives in a chaotic family situation with no role models at all for political or civic engagement, so our questions about those topics elicited a puzzled stare and a brief response, as though we had asked about Mozart or foxhunting.”

“But most readers of this book do not face the same plight, nor does its author, nor do our own biological kids. Because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (and even fewer of our children) have much idea how the other half lives. So we are less empathetic than we should be to the plight of less privileged kids.”

Aforementioned alienation aside, I guess Our Kids can serve as a good introduction to how social and education inequality affects young people for a reader who is completely new to these topics. If you decide to read this, please realize that Putnam’s tone can be incredibly condescending at times and this subsequently impacts how he details the experiences of all of the study participants who were interviewed. I partly think he did this in order to enact a larger call to action and a greater sense of shared responsibility with the assumed (upper-middle class) audience who is reading the book, but it fell flat for me.

Publication Date: 10 March 2015 by Simon & Schuster.

Author: Robert D. Putnam web/facebook/@twitter