Sunday, March 30, 2008

Gender, Race and Politics

My theme of the week in my classes was gender, race and politics. My French students have been less than interested in my other topics, so I chose what I thought would be a highly charged issue. I gave them all an article about Geraldine's infamous quote about Obama, and I hoped that would spark some discussion about not only the American presidential election, but also the role of race and gender in politics. I'd like to say it went well, but I'm afraid I had no such luck. How could they not care? (cue: pulling out hair) So I continued the discussion the next week, hoping that perhaps the lack of participation was due more to language issues (I did the topic with my older, but lower, class) than utter apathy. That helped, sort of, but even with my discussion guide I was having a hard time eliciting their opinions. So I asked them: do you care at all? Their response? Well, I've never thought about it before. Ding ding ding, problem found. The problem in my class was, essentially, the problem that perpetuates our lack of diversity in politics. The public, in general, isn't actively thinking about the lack of women and minorities in politics as a problem that needs to be fixed. It is, but your everyday Jill and Joe haven't worried about it much (and in my class, 99% of my students are white), or given it much thought at all. (this is less true in the USA at the moment, but that is mainly because of Hillary and Obama's dual, without which the issue would be more or less off the table).

I struggled with this issue at the beginning of the primary season. I was uneasy with candidates being elected because of their race or gender. That just seemed wrong to me, in the way that it would be wrong to elect someone because he was a white male (not that it doesn't happen on some level, but I don't think it should). I was of the mind that the whole point of being able to have a woman or black person as president was that as a person they are just as competent as a white man, and should be judged solely on their respective qualifications. I think, however, that my mindset was more naive than I'd like to admit. Younger generations want to ignore race/gender, pretend like they don't factor into the equation. However, that's a state of mind that won't help bridge the gap. Ignoring race and gender, instead of actively trying to equalize their position in society, and actively combating existing discrimination, will only perpetuate the status quo. And I'm beginning to think that perhaps there is something to be said about voting for someone (when other things are equal, of course) because of his or her race or gender (please don't flip out here). It's not that the individual is necessarily more qualified in the usual sense because of her difference (though later on I will argue for a new type of qualification), but rather her presence as a part of an underrepresented group helps bring a balance to the system as a whole. So where two candidates are equal in the important respects, and where one candidate has the added experience of growing up in the face of existing discrimination and socially constructed road blocks, that candidate's life experience adds an extra qualification to her candidacy. She is in a position to better know what her peers go through on a daily basis, and will be more conscious of that when making policies. If no one in the legislative/executive/judiciary branches has had those unique experiences that one only has in virtue of being a minority or a woman, then minorities and women will not have adequate advocates within our government. For our government to legitimately wield it's coercive power, it better represent, as best possible, the full body of its constituents.

Thinking about diversity not as an intrinsic value but as being valuable in an instrumental way, is not a new idea. I read some article (excuse my poor memory) about this in regards to higher education. The idea was to shift the focus of diversity as something that is important in itself (though I think that sometimes it is, and certainly, sometimes it isn't-- ie, I don't want serial killers adequately represented in higher education, even if right now they are in a minority, or at least I hope they are!). By focusing on what diversity can achieve, you have a better case for its promotion. The idea was something like this: someone in a minority or who is underrepresented in higher education has (and this includes socio-economic diversity), in general, a completely different set of life experiences that contribute, in an important way, to his or her overall point of view. It is valuable in higher education to have a variety of view points, because that will promote the most learning, and increasing learning is one of the fundamental jobs of HE. So there's the connection between having different life experiences and how that contributes to the person that you become and what you can contribute to others. I would add that those experiences can greatly affect the types of decisions you will make in the future (as we all make decisions that are often based on what we have encountered in the past). I would go on to add that the political decisions of elected officials are also affected in a non-trivial way by their past experiences, so it would be valuable to have a variety of experiences represented among the body of officials who make and enforce laws. So if two candadates are equally qualified, and if one has the added bonus of having a different point of view from the exisiting body of politicians, than that extra qualification should be factored in when we vote.

So this is where I'm going with this. Part of the problem is that there is a lack of effort to promote the aforementioned diversity of perspectives. My students had never really thought about it, and those that had told me (quite pessimistically) that they didn't think change (for France at least) was possible, at least not yet. So I asked them to think of a solution. What would change the state of things? Blank stares. No one knew, because no one had ever thought about it (surprisingly, not even the women). I explained to them, with conviction, that by beginning to think about the problem, you are taking the first step in fighting it. Nothing will change if you don't see it as a problem, or don't ever think about the problem as something that can and should be fixed. So awareness is the first step. The second step? I'm less sure, but hey, that first step is going to take us awhile. So, there you have it.

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