I have been convinced for a while that our society systematically avoids frank discussions about the intersection of ethnicity and socioeconomic status. I also believe we live in a time where it is necessary to explore this topic, given the increasing digital resources that make communication easier than ever. Although I admit, I have rarely taken the opportunity to do so; this important discussion is one that I am ready and willing to have.*
*While it was less than 5 years ago when I wrote this, it is even more true now.
In grade school discussions of culture and ethnicity, I always envied my peers with such diversity in their history. We (and many other young people) were asked to write essays on the topic of our personal ethnic identities, and I felt like I had nothing to contribute to that conversation. My family history goes far back to some of the first British settlers that lived in this country in the early 1600s. Having ancestral roots in England and colonial America did not seem to be ‘show and tell’ material to me. I mistook (and took for granted) my ethnic identity, descending primarily from the ‘Anglo Core Group’, for being bland, if not completely non-existent. American ideology, as previously discussed, is so deeply engrained in our worldview that sometimes we forget that it’s even there at all (edit: when I say ‘we forget’ there, notice the ethnocentricism. I would avoid even that phrasing now, but I’m still learning!). I was fascinated by my classmate’s stories of their families’ immigration and history, as well as learning about other languages and traditions. Although I knew that these rich cultural differences were different from mine, I wrongly assumed their experience was as “easy” and nurtured (historically speaking) as my ancestors’. This is in part due to my socialization in school, where they often leave out the ‘bad parts’, and in part due to a subjective life experience – a perspective, from which I had never tried to depart. I did not consider the accident of birth until much later.
The optimistic perspective from which I viewed society had kept me from the insight that comes with a comprehensive understanding of what ethnicity really means. Though this understanding hasn’t made me any less hopeful, I now see the responsibility that comes along with it. The knowledge of how minority groups have been treated historically can not only help me become a more empathetic human being, but it can also allow me to positively impact the society in which I live. In my youthful naivety, I could have never imagined how something like skin color or cultural heritage could affect all subsequent life chances. Now, with every news story I read, I find myself asking how race played a part in the situation. I wonder also how others react to the same story, and if they might respond differently with a sociological perspective. Analyzing news stories and American ideological principles requires knowledge of social facts, as well as the ability to interpret the subtle elements that present themselves in any given idea.
In one recent example, Shanesha Taylor, a homeless mother of two, was arrested for leaving her kids in her car during a job interview. She had no one to watch her kids while she was attending the interview, and witnesses quickly responded to the sounds of her children’s cries. Now, she faces two child abuse charges, and her children are in protective custody. I cannot claim that the outcome would be different were she and her children of another ethnicity, but I can see how societal disadvantages for minorities (i.e. discrimination in labor and housing markets) helped to create the situation in the first place. Now, the public reaction to the story is even more indicative of the latent racism that makes having meaningful conversations about this topic so difficult. I can hardly blame the mother for making a poor choice, when I consider how limited her alternatives might have been. (UPDATE: I just searched for later developments, and Shanesha was sentenced to 18 years of probation. Yes, that’s 18 YEARS, not MONTHS!)
As the story exemplified, the importance of discussing ethnic stratification in this country cannot be understated. This requires the suspension of stereotypes and assumptions, and a willingness to consider alternative ideas. I would like to urge my peers to accept that challenge, in order to create a society where mothers aren’t forced to make decisions based on survival, and can instead show their children what it means to produce upward mobility. This should be a goal for everyone, regardless of how they identify ethnically, because it involves revitalizing the American Dream.