Deconstructing the
American Dream and
Moving Beyond
Political Correctness

The following consists of selected journal entries from a women’s studies/psychology class, Psychology of Diversity, as appeared in Student Solidarity, a journal of university student writings exploring social justice issues through coursework assignments.

Week One: Pull Yourself Up By The Bootstraps

During the first week of class, the concept of "pulling yourself up by the bootstraps" was brought into class discussion referring to people who do not lead privileged lives. Presumably they are to pull themselves up into the privileged classes, and if they haven't been able to, it is only because they are lazy. It is assumed that everyone wants to rise in the hierarchies of privilege, hence the automatic labeling of anyone who hasn't risen as lazy -they just aren't working hard enough.

This concept always reminds me of my father who was actually able to pull himself up by the bootstraps. He was the second child in a relatively poor family of seven children [I don't believe they ever went without, but were not afforded many privileges either]. By the age of 18, my father had started his own landscaping business which he called "[his name] & Sons." He told his clients that he was the "Sons" so that they wouldn't distrust his abilities because of his young age.

He stuck with this business until he had enough money to buy real-estate and become a landlord. Still working hard, he built his apartments from the ground up. I myself can testify to his years of literally back-breaking labor and mind-bending frustrations that it took to pull himself up by the bootstraps over the course of my 28 years of being his son. Today he lives quite comfortably enjoying the fruits of his labors.

Despite this glaring example in my own life of the reality of pulling one's self up by the bootstraps, I remain convinced that the additional reality of finite resources makes it entirely impossible for everyone to do this – there simply isn't enough money for everyone to be millionaires; there simply isn't enough room in the economy for everyone to become successful entrepreneurs; there simply aren't enough natural resources for everyone to have luxurious homes and multiple automobiles.

Nevertheless, many remain convinced, because of personal experiences like that of my father, that anyone can achieve what he has. However, if everyone were to do this, they would most likely move out of their apartments into luxurious homes of their own leaving landlords to face the precariousness of their own successes as well as the possibility of losing their boots altogether. In other words, the success of the few is a cause of, and dependent on, the hierarchy itself.

"What do you do when you're told, 'Pull yourself up by your bootstraps?' Build collective struggle for democracy, liberty, and justice." Zapatista Army for National Liberation

Week Two: Define Intelligence

The reading this week, Understanding Culture’s Influence on Behavior (Brislin 70-III), dealt partly with the difficulties of defining terms like intelligence across cultures. In class we attempted to come up with a definition for intelligence that would hold for everyone, and, indeed, we came across some of the difficulties mentioned in the reading. The two most troubling that I noticed were 1) that inevitably any definition of intelligence requires further definitions for terms within the first definition such as survive, thrive, and success, and 2) that each of these definitions will undoubtedly change from culture to culture, thus making it incredibly hard, if not impossible, to administer something like a reliable IQ test across many different cultures, yet alone within one.

My conclusion after pondering this problem is that intelligence itself is a social construct not only relative to each culture, but relative to each and every situation within each culture. By attempting to apply standardized tests and measurements to such a vague notion, we literally create hierarchies of intelligence where none existed before, at least not institutionalized. If, for example, we were to dispense with the entire idea of some universal type of intelligence and instead look for every individual's natural talent and inclination and somehow assist in her or his development, it is possible that we might create some respect and dignity where none existed before.

Perhaps we may value the people who collect our garbage, for instance, instead of assuming they only do it because they are not smart enough for a more dignified job. It is, after all, a job that someone has to do – but it shouldn't be a label for prejudice – as is street cleaning, janitorial work, house cleaning, and child rearing. Each of these professions require very different, not less, forms of intelligence.

Week Four: White Identity

In class this week, one of the topics in the reading and discussion was the notion of white-identity. The reading, "An update of Helms' White and people of color racial identity models" (Helms), presented a process of achieving racial-identity which seemed to be saying that as white people explore this issue, they will hopefully move toward an attitude of acceptance of both themselves as white and others as non-white. The discussion was mostly a matter of listening to three panel members talk about the progression described in the reading. The main ideas of their comments seemed to be centered around three processes: 1) discovering their own white privilege, 2) finding support groups to help process what that privilege means, and 3) coming to terms with that privilege and using it to help alleviate racism in themselves and in society.

As I read through the handout on racial-identity, I could distinctly recall being in each of the phases described, even though I still consider myself to be a racist. (As a product of a society built on a foundation of racism, sexism, classism, etc, I am convinced that I will spend the rest of my life finding evidence of these biases within myself.) Then I noticed the fine print on the bottom of the handout which acknowledged that this process is prone to some repetition; the process is never complete. Just as cultural etiquette must be a life-long pursuit, so will my white-identity.

There was a time when I gave being white no second thought. Later, as I began to learn more about race-relations in historical and contemporary USA, I became somewhat ashamed of being white. I actually once dropped out of school because I felt an academic degree would only add to my unfair privileges. Later still, as I began to meet many different people from many different cultures and races, I realized that good people come in all colors and creeds, including white. Therefore, I could still be a good person despite my whiteness.

I was incredibly fortunate to have the support group that I did at this time. Virtually all of my friends were activists for a variety of issues, and they frequently discussed issues such as racism, sexism , classism, etc. My family as well proved willing to discuss these issues.

Today, my white-identity revolves primarily around the notion of responsibility. I do not necessarily refer to being responsible for the actions of my, or my race's, actions, but rather responsibility to do what I can to deal with the present situation. This responsibility has to do with more than race as I am also male, heterosexual, middle-class, and so on. In other words, I am responsible for how I use my privileges. Along with my acceptance of this responsibility, I have also grown somewhat accustomed to making mistakes, blunders and goofs, to getting myself into uncomfortable situations, to admitting I am wrong, and to accepting my own hypocrisies -and, when I'm lucky, to learning from it all.

Week 5: Institutionalized Racism

During class this week we watched one of those quasi-exposé reports on racism in the USA, and, surprise, surprise, racism proved to be ever-present as the equally educated and aged white and black men went from one business to another experiencing different treatment which seemed to be based solely on the color of their skin. Dateline's approach to investigating racism was typical of the media: rather than expose institutionalized racism, they focused their attention on socio-cultural racism. The distinction is an important one if the goal is to somehow help alleviate racism.

In my opinion, the reason racism is alive and well in this country has more to do with government and economic policies along with media portrayal of race than with socially or culturally held beliefs and attitudes. The way I see things, big business and government have worked hand in hand to secure racism and racist practices within this country in order to minimize the threat of a black uprising -a threat which has been as ever-present as racism in this society since before the slaves were "freed."

Racism is a fundamental component of the foundation of this country; this is most evident in our historical and contemporary relationship with Blacks and African Americans. In the beginning of US history, Blacks were treated as objects and animals to be owned, bought, and sold. Immediately following the abolition of slavery, a series of laws were passed targeting anticipated Black behavior as criminal and the US prison industry began to really kick off. This relationship between Blacks and the US criminal justice system continued to develop somewhat slowly until it was positively cemented by the FBI in the 1950s and 60s under the federal program called Cointelpro (Counter Intelligence Program), whereby Blacks were specifically targeted for severe government repression. Along the way, businesses and banks formed alliances in order to relegate Blacks to poverty stricken lives contained for the most part in housing projects and ghettos. This has been done with no interference from the government who was busy building a new version of poor housing: namely prisons and jails.

A little known fact about slavery is that it was not actually abolished, but relegated to persons having been duly convicted of a crime, and today's prisons are quickly becoming the slave plantations of the 21st century. Just within the past 10 years, the US prison industry has not only been growing by leaps and bounds, but it has been building a relationship with private industries offering a quickly expanding, powerless and very cheap labor force. Why, even the infamous chain-gangs are attempting to make a comeback. And if that's not scary enough, many of these prisons are now being built, owned and run by nongovernmental companies which are actually on the stock market.

This is just one example of how racism has been institutionalized in this country, and it is my opinion that as long as racism continues to be a fundamental aspect of political, judicial and economic decisions, socio-cultural racism will undoubtedly thrive. Dateline's investigation into this issue was weak at best, and at worst actually helped to hide this darker side of racism by drawing attention away from it. As I said earlier, I find this to be a typical media approach to controversial issues: pick at the problem a little bit from a distance without getting their hands dirty and without upsetting any of the powers that be.

Week Eight: Testing for IQ.

This week we read articles and discussed the idea of testing for intelligence. We read about research comparing IQs of girls and boys, "Sex Differences in Intellectual Functioning" (Maccoby), and of Blacks raised either by Whites or Blacks, "Family Socialization and the IQ test performance of traditionally and transracially adopted Black Children" (Moore). Various causes of the differences were discussed including gender and culture. A cultural IQ test was given to the class and the idea of whether or not it truly tested cultural IQ was discussed by the class. My general understanding of the week's discussions and readings is that IQ cannot be tested, and when IQ is tested, one test will never be capable of accurately revealing any true relationships of intelligence between different people. The more different the people are that take the test, the less accurate the test will be.

I told my ten-year-old step-daughter about the use of IQ tests on immigrants who usually did not speak the language of the tests. Without thinking it over for more than 3 or 4 seconds, she said, "It sounds like the people giving the tests were the stupid ones!" I must admit, she is an incredibly bright child, and she would probably resent my next statement because of its unspoken stereotype that intelligence or understanding comes with age. However, even a ten year old can see the flaw in the reasoning that English IQ tests can measure intelligence in people who do not speak English. I do not think it is much of a stretch to consider that culture is a type of language unto itself. Really, how hard is it to come up with the idea that each culture should design tests of their own?

Even so, I still do not think a test can accurately measure intelligence in anyone. As I tell my girls over and over, "People aren’t dumb, it's just a matter of what one has been exposed to and how they have interpreted it." Add to that the fact that everyone has different interests and abilities which will help determine what can be intentionally learned. I can't help but wonder what the justification is for administering IQ tests in the first place. With the immigrants, why was it necessary to determine their intelligence? For what aim was this information used? And today in schools, why must we rank the children on IQ? Even if IQ tests were somehow proven to be accurate, I still worry about the effect it must have on a child's motivation to learn that they are "stupid." What do we have to gain by ranking ourselves on IQ and on so many other scales? Doesn't this just perpetuate the competitive air of our society?

At a recent parent-teacher conference, my kindergartner's teacher showed us a list of the students ranked for how far along they are in the reading series. Listed one above the other, the names seemed to be begging for comparison to each other, and it reminded me of so many competitive aspects of our society. Doesn't it matter that all children will learn differently simply because they are different? This seems to give the impression that slow learners are somehow not as smart as quick learners, when the fact is they may just be different learners. Children respond differently to many learning and teaching styles. Perhaps if public schools were to receive just a smidgen of the (competitive) defense budget, we could employ enough teachers using a greater variety of teaching styles and make the entire school atmosphere a little more equal for the different learning styles. But first, I think we should chuck the IQ tests out.

Week Eleven: U.S. English, Perpetuating the Myth of the Melting Pot

This week we read an article entitled, "English Only or English Plus?" (Crawford), which discussed the movement to make English the official language of the United States. The article looked at the history of this movement and briefly examined one alternative, that of English Plus, which encourages mastery of the English language plus other languages as well. This week we also heard from Councilman Jessi Garcia who illustrated some of the effects of the English Only ideas as they have been implemented here in Utah and in other states. Briefly stated, not only has this new law made it very difficult, and more expensive, to offer basic government services in languages other than English, it has also had an effect in non-governmental institutions that are apparently incorporating English only ideas into their workplaces even though this is not what the law prescribes.

The U.S. English movement seems to me to be the epitome of assimilationist mythology in this country. With an anti-immigrant and eugenicist background, it is very hard for me to take seriously the claims that U.S. English has anything but exclusionary goals. Just as nearly every extreme right-wing movement in this country has been forced to do in recent years, U.S. English is merely a public relations campaign of disinformation and lies covering up their true objectives.

U.S. English pretends to be concerned with losing the English language when the mass proliferation of capitalism around the world ensures English's future even as it ensures riches for the capitalists. As the language of business, English is in no danger whatsoever. Again, as the language of business, English only laws can only serve to keep others out of that business.

U.S. English pretends that bi-lingualism is divisive, that knowing how to communicate in more than one language somehow keeps us apart, ignoring the fact that divisiveness has been a tactic of retaining power and avoiding revolution used by nearly every government in existence. Divisiveness is not what the powers-that-be are concerned with; unity is what really scares them.

U.S. English continues the assimilationist agenda holding the melting pot over the flames. Assimilation continues to be touted as an American ideal even while the history of assimilation has been one of coercion, co-optation, and subjugation through kidnappings, rapes, and murders. In this light, U.S. English is simply pushing the national agenda which has never seen fit to recognize that only the indigenous of North America are non-immigrants.

If there is to be an official language of Utah, the only appropriate choice in my opinion would be Ute. However, perhaps we could take a lesson from the few remaining traditionalists of those First Nations who have somehow managed to escape assimilation and learn to respect each other's dignity in honest and open forums rather than manipulate divisions whose only purpose is to further the agenda of those who worship money.

A final note on the question of immigration today: Over and over I've heard the sentiment, "Why should it be our [the U.S.'] responsibility to provide documents and translators in foreign languages?," and to me the answer is simple: when the primary causes of immigration are escape from economic and political turmoil, turmoil caused by and large directly and indirectly by U.S. businesses, banks, and arms dealers, then yes, we do have a responsibility to do what we can for these refugees of the IMF and WTO sponsored neoliberalistic WW III.

Week Fifteen: Beyond Political Correctness

In class this week, we were given an exercise called "Questions For Beyond Political Correctness." The questions presented situations such as a daughter looking for a roommate or new neighbors moving in next door and asked us to rank who we would most prefer to fill those positions with choices such as "Caucasian female, Physically challenged female with paraplegia, Asian female, or Homosexual female," or "Hispanic couple, Homosexual couple, Caucasian couple, or African American couple."

The purpose of this exercise was beyond my understanding. I read through it once and found myself offended by the instructions. I read through it again and found myself offended by the questions. Finally, after my third time reading through it, I was offended by the title of the exercise. And still, the purpose of the exercise was beyond my understanding. Instead of answering the questions, to which I am morally opposed, I would like to react to the exercise and to the idea of "beyond political correctness." After each list of choices, an additional question was asked, each beginning with, "How might your response(s) change if…," for the most part offering an alternative scenario in which the reader is distanced a little more from the situation. For example, instead of your daughter's roommate, what if it were a coworker's daughter?

In my mind's eye I can see glimpses of an ideal society, a society which is truly just and fair, a society in which everyone is truly equal and happy. In this society there are no power hierarchies of any kind. Cooperation is "learned" in the same way that we now "learn" competition. Compassion is "learned" in the same way that we now "learn" selfish greed. Community is "learned" in the same way that we now "learn" individualism and one-up-manship. The people in this society unquestioningly accept each other as having value to the community without necessarily understanding or knowing that value. The people of this society measure success by happiness and contentedness of the entire community. The people of this society consider the fulfillment of each community members' needs and dreams the primary reason for existence. Understanding that no one person can do everything alone, the people of this society consider it a privilege to be able to help one another and to learn from one another.

The idea of promoting political correctness to these people would be as absurd as the idea of promoting food to stay alive. These people are beyond political correctness. They have no need for special interest groups. They have no use for protective legislation. They have no desire to organize awareness campaigns around the plight of the disadvantaged because there are no disadvantaged. They have no reason to watch their language in referring to each other because they have not learned to ridicule and berate each other. They would undoubtedly be far more confused than I as to the purpose of this exercise.

Doesn't forcing someone to rank people based on race, sexuality, able-bodyism, etc, on some level actually reinforce or even introduce the concept of ranking people based on their race, sexuality, able-bodyism, etc. .. ? Suppose I take this exercise to my utopia and ask the people there to fill it out, assuming of course that I can adequately explain the idea of ranking based on anything. I wonder what type of effect it might have on them. I'd expect to find answers something like this, "How might your responses change if the categories were left blank?", "How might your questions change if the categories were left blank?", "How might this scenario change if the categories were left blank?", or "How might you change if the categories were left blank?"

Of course, this utopia has not taught people to base their values on such superficial characteristics, unlike our society which seems to intentionally encourage such divisions. I fear that many people in our society would have little trouble ranking the answers from most acceptable to least acceptable. But what I fear more is that many people may simply be substituting political correctness for honesty.