Diversity & Difference

Credit: Wokandapix. Pixabay. Free for commercial use. No attribution required

Key Concepts

This chapter will prepare you to:

  1. Understand systemic and institutional factors that have contributed to privilege & inequality.
  2. Learn about the history of racial inequality in the United States.
  3. Think about our perceptions of gender and sex.
  4. Examine how disability is affected by concepts of ableism.
  5. Describe how someone’s sexual orientation could grant a person with social privileges.
  6. Understand legal definitions related to immigration and consider the historical and contemporary perceptions of the immigrant experience.

This chapter explores diversity and difference, with an emphasis on the experiences of marginalized groups in the United States. Group identities, which may be fluid and overlapping, shape the way we identify ourselves and others. Identities are complex. They exist in the context of race, social class, gender, sexual orientation, language, culture, geography, physical ability, and religion, to name a few. The word diversity implies numerous. So, bear in mind that this chapter presents a mere handful of artifacts, categories, and examples. In other words, they are meant to be an introduction to, not a definitive representation of what it means to be different.

We will apply our humanities lens to explore the role of diversity and difference in human rights, social justice, and political activism. The artifacts illustrate stories of identity, good and bad, from self-acceptance to social marginalization. This chapter also reflects on why a failure to understand and respect other people’s differences can end up pushing people apart, sometimes violently.

The reader will undoubtedly notice that the race section is significantly longer than the others. The primary reason is that Black people arguably represent the most marginalized group in American history. By “most marginalized,” we mean racism in America has a well-documented history and perhaps the longest-lasting. Racism was government-endorsed through the institution of black slavery and the legislation of Jim Crow laws. The breadth and depth of this history have arguably affected more Blacks than any other marginalized Americans.

Many of the race artifacts can serve as examples for other marginalized groups. For example, racial profiling can be compared to profiling gay men as having great fashion sense. Like racism, irrational xenophobia may drive anti-immigration laws and unfair labor practices. Implicit bias covers a wide range of hidden prejudices, including gender bias that creates inequities in hiring, promotion, and pay.

Historical Concepts of Inclusion

Since the founding days of the United States, people have argued whether “all men are created equal,” was intended to include all people or just some people. Events throughout American history suggest that equality has been and continues to be out of reach for certain groups. In an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson railed against British colonialism and the slave trade, describing them as “a cruel war against human nature.” The irony of this indictment was that Jefferson owned slaves, as did many of America’s founding fathers. In the final draft, Jefferson ended up omitting descriptions of the slave trade at the insistence of several state delegates.

Fast-forward to the present day, and certain groups are still marginalized from society. In the fight for racial equality, universal suffrage, access to healthcare, and same-sex marriage, Americans have sought to redress long-standing inequities. But the question remains, why do these inequities happen in the first place?

Questions for Critical & Creative Thinking
  • Come up with some examples of unequal treatment or conditions imposed on a specific group of people. Why do you suppose inequities exist for them?

Inequality and Privilege

Credit: sabakuINK. CC BY-SA 4.0. https://sabakuink.net/.

This famous quote comes from Animal Farm (1945), written by George Orwell. In this satirical tale, farm animals try to create an egalitarian society but end up being betrayed by a selfish faction, the pigs. The story begins with the animals successfully driving off their human owners after a cruel whipping. They set up an independent society where two legs are bad, four legs are good, and “all animals are equal.” Unfortunately, this idealism deteriorates when the pigs learn to stand up on their hind legs, start carrying whips, and move into the farmhouse. The pigs delete the original commandments, leaving only the one quoted above. Orwell presents a cynical message about inequality and privilege; people always gravitate to self-serving actions that create an unbalanced division of power.

Many would argue that rising above the crowd is achieved by working harder than everyone else. And yet, it is hard to deny that the climb is steeper for some than for others. Journalist Sian Ferguson frequently writes about marginalized groups and social justice. In describing inequality, Ferguson defines privilege “as a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.” In other words, some people benefit simply from being associated with a favorable group identity rather than through any deliberate effort. Social privilege facilitates institutional oppression because people who fall into the unprivileged group are automatically denied an equal share of opportunities and rewards.

Questions for Critical & Creative Thinking
  • Can you come up with some reasons why people feel compelled to label another race, culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation as inferior or superior?
  • Do you think embracing diversity and difference means sticking to your own group? Why or why not?


In a country once known as “the melting pot,” the subject of race continues to divide its people. The term imagines the United States as a crucible, where the various immigrant nationalities would meld together to form a new race.

This section examines race in the context of racism. Racism is a prejudiced opinion that assigns superior or inferior status to groups of people who share genetic or inherited physical characteristics. This bias against particular races is irrational and frequently hostile. Race artifacts, such as the color line, racial profiling, and hidden bias, illustrate the context and personal experiences of Black Americans. They also examine how racist attitudes breed abuse and violence.

The Color Line

Color line was a term created by human rights advocate and American diplomat Frederick Douglass to describe racism and racial segregation. In his address to the National Convention of Colored Men (September 24, 1883), Douglass explained that the color line arises from popular assumptions made about people because of their skin color. The division presents colored people with a pervasive, inescapable barrier to social mobility:

“Though we have had war, reconstruction and abolition as a nation, we still linger in the shadow and blight of an extinct institution. Though the colored man is no longer subject to be bought and sold, he is still surrounded by an adverse sentiment which fetters all his movements. In his downward course he meets with no resistance, but his course upward is resented and resisted at every step of his progress. If he comes in ignorance, rags, and wretchedness, he conforms to the popular belief of his character, and in that character he is welcome. But if he shall come as a gentleman, a scholar, and a statesman, he is hailed as a contradiction to the national faith concerning his race, and his coming is resented as impudence. In the one case he may provoke contempt and derision, but in the other he is an affront to pride and provokes malice. Let him do what he will, there is at present, therefore, no escape for him. The color line meets him everywhere, and in a measure shuts him out from all respectable and profitable trades and callings.”

As Douglas noted, stereotypical thinking can be very damaging to the denigrated group. People commit crimes, stay unemployed, become single parents, seek unhealthy relationships, drink excessively, and prefer certain foods for any number of internal and external reasons. Racism insists that Black people do these things because they cannot help but be Black. Worse yet, racism assumes that Black people cannot stop doing certain negative things because it is an indelible part of their nature.

In the context of racial privilege, the world looks very different to people who have none. Ironically, America’s fledgling independence was built using slave labor. African people were forcibly removed from their native countries to be chained up, shipped, traded, and branded like livestock. Once in the United States, they were imprisoned without cause, refused equal rights under the law, and forced to work without being paid. All because their Black African identity was judged inferior to the white European one.

In 1895, W.E.B Du Bois was the first Black American to graduate with a Ph.D. from Harvard. Du Bois went on to become a historian, sociologist, writer, and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In his essay, The Present Outlook for the Dark Races of Mankind (1900), Du Bois uses the color line to include all races of color:

“The world problem of the 20th century is the Problem of the Color line—the question of the relation of the advanced races of men who happen to be white to the great majority of the undeveloped or half developed nations of mankind who happen to be yellow, brown or black.”

Writer, poet, and activist Maya Angelou describes the color line being used to predetermine student success or failure. In “Chapter 23: Graduation” of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she describes her feelings of accomplishment and pride over graduating at the top of her class. On graduation day, the entire school is buzzing with excitement. But the upbeat mood quickly dissipates as two white school officials remind the Black students to limit their goals to socially acceptable expectations:

“The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys, (the girls weren’t even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises.”

Angelou recognized that this model of racial success had nothing to do with the reality of the present, and everything to do with the history of slavery in America:

“Which concrete angel glued to what county seat had decided that if my brother wanted to become a lawyer, he had to first pay penance for his skin by picking cotton and hoeing corn and studying correspondence books at night for twenty years?”

Questions for Creative & Critical Thinking
  • Is the color line a thing of the past? Or does it only apply to Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, and Maya Angelou?

Racial Profiling

Racial profiling is a form of institutional racism that arises when law enforcement officers and organizations show a biased perception of certain racial groups. Although made illegal in the United States in 1998, racial profiling continues to subject people of color to public humiliation, personal threats, physical harm, and even death. The term has expanded to include racial attitudes and behavior by all people, not only law enforcement.

On July 16, 2009, Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested while trying to force his way into a house in an affluent neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gates was handcuffed and held at police headquarters. He was released and the charges dropped because, as it turns out, he was trying to get into his own house. Gates is Black. He is also a tenured professor and chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, which is located in Cambridge.

Gates accused arresting officer Sergeant James Crowley of racism. Leading up to the arrest, Crowley suggested Gates was being investigated for a possible break-in. Gates responded, “Why, because I’m a Black man in America?”

News of Gates’ arrest was followed by a storm of commentary over racial profiling by law enforcement. Gates’ and Crowley’s accounts of what happened differ significantly. The Pew Research Center called the Gates arrest and the biggest race-related news event of 2009. Even President Barack Obama joined the debate:

“Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that’s just a fact.”

Questions for Creative & Critical Thinking
  • If Professor Gates had been a white professor in this upscale neighborhood, would this scenario have been different?
  • Did Professor Gates experience a modern-day color line?

On May 25th, 2020, Christian Cooper was birdwatching in Central Park in New York City when he witnessed a dog off-leash. Mr. Cooper is a member of the Audubon Society. He asked the dog’s owner, Amy Cooper (no relation), to stop disturbing the birds and leash her dog in compliance with park rules. Ms. Cooper refused. When Mr. Cooper tried to distract the dog with treats, Ms. Cooper threatened to call the police. She then called the police, claiming an African American man was threatening her and her dog.

Mr. Cooper captured most of the incident on his cell phone. His sister posted the video on social media, and it went viral. The recording shows a confrontational and agitated young woman speaking into her phone:

“There is an African-American man. I am in Central Park. He is recording me, and threatening me and my dog. I’m sorry, I can’t hear [words inaudible]. I’m being threatened by a man in the Ramble! Please send the cops immediately!”

The next day, Ms. Cooper’s employer announced she had been fired. Ms. Cooper told CNN she wanted to “publicly apologize to everyone” and said, “I’m not a racist. I did not mean to harm that man in any way.” The Manhattan district attorney charged Ms. Cooper with filing a false police report.

Mr. Cooper, who is a writer and editor, explained in an opinion piece for the Washington Post why he decided not to press charges or aid in the investigation. He emphasized the importance of looking past the individual perpetrator to recognize “the long-standing, deep-seated racial bias against us black and brown folk that permeates the United States.” Cooper added that treating Ms. Cooper’ as though her reaction was an anomaly, lets white bystanders ignore their personal responsibilities to end racism:

“Focusing on charging Amy Cooper lets white people off the hook from all that. They can scream for her head while leaving their own prejudices unexamined. They can push for her prosecution and pat themselves on the back for having done something about racism, when they’ve actually done nothing, and their own Amy Cooper remains only one purse-clutch in the presence of a black man away.”

Questions for Creative & Critical Thinking
  • How would you describe Ms. Cooper’s physical behavior, choice of words, and tone of voice? What one word would you use to describe Ms. Cooper in this video.
  • How would you describe Mr. Cooper’s physical behavior (e.g., how much did the video move or shake), choice of words, and tone of voice? What one word would you use to describe Mr. Cooper in this video?
  • Is it significant that Ms. Cooper tells police she is being threatened by an African American man? In other words, do you think she exploited racial profiling to get the police to respond?
  • What do you think of Ms. Cooper’s apology that included saying she is not racist?
  • The incidents involving Mr. Gates and Mr. Cooper (indirectly) are examples of racial profiling. What is the connection between racial profiling and the color line?

Irrational, Hostile, and Tragic

As was evident in the video, Amy Cooper’s extreme reaction did not make sense under the circumstances. Extreme responses to racially motivated bias figures heavily in explaining the disproportionate numbers of Black people shot by law enforcement relative to other racial identities in the United States. Over 95% of the shooting victims are Black men, and over 50% of the men are 20-40 years old.

Keep in mind the context of racial bias, response levels, and victim demographics as we examine two different shooting artifacts. On September 16th, 2016, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by police officer Betty Jo Shelby. Police videos show an unarmed 40-year-old Black man, Shelby, and several other officers on the scene. Crutcher moved slowly with his hands in the air, followed instructions, and showed no resistance. Transcripts reveal an officer in the helicopter said, “Also, got a feeling it’s about to happen. It looks like a bad dude, too. Might be on something.” Shortly after, Crutcher collapsed and fell to the ground, and voices shouted that shots have been fired.

Officer Shelby stood trial for first-degree murder and was acquitted. Returning to work at the Tulsa Police Department, she was assigned to administrative (desk) duties and later resigned. The following year she was hired as a deputy by the Rogers County Sheriff’s Department (Claremore). In 2018, Shelby taught a training course called Surviving the Aftermath, during which “participants will be exposed to many of the legal, financial, physical, and emotional challenges which may result from a critical incident in an effort to prepare (law enforcement officers) for the aftermath.” In 2019, she became a firearms instructor for the National Rifle Association (NRA).


Trayvon Martin wearing a hoodie.
Credit: Family of Trayvon Martin. Fair Use of copyrighted material. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TrayvonMartinHooded.jpg

Open displays of institutional racism spill over into the general public, which has tragic consequences when civilians use armed force to enforce their racial prejudices. On February 26, 2012, in Twin Lakes, Florida, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by volunteer Neighborhood Watch captain George Zimmerman. The 17-year-old Black man was unarmed. Zimmerman was patrolling the gated community from his truck when he spotted Martin walking through the neighborhood. Zimmerman called the police to report:

“Hey, we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there’s a real suspicious guy. This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining, and he’s just walking around looking about.”

Eventually, Zimmerman confronted Martin and fatally shot him in the chest with a 9 mm handgun. Zimmerman claims the two men got into a physical altercation and that he was physically attacked and shot Martin in self-defense. Witness calls to 911 offered contradicting reports of who was the one getting beaten. Further complicating matters, Florida laws allow concealed-carry gun permits and “stand your ground” defense arguments. This controversial law gives people the legal right to defend themselves using deadly force against an attacker if they believe they are in danger of serious injury.

What followed Martin’s death was a long, meandering legal journey. Sanford police, claiming they did not have grounds to do so, waited 47 days before arresting Zimmerman. Soon after the arrest, Police Chief Bill Lee was fired for mishandling the case. The lead prosecutor was replaced twice. The trial judge was replaced once. The prosecutor’s office accidentally released trial documents to the press. Zimmerman sued NBC for editing his 911 call to make him look like a racist who racially profiled Martin. The trial began nearly one year and two months following Martin’s death. After 16 hours of deliberation, the six-woman jury (no men) acquitted Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter.

Shortly before Zimmerman’s trial began, racial profiling jumped onto the center stage. TV show host Geraldo Rivera shocked viewers with his comments about the upcoming trial. Rivera said Martin was partially responsible for his own death because he was wearing a hoodie. When asked to clarify, Rivera maintained this was just “common sense” for minorities in America. People around the world responded by posting pictures of themselves wearing hoodies on social media.


Credit: Howard University students. “Am I Suspicious?” CourtScrub. YouTube. Fair Use of worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to access content. https://youtu.be/rH5bB8HUWFs.

Law students from Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, DC, released the video, “Am I Suspicious?” to highlight how racial profiling resulted in Martin’s death.

Questions for Creative & Critical Thinking
  • What does a bad dude look like? Why would police suggest, “he looks like a bad dude”?
  • How can someone in a helicopter, several hundred feet from the ground, determine a person’s intent or sobriety?

Implicit versus Explicit Beliefs

Amy Cooper insisted, “I’m not a racist!” Like Cooper, many people believe they accept diversity and avoid judging people based on race. These same people carry racial stereotypes—positive and negative, correct and incorrect—they are unaware of having. This tendency for our minds to accept stereotypes without filtering or judging them is called implicit bias. The opposite way of thinking is explicit bias, which are generalizations we are aware of or intentionally make. Explicit or implicit, these biases inform our attitudes about people of certain races being more likely to commit a crime, good at playing sports, or skilled in composing hip-hop lyrics.

Harvard developed an online survey called the Implicit Association Test (IAT) that reveals how tricky it can be to avoid implicit bias. Each survey covers a topic such as Arab-Muslim names, facial skin-tones, European-African faces, Asian-American faces and places. There are also surveys for religion, weapons, gender, disability, age, presidents, weight, and sexuality. The survey differentiates between automatic responses (implicit) to certain racial groups and conscious choices (explicit).

Who Owns History?

This race artifact presents valuable insights into whose version of history is recognized by society. From before its days as a nation, American history is filled with events that persecuted, subjugated, oppressed, and eradicated another racial identity. Seen from the perspective of African slaves and indigenous Native Americans, the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas, signing of the Declaration of Independence, and settling of the “Wild West” could hardly be regarded as celebratory moments in history.

The halftime show of the 2016 Superbowl Championship for the National Football League (NFL) featured a live musical performance by pop singer Beyoncé. Beyoncé’s performance paid homage to the American civil rights movement. It included references to the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, and black power salute.

Many viewers expressed praise, including James Corden, host of The Late Late Show with James Corden, Baltimore mayoral candidate and author Deray McKesson, and the political activist group Dream Defenders. Others, such as Anna Kooiman of Fox News and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, were highly critical.


Credit: Michelle Malkin (@michellemalkin). Twitter. Fair Use of copyrighted material. https://twitter.com/michellemalkin/status/696509742747820032.


Much of the outrage focused on elevating civil-rights activists with negative images, rather than beloved icons such as Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Thurgood Marshall, Hank Aaron, Julian Bond, and Rosa Parks.

In his book Between the World and Me, author Ta-nehisi Coates wonders why teachers present such a one-dimensional view of Blacks during Black History Month (February):

“Why were only our heroes nonviolent? I speak not of the morality of nonviolence, but of the sense that blacks are in especial need of this morality… I judged them against the country I knew, which had acquired the land through murder and tamed it under slavery, against the country whose armies fanned out across the world to extend their dominion. The world, the real one, was civilization secured and ruled by savage means. How could the schools valorize men and women whose values society actively scorned?”

The following two artifacts, from a songwriter and a poet, assert that the traditional version of the United States is not universal, begging the question, who is telling the truth?)

Credit: Childish Gambino. “This Is America.” Donald Glover. YouTube. Fair Use of worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to access content.

The Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) music video “This Is America” was released on May 5th, 2018. The song and video are filled with references to Black culture and history. They address gun violence and drug use, as well as long-standing issues of racism against Black Americans. Early in the video, Gambino executes a hooded black man in the head with a handgun. He immediately assumes the shambling gait of a Jim Crow caricature. Gambino guns down a Black gospel choir, which some interpret as a reference to the Charleston church shootings (2015). Near the end of the video, Gambino lights up a marijuana joint before the scene fades to black. The video concludes with a terrified Gambino, barefoot and shirtless, being pursued by an anonymous mob.

Langston Hughes‘ life spanned multiple formative events in American history, giving him a unique perspective on what it means to be Black in America. Hughes grew up during the depression, experienced discrimination throughout his life, and died in 1967 at the height of the civil rights movement. The title of his poem “Let America Be America Again,” is remarkably reminiscent of the slogan, “Make America Great Again,” used by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

In the poem, Hughes contrasts traditional images of American life with his personal reflections. Here are the first three stanzas:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Questions for Creative & Critical Thinking
  • Can you describe other historical narratives when persecution or violence against another race was OK or rarely questioned?
  • Do we tend to downplay or even hide questionable moments in history?
  • What role does the history of marginalized groups play in our national consciousness?
  • Whose narrative do you think presents an accurate history of America? The founding fathers? Indigenous people? Enslaved Africans?
  • Think of someone you consider a hero. Can you articulate what makes that person a hero to you? How much do they physically resemble you? Have they been involved in violent actions? If so, what were the circumstances?
  • Have you ever generalized, positive or negative, about someone based on their race?
  • Did you find Beyoncé’s performance disturbing? Uplifting? Negative? Positive? Can you articulate why?
  • President Trump and poet Hughes would certainly share different versions of what greatness looks like. Can you create a list of criteria of “greatness” for each of them, based on what you know about their spoken and written words?
  • What does Gambino’s song say to you about his experience of being American? How does his experience compare with yours? Can you describe why his is similar/dissimilar to yours?


This section explores how explicit and implicit perceptions of gender create inequality for women. The gender artifacts present relevant linguistic, social, political, legal, and cultural contexts. In these explorations, men, women, and gender are used in the cisgender context. “Cisgender is a term for people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth.” Transgender and other gender identities are discussed in the LGBTQ+ section of this chapter.

The F Word

Feminism is frequently a trigger word that sparks passionate debate. What is commonly overlooked is the term feminism defines equality for all sexes, not only women. Britannica.com offers a simple, short definition:

“Feminism, the belief in social, economic, and political equality of the sexes. Although largely originating in the West, feminism is manifested worldwide and is represented by various institutions committed to activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.”

Without exception, women in every developed and undeveloped country in the world suffer from higher rates of poverty than men. Women are not paid for doing work—cleaning, childcare, senior care, shopping, cooking, laundry, bookkeeping—associated with their own household. This category of domestic work is not commodified as an economic activity, which severely devalues the financial worth of the woman and the services she provides. This devaluation, in turn, negatively affects how women are perceived as contributors to society. In short, women are expected to work for free and, at the same time, are categorized as social freeloaders.

Questions for Creative & Critical Thinking
  • Do you believe in social, political, and economic equality for men and women?
  • Based on this definition, would you characterize yourself as a feminist?

Gender Labels

The words we choose and how we use them tells a lot about the society we live in. For example, many job descriptions in the American English language are implicitly linked to gender-based power relationships. See if you can answer the following riddle known as the Surgeon’s Dilemma:

A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the father. The son is rushed to the hospital. However, the surgeon looks at the patient and says, “I cannot operate on this boy because he is my son!” How is this possible? [Click here for the answer.]

This example shows how implicit bias reinforces gender stereotypes in specific careers. Presidents, physicians, college professors, priests, astronauts, CEOs, welders, computer technicians, firemen, policemen, and congressmen are assumed to be men. Nurses, kindergarten teachers, domestic workers, personal aides, administrative assistants, dental assistants, childcare workers, and hairdressers are assumed to be women. Not surprisingly, “male” jobs provide higher pay (and frequently more prestige) than “female” jobs. In fact, men earn more than women working in the same job.

Questions for Creative & Critical Thinking
  • If we hear someone talking about a nurse, are we are more likely to assume that the person is referring to a female?
  • Could the association of women and specific jobs reflect the percentage of women in that profession?

Women in Politics

The United States has yet to elect a female president. With 24% female representation in the national legislature, the United States ranks 83rd in the world. Despite representing 51% of the population, women make up only 25% of the members of the Senate and 23% of the House of Representatives. 22% of cities with populations over 30,000 have women mayors. On average, women occupy 29% of state legislative seats.

The article “Measuring Stereotypes of Female Politicians” published in 2014 in Political Psychology concluded the public perception was that:

“Female politicians are defined more by their deficits than their strengths. In addition to failing to possess the strengths associated with being women…female politicians lack leadership, competence, and masculine traits in comparison to male politicians.”

Attorney Geraldine Ferraro served in the United States House of Representatives. In 1984, she was the running mate of United States presidential candidate Walter Mondale. Ferraro became the first female vice-presidential candidate to be nominated by a major political party in the United States. News Anchor Tom Brokaw introduced Ferraro at the Democratic National Convention with, “Geraldine Ferraro… The first woman to be nominated for vice president… Size 6!”

In the 2012 presidential election, Sarah Palin ran as the vice-presidential candidate to John McCain. The news media asked the candidate that if elected, would she continue to cook family meals. They praised the candidate’s fashion sense. They obsessed about whether the candidate had breast implants, spawning the nickname “Boob-gate.”

In 2016, the leading presidential candidates were President Donald Trump and Senator Hillary Clinton. Candidate Trump accused Clinton of relying on her gender rather than her qualifications to win the election. He said, “You know, she’s playing the woman’s card. If she didn’t play the woman’s card she would have no chance, I mean zero, of winning.”

Facial expression is another implicit gender-bias female politicians must address. The article “Forming Impressions: Effects of Facial Expression and Gender Stereotypes” reports that smiling women are perceived as being warmer and more competent than smiling men. Researchers call this perception, the “women are wonderful” effect. The difference, researchers believe, is that women are more likely to be evaluated on appearance than men. From these findings, it is easy to postulate that a female politician who does not smile will be judged negatively.

Questions for Creative & Critical Thinking
  • Can you imagine a male candidate being introduced through his chest measurement? Or waist measurement?
  • What are the consequences of identifying women only in relation to how they look? Is this reductive? Does it diminish their accomplishments?
  • Do you believe making statements about a woman’s appearance diminishes her accomplishments?
  • Do you think a man could be accused of playing the “man card”? Why or why not?
  • Do you think gender should qualify a person from being appointed to a public office or running for election?

Rwanda: Achieving Gender Equity

Female representation in national legislatures around the world. [Click on image to view the interactive map.] Credit: Represent Women. “Women’s Representation Internationally.” Free to share. Credit to RepresentWomen.

The United States is automatically assumed to be a leader in the fight for equal rights for all. However, female representation in the national government falls far below that of many countries, including Rwanda, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, South Africa, Belarus, and the Dominican Republic.

Rwanda tops the international list, with 61% of the national legislatures being women. In 1961, Rwandan women were granted the right to run for office. During the 1990s, women members were 18% of the Rwandan Parliament. By 2003, Rwandan women made up nearly 50%. The numbers continued to rise with every election, 56% in 2008, with a peak of 64% in 2008.

What happened to literally change the faces of the Rwandan government was 100 days of genocide in 1994. Following the genocide that took the lives of over 800,000 people and displaced an estimated 2 million more, 70% of the remaining population was female. Widowed women became the heads of households, in charge of providing financial support and decision-making. They became leaders.

The genocide forced men and women to think differently about gender roles in society. The post-genocide political leaders rebuilt the government with this new leadership resource, filling it with women. These appointments paved the way for a 2003 constitutional mandate that required 30% female representation in all decision-making organizations, including 24 of the 80 seats in Parliament. New labor laws guaranteed equal pay for women and men and prohibited gender-based harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Other legal reforms included equal rights of land access and ownership and penalties for violence targeting gender and children.

These political and legal reforms have created sweeping changes in Rwandan society. This is all for the better, says Rwandan President Paul Kagame:

“The question of gender equality in our society needs a clear and critical evaluation in order to come up with concrete strategies to map the future development in which men and women are true partners and beneficiaries. My understanding of gender is that it is an issue of good governance, good economic management and respect of human rights”

Questions for Critical & Creative Thinking
  • In order to correct social injustices such as gender-based inequality, should governments mandate reform through appointments and legislation?
  • Or should gender equality be achieved organically, driven by social, political, and economic forces?


This section explores immigration through the contexts of personal journeys, concepts of home, historical circumstances, and public perceptions. The term immigrant will be used to identify a group that includes immigrants, aliens, refugees, and asylum seekers. While all these people have left their country of origin, each sub-group has characteristics that impact their immigrant experience.

Here are brief definitions of each sub-group:

An immigrant describes any person residing in, as opposed to visiting, another country who is not a citizen of that country. Note, this definition differs from the legal term described in the United States Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

An alien is any person who is not a citizen of the United States. The United States categorizes aliens as immigrant (resident), and nonimmigrant (nonresident), refugee, asylee (asylum seeker), documented, and undocumented (illegal).

A refugee refers to a person who lives outside their country of nationality to avoid the persecution of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group.

An asylum seeker or asylee is a person present in or seeking entry into the United States.

Concepts of Home

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” —Robert Frost, “The Death of a Hired Man.”

Many of us can relate to this sentiment of home, an identifiable place that provides a sense of safety or rest. For over 70 million displaced persons around the globe, however, home does not exist. In 2019, the United Nations (UN) reported that the world is in the midst of the most massive refugee crisis since World War II (WWII). In the United States, immigrant families are forcibly separated, and people are denied the legal right to seek asylum.

Questions to Critical & Creative Thinking
  • Reflect on your concept of home and imagine what it would mean if you had to leave it or had it taken from you.

Perilous Journeys, Hostile Receptions

In 2015, scores of humans poured into Europe to escape violence and upheaval in their home nations. Thousands of people drowned trying to cross the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. While some refugees were greeted warmly, many others faced harsh anti-refugee sentiments from the public. Xenophobic rumors accused newcomers of asylum shopping and being terrorists.

Artist Ai Weiwei documented these mass migrations in the film, “Human Flow.” Weiwei also created an international, traveling exhibit called “Safe Passage,” which attaches lifejackets to the exterior columns of a building. The lifejackets were worn and discarded by refugees traveling from Turkey to Greece.

Images of the body of drowned three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi drew international attention. The tragedy highlighted the impossible choices people are forced to make in their search for a safe place to call home. Kurdi, his older brother, and his mother drowned after their small, over-crowded boat capsized. His father explained that they were given “fake” life preservers that were useless.

Global or multilateral policies on refugee migration are practically nonexistent. Desperate refugees end up paying what amounts to extortion fees to black-market smugglers, with no guarantees of being delivered safely or even arriving at the promised destination.

Credit: Alexander Betts, “Our Refugee System Is Failing. Here’s How We Can Fix It. TED 2016. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.  https://www.ted.com/talks/alexander_betts_our_refugee_system_is_failing_here_s_how_we_can_fix_it/

Economist and political scientist Alexander Betts believes we need to protect people from having to choose between life-threatening conditions in their home country or an even more perilous journey to escape them. Betts proposes three ideas that would help develop international policies. Idea one is to create an economic resettlement zone where refugees can work and establish businesses. Two is to match refugees with resettlement areas that match their skills. Three would be to issue humanitarian visas allowing refugees to use legitimate travel services.

Immigration in the United States

The United States is a nation that was founded and built by immigrants. For centuries, people have come to America to escape negative situations and seek out new opportunities. Continuing into present times, people arrive from all over the world, hoping to become citizens. 680,000 new American citizens are naturalized every year.

Unless you were born an indigenous Native American, someone in your American family got here by immigrating from another country. For some, this may have been a very recent trip in the family history. People make the journey alone, with their families, or community members.

“Oh, I love going to Ellis Island to watch the ships coming in from Europe, and to think that all those weary, sea-tossed wanderers are feeling what I felt when America first stretched out her great mother-hand to me!”—David Quixano

Israel Zangwill’s play, “The Melting Pot,” was first staged in 1908. The play depicts the experiences of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family escaping a fractured Russian society and coming to the United States. Family member David envisages a life free of ethnic divides in “God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!”

The United States establishes quotas for incoming immigrants based on their country of origin. Work visas and residency (green) cards provide immigrants with critical first steps toward achieving American citizenship through naturalization. Immigration policies usually reflect economic, social, and political relationships between the United States and other nations. Unfortunately, they may also reflect irrational, xenophobic attitudes. Examples of these types of anti-immigration laws or government policies include the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), Red Scare (1917-20, 1940s-50s), Executive Order 9066 (1942), and Executive Order 13769 (2017).

Questions for Creative & Critical Thinking
  • How might immigration laws and policies affect how we perceive immigrants?
  • Do you know who the first-generation immigrant was (is) in your family and under what circumstances they arrived in the United States?
  • How might immigration laws and policies make an impression on the immigrants?


This section examines the experiences of people who self-identify as something other than heterosexual, people who have sexual relationships based on the traditionally perceived genders of men and women. In this section, the term LGBTQ+ includes people who are marginalized because of their sexual identity. The plus symbol (+) signifies this group identity includes other sexual identities in addition to (L)esbian, (G)ay, (B)isexual, (T)ransgender, or (Q)ueer/(Q)uestioning.

Mainstream society tends to perceive the LGBTQ+ group not only as being different but also as being not normal. This irrational bias is called heteronormativity, the belief that heterosexuality is normal and any other sexual orientation is not. Heteronormativity grants social, professional, legal, financial, and educational privileges to heterosexual relationships and discriminates against relationships that are not. Disparities in taxation, healthcare, marriage, and employment devalue LGBTQ+ people, their spouses, children, and families as being inferior to and less desirable than those of heterosexuals.

Like racism, heteronormativity grants unearned, significant benefits to certain people solely based on their group identity. Social advocate and author Sam Killerman lists 43 examples of heterosexual privilege, which he calls the “Why it’s easier to be straight list.” Here are some examples from the list, in no particular order:

Expressing affection in most social situations and not expecting hostile or violent reactions from others.

Having positive and accurate media images of people with whom you can identify.

Talking openly about your relationship, vacations, and family planning you and your lover/partner are doing.

Raising, adopting, and teaching children without people believing that you will molest them or force them into your sexuality.

Working in a job dominated by people of your gender, but not feeling as though you are a representative/spokesperson for your sexuality.

Receiving paid leave from employment when grieving the death of your spouse.

Assuming strangers won’t ask, “How does sex work for you?” or other too-personal questions.

Sharing health, auto, and homeowners’ insurance policies at reduced rates.

Acting, dressing, or talking as you choose without it being a reflection on people of your sexuality.

Freely teaching about lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals without being seen as having a bias because of your sexuality or forcing your “homosexual agenda” on students.

Having property laws work in your favor, filing joint tax returns, and automatically inheriting from your spouse under probate laws.

Questions for Creative & Critical Thinking
  • Reading through the list, have you experienced any of these privileges?
  • Prior to reading this section, were you aware that heterosexual privilege exists?

Being LGBTQ+ in America

[Click on image to enlarge the map.] Blue countries legally protect sexual orientation from discrimination. Red/brown/orange countries criminalize same-sex acts between adults.
Credit: ILGA World: Lucas Ramon Mendos. “State-Sponsored Homophobia 2019: Global Legislation Overview Update.” (Geneva; ILGA, December 2019). Free to share. https://ilga.org/ilga-launches-state-sponsored-homophobia-2019.

Social movements arise in response to institutional discrimination against and criminalization of particular group identities. For centuries, religious and government institutions have impeded the open acceptance of all sexual identities. In 70 countries around the world, same-sex activity is illegal. In six of them, same-sex activity is punishable by death.

Scholar and historian Bonnie J. Morris suggests that every documented society shows evidence of same-sex relationships, along with its persecution. European and Christian colonizers were shocked upon observing “two-spirit” love in Native American societies. And yet, Europe had Sappho of ancient Greece, who wrote about same-sex desires among women. The first known case of someone receiving the death sentence for homosexual activity occurred in what is now Florida in 1566, when Spanish explorers executed a French man.

In the United States, same-sex activism gained momentum following World War II (WWII). One of America’s earliest LGTBQ+ organizations was the Mattachine Society, founded in 1950 by Harry Hay and Chuck Rowland. The group got its name from the French activist group Société Mattachine. The société used theatre and song to spread awareness of social injustices against gay people. The Mattachine Society pioneered a two-fold implementation of gay activism: 1) organizing gay people to form grass-roots challenges to anti-gay discrimination, and 2) building a gay community to provide a national network of personal, emotional, and political support. In 1953-54, the group suffered from internal disagreements that divided group leaders. The founding members resigned, and the society faded away following the Stonewall riots in 1969.

The Stonewall uprising marked a pivotal year for gay rights in the United States. Before 1969, homosexuality was illegal in every state except Illinois. The Stonewall Inn in New York City was a gay and lesbian bar. Early in the morning on June 27th, 1969, police raided the bar, arrested employees for selling alcohol without a license, manhandled customers, and cleared the bar. Several customers were arrested for not wearing “gender-appropriate clothing.” Angry customers began fighting back, and the police barricaded themselves inside the bar. The scuffles quickly escalated into a riot, and the bar was set on fire. Police reinforcements arrived to extinguish the fire and disperse the crowd. Rioting crowds gathered intermittently over the next five days. News of the uprising spread throughout the LGTBQ+ community, unifying long-suffering people behind a common cause. The following year, New York City held its first Gay Pride celebration on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

Following Stonewall, the Gay Liberation movement of the 1970s helped transform public perception of gays and lesbians across the United States. The decade saw the premiere of “That Certain Summer (1972),” the first mainstream TV movie to portray gay men sympathetically. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (the 1971 film, not the 1883 music video) featured an on-screen kiss between two men. The film Cabaret (1972) openly celebrated homosexuality and won eight Oscars and three Golden Globes.

The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s was another galvanizing moment when LGTBQ+ people organized to raise public awareness and achieve social justice. The grass-roots organization ACT UP (1987) was born in the midst of an epidemic that was killing tens of thousands of people. This sometimes-radical group devised ground-breaking strategies for making drug-testing more inclusive of marginalized groups, speeding up the drug-approval process, and routing federal funding to health education, disease prevention, and testing. ACT UP is also credited with setting in motion the momentum to legalize marriage equality in the United States and abroad.

The first two decades of the 20th century have seen increasing public acceptance of LGTBQ+ people and their values. On April 30th, 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian on her television sitcom. An estimated 42 million viewers watched the hour-long, celebrity-filled episode. A week before the episode aired, DeGeneres appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the headline “Yep, I’m Gay.”

In 2015, former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner came out as a transgender woman with her new name, Caitlyn. Jenner appeared on the July 2015 cover of Vanity Fair magazine. The cover story included photographs of Jenner wearing sexy lingerie, slinky floor-length gowns, and curve-fitting dresses. The shots were taken by famed celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz

On June 26, 2015, in the landmark case Obergefell v. Hodges, the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages in all 50 states, eliminated state bans on same-sex marriage, and required states to honor out-of-state same-sex marriage licenses.

Of course, the need for social justice for LGTBQ+ people continues. Protection against employer discrimination due to gender and sexual identity is not the law in all 50 states. House bill HR 5 – Equality Act (2109-2020) is intended to prohibit “an individual from being denied access to a shared facility, including a restroom, a locker room, and a dressing room, that is in accordance with the individual’s gender identity.”

Questions for Creative & Critical Thinking
  • How do you suppose highly publicized coming-out stories of celebrities impact LGBTQ+ individuals struggling privately with issues of identity and acceptance?


For the most part, human society defines the world from an ableist bias. Everything from buildings, to TV characters, to social structures is designed for people without disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines someone affected by disability as:

“a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”

A Short History of Disability (US version)

The awareness of discrimination against disabled people emerged in the 1960s-70s. However, prejudice against and mistreatment of people with disabilities stretches back many centuries. Phil Pangrazio is President and CEO of Ability360, one of the largest independent living centers for people with disabilities in the United States. Pangrazio traces the roots of ableism to biblical theology that explains that people with disabilities are being punished for not following God’s teachings. Disability-based prejudices continued throughout European and American history, unfairly assuming people with disabilities were victims of demonic or supernatural possession.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, American institutions acknowledged that people with disabilities needed intervention and treatment. Unfortunately, the “solution” was to segregate people with disabilities from the rest of society by placing them in special schools for the physically crippled, deaf, blind, and mentally ill. Popular at the time, Social Darwinism and the Eugenics movement prompted legislation that prohibited people with disabilities from marrying or having children. For example, in Buck v. Bell (1927), the United States Supreme Court upheld state laws forcing people with intellectual disabilities to be sterilized. Ugly laws defined people with physical disabilities as “unsightly or disgusting” and forbade them from appearing in public. The Idiot Law (1846) states, “No white person shall intermarry with a negro, and no insane person or idiot shall be capable of contracting marriage.”

United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was stricken by polio in his late 30s, was a public advocate for rehabilitation. However, he was motivated by the personal belief that disability was an abnormal condition that should be treated and cured. Disabled WWII veterans pushed for government reforms that would provide medical rehabilitation and vocational training.

The 1960s and 1970s saw significant advancements in the perception and treatment of people with disabilities living in the United States. Disability activism was no doubt helped along by the Black-American civil rights movement. In 1973, LGBTQ activist Franklin Kameny got the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which was used to diagnose mental disabilities. Laws were enacted to ensure equal opportunities for people with disabilities in employment and public education.

Perhaps the biggest victory for disability activism came with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. This law extended civil rights protections to people with disabilities in public accommodations and transportation, in the workplace, in receiving state and government services. It also mandates equal access to telecommunications services.

Overcoming Inspiration Porn and Other Ableisms

Despite these achievements, people with disabilities still face explicit and implicit bias that encourages damaging stereotypes. Even seemingly benevolent behavior attitudes may detract from genuine challenges and valid accomplishments performed by real people.

Irish novelist and poet Christy Brown’s autobiography, My Left Foot (1954), gave mainstream audiences an insider’s look at the experiences of someone with disabilities. In the chapter, “The Letter A,” Brown describes how his mother’s unflagging love and support helped him first to survive and then to overcome severe physical disabilities. The book was adapted into a film in 1989, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, who won an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Credit: Lisa Bufano. Zack B. “Lisa Bufano.” YouTube. Fair Use of worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to access content. https://youtu.be/vWZi2uGRQms.

When Lisa Bufano was 21 years old, a life-threatening staph infection resulted in the amputation of both her legs and the fingers on both hands. The former gymnast started expressing her experience as an amputee through dance and performance art, using “music, props, prosthetics, and illusion to explore the idea of deformity.” In October 2013, at the age of 40, Bufano committed suicide.


Credit: Stella Young, “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much.TEDxSydney. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International. https://www.ted.com/talks/stella_young_i_m_not_your_inspiration_thank_you_very_much.

Stella Young, a comedian, journalist, and activist, was born with a genetic condition that makes her bones very fragile. She complains about “inspiration porn,” a tendency for people to overinflate routine accomplishments by people with disabilities. She recounts being a teenager working in her mom’s hair salon and binge-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Someone from the community suggested nominating Young for a community achievement award. Her parents voiced their appreciation and pointed out that their daughter was not doing anything particularly noteworthy. After years of similar encounters, Young realized people were treating her like a rare object on display rather than a regular person.

British-born visual and performance artist Alison Lapper was born with truncated legs and no arms. Lapper challenges stereotypical perceptions of beauty by creating self-portraits rendered in painting, photography, and digital imaging. Lapper openly challenges viewers to recognize her art, not her disability. Fellow artist Marc Quinn created a sculpture using a pregnant Lapper as his model. The sculpture was displayed at Trafalgar Square in London for many years. When London hosted the Paralympic Games in 2012, Quinn created an inflatable reinterpretation of the original sculpture that took center stage during the games’ opening ceremony.

“[Mark Twain] treated me not as a freak, but as a handicapped woman seeking a way to circumvent extraordinary difficulties.” —Helen Keller (1895)