Discrimination: It’s good for you?

21 Feb

To be transparent: I have not read the book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America by wife and husband team Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld. I just read the transcript of this interview with them about the book (http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/02/05/271981107/tiger-mother-author-spells-out-3-traits-that-drive-success-in-the-u-s).

And I just want to play back what I think I read…

Amy explains:

This is a book, in some ways, about what it takes to be successful in America today, in this very, very tough economy. One way of getting at that question is by looking at the groups that at this moment today are doing especially well in terms of these very conventional metrics: income, educational attainments, etc. And these three qualities that we talk about are actually open to anyone, of any background, any skin color. When you do access them, they propel you to success. It’s like they generate drive.

We kind of looked around at the groups that seemed very different at first, and noticed that they actually all have these traits in common. It’s the combination of simultaneously feeling superior and special, and insecure and not quite good enough that really generates motivation.

Let me just give you a concrete example. Take a lot of immigrants. There are immigrants who come from, I don’t know, China or Ghana or Persia or [Greece], and they feel like they came from ancient civilizations, great civilizations. And maybe some of them had high status in their countries. And then they come to this country, and suddenly they are outsiders. They look different. They have a funny accent. You don’t feel properly recognized. And that feeling of being almost a little bit resentful, you know, “I’m gonna show everybody,” that can be an incredibly powerful motivator for success.

To recap:

While the qualities of “simultaneously feeling superior and special, and insecure and not quite good enough” are supposedly “open to anyone, of any background, any skin color,” it helps if you are a racial or ethnic minority (plus points for immigrants) because racism and xenophobia are working for you to foment these qualities. The fact that Chua and Rubenfeld identify eight “cultural groups” (Jews, Mormons, Indian-Americans, Iranians, Cuban exiles, Nigerian-Americans, Lebanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans) to make their case suggests that “open” is relative. One might even infer that, in fact, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant folks whose ancestors spilled off the Mayflower et al. are at a distinct disadvantage because they don’t “look different” (at least to themselves), and they don’t “have a funny accent” (again, in their own opinions).


I appreciate that Chua and Rubenfeld strive to base their claims on data, and I appreciate that they’re not trying to write what’s popular so much as what they believe is important to name.

And, I have to question the framing of their argument, which subscribes to the school of privilege-blindness that would suggest, to use my colleague Steven Jones’ real-life metaphor (http://www.jonesandassociatesconsulting.com/The_Right_Hand_of_Privilege_ThoughtPaper.pdf), that the daily, systemic advantages enjoyed by right-handed people in the world (see: absence of stigma, availability of gear without additional cost or effort to locate, and everyday functions from unlocking your iPhone to shaking hands that are designed for right-handers) are void when compared to the obvious and overwhelming advantage of being a left-handed baseball pitcher. It just doesn’t add up. It’s simply inaccurate, not to mention unfair, to highlight the exceptional advantages of systemically oppressed and marginalized groups without naming the institutionalized advantages that tacitly and powerfully favor majority groups every day.

While Chua and Rubenfeld are making an economic argument, I have to wonder about the trickle down effect of what they’re claiming. I suppose we shouldn’t feel outraged on behalf of Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins, so much as envy him for the opportunities Richie Incognito provided for him to feel “superior and special, and insecure and not quite good enough” (http://www.salon.com/2014/02/14/nfl_releases_shocking_report_detailing_richie_incognitos_racist_and_homophobic_abuse/)? And then there are the black students at Ole Miss, who have maybe not been terrorized so much as given their chance to really excel (http://news.yahoo.com/noose-tied-ole-miss-integration-statue-182314619.html)?

According to Rubenfeld, he and Chua expect “sensitivity” in response to their book. Yes, and I would hope some sensibility, too.

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