Every day we encounter one another through lenses colored by social hierarchy—consciously and unconsciously. The conclusions we draw are rooted in the beliefs we hold about how people are classified and what their perceived value is based on their social classifications.
When you’re in the picture, it’s hard to see the frame.
Imagine happy children playing… Who are the children your mind attempts to capture and convey?
Sing a song about freedom… Who are the captors?
Think about masculinity… Whose experience of masculinity serves as your metric?
Search Google for ‘beautiful women’… What do the search results display?
Think of a safe neighborhood… Who lives there?
Select music for a church service… Which cultures inform those selections?
Picture the leaders of your organization… What competencies inform their ability to effectively interact with different kinds of people?
Move to a new neighborhood… Do you need to see people who look like you and people who don’t look like you?
Warn your children about “bad” people… What do the faces of those people look like?
You’ve employed someone who doesn’t look like you… What psychosocial power dynamics are at play?
Think of the terms ‘mainstream’ and ‘mainline’… What customs come to mind?
The European settlers who discovered an already inhabited land, called it America, and exacted a plan to ensure their own upward mobility, their success relied upon their ability to convince generations of people into dichotomous, social hierarchies. The American social system designed by those early settlers advanced those with a propensity towards exceptionalism, while marginalizing those who were less than ideal.
As a result of this stratification, overtime, marginalized people have been conditioned to understand that there is an expectation for us to assimilate into the cultural, social and personal expectations of the dominant social group in order to maintain the dynamics that perpetuate American Idealism.
And what determines who is ideal in America?
Is an ideal American a sexual predator and tyrant who throws his hat in the ring to run our country?
Is an ideal American someone who supports a system of marginalization and economic oppression for the sake of greed?
Is an ideal American a proponent who believes that all lives only matter when they can be commoditized for mainstream consumption?
Is an ideal American a person who gleans their beliefs about a group of people from what they see in popular culture?
The classification of people into socioeconomic categories and the establishment of policies that either reward people or punish them based on their social location is what currently determines who best resembles the ideal American. Mainstream media, mainstream institutions and the mainstream economy also reinforces who and what we consider to be ideal in this country.
What if the idealized version of us was astute and exemplified values like humility, generosity, and compassion?
What if our definition of ideal continues to evolve as more marginalized Americans gain social access and political influence?
What if an ideal American society was one in which all people were given the same access to opportunities for social advancement?
When we—with the multiplicity and diversity of our identities—extend ourselves beyond homogeneous relationships of comfort, our definition and experience of who is ideal dramatically changes. We have the power to transform how we see and perceive one another. Through relationships grounded in mutuality and honesty across communities of difference, we can learn to navigate the social dynamics that determine what is ideal and who has value in this country, and we can learn to embrace the truth about all our societal experiences and expectations.
*Featured image: Illustration of slave auction. Image via Digital Collections/New York Public Library.