3Q

Stephanie Coontz offers reflections on the Council on Contemporary Families brief, Hiring-related Discrimination: Sexist Beliefs and Expectations Hurt both Women’s and Men’s Career Options, by Jill Yavorsky.

VR: You edited Jill Yavorsky’s brief on hiring-related discrimination, where she reports that both men and women are stereotyped in hiring decisions–and men suffer from this, though women suffer more. How does history play a role in this? 

SC: It wasn’t until 1972 that The Equal Employment Opportunity Act prohibited job discrimination on the basis of sex, and not until 1973 did the Supreme Court definitively rule that newspapers could not sort job ads, as had been done for decades, into “Help Wanted: Male” and “Help Wanted: Female.” I studied New York Times ads from the 1960s where employers openly stipulated that applicants must be “pretty-looking, cheerful,” “poised, attractive,” “perky,” and even “really beautiful.” No ads for females stressed analytical abilities—only ads for males did. Many employers clearly agreed with the psychiatrist who argued in a 1962 Yale Review article that most young women “are incapable of future long-range intellectual interests” before they had married and raised their children – if then.

The fact that women are now considered equally capable of handling jobs that require education, analysis, and reason is a step forward. But as Yavorsky shows, employers still tend to believe that men are best suited for challenging jobs that require physical or mental prowess. Her findings likely underestimate the full extent of discrimination because many studies find that when jobs are described as requiring stereotypically male attributes, or the majority of workers pictured in the ads are male, women are discouraged from applying in the first place.

VR: What is your view of Yavorsky’s finding that women applying to men’s middle-class jobs experience fewer barriers in getting in the door–but they appear to face significant barriers once they are at work? 

SC: This seems to be especially true in elite professions. As I point out elsewhere, the greatest wage discrimination by gender used to be in working-class and lower middle-class jobs, partly because of men’s greater rates of unionization. But as wage rates and job security in many traditional blue-collar jobs have fallen, we now see the opposite. Many women have established a firm foothold in mid-level middle-class jobs, and their wages have risen significantly. In the most elite professions, however, men’s wages have risen exponentially more, so that the biggest gender wage gaps are now at the top of the occupational ladder rather than at the bottom or middle.

Once women (and minorities) do get hired in traditionally male blue-collar jobs, they tend to be paid similar wages to men, accounting for seniority. But professional jobs where raises, promotions, and incentives rest on more subjective standards allow more free rein to sexist and racist biases.

VR: Men who apply for women-dominated working-class jobs appear to be subject to hiring discrimination, and Yavorsky suggests that as jobs shift to more service sector jobs, this could become a growing problem. Do you agree?

SC: On average, women’s wages still lag behind those of men with comparable education and experience. But more women than men have been upwardly mobile over the past 40 years, because working women have made slow but significant gains from a very low base, while men have lost many of the secure, well-paying blue-collar jobs once open to men without a college education. Between 1979 and 2007, the percentage of workers in middle-skill occupations fell, but for women the vast majority of this shift was due to their moving into higher-skill jobs as they got more experience and education. By contrast, a full half of the shift for men was into lower-skill jobs. Ironically, then, women’s historical disadvantages have incentivized many to seek more education to make a secure living, but men’s historical advantages have slowed their response to the changing job market. Many still believe they can earn a living wage without a college degree, or they assume that all female-dominated jobs will pay less and have less opportunity for advancement. As Yavorsky shows, employers exhibit the same stereotypes in reverse, discriminating against men even in – especially in — the mid-status, middle-class jobs that are expanding much more quickly than other sectors of the economy and that now pay more than many traditionally male-dominated blue-collar jobs. With most families requiring two incomes to get by, gender equality in hiring and promotion ought to be on the agenda of all people who make their living through wages, not just feminists.

Stephanie Coontz is author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Follow her at @StephanieCoontz. Virginia Rutter is co-editor of Families as They Really Are. Follow her at @VirginiaRutter. 

photo by mastertux via pixabay

A short interview with Stephanie Coontz by Virginia Rutter on a new CCF study.

VR: You edited the new brief report on cohabitation trends from the Council on Contemporary Families. In it, Arielle Kuperberg reports that premarital cohabitation is more common—occurring before 70 percent of marriages. But what does this new research tell us about Americans’ intimate lives? 

SC: First of all, it adds to our understanding of how quickly the norms and dynamics of personal relationships are changing. Until 1970, couples who cohabited before marriage were 82 percent more likely to divorce than those who married directly. That extra risk is now gone. Similarly, until the 1980s, marriages in which wives had more education than their husbands had a higher risk of divorce than other couples. But since 1990 that extra risk has also disappeared. Despite constant claims to the contrary, it is no longer true that marriages where the wife earns more than her husband are at higher risk of divorce. Finally, couples where the wife did most of the childcare and housework used to report better sex lives than couples with a more egalitarian division of labor. Now the opposite is true.

Within couple relationships there are many signs of growing equality. But that leads to a second contribution of the paper, which illustrates the growing inequality among couples on the basis of higher education, and in turn on their prospects for earning a family wage.

VR: Cohabitation looks like it is useful and valuable to many—as Kuperberg shows in the reversal of that out-of-date link between cohabitation and divorce. (See her awesome Figure 3 for a visual of the reversal!) But some people don’t want to cohabit. What do you think of Kuperberg’s findings about religion, escalating inequality, and access to “direct marrying”?

SC: Despite the widespread social acceptability of premarital cohabitation, a minority of Americans, especially those with strong religious beliefs, continue to disapprove of the practice and prefer to marry directly. Kuperberg highlights the painful dilemmas facing those who hold more traditional values but lack the resources to act on them. While two-thirds of religiously-observant women with a BA or higher did not cohabit before marriage, this was true of only 14 percent of equally observant women who did not attend college — and of just three percent of religiously-observant women without a high school diploma. As Kuperberg suggests, this is almost certainly not because of different values but of different options.

I agree that this gap likely reflects the difficulties that less-educated couples face in meeting the increasingly high economic bar for marriage. And it is especially troubling that the gap used to be just between the least-educated women and everyone else but is now greatest between the most-educated women and everyone else. The same escalating inequality between the most highly-educated Americans and others who work just as hard but are paid drastically less is also seen in rates of non-marriage and out-of-wedlock childbearing.

This divergence is likely to continue, given recent evidence that, as yet, the only group to have recovered fully from the Great Recession is people with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

VR: So what do you make of that? Growing equality within couples, and growing inequality between couples?  

SC: For one thing, it means that much family instability results not from people’s different values or “culture” but from their inability to meet the high interpersonal and economic expectations of marriage that most Americans now embrace. I am thinking of the economically insecure people who move in together rapidly and then don’t move on to marriage, resulting in a lot of churning; the growing numbers of people who are not seen as marriageable by others due to poor job prospects or low wages (low-income men right now have the worst marriage prospects); youths who lack the kind of life opportunities that give them incentives and tools to defer childbearing.

For another thing, when people feel that they are being excluded from the American Dream, they often embrace short-term coping mechanisms or compensating behaviors that make their personal lives and relationships even more difficult. And with higher wage inequality, fewer work-family protections, and a weaker social safety net than other advanced industrial economies, the U.S. imposes exceptionally heavy penalties on people who become single parents or do not complete higher education, leading to lower rates of social mobility – and higher rates of personal problems. As I’ve written elsewhere, the long-standing American myth that individuals succeed purely on their own, on the basis of their personal “grit,” actually undermines people’s ability to establish families that can thrive.

 

Stephanie Coontz is author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Follow her at @StephanieCoontz. Virginia Rutter is co-editor of Families as They Really Are. Follow her at @VirginiaRutter.

BR: You introduce the term “genetic strangers.”  Can you define it for us, and explain how the families you studied embodied the term?

RH: We use the term ‘genetic strangers’ to describe people who share genes but who do not know one other … or even that the other exists.  Genetic strangers are not relatives until a relationship is created.  In fact, the core of the book is about whether and how strangers become relatives … and what happens to the meaning of family as a result.

In Random Families we refer to “donors, donor siblings and their families as ‘genetic strangers’ as a way to bind together something that usually connotes familiarity with something that symbolizes the opposite.”  In the conventional heteronormative view, there is nothing more intimate than blood ties (i.e., shared genes). As single mothers and two-mom families joined the ranks of heterosexual parents who needed gametes to create a baby, those gametes often came from commercial sperm banks.  The rise in markets for sperm and/or eggs means that more children share half their DNA with strangers.

The donor sibling networks we discuss in Random Families are modern strangers in a modern world — a world in which we interact with people we do not know well and may never have met before.  Think about the Internet, especially Facebook groups or our own FB page that often includes people with whom we do not share space or time. The internet extends our acceptance of strangers whom we believe can provide us with a sense of connectedness or belonging, information and perhaps even intimacy. Donor sibling networks are a special case of people who may have randomly purchased the same donor; and after finding each other they might try to turn that strangeness into some form of kinship.

BR:  According to your evidence, there are distinct eras in the history of the emergence of families connected by donor siblings.  Can you identify these eras and how the experience of creating familial networks differs between them?

RH: Those are important questions because they point again to the distinction between stranger and relative.  The first successful pregnancy with donor sperm began nearly six decades ago. But because donors were anonymous it didn’t make sense to talk about networks, even if multiple offspring were probably created in the earliest days.  It wasn’t until much later that this made sense, particularly with the rise of the internet, which increased the availability of information and made it much easier for people to connect by means of Facebook and web sites such as Ancestry.com and 23andme, for example.

That’s why we distinguish different eras in donor-conceived networks based on the kind of genetic information available and by the ease of access to that information.

The first era of donor-conceived networks begins in the 1980s with lesbian couples and single mothers (straight or queer) who pioneered the formation of these families by using smaller commercial sperm banks in two important hubs – San Francisco and Boston.  In contrast to the anonymous sperm marketed by the large, often national, sperm banks, these smaller banks offered identity-release donors.  The parents felt that nurture – how they raised their children – would trump nature. They told their child he or she had a “father” whom they could meet when they turned 18.  If at age 18 children wanted to connect, they could ask the bank to relay that desire to the donor.  Surprisingly, it was usually the donor who fostered connections between their various offspring as they came forward.  The child almost always expanded family to include these new relatives and conventional terms, such as father and brother/sister were also likely to be used. The donor was a good guy who kept his promise and arrived to meet his genetic offspring. The offspring met as a sort of afterthought.

The second era begins in the 1990s with parents who purchased anonymous donor sperm only to have anonymity stripped away with the growth of the internet and online networks.  These nuclear families fully expected to raise their children with disclosures about the sperm donors, but they expected that family lineage would come from the parent(s) and not through paternal (donor) kin. The growth of the internet and the ease with which people could access internet sites changed all of this. Registries emerged as independent sites and then banks offered these registries as opt-in features. Parents (for the most part mothers) were startled to learn about this possibility to connect with other families who shared their child’s genes.  Parents would register and usually they did not discuss their decision to do this with their children. They wanted to check out these strangers who lived all over the country before telling their children. Once parents were satisfied, they told their children they had “half siblings.” Children were surprised. Sometimes these relationships moved offline to a face-to-face meeting and sometimes the children became close to these new siblings.  Counting these networks as extended kin took time as these unscripted relationships slowly developed.  Parents might have orchestrated those first “reunions” when children were adolescents or teens. In the book we compare two networks from this era. Both have anonymous donors; but the donor in one network decides to reveal his identity which represents a likely possibility. Moreover, the kids in these two networks react differently to meeting their donor siblings. As these networks expanded, intimacy between such a large group of children became problematic.  Like other kinds of large organizations, the networks fragment into smaller groups that sometimes resemble high school cliques.

The third era of donor-conceived networks begins with children born after 2003. The distinguishing feature is that children born in this era would grow up with donor siblings as commonplace. These parents had toddlers when registries first began, and they connected early on with their child’s donor siblings.  Unlike the earlier era when kids were surprised that they had donor siblings, these kids saw their half-siblings more like cousins who visited once or twice a year. Sometimes children formed close ties to one or two other children in the group. These networks are larger from the start (as more parents decide to locate a child’s half siblings). There are no large gatherings with all the members. Families are most likely to meet regionally with a smaller group.

Finally, we feature a network of younger parents whose children are under five and who knew about donor siblings when they purchased gametes. It is not the newness of the internet or registries that emerges among this group. Instead, these parents, whose children are too young to understand the idea of donors and donor siblings, question whether they can find a new kind of kinship organization. They don’t want to make assumptions about the relationships within the group and how their children might feel when they are older. They hope that by providing memories of gatherings their children will want to define those relationship with each other in the future or, at the very least, they will have each other to talk to about being donor conceived. For these parents the donor sibling network is more like other interest groups or forums they belong to where they can share information that they hope will benefit their child. This new period (maybe not an era) represents kinship revisited.

Since consumer demand for identity release donors increased over these eras the people we interviewed with children born after 2000 are more likely to have this kind of donor. Yet, when the children eventually can have contact with their donor (if their child wants this) these last two networks imagine a donor who is willing to offer information. He is not the “father” who arrived in the late 1980s.

BR:  In many of the narratives, you write about how individuals, and nuclear families, come to reassess the relative power of nature versus nurture in children’s development. Please explain how children come to think of nature versus nurture in their experiences as they met genetic family members.

RH¨ We made a point of interviewing children (ages 10 to 29) because we anticipated that at an early age they would have to puzzle through distinctions like nature versus nurture that are loaded with meaning for families, as well as for children.

But to be fair to the kids, it’s important to put “nature versus nurture” into context first.  That is, for all the public discussion of genetics and all the information available about individual genetic makeup (e.g., from services like Ancestry.com and 23andme), there is huge ambiguity about the meaning of genes for parents, let alone for children.  Even in the scientific community there is no consensus about the heritability of many human qualities – like intelligence, musical ability or sports.  So, when we interviewed kids it was important for us to listen carefully to the way they gave meaning to genes.

In most instances, parents set the foundation for kids’ understanding of nature versus nurture, usually with their first conversations about a child’s origins or birth story. Donor is a hollow concept to a child.  Parents fill in the concept, but always with reference to their preferred way of talking about family. A discussion about inherited traits and characteristics is how we locate children in a family system: “Your curly hair is from me, or musical ability from your grandmother.” If they have a donor’s profile, parents usually reference bits of information that factored into their selection of a donor (e.g., “He is an astronaut” or “wants to become a lawyer”, or he “reads a book a day” or “he likes mountain climbing”). Over time, parents and children collaborate in inventing both the donor and the child’s genetic inheritance.

However, for donor-conceived children nature versus nurture really becomes relevant – and complicated – when donor siblings are located. When half-siblings first meet, they quickly discover shared traits, starting with physical resemblances. It’s important to note that children who share a donor are primed to find similarities with their half-siblings.  The experience is often powerful and, not surprisingly, talk about genes and heredity takes center stage.

Donor-conceived children described a real tension between nature and nurture – if not immediately, then over time as they transformed genetic strangers into relatives. Kids who had no siblings within their nuclear family often took great delight in meeting children who were like them, especially since their parents encouraged the contact.  But even with parental encouragement some kids felt they should downplay the importance of genes – because putting genes at center stage implicitly distances them from the family they’ve always known. This is most pronounced in families with a non-genetic parent.  On the other hand, they could not deny the fact of physical resemblance and the often- eerie feeling that occurred when they discovered unexpected similarities like sense of humor and musical ability.

With time and distance, a more nuanced view about nature and nurture seems to emerge.  Kids assimilate the new information and arrive at workable definitions of siblinghood, for example.  They make a point of preserving a central role for non-genetic parents, such as talking about deeply-ingrained preferences for food, music, or esoteric matters that they shared with their non-genetic parents.  Talk about genes is tempered by a more sophisticated understanding that they can belong to their parents while acknowledging that they share some things with a donor and their donor siblings.

Cover of new book by Rosanna Hertz and Margaret Nelson

 

Rosanna Hertz is Class of 1919 50th Reunion Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College.  Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families. In this blog Professor Risman interviewed Professor Hertz with three questions about her new book, co-authored with Margaret K. Nelson, Random Families: Genetic Strangers, Sperm Donor Siblings, and the Creation of New Kin.  (2019, Oxford University Press).

Amy Brainer is an Assistant Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. In this blog I interviewed her with three questions about her new book, Queer Kinship and Family Change in Taiwan (2019, Rutgers University Press).

BR: You write that stories about lesbian and gay successes were used both by the social movement for parents of LGBT children and by some of your respondents as well. Can you discuss the ways in which that seemed to have both strengths and weaknesses for your respondents?

AB: Many of the heterosexual parents that I spoke to were worried about the economic implications of being gay or transgender. Social stability and class mobility were major touchstones in our interviews, in support group meetings for parents and for queer and trans young people thinking through family issues, and in other places that parents gathered. These parents viewed normative signs of success, like a college degree and a stable job, as particularly important for children who do not conform in other areas. They used lesbian, gay, and (on rarer occasions) transgender success stories in ways that were often personally empowering but politically limiting. I saw queer and trans activists struggle with this: How to welcome heterosexual family members into the movement without compromising their more radical queer ethics?

In general, we think of normativity as benefiting middle class lesbians and gays, and this is true in Taiwan as in many other places. But, I also caution that it is often middle class and more privileged activists and academics who have the most developed critiques of normativity. We have to be mindful not to create a new stratification system based on how non-normative we manage or espouse to be, because this will end up reinforcing the very class divisions we claim to be trying to dismantle.

BR: It seemed that you attempted to bring together two different literatures, research on gender & sexuality with the research on family change in Taiwan. Did this integration of traditions, and your research itself, provide you with any directions that you’d recommend for studying and working with LGBT families of origin in the future?

AB: Bringing literatures together sounds fantastic in a proposal but tends to be harder in practice. The gaps that exist often reflect larger epistemological and political differences. For example, demographic data are collected by the state for population management and surveillance, and queer theorists are pushing back on this. But knowing something about fertility rates, about patterns in how people create and sustain families or break away from those families, is obviously of great value for those of us who are trying to figure out what is going on with queer populations and how to support them. I think queer scholars and activists can appropriate these data while remaining very critical of methods and frameworks.

In studying and working with families of origin, we cannot simply export models based on U.S. populations to other parts of the world. This is (I hope) an obvious point but one we must continue to make. For example, in my answer above, I noted parents’ economic concerns around sexuality and gender. These are concerns that activists must address if they want to bring parents into the movement. A model that assumes parents’ concerns are primarily moral or religious (as they are for many U.S. parents) is inadequate in this context. As a second example, I point out in the book that research on trans people in families does not consider the effects of gender transition within patrilineal and patrilocal family structures – still among the most common family structures in the world. There are many new directions that open up when we step outside the narrow box of what we already know based on predominately white, western families.

BR: Can you provide some examples of how your standpoint helped shape the research project and the analysis?

AB: Ethnography is such an intimate mode of research and who we are matters a great deal. There are several parts of my biography that I highlight in the book: my race and national origin, my femme sexuality, and my family background and coming out experience. I am white, U.S. born, and employed at a North American university. The unearned privileges that come with these characteristics shaped, for example, my ability to cross borders freely and without fear to do this research and my ability to apply for grants without first checking the citizenship requirements. (The Wenner-Gren, which provided the majority of funding for this project, does not discriminate based on nationality, but many other funding agencies do.) In Taiwan, my outsiderness shaped the ways that people perceived and related to me. For example, many people invited me to spend time with them in their homes, including on holidays and other special occasions. Hospitality can be a barrier to deep understanding because when we are hosting others, we often present only our best. But it can also facilitate understanding – in this case, by giving me a glimpse of everyday family life that I might not have had otherwise.

While I was doing this fieldwork, many people asked me questions about my own family story. I am very close to my family, but our journey around sexuality has been a difficult one, threaded with periods of deep pain. This, too, shaped the research. It opened up my life to my informants in a way that, in certain cases, brought us closer. In other cases, it positioned me as a daughter in need of advice from the heterosexual parents with whom I was spending so much time. It continually reminded me of the emotional labor my informants were doing when they agreed to be interviewed. This whole experience also changed the way I approached the topics of sexuality and gender with my parents. I became more open to hearing their points of view and reasons for acting and feeling as they did. Being an ethnographer gave me tools to listen in a way I had not been able to achieve before. So as much as my biography shaped the research, the research also shaped me and my family relationships.

Amy Brainer is an Assistant Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.

Tey Meadow has a new book  Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the 21st Century  that looks at transgender and gender creative children with supportive parents.  I recently had the opportunity to interview Tey about this fascinating new research.

What was the most surprising aspect of your ethnographic work?   Was there something you reported in the book that you hadn’t expected to find but did?

Two things surprised me about my research. First, there was no hypothesis I could make about what kinds of families would be most likely to support or facilitate gender nonconformity in their kids that held true. Some of the most radically supportive families were deeply religious, or from ultra-conservative, rural areas. And some politically liberal families in major urban centers were among those who struggled the most. The notion that there is any sort of monolithic gender culture in any of these areas is far too simplistic an idea to encapsulate the complex and competing desires and emotions these families experienced.

I was also surprised and heartbroken to learn how vulnerable some families were to violence, harassment and censure, even by the state, for simply allowing their children to be gender nonconforming. I detail a number of these stories in the book. Families with children of color, gay and lesbian-headed families and those with pre-existing relationships of surveillance with the state were the most acutely vulnerable, even in socially liberal areas. I met parents who faced false accusations of sexual or emotional abuse, or temporary custody loss and threats of physical violence; many who were too terrified to participate formally in the research, but desperately wanted other people to know this was happening. While media attention on these topics is on the rise, so too is a pernicious backlash that is worth our attention, as well.

One of the most surprising things for me reading this book was the complicated relationships between the social movement organizations founded by parents to advocate for their children and the LGBTQ social movements run by and for LGBTQ folks.  Can you explain that somewhat for our readers?

The contemporary moment for trans children simply would not be possible without the interventions of older LGB-and especially-T activist communities. The adults who pushed for visibility and acceptance at a time when being trans was unthinkable outside of tabloid journalism, who struggled to control the terms of their own engagements with psychologists and physicians, who fought the state for the right to be recognized in their affirmed genders, all of their work set the terms by which parents could recognize children as trans and secure their rights to live openly.

But the political movement around transgender children now is largely a cisgender movement, a vicarious movement of parents and adult allies, who don’t necessarily connect the worlds of these children to the idea of trans that came before. Today’s trans kids will have earlier access to transition than their predecessors, and will, as the reach adulthood, have to decide whether or not their identify with those earlier movements, or whether they want to live outside of them. Some parent I met found the imagery of earlier transgender rights abject, worried that their children would be forced to live marginal lives, or simply felt that the world had changed so much that earlier trans people’s experiences were no longer instructive. Some of these parents chose to limit their children’s access to trans adults, or to carefully curate that access, selecting out the transpeople they felt offered the most assimilable genders for their children to emulate.

I detail this at length in the book and the novel questions it raises for these communities. Trans children whose parents have access to early medical transition will be able to pass unnoticed in most situations and will have greater latitude to disidentify with trans identities and communities. How they negotiate these new questions and options will be fascinating to watch.

What is the most important societal implication of this research project?  Are there specific social policies that your evidence about transgender children and their families suggests local or state governments should implement in the near future?

This is a crucial national policy moment for trans kids, as it is for many vulnerable populations. There are republican-sponsored bills in several states that directly target these youth in ways that could be catastrophic. For example, a piece of legislation that was recently introduced in Ohio, would force school teachers and administrators to “out” youth exhibiting gender nonconforming behavior at school to their parents, even if they know that doing so would be harmful to the child. This is an unprecedented intervention into family life that could have devastating consequences for youth with unsupportive parents.

On a smaller level, my work with children and families showed me how deeply concrete policies can shape institutional cultures. Schools with well-articulated expectations for climate, with curricula that incorporate gender diversity (or at the very least don’t exacerbate it), with teacher and administrator populations that are themselves diverse, create the best learning environments for trans and cisgender students alike. Organizations around the country have compiled useful resources for educators who want to bring their schools in line with best practices in this area.

Tey Meadow is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.

Marriage in Black: The Pursuit of Married Life among American-Born and Immigrant Blacks (Routledge, 2018) by Katrina Bell McDonald and Caitlin Cross-Barnet examines contemporary Black marriages in the United States. Based upon in-depth interviews with 60 couples, they examine the historical and continuing impact of racial inequalities in the United States on Black marriages, distinct features of Black marriages, and the diversity among Black marriages. Their interviewees included African American couples, immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, and White American couples. I enjoyed reading the book and recently had the opportunity to interview the authors.

AK: What are some of the ways that you found racial inequalities in the United States impact Black marriages in contemporary society?

KBM and CC-B: There are so many angles to consider in response to this question. If we consider the legacy of African American life from the slave era onward, there have been enormous efforts by the state to exert social control over Black relationships. Under slavery, legal marriage was prohibited, but after emancipation, Black couples were pressured or forced to formalize their unions. The context of heterosexual marriage in the United States has historically been situated in White patriarchy, but the privilege accorded White men to support that model of marriage was never extended to Black men. Thus, you see a long history of paid employment among Black wives; married White women didn’t meet married Black women’s employment rates until the 1990s. Systemic racism is a constant for Black couples—structural barriers mean that couples have to negotiate discrimination in housing, employment, the criminal justice system, and everyday interactions with institutions ranging from government offices to the grocery store. That stress spills over into relationships and can create instability that is beyond a couple’s control. But then there also is an increasing proportion of the American Black population that is made up of immigrants. The context of marriage is different in Caribbean and African countries, but their cultural practices and meanings of marriage (in those countries as well as in the United States) don’t always conform to conventions in the United States. And then there is the question of assimilation. Institutionalized racism has historically prevented the assimilation of American-born Blacks into the full privileges of White American middle-class life, so for Black immigrants, what does assimilation mean?

AK: What other distinctive features did you find among Black marriages?

KBM and CC-B: Part of what we found is that there aren’t necessarily any universal features of Black marriage. Intersectional identities make it difficult to define “Black marriage” because individuals have many more components to their identities than race. Black families do have to confront particularly entrenched institutionalized racism, and that means there are certain problems Black couples are more likely to face or just fear—poverty, housing discrimination, incarceration. But when it comes to couples’ ideals or behavior, there are wide variations in marital ideals and practices by social class and immigration status in addition to variation by individuals, creating much more diversity among Black couples than we saw between Black couples and White couples (our sample included 14 White couples). Our sample was small—61 couples all living in the same geographic area—so there could be clearer patterns that would emerge in a larger group, but that would probably be true of any categorization of people, such as by social class or geographic location. That being said, we did find a few patterns that we thought were worthy of further investigation (see next question).

AK: One thing that struck me about your book was the diversity you found among the Black couples you interviewed. What were some differences you found among Black married couples?

KBM and CC-B: Sociologists have speculated that Black married couples are more egalitarian than couples of other ethnic backgrounds, particularly Whites, and because we were looking at Black couples from such diverse backgrounds, we were excited about investigating that idea more deeply. We did find that, regardless of their marital ideals, American-born Black couples were more likely than Whites or immigrant Blacks to share tasks and power fairly equally and that black husbands generally weren’t threatened by Black wives’ income earning power. Conservative religious values of headship and submission expressed by some American-born Black couples actually translated into more role sharing in daily life because the men were more involved with their families. No couple ever used the word “egalitarian,” but some couples professing to share everything “fifty/fifty,” still left the wife with most of the responsibility for housework and childcare even though she worked.

But the American-born Blacks were distinct from the Caribbean and African immigrants, who had radically different approaches to ideas of egalitarianism. African immigrants usually said they wanted to “adjust” or “adapt” to more egalitarian practices, which they saw as distinctly American and necessary to life in America. They generally weren’t fully egalitarian, but they were certainly not replicating the practices they had grown up with in their home countries, where they commonly compared their fathers to “dictators.” Caribbean immigrants, particularly men, were the opposite, wanting to maintain patriarchal power they would have had on the Islands. Caribbeans–and also whites—who were more conservative or traditional attached those values to economic power for men and felt strongly that men should be providers and that mothers shouldn’t work outside the home. For American-born Blacks, working wives and mothers were a norm regardless of the couples’ marital ideals.

Sometimes quantitative work can lead people to believe that an aggregate difference between two groups indicates that there is homogeneity within each group. When it comes to “Black marriage,” that perspective has often led people to view Black couples as deficient because marriage rates are lower than those among white couples, and poverty and divorce rates are higher.  But there are lots of Black couples who marry and work things out, and within the group of those who do, there are many approaches to being in a marriage.

Katrina Bell McDonald is Associate Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of Africana Studies at The Johns Hopkins University. Caitlin Cross-Barnet is a federal researcher and an Associate at the Hopkins Population Center. Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg.

Jessica McCrory Calarco is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Indiana University at Bloomington and recently published the book Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School (Oxford Press). Based on 5 years of ethnographic fieldwork following a group of students from 3rd to 7th grade, she explores class differences in the ways in which students interact with teachers. She found that, coached by their parents, middle class students are more likely to ask teachers for assistance, accommodation, and attention, while working class students acted with more restraint. I was recently able to interview about her book.

AK: What were some differences by social class that you found in students’ interactions with teachers?

JMC: The middle-class and working-class students were similar in many ways. They liked their teachers and they were excited about learning new things. Where they differed, though, was in the extent to which they tried to negotiate for individual (and often unfair) advantages in school.

At the schools where I observed, teachers got a steady stream of questions and requests. The vast majority of those questions and requests came from middle-class students. And many of those requests went beyond what was fair or required. Middle-class students asked for extensions on assignments. They asked teachers to check their work on tests. They monopolized class time with their stories. They even tried to talk their way out of punishment when they got in trouble for forgetting homework or running in the hallways or being disrespectful to their peers.

Middle-class students were also incredibly pushy in making those requests. They rarely sat patiently with their hands raised, especially if that meant waiting more than a few seconds for a response. Instead, they called out, got up from their seats, and even interrupted teachers to ask questions. They also kept asking, even when well-meaning teachers tried to deny those requests. They refused to take “no” for an answer, and they were willing to waste class time (and sometimes call in their parents for reinforcement) to get the support they desired.

Teachers rarely got questions or requests from working-class students. They didn’t feel entitled to teachers’ assistance, accommodations, or intention. And they tried hard to manage on their own. Of course, working-class students did sometimes ask for assistance or accommodations or attention. But the support they requested was typically fair or required. They asked for help when they were struggling to understand concepts. They raised their hands when teachers asked for volunteers to share.

Working-class students were also more patient and more polite in making requests. They would often spend three or five or even eight minutes with their hands raised, even while teachers responded to other students who got up or called out, instead. In the process, working-class students sometimes fell off-task or even gave up, leaving assignments incomplete and questions unanswered on tests. Furthermore, when teachers denied their requests, working-class students rarely pushed back. They just accepted the “no” and moved on.

AK: What role did parents play in teaching children to interact with teachers in specific ways?

JMC: Middle-class and working-class parents all cared deeply about their children, and both groups wanted their children to succeed. But they differed in the lessons they taught children about interacting with teachers and securing advantages in school.

Middle-class parents coached their kids to treat their teachers as resources. When their children were confused or struggling in school, middle-class parents encouraged them to turn to their teachers for support. One middle-class mother recalled what she tells her kids: “It’s okay to ask questions. Your teacher is there to help you. That’s her job.” Middle-class parents also taught their children to keep asking until teachers met their needs.

Working-class parents instead coached their children to treat teachers with respect. As one working-class father recalled: “I just want my kids to be respectful and responsible. My kids are good for the teachers.” Working-class parents recognized that teachers had a lot on their plates. They also worried that teachers might get frustrated with students who asked questions. So they taught their children to deal with problems on their own and to avoid making requests.

AK: Did these differences lead to unequal outcomes for children, and what can be done to reduce these inequalities?

JMC:  Middle-class students’ negotiations with teachers gave them a number of unfair advantages in school. They persuaded teachers to help them correct their work on tests. To grant them extensions on assignments. To exempt them from punishment when they got in trouble. To give them extra time to share their thoughts and ideas. In sum, the bulk of teachers’ support went to the students who needed it the least.

That said, those advantages weren’t automatic. Middle-class students were only successful in negotiating advantages because teachers said “yes” to their requests.

Of course, teachers were well-meaning. They did not intend to privilege middle-class students over their working-class peers. But they still said “yes” to middle-class students’ requests. And they did so, in part, because they worried about the consequences of saying “no.” In particular, they worried about the possibility of pushback from middle-class students and middle-class parents.

Teachers worried because middle-class parents and children could make their lives miserable. They could waste class time with constant emails and back-and-forth negotiations. They could undermine teachers’ authority by complaining to the principal or “blacklisting” teachers they saw as “unresponsive.” They could jeopardize the school by withdrawing critical financial and political support.

Essentially, then, middle-class students’ negotiated advantage was the product of privilege. And that means we can’t level the playing field by teaching working-class students to act more like their middle-class peers. It wouldn’t work. And it isn’t fair—we shouldn’t penalize working-class students for trying to be respectful and responsible.

Instead, we need to level the playing field by preventing middle-class students and parents from using their privilege to negotiate advantages. For teachers, that means thinking carefully before granting requests from middle-class students and parents. For schools, that means protecting teachers from pushback when they say “no.”

Of course, those changes aren’t easy to make. Middle-class families have a history of hoarding opportunities, and they’re unlikely to give up their privilege without a fight.

In the short term, then, we also need to make schools and classrooms more welcoming places for working-class families. We need teachers to recognize silent signs of struggle. And we need teachers to reach out and offer support, even when students don’t ask for it themselves.

Jessica McCrory Calarco is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Indiana University. She is the author of Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School. Follow her on Twitter  @JessicaCalarco. Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg

Arielle Kuperberg outside her home in North Carolina

Hooray! Arielle Kuperberg is now to be the editor of CCF @ The Society Pages! Arielle has already populated many spaces in my life—mainly thanks to the interesting work she has done on cohabitation, hooking up, and most recently college debt.  She’s been sharing her good research at The Society Pages and via mainstream media and sharpening (and debunking where necessary) some issues people hold dear. I asked Arielle a few questions about her thoughts about forward-facing scholarship as she begins this new role.

VR: You are a busy person, as a scholar, teacher, program director, and parent. In that context, can you tell us about your commitment to public sociology?

AK: I have long had an interest in the types of messages presented in the media, and the degree to which they are inaccurate. I was a media studies major in college before I switched to sociology, and one of my first publications examined media rhetoric surrounding stay-at-home mothers, and how this rhetoric did not match up with reality. After I went to grad school and began to publish more articles, I started becoming frustrated when I would see inaccurate or misleading things in the media that I knew my research could speak to, or contradicted. I was also frustrated that after all the effort of publishing articles on topics I felt were very important, very few people would read my research unless they happened to be doing research on the same topic. I had published articles on  topics like the effectiveness of different policies in addressing poverty and gender/race-based pay inequality, and the role of poor labor market conditions in lowering marriage rates for the less educated, but what good did that work do if nobody ever heard of it?

When I was about to publish an article showing cohabitation does not cause divorce I felt this research was important enough that I should make a more concrete effort to get the word out, and that I was at a point in my career where I was ready to get more involved in public sociology. I got in touch with a mentor who recommended I get involved with the Council on Contemporary Families. CCF helped me put together a research brief about that project, and later another one about my research on college hookups, and both of those pieces were picked up by major outlets. I started writing some blog posts for the CCF blog and other blogs, and eventually started recruiting my friends into CCF and interviewing them for this blog, since they too have important research findings that more people should know about. Which is probably how I ended up in this position as the new editor.

I used to think of publication as the last stage in the “research pipeline” but I now think of public sociology as that last stage. For research to make an impact, other people need to hear about it. Academic research on the family has a lot to say about modern mythologies surrounding the family – but if nobody hears about it, it’s not going to be very useful. Pierre Bourdieu has been quoted as saying “My goal is to contribute to preventing people from being able to utter all kinds of nonsense about the social world” and I think that pretty well sums up my philosophy.

And yes I am extremely busy with all my different roles, but one of the reasons I went into academia is I enjoy the busyness and all the different roles you get to play – I’m never bored! I am also extremely lucky to have a partner who is a stay-at-home dad, and who supports my career by doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to childcare and housework.

VR: Your active support of others’ work really stands out to me. What is your approach to mentoring, collaboration, and supporting colleagues and earlier career scholars?

AK: I am only in the position I am because of the generous mentoring of other people. My first two publications were coauthored with my undergraduate mentor Pamela Stone, who taught me everything from how to read a research article and format a table, to how to respond to reviewers when you get a “revise and resubmit.” She also introduced me to several leading scholars in the field when we went to conferences. Since then I have had several very important mentors who have helped me refine my research skills, wrote letters for me to get into grad school and later to get jobs, guided me through grad school, introduced me to their professional connections, gave me advice when I was facing important career decisions, and helped keep me going when I was facing various professional crises. I feel an obligation to pass that help forward to my students and junior colleagues, so that other people can have the same opportunities I had.

But it’s more than an obligation. I find mentoring to be one of the most rewarding aspects of being an academic. I’ve spent many years of my life developing some very specific skills in research, and some more general “succeeding in academia” skills, many of them learned the hard way. What use is all that knowledge if I keep it to myself? Plus there is a special kind of pleasure you get from seeing someone you mentored going off and doing well for themselves in life.

VR: What are your favorite ways of consuming social media?

AK: I have long been a fan of blogs. Back in 2001 when I was an undergraduate (and for several years afterwards), I started and ran a LiveJournal “community” (group blog) for sociologists, which was one of the earliest sociology blogs as far as I can tell. I think there is just something to be said about the short essay format that allows you to go more in depth than a tweet, but is still digestible in 10 minutes of reading while I’m drinking my morning coffee. One type of blog I particularly enjoy is the more personal memoir type of blogs, and I follow several non-academic blogs, although not as many as I used to.

Apart from that, I love facebook. I have made a few major moves in my life, and facebook lets me keep in touch with friends from the various places I’ve lived, and the academics I meet at various conferences. I also coordinate with two of my long-distance collaborators over facebook chat. I got a twitter account last year but have not used it as much as I could. I like the way it makes it easier to keep up with current events, and since most of the people I follow are academics and writers I have a very interesting feed, but I spend much more time on facebook. I also have participated in many message boards over the years, and right now my favorite one is reddit.

Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg. Virginia Rutter is Professor of Sociology at Framingham State University. Follow her on twitter at @VirginiaRutter.

Virginia in Shaw, DC. credit: Dean Manis

Virginia Rutter was the founding editor of the Council on Contemporary Families Blog—CCF @ The Society Pages — which was launched in 2014. CCF@TSP is a venue for reporting on new research, policy reports, and current events. A particularly valuable feature of the blog has been the inclusion of undergraduate students, who have had the chance to engage with the substance of family sociology and the opportunity to address broader audiences. Virginia steps down in April, and I will be taking over. Here are some questions I had for Virginia before she leaves us:

AK:  What were some of your favorite blog posts that you edited in your tenure as editor of the Council on Contemporary Families blog?

VR: I’m still delighted with the title for Braxton Jones’s October 2016 post, As American as Divorce, which was a round-up of interviews done about research and commentary on divorce. But, Secular Listening at a Brainstorming and Prayer Meeting on 11/9/16 by Sarah Diefendorf, about the reaction by Evangelicals to the election of President Trump, was a wonderful, generous, quick turnaround piece of writing dealing with just a shocking, shocking day. I felt like Sarah had gone off to do the best kind of meditation for a sociologist to do on WTF had just happened the day before: She studied it. Respectfully, thoughtfully, effectively. And she told us a bit of what she heard, and so told us also about her own process in that strange time. The post went up two weeks after that 2016 election day. At that time it was hard to talk about the election, about people, about factions, and yet so hard not to do so. She did it, and it was a great post.

AK:  What is your advice for a blog writer who wants to write a successful blog post? What are some common missteps?

VR: The great thing about blogging is whenever you’ve said something you want to put out into the world, that’s success. But at CCF@TSP a few things work well: Make it short. Make one point. Don’t be cutesy or corny or cliché. You aren’t writing a scholarly paper, but you do have to support or substantiate what you have to say.

So, to make it short: Edit yourself, just take the time to streamline it sentence by sentence. To make one point, try reading your post backwards, paragraph by paragraph. You might see that you have more points than you need. You can always keep the multiple directions—there’s really no limit on space!—but make that decision consciously. Remember, that stray point could be the start of a separate post.

A few other rules: Try to make your title short, too. Provide the editor with open source artwork to go with your post, and embed good links to key references. Here or anywhere, know the website you are writing for; read other people’s posts there. That will teach you what to do and what not to do better than anything else.

AK:  What are you looking forward to doing with all your free time now that you will no longer be managing this blog?

VR: Yes, like other professors at underfunded state universities fighting for our contract, I am mostly, but for the occasional blogging, a lady of leisure. Just kidding. I have a project right now that focuses on connecting students from underrepresented groups to people just like them in professions they want to pursue. And at this very moment, I am completing a report about a family diversity and change teach-in we held last fall at Framingham State. It involved a digital photography installation, SHOWING (workxfamily), and about six weeks of campus events including about 65 classes that incorporated the exhibition into their subjects—from physics to English to (of course) sociology.

Virginia Rutter is Professor of Sociology at Framingham State University. Follow her on twitter at @virginiarutter. Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg.

These days—perhaps as in every generation—relationships between grown children and their parents have changed. Parents and grown children expect to be friends. Many have that experience. But, remarkably, Joshua Coleman finds that perhaps thanks to this closeness there also are profound falling-outs. Coleman works with families where parents and adult children have been estranged and his book, When Parents Hurt, is a resource for those isolated parents who wonder “am I the only one?”

Coleman is a psychologist at San Francisco Bay and a past Co-Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families.

LG: How common is parental estrangement? Do you see trends? So, for instance, is it more common? Or are there patterns–like does it happen in some groups more than others to the best of your understanding?  

JC: A recent meta-analysis on the topic by Lucy Blake notes that while the research on estrangement has grown significantly in the past five years, it is still new and sparse. Therefore, getting a clear assessment of whether estrangement has become more common is challenging.

Based on my clinical experience though, I believe that it is widespread and growing for the following reasons:

  • In the United States, today, and in some other developed Western nations, nothing binds grown children to their parents beyond whether or not the adult child wants that relationship. In the same way that marriages increasingly succeed or fail on the basis of how satisfying or meaningful the relationship, adult children may estrange themselves from a parent based on similar principles or ideals. However, while successful marriages require a somewhat equal level of investment between the partners, typically it’s more incumbent on the parent to be attuned to the needs of the adult child than the other way around.
  • According to a recent Culture of American Families Survey, today’s parents hope to be best friends with their children for life. While many are succeeding, others may suffer in part because of high parental expectations of meaning and closeness with their children since these feelings occur in tandem with a decrease in social supports and activities for the parents. As a result, some adult children today complain about feeling too needed by their parents, in contrast to earlier eras where parents had richer, more varied networks of support. This is likely why the issue of boundaries is a frequent topic that I hear from adult children (wanting more boundaries) and from their parents (wanting less). Estrangements are sometimes the result of parents and adult children being unable to negotiate those very different needs and perspectives
  • The use of therapeutic narratives (the language of psychology and self-help) as a way of making sense of life means that now, more than ever, young adults may blame “dysfunctional families” and poor parenting for the state of their lives rather than other contexts such as lack of decent paying jobs, health care, affordable colleges, etc.
  • The American culture of adversarial individualism, where identity and autonomy are developed in opposition to parental authority, may also increase the risk of estrangement. Family relationships succeed or fail primarily based on whether they are a platform for individuality, growth, and self-actualization. From this vantage point, estrangement can be experienced as an act of existential courage on the part of the adult child.
  • A rise in the power of children to set the terms of family life, both when children are in the home and out of it means that parental authority to compel contact over the life course has diminished. While it used to be the child’s job to earn the parent’s love and respect, today it’s the parent’s job to earn (and keep earning) that of the child’s
  • While divorce rates have stabilized, parental divorce at any age may increase the risk of estrangement for the following reasons:
    1. It may cause the child to view one of the parents as the cause of breaking up the family.
    2. It may cause one of the parents to overtly or covertly poison the relationship to the other parent.
    3. Remarriage and dating after divorce may bring in new people to the child’s life with whom they must compete for emotional or financial resources.
    4. In a highly individualistic culture like ours, it may cause the child to view the parents more as individuals with their own relative strengths and weaknesses rather than as a family unit to which they also belong.

LG: What are some of the biggest hurdles that estranged parents have to get over to live with–or change–the situation?

JC: There are several common obstacles to resolving conflict with an estranged adult child:

  • An inability on the part of the parent to see that the use of guilt or demands for a return on parental investment in the form of time or attention will backfire. Most adult children raised in the past 3 decades or so are likely to have been socialized with the belief that relationships, including those with parents, should be a platform for personal growth and the maintenance of happiness. From that perspective, the organizing principle is based more on those themes rather than historically earlier ones around obligation, respect, and duty.
  • It’s important for parents to be able to take responsibility and empathize with the adult child’s perspective, even if it’s at odds with their own.
  • Marriage of the adult child is also a common source of estrangement when the parent or parents don’t get along with the new spouse of their adult child.

In general, most reconciliations require the parent to take the initiative. However, there are many reasons why an adult child might not be willing, despite the parent’s efforts:

  • He/she may have been successfully poisoned against the parent by the other parent after divorce.
  • The adult child’s spouse may prevent the adult child from reconciling either because they feel too threatened by the adult child’s attachment to the parent or because of their dislike of them.
  • The adult child, or a parent, may have a subtle or overt form of mental illness which makes the relationship too challenging, despite the relative health of one or the other.
  • The adult child may know no other way to feel separate from the parent than to engage in estrangement. This sometimes occurs in homes where the child felt overly dependent on or enmeshed with the parent.
  • The adult child may feel too hurt or mistrustful of the parent as a result of the parent’s earlier problematic behavior.

The following are some common obstacles to reconciliation on the part of the parent:

  • The parent may not be psychologically able to express empathy for the adult child’s complaints because of their own emotional challenges. Thus, they may experience the adult child’s reasonable complaints as an unfair attack against them.
  • The parent may be unwilling to change in ways desired by the adult child- for example, to be willing to accept their sexuality, religion, career path, partner choice, parenting style; or their requests to criticize less or demand less.
  • The parent may not be able modify their demands for time and attention to be more in line with those of the adult child. Therefore, the adult child may eventually choose estrangement as a way to stop feeling chronically guilty or misunderstood.

LG: Is there such a thing as “recovery” from estrangement? I think it might take your whole book to describe, but can you tell us a little bit about what recovery might look like?

JC: In general, reconciliations are the most likely when parents can do the following:

  • Empathize with the adult child’s complaints and take responsibility for whatever mistakes were made
  • Avoid being defensive, qualifying, or explaining
  • Show commitment to working on the relationship
  • Accept the adult child’s terms for frequency and length of contact
  • Accept the ways that the adult child is different from the parent without shaming or criticizing them.

On the part of the adult child, reconciliation is more likely if they can:

  • Show compassion for the parent’s limitations as a person or parent
  • Acknowledge that expectations of parents and parenting have risen and therefore, what seems like ineffectual or problematic parenting today, may have constituted reasonable parenting during their childrearing years
  • Accept that the more attuned and psychological form of communication common today is relatively recent in parent-adult child relations and therefore learning this may take some time and practice on the part of the parent.

Joshua Coleman is a clinical psychologist, author, and media expert on individuals, couples, and families. Twitter: @drjcoleman. For more information about estrangement, visit www.drjoshuacoleman.com. 

Luilly DeJesus Gonzalez is a senior sociology major at Framingham State University and a CCF Public Affairs Intern.