What’s The Role of “Institutions” in Violence?

officer ben fields[Ed Note: This is another great guest post from Katie Christensen.]

An adult white man brutally beat a 16-year-old Black girl quietly sitting in a desk at a public high school and people felt their stomachs drop. A few weeks later, after Officer Ben Fields was fired and the Spring Valley High School student was hospitalized, the outrage continued but the media attention subsided.  An institution is a system that guides social interactions by use of its authority, and several institutions were at play at Spring Valley High School. These institutions supported the violence and discrimination that led to the assault of a minor. (Keep in mind that all institutions in the United States are built upon and maintained via racism as you read this article.)

The first institution that jumps out at me in this situation is education. In the United States, education has taken the form of public schooling, during which students learn to respect the authority of those “above them:” teachers, administrators, and increasingly, police officers. As a product of the public school system, I can tell you that I quickly learned to obey authority figures, even if I didn’t understand why they were asking me to do something. The young Black girl allegedly disobeyed a teacher. The teacher reacted to maintain their authority, even though, by all accounts, the student wasn’t being disruptive. She called into question the authority of the institution of education and a police officer reaffirmed that authority.

This brings me to the next institution: government. The police force is given its authority by the government through money, legislation and judicial processes. At the time, Ben Fields was using that authority granted to him by the institution of government and by the school that employed him. The power that came with being a part of several institutions allowed him to beat a minor without any claim on self-defense. If someone not supported by government and education systems had entered that school and begun beating a student, it would have been a crime that the authority figures in the school were obligated to stop. The media would have told a much different story.

The third institution at play was the media. As soon as the video of the assault was put online, it went viral. Virtually every media outlet from news broadcasts to click-bait factories covered the story up until Officer Fields was fired from the police force. As an institution, the media shows its consumers what it wants us to see. It’s important to remember that news outlets count on viewership/readership in order to function and thus cover news stories they believe interest viewers. Powerful media organizations decided that the Spring Valley High School case was no longer interesting enough for consumers to click on and it was dropped from the news.

The last obvious institution that was part of the story was family. Our society is focused on the nuclear family as a support system for children. The student who was assaulted had recently lost her nuclear family. When Ben Fields acted, he did not risk a confrontation with the student’s upset parent because she was an orphan. It’s the sad truth that children are often exploited, especially when they don’t have an adult standing behind them.

Institutions like the education, government and the media aren’t inherently bad. Plenty of them have beneficial roles in our society. However, because institutions have authority, there is a power differential between groups within society which often leads to prejudice and discrimination, as in the case of the student at Spring Valley High School. In every institution that played a role, Ben Fields was granted authority that the student was not.

In my search through media surrounding this case, I saw the words “prejudice” and “discrimination” used interchangeably, but there is an important difference. Prejudice is an attitude toward members of a social category, while discrimination is an action based on prejudice. As such, discrimination involves a difference in power—one group holds the power to take an action against another.

Institutions hold the power to discriminate based on prejudice. Ben Fields is not a lone wolf. Across the country, students are being discriminated against by the institutions that are supposed to protect them. What I can say for sure is that each of the institutions from which Fields got his authority are discriminatory. Black students across the country are consistently punished more severely for the same acts as their white classmates. Schools are still largely racially segregated, thanks to school boundaries being strategically drawn. Fields actions were despicable and the fact that his boss fired him is a small victory but allowing this story to disappear from the news so quickly missed an opportunity to address a problem that exists on an institutional level. Spring Valley High is everywhere.

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How to Talk About Sex, Gender, and Gender Roles

caitlyn jenner

{Ed. Note: This is the first in the Gender Studies 101 series by SLC Feminist Intern, Katie Christensen.}

Whether you like her or not, it’s hard to deny that the publicity surrounding Caitlin Jenner’s transition has opened up a lot of conversations about gender and sex. In a lot of situations (including some less-than-accurate articles about Jenner), news outlets used sex and gender interchangeably. Gender and sex, however, are actually two different things that often interact with each other. I’m going to cover some basic terminology in the Gender Studies canon that you can reference when chatting with hesitant friends and family members.

Sex is the biological identity you’re assigned at birth—usually “male” or “female” (in Jenner’s case, “male”). Most people view sex as a concrete, binary identity—one which is objectively true and unchangeable. That train of thought, while understandable, isn’t accurate. Culture rigorously designates and enforces the binary notion of biological sex, telling people you are either a man or woman. Yes, you are born with certain sex characteristics, but labeling those characteristics “male” or “female” is a social construct. A good general rule is to always remember that genitals don’t equal sex. Chromosomes, hormones, and genitals come in all variations.

Now that we’ve succinctly covered sex, let’s talk gender. Gender combines socialization and self-identification (gender identity). It’s talked about with words like man, woman, transgender, non-binary, etc.  Gender as a concept is tricky because it includes so many different cultural forces. The old-fashioned way of doing things starts at the hospital when doctors assign a binary sex that comes with a pre-packaged idea of gender.

Gender labels come with social expectations, expectations that are socially constructed and nearly constantly enforced by strangers. Consider Caitlyn Jenner, doctors declared “boy!” and with that came sex and gender. The expectation is one of hegemonic masculinity, a masculinity that dictated for years what she would wear, how she would express emotions, and even who she would marry. A good example of this is expectations that men don’t cry–we know this isn’t true. Baby boys cry just like baby girls, but we see the tears stop flowing after years of being told to stop the water works. This idea is a gendered expectation that comes with sex assignment.

With the label of a gender comes societal expectations called “gender roles,” or expectations of behavior based on a person’s gender. In modern Western societies the expectation is that men are aggressive, powerful, and emotionless. A man who doesn’t fit into this expectation is less a “sissy” or deviant. Women are decreed nurturing, collaborative, and docile. When women don’t behave this way, they’re viewed as “butch.” People who don’t fit into either gender role based on their actual or perceived sex are deemed deviant.

Gender roles for men are often referred to as “masculine.” This simply means anything that is “manly.” Aggression, deep voices, stoicism, facial hair, and flannel are all considered masculine. If a man is behaving in this way, he is fulfilling his gender roles. If the word “masculine” is ever used to describe a woman, it is to explain the parts of her that aren’t “womanly.” During the Olympics, Jenner fulfilled masculine expectations of competition, domination, and power. Now that she has transitioned, any sign of those traits is held up as proof that she isn’t a “real” woman.

Masculinity is in direct opposition to femininity, which is anything that is “womanly.” Being emotional, nurturing or docile are all considered “feminine,” as are floral prints, breasts, long hair and high voices. Before Caitlyn Jenner announced her transition the media was speculating about her transition simply because she was growing out her hair and dressing more feminine. Though in this case it was true that Jenner was transitioning, people displaying “feminine” traits are not always women.

All of these terms go back to sex. You are assigned a sex at birth, which comes with the assumption of a specific gender, which determines whether you are expected to obey masculine or feminine gender roles. Calling out that sex and gender aren’t the same, and that they’re both spectrums is relatively new to some folks. Just remember when you go into conversations that sex is socially constructed (if someone starts talking about genitals equal sex, ask them if a woman who has a hysterectomy is still a woman?)  Unfortunately for Caitlyn Jenner, the way our culture blends sex, gender, gender roles, and even sexual orientation, makes for some offensive and damaging news coverage. Here’s to hoping her story has helped change that in the future!

How do you talk about gender and sex with people who aren’t familiar with the terms? Tell us in the comments?