How do you define diversity in 150 words or less?

Diversity is agency. Let me offer an example as explanation.

I experience daily the reality of underrepresented minority matriculation at Berkeley. 3.8% are Black, 7.1% are Latino/Chicano, and >1% are Native, compared with to 6.6%, 38.2%, and 1.7% in California. We who do attend, experience racial microaggressions which make us wonder if we even belong. We feel powerless to reverse the trend of university matriculation. The larger diversity conversation concerns the admittance of minorities, and not their better cultural inclusion once they arrive.

This lack of inclusion mirrors the superficial definition of diversity, which formative institutions have espoused. In truth, this definition doesn’t give minority communities a voice.

True diversity is acknowledging that people from varied backgrounds deserve a seat at the table to solve our collective issues. Their expertise, their viewpoints, and their input is valid, and should be sought by those who have the power to do so.


I, Too, Am America: Making All Students Feel Like They Belong

First posted in Education Week.

Is what I’m doing making a difference?

I ask myself that question almost every day as I zip across my elite university’s campus to my next class, meeting, or conference.

Though I hope to be recognized for my research and my contributions to society, some days I can’t shake the particular realities of being a black man in academia. It doesn’t happen frequently, but when it does, the memory sticks. Take the time some well-meaning black parents asked me for directions to an engineering building here at the University of California, Berkeley, and then exclaimed, “Wow, a black Berkeley student. Times sure have changed!”

I’ve encountered this type of disbelief throughout my life. Whether it was when I was placed in the gifted and talented program at Centennial Lane Elementary School in suburban Ellicott City, Md., which had a majority of white and Asian students, or finishing multivariate calculus in senior year at a high school with the same demographic makeup, well-meaning people consistently told me how extraordinary I was. In fact, so many commented that I started questioning my own authenticity. What exactly makes me so exceptional? Why didn’t I see more people like me excelling? Do I truly belong here?

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who feels this way. A recent campus-climate surveyshows minorities at Berkeley are more likely than nonminorities to experience exclusionary conduct. What would make people feel this way, you might ask? Words and actions known as micro-aggressive behavior, much like the quip from the well-meaning parents, offer omnipresent examples.

I’ve talked to people across campus about this issue: alumni who were in my position a few years ago, sympathetic professors who have struggled for acceptance for years, and colleagues who want to build community. These talks helped me notice another unfortunate trend: Not only do minority students feel excluded, they also feel powerless to do anything to enact change.

Looking for a way to respond, I decided to get involved in the “I, Too, Am Berkeley”campaign. A few months ago, students at Harvard University started the “I, Too, Am …” movement, with Oxford, Princeton, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and many other institutions following. The movement drew attention to current issues of race, culture, religion, and their intersection on the academic stage by highlighting students of color and their concerns at higher education institutions. Even today, education, it seems, is not a cure for institutional racism.

Not everyone on the side of change is for the movement; many have argued that the campaign doesn’t solve the issues it exposes. A good friend told me how little faith she had in “I, Too, Am Berkeley” a few weeks ago. To her, “Doing the other things (marching, Twitter campaigns, etc.) is a waste of time … well, if it results in no change.” She raises an important point.

But the effort has done at least one exceptionally important thing: It has shown that, even in the breeding grounds for the future leaders of the world, even with the gains that have been made in our society, we people of color still feel injustices we shouldn’t have to. Even more importantly, some folks seem to be paying attention to the conversation.

Let’s share some perspective. On May 17, the nation celebrates the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka—the ruling that struck down racially separate educational facilities as inherently unequal, paving the way for school integration.

Brown marked a turning point for our nation, but we should not forget America’s deeper history. The black American community did not have equal rights under the law in America since its earliest days, three centuries before Brown. Moreover, the very structures which stand today, that serve as foundations of American society, were inextricably tied to the slave economy, even the very academic institutions we frequent today.

Not surprisingly, many institutions haven’t been ecstatic to talk about their connections with slavery. Sven Beckert, a professor of American history at Harvard who led a project on the university’s connections with slavery, told The New York Times last year, “There has been no effort to make this into a broader discussion.” However, I agree with the historians about one thing: The subtext behind these historical questions has a direct relationship with the academic minority’s current struggles. The main question is: Are schools—K-12 through higher education—doing everything they can to make minorities feel they truly belong? The “I, Too, Am…” movement serves as evidence to the contrary.

edweek stock photo

What then, can be done better? One idea is to open up the larger discourse about America’s real connections to institutional racism and xenophobia, instead of assuming the racial and cultural realities of our society are former issues solved by a set of civil rights laws. The quicker we understand as a community how massive inequities have been built into the American system, the more time we can spend fixing real issues.

Moreover, because affirmative action is hotly debated in our society, might I suggest an addition to the discourse? A majority of the race issues concerning academia focus upon the integration of different races, cultures, and creeds into our universities. What isn’t included in the conversation is a movement toward true inclusion, toward making sure minority communities and students of all ages feel that they truly belong.

Racial and cultural micro-aggressions are actions taught in our society; and just like many other social norms, they can be untaught. These discussions about race and culture should happen on a larger scale, so people can unlearn ignorant actions, phrases, and traditions in our society. By developing fruitful discussions about cultural tensions in our communities, we might make some progress. It might incite change we never thought possible.

I know I don’t have all the answers, so I welcome solutions from all who want to make a difference. If you want to be involved, I do suggest two simple things: Reflect on your own racial privilege, and learn to listen. It’s obvious, by the “I, Too, Am …” campaigns that our generation is ready to talk.

The real question is: Will you pay attention?

Fireside Chat: What’s your leadership recipe?


When being in a leadership role, what are some ways to know when to be firm towards a particular situation, and when to be encouraging. Is it better to be a firm leader, a friendly leader, or a mixture of both?


A good brother asked me this recently, and I thought I’d share a more nuanced answer here for all of you.

If you remember anything from this post, remember this:

Relationships are not recipes.

Many blogs we’re used to are addicted to giving you advice that works like a recipe. Think about it: how many blogs have you seen this year that have a list attached to them? Count it you’d like; it might take a while. Take 1/4 cup sympathy, 3/4 pounds of wisdom, a pinch of reality, and heat until 450 degrees, and your life will be perfect. Even if the authors didn’t mean for their columns to be cure-alls, they’re sure read that way by our society.

In the world we live in, however, that type of post is dangerous. Many situations are much too complicated to ascribe advice towards without more context.

That being said, when acting as a leader, how should your leadership style change? Let me give you a few examples. If what I’ve done.


One certain instance was during my Aerospace design course, where we learn how to design a 777 Boeing jet equivalent. At the start of the class, we had to decide which students would take over which aspects of the project.

In many instances during my coursework, like this one, I’ve been in groups where other students were all too scared to make the first move. It wasn’t that they weren’t capable, it’s that empty space before a decision is made was too pregnant with insecurity.

In this situation, we were trying to decide who would be the leader of the group; and noone felt compelled. I decided to raise my voice, and become the leader for the semester. Mind you, I wouldn’t gain any recognition for leading the project, everyone was just interested in graduating. I did it, however, because I knew someone needed to step into the position to get it done.

The task was more than just delegation, however; throughout the entire semester, the leader had to tie up loose ends that didn’t have a home in any of the other positions the other students held. Believe me, I cleaned up many loose ends, I learned on the fly optimization coding, center-of-mass calculations, and more I can’t recall. Just because I did these things, however, didn’t mean I was better than anyone else; I just had a different position, and I had to respect all the other group members for the experience they were bringing to the table.

What’s that an example of? Firmness. But also, servitude towards the cause, and a clear understanding of one’s own capabilities.


However, leadership come in the form of mentorship as well. In the metaphorical body of success, if networking is the skeleton, then mentorship is the lifeblood. To do it well, it requires understanding, an open ear, precious time, and many times, a closed mouth. Your mentee came not just to hear your input, but to speak her mind.

Many of my mentees ask for help from me not because their problem is complex, but because there’s no one else available at the time to keep their ears open about the issues. Understanding their space in their issue, and making them feel like someone considers them valuable, is important in any mentor-mentee relationship.

However, firmness might be necessary; mentees might come to you to hear the piece of honesty they know they won’t get from anyone else. It might taste bitter when first heard, but they know, and you know, it’s good for them in the end.

Mentors are not meant to be heroes; a symbolic representation of important tenets that you hold dear. They can have both aspects of firmness and kindness; in fact thats probably why mentees come to them in the first place.


So, what does this all mean? Let’s go back to the cooking metaphor; you might have a recipe, but if you’re doing it well, you’re really cooking like my mother. You add what feels right, you practice it a LOT, and you learn from your mistakes. Because, mistakes are bound to happen.

So, is your leadership recipe, firm, or compassionate? Or both? What else is involved?

Who knows? Just get cooking.

How does one jumpstart a movement?

A packed house for the Inequality for All screening, with Reich, Kornbluth, and Brady on the stage, fielding questions.

A packed house for Inequality for All screening, with Reich, Kornbluth, and Brady on the stage, fielding questions.

Originally posted on Life at ERG: Blog of the Energy and Resources Group, UC Berkeley.

How does one jump-start a movement?

In a way, Robert Reich has been trying to do so for his entire career. The Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, and previous secretary of labor in the Clinton Administration, His recent movie, Inequality for All, which was shown this past February 5th, 2014, to a sold out crowd of 700 people in the Wheeler Hall Auditorium. The director Jacob Kornbluth, and the Dean of the Public Policy School, Henry Brady, moderated the after-movie discussion.

After the movie, the crowd asked Reich about many questions about the many different social intersections of economic inequality: racial inequality, the true potential impact of labor unions, the presence of inflation, and many other concepts. One thing was apparent during the question-and-answer portion of the night; even off the big screen, Reich can command a room, even one as large as Wheeler Auditorium.

Over his experienced profession, Reich has used many tools at his disposal to get out his message about fixing the American economy. If you visit his website, you’re instantly bombarded with his blog posts, his television appearances with the Colbert Report and the Daily Show, and his own personal explanatory videos about low wage workers, inequality, immigration reform, and many other topics.

The movie, which won both the Special Jury prize at the Sundance film festival and the Audience Award for the Best Documentary at the Traverse City film festival, deftly mixes Reich’s expert economic opinion about the current and historical state of the political economy, with the teaching of the Berkeley class, Inequality and Poverty, alongside aspects of his own personal memoir.

What’s the most artistic part of the movie? In fact, it’s the way these three seemingly unrelated topics come together to tell a whale of an economic tale. To the average movie goer, Inequality for All might contain more graphs, develop more relationships, and explain more about money, than any event they’ve seen. And yet, somehow the movie fits it all together using Reich’s natural stage presence and their constantly evolving storyline. These separate parts of the narrative become deeply ingrained cogs of an economic engine: economic inequality, labor unions, tax policy, globalization, technological development, and many other parts. Interestingly, the confluence of Reich’s experience, his life story, and his Berkeley course functions just as effortlessly.

Such quality, however, is not inequality for alldue to Reich’s life work and nimble delivery; for this, the genius of the director cannot be overstated. Though it seems to be a party where Reich is the master of ceremonies, if one looks deeper, one can find out how much influence the director had on the movie’s progression. Kornbluth explains his main motives on the Inequality for All website: “I decided my goal with this film, first and foremost, was to take a conceptual and abstract topic and find a way to tell an approachable and human story about it.” In his words, during the question portion, he stated “You have to believe in the messenger to believe in the message.” That belief is necessary, then, to incite a movement to jump-start our economy.

Reich stated that he understands that economic change of which he advocates for requires conversation with, and motivation from, diverse communities. In the same breath, he goes from lecturing to his UC Berkeley course, to conversing with Republican laborers about the importance of worker lobbying, to chopping it up with venture capitalists. In a way, it’s a visual example of one particular thing; for our economy to work, we need buy-in from each of these disparate groups, to move forward towards common goals.

Even is one doesn’t agree with Reich’s suggestions, you must agree that inequality has become a massive issue in our society. Reich includes conversation about the passionate Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party protests, and adds such protests are symptoms of our communities being upset with inequality on large scales. Even President Obama recently stated in his recent State of the Union address, that ‘Inequality is the defining issue and challenge of our time.’ Needless to say, this isn’t an issue to take lightly.

The solutions to these issues, however, won’t come as easy. He states: “The issue is at a point where there is a possibility…It can be tackled. It’s not an easy answer; there has to be a movement…”

Well, one thing can be made for sure: whether Democrat, Republican, or otherwise, the points made in the new movie are hard to put down. Watching the movie, might be your first step.

Interested in learning more about Inequality for All? Check out the website here.

The New School of Chivalry

Stop a moment, before you read the rest of this blog.

Ask yourself: Do you believe in chivalry? I’m not asking if you think chivalry has died; that question has been all but beaten to death.

Instead, I’m asking this: do you believe chivalry in our society is a good thing? Why, exactly, do you think so?

Now, I’ll let you in on a little secret. The idea of chivalry never fully vibed with me. Don’t get me wrong, I recognize that it’s a touchy topic, and it’s been a cultural undercurrent for modern society, even since many have claimed its demise. I’ve been immersed in its practices since I was born, and being chivalrous has become second nature. However, I never really had the best reasons for doing it (besides, of course, being scared of being punished by my parents). It always felt a bit peculiar that there was a collection of actions that we should do for the opposite sex, just because they are a member of the opposite sex.

Why open the doors for women when they get out of cars, but not for men? Why help my mother with her coat when we leave a restaurant, but not my father? Why walk on the side of the street closest to the car with my girlfriend, but not for my brothers? I decided to keep doing the actions, but I couldn’t blame others for deciding against them. The reasons I was always told  were a bit hollow; that they were not based on philosophical grounding. Unfortunately, the popular arguments I heard were hardly convincing.

Many people argue we need it in our society more than ever. It reminds us of ‘traditional’ values, of a time when there are understood roles, and actions through which men and women were meant to act within. However, in the growing age of LGBTQIA+ agency, we must realize the world isn’t only filled with cisgendered heterosexual people. We must strive to develop a more nuanced code of actions than traditional chivalry affords. Moreover, with the powerful presence of feminism in our society, many people argue that chivalrous acts, previously done by men, can be happily done by women, for themselves. The point here is, why hold our modern society to a code of rigid, problematic values stuck in yesteryear?

On the other side of the coin, why not get rid of chivalry altogether? Much of the argument is as follows: if women aim to be equal, they should be treated as such; thus, men should treat women the same way they treat their brother. This argument, however, is overly idealistic and callous: it fails to acknowledge the systematic sexism and patriarchy that has occurred in society for millennia. It’s disrespectful to the people who live, today, in the aftermath of such subjugation; it doesn’t acknowledge the invisible privilege that men have exercised for generations.


Probably not the old school they were hoping for. Source

Moreover, I think the argument fails to acknowledge the main point behind chivalrous acts: the acts are nice things to do; and it’s a way we’ve learned to acknowledge our fellow human beings; to show respect to people with whom we exist in this world. That respect and acknowledgement seems to be what’s missing in our society as a whole.

When people want chivalry back, I don’t think they really want it because it’s ‘old school.’ I feel like, instead, we harken for a time when individual relationships, no matter how fleeting, were cherished. Chivalry was a means to that end, no matter how problematic.

So, what’s a good man to do? Ascribe to outdated roles of action and communication, or cast off years of systematic oppression by acting as if men and women are equal? Neither option seemed like a correct way to live my life.

Until I saw a particular video short named Minute Man, made by the ingenious YouTube studio, BlackNSexyTV. Made to be a short talk show for men, by men, and with men, they talk about present issues which plague the Black American man in society. The topic of discussion was if a man should pay for the date. Take a second and watch the brothers.

Though I agreed with some points, and opposed others, I appreciated the presence of the conversation. However, I then heard one of the brothers, at about 4:36 into the video, say ‘…I say first date, man pays… because at the end of the day… women go through a lot of shit, on a daily basis…’ 

For me, that’s all it took. The linchpin for new chivalry. It’s not about harkening to the past, or aiming for some ahistorical actions of equality. Its about understand the society we live in today.

The truth is, the types of things women have to do every single day to gain social acceptance would make the average man’s head spin. Women get paid less, they are forced into physical impossibilities engendered by the media, and across the globe, they are treated as second class citizens, as the invisible linchpins of society.

I realized, anything I can do to show respect, to show alliance with the plight of women in society, is worth doing. The basis of chivalry can be shifted; instead of focusing on an ahistorical reading of sexual equality, or focusing on outdated roles of conduct, we can redefine chivalry. I can do chivalrous acts because I consistently acknowledge, and act as an ally for, the systematically marginalized. In this new ideal, chivalry is not charity. I do these nice things to make your day a little bit better, because the world has had it out for women for generations.

However, if we can redefine chivalry, we should adapt it to the world today. We should have real conversations about what chivalry actually means: about which aspects of chivalry should be kept around, and which should be discarded. Should certain respectful acts be culturally coded by gender? What if both people are nearly broke, and go out on a date? Should we all wait until our partners open and close car doors for each other?

I can’t answer these questions, and maybe I’m not meant to. These revelations aren’t fully developed, and they’re my internal rationalizations, no one else’s. However it manifests into real actions, I believe in three common threads:

(1) actions should express respect for others in society,

(2) how you show respect should be your decision, and

(3) the codes of conduct should be as fluid as the society in which we inhabit.

Living our lives by an unchangeable code could get us caught in the same problems of ‘old chivalry.’

Our world is not equal, and changes by the second. and fighting against this inequality must be done with every action. Kill the system with kindness, as it were. Here’s the real point: it pays to be a good person. The world has too many other problems with inequality; it makes little sense to argue against actions which make the world a little more livable.

Many people have spent their whole lives fighting against chivalry. Try buying into the new school of chivalry, and respect your fellow human through your actions. You might even find your own reasons for enrolling in the new school.

Emotional Walls and Personal Stories; or, why Awkward Queues Might Spark your Eureka Moment

We live in a world of communicative hypocrisy: we strive to be connected, but have to keep certain walls up when we interact with most of society. In our world, it’s understandable: we all move so fast, and interact with more strangers than we care to admit on a daily basis. You want to make sure that you separate the wheat from the chaff.

I’ll argue today, that you might want to let your walls down. Just a bit, for the right occasions.

When? I’m not even sure.

For who? You have to keep your eyes open for that.

But why? You have so much to offer, and the world has more to offer than you’d expect.

Earlier this winter break, I caught myself rushing through security at Dulles airport recently, and by chance, I found out my flight home had been delayed, so much so that my connecting flight would be missed. I was already confused; I hadn’t flown out of Dulles for a couple of years, and it already got lost in the terminals. Needless to say, I wasn’t in the best of moods. To find out more information, I went to the gate, and found almost every passenger in line, looking to reschedule their flights.

Now, these lines are an interesting social experiment. An airplance requires complete strangers to share an equally awkward space together for hours at a time, but delays highten the experience for everyone. Such a waiting line gives us a collective enemy: the airline. We’re stuck in a type of limbo; we want to express contempt with our bad situation, but don’t want to let our walls down for these unfamiliar people.

I found a young brother next to me, who shows up as distraught as I was about the flight. His story is already worse: he told me he just flew from Abu Dhabi. He seemed even more interesting, when I heard him on the phone with relatives: he spoke Arabic with one set of relatives, and Japanese in another. But, I heard his accent, and it was decidedly American. I find out his family has moved around like an Army Brat, and he just started his first semester at Georgia Tech. He talked a bit about his high school in Abu Dhabi, and how it had a graduating class of eighty, two student of which were sons of billionaires. Racially diverse, but economically alike; an interesting dynamic. I passed my business card his way, and we eventually parted.

He noticed my blog, and I checked out his as well. Now, I noticed something amazing when I checked out his blog. It seemed like he was unsure about what to write, or if anyone wanted to listen to his viewpoint.

Mind you, I was more than a bit speechless at this finding. This young kid probably has more stamps in his passport than a novice UN Ambassador, and he was wondering what makes his opinions any more unique than the people around him.

I’ve noticed this trend with many of my friends. I hear of their backgrounds, their exploits, their fears, their struggles, and their victories; and they rarely understand how unique their stories are. Moreover, they fail to understand how they can use their individual stories to explain their passions, their goals, and their beliefs.

  • One of my younger Morehouse brothers told me about how he was basically economically self-sufficient for most of his existence before adulthood: he played dice and sold candy to make ends meet. He’s aiming to become an entrepreneur with an engineering background, and is currently working to find graduate programs which give him such an opportunity. He recently asked me if I thought he was ready for grad school; I realized he’s more ready for the grind than the average honors graduate.
  • Another great confidante wonders daily if she has what it takes to apply to, and make it through, medical school. I’ve never seen a larger anatomical geek in my life: and names organelles  with ease and guesses diagnoses when I’m ill to keep her busy. Passion incarnate.
  • One of my great friends travels the globe at a whim, to visit friends and to make new ones. Last year, she went on a world tour through Nepal, Tokyo, Haiti, her home country, and probably five other places I can’t remember. As a User Experience engineer at Google, she’s interested in understanding how culture informs design, and I told her she should do a TED Talk someday. She then wondered to me aloud, that she wouldn’t know where to start. Needless to say, I was more than a bit surprised.

It’s not that people understand how unique they are from everyone else; it’s that few people I know have critically looked at their own experiences, and worked out how those experiences turned them into the person they are today.  Make those connections, and you might find out some things about yourself you didn’t know before.

So, I’m here to say it now: your story is unique, it matters, and it has made you into the person you are today. Learning how to harness your experiences, into powerful storytelling is a masterful skill.

The first step, paradoxically, might be letting your walls down long enough to talk to a random stranger in a queue.  Start a conversation; who knows what might happen? Given time, a little light might even shine in.

A Tale of Two Feminists: Dichotomy and Adam Smith


Is your opinion the whole story? Source

Yes, I’m sorry, this is another article about feminism. If you’re tired of it already, I understand. But I promise I have a point.

I remember a quick conversation I had with a friend during a well-deserved concert in Berkeley, where the conversation moved towards Nicki Minaj’s Halloween attire (warning: NSFW). I won’t get the quotes right, but I can say that she wasn’t the biggest fan of her sartorial choices.

“What about the children that look up to her? She’s setting a horrible example.”

This reminded me of a heated conversation I had with my father about Beyoncé’s recent February concert, or as others might know it, the Superbowl. Most of my friends treated the halftime show like the main event, but my father wasn’t her biggest fan. His main critiques?

  • Why did she have to be so clothes-less?
  • Why did she have to dance so lewdly on the stage, in front of a national audience?
  • When will the large music performance return ‘back to its roots’?

The collective response surround Beyoncé’s Superbowl performance is only the tip of the iceberg; many folks are wondering if our celebrities are, or should be, models of feminism. See conversations around Beyoncé’s new album. Believe  me, lots of people are talking about it. See the recent hashtag, #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen. See the hipocrisy developed around twerking, and why Miley Cyrus’ stage habits are social jokes, while black women doing the same lack self-respect. There are hundreds of separate articles about this topic floating through the interwebs.

Which is why I understand if you didn’t want to read another freaking article about feminism.

Now, all the Nickis and Beyoncés of the world don’t need anyone’s green light to be sexy: they have the power to own her sexuality in a certain voyeuristic manner, and they never asked to be a ‘role model’ in the traditional sense. But, in this society, where female celebrities are constantly in the spotlight, role models are exactly what they become. Every one of these celebrities’ moves is put upon display for the world to see. Moreover, the question isn’t whether they have free will; it’s whether or not their actions are morally wrong.

But the amazing part? Both the supporters of these actions, and the detractors, amazingly both use feminism as their intellectual ammunition. To me, it’s why it feels like everyone is missing… something.

And like a regular academician, it reminds me of a story about the founder of Economics, Adam Smith. Yes, I’m a proud nerd.

In one of my seminal courses at Berkeley run by the illustrious Gillian Hart, we speak about the underpinnings of the political economic forces which formed the machine of international development. It only made sense that she spoke upon the founder of economics to form the basis of liberal economics, also known as ‘free trade’ economics.

Those who champion these movements, then, would find it amazing that Adam Smith himself might not be it’s largest advocate. Yes, in his seminal text, The Wealth of Nations, in the first chapter, he does explain powerful forces which increase production; his most famous being the diversification of labor. You make sewing pins by yourself? You might make ten. Get a bunch of our friends to work with you? You’ll make a thousand. But that’s only the first chapter of only one of his books. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith is very critical of the “cult of the rich,” which liberal economics arguably creates.  Later in life, he becomes an impassioned advocate for the French Revolution. The subtitle of the third chapter in the quote went like this:

“Of the corruption of our moral sentiments, which is occasioned by this disposition to admire the rich and the great, and to despise or neglect persons of poor and mean condition.”

Sadly, Adam Smith went the way of Van Gogh: during much of his lifetime, he wasn’t very famous. It was only after his death, when his biographer wrote his interpretation on Adam Smith, which solidified Smith’s voice as an advocate for free markets, and NOT as an advocate of the poor, or otherwise. Amazing what power death can give you.

His intellectual contribution was hotly debated during the England food crisis, and the debate about the first minimum wage laws in the United Kingdom. Known as the ‘Poor Laws,’ the government magistrates wanted to have the power to set the minimum wage, in case the price for labor was too low. As one would expect, this railed against the ‘unassisted operation of principles’, i.e. free trade economics.

The amazing part? The lawyer who argued against the Poor Laws used Adam Smith’s points as the basis of his argument. The lawyer who argued for the Poor Laws used Adam Smith’s points as the basis of his argument.

Heavy, right? There’s the point I needed. Feminism is being used to both detact from, and to defend, certain sexually polarizing acts that are mainstays in our society.

Advocates against? They argue that women in society are portrayed en masse as sexual objects, and they say that women are, and should be portrayed as, so much better than an object for the male gaze. We as a community should take pride in the many other aspects of a woman’s humanity. Advocates for these acts? These actions are expressions of a woman’s sexual freedom, which has been commodified and taken out of the power of these very women. The act of owning and expressing said sexuality is an active process in breaking down those stereotypes.

The thing about it is, these two sides, aren’t really two sides. They’re two parts of the same structural problem. Dichotomies like this live in our society more than we care to understand, and our society forces us to choose a side. Be a Democrat, or a Republican. Believe in the power of our markets, or the power of the government. Decry the actions of Beyoncé, Nicki, and Rihanna, or celebrate their empowerment.

Fortunately, we can learn something from Adam Smith’s story: the power of critique. Many recent economists now understand the cutting edge of economic research is not to ascribe to a single theory, but by finding places where the theory fails and working to remedy its outcomes. The best examples include the exclusion of poor communities out of particular markets, the economics of welfare, and the impacts of climate change. We can use such a critique for feminism. One can argue against the objectification of woman, and for sexual liberation, at the exact same time.

Those who argue against the sexualization of woman do so because our larger system is swamped with stereotypes, social cues, and entire systems of existence where women are relegated as less than human. Actions must be taken to counteract against the ways women are portrayed in society as less than equal, by attacking assumptions. Attacking oversexualization is only one of many necessary actions to promote equality.

However, does that mean we attack the woman who owns her own  sexuality on the grand stage, or we attack the system? Can we do one, without doing the other?

The unfortunate truth is, it’s more difficult in the real world. We must make snap decisions; the average person doesn’t make time to sit back and think about these issues. Nicki Minaj’s Halloween costume, catalyzed by the virality of the internet, means that her individual decisions battle on the front line of our society’s traditional values. We cannot separate the feminist ideals of our society from the institutions in which we live. If the millions of little Sophia Grace and Rosies see Nicki in her attire, they might think such dress is a goal to aspire to, or society might inform them that all types of dress is wrong in all instances. What exactly do we tell the children of tomorrow?

Nevertheless, in both arguments, I see this point:  The relationship between a morally deficient woman and a sexually liberated woman is created by a culture which robs women of their agency, and doesn’t come from a philosophically moral basis. So, to fight for equality, one must argue for a woman’s agency to do what she wants, when she wants.

However, I argue that these actions should be done in tandem with the deconstruction of sexualization of women as a whole. These issues aren’t on one side or the other: we must make sure that the world values women as their own person. We must teach everyone that women are the linchpin of every society; that they should, and can do any job equally as well as any man, and that what they do with their bodies does not make them any less worthy of respect.

For these issues, the reality might be a bit more nuanced that what it was at first glance. Looking at the other side might help you view the entire iceberg. Although “…feminist culture is a rich place right now, even if it’s a contentious one…”, that contention makes the conversation richer. 

Maybe, if we can keep talking about this issue, I’ll know what to tell my future daughter. Hopefully, my answer will be just a bit freer from the trappings of patriarchy.

On the edge of your seat with what happened to the Poor Laws? I knew you would be. Check out this link if it stirs your soul.