The American Dream. Power, Privilege, and a Lack of Achievability According to Feminist Theory

Essay, 2015

41 Pages, Grade: 95


Table of Contents

The American Dream: Power, Privilege, and a Lack of Achievability According to Feminist

Writing Project Two

Why Equality as the American Dream?

What Do We Mean When We Say “Equality?”
Everyone is Free and Equal Now, Right?

Privilege in America

Privilege and Intersectionality

What about Reverse Discrimination? It Doesn’t Exist!

Social Mobility is Possible, Though, Right?

So Two Versions of the American Dream aren’t Possible. What if you Redefine It?

Is Voting the Great Equalizer of America?

Why Does all of this Matter?



writing Project Two

When I was a young child in grade school, our history classes loved to define the history of America as one of white settlers heroically conquering new lands, facing hardships never before imagined and courageously discovering new places along the way. Teachers described this as the first American Dream- the desire to move to the West, gain land on which to live and work, and discover gold and riches galore. Manifest destiny, the idea that God led us white settlers to this land because we had somehow earned it, and that the world was ours for the taking, was the idea that every teacher repeated as the beautiful American Dream that everyone wanted to achieve. The American Dream was defined for us then as the hope of colonizing the West, of expanding the country from “sea to shining sea,” of making a dazzling world for all Americans by providing plenty of land now that the East was packed and crowded. There wasn’t any room for us white people to expand on the Eastern Shores (if we wanted to build, we had to build up instead of out), so it was time for us to find new lands out West, where no man had gone before.

Somehow, the teachers always neglected to mention that these lands we “discovered” were already controlled for thousands of years by Native Americans, and that the Natives have been enjoying the land and its resources long before whites ever came. Natives built their homes there, had families there, hunted and grew plants there, and respected the land more than we as white people ever did. The land belongs to them more than it did to us, but we didn’t care. We white people saw these other people as savages, because they were so different (different gods, different styles of dress, different languages, different everything), and we slaughtered and killed almost every Native, enslaving the rest or forcing them to learn how to “be white” by placing them in schools against their will. We as settlers changed everything about the way the Natives were living, labeling their culture as inferior, and forced them to conform to the white idea of a perfect and meaningful life. “Speak English! Be a Christian! Cut your hair! Wear better clothes! Cover your skin! Be monogamous! Be just like us, or else!” The Natives were treated like less than human, and endured endless racism just so whites could kick them off their land and have a new place to stay. Whites felt entitled to land that was never ours to take, and this horrific racism is the only reason the United States looks the way it does. Teachers often neglected to mention that achieving this American Dream required forcing the “superior” white way on so many innocent people, and either ruining or taking their lives. Somehow, that detail seemed unimportant. This is just one of many examples of institutional racism in America’s education system- erasing PoC (person/people of color) history and replacing it with this idea of “superior, more important” white people’s history.

This American Dream was eventually replaced with another: having the perfect life and the perfect family. That “perfect life” was the old “white picket fence, suburban home, two children and a dog” life that so many think of when they think “traditional American family.” This model of the family also included a very important spouse dynamic: the Breadwinner/Housewife dynamic. The breadwinner was the husband, who had a nice middle class or upper middle class job. If he couldn’t have that nice of a job, he at least earned a family wage, allowing him to be the sole supporter of the family. His wife did all of the cooking and cleaning while raising the children and looking beautiful. She was obligated to cook 5 course meals for him every night while wearing heels, only taking a break to vacuum and scrub the floors, as well as take the kids to school and do their laundry. This wasn’t seen as work, but as obligation, and women went unrecognized for the effort they put into keeping the family alive. The wife of the family wasn’t allowed to have a job, and was highly discouraged from joining the workforce, because that place was reserved for men. Additionally, she was obligated to fit a certain loving and supporting emotional role, doting on her husband and giving into his every whim, so that he could recharge from his long day at work. These families were highly segregated by gender roles: “Women owed men domestic services (cleaning, cooking, childcare, and sex); in return, men were legally required to support their wives financially” (Wade and Ferree, 2015). It was the new type of property marriage; the only real difference was that men didn’t legally own their wives, though it was certainly implied much of the time. Any 50’s TV show depicts this type of family, and it became ideal. Hardly anyone noticed the blatant sexism of the idea, nor did they care. Women were highly discouraged from working, from ever having a job, buying fast food or frozen dinners, or choosing not to have kids. The rigid gender roles didn’t allow for any freedom, yet to complain or be upset was too “unladylike” and selfish, as women weren’t seen as having any “real” problems. Often, they got labeled as crazy for not enjoying being a perfect housewife, as it was considered their God-given job in life. As if this sexism wasn’t already terrible, this concept of a “one man, one woman” marriage with a Breadwinner/Housewife dynamic, which we now label traditional marriage, also didn’t allow a happily ever after for other groups as well. Any family that didn’t fit that model, whether it be a gay couple, a polyamorous one, or something else, was left out. That, too, was unimportant. These families, still seen as lesser even today, were not allowed to so much as exist back then. Additionally, the Breadwinner/Housewife dynamic didn’t work for every family; some financial situations didn’t allow for it, making this Dream impossible for many to achieve (Wade and Ferree, 2015).

Now, people have redefined the American Dream again, usually as something along the line of “social mobility” or “rags to riches.” This concept focuses on the idea that anyone can move up in the world if they just work hard enough. This, of course, naively ignores power and privilege dynamics and just assumes that everyone is going up against the same hurdles. This American Dream is seen as possible for everyone to achieve because those who ascribe to it don’t understand that some people have challenges they don’t, or that some challenges aren’t possible to overcome with hard work alone. In fact, some people can’t work at all, believe it or not.

I have always defined the American Dream as achieving equality. Based on my observations of the country, America prides itself on being the most free and equal nation on the planet. We always feel the need to help other countries be as “perfect” as we are, and we always tell people that they should be grateful to be Americans because they’ll never have any “real” problems here. Many believe we live in a post racial society that has no sexism, no inequality, and no worries. While this idea is a pleasant one, it is completely naïve. Of course, it may seem to the privileged that life is grand, but that is only because they aren’t facing the challenges that those without privilege have to face. The American Dream is achievable for white, middle class, cisgender straight men; however, groups without those privileges have far less opportunity to achieve the Dream.

Why Equality as the American Dream?

Why choose to redefine the American Dream as “equality?” Think of every song about America that you know. “Sweet Land of Liberty… Let Freedom ring.” “Cause the flag still stands for freedom/ and they can’t take that away. / I’m proud to be an American/ where at least I know I’m free…” “And liberty extend its mighty hand… The red and white and starry blue/ Is freedom’s shield and hope… Is the flag of flags, the flag of Freedom’s nation.” In every popular song, liberty and freedom are repeated ideas, ideas that here in America, we associate with equality. These ideas seem to be the structure on which this country stands. Founded on the freedom of religion and the right to worship as one chooses, this country has always sought to make its people free and equal. Whether it has always succeeded, of course, is a different story.

What Do We Mean When We Say “Equality?”

A lot of ideas fall under this “catch all” idea of equality. Firstly, it involves the common idea of unalienable rights, this idea that we are all entitled to a certain amount of rights and freedoms. Secondly, it involves “sameness,” usually in the form of having the same rights, the same opportunities, the same quality of life, etc. Obviously, people are not all exactly the same, but the idea is that it shouldn’t matter, because we deserve the same things. For example, two people may not be equally qualified for a firefighter position because one isn’t as strong as the other, but they should both be able to apply for the job and take the necessary tests and training, thereby having equal opportunity to get the job. Equality isn’t about giving things away to people who don’t deserve it, like letting the weaker firefighter get the job just so that there is an equal number of men and women in the department, but is about letting everyone have access to the same tools, skills, opportunities, and more. Being gay wouldn’t mean not being able to donate blood because it is assumed that your blood is unhealthy; instead, your blood would be tested to see if it is possible to donate it, the same as everyone else. Being a certain race or class wouldn’t prevent you from getting a quality education, because it would be readily available to all people. These are just a few examples of what equality would mean for America. A truly equal world would treat everyone the same while respecting their differences, allowing people to be who they are without restraint or fear. No one would ever be attacked or face discrimination or prejudice for being who they are, and life would be rainbows and butterflies for all. These ideas about equality are what many Americans believe is true of American today.

Everyone is Free and Equal Now, Right? “Sure,” many Americans argue, “we used to have laws and policies that were unfair to women and PoC, but we don’t now, right?” And perhaps that’s true, to some extent. However, we are not “free” or “equal” by any means yet. America, just like any other place in the world, has its fair share of problems. And while it is a pleasant thought to imagine all of us being one hundred percent equal, that is simply not the reality. Unfortunately, privilege and power dynamics still dictate a lot of our reality, keeping people from ever being truly equal.

Privilege in America

What exactly do we mean by privilege and power dynamics? When people hear “privilege,” they think of something they earned, which often makes it confusing for people when they are told that certain things, like race and gender, give you privilege. If you didn’t have to work at being a certain race, how can that earn you privilege? “We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work to systematically over empower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s race or sex” (McIntosh, 1998). Many Americans don’t understand this idea, and therefore pretend or refuse to believe such privileges exist. However, privilege is a very real problem that is disadvantaging many Americans all around us.

Privilege is greatly unearned, and is just handed to us by society for having certain traits, such as being a certain race, gender, class, or sexual orientation, speaking a certain language, being from a certain geographical location, having a certain amount ability (and not being physically or mentally disabled), being from a certain religion, and more. Privilege is the other side of oppression, and often goes unnoticed because being treated badly leaves a bigger impression than being treated fairly. Usually, people with privileges are unaware that they have them for this reason. “Consider the ways in which you are oppressed: How are you disadvantaged because of the way society treats aspects of your identity?” asks writer Sian Ferguson, a South African feminist currently studying toward a Bachelors of Social Science degree majoring in English Language and Literature and Gender Studies. “Are you a woman? Are you disabled? Does your sexuality fall under the queer umbrella? Are you poor? Do you have a mental illness or a learning disability? Are you a person of color? Are you gender non-conforming?” These traits are used to oppress people; society purposely mistreats you because of these parts of your identity. “All of these things could make life difficult because society disenfranchises people who fit into those social groups. We call this oppression. ” As Sian explains, anything that isn’t an identifier used to oppress you is likely used to empower you. “But what about the people society doesn’t disenfranchise? What about the people society empowers at our expense? We call that privilege. Privilege is simply the opposite of oppression” (Ferguson, 2014).

Privileged groups have power over oppressed groups and can use this power to benefit people like them, meaning other people in positions of privilege. “Privileged people are more likely to be in positions of power – for example, they’re more likely to dominate politics, be economically well-off, have influence over the media, and hold executive positions in companies” (Ferguson, 2014). Along with individuals holding the power, privileged groups as a whole have systematic and institutional power. “Society is affected by a number of different power systems: patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism, cissexism, and classism — to name a few” (Ferguson, 2014). Feminists refer to the combination of all power systems as kyriarchy, although it is more common to hear feminists discussing patriarchy, a system that doesn’t allow for women to have institutional power on the basis of gender. It’s also common to hear feminists discussing white supremacy, which prevents PoC from having institutional power based on race.

Part of why it is so hard to understand is because when people say “privilege,” they mean some special treatment of some sort: “X is a privilege, not a right. It isn’t something given to you; you have to earn it.” So when privilege in a sociological context is pointed out, people get angry. “This isn’t special treatment. That’s just how it should be. People should just be nice to each other.” That’s absolutely true! People should expect not to be harassed on the street, not to be discriminated against when applying for a job, and not to be mistreated simply for being a certain way. “Everyone has a right to be treated that way. The problem is that certain people aren’t treated that way” (Ferguson, 2014). Therefore, privilege infringes on equality by allowing stratification between certain groups, allowing for certain groups to be oppressed, and preventing all people from having the same rights and opportunities as one another.

Perhaps the easiest privilege for most people to understand is class privilege. Class privilege is, essentially, the idea that people who are rich or upper middle class have special perks that people with less money do not have. There are plenty of examples of how the upper classes are privileged. Politicians pay more attention to richer people, and focus more on earning their vote than the vote of the poor, especially in the case of conservatives. Upper class people can advocate for their class without it being seen as “looking for a handout.” Additionally, upper class people have more purchasing power and more ability to buy in large quantities, so products are more often made and advertised for them. Whether they swear or commit a crime, no one will say that this is typical of all people in the upper class. It’s easy to hire a good attorney who will represent them fairly, since they have more money to do so. They can actually afford medical attention, and don’t refuse to go to a hospital when necessary just because it costs too much. Additionally, the decision to go to college wasn’t about the cost either for these people. School projects were made a breeze when they could afford all the materials, a tutor, and even hired help, whereas some of us couldn’t afford to turn in a halfway decent project. Upper class children have access to better education and study materials, and are more easily able to afford to do extracurricular activities. Their financial status is attributed to hard work and “deserving” to have it. Upper class people never have to worry about utilities being terminated, or the inability to afford a car or bus pass, or whether or not they’ll have food and shelter in the freezing winter months. This is only the beginning to the many privileges they have that poorer people do not (“30 Examples of Middle to Upper Class Privilege,” n.d.).

Income inequality brings with it social inequality that is more than just insults and feelings of envy. There are real and negative consequences for people who are not wealthy, or at the very least, upper middle class. It’s not just that most Americans can’t spend a fortune on a nice hotel; they can’t even afford a halfway decent house, and usually have to go into debt to buy the house they want. It’s not just that most Americans can’t afford the fanciest private schools in the country; it’s that any school can be and is incredibly expensive, usually too much for the average family. It’s not that most Americans can’t eat at 5 star restaurants every single day and night; it’s that many can barely afford to buy food at all, and those who can might still struggle to be able to buy enough of it. It’s not that the poor and middle class are greedy and want more money; they need it in order to survive. A bad start can ruin a child’s chances in life, and for middle class and poor children, a bad start is often what they get. Low income families are often uninsured, so children cannot seek medical care that they need. There is an education gap between the rich and the poor, and sadly, many poor children are malnourished, and at a greater likelihood of being so (Krugman, 2007).

To the surprise of many, there are plenty of people too poor to so much as eat in America (Edelman, 2012). Babies and toddlers with bloated bellies and ragged clothing are unable to be fed by their hopeless, miserable parents, who are simply too poor to care for them. Even though these people can be seen on streets around the country, and have been witnessed by various politicians such as Robert Kennedy in Mississippi (Edelman, 2012), many do not understand how it is possible to be that poor, and therefore fight any reform to food stamps or other programs that help the poor “catch up,” in a sense. Very often, food stamps is labeled as an unfair privilege given to the poor, especially the black poor, but there is nothing privileged about living in poverty and being unable to feed your kid (Edelman, 2012).

“Today, crucial programs like food stamps, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program, and school lunch, breakfast and summer feeding programs continue working to combat child and family hunger” (Edelman, 2012). While these are a good start, they haven’t completely solved the problem, and there are a lot of holes in how they work. For example, my mom makes only $1,000 every month (that’s $12,000 per year to care for two adults, herself included), and the only way she has that money is because of her status as a disabled veteran. We spend about $922 every month on bills, which only leaves $78 for food, gas money, and other expenses. Often, we struggle to afford food because so many other costs end up becoming a problem, like paying for ink for the printer so I can turn in assignments at college. So we really rely on food stamps in order to survive. When I turned 18, our food stamps were drastically cut to about $28 a month… How much food can you really buy with that? The assumption was that I, as an adult, would no longer be dependent on my mom financially, but that is simply not the reality. I can’t afford to live on campus, and usually campus food costs too much, so I rely on my mom for shelter and food still. I could, hypothetically, get a job, but no job I can get with my lack of experience would be enough to feed a family, and my getting a job would affect my ability to receive financial aid for school, because we would have a new source of income. Basically, she and I are trapped by an unfair system that isn’t necessarily helping us to do more than just survive. This being said, it is important to recognize why these programs matter, because for many, they are a lifeline:

Their implementation could be significantly improved but in the current recession, they have proved to be indispensable lifelines for the millions of jobless families with no cash income in our rich nation -- about six million or 1 in 50 Americans, the New York Times reported in 2010 -- for whom food stamps are the only defense against the wolves of hunger. (Edelman, 2012)

In 2011, 46 million people relied on food stamps to eat (Edelman, 2012). Yet there is a battle to either decrease the effectiveness of food stamps or take it away completely, because many don’t believe hunger is an actual problem in America. The voices of the hungry get silenced, as if their experiences don’t matter or don’t count. Experts like Marian Wright Edelman are sometimes ignored when they present evidence of a growing number of hungry and poor people in America. If that tactic fails, many use the achievement ideology- the idea that you can do anything you want if you just work hard- to justify hunger and being poor: “Those people were just lazy and didn’t work hard enough. If they wanted to be able to afford food, they would get off their butts and do something,” many would say (Ehrenreich, 2014). “By the Reagan era, it had become a cornerstone of conservative ideology that poverty is caused not by low wages or a lack of jobs and education, but by the bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles of the poor” (Ehrenreich, 2014). Edelman disagrees with conservatives:


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The American Dream. Power, Privilege, and a Lack of Achievability According to Feminist Theory
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Breanna Strough (Author), 2015, The American Dream. Power, Privilege, and a Lack of Achievability According to Feminist Theory, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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