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Literature Review of “Between The World and Me”

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    Ta-Nehisi Coates is an individual who, in his life, has experienced many hardships and situations that are greatly affected by his race, social class, and gender. Many people go through their everyday lives with factors such as these or even additional ones. These lenses shape a person’s life, even if the person is unaware of any impact his or her identity has. Coates thoroughly explains his experiences to his son in his well-received memoir, Between the World and Me. The information Coates explains about his personal experiences can be, in some ways, relatable to other individuals but also may be the opposite of what others have lived through. My gender, race, and class standing all have had and will have overwhelmingly significant impacts on my life and how I can live my life, just as these lenses have affected Coates’ life.

    Every single person is unique. Every single aspect of a person’s existence shapes their experiences in the world. Coates explains how race, class, and gender shaped his life, which are valid lenses to work with. My life is also shaped by gender, race, and class. While, yes, Coates and I may share some similar experiences and qualities in our lenses, we also have many differences in how our lenses affected our lives, family, and experiences in the world. All of my identities and lenses make my life unique to my being. This is why Coates’ Between the World and Me can be relatable but also a very different perspective on how one person’s life could be if any the lenses they had were aligned more with Coates’.

    Many women may not realize the full extent of the spread of sexist oppression in the world. Quite a few people often will recognize their experiences as normal due to the fact that the world is so used to fortifying patterns of sexism, among other patterns that impact all oppressed groups. For example, the wage gap between men and women is a large issue, even though I have not experienced it before. I have worked in the past, but in simple retail jobs, where everyone is typically paid equally. I am well aware the wage gap, in the future when I work in a field where I have opportunity to receive a high, well-paying job, will someday make its presence. The wage gap exists everywhere, and is currently unescapable. According to “Identifying and Dismantling Patriarchy and Other Systems of Oppression of Women,” written by Elaine Neuenfeldt, “in Switzerland we find an 18.4 percent pay gap between women and men; in Germany, a 26.1 percent pay gap; and in France, a woman must work 54 more days than a man to make an equal salary…the reality for women in Korea is also quite challenging,” (Neuenfeldt 19). Not only is the wage gap an issue in the United States, as most U.S. citizens know, but also in many other countries around the world. A woman’s experiences are endlessly different than a man’s in terms of wages and work.

    In addition to aspects such as the wage gap, women are generally, in a way, less powerful than men. Women do not typically have the same access to certain situations or resources that men have access to in order to become successful or live a fulfilled life. This access or lack thereof causes a certain pattern in society, and “the rigid social and cultural models and gender roles assigned to women limit their access to power and situate them as the underprivileged in the social division of labour,” (Neuenfeldt 19). According to Neuenfeldt, women cannot gain proper access to what they want due to societal standards and roles that are assigned to women. This lack of access limits women severely and certainly changes outlooks and actions pertaining to life.

    In addition to have a fear about the future, my gender has also made me be extremely critical of my appearance and my personality. Toxic media culture often makes women very self conscious in what they display to be true beauty or what they call standards of beauty. The society of the United States often imposes the idea that the only way to be beautiful is to be thin and light-skinned. I do not have anxiety being light-skinned because I am white, but because society only depicts women with unrealistic body expectations, I often have insecurities regarding my physique. The media depicts a body type that is unrealistic to almost all women. In an article titled “Sized Out: Women, Clothing Size, and Inequality” by Katelynn Bishop, Kjerstin Gruys, and Maddie Evans, a closer look is taken at what is published in the media. The authors talk about how American “body ideals celebrate thinness and denigrate fatness, and that conformity to these ideals translates into social benefits and disadvantages,” (Bishop, Ecans, Gruys 183). Because I am not thin and also overweight, people may see me as gross and ugly like what I have been told by the portrayal of women in the media. I am at a disadvantage because I do not meet any expectations of what beauty is, according to the mass media. Being a woman has had an enormous impact on my perception of myself because of how unrealistically women are showcased in the media.

    Race is something that plays a huge role in one’s life, whether there is awareness of the impact or not. In my case, I am white, which means I have an enormous amount of privilege that most times I do not even notice or pay attention to. In a book titled Critical White Studies, in Peggy McIntosh’s chapter she explains the everyday experiences of a white person that are very different for people of color who do not have privilege. Number twenty-five on McIntosh’s list reads “If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race,” (McIntosh 294). McIntosh recognizes that because she is white, she can be positive she will never be singled out because of her race by the law enforcement or the government, which is something I also can know for myself. Nowadays there is much talk surrounding how to teach black children how to act with and interact with the police, because there is a constant terror of what might go wrong in a situation like that. There have been many unfortunate and tragic instances of police because individuals have been wrongly judged based on their skin color. Ta-Nehisi Coates even talks about his anxieties surrounding the law and the police in his memoir.

    Simple situations I pay to no mind to, such as encountering a police officer, are not difficult or anxiety-provoking to me in any way because I have white privilege. I never hear about people being wrongly murdered because they were targeted for my race. I am used to feeling relatively safe in my everyday life because I know I will not be targeted or judged for my race. My everyday experiences feel normal and safe, but such experiences for a person of color could become dangerous and cause fear to arise. I am working to learn to understand the unearned privileges I have in the world that many people do not have. My lens of being white gives me advantages I will never be able to fully understand because I have no idea what it is like to live as a person of color who does not receive the privilege I was born with.

    My family’s class standing has molded my life significantly. In the past, we could have been considered lower middle class but now we are probably true middle class. We have had several straining financial struggles throughout my life, and I grew up with hand-me-downs from my sisters and my mother always telling me that she did not have the money for anything that was not absolutely necessary. This taught me to be a person who is very cautious of money, spending, and budgeting. This has impacted me in a way that I constantly worry about how much money I have, how much I need, and how much I have to spend for, say, tuition. This is also caused by my fear of financial debt, as in the past my family has been prone to slightly overwhelming debts for various reasons. I am not the only one who feels this anxiety and pressure, there are many who are afraid and worried about levels of debt in the future. In a piece titled “The Impact of Tuition Fees Amount on Mental Health Over Time in British Students” by Thomas Richardson, “poor mental health in students has been linked to financial problems, considering dropping out for financial reasons, financial concern, being in debt and concern about debt,” (Elliot, Richardson, Roberts 412). Anxiety and concern in college students is most often linked to fear or immense debt from attending college. Because I have limited money to spend on tuition and have been raised to be very cautious of money, I worry how much my debt from college will affect me in the future. Furthermore, because of how much I value money I have for my future, I am gracious for any amount of money I receive whether it is through a gift or a paycheck. I have learned that all money can help in lessening the pressure of a financial obligation.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates describes his lenses thoroughly throughout Between the World and Me. Coates explains how his race, gender, and social class forms the life he is familiar with and how these three lenses affects his everyday living and experiences. Coates explains his relationship to his race and how that has shaped his life in an extremely prominent manner. He mentions often what it is like to be black and to constantly be discriminated against or have to take precautions to stay safe. Coates talks extensively about the fear he felt at all times, even in situations that would be considered safe in my eyes. His fear stemmed from a young age, and Coates writes “It was always right in front of me. The fear was there in the extravagant boys in my neighborhood,” (Coates 14). Coates could recognize fear in his hometown of Baltimore and could recognize that no one would be able to protect him: “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape and disease…The law did not protect us,” (Coates 17). This constant, overwhelming fear taught him to be more cautious with the outside world. His race serves as a constant reminder that the world will not always perceive him as friendly and that his life may always be at risk.

    Coates speaks about an experience he had just before his son was born. “I was pulled over by the PG County police…They approached on both sides of the car, shining their flashing lights through the windows. They took my identification and returned to the squad car. I sat there in terror,” (Coates 75). Coates first reaction was fear, and mentions that he had been warned by people of this specific police force due to previous police brutality incidents. Coates has been conditioned to feel this way because individuals who share Coates’ lens of race and being black have experiences that invoke that initial response to every situation: terror. A white individual in situations such as being pulled over by the police does not have to worry about their safety because the police do not have history with mistreating white people. Officers typically do not have an image in their heads of white people being inherently unfriendly, which is the image many police officers have for people of color. A large concern in Coates’ mind will always be encountering the police because as shown in past events, many black individuals who have been near the police or involved with the police have been mistreated in some way, including death.

    Coates recalls the time he met his wife. Coates explains the time he realized “that all are not equally robbed of their bodies, that the bodies of women are set out for pillage in ways I could never truly know. And she was the kind of black girl who’d been told as a child that she had better be smart because her looks wouldn’t save her,” (Coates 65). Coates begin to understand that while he is black, he does not experience the same discrimination as his wife does. Intersectionality comes into play, making unique experiences of people who belong to more than one minoritized group in the world. Coates understands that he never had to live life as someone who would experience both sexism and racism, like his wife. Coates never experienced being encouraged to be smart because he would not be able to succeed with his beauty because in society’s toxic standards, black individuals are not as beautiful as someone with lighter skin. Coates understands the differences in treatment of black men and black women. Coates is able to recognize how his gender affects his life in that he will never experience sexism, which is something that affects me.

    In addition, Coates is aware that most people who want to appear tough or scary are more often than not men trying to showcase masculinity. Coates discusses his encounters with dangerous boys on the streets, and recalls a time in his youth while he was in Baltimore. There was a group of boys wearing ski jackets who were being angered by a young boy, and one of them “reached into his ski jacket and pulled out a gun,” (Coates 19). Not only did Coates realize that his life would be in constant jeopardy, but how tough men and boys want to seem. Coates also feels as if he always had to be tough, but in a different way, for his family. Coates was always told that he had to be tough and recently before he had his son. “You will have to man up…Anyone can make a baby, but it takes a man to be a father,” (Coates 66). Coates has been told that he has to “man up” to be able to do important things in life, such as have a child. Coates writes about how he feels he has a responsibility to never abandon his son and how now that Samori exists, Coates not only must survive for the sake of living life, but for his son. Coates does not want to be a father who ends up abandoning his child, which he calls “the greatest of cowards,” (Coates 65). Coates wants to be strong for but also be honest with his son so that he can understand the world as it is. Toughness is essential in a masculine identity, even though not all men are extremely tough, and nor should they feel the need to. But Coates feels it is his duty to protect his son because no one else will, not even the law.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in the slums of Baltimore; everyday he faced danger everywhere, whether in the streets or at school. The area was not safe to anybody, and anyone who lives in a city knows that there are precautions that must be taken in order to feel more safe in a dangerous place. Throughout his life, Coates continued to face financial struggles even after his son, Samori, was born. Coates recalls when his family and him lived in a basement apartment in Boston, and Coates describes the experience as “not great times,” (Coates 88). Coates writes about how a seemingly small loan of two hundred dollars felt like a million. Coates has no difficulty appreciating money, because anything was everything to him. This was no new experience with Coates, as he had lived his whole life in need of more money and more resources. In addition, he talks about how when his mother-in-law visited his apartment with his wife, she was “horrified,” because Coates “had almost no furniture…had left Howard without a degree and was living on the impoverished wages of a freelance writer,” (Coates 67). Ta-Nehisi Coates learned to be sparing with his money and thankful for whatever he received that could help him in his life.

    One place in which Ta-Nehisi Coates and I differ greatly is within the subject of the lens surrounding race. Our two races cause varying nuances in perception of the world and how the world treats us. I am used to living a life where I feel safe and included in most situations while never having to worry about being targeted or discriminated against because of my race. I do not have to worry about whether or not I will be safe when encountering the police or when I am walking down the street and keeping to myself. I know I am generally safe in this world because I am white and have many unearned privileges that come along with being white. Coates describes the complete opposite of how I feel. Coates is constantly anxious and scared of what the world may do to him because of his race. Coates has seen what has happened to countless black individuals in society, whether the many upsetting deaths are caused by police brutality or citizens of the United States committing hate crimes.

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