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Gender Dilemmas

What role does a child’s sex have in determining how well he or she will do in school? How do gender and race intersect to influence our lives? Are men happier than women? It seems obvious that sex and race affect what happens to us in life but how exactly and how much? Indeed, why?

Of course, these are not new questions. For decades, it seems that an endless parade of books focused on how girls might be disadvantaged in our schools, why they disliked their own bodies and how society robbed them of their self-esteem. All of this constituted a useful exercise and many women have benefi tted from the interventions these books inspired.

At the same time, a few notable African- American authors gave serious attention to why Black boys were at risk for everything: failing in school, choosing less-than-optimal lifestyles, going to jail, fathering children out of wedlock and dying at alarming rates. Some young men have been the benefi ciaries of interventions inspired by these books as well.

Still, we do not know all the answers about the eff ects of gender and race on our lives, but new writers are adding their voices and research muscle to the equation.

Among other things, they remind us that Black girls and White boys have their struggles, too. Perhaps the most provocative and useful new book in this fi eld is Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System Th at’s Leaving Them Behind, by Richard Whitmire ($24.95, AMACOM; January 2010, ISBN-10: 0814415342, ISBN-13: 978- 0814415344, pp. 256.). Whitmire, an education blogger and former editorial writer for USA Today, wondered why boys increasingly were falling behind girls all the way up the education ladder.

Little boys start out at a disadvantage, the author notes, because they trail behind girls in developing the skill set needed to achieve literacy. Now, that distance just keeps widening in a system more geared to and rewarding of female strengths. Boys increasingly present disciplinary problems, have worse grades, score lower on tests, drop out, and avoid college and graduate college at dramatically lower rates than young women. The author warns that hardly anyone is doing anything about the phenomenon, and he looks at approaches that might help.

For urban African-American youth, another book underscores the even grimmer reality that their greatest challenge might be just staying alive.

In Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men by John A. Rich M.D. M.PH. ($24.95, The Johns Hopkins University Press; October 2009), ISBN-10: 0801893631, ISBN- 13: 978-0801893636, pp. 232) introduces us to Black men who have been victims of violent crime in their communities. Rich, a medical doctor, professor and MacArthur Fellow, became interested in these victims while working in a clinic at a Boston hospital. Even among doctors sworn to help them, Rich says, “Young Black male patients are assumed to be guilty of something.” His research aims to stop the cycle in which young men arm themselves in fear of their kill-or-be-killed environment that contributes to problems in school and instability in their families.

Whatever their background, young Black women with the wherewithal to get to college encounter splintered-identity issues on campus, according to Dr. Rachelle Winkle- Wagner in her book, The Unchosen Me: Race, Gender, and Identity Among Black Women in College ($55, The Johns Hopkins University Press; October 2009, ISBN-10: 0801893542 ISBN-13: 978-0801893544, pp. 248). To study these women, Dr. Winkle- Wagner, a White professor in Nebraska, fi rst had to scale walls of distrust. Eventually, she enticed 30 Black women at a predominantly White university to form “sister circles.” Th ese groups addressed how much of their identities they had to give up to fi t into college and how others on campus defi ned them. Th e author uses this information to suggest ways colleges and universities might be more affi rming and inclusive.

The task taken on by Ariel Gore in Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness ($24, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 2010, ISBN-10: 0374114897, ISBN- 13: 978-0374114893, pp. 208) seems simple by comparison with the others. She just wanted to know what makes women happy. Finding that females generally were ignored in studies on happiness or “positive psychology,” she interviewed hundreds of women. Then, she asked a “council of experts”— ordinary women — to journal, tapping into their minds, memories and hearts through their quotes to discover what happiness looks like and how to cultivate it. It turns out, she writes, “happiness is hard work sometimes but it’s good work.” D

— Angela P. Dodson is a frequent contributor to Diverse: Issues In Higher Education and Editor of

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