Being the norm means never having to explain

In my book The Achievement Gap in US Education, I emphasized the distortions in thinking that can occur when people unquestioningly take the performance or behavior of one group (usually the majority group) as the norm and/or desirable, and evaluate all other groups by how they compare with that standard.

An example of that occurred a couple of days ago when John Sununu, former governor of New Hampshire and Mitt Romney surrogate, speculated in an interview that Colin Powell’s recent endorsement of Barack Obama was likely because Obama, like Powell, is black. After that gratuitous slap, he patronizingly went on to applaud Powell for his act of racial solidarity.

It seemed to never occur to the interviewer Piers Morgan to ask Sununu whether his support for Romney was because he was white. Such a question would have likely shocked Sununu. Even if the question had been asked and he replied that the difference was that Powell was crossing party lines to endorse Obama, the question could then have been posed as to why Joe Lieberman and other white current and former Democratic stalwarts who endorsed John McCain in 2008 were not speculated to have race as their primary motive.

One sees the same thing with sexuality where heterosexuality is taken as the norm because it is the majority. A key assumption of many of those who oppose equal rights for the LGBT community is that unlike race and sex, homosexuality is a choice and thus not deserving of legal protection against discrimination. Such people are rarely asked (except by comedians like those at The Hamster Wheel) at what age they themselves faced the choice of being homosexual or heterosexual or bisexual, and how they decided which way to go.

Being a member of the normative group means never having to explain your reasons.


  1. Matt Penfold says

    I’m not sure when the interview of Sununu by Morgan took place, but it is possible Morgan might have been distracted by the fact the newspaper he used to edit is being sued for phone-hacking that took place during his editorship. Given that he gave evidence to Parliament that he had no knowledge of any such hacking, he might be worried about the repercussions.

  2. Nomen Nescio says

    the “when did you choose to be straight” question is one of my favorite tactics, although of course i’m not a national figure, but just some random guy on the internet.

    thing is, though, it’s never once worked for me. so far, it’s always just bounced off as if my opponent never even heard it. appealing to reason with “why would anybody sane choose to join a persecuted minority if they didn’t have to” has been even more hopeless, of course.

  3. Isabel says

    Yes, because it’s the culturally normative thing to do, people can drink alcohol every single day while insisting that they don’t “use drugs” like those pathetic pot smokers.

  4. Alverant says

    I’ve asked the “when did you choose to be straight” question a few times too. I did get some replies about how they once thought girls were icky then one day they noticed that women had BOOBS and that’s when they decided they were straight. Telling them it wasn’t a “decision” but a “realization” doesn’t change their minds. Neither does asking why someone would choose to be a persecuted minority.

  5. frank says

    I was just about leave the basically the same comment, but you beat me to it! The question seems so obvious–I don’t know why it is not regularly asked of anti-LGBT people when they spout off in interviews.

    Also, the fact that Sununu thought that Powell’s alleged racial solidarity was fine seemed very odd–even more so than the allegation itself. Why wasn’t this questioned? I had thought of Sununu as a fairly reasonable person until this campaign. I could say the same for Romney.

  6. Eric Ressner says

    The non-norms are also confronted with challenges when it comes to judging (as in court): a black judge will *of course* tend to rule for black causes and should therefore recuse hirself, while a white judge is the paragon of objectivity. Ditto a woman judge, a gay judge, a Jewish judge. WMASPs are the norm; all others are suspect.

  7. Mano Singham says

    That’s a good point about judges. When Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that California’s Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, critics argued that since he was gay, that somehow discredited his reasoning. If he had been straight and ruled in favor, you can bet that nothing would have been said about how his own sexuality might have influenced his ruling.

    Fortunately legal efforts to nullify his ruling on these grounds were dismissed, the other judge rightly arguing that that is not a sufficient reason for disqualification.

  8. Corvus illustris says

    Same for juries. The acquittal of O. J. Simpson on murder charges is always blamed on attributed to the racial composition of the jury. The notion that any jury would have found the physical evidence so compromised and the verbal police evidence so suspect that they’d have “reasonable doubt” is dismissed out of hand. (The standard for the civil action against him IIRC was the usual “preponderance of the evidence” which is much less stringent.)

  9. Mano Singham says

    I thought I had approved all the first-time comments in the approval folder but must have overlooked that one. You are now pre-approved to post.

  10. mnb0 says

    “homosexuality is a choice and thus not deserving of legal protection”
    This strikes me as a non-sequitur. I play chess. That’s my choice. If I get discriminated as a chessplayer I expect legal protection indeed.
    The whole nature/nurture or choice/tendency issue is a non-argument afaIc. In both cases homo’s etc. deserve legal protection for the simple reason that they should not be hindered during their quest for happiness – ie the very same reason I play chess.

  11. pramod says

    One example of this is the big deal people make about “eating with your hands”. I understand you need to keep your hands clean and particularly so if you’re going to eat with them. But using this as a tool to express cultural superiority strikes me as bizarre.

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