January 30, 2015

Sharing Sociological Knowledge

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

The more you learn about sociology, the more opportunities you might notice to use it. In our personal and professional lives, this can get tricky.

How you share it may be important. When you learn something and try to share that information, sometimes our loved ones don’t want to hear it, so they don’t listen, or they discount what you said, so they reject it in whole or in part.

This may happen more often for first-generation college students. Personal conflicts with family and other loved ones may arise for students from households with no college experience.

Sharing sociological information is not as easy as sharing other things we learn in college. For example, my spouse is a geographer. Friends and family often welcome learning more about the geography and geology around us, even if it’s about earthquake fault zone that we’re driving through or live upon. He is contacted by some for his very accurate weather reports.

However, if I offer some sociological insight about something happening around us, that information is not always welcomed. This is because it often challenged what they “knew” to be true. Hearing that homeless people are usually homeless because there isn’t enough affordable housing or jobs that pay a living wage– and all the other sociological reasons – is a difficult lesson. It’s easier to solely blame the individuals for their bad choices and assume that poor people create their own poverty. Period.

Recently I’ve had a few opportunities in my personal life to share my sociological knowledge. (As you may know, I do that all the time in my professional life!)

In one situation, while talking with close friends who are white, the subject of white privilege came up. I mentioned the importance of a ritual such as a special graduation ceremony for African American students, outside of the all-college graduation. They did not agree that it was important because they felt that if everyone had an ethnic group graduation, then white people wouldn’t have anything special outside the main graduation ceremony. Having a “white graduation” would certainly not be accepted as legitimate.

I thought for a moment about which angle to take, what would potentially resonate with these people whom I know so well. I asked about why they think Black, Latino, sometimes, Native American students may have their own graduation ceremonies. My recollection of their response is that they had not really thought about it. I mentioned that those ceremonies celebrate this education milestone in personal ways – every name is read – for students from groups that are under-represented in higher education and have many barriers to achieving a college education. It is to reinforce their achievement, not often won easily, and to remind them that the college, a scary and not always welcoming institution to people of color, supports that achievement.

Of course, those graduations do not happen spontaneously. They are most likely tied to programs or groups on campus whose focus is to support that particular group. Low-income students who join programs to support their educational progress often also have such graduations.

Our conversation continued as I mentioned that “white privilege” is a great term that captures and can explain some aspects of what they were feeling. They had the advantage, or privilege, of being white and not having to think about such issues.

They were envious primarily because their name was not spoken aloud at the mass graduation thus they had no personal acknowledgement from the campus. I asked if their school or department had a special graduation to do just that.

When I got my Ph.D. at the University of Southern California, the mass graduation had thousands of people. We would still be there if they named everyone. But the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences had a smaller graduation in which we had to cross a stage as our name was said. My department had a lovely reception in the office. The same type of things happened when I got my Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees at a smaller state university.

While I am in the first generation of my family to get a college degree, I – and many of my friends – were primed for college by our environment. We didn’t know it at the time, but the classes we took in junior high and high school, our family and friends who surrounded us, and many other cultural elements made it a given that we would go to college. These things happened because we lived in a predominantly white working/middle class suburb, where the educational institutions we had access to provided us with the tools to attend college. Although I joined the military to take advantage of the GI Bill to pay for my education, which may also be considered an aspect of white privilege.  Decades ago some veterans of color had not been able to use those benefits even if they were eligible.

In our conversation, I mentioned a book that we’ve all read. Angry White Black Boy, by Adam Mansbach, has so many great examples of white privilege that I’ve thought about using it for a class assignment. Race Traitor is another interesting place to learn more about white privilege and how some people are addressing it.

So, our conversation got a bit heavy but by sharing what I know, I have (hopefully) planted some seeds of understanding and encouraged more thinking about white privilege and how it works. My point, for white people (and, of course, my white self), is not to feel guilty about or revel in the privilege but to work to see where white privilege lives and do what we can to level the playing field and that which creates it.

An effective strategy is to share your sociological knowledge in a way that helps others see society with a different perspective, so that they can build their own sociological imagination. If one lectures or dictates, especially in one’s personal life, the pathway to communication and learning is usually blocked. Had I launched into a lecture on white privilege or racial stereotypes, citing research studies and statistical patterns, I doubt I would have been heard.

Typically, making it personal is a useful strategy. If a person can see how prejudice or privilege affects them, they may take more time to ponder that information and its consequences. It opens up an opportunity for learning and understanding rather than judgment or rejection.

As you learn in a formal college setting, be sure to take that knowledge into your life and share it with others. It may not always be easy or welcomed. But it is important to encourage life-long learning, sometimes with you as the catalyst!


As an African-in-America sociological understanding was and still is a defensive tool in navigating American culture, because it is very easy to drown in its ignorance. And in order not to drown my challenges is formed in the light of ever-changing social realities like white-privilege or black rage. Because with the medias consistent set of distortions and outright lies, the split between stated beliefs and behavior is enormous.

Love this article in entirety, as a Black American and first generation college the student, the plights you discussed in this article is similar. I also just downloaded Angry Black White Boy on iBooks and can't wait to devour this read. Very interesting to hear anothers perspective on race, especially someone of another ethnicity.

This is a great blog, please keep it up and get us informed. we will try to link other people to your blog

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