Have you ever noticed what stupid questions we ask little kids? Like this one: What’s your favorite color?
How does a kid answer that question? Let’s say she’s a girl, and let’s say she chooses pink. Maybe an adult responds, “That’s a pretty color, just like you!” Or say she chooses blue. Someone responds in a confident tone, “That’s a nice color. I like blue, too.” Whatever she says, she’ll get a response, and in time those responses can lead her to change her answer, like the boy who recently told me, “I used to like red, but now I like green.”
The question about favorite colors isn’t doing what we typically think it’s doing—it’s not telling who this kid uniquely and intrinsically is. Instead it’s telling us what society has told them to be. In social-science speak, their answer is socially constructed. Society teaches each kid in a thousand subtle ways how to answer. They don’t make up answers on their own.
Here’s another question we ask kids: What do you want to be when you grow up? The stakes get higher here than with the favorite color question. But again the answers are—you guessed it—socially constructed.
As a high school senior, for a while I tried answering that question, “I want to be an engineer.” It was a short-lived answer. From the laughter and raised eyebrows I heard in response, I learned that I—a girl, and even one with straight As and the highest math scores in the school—was not supposed to be an engineer. One year later I dropped my physics major. I set the curve in my physics and calculus exams, but I was tired of the microaggressions I experienced as the only girl in my classes. Instead I decided to major in English and piano. I still remember the relief I felt when a friend said, “You just seem like an English major.” I hadn’t even taken a college English class. But somehow I “seemed like” that type.
In conversations about what they will be, kids absorb messages from society. And let’s be clear—society doesn’t give the same messages to every kid, and those messages don’t depend just on the aptitudes of kids. They depend on a lot of factors that have nothing to do with job skills, like the salaries of their parents, their perceived gender, the language they speak, and the pigment of their skin.
Just so nobody claims that this problem has been solved in the decades since I dropped my physics major, I’ll mention that just last week I learned of a college student who was told that “people like her”—meaning with her skin pigment—didn’t do well in a particular STEM major.
And the statistics are clear. Our society is not just telling certain kids they can’t be anything they want, we are actively putting barriers in their way. Black students are less likely to go to schools offering math classes they need for STEM fields, less likely to have teachers of their own race, and more likely to be suspended and expelled. Their teachers on average will have lower salaries, and their schools less funding. All these factors have been proven to have real effects on career possibilities. And even if an adult who is Black grows up with all the best advantages in school, just being recognized as Black makes them less likely to get a call-back interview, even when competing against an equally qualified white person with a criminal record.
So why do we talk to kids as if they as individuals have sole control over what they’ll be when they grow up? Evidence shows that our options are not ours alone to choose. Our decisions reflect what we’re taught to choose, and what our society has or has not enabled us to do.
The faith and work movement needs to deal with privilege. I’m encouraged by people like Jeff Haanen, Eddy Davila, and Kara Martin pushing this conversation forward. Drawing on my research among people who haven’t had easy opportunities to get dream jobs, I’ll be offering a series of three blog posts about how privilege gets muddied into our conversations about vocation, and what to do about it.
To start with, here’s an idea to try: ask a young person what they want to be when they grow up, but then follow up with another question: “Who in your life led you to think you should do that instead of something else, and were those people telling truth or lies?”
Psychologist David Blustein explains it this way: career counselors who are sensitive to the effects of privilege have two responsibilities: First, to “foster empowerment” by helping people understand and achieve what they’re capable of, and secondly, to “foster critical consciousness.” Fostering critical consciousness means helping yourself and others recognize that society hasn’t treated all of its members equally.
So test out a conversation on vocation that involves words like these: “I’d like to understand what growing up was like for you, and I don’t want us to miss anything that you never thought you could do.” Then take time to listen, and see what you learn together.
I am grateful to my colleague Sheila Caldwell for gathering many of the sources for this article.
Christine Jeske is assistant professor of anthropology at Wheaton College. She loves thinking about the moral and cultural questions behind economic development and about what North Americans have to learn from the global South regarding finance and wellbeing. Her current research in South Africa considers how people define and imagine achieving a “good life,” especially when unemployed or working in low-wage jobs. Prior to coming to Wheaton, Christine worked in microfinance, refugee resettlement, community development, and teaching while living in Nicaragua, Northwest China, and South Africa. Christine aims to notice and live out a good life within her own work, which is a mix of research, teaching, hospitality, parenting, and farming. She is the author of two books and has been a frequent contributor to Relevant magazine and a newspaper columnist. She lives in an old Wisconsin farmhouse named the Sanctuary, complete with a dozen chickens, several pigs, innumerable weeds, two children, and one wonderful husband.