A Year of Blogging Weekly

I started posting in the Gender Shrapnel Blog just about one year ago, promising that I would post weekly on issues having to do with gender and its intersections, including race, class, national origin, and parental status.  The one-year anniversary of the Gender Shrapnel Blog is two weeks from now, but this is the 52nd post.  I mark the anniversary by reflecting on the year’s events and the genre of the blog, in addition to assessing what I have learned and have yet to learn from this writing experience.

My book, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, came out a year ago.  The book’s hybrid combination of narrative, theory, and practice seemed to dictate an afterlife in which I would continue to apply concepts from the book to gender and intersectional problems around us.  After I had written several blog posts, a friend remarked that he enjoyed reading the blog and wondered how I would keep finding topics to write about.  In 52 weeks, coming up with topics has never presented a challenge; only finding the time to research and write the posts has.  As I wrote the first post, the conventions of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee had already taken place.  Like so many other people in the United States (and the world), I was confronted with the GOP candidate’s forma y fondo, that is, his style of delivery and the content of his delivery.  This meant that my honest attempt to read about and document the assertions I make/made here seemed to contrast with the candidate’s penchant for lying, cheating, and twisting, as well as his drive to oppress African-Americans, Latinxs, Muslims, individuals living in poverty, and women, among other groups.  Gender and race shrapnel swirled around us, as the candidate bragged about groping women, encouraged violence against African-American citizens at his rallies, and prepared policy text to ban individuals from majority Muslim countries from entry into the United States.  At the same time, deep misogyny in our political realm was revealed time and again through attacks on candidate Hillary Clinton.  Plenty to write about, indeed.

When the current “president” was elected on November 8, 2016, old and new friends of mine and I did what many people were doing all across the country—we mourned and then banded together both to combat the new agenda and to make any progress we could in the local, regional, and national political arenas.  You will note this turn in the blog posts.  For me, the activism—not grand, but certainly steady—I had already practiced for decades in the realms of gender and race equity and educational access was accentuated, or maybe distilled, into a singular desire to use this blog, in its own small way, to signal wrongs and advocate for change.  Just a few weeks after I started the blog, one of my Republican-leaning friends asked if another friend and I were being paid to post our political opinions.  This innocent question both amused and frustrated the hell out of me.  I was amused because I know many activists (me included) volunteering plenty of hours a week who are not picking up any paychecks but who joke about it after a long night of meetings.  I was frustrated because I realized how many people believe that it’s impossible to be so committed to social justice that you would actually offer your words and labor for free.

Our personal lives also keep moving, though, and the blog posts reflect some of the events in my own life, including attempting to understand my own biases, listening to younger generations of activists, introspection about how I was raised, and the loss of a parent.  Simply put, there were some weeks overtaken by worry, grief, and sadness, and the blog posts indulged these feelings and experiences.  I think I had to get over the sense that writing about these issues was exhibitionistic and realize that hitting closer to home tends to appeal to readers, to allow them to consider their own reactions to universal phenomena.  Real writing, whatever that is, seemed to live in that space.  But I also wanted to continue to protect the privacy, as best I could, of those in my personal life.  I am still finding this a difficult balance to strike.

Several of my siblings are long-time Republicans and voted for our current “president.”  Several disdain politics and government and rarely vote.  One (besides me) has voted the Democratic ticket for many years now.  Most of my family members are either not on Facebook, which is the only place I’ve broadly posted the blog, or they almost never use Facebook.  I don’t believe they are regular readers of the Gender Shrapnel Blog.  When my contradictorily kind and Fox News-watching father read a few of my posts, he said, “Kid, you’re brutal.”  I believe he meant that mine is not to criticize the current people in power, that I was supposed to just put up and shut up.  I wrote “The Stifling Status Quo” post after that conversation, realizing once again how many people have trouble conceiving the status quo as more brutal than the attempts to undo it.  At the same time, I know I would have written a much more blistering and personal response to my father’s statement if I didn’t love him as I do and care about my portrayal of him.

I have attended several (not enough) writers’ workshops, read a lot about writing poetry and memoir, and taught a multi-genre workshop for creative writing in Spanish.  One consistent theme from all of these experiences is that writers need steady time in the chair to think, brainstorm, read, research, write (crap and not-crap), and edit.  My year of blogging weekly has reinforced for me the wonderful discipline necessary for this craft.  I spend a lot of time reading newspapers, magazines, and journals in order to enter into dialogue with the gender shrapnel topics raised by the pros.  Each blog post takes me at least five hours, and so I have to prioritize the blog and commit time to it every week.  Among many other professional and personal responsibilities, this commitment looms large every Tuesday, as I figure out how to stare down a Monday publication deadline.  I am the only one imposing the deadline, and so being steely about it can be hard to justify to those around me.  Writing on a deadline equals stress and pleasure, pleasure and stress.

My file of clippings, both paper and virtual, overflows.  There’s always an opinion I want to respond to.  In one of the blog posts, I write that my daughter chided me one day by saying, “Moo-oom.  Opinions!”  Indeed, the more I read and write, the more opinions I have.  This requires that I balance the sense that I’m right against the curiosity to listen and learn more.  This will be an ongoing challenge, I’m sure.

My blog posts have usually consisted of 1000 to 1500 words, depending on the topic, the research required, and the busy-ness of the particular week.  This article length has settled into my writer’s biology and rhythms.  The quick outlines I do for each week’s post naturally lend themselves to pieces of this length.  Mark Twain’s saying that “if he had had more time, he would have written a shorter letter” manifests in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.  When I reread certain already published posts, I mentally move paragraphs and cut wordy sentences.  I haven’t quite experienced the cringing of rereading a diary years after writing it, but I keep that image close at hand as I hit “Publish” on the WordPress site.  My writer’s voice has played hide-and-seek, emerging more in some posts than in others.  I have become more aware of my Spanish-language-influenced penchant for long sentences and paragraphs and of how my physical surroundings at times influence how I write (not always what I write about).  Those who have generously read poems and prose pieces of mine have encouraged the reduction or elimination of adverbs, which I still use stubbornly, copiously, and probably poorly.

This year of posting has taught me a few things about audience.  As I have posted only on the blog itself and announced the posts only through Facebook, I have limited my readership.  I am naïve in the ways of promoting the work beyond this medium; or maybe I feel shy about doing so.  I haven’t announced new posts through Twitter or directly asked friends to boost readership.  Sometimes I wonder why I haven’t gone all out (whatever that means), but I just haven’t yet.  I’ve learned about blog post titles, too. “Sexual Assault Prevention Training in the News” attracts fewer readers than does, say, “Lock Her Up.”  Images, even clip-art images, spice up the posts in ways I never would have predicted, and finding compelling images has meant spending more surfing time away from the research, but I learned it was worth it.  Not many people have commented directly on the Gender Shrapnel Blog site, and so management of on-site comments has been minimal.  More people have shared their reactions through Facebook.  Learning from people’s positive, negative, fiery, neutral, and intimate reactions has been such an interesting and significant part of blog production.  Hearty thanks to the many people who have read the posts, thought about them, shared, and/or made comments.  I really appreciate your engagement with the blog and the ideas it presents.  I haven’t decided yet whether “a” year of blogging weekly will turn into more, but please stay tuned!

Being Able

“It’s always something with you,” a friend said to me in an off-handed manner.  On this particular occasion, I had cornea problems that made it difficult for me to see and to be in bright light.  I responded to the light-hearted comment with a heavy heart.  Is it always something with me?  Is it always something with everyone, because that’s life?  Or is “it’s always something with you” the very definition of chronic illness?  I concluded that the answer to all of these questions was “yes.”

I am not a scholar of disability studies, but I have read astutely argued articles in this field, and I recognize the ways in which ability/disability intersects with gender and others of the legally “protected categories.”  I have appreciated the op-ed series that The New York Times has done on ability studies and, in particular, this beautiful piece written by Washington and Lee graduate Pasquale Toscano (6-14-17).  Toscano talks of the accident that changed his physical capacities and of the deep thinking he practiced afterwards.  He writes: “I also began to consider how best to convey the epistemologically enriching experience that learning to live with a disability can be. I discovered the work of people like the scholar David Bolt, whose article on “positive stereotyping” left a lasting impression. He argues that depicting disability as the source of supernatural capabilities troublingly obfuscates the accomplishments of impaired individuals who must navigate stressors and barriers unknown to others.”  I could not agree more.  When people ask you how you’re doing, they want to hear that you’re doing well, and you want actually to be doing well.  Feeling well and strong in mind, body, and spirit makes us quite fortunate.  Nevertheless, there is a wellness pressure, linked to United States culture of 24/7 happiness, that makes it difficult to have a tough day and to admit you’re having a tough day.  No one is supposed to be a “Debbie downer.”  If you admit that something is off, then you’re supposed to follow up with the narrative of overcoming; you have overcome the obstacles, vanquished them, and now you’re back to your happy, active self.  When this is true, great.  But sustaining a wellness narrative can also mask more profound issues of access and mobility.

My mother had a heart attack in 2009.  Both her parents had died of heart attacks, back when they seemed to happen like a lightning strike, from life to death in a flash.  Medical science and my mother’s physical and mental strength formed a dyad of recovery in a new age, and my mother lived quite well and continued to work full-time until she had a stroke in 2014.  The stroke took more of a toll, required longer-term physical, occupational, and speech therapy, and demanded a higher level of care and vigilance.  At some point, I started to notice more of what my mother couldn’t do, rather than marveling at the many things she still could do.  It wasn’t until this last stretch of illness that I learned how well she had navigated those barriers and stressors that Toscano mentions.  I started to think of my mother not as sick or disabled, but quite able to do the most with the faculties she had.

Although my chronic illness (primarily rheumatoid arthritis, with some complications tossed in) is different from heart disease, it does require that I navigate the world differently than I used to.  (A friend of mine in her 60’s remarked that we need to find a new form of exercise with each new decade.  I think she’s right.) For 25 years, I worked out most mornings at 5:30 or 6:00.  An arthritic body takes a while to unfold in the morning, to disarm the pain, to wake up and stretch out.  Therefore, mornings now demand a gentler approach—a slow rising from bed, a hot shower, and, if I’m lucky, 20 minutes of qigong movement and meditation.  This departs dramatically from the 2000 yards I used to swim or miles I used to run.  It feels like failure, and yet should be interpreted as an “accomplishment of an impaired person,” as Toscano poignantly declares.  Medications have side effects, too, and so traversing illness also means weighing the benefits and drawbacks of certain medications and then managing the new side effects.  I was on prednisone for seven months last year and gained 15 pounds.  This was (and is) not good for a person interested in staying in motion and feeling healthy.  But the prednisone reduced arthritis pain and immobility and allowed me to get the disease under control.  My heavier frame must look like a lumbering failure, but, until I can manage it otherwise, I need to interpret it as a temporary requirement for chronic pain management.

Wheelchairs, orthotics, dark glasses, arm braces, and hearing aids now appear empowering to me, the very objects that help us to move through a world made for the ambulating, lifting, seeing, and hearing.  This useful piece from The New York Times (11-1-13) outlines the state of disability studies in the United States and reminds us that the increase in chronic illness and higher numbers of aged persons indicate that we should be talking about “the temporarily able-bodied,” that many of us will go through periods of being more and less “able.”

When we band together to demand equal rights, we are saying that the world is constructed in a certain way that is advantageous to some and disadvantageous to others, and that there are remedies available to limit the disadvantage.  The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 became the key to ensure equal access and opportunity for persons with disabilities. (At the same time, let us not forget that our current “president” has demonstrated his insensitivity towards persons who are differently abled, thus underscoring the need for awareness and protection of civil rights laws whose content and enforcement seem increasingly precarious.)  In an article published in 1991, one year after the passage of the ADA, Robert L. Burgford, Jr., writes: “Broadly worded statements outlawing discrimination were the optimal approach to statutory draftsmanship in light of the controversial nature of the civil rights acts passed in the 1960s and 1970s.  The drafters of these statutes needed to draft language that would be palatable to a majority of the members of Congress while having a meaningful impact in proscribing discriminatory actions.  More detailed standards regarding the application of nondiscrimination principles were left to be developed by regulatory agencies and court decisions” (26 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 413 [1991] “The Americans with Disabilities Act: Analysis and Implications of a Second-Generation Civil Rights Statute”).  Indeed, we often have to count on businesses and corporations “doing the right thing,” or interpreting these broadly-worded statutes in a generous fashion, for the proverbial playing field to be leveled.

We know from many sources (e.g. UC-Berkely HR website; High Speed Training site; numerous articles listed on Google Scholar) that offering equal employment protections is not a zero-sum game.  In other words, when we limit disadvantage, we do it to the benefit of all.  We make the world a kinder place that is more easily navigated by more people.

The Stifling Status Quo

Name some things you take for granted.  For example, if you’re speeding down the highway and are stopped by a police officer, are you sure you’ll just be asked about your speeding?  Are you certain you won’t experience violence at the traffic stop?  Are you sure you won’t be killed?  Do you feel like you can automatically trust the officer to assess the situation and have everyone’s best interests at heart?  Another example: Can you walk down the street without someone yelling something about your body?  Can you walk down the street and not have to wonder if you or your children are safe?  Can you walk down the street and hold hands with whomever you like? A more minor example: If you’re in a meeting at work and you make an informed recommendation, are you sure you’ll get credit for it?  Will you be considered astute or arrogant to have made the suggestion?  Will anyone else make the suggestion after you and then get credit for it?  Another one:  If you bring up race or gender shrapnel, will you be perceived as overly dramatic or overly sensitive?  Do you even need to bring up race or gender shrapnel just to make it to the next day or moment?

If you don’t have to be wary of any of the situations listed above, from the most threatening to the least, you are pretty damned lucky.  You don’t ever have to think twice.  You walk through life feeling comfortable all the time.  Your presence is considered “normal.” You live what you think is everyone’s status quo because you have experienced this comfortable-all-the-time feeling every day of your life.  This is profound privilege, a word whose semantic weight matters now more than ever.  The privilege might come from your being white or being perceived as white.  It might come from your being a man or being perceived to be a man.  It might come from the perception that you are heterosexual.  It might come from perceived wealth or from physical stature.

You have the privilege of being annoyed by other people who call your attention to privilege.  You think other people are doing this all the time, but, really, other people are doing this about 1/16 of the time they could be doing it, up from 1/2000 from decades ago.  You think other people need to just get over themselves, that things can’t be that bad, that it’s impolite or uncivil to throw things like race, gender, and sexual orientation in your face.

The government and media messages after 9/11 made it difficult (unpatriotic) to criticize war and impossible to criticize soldiers (“I’m against the war, not the soldiers.”). The lives of black women and men are endangered in our public spheres, but somehow any critique of the situation or visible protest is turned into an anti-police or anti-blue lives message.  Those who are oppressed continue to be the ones who must seek remedies, rather than having all of us recognize and rectify wrongs.  The embrace of the status quo and the fear of loss of privilege convert legitimate, significant protests into marginalized complaints of marginalized peoples.  They reinforce our systems of oppression and ignore data, critical thinking, and a clear and consistent need for change.

Everything I’ve said here is obvious to many people I know.  Critical race theorists and gender studies experts have done excellent work on perceptions of the status quo and maintenance of privilege.  Critical Race Theory for years has made clear that the law, based on precedents handed down from case to case over centuries, bears its own biases and delivers its own blunt reinforcement of the status quo.  When my husband and I bought a house in a predominantly white and socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhood, on settlement day we were struck by two old-time elements of status quo.  The first was receiving the deed to our new house.  The deed stated, in no uncertain terms, that the house could not be sold to anyone not of the Caucasian race.  We were undone by this and could not sign the deed to the house.  We then had to consult with a lawyer, who said it would take tens of thousands of dollars to dig back through all the deeds and change the record.  We finally settled on drafting a new document that would always accompany the deed to undo the status quo that others had just left there.  This cost us extra money and time—just to undo a racist status quo of decades (maybe centuries, for the neighborhood in general).  The second was needing to pick up the mortgage check from my employer (from whom we had the good fortune of receiving a mortgage benefit).  The check was made out to my husband, who was not and is not an employee of the institution.  For all the paperwork and tax documentation to work out correctly, the check needed to be made out to an actual employee of the institution, who happened to be a woman married to a man.  We were delayed again in changing the institution’s understanding of status quo (the money goes to the man, even if his name is different from the actual employee who is to receive the benefit).

This is why I roll my eyes when I’m told that not everything is about race or gender (right—it isn’t if you have the luxury of not having to think about it), when I’m told that this pope is wonderful, even though he won’t even begin to address the question of women in church leadership, when Wimbledon finally pays women and men equally, but still gives men carte blanche to Centre Court, and when we’re told that only Fox News can take down the “president” (7-5-17 The New York Times op-ed).

The status quo is a lumbering tank, a heavy wagon, a toppled scale of justice.

For some of you, it is just the air you breathe and the water you swim in.

P.S. My daughter points out that, if “High School Musical” can question the status quo, then we all can!

Flags and Firecrackers

Here in my parents’ neighborhood, United States flags wave many days of the year, not just on Memorial Day, Flag Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day, and Veterans’ Day, but more days of the year than not.  The flags fly from flagpoles at stores and on houses, and they’re also optimistically poked into the ground at what seems like every turn.  They signal a certain kind of patriotism, glowing with the certainty of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and crackling with a blithe ignorance about how many people over the centuries have been prohibited from exercising that very right.  It is worth listening to James Earl Jones read Frederick Douglass’s 4th of July speech, in which Douglass stated: “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me.”

The evolution of the symbolism of the U.S. flag reveals a reflexive patriotism that, as Lindy West so eloquently addresses in this The New York Times opinion piece (7-1-17), promotes freedom of expression for some, but certainly not for all.  In fact, West makes clear that those most fervently promoting freedom of expression are often the ones threatening (or in fact using) violence to silence others.  This post takes a look at United States culture and critiques how we let leaders choose themselves.

I am reminded of the Colin Kaepernick protest against the national anthem (“…gave proof, through the night, that our flag was still there…”).  It opened up a real conversation about what the flag means and for whom.  A quick search of Kaepernick news links reveals the degree to which some news outlets wanted to declare Kaepernick’s protest (and the player himself) a failure (e.g. New York Daily News; National Review; Chicago Tribune). I am reminded, too, of writing with a colleague about sexual assault and Title IX protections and then receiving a voice mail telling us “little ladies” to shut the hell up and what would happen if we didn’t.  Nevertheless, the kind of protest that opens up conversation about equal rights for all matters now more than ever.  Real patriotism might even have us agree that solid educational foundation, critical thinking skills, and welcome debate are the way forward.  History gives us many examples of the dangers of blind patriotism.

Today is the 4th of July and so I’m thinking about fraught founding fathers, fireworks, and the fine mess our nation is in.  I think about our nation’s leader running the government as if we were all contestants on “Survivor” or “The Apprentice” and as if North Korea were simply a little plastic piece on a Monopoly, Risk, or Stratego board.  Our “leader” is self-appointed and self-anointed, propped up by foreign dictatorships and a political party full of opportunistic, spineless slime. I know I’m supposed to use other rhetoric, and in many other posts I have been more measured and patient, but I don’t know how else to say that we have already put up with far too much from our current “leader.” In addition to the race and immigrant rights issues I have addressed in other posts, I will add here that the current leader’s Commerce Department has removed gender and sexual identity from their Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) statement.  His Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights closed a Title IX investigation at Liberty University and then confirmed that Liberty University President Jerry L. Falwell, Jr., “would be a part of a task force …that will look at possible changes in higher-education regulations.”  This United States “leader” is moving us alarmingly backwards, and we’re letting him.

Over two decades ago, a man about five years my junior declared to me that he wanted to “become a leader in education administration.”  I raised my eyes slightly, struck by the person’s youth, self-confidence, and stark articulation of such a goal.  The man was Quaker, and his assertion broke a certain stereotype I had about collective and consensus-oriented forms of leadership in the Quaker tradition.  My instinct back then (and maybe a little bit now) was to distrust self-declared leaders.  It was a weird catechism–“And God said, ‘Let there be leaders in education administration,’ and there were leaders in education administration.”  Back then, I thought of leaders as people who just shut up about leading and led.  They got the job done, consistently well, and, in so doing, led the way.  They didn’t brag, didn’t claim positions that weren’t yet theirs, and didn’t establish unjust labor hierarchies.  They were in the trenches, understanding what that kind of work is, and appreciating it.  It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in naming people to posts and having them do administrative or managerial jobs; it was just that I found it odd when the people themselves named themselves to those posts.  It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized what a luxury it is for some both to view themselves as natural leaders and to be able to declare themselves such.  The young man with whom I had spoken was indeed a competent teacher and solid person, and so maybe his direction and ambition ensured that he would realize his ambition, and maybe (I don’t know) he became an outstanding leader in education administration.  (See this 6-24-17 The New York Times opinion piece to see more about gender and how it can affect our understanding of being right.)

Frank Bruni says of Trump and Christie: “Bold nonconformity can be the self-indulgent egotist’s drag” (The New York Times, 7-5-17).

Even the razor ad that serves as the thumbnail image on this blog post shows who the (self-)anointed ones were (in the portraits on the wall), are (the white man coming to bestow the new job on one candidate), and are about to be (the shaven-head white man who knows he’s the chosen one).  Our media are clearly not being very bold or innovative in their concept of leadership.

Two decades after my conversation with that young man, I am finally accustomed to the term ‘leader’ and to the existence of ‘leadership studies,’ primarily because both came into vogue in the early aughts and because I work in higher education (and because I just live in this world).  Is it not the case that, the more leaders we have, the more followers we need?  Do people need to learn to follow and to discern the moments when it’s best not to follow to be successful leaders?  Is there still merit to working the way up the ladder?  Can we even conceive of different metaphors for the workplace that aren’t so baldly vertical?  Can we set the ladder on its side and work left to right or right to left?  In this interview, Spanish graphic artist, writer, and cultural critic Miguel Brieva tells of his new book, La gran aventura humana, in which he underscores the concept of “the individualism of the masses,” a narcissistic banalization of our ambitions and behaviors, stemming in part from the lack of creative education in our schools.  Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century essay on United States democracy warns of such an end for a culture so focused on the individual and, as stated in this internet summary, so ironically freedom-loving while still waging genocide against Native Americans and enslaving human beings.

One of the themes I write about in Gender Shrapnel in the Workplace is the need for stronger leaders who are honest and generous, but Brieva’s work makes clear that “creative” should be on this list.  We need a new kind of leader in all realms—the arts, business, education, government, labor unions, law, medicine, politics, sports.  Honesty in leadership means setting an example of how you want the work to get done.  Honest leaders do not surrender to superficial branding (as we have seen at the national level and in so many of our colleges and universities), and they do acknowledge their own and the institution’s strengths and weaknesses.  Leaders who share institutional shortcomings and a plan to address them show they’re not afraid of a challenge, and they’re not afraid of the truth. They understand when others’ experiences and talents supersede their own. Generous leaders understand backgrounds and points beyond their own.  They open up opportunities to a greater cross-section of the workforce, share credit for good work, and recognize mistakes and apologize for them.  Creative leaders generate networks of people who discuss vision, collaborate, and think more concretely about the common good.  And they turn the ladders onto their sides.

Frederick Douglass concluded his 1852 Independence Day address with these stirring words, which still speak to us today: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour forth a stream, a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”  Perhaps what we need is not the flag , but the firecracker, from the top on down, from the bottom to the top, and from side to side.