Zadie Smith’s “On Optimism and Despair”

Last week I wrote about George Will’s nostalgia for an education focused purely on founding fathers and supposedly enduring civil rights.  In the meantime, Zadie Smith’s acceptance speech for the 2016 Welt Literature Prize lends great nuance to these questions of tradition, politics, and civil rights.

Smith writes: “Meanwhile the dream of time travel—for new presidents, literary journalists, and writers alike—is just that: a dream. And one that only makes sense if the rights and privileges you are accorded currently were accorded to you back then, too. If some white men are more sentimental about history than anyone else right now it’s no big surprise: their rights and privileges stretch a long way back. For a black woman the expanse of livable history is so much shorter. What would I have been and what would I have done—or more to the point, what would have been done to me—in 1360, in 1760, in 1860, in 1960? I do not say this to claim some pedestal of perfect victimhood or historical innocence. I know very well how my West African ancestors sold and enslaved their tribal cousins and neighbors. I don’t believe in any political or personal identity of pure innocence and absolute rectitude.

But neither do I believe in time travel. I believe in human limitation, not out of any sense of fatalism but out of a learned caution, gleaned from both recent and distant history. We will never be perfect: that is our limitation. But we can have, and have had, moments in which we can take genuine pride. I took pride in my neighborhood, in my childhood, back in 1999. It was not perfect but it was filled with possibility. If the clouds have rolled in over my fiction it is not because what was perfect has been proved empty but because what was becoming possible—and is still experienced as possible by millions—is now denied as if it never did and never could exist.”

Smith’s speech examines the spaces between optimism and despair, especially in this post-election period.  Several weeks ago I wrote a poem in Spanish with one particular line that says, “¿Cómo sonreír un optimismo todavía no sentido?” (“How to smile an optimism not yet felt?”).  The question itself should reveal both despair (in Spanish, “desesperación”; the undoing of hope) and some distant certainty that smiles and optimism will—must—return.  I see in these emotional spaces the fraught question of civility, a code that tells us how to be good winners and losers, or who is supposed to be quiet now, or even who should timidly accept tyranny.  To paraphrase Smith, this code tells us to ignore the possible and deny that it ever existed.  Over this past month my mind and heart have walked these spaces of despair, with their craggy outcrops of impositions of civility, wondering not only how we as a nation can climb up and out, but also how we as individuals and small groups can do so.

A few weeks back another professor from my town and I sat together at a sports event.  I respect this person’s work and work ethic and was enjoying our conversation about rather mundane topics—sports, the weather, work responsibilities.  The conversation took a sudden turn when she commented that we probably shouldn’t talk politics.  We hadn’t been even close to talking politics, and so I was taken aback by this prophylactic measure.  I replied, “Sure, that’s fine,” and then my interlocutor proceeded to detail all the political reasons for which we shouldn’t discuss politics.  This seemed to me to be “talking politics,” and so I wondered if maybe just I wasn’t supposed to talk politics.  I listened, got quietly (but maybe noticeably) steamed, and then said, somewhat huffily, “I think you’re right; let’s not talk politics.”  At the next day’s sporting event, we did not speak.  Our exchange from the first day and the silence of the next day seemed awkward, maybe even shameful, somehow.  There was no meeting halfway, no optimism, just a barely polite exchange.

As I thought back on our conversation, I tried to figure out which elements of it contributed to the next day’s silence and came up with three (recognizing that the person with whom I was speaking would have her own reasons for this):  (1)  I sensed that my conversation partner had already prepared herself for an antagonistic conversation and would therefore find one, no matter how I participated; (2) I felt silenced by this code of “not talking politics” while actually talking politics; and (3) my conversation partner declared herself to be a “one-issue voter,” which also meant that little could be added to any debate that might have ensued.  These three issues will challenge many of us as we attempt to understand our friends, colleagues, and neighbors over the next few years, I believe.

Nicholas Kristof has talked about the University as a liberal “echo chamber” whose professors don’t know or talk to people who voted for Trump.  This has not been my experience at all.  Most professors I know have friends, family members, neighbors, and colleagues who voted for Trump, and more than a few professors I know voted for Trump.  Most professors I know read voraciously and variously.  If there is an element of truth to the echo chamber thesis, though, might it not counterbalance the many professions and work contexts that are “conservative echo chambers” (e.g. the proposed cabinet of the president-elect)?

Two university professors, much of whose pedagogical work is guiding discussions, were unable to have this conversation two weeks after the election.  I see my own role in this as tinged with the despair mapped by Zadie Smith.  In a way, it feels like having a hopeful conversation about the future of the United States over the next four years (and well beyond, given where we’ll end up) at this moment is traitorous.  It gives the president-elect undeserved credit and support.  It makes me meek and says I won’t fight for what’s right.  What is the opposite of feeling optimistic or feeling hopeful in this political context?  I believe it is oppression, and oppression must challenge conversations based on being polite and “well-behaved.”

“Hysteria” in Higher Ed? I Don’t Buy It.

The title of George Will’s opinion piece in The Washington Post (11-18-2016) is “Higher education is awash with hysteria.  That might have helped elect Trump.”  Hmm, hyperbole (“awash with hysteria”) and baseless half-claims (“might have helped elect Trump”) have become the cornerstone of half-baked, fully baited journalism.  The charged word “hysteria” already imbues the title with a Fox-flavored misogyny that the rest of the piece bears out.  Will goes on to accuse higher education of “childishness and condescension” and links these behaviors to the election of Trump.

George Will takes issue with the safe spaces established on university campuses after the election, but he doesn’t deign to question exactly why safe spaces might be necessary.  If he were to read The Chronicle of Higher Education’s daily round-up of violent anti-black, anti-brown, anti-woman, anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish, and anti-transgender incidents on our campuses or to follow the list of violent incidents recorded by the American Civil Liberties Union or the Southern Poverty Law Center, then maybe he would understand why many people who study and work at colleges and universities seek to protect (through safe spaces, staffed counseling offices, etc.) and to educate (a rich curriculum that doesn’t just teach about the wars of domination waged by white men of the Western hemisphere).  In this op-ed, Will also criticizes academics’ writing styles and course topics.

It is not time to feel sorry for racists, but it certainly is time to recognize the clear and present danger they represent (*See this piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education on white supremacist Richard Spencer’s “Danger Tour”.).  Recognizing this danger is not “hysterical,” but rather practical and humane.  Schools need to be a place where young children and young adults can feel safe.  What do we mean by “safe” or a “safe space?”  We mean that students and employees won’t be singled out for bullying or other forms of punishment for belonging, or just appearing to belong, to a specific category and that they’ll receive equal treatment in terms of resources, etc.  Basically, it means that schools will respect Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and Title IX (1972).  But it means more than that.  Schools are supposed to be places where critical thinking is taught—where we learn about, synthesize, and analyze the history, cultural legacies, politics, accomplishments, and challenges of the Earth and a variety of groups of people.  Students should understand the school and its people as a space of open inquiry and dialogue.  When schools close themselves off from such practices, they decrease our ability to learn, be open to others, and ask the big questions.  They increase the likelihood of real abuse.

I live in a small town visited somewhat often by an active group of white supremacists.  We have groups that counter the supremacy messages, but their presence doesn’t exactly allay the fear of oppression and violence evoked by traditional symbols of white supremacy.  The schools should be one of the places to work against these messages.  My husband has taught for many years at the public high school in our town.  This past summer, a week or two before the first day of school, he saw graffiti in the boys’/men’s bathroom etched onto the walls of the bathroom stall and the metal of the toilet-paper holder.  While the graffiti exhibited sexism, it also included the line “Whites only” and “Kill a ‘N-word’.”  When my husband alerted the administration, they agreed to take care of the problem, a problem my husband thought acute enough to require immediate action.  When nothing was done for days, my husband put tape over the stall door with a sign that said “out of order” (literally and figuratively, really).  The day before 9th-grade orientation, my husband went and bought sandpaper and sanded off the sexist and racist messages.  Mr. Will, is it coddling to ensure that students of color not feel like the violence against black lives that they have seen repeatedly since Ferguson (and well before, of course, given our colonial legacies and mass incarceration) not be replicated in their own schools?

In just over a month, a group in my town will sponsor a parade for Martin Luther King Day.  The idea is to have different groups join in the parade to celebrate what they do (bands, sports teams, dance groups, knitting clubs) as the whole parade line celebrates the life and accomplishments of the United States’ nationally recognized civil rights leader.  Our city and county public schools do support our Christmas-themed holiday parade (remember the good ol’ separation of church and state?) but are not supporting the MLK (remember the federal holiday for this important figure’s January 15th birthday?) parade.  This is another instance in which the education system is sending implicit and explicit messages about what and who matters.

Let’s keep in mind that George Will has been working for Fox News since 2013.  When he gave the commencement address at Michigan State University in December, 2014, some students and audience members staged a protest, especially denouncing Will’s dismissal of the problem of sexual assault on United States campuses and his belief that those who report sexual assault enjoy “privilege” on campus.

It seems that George Will believes the only people who need to be “coddled” on the campuses of our schools are the ones who think like him—those who believe that race is invisible, those who think sexual assault doesn’t exist, those who seek curricula that focus only on the overly repeated narrative of the white male hero, and those who write in a hoity-toity way (e.g. “Institutions of supposedly higher education are awash with hysteria, authoritarianism, obscurantism, philistinism and charlatanry”) but criticize other academics for using the word “interrogated.”  The hypocrisy of it all is almost, but just not quite, hysterical.

Will is awash in his own privilege but cannot acknowledge it.  The Washington Post has employed this successful writer since 1974.  Might it be time to retire his jersey?

 

 

Intersectional Dynamics: Can We Walk Together, and Sometimes Apart?

Several years ago I was at a board meeting in Denver with a group of friends and colleagues.  It was Halloween weekend, which had almost passed us by as we spent the day in conversations about concrete ways in which our organization could change at least a little part of the world.  We emerged from the meeting room with plans for dinner together and a stroll around downtown Denver.  Dinner turned into a mini pub crawl and dancing at one particularly fun venue.

As we moved from one location to the next, a black man, probably about 22 or 23 years old, fell into step with me. (I’m white and was about 47 at the time.)  We walked together, and he commented that he believed the young black man and the middle-aged white woman had a lot in common.  My curiosity fully piqued, I urged him to tell me why.  He said that our bodies are invisible in everyday ways but strike fear when they’re perceived as out of place, where they don’t belong or aren’t welcome.  He seemed to be speaking in general terms, but also was pointing to the very street in which we were walking.  It was 1:00 in the morning, and our bodies were supposed to have been expelled from the city streets by this point.  We laughed amiably at our deep discussion, sang a few lyrics together, and then continued on separate paths.  I wished we were still meandering through this conversation together and tried to sort through the reasons for which he separated middle-aged white women from middle-aged women of color.  (Admittedly, the pub crawl might have made me a little slow on some of these points.)

Jayy Dodd’s “Why I’m Scared of White Women,” published on The Establishment site on October 11, 2016, reminded me of my Denver conversation from several years ago and prodded me to return to this thorny question of race and gender dynamics.  In this piece, Dodd says that when they (Dodd’s chosen pronoun) were growing up they never had trouble understanding gender equality.  Dodd goes on to say, “But in the popular conversation, gender equality and feminism are so geared toward white sensibilities that people like me are not only marginalized as allies, but actively endangered.”  Dodd provides salient examples of white women’s marginalization of black women and black feminisms.  These include the Ghostbusters cast’s silence surrounding the online attacks of Leslie Jones, Hollaback!’s video that featured a woman who looked to be white being harassed by men of color, and racist incidents in the hands of Taylor Swift, Amy Schumer, and Sarah Silverman.  Dodd is calling out “white feminism” on its own hypocrisy.  In other words, Dodd is highlighting the now-prevalent and well-documented notion that white feminism has not only ignored important concerns and scholarship of people of color, but that it has also actively fomented more racism. Dodd says, “It is dangerous to use white women as the only measures of public safety.”

These are excellent points, and I want to engage them more here.

Oppressive patriarchal and racial structures continue to function because of vigilance and control and the promotion of an exaggerated awareness of white women’s security.  This reinforces several pernicious intersectional problems because it (1) erases women of color from the conversation; (2) repeats the stereotype of the supposed dangerous nature of black men; (3) repeats the stereotype of weak, infantilized white women; and (4) conceals the real problem of white, male supremacy.

Lives of women—of color and white—are often in danger.  Think about rape statistics, sex trafficking, child abuse, and greater levels of economic precarity for women and women of color in particular (*see the Labor Day post on the Gender Shrapnel Blog).  Of course, so are the lives of black men (*see this post from the Gender Shrapnel blog) and men of color in general.  We have a long way to go to solve our problems of structural racism and sexism.  My mental Venn diagrams tell me that some of the intersectional problems (evident to many of us) include vigilance, control, and punishment of the non-white and/or non-male body, the feminization of poverty and, in some cases, the “coloring” of poverty, racist and misogynistic rhetoric as verbal reminders of very real structures of oppression, and labor power structures that rely on non-inclusive hierarchies.  What remains on the non-overlapping parts of these diagrams are the clear privileges of being white in the United States and the clear privileges of being male in the United States.

It seems convenient for white heteropatriarchy to pit black men’s lives against white women’s security.  In other words, neither body is supposed to be on a Denver street at 1:00 in the morning.  This is a dual control.  Many (most?) white women bristle under these security suggestions as well.  It casts men of color in the false role of perpetrators of sex-based violence and white women in the false role as constantly raped.  Neither image is true or helpful, and they impede our walking together to solve real problems.  In fact, when I think about the demographics of the introduction to women’s, gender, and sexuality studies courses that I’ve taught, I think of the strong presence of women of color, white women, and men of color—a working together to understand structures of oppression.  (Like many students and colleagues, I’ve often thought that requiring an intro course in this and/or African-American Studies and/or Latin American and Caribbean Studies of all students would help college campuses to be more inclusive.  Maybe this would then have an exponential effect when these students go out into the world.)

There does exist a white feminism that erases the copious feminist works and successes of women of color, and we need to be aware of that with each word we write and each action we take.  I’m just not sure that the term “white feminism” doesn’t replicate generalizing, ineffective, divisive rhetoric.  Might it be possible to provide more nuance to the term “white feminism,” which seems to imply that all white feminists are racists, when we have many examples of feminists who are white who have read and written copiously about and from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality, who have foregrounded the works of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sojourner Truth, Patricia Collins, Audre Lord, Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, Angela Davis, (with a long etcetera), who participated in the civil rights movement and in women’s liberation, who have pushed for LGBTQI rights, and, and, and?  Maybe, to riff on NoViolet Bulawayo’s 2014 novel title (We Need New Names), we need new words.  Or maybe my writing this proves even more my own white privilege.  I’m willing to consider all the possibilities.

So-Called Identity Politics

I recently read and had a very strong reaction to Mark Lilla’s op-ed piece in The New York Times (11-18-16). As he sorts through the post-election morass, Lilla states unequivocally that “identity liberalism” has taken too much of the center stage of Democratic politics. He takes liberals to task for “celebrating” differences, operating against unity, and flooding the schools and the media with diversity rhetoric. His main concern is that “National politics in healthy periods is not about ‘difference,’ it is about commonality.”

It is true that Democrats could always do a better job at touting successes that serve the common good, including President Obama’s saving the auto industry and the many jobs at stake there and working to pass the Affordable Care Act, which has at least moved the nation towards more healthcare for more people. *Chris Gavaler’s blog post (11-21-16) brilliantly compares simplified, Manichean, Gingrich-driven GOP rhetoric to the complicated, nuanced statements often made by the top brass of the Democratic Party.

I want to take issue, nevertheless, with most of the points Lilla has made.

Identity is and always has been a part of politics (which, after all, comes from the word for “city,” a place where many people of different backgrounds gather and live). “Identity politics” only emerges as a term when politics isn’t all or only about white men. In other words, so-called identity politics breaks the supposed universality of the white male. When political engagement and activism were less available to women, people of color, non-Christians, and the LGBTQ community, we just called politics “politics.” As soon as these groups gained more voice and used them to effect change in the political realm, their form of politics was made “other,” snidely labeled “identity politics.” Many of our constitutional amendments have had to correct for the marginalizing biases of the all-white, all-male, all-Christian, and, at least on the surface, all-straight founding fathers. To dismiss these important and inclusive changes is to ignore the concept of change itself.

Lilla blames the schools for overreaching or overemphasizing the contributions of people of color and women to the history of the United States. He believes this is an overcorrection that panders to groups traditionally underrepresented in United States politics. I wonder if this author has ever looked at the curricula of elementary, middle, and high schools. Christopher Columbus is still portrayed as the hero of the Americas, the one who persevered and delivered the lands and its riches and, more significantly, its peoples to Western Europe. Indigenous peoples of the Americas are barely mentioned, except as the vanquished or as the willing facilitators of white domination. In fact, war is still the organizing principle for most history textbooks. This means that we are teaching our children that war is inevitable, that depleting our natural resources for such efforts is warranted, and that, again, the war hero is the dominant figure in the United States narrative. It would be amazing if our schools’ curricula could ever overcorrect for their emphasis on the lives and accomplishments of Christian white males. Mr. Lilla states, “But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.” Many groups define themselves from a very keen awareness of the conditions of other groups and a necessary desire to have their own ideas and needs made visible to a larger group in power. I would argue that many of these groups are much more educated about the history and circumstances of other groups than they are in this op-ed piece given credit for. In fact, this piece reads as narcissistically unaware of its own privilege.

Lilla says that, “At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them.” Mr. Lilla, have you ever had a young child or taught young children? They have their own little personalities as soon as they emerge from the womb. These quickly develop into a sense of individual and group identities. Being able to assess one’s identity and its evolution in terms of the self and the polis is an excellent skill to have. In fact, this important tool of critical thinking allows us to understand the systems of oppression that continue to operate in schools, the media, the government, and our families. When I was five years old, I knew that being a girl was different from being a boy. Being a girl meant not being president. Being a girl meant playing basketball in the little gym, labeled the “girls’ gym.” Being a girl meant earning less; it meant being taught to want less. If so-called “identity politics” had really succeeded in saturating our schools and the mainstream media, then maybe black lives would matter to a greater number of white people and maybe more people would believe a woman can be president.

In his op-ed piece, Lilla also states, “Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.” First, I hardly think the Ku Klux Klan was the very first identity movement in American politics. Second, its very existence in our world today seems to speak to its enduring power. Third, the Ku Klux Klan’s persistence has brought it from a violent fringe movement to an unfortunately high-stakes, high-power player in current presidential politics. In other words, does Lilla actually believe the Ku Klux Klan has lost? The group seems more powerful than ever, given who our president-elect is and how he has been supported.

The term “post-identity liberalism” (used by Lilla) makes me cringe because it just means we go backwards. It means that government is to blithely ignore those whom it is supposed to represent. It silences big groups of people. It returns us to the paradigm of white man = universal. Mr. Lilla wants us to “reach out to Americans in every walk of life.” If “every walk of life” refers only to the economy (which should certainly be a feature), then we are missing many pieces of the puzzle.

Lilla’s own sense of privilege is exactly what allows him to encourage all of us to pare everything down and back to the white dudes who founded our nation. He refers to an “array of different faces” at a speech he gave in Florida and seems to celebrate the diversity of the crowd without stating why it actually matters. The attendees at the speech apparently sang the national anthem together and then celebrated what they had in common. Recent protests during the national anthem might tell us that we also have to pay attention to how we’re different.

We need to get away from an either/or (difference versus unity) model of politics and move towards a both/and (difference and unity where possible) approach that makes radical economic change without ignoring major problems of representation and power of traditionally underrepresented groups.

Election Day: You Do the Math

Damn it.  Just damn it.

Mainstream and social media are filled with post mortems today.  I cannot deal well with them today; I’m having trouble being a careful critical thinker today.  And so today’s post is a rant.  Maybe I’ll write something more measured and mature next week.

Here are a few reasons why I’ve had to close all browsers for now:

1)  45 men have been elected president of the United States in 57 elections over the past 228 years.  Only one of them was black.  None of them had or have a vagina, as far as I know.

2)  Pennsylvania went freaking red.

3)  We never elected Shirley Chisholm or Barbara Jordan or Geraldine Ferraro or Hillary Clinton to the big office.

4)  It seems that, at just the moment the nation decides it’s sick of the establishment, we have an extremely qualified woman from the establishment.  We wouldn’t have gotten a woman this far from anywhere else, not at this point in our history.  A woman candidate would have to come from the establishment, and that’s when we decided that the establishment was out.  This is not an accident.

5)  The Sanders supporters need to wait even just one more day to remind us that we could have had Bernie.  It tells some of us that there was always a white man available to come to the rescue, and why weren’t we astute enough to just pick the person with the penis, knowing, after all, that that’s what it would take?

6)  We know and have seen time and again that there are great financial and social benefits to being racist and sexist.  Racism and sexism also influence people of color and women—they are equal opportunity structures of oppression, so to speak.  So, yes, many white women voted for Trump and many Cuban-Americans did as well.  This is such a complicated issue on so many fronts.

7) For those holier-than-thou GOP’ers who repudiated Trump but then did nothing to avoid his rise, just shut the hell up.

8) As many people have said on Fb, it’s hard to figure out how to sow peace with and feel love for those who voted for a man who hates people not from the United States, appreciates his fans who call for violent action against people of color, seems not very Christian but hates everyone who isn’t Christian, and believes that women should be in the Playboy mansion, a beauty pageant, or the home.  It’s hard for me to absorb that these individuals must, they just must, think less of me because I’m a woman.  This election cements my status.  It reminds my daughter and son, who worked so hard to read about the issues and to develop support for a candidate, of theirs.

9) Words I have read today include:  devastated, empty, numb, mute, sad, frustrated, angry, fearful, terrified, beaten down.  I have also heard that the c-word and the n-word were used at Trump rallies yesterday to threaten the Democratic nominee and our current president.

These are a few good reasons to hide, if only for today.

I picked up my daughter’s friend this morning to take her to school.  Her face was splotchy red.  She was undone.  But when I saw her walk into school with my daughter, I noticed she was wearing her “gender equality now” t-shirt.  Resilience is wonderful, especially among this younger generation who will surely know how to help us effect real change.  I just haven’t gotten to resilience and good will, not yet.

Before the Democratic National Convention this past summer, my family watched Barbara Jordan’s incredible speech at the 1976 Convention.  Just now I reread Shirley Chisholm’s 1969 “Equal Rights for Women” speech.  I highly recommend these texts and wish they weren’t still so timely.

Like so many other people across the United States yesterday, I touched an electronic screen to cast a ballot, my digits meeting the names of Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine on a colorful screen, my daughter at my side.  I was filled with excitement and awe, and, I think, so was my daughter.  (My son, tall enough to look of voting age but too young to vote, was for some reason not allowed at the voting booth with us.  He was sent outside the polling place.  We were told of some random rule about minors between the ages of 15 and 17 not being allowed there.)

I voted at 6:00 a.m., when there are usually no lines and just a sleepy sense of excitement.  Yesterday morning was different.  The line snaked through the building and down the street, car lights illuminating the building and the faces of voters and eager local candidates.  The chill of the November morning combined with an electoral fervor to create a crackle, but not one as electric as I sensed on election day in 2008.

As my eyes scanned the line of this small-town voting location, my mind did an automatic accounting, “Democrat, Democrat, not sure, not sure, Republican, Democrat, Republican, Republican, not sure, not sure.”  There aren’t many secrets in a small town, and far fewer when it comes to the kind of election season we’ve had.  In 2008, townspeople commented about my street, where house after house boasted Obama signs in the front yards.  This year has been different.  There were a few, hopeful Clinton signs up, but they were not nearly so consistently placed nor so seemingly optimistic as the 2008 signs.  They were a little more desperate, less certain, less willing or allowed to express glee.

The support for Hillary Clinton was hard won for so many reasons.  Core misogyny, the Bernie bros who believe you can talk about inequality without considering race or sex, questions about Hillary’s husband’s (mostly not her own) baggage, and doubts about solid representation for people of color.  It’s hard to be the candidate who, for some voters, is just “not the other candidate,” someone for whom they’re settling either because they won’t vote for Trump or because they can’t vote for Bernie.  For some of us, though, no matter the limitations, we saw her as the right candidate at this time, the person with the most experience, diplomacy, awareness, and sense of justice.  Not the most radical, that’s for sure, except that I think it’s pretty damned clear that electing women has become a rare and radical act.

In fact, through some of the election season, I felt glee, a glee I only expressed in select corners.  It was a tempered glee, if that’s possible, because I knew Clinton didn’t fully represent so many of the people who chose her as their nominee, so many people I care about.  I also always wished environmental issues were much more front and center.  I still do. But my own single self (the selfish self?) felt glee, just to vote for a woman and to think our nation might respect a fiercely competent woman enough to be led by one.

Women are 51% of the United States population and have seen so little governmental representation for so very long.  So many bright lights, so few elected officials, so much gender shrapnel.

I think I’ll get my resilience and fight on in a few days, but for now…

Just damn it.

Rape: Real Violence on Real Bodies

This post is a tough one.  It is tough because most of us don’t want rape to be a tool of oppression.  It is tough because we don’t like to think about the violation of our own or others’ bodies.  It is tough because rape has become so common that someone even coined the terrible adjective ‘rapey.’  It is tough because we as people and as a culture (media, athletics, schoolyards, campuses, workplaces) have participated in behaviors that devalue women and men and normalize rape.  It is tough because of Brock Turner from Stanford and Alec Cook from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the many predators they represent.

It is tough because rape takes away control and replaces it with trauma.  It is tough because some people report it, aren’t believed, and are retraumatized.  That’s when maybe carrying a mattress around makes a lot of sense.

It is tough because we often don’t even use the terms available to us to describe what has happened.  Remember the The New York Times headline back in October that announced, “Montana Judge Criticized for 60-Day Sentence for Man Who Has Sex With His Preteen Daughter”?  The Public Editor of the Times, Liz Spayd, at least ran an opinion piece criticizing the headline (10-22-16).  If you think about it, we not only have to fight for felons to get the sentences they deserve, but we even have to fight for felonies to be called exactly what they are.  If we use lighter terms, judges and juries are likely to give lighter sentences.  Language matters, and, of course, so does the law.

In last week’s post I underscored that sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation exist on a continuum with sexual assault and rape.  I emphasized that we won’t come close to eradicating sexual assault and rape if we don’t also figure out how to solve the problems of harassment, discrimination and retaliation.  In addition, I highlighted several of colleges’ and universities’ major problems in establishing reliable protocols (including reporting systems) that are fair to the person reporting a violation of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation and/or sexual assault and violence.  Greater awareness of these major shortcomings will allow us to create a multi-pronged approach to understanding and decreasing the incidence of all of the actions along the sexual harassment-sexual assault continuum.  If we fail to create safe and reliable reporting systems, we fail.  After all, we usually need one brave individual to report and be heard for other individuals to feel they too can come forward.  This is acutely proven in the Alec Cook case.

A friend of mine has a daughter who is a senior in high school.  My friend has questioned, as many of us have, why, given the statistics on sexual assault (*see this AAUW report; RAINN; NSVRC; EROC; U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics), we send our daughters to United States colleges and universities.  My friend is astute, saying that we wouldn’t send our children into other settings with similarly grave statistics.  We either think it won’t happen to our children or that it’s just a risk worth taking.  We know of fraternity banners and targeted fraternity invitations to first-year women.  These broadly distributed missives, which inform women new to the college environment that they will be rated and maybe raped, make sure that women know who is boss, who has the first and final word.

(Here is a wordle created from sample fraternity invitations e-mailed to first-year women.)

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Colleges and universities are notoriously ineffective at dealing with the rape culture they have fomented (it seems that institutions create a problem that they then spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to attempt to remedy; and who knows how much they spend in lawsuits to address these self-same problems).  Many university employees work hard on education on these issues (data, brochures, bystander education, etc.), but the education doesn’t seem to carry over to real change in the actions of violent offenders and, more pervasively, the permissive acceptance of these felonies.  Spokespeople for institutions like to express “shock” at these events, but, as I have written on many occasions, shock is not a valid response.  These felonies happen all the time.  We know they do.  The statistics support this, and our rape culture reinforces this.  I’ve also said that the term “zero-tolerance policy,” often invoked by university officials after they have just tolerated another illegality, is misleading, hypocritical, and entirely unhelpful.

One final phenomenon I’ll discuss that links rape culture to rape itself is hazing.  Hazing happens most often in strongly “fraternal” contexts—athletics teams, fraternities, military branches.  Hazing goes from lighter imposed actions, such as reciting Shakespeare from a school balcony, to physically dangerous actions, such as forced ingestion of copious amounts of alcohol, to felonies, such as assault and battery and sexual assault.  I suspect that many men who engage in hazing rituals see them as something they just have to endure to get to the other side, to become accepted as a brother, and then to inflict these rituals on others.  But if they don’t understand hazing as potential or real assault and possibly sexual assault, then they are continuing a cycle of violence in their own organization and transporting these felonious misassumptions to life beyond the fraternal context.  In other words, if hazing sometimes includes sexual assault, and men don’t understand it to be sexual assault or refuse to absorb that it is sexual assault, then they are probably imposing these beliefs and behaviors on “non-fraternal” women as well.

Let’s call rape what it is: rape.  Rape happens all the time.  Rape is a felony.

Sexual Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation: We Still Need Better and Safer Remedies

Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace treats in part the daily functions and dysfunctions of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation and places these events on a continuum with sexual assault and sexual violence.  Next week’s post will go to the more acute end of this spectrum—sexual assault and violence–, while this week’s post sets up the pitfalls and dangers of mishandling cases of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.  (*See my Sept. 19 (2016) Gender Shrapnel blog post on the Fox News sexual harassment situation.)

The 2014 RAND Military Workplace Study (Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military, Vol. 2. Eds. Andrew R. Morral, Kristie L. Gore, Terry L. Schell) states this: “Sexual harassment is also closely associated with sexual assault in the military.  Indeed, women who have been sexually harassed in the past year are 14 times more likely to also have been sexually assaulted in the past year than are women who were not sexually harassed.  Men who were sexually harassed were 49 times more likely to also have been sexually assaulted in the past year than men who were not sexually harassed” (xxii).  These data parallel the assertions I make in Gender Shrapnel about the sexual harassment—sexual assault continuum, not only in the military workplace, but in all workplaces.  If we do not clean up our act on the “lighter” end of the spectrum, we will never get at the root problems on the weightier end, and we know we need to get there.  (*Next week I’ll address this horrifying information from the University of Wisconsin and why reporting is such a gigantic piece of the harassment-assault puzzle.)

Back in 2011, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) assumed greater responsibility for the effective implementation of Title IX (Department of Justice Title IX site; Know Your IX; AAUW) through expanded education, more detailed guidelines for colleges and universities, and more significant presence of OCR officials on college and university campuses.  The OCR Dear Colleague letter of 2011 showed that Title IX could be more elastic, that it could reach further into enforcement goals, thereby attempting to reduce incidents of sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and assault.  The greater visibility of Title IX-based cases in our traditional and social media can be attributed in large part to this increased vigilance.  While it might seem like these profound problems have gotten worse, we should consider that their greater coverage in news media indicates at the very least that more people care about and are addressing these issues.

If you have been, to use the now oft-used term, groped at work, you have been a victim of harassment.  But the “grope” is an easy diagnosis for women.  We all know what it is and what effects it causes.  Most people in the workplace know that the “grope” is inappropriate and illegal.  Fewer people realize, though, that many small comments and actions (the shrapnel) that undercut the ability to work of people in the so-called protected categories (race, religion, sexuality, national origin, gender, ability, parental status) add up to discrimination and harassment.  Think of the comments you’ve heard in the workplace that served to belittle or dehumanize a person and had the effect of limiting that person’s ability to navigate space and get the work done.  The physical “grope” (from the quid pro quo type of harassment) has its non-physical analogs on the hostile work environment (HWE) side.  These include fraternity banners targeted at first-year women, confederate flags (with, as I have seen on more than one occasion, nooses hung on either side), and public interrogation about salary and performance.  Oftentimes, physical intimidation—blocking entrances, looming over seated individuals (think Trump, Debate #2), patting body parts—is part and parcel of HWE harassment.  The confluence of these actions limits the victim’s horizontal movement (in and through the physical spaces of the workplace) and vertical movement (ability to take on increased responsibility in the workplace).

Most policies penned by the General Counsel office of colleges and universities attempt, in a cookie-cutter way, to address the EEOC and OCR recommendations for policy content and procedures.  Nevertheless, the policies often fall far short of clarifying protocols, encouraging reporting, and being fair to those who register reports of violations.

I know people trained in literary criticism (in other words, trained as careful readers of text) who have experienced serious difficulties in understanding their colleges’ convoluted Title IX guidelines.  Sometimes the college or university provides four or five different links and creates systems with ten or more confusing acronyms.  The outline of the procedures offers few protections to the person who is considering coming forward to make a complaint, thus sowing seeds of doubt before the person has even entered any official reporting process.  The already difficult decision to report a Title VII and/or Title IX violation is complicated further by the precarious positions of many people in the workplace.  People need to hold onto their jobs, and a less-than-perfect reporting system and investigative process actively discourage would-be reporters and witnesses from getting harassers out of the system.

Although I’m not sure how to get around it, the notion that the alleged violator of policy is presumed innocent until proven guilty sends the implicit message that the person reporting is lying, confused, or vindictive (instead of brave, forthright, and trying to help solve institutional problems).  We have to figure out a way to send the message that the investigators and adjudicators can also believe the person reporting until proven otherwise.  If we don’t accomplish this, from sexual harassment and discrimination to rape and assault, then we will always be placing blame on the victim for being a liar.  In addition, given that sexual harassment and discrimination are rooted in a power differential, oftentimes the person reporting the violation is low in the hierarchy and must report to someone very closely linked to the alleged violator.

Investigative committees are usually appointed from a handpicked group designated by General Counsel’s office.  This ensures that the process is controlled in puppet-like fashion from the perspective of protecting the institution against legal risk.  None of this bodes well for the person who has already suffered harassment and now has to choose whether to trust in a reporting and investigative system that is clearly stacked against her or him.  General Counsel’s role should simply be to implement the decisions that emerge from the systems put in place.  If an organization can keep General Counsel out of investigations and adjudications, it accomplishes two feats: (1) a cleaner internal process from the get-go; and (2) a demonstrated trust in the established systems and protocols.

These elements—lack of clarity of policies and procedures, lack of fairness to (and/or real retaliation against) the individual filing the report of violation, and conflict of interest in reporting up the chain—contribute to more, not less, sexual discrimination and harassment.  They are part and parcel of the cycle of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.  We need to fix these problems in order to decrease the incidence of this “lighter” end of the spectrum, and thereby decrease the incidence on the sexual assault side.  Until Title IX officers and policy investigators are freed from General Counsel and interpretations of institutional risk that make the reporting party the enemy, there will be no justice for those reporting violations.  This is not to say that there aren’t very well-meaning people in these roles and involved in these processes.  There are!  It just means that they are put in impossible positions, caught in the middle.

Our current reporting systems, despite real overhaul over the past few years, are still falling short.  Administrative hierarchies still circle the wagons, thus alienating those who report and placing them in further danger.  If we don’t get at the problems of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, we will never lessen the incidence of sexual assault and violence.