Lexington, VA: Restaurant Revenues are…Up!

(Main Street Lexington sign on the way into Lexington)

Today I’m sharing the Letter to the Editor I wrote in response to some unbelievable–truly not believable–reporting from The Roanoke Times.  I’ll add a link if the letter gets published. (Here it is, published on 9-20-18.)

September 9, 2018

Dear Editor of The Roanoke Times:

I read with dismay Alison Graham’s article titled “Lexington-area tourism group beefs up marketing in wake of Red Hen controversy” (September 2, 2018).  It is September, and the article features photographs from early July, neglecting to state that there have been no protesters outside the restaurant for months and that business is brisk, not only at the Red Hen, but throughout Lexington’s downtown restaurants.  The City of Lexington has released its July, 2018, statistics for tax revenue from meals: $113,641 (*see the Lexington City website for a PDF of the official figures).  This is a 1.4% increase from July, 2017.

Graham not only neglects to cite the increase in meal activity and revenue in the city, but she also cites “a slew of negative media coverage.” Full, responsible reporting would reveal publication after publication that lauded the quiet but firm action of the owner of the Red Hen back in late June.  Not to report on actual revenue data and real, positive coverage of the Red Hen event is to present biased information.  Furthermore, in the article, Graham uses the word “emergency” three times and the word “desperate” once.  How does a revenue increase imply any kind of emergency or desperation?

Why do these misrepresentations matter so much?  They matter because (1) facts should be crucial to fair reporting; (2) the Associated Press wire picks up this type of one-sided piece and then spreads the misinformation nationwide; and (3) our country more than ever needs to rely on careful, full reporting from its media outlets.  The AP wire translates the Graham article as “tourism suffering after The Red Hen denied Sanders” (reprinted in your paper on September 2, 2018).  As demonstrated above, this broadly distributed information is false.

I would hope that The Roanoke Times and the employees of the Rockbridge Regional Tourism Board would want to and choose to offer the truth—no protesters, positive coverage of what happened at The Red Hen, increased meal revenues, and seven new businesses opening in downtown Lexington.

Sounds quite robust to me!

Thank you.

Ellen Mayock

Resident of Lexington, VA

(Main Street, Lexington, VA.  Photo credit: A. Basu Choudhary)

(Main Street, Lexington, VA. Photo credit: S. Mayock-Bradley)

Un certain “Je ne sais quoi”: Gender Impressions in France

(Claviers on the left; Paris on the right.  Photos by E. Mayock)

Four or five weeks have passed since I last posted in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.  This represents a big shift away from posting entries every week for 97 weeks in a row.  The reasons for blog idleness are several: continued work with our local resistance group; more pressing summer projects; and family vacation.  Like so many other people, I felt the need to stop pointing to the top of my forehead and saying, “I’m boiling mad up to here.  I’m constantly mad.  When will it stop?”  I feel rusty on the blogging and slow of brain, and at the same time incredibly fortunate to have had a change of pace in the summer and a long-awaited family vacation in France.  Of course, gender bias never goes on vacation.  It does not even enjoy a free weekend here or there.  While the Gender Shrapnel Blog focuses on gender and its intersections in a mostly United States context, entries do occasionally treat questions of international feminism, especially of Spain and Latin America.  After two weeks in France, I will share here a few observations about gender in everyday life and in art.

Several decades ago, I was an undergraduate major in French and Spanish.  For a while, I communicated far better in French than I did in Spanish, but that has not been the case for over two decades.  Revving my French back up while traveling with a mostly monolingual group of family members both challenged and amused me, especially because I have never spent much time in France, and almost none in the south of France.  We spent nine or ten days in a stunning “perched village” of the Alps region above the Riviera, in a town called Claviers (see photo above), which not one French person in Paris with whom I spoke had heard of.  Due to the vacation home rental craze, the town’s 700 inhabitants are accustomed to tourists and absorb them, for short or long stays, in what seems an understated, no-fuss manner.  Most Parisians asked how I understood southern French—saying that the accent was hard enough for them to understand.  Suffice it to say that I managed quite well during our time away, but that my French skills are still far from where they used to be.  Maybe take my observations about gender in France with a giant grain of salt, especially given the short stay and the impressionistic approach I had to take.

Claviers’ main square, also its only square, featured two restaurants, a press office, a real estate agency, and the ever-important “mairie,” or mayor’s office/city hall.  The small Proxy market was right off the square and served as 7-Eleven and lovely little boulangerie all at once.  Slow mornings revealed women sweeping, serving café au lait, and bustling to and from the main square, straw baskets or market caddies in tow, to get the day’s provisions.  Men drove city clean-up vehicles through the narrow streets and opened up the sole bar/café, while one very important man strolled through town shaking hands and answering questions.  That was the Mayor of Claviers, whose posted office hours at the Mairie seemed to indicate a cushy and, if the list of all the town’s mayors through history was any indication, inherited job.  Some of the mayors had 35-year terms. All of the Claviers mayors have been men.  The front office is staffed by a young woman, who seems to run interference for her glad-handing boss.  Remember, these are just impressionistic, meandering observations of a tiny town.

Tuesday morning surprised us because the mobile hair salon arrived.  We all imagined that one special day a month when everyone went around telling everyone else how fabulous their hair looked.  I should not have been surprised that mid-afternoon heat brought on a Spanish-style siesta, with most people returning home for a meal and most businesses closing their shutters from the sun and the out-of-sync tourists.  Slightly busier evenings brought out the restaurant workers—some men, some women, some black, some white—all bustling and some bristling.  Conservation seemed a priority in both the small towns and in Paris, as the mairies placed limits on the number of bags of garbage and recycling people could discard a week, the grocery stores had the reusable bag system down to a science, diesel gas fueled the cars, and people rode bicycles as a matter-of-fact means of transportation.  I was particularly impressed by the Paris share-a-bicycle system and its reliable bicycle lanes throughout the city.   The many cyclists on the mountain roads in the south of France also amazed.  It is no wonder the Tour de France has the fame it does.

Gender norms in beautiful and charming Claviers seemed to parallel those of other worlds.  Women both worked hard and were in charge of the children, and men worked hard and were in charge of improving their pétanque game.  Every one of the small towns we saw featured a pétanque court, where men and boys of all ages rolled small silver bowling balls in this traditional French game.  Sometimes the women stopped to watch, but mostly the men occupied these spaces.  I report all of this with little to no judgment, just as an observation.  Right by the pétanque court in Claviers (see photo below of the court in nearby Fayence) are a building with the classic Liberté-Egalité-Fraternité slogan (photo below), a bar called Le Cercle de Fraternité, and a statue to the local men who fought in the French Resistance.  The statue, pictured below, is simple—a naked woman carved in white stone to symbolize, as the statue indicates in one word, liberté.  Of course, I have long been familiar with the trope of naked woman as liberty (it pervades much of Western European and North American art), but I decided at that moment to reject this millennia-old trope.  I decided I had had enough of naked women, sculpted or painted by men, given no name or identity, representing some concept of male liberty, placed in town square after town square, and here placed between the pétanque court and the “Fraternity” bar.  For whom is this liberty represented?  And, how sick are we of white women representing some male concept of purity (and the implied converse representation, the supposed impurity of women of color)?  Where are artistic representations of named women, and where are the women and men of color?  As I chewed on all of this out loud, my 17-year-old son smiled, recognizing that his mother can be what the wonderful Sara Ahmed calls a “feminist killjoy,” even on a lovely vacation.

(Pétanque in Fayence. Photo by P. Bradley)

(Building in Claviers. Photo by E. Mayock)

(Statue of “Liberté” in Claviers. Photo by C. Mayock-Bradley)

Paris’ amazing collection of museums—such a treat, even for a feminist killjoy—reminds us again how the art world pitches men as the doers (the actual artists, but also the figures of agency, such as fishermen, farmers, kings, politicians, popes, and cardinals) and women as muses to the men.  See, for example, a photo of Rodin’s “The Thinker,” below.  In fact, my daughter and her cousin, both wholly uninterested in museum visits, kept themselves busy by counting women’s naked breasts (featured in paintings and sculptures as nurturing, liberating, or torturing).  After just a few days of trampling around museums, they counted 365 breasts.  Don’t worry about the odd number; you know how those statues and sculptures go. The classic art museums—the most visited art museums of the western world—remind us and reinforce for us the dominant position of men yesterday and today.  As Ahmed has said in Living a Feminist Life, “A decision made in the present about the future (under the promissory sign “we will”) can be overridden by the momentum of the past.”  These museums, gigantic, impressive, well-funded, represent such unbelievable momentum of the past that they surely influence how we view men and women, colonizers and colonized, white and black and brown, wealthy and impoverished.  Painting after painting after painting reinforces these tropes for us, making sustained systems of power and the continued representation of these systems seem somehow natural.  It takes a lot of thought and deliberate action to undo the repetition of such seemingly seductive images and expectations.

(Auguste Rodin’s “Le Penseur” at the Rodin Museum, Paris.  Photo by E. Mayock)

That is why I loved observing that some forward-looking Paris city planner placed statues of real French women—mostly queens and saints, but they were real women—throughout the Luxembourg Gardens.  None of the statues I saw represented women of color or women of lesser means, but at least they acknowledged the existence and representation of some women before the 20th century.  In addition, I was gratified to see throngs of people at the chapels of Saint Paul Chen and La Virgen de Guadalupe at the Notre Dame Cathedral.  People and groups clearly wanted to see their nations and cultures represented in this most iconic of Parisian sites (and, as we learned on a tour, the most visited tourist site in all of Europe).

As you can see, feminist killjoys never take a vacation from observations of gender, race, and religion.  The ones I have offered here are neither profound nor surprising, but they are worth pointing out.  As Ahmed has said, “Rolling eyes=feminist pedagogy.”

Over the next few weeks, I will probably write about armed guards and their treatment of pedestrians and travelers, fashion impositions and arguments, sports stores and how they mark gender and race, and what we can expect from next year’s World Cup soccer tournament in France.  (Note that 2018 World Cup is called “World Cup” and that 2019 World Cup is called “Women’s World Cup.”  Sigh.)

Sarah Huckabee Sanders: Dining and Deceit


“We just felt there are moments in time when people need to live their convictions. This appeared to be one.”

I live in Lexington, a small town in southwestern Virginia that used to be rather sleepy but has been awakened (but far from “woke”) by several incidents over the past few years. These include a successful campaign to have the Lexington City Council prohibit flying the Confederate flag from city flagpoles (2011), a protest by students from the Washington and Lee University School of Law to have Confederate flags removed from the university’s Lee Chapel (2014), the 2017 and 2018 Martin Luther King, Jr., parades sponsored by the Community Anti-Racism Effort (CARE), and the racist events in Charlottesville on August 11-12, 2017 (*see a related Gender Shrapnel Blog post here).

Many of you have heard by now that Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a popular Lexington restaurant, the Red Hen, on Friday night.  This well-known, highly-respected farm-to-table restaurant, owned by 22-year Lexington resident Stephanie Wilkinson, employs a small crew of talented chefs, managers, and wait staff, whose culinary work has been featured in The Washington Post, Southern Living, The Wall Street Journal, The Roanoke Times, Edible Blue Ridge, and Virginia Living.  The restaurant is small and elegant, and its owner makes every effort to honor farming traditions of the Shenandoah Valley.  The staff is known for special touches, such as little anniversary cards for celebrating couples or a delicious birthday treat for an unsuspecting customer.  The restaurant not only tries to get it right; it does get it right, and it has done so for ten years.  Such is the case in the owner’s actions of this past Friday night.  I will get to this point in a moment.

Our community has demonstrated on many occasions the high esteem in which it holds Stephanie Wilkinson, who has advocated for small business development and has worked tirelessly to raise funds, write grants, and organize community events to make Lexington both a wonderful place to live and an inviting place to visit.  Small towns can experience great struggles to thrive, and this is certainly the case for small towns with small colleges whose students are away three or four months of the year.  Such a town flourishes only with real vision, community connections, and disciplined work.  Our little town has thrived in no small part due to Stephanie Wilkinson’s work and planning.

On a more personal note, I have rarely met a smarter, more generous, or more measured person.  Stephanie has a kind word for everyone, and she cares about the well-being of people she knows and doesn’t know.  That is why it is not surprising that Stephanie Wilkinson’s words in yesterday’s Washington Post article reflect her kindness and ethical standards: “I explained that the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation.”  The Washington Post piece carefully portrays Wilkinson’s equanimity in this tense situation: she spoke to her staff to understand their preferences; she considered Huckabee Sanders’ record as a purveyor of untruths for the Trump administration; she discreetly asked Huckabee Sanders to speak with her on the patio; she asked Huckabee Sanders to leave and explained why she was doing so; she charged Huckabee Sanders’ party nothing; she left it at that.

In summary, Wilkinson confronted a tense situation with thoughtfulness and grace, applying her own ethical standards and explaining the rationale.  I wish we all gave such full, careful thought to the world around us and made such brave decisions on behalf of ourselves, our employees, and our communities.

At this particular moment, individuals who identify as LGBTQIA see their own rights limited through ever-changing and unjust legislation concerning transgender rights in the military, service in stores, and Title IX.  LGBTQIA individuals are a protected group under several United States laws, especially Title VII.  (*See this useful site from Harvard University for more information on equal opportunity laws.)  While I have heard people near and far declare that Huckabee Sanders also deserves to be served, she does not belong to a protected category under civil rights law.  The category she does belong to is one of great privilege in a highly polarizing administration that is currently waging an immigration war on children and their parents. (*See this short video [Washington Post] of Huckabee Sanders in which she both justifies family separations and tells the journalist who has asked the question that he might not be able to understand long sentences.) Huckabee Sanders’ role as presidential and GOP spin-master makes her an extremely powerful person in our government, one whose lies have been documented time and again.  (*See this op-ed from The Boston Globe, this one from Politico, and many other news pieces from periodicals such as The Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, and The San Francisco Chronicle.)

Yesterday, Huckabee Sanders issued a tweet that revealed how well she has mastered the spin machine.  She says that she always tries to treat people respectfully, even the ones she disagrees with.  If you watch the video cited above, you will see Huckabee Sanders, on June 14, treat a journalist with great disrespect.  In her tweet, she used the name of the restaurant to impugn Wilkinson’s reputation and to use her government-issued power to cast the restaurant in a negative light.  Huckabee Sanders’ father, Mike Huckabee, similarly used his political power to pile on in his own tweet.  Walter Shaub, known as the expert on government ethics violations, tweeted yesterday that he saw Huckabee Sanders’ tweets as a clear violation of 5 CFR 2635.702(a), “referencing the law that states government employees cannot use public office for private gain,” as reported in this piece from The Hill.

The Huckabee daughter-father tweets are an unethical use of political office to bully and harass, in the most public of media, a private citizen and business owner.  Compare this to a quiet conversation on the Red Hen patio and an assurance that the bill was covered—a simple act that reveals how a person stands by her staff and her own belief in the public good.  Those who say that Wilkinson should have been silent reinforce how civility codes fortify the status quo.  (*See this related piece and this one in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.)

Some people who have come to Lexington this weekend in some odd attempt to protect Sarah Huckabee Sanders, one of the most powerful individuals in the land, are waving the Confederate flag and praising the KKK.  This flag, which has so consistently demonstrated hatred of African-American individuals and signaled neofascist tendencies and whose symbolism has so marked this town, has resurfaced in the Huckabee hullabaloo.  A fake website pretending to be a downtown historical association has also followed the Huckabee Sanders spin machine, empowered by the press secretary’s tweet and expanding her network of spin, subterfuge, and slander.

The Red Hen’s owner acted quickly, forthrightly, gently, and morally, and she explained her actions thoroughly and thoughtfully in the Washington Post piece.  I wish our town, state, and country had more role models like her.

Family Values?

(Poster from a vigil/protest, Lexington, VA, June 14, 2018)

Last week, I was walking our dog past a neighbor’s house.  I called a “hello” to the elderly neighbor, who sat in a chair under a tree in his beautifully tended garden, a garden I have watched him plant, water, and weed for over two decades.  He said “hello” and then asked if I was a teacher.  When I said “yes,” he asked what I taught, and I replied with the simplest answer possible, “Spanish.”  “Damn Mexicans,” he said.  I walked on, feeling shocked (even though of course I know how many people in this racist country subscribe to such beliefs), hurt (in a representative way, knowing that this comment towards me is nothing compared to comments made against others, which are absolutely nothing when compared to real acts of hatred and violence committed against real people), and angry (why wasn’t my dog pooping in the beautiful garden at that very moment?).

This little comment from a neighbor who I thought for years was a kindly old gardener should give us every bit of evidence we need that the United States has taken a more dramatic turn, almost two years into the Trump regime, towards violent, racist acts and, in particular, significant gaslighting effected daily through the fast-paced, absolutely wacked GOP spin-machine.  The New York Times reports (6-15-2018), “’I hate the children being taken away,’ Mr. Trump told reporters on Friday morning in front of the White House. ‘The Democrats have to change their law — that’s their law.’  A short time later, he wrote on Twitter, ‘The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda.’”  The very next line of the The New York Times piece says, “But Mr. Trump was misrepresenting his own policy.”  The GOP spin machine does not even realize how good they have it, when newspapers such as The New York Times continue to soft-pedal the language of Trump’s lies, which, in turn, normalizes his racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and blatantly anti-family platforms and actions.  While Trump voters continue to sport bumper stickers that say, “Don’t believe the liberal media” and “NRA.  Don’t let them take your guns away,” the so-called liberal media is struggling to keep up with reporting and rebutting the extensive lies told by this dictator and his kleptocratic cronies.  (*See this 6-14-18 related piece from Slate.) The lies run so long and deep, and their reach allows the regime’s inhumanity to stretch to every corner of the United States and to many corners of the world.

I probably do not need to remind you that on this day, Fathers’ Day in the United States, the Trump regime is actively separating children from their mothers and fathers at the borders, placing children in privately-owned detention centers, and constructing an actual tent city for these young children left alone in western Texas.  We see the news—not fake, completely verified—in every outlet and confirm the stories—that 1,995 children have been separated from their parents over the last six weeks; that a Honduran man committed suicide after being separated from his family; that a Guatemalan woman was picked up by ICE and deported, leaving her young child alone.  These stories are heartbreaking in the aggregrate—the staggering numbers of separated families—and in the particular—each and every case of a parent separated from a child for a minute, a day, a week, indefinitely, and often at great and likely insurmountable geographical distances.

In addition, recent news from the Department of “Justice” reveals that the United States will no longer grant asylum to victims of domestic abuse or of gang violence.  These policies demonstrate again the entrenched racism and misogyny of the Jeff Sessions DOJ.

The academic realm offers us many lessons about and depictions of the gradual erosion of civil rights and democracy.  We do not have to dig too deep to find acute moments of U.S. history at which parents and children have been separated: the institution and business of slavery and separation of African-American parents from children; the creation of “Indian schools” to separate Native children from their parents and force them to assimilate into white culture; United States internment camps of Japanese individuals and families.  This 2016 article from Human Rights Advocates (University of San Francisco School of Law) details the steps in denying civil liberties, which lead to the dehumanization, torture, and sometimes death of specific groups of targeted peoples.  Chilling subtitles of the article include: “Arbitrary Deprivation of Liberty”; “Structural Violence and Discrimination”; “Degrading Treatment” (health concerns; sexual abuse; immigration workers); “Right to Counsel” (beware the officials who believe that migrant children make good immigrant rights lawyers); “Private Detention Facilities.”  Note this warning by the authors in their conclusion: “Accountability for violence against children in these detention centers is difficult to achieve because the actors are private businesses and not the State. The incongruity here is that the government contracts private companies to deal with social and economic issues that are entirely the concern of the State. This unique task blurs private and State responsibilities. This issue should be included in national action plans on business and human rights in efforts to implement the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”

*Consider the historical context of this 1941 Dr. Seuss piece and relate it to today’s realities.

Add to all of this the multiple reports (including this one) that Trump will withdraw the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council, and you find an even more deliberate and dire picture of the politics of inhumanity in these United States.

The heroic work of the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (CAIR), the thousands of Indivisible groups across the nation, and many other major legal and political resistance groups is not enough to get us away from this regime.  We need Republicans—politicians, party leaders, voters, Republican-leaning people just going with this flow—to decide finally that it is time to express vociferously their discontent with the Trump regime.   I know many of you.  I am your neighbor. I am related to you.  I work with you.  I cannot accept that you accept this increasing dehumanization and cruelty.  When will you decide that enough is enough?  This is not just one person (me) moralizing about others’ lack of action, but rather a whole nation watching the corrosion and corruption of its high-level governmental officials, watching the erosion of civil rights and democracy, watching itself implode.  This cannot possibly be what good people want for themselves and others, can it?  This cannot possibly be what people mean by “family values,” can it?

The Peter Principle

(I can’t find a pertinent image for this week’s post.  Here is our sleeping puppy.)

“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence,” wrote Dr. Laurence Peter in 1969, the year his “Peter Principle” went viral, 1969-style.  This recent piece from Forbes supplies information from an academic study, published 50 years after the initial assertions by Dr. Peter, which finds the basic premise of Peter’s statement to be true.  Summarizing the results of the study (run by Professors Benson, Li, and Shue), the Forbes author writes, “The data show that the best salespeople were more likely to a) be promoted and b) perform poorly as managers.  The Peter Principle is real.”

After just a little poking around the internet, I have found very little information about how the Peter Principle functions for people of color and women.  Tom Schuller has a book titled The Paula Principle, but the five points outlined on his website do not reassure me that the gender work on this issue is thorough or free from its own kind of bias.  Is Dr. Peter’s 1968 assertion principally about white men?  If so, we need to think more about how white men benefit from the assumption that they should be promoted, how people of color and women are placed at a disadvantage through this assumption, as they are not automatically promoted, and, perhaps most invisibly, how people of color and white men and women prop up the men who have been promoted to a position whose responsibilities they cannot handle.

In Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, I treat the issue of looks-like-me hiring and promotion.  A colleague once said that he wanted to make a particular hire because the candidate looked like the professors he had had in graduate school.  The more that white men believe in their own competence and privilege, the more they instill this value in colleagues—making the hire or promotion of someone like them seem “natural” or “right.”  Sometimes the person hired or promoted is entirely competent and wonderful at his job, and sometimes he’s not.  Nevertheless, the increasingly ingrained assumption that he will be contributes to gender, race, and gender-race pay gaps, which we know to be significant (cited in many posts in the Gender Shrapnel Blog; for example, here; see also this link from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research).  The assumption also contributes to the promotion problems of the glass ceiling (for white women) and the cement wall (Buzzanell and Lucas’ term for the lack of promotion of people, and especially women, of color).

In this poignant op-ed in the 1-11-18 issue of The New York Times, Charles Blow says of our “president”:  “Trumpism is a religion founded on patriarchy and white supremacy.

It is the belief that even the least qualified man is a better choice than the most qualified woman and a belief that the most vile, anti-intellectual, scandal-plagued simpleton of a white man is sufficient to follow in the presidential footsteps of the best educated, most eloquent, most affable black man.”  Indeed, we have elected a man to the highest post in the land, a post for which he had already demonstrated a lack of interest and a severe lack of preparation and for which, since the election, he has revealed previously unimaginable inability and dysfunction.  As Charles Blow signals, “Trump’s supporters are saying to us, screaming to us, that although he may be the ‘lowest white man,’ he is still better than Barack Obama, the ‘best colored man.’”

Indeed, even attempting to put politics aside and to focus on presidential job descriptions, much of the United States population must understand that oratory—having ideas and being able to transmit them orally in a compelling and inspiring manner—is a fundamental job requirement for the presidency. President Obama demonstrated time and again consummate oratorical skill (gained, perhaps, through profound thought, significant practice, and natural talent).  On the other hand, Trump’s communications reveal his lack of skill in this area and, I would submit, this oratorical incompetence lands our nation in significant and frequent problems.

Trump’s Peter Principle-style incompetence unfolds exponentially, as he hires men with a similar profile who are similarly unprepared to do the jobs for which they are hired and promoted. In addition, large cadres of individuals follow behind the so-called president, spending their valuable labor hours cleaning up small and large messes occasioned by colossal incompetence. The level of mismanagement boggles the mind and cements the idea of Peter Principle privilege.

This article from The New York Times (3-16-2018) reminds us that women and men already imagine men when they picture leaders, thus contributing to the power of the Peter Principle (i.e. fomenting the “natural” notion that men, especially white men, deserve to be promoted).  Our compass north is men in charge.  Even when we make workplace changes to open the pipeline, hire and promote people of color and white women, we always creep back to that compass north.  Changing perceived and real status quo remains a gigantic challenge.

The April, 2018, issue of The Atlantic features Peter Beinart’s piece titled “The Nancy Pelosi Problem.”  Beinart outlines Pelosi’s numerous successes as House Minority Leader and applauds her speaking, legislative, and fundraising abilities.  He also points out that the GOP used Pelosi’s image as a target, emphasizing time and again that women are not supposed to be in positions of power: “In the run-up to the 2012 elections, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, Republicans invoked Pelosi in television ads seven times as often as they invoked the Senate’s Democratic leader, Harry Reid. Four years after that, in the run-up to 2016, they invoked her three times as often.”  Beinart asks and answers many questions about Pelosi’s supreme competence and the myriad ways the image of her and her competence are undermined: “Why so much discontent with a woman who has proved so good at her job? Maybe because many Democrats think Pelosi’s unpopularity undermines their chances of winning back the House. Why is she so unpopular? Because powerful women politicians usually are. Therein lies the tragedy. Nancy Pelosi does her job about as well as anyone could. But because she’s a woman, she may not be doing it well enough.”

I’ve written before about workplace “clean-up”—the often invisible ways in which lesser-paid employees (often people of color and women, as statistics repeatedly bear out) do the work of the greater-paid employees (often white men, as statistics repeatedly bear out) and make them appear more competent.  These tasks range from managing people and work responsibilities to writing speeches to running meetings.  Even as the Virginia Department of Education unveils its “Profile of a Virginia Graduate,” with an emphasis on job readiness, it continues to hire and promote superintendents, assistant superintendents, and middle- and high-school principals who in this part of the state are often white men, some of whom (not all!) lack real training to manage people, deliver speeches, run meetings, demand reasonable budgets, and generally do the work for which they were hired.  The more we subscribe to the Peter Principle, the more we inculcate in our young people the supposed naturalness of promoting white men and render invisible the work of people of color and white women.

Soccer great Abby Wambach touched upon many of these issues in her powerful and inspiring 2018 commencement speech at Barnard College.  We can all learn something from Wambach’s words and her real, practical advice for greater workplace fairness.

Dignity and Indignation

(White House website)

Commencement, the old idea that the end is not the end but a new beginning, delivers pomp and circumstance (the actual song and the ceremony), folding chairs, speakers’ platforms, honorary degrees, family lunches, sweaty black robes, grandparents seeking refuge from humidity, diplomas and brief swaggers on stage, caps tossed in the air, reminiscence, recognition, encouragement, celebration.   In a way, this ritual is a collective Bar or Bat Mitzvah in its excited anticipation of the people these youngsters have become and the older adults they will be.  Commencement is excitement, hope, and love.

This year I will attend our university’s baccalaureate service, a special ceremony for some of the seniors, the formal graduation, my daughter’s 8th-grade graduation, and the high-school graduation of dear friends.  That is a lot of commencing packed into three short days, and I’m looking forward to it, in no small part because I am so happy for these people and glad for their next adventures.  When I was younger, I thought rituals rather silly; the predictable garb, incantations, and seasonal speeches seemed to pale in comparison to simply being with the people you loved and wanted to celebrate.  My brother-in-law once reminded me that people need rituals in order to acknowledge beginnings and endings, to come together as a community, to observe the different ways in which time passes.  He is right.  These rituals allow us to tell each other of the respect we feel for one another.  They underscore human dignity and, when done right, also nudge us towards indignation in the face of injustice.  Simply put, injustice erases human dignity; it tells us that some humans are more worthy than others.  Commencement should remind us that we have learned otherwise.

While the United States continues to allow, and too often to condone, the killing of black people, the country also sees the smaller indignities, or reductions of worthiness, in the acts of white people calling the police on black people and the police responding to these racist and frivolous calls.  These daily indignities are the everyday bits of proof of the gigantic problem of assassination and incarceration of people of color, a problem exposed through film, fiction, academic studies, and activist organizations, including, but not limited to, Black Lives Matter.  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on rarity and reporting and this one on Black Lives Matter.)  We as a nation ignore these everyday occurrences at our peril, as they must form a part of our reckoning with racial injustice and our solutions to these profound problems of humanity, worth, and dignity.

Some of you may have seen the White House website’s piece on MS-13 gang members and activity.  (See the horrifyingly official headline in the photo above.) Robin Alperstein’s upcoming article in Dame Magazine will treat this issue, and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post addresses it here.  I therefore just want to mention the MS-13 piece in the context of dignity.  Calling certain groups of people “animals” does us all a disservice.  The person who uses the term diminishes the humanity of the person being addressed, her or his own humanity, and that of all of us.  (Of course, too, this derogatory term assumes a less than harmonious relationship with the flora and fauna that make up our world.)  Ass, bitch, chicken, cow, pig, pussy, rat, shrimp, snake—when we use these animal terms against people—we are understanding those people to be less human than ourselves.  Now, let’s return to the main point:  the so-called president of the United States chooses to use this language on the official website of his office—of our nation–, thereby representing us to the world in this demeaning, demoralizing, dehumanizing way.

The website text recounts atrocious acts and attacks of Mara Salvatrucha, a large transnational gang known for its violent campaigns.  The end of the piece states, “President Trump’s entire Administration is working tirelessly to bring these violent animals to justice.”  This jarring us/them, human/animal, superior/inferior, worthy/unworthy language attempts to establish the Trump administration as morally superior saviors, at best a laughable position and, at worst, an example of generalizing, xenophobic, and violent rhetoric directed at all Latinxs.  Dionne takes on the dignity question in this way: “But both of these innocent explanations underestimate Trump’s gift for using incendiary words that send clear messages to his supporters. He is brutally calculating in finding ways of casting large groups of people as undeserving of dignity. Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project.”  I shudder to think about the words of wisdom this megalomaniac narcissist will offer to the students graduating from the United States Naval Academy on Friday.

The “president,”—Groping Old President, paper-towel thrower, wall-builder, dictator-lover, cheater, liar, stealer, colluding election-grabber—clearly not the best choice to lead a diverse and complex nation, is also not the ideal person to express to a large group of 22-year-olds that they can choose dignity, express indignation in the face of social injustice, and commence a much-needed wave of change in a country struggling to hold onto any shred of humanity.

(Bulletin board at the university where I teach.  Much kinder than the White House website.)

El qué-dirán (The “What-Will-They-Say”)

The Spanish language boasts its own compound noun, composed of the question word “what” (qué) and the “they” form of the verb “to say” (“decir”), formulated in the future (“dirán”).  Today’s students grasp the concept of the “qué-dirán” in a blink of an eye, understanding the power of the looming “they,” the fear of the enigmatic “what,” and the social control implied by the “will say,” or the gossip.  This concept, which appears as a fundamental two-by-four in Spanish-language literature through the ages, affects us all and takes hold through the scaffolding of the social media networks.

Many people of my generation (50-somethings) comment on the challenge our children face in navigating social relationships. Of course, relationships among adolescents are often characterized by strife and heartbreak, as young people experience many emotions for the first time.  This hasn’t changed, but the social media environment has, increasing the number of people who form the “they” implied by “dirán,” the number of people who can engage in gossip and attempt to shape others’ behaviors.  Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that I don’t gossip.  We all do.

Before the social media era, nevertheless, wasn’t it already awkward and maybe even humiliating to be in fifth grade and find nowhere to sit in the lunchroom, or to be made fun of for an outfit you wore in seventh grade or a snorty laugh you emitted in eighth grade, or to find yourself in the midst of shifting friendships in ninth grade?  To have those moments and feelings constantly and repeatedly exposed on social media, rarely with your best interests at heart, must reinforce faltering self-esteem and imposed isolation on our children.  When I see mean posts and possibly even meaner shares, I am indignant on behalf of the person who was targeted, whether I know the person or not.  Even if meanness and snark are a part of growing up, and they definitely are, their amplification via social media certainly must be having its effect on the young people we love.

Friends’ and family members’ perceptions of us during adolescence contribute to our self-perception, I think for life.  What are the stories or phenomena of your childhood about which you’re still particularly sensitive?  I have two, neither of which is anyone’s fault, but each of which likely takes turns driving the car of my personality. (*Please see this “Loving People” post , which celebrates the many positive elements of my childhood.  I just realized that I wrote that piece one year ago. This time of year must have me reflecting on youth, love, and challenges.  Or maybe it’s moralizing May.)

The first formative element comes from inside the home, where I grew up as one of two girls in a family of seven children.  Busy days and crowded dinner tables made for some single-tracked conversations of which I (and probably my brothers and sister, too, at different times) often did not feel a part.  The single focus and the resultant lack of variety in conversation topics made me hunger to learn everything I could about other things when I was at school and/or on my own.  I still love the family conversations we had (often sprinkled with hilarious word play and almost always demonstrating profound affection), and I still love sports—part of my training—but I definitely like embarking upon deep conversations about other parts of our lives. My husband’s family was steeped in Philadelphia politics, a hot topic at their home, and those conversations, along with the lack of fear of disagreement or discord, appealed to me tremendously when I first started hanging out at their house.

The second item about which I’m still sensitive arose mostly outside the home.  At home, my parents, sister, and brothers expressed frequent and generous praise about my interests and endeavors (how lucky to have been surrounded by people who took a genuine interest, despite all I just said above about our conversational compass).  My parents also imposed what some would deem a militaristic discipline: up early; get to school; work hard; go to practice and work hard; come home, eat dinner, do chores; do homework; practice the instrument (generously provided by public school education); no television; go to bed.  On the weekends and in the summer, there was no lounging around in bed and there was always a list of chores prepared for each person.  We had a lot of fun, too, constantly playing and making up games and interacting with our siblings’ friends.  The ethos of the house was definitely “work hard, play hard,” and the work always came first.  This is how we were raised and what we were taught to expect and respect, and I think each of us kids brought it to much of what we did, and certainly into our adult work lives.

Therefore, when, especially in middle school, but also in high school, classmates decided my good grades were a result of hard work and no missed school days (ah, how I remember the ignominy of getting the perfect attendance award along with the highest grade award in 7th grade), I was unsettled in a way I couldn’t articulate until later.  At the time, I did not know how to analyze these comments, and I mostly left them alone. Later, though, I thought defensively, “I do work hard, but I’m also kind of smart, I think.”  It was a weird moment when I realized I had to defend working hard and assert that some academic skills came naturally to me.  I didn’t go around saying these things, but I learned to confront the strange criticism that someone who works hard must not also be intelligent.  Working hard to me meant, and still means, that I am serious about the endeavor before me, there are things I don’t know, there are talents I can bring to the project, and the hard work might bring joy and passion.  Hard work and working hard also mean that we occasionally learn to think more critically about social justice, effecting change, and being in the trenches with others who are willing to do the same.

My husband works incredibly hard and is a sophisticated thinker, passionate about what he does and says.  His strong personality makes him a force for positive change. (Hey, wait, have I been writing too many letters of recommendation this month?) My husband just recently told me, for the first time in our 26-year relationship, that he also was marked by the “you’re not smart; you just work hard” criticism leveled at him through grade school and high school. We hope that our children, whose work habits have been dictated by us but also cultivated by them, haven’t inherited this criticism, that they haven’t been the object of similar comments.

I leave you with two points today.  Social media make everything more complicated.  There is much to be learned in hard work—actual information and skills, collaboration, passion.