The United States loves its guns.  The country loves its guns so much that it is willing to sacrifice seven children and teens on an average day, 96 United States citizens a day, and 13,000 lives a year. (*See this Everytown site for more statistics, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  See this 2016 article from The New York Times.  See also this site for up-to-the-minute reporting on gun deaths in the U.S.).  The data tell us, too, that 50 women a month are shot to death by intimate partners and that black men are 13 times more likely to be killed by gun violence than white men.

Is gun violence a disease?  Which other organizations are tasked with stemming the tide of violent crime, and especially violent crime committed in our schools?  Why do we now think it is normal or acceptable for our children and their school teachers and staff to experience violence in schools and to have to prepare themselves for violence through repeated lockdown drills?  What the hell is wrong with us?  Why are we such cannibals? (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post, especially Act 5, about the shame of it all.)

None of what I am writing today is news.  We all know it, and we all know it to be true.  We are catering every day to the hypermasculinist NRA lobby, which has infiltrated every level of government and affected the safety and/or sense of safety in every one of our schools.  We know it.

I was going to write this week’s post about gender-based violence on the national and international stages, and I still am.  This is because what is becoming a type of gun genocide in the United States stems from an ever-more-dangerous toxic masculinity fomented through our government representatives, television shows and movies, commercials, and video games.  This inculcation of violence influences mass shootings and supposedly behind-closed-doors incidents of domestic violence.  It tells men to reject all attributes and feelings coded as “feminine” and to embrace ultra-power and dominance.  (*See this 2013 summary of an article about print images in advertisements that promote hyper-masculinity.)  Time Magazine in 2014 reported that 98% of mass murderers are male, attributing the statistics to many phenomena along the age-old gender binary: cultivation of men as hunters and warriors; men’s protection of their status in a group; influence of violent media; etcetera.  It is no accident that we use the metaphor of “guns” for highly developed muscles.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) adds to this toxic mix by encouraging gun sales, discouraging anything that impedes gun sales, and thereby openly motivating gun violence.  I was reluctant to visit the NRA website and give it any more traffic than it already gets, but it behooves us to know what this billion-dollar lobbying organization is up to.  The website informs us that NRA-TV is alive and well, promoting television shows about guns and gun violence.  Trending on its blog right now is the proud announcement that the AR-15 is the most popular gun being sold right now.  Remember that this is the gun purchased and used to kill dozens of people in recent mass shootings in the United States.  The website also lets you know (to me, menacingly) that, “The NRA is closer than you think,” as it provides maps and directions to local stores and shooting ranges.  It features the story of an “armed citizen [who] protects his family,” making me wonder if the armed citizen’s children ever go to school and if they are protected there.  A photograph of two beautiful lions invites “American hunters” to shoot them.  And don’t miss the pitch to young people: “The NRA has been actively involved in promoting the shooting sports to youth since 1903. We wish to ensure the future of the shooting sports by providing proper tools and resources to America’s young people.”  In other words, “we hope to promote gun sales to kids as young as five or six who can accidentally shoot each other.  If they survive that, then they can shoot others when they get a little older.  Don’t miss out!”

I just visited the NRA online store and am feeling more than sick to my stomach.  It’s all about “protecting freedoms,” “not being tread on,” and weapons, weapons, weapons.  What is this war?  It is Wayne Lapierre’s fear of himself, of not being enough.  It is Wayne Lapierre’s followers agreeing that not being enough can be compensated by owning a gun.  It is the United States afraid to confront its own deeply-rooted, ever-growing pornographic affair with its guns.  You don’t have to be a literary critic to understand what the gun compensates for, and you don’t have to dig too deep to worry about how we cater to this.

Guns have no other purpose than to kill.  Let’s remember that. shares information about NRA contributions to candidates, elected officials, and party committees. (*Here are the statistics from 2016.)  As far as I can tell from the list, all of these candidates, government officials, and political parties are Republican.  Every last one.  This is not at all surprising, but it should allow us to become more draconian in our condemnation of the GOP.  For those of us living in Virginia, let’s remember that Ben Cline, who has declared his intention to run for Bob Goodlatte’s House of Representatives seat for the 6th District, has an A+ rating from the NRA.  Ben declares this proudly on his “pro-life” website.  (*See Gender Shrapnel Blog posts on Ben Cline here and here.)  As Voluble blogger Robin Alperstein has said, GOP candidates want to get re-elected and therefore respond to vociferous voters, many of whom promote the gun lobby.  The best way to defeat them is to increase contact with our representatives to encourage smart gun regulations.  Gabby Giffords’ Law Center is an excellent place to get information for this kind of massive effort, so necessary for 2018 midterm elections.

I promised I would talk about gender-based violence, and I already have, in part.  Gun violence is gender-based violence from the start.  Gun violence requires that we understand toxic masculinity and reverse it, just as it requires deep change in public policy surrounding the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments. (*See related Gender Shrapnel blog posts here [free speech], here [Charlottesville], and here [stop-and-frisk].)

The GOP’s massive and perverse power has placed our own country at war with itself.  This civil war relates in no small part to our Groping Old President, whose decades-long anti-women actions and comments extend to his support for other violent misogynists who wield great power.  Let us not forget that the White House delayed a full week in condemning multiple reports of Rob Porter’s violent acts against not one, but two, wives.  (*See Dana Milbank’s take-down in The Washington Post of the all-too-conveniently evolving White House stance on domestic violence.)  The Groping Old President (assaulter-in-chief) also “boasts of a great relationship” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose most recent recommendation to shut down female rebels was to “shoot them in the vagina.”

State-imposed misogyny and state-indulged gun violence are not news.  None of this is.  We have got to get on this now, yesterday, 30 years ago.






I have just returned from a two-day work trip to the Yucatan, for which I traveled with wonderful colleagues, met generous people, and researched opportunities for students. I teach Spanish and interact frequently with Spanish-speaking people from all over Spain and Latin America.  This trip, nevertheless, reminded me how easy it is to get into protective silos of like-minded individuals and to become accustomed to mostly egalitarian language use.

On this trip, I traveled with a female and a male colleague.  In many settings, I noticed that our male colleague was addressed first by most men.  They would initiate the conversation by calling my colleague “Jefe,” making a few jocular remarks, always kindly intended, and then asking questions of him. If my colleague didn’t hear this or they anticipated that it would be better to continue in English, they would reframe and call him “Boss.”  The first time I heard “Jefe,” I almost answered, simply because I speak Spanish and am the oldest of the group.  I cracked up each time as I had to remind myself that they were not addressing me, that they hadn’t said “Jefa,” and that, besides, silly, women aren’t bosses!  The “jefe”-way to exist in the world is never having to assume you’re not being directly addressed by the vast majority of people on the planet.  Think about it: If you’re in a group and you are the one always addressed first, and the address defers to your power in a hierarchy, you might start to make some significant assumptions about your importance and about your role in conversational movement and negotiation.  The others in your group might also make assumptions about their secondary role in the group.  And each time this happens, the use of “boss” might reinforce for the women that they are to be silent, to speak only when spoken to, to assume a less important role.  In other words, we are conditioned by language use and re-use, in part due to power dynamics and in part due to conduct codes, often based in niceness or politeness (jocularity among the men and the women graciously accepting abnegation).  In this case, niceness translates into deference, deference to the linguistic codes of men speaking with men.  Not one person in any of these situations was purposefully making the women secondary, not one.  But the effect, especially over the long haul, is just that.

Signs welcomed individuals with “Bienvenido” (masculine singular) or “Bienvenidos” (masculine plural), never making the nod to women or to non-binary categories.  I was critical of this in the Yucatan, but then noticed the very same code used upon my return to the U.S. as male travelers (“Bienvenido”) were welcomed one by one to Dulles International Airport.

Brilliant linguist and theorist and Mexican-American Chicana lesbian activist Gloria Anzaldúa writes in Borderlands/La Frontera that Chicana women from her community always used the masculine-identified pronouns when they spoke in the plural (nosotros, ellos), even when they were referring to a group of all women.  It wasn’t until Anzaldúa met groups of women from the Caribbean, whom she observed using the feminine endings (nosotras, ellas) in empowering ways, that it occurred to her that she herself could conceive of a specific gender in language and use it as she chose.  She found this discovery to foment more creative ways to think about identity through language, one of the major themes threaded throughout Borderlands/La Frontera.  Anzaldúa writes, “We are robbed of our female being by the masculine plural. Language is a male discourse” (54).  Similarly, linguistic codes of inclusion and exclusion continue to reinforce traditional gender roles.

In the English language, people can choose the pronoun that best describes their gender identities.  Our pronoun system has never been highly flexible, thus making the use of “he or she” or “his/her,” and now “they” and “their,” rather clunky.  In fact, I always wonder why “his” still always goes before “her,” even though an alphabetic ordering would have it go the other way.  The same goes for official forms that ask for gender/sex identification.  “Male” always comes before “female,” which seems to indicate a primacy of male, rather than an alphabetic ordering.  This may seem incredibly particular or picky, but, if we’re going to move from a universal he/him to a more inclusive set of pronouns and possessive adjectives, then I am curious about the subsequent linguistic choices we make.  The they/their option works well to allow people not to have to choose between two options and not to have to reinforce a gender binary that certainly has been busted open—quite appropriately—in many ways.  At the same time, the use of they/their for a single person can still cause great confusion simply because language still seems to want or need to distinguish between singular and plural.  Language is both wonderfully fluid and tremendously based on precedent.

My old and mostly male professors in graduate school used only the masculine forms to refer to us graduate students, even with a majority of women in the program.  I don’t think any of us took much notice, and we women just were defined by the –os endings.  In Spanish it used to be that you could have one thousand women and one man in a room and you would use the masculine ending to refer to the group.  We were taught this (in Spanish and French and Italian and Portuguese) from the get-go, and we kept it going because it was a language rule.  I remember a professor who, instead of referring to herself as “profe” (short for “profesora”) used “profa,” and other professors mocked her for this.  I also remember using “pilota” for referring to a woman pilot and being corrected, told to use “mujer piloto,” thus emphasizing that men universally are pilots and that women pilots are the exception.  Somehow, though, I don’t recall saying “hombre enfermera” for a male nurse, but rather “enfermero.”  The universal/exception rule only went so far, which is to say it continued to reinforce masculine domination in language and, by extension, in assumptions about the workplace.

About ten or so years ago, I followed others’ lead in using the “arroba,” or “at” sign, to designate both female and male endings in Spanish.  I especially liked seeing Latin@, with neither the “a” nor the “o” ending coming first, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to say this (“Latina/o,” “Latina/Latino,” “Latino/Latina”?) out loud, but at least any of these possibilities was actually say-able.  At this point, I’m used to interacting with many Spanish speakers who consistently use the –as and the –os endings for each word that includes both genders, and I try to do some of this, both in spoken and written Spanish.  The practice is less unwieldy than I thought it would be, but for me still requires focus and patience.  The newer use of “x” instead of the gender-marked “a” or “o” endings, somewhat parallel to a plural use of they/their in English to refer to a single person, really makes the point that we don’t have to label everyone and everything along gender lines, and I thoroughly appreciate this.  At the same time, the “x” symbol seems to negate, rather than create, and it is way more difficult to interpret its natural pronunciation in Spanish than the “at” sign was/is.  I also see as just too short the transition period in which women were consistently acknowledged in the increased use of the –a and –as endings for mixed groups.

The generations after mine have labored effectively to rupture binaries and to respect how individuals choose to self-identify.  In this dark political world, I take comfort in observing this change, this understanding that we can call people what they want to be called, or not put them in a category or box at all.  When I measure these efforts against the still pervasive “jefe/boss” paradigm, I see a huge gap in cultural practices and in rates of cultural change.  Until we are even more deliberate in our conversational practices, we will continue to have only one gender “bienvenido” in our private and public spaces.

Being Cassandra, Being Eeyore



The Greek myth of Cassandra tells us of a girl who has the power of prophecy.  As an adult, Cassandra is propositioned by Apollo, who, when rebuffed by Cassandra, curses her power of prophecy by ensuring she will never again be believed.  The myth recounts that Cassandra was later raped by Ajax, given to Agamemnon as a sex slave (they say “concubine,” but what’s the difference?), and then murdered by Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra.  Of course, Greek mythology overflows with stories of power and revenge, and, generally, women do not fare well.

What are the takeaways here?  I can discern a few:

  • Women who tell the truth are dangerous;
  • women who tell the truth are to be punished;
  • Apollo needs you to like him back. If you don’t, he’ll take what he wants anyway; Same goes for Ajax.  Beware the Apollos and Ajaxes of the world;
  • women who are raped will also be punished in additional ways;
  • it ain’t easy being Cassandra;
  • the stories we tell and re-tell reveal a lot about us as a culture. (No duh!);
  • we have work to do.

Cassandra must have been so frustrated and exhausted.  She could anticipate what was going to happen, and she spent her childhood successfully communicating her prophecies. When Apollo cast the spell that would have her never believed, people saw her as an exaggerator and a liar, as “unstable.”

We should note, too, that there are different versions of this myth.  One even blames Cassandra for tricking Apollo into coming onto her, spurning him, and then being cursed by him.  In this version, I imagine Cassandra in the short skirt, showing that it’s all her fault after all. Cassandra is also cast as a victim of her own beauty, another Western narrative thread that blames women for the violence enacted against them.

The #metoo explosion of these past ten days has been harnessed in powerful ways—to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of the problems of sexual harassment and sexual assault and to give texture and meaning to the tens of thousands of incidents recounted or partially recounted across social media.  I have seen many of the accounts, warnings, and memes translated into Spanish and Portuguese (and some told anew in these languages) in order to address a broader swath of the globe.  As I have said in the blog posts of the last several weeks, the patterns are predictable.  Any old Cassandra can and does foretell the events.  Somehow, though, the curse of not being believed continues, and oftentimes Cassandra’s character is called more into question than is that of her harassers and rapists.  Participating in the #metoo accounting and recounting requires daring precisely because those who come forward aren’t believed and are punished.  I fiercely hope that this latest wave of #metoo (this time jumpstarted by Alyssa Milano, but ten years ago initiated by activist Tarana Burke) makes a difference, effects change.  Nevertheless, I always have in mind Emma Sulkowicz, the woman who carried her mattress around Columbia University for two and a half years.  The mattress was the truth, and yet its constant weight and presence in public spaces still didn’t convince university officials that more needed to be done.  I firmly believe that people don’t go on this type of difficult, long-term mission without cause.  Let’s believe the women carrying mattresses.  Let’s understand Cassandra.

#metoo has also given men the opportunity to absorb the everyday realities for women of all races and members of the LGBTQIA+ community around them.  Maybe some men have read the threads and then performed an audit of their own behaviors through their lives.  When did they use less than kind language about women and people who identify as LGBTQIA+?  When did they offer someone else’s idea as their own?  When did they speak over women at a meeting?  When did they neglect to hire a woman because it would prove a pain in the ass to have to curb certain workplace behaviors?  When did they press for sex when they knew the insistence was unwelcome?  Did they ever rape someone (remember, this might mean that they had sex with someone without their consent and/or with a definitive “no”)?  Do the audit.  Admit wrongdoing. Understand harm.  Make reparations by thinking through actions and statements, by hiring people unlike you, by learning from those who are unlike you, by expressing sincere kindness and care.  Oh yeah, and by stopping telling women that you have a mother, wife, or daughter, and so you understand the plight.  Also, read this excellent Roxanne Gay opinion piece in The New York Times.

Years ago, a colleague told me he’d better watch what he says around me.  I remember thinking, well, I’ve become that person, but, okay, good.  Maybe he’ll start to watch what he says around others, too, and even come to understand why his statements are offensive and threatening.  I thought, maybe this person is more aware now and will help to create a better environment.  The same goes for me in terms of listening, reading, and understanding more about race-based oppression.  I cannot imagine how absolutely fatiguing it must be for women of color and/or LGBTQIA+ people of color who are constantly dealing with gender oppression and race oppression.

I’ve been wondering how well we teach our students and children to analyze the daily bombardment of messages that is our life.  How much do we all absorb advertisements, television programs, movies, music, and social media messages that represent people of color most often in negative contexts, women most often as acquiescent (pussies will be grabbed) or abnegating (wombs will be filled), and heterosexual white men as the all-powerful?  I would say the onslaught is constant, even for someone like me who purposefully avoids a barrage of sad- and crazy-making oppression.  That’s why Hidden Figures (book and movie) was an actual relief and why I was confounded to like and feel a rush from the movie “Wonder Woman.” At my age, I have read many, many books that are empowering for women (but not enough that are empowering for women of color or for LGBTQIA+ individuals), but watching “Hidden Figures” and “Wonder Woman” provided an unexpected rush, an oh-yeah-I-will-crush-you-with-my-freaking-brainpower-and-strength.  “Crushing,” gaining power over, and winning are not my usual touchstones, but I have to confess that these films reminded me how accustomed I’ve become to observing, over and over again for decades, people of color and women being crushed, violated, underrepresented, or not represented at all.  A little reminder of what power is and how it can be distributed more equitably across people and groups proved useful.

If I could draw, I would constantly be doing one-to-four block cartoons that point out the daily reductions of our humanity.  If I could sing, I would go on YouTube and undo sexist lyrics just to own them.  I’m thinking of Eminem, whose lyrics I refuse to quote, or far more innocent, but still insanely misogynistic, songs that are so catchy and so deeply sexist.  If I were Jessica Williams or Tina Fey, I would crack wise all the time to make my point.  But what I’ve got in my toolkit is a Cassandra awareness with an Eeyore delivery.  I’ve got my books, theories, experiences, warnings, and words, and I use them.  What have you got? In particular, how can you men out there contribute productively to this conversation?  Whatever it is, bring it on, ‘cause we need your talent and creativity to change our cultures’ oppressive ways.

The Gender Shrapnel Blog has featured questions like this for over a year, but I continue to ask:  What does it mean to have others appreciate our full humanity?  Has the current administration politicized even kindness?  How do we describe the world/country/city/town we want to live in?  How do we move closer to this better way of living?  Cassandra is justifiably impatient, and Eeyore rightly shows his gloom.

Hotter Water

How are you all doing?  The terrible news across the globe has me low, but then I think about the people directly affected by all the news and how they must be doing.  I’ve asked many times here on the blog how much lower we will have to go before we can effect true change, and I sincerely wish I knew the answer.  For this week’s blog, I’m just writing about local events because I don’t know yet how to tackle the national and international ones.

I’ve been wondering:  When you’re in hot water, and things get more dire, is the water hotter or deeper, or both?

As you likely know, the Gender Shrapnel Blog emerged from my book, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace (Palgrave, 2016).  The university where I work has predictably had a conflicted relationship with this book, which critiques colleges and universities for not fixing problems of gender (and race, class, parental status, among other intersectional categories) and, in some cases, for exacerbating these problems.  I understand my university’s relationship with Gender Shrapnel (after all, I wrote a book about it) and am wholly unsurprised by the book’s reception on campus.  Nevertheless, since the job of the book and this blog is to provide information about, analyze, and suggest remedies for cases of gender and intersectional shrapnel, I am compelled at this moment to take a look at the book’s reception and to link the reception to other lukewarm (or maybe lukecold) responses to local shrapnel incidents.

Although folks might bristle at my calling out my institution on gender shrapnel, I hope they know that I’m speaking again of accumulated incidents over several years’ time.  The incidents demonstrate that intersectional shrapnel still flies and lessons aren’t learned.  Codes of civility (*addressed in this post) might have me silence these facts, but silence doesn’t get us where we need to be.  The driving force of the status quo makes any person, comment, question, or protest who/that challenges it seem “uncivil,” and this silencing moves us backwards.  Some readers might suggest that, if I don’t like where I teach, I should get out.  Please know that, for the most part, I actually do like where I teach.  I like what I teach, whom I teach, where I teach.  (I do like green eggs and ham.  I do like them, Sam I Am.)  Twenty years at one place can create deep ties and affectionate sentiments, and also a long-term perspective about the need and potential for real change.

At the university where I teach, professors’ books are usually highlighted on the university webpage and in the Alumni Magazine.  Many kind people in our publications office made sure to include mention of Gender Shrapnel in these venues last year when the book came out.  Instead of being interviewed about the content of the book for the website piece, though, I was asked to focus on the advising work I do with students.  The book was certainly mentioned in the piece, no problem, but it wasn’t supposed to be the centerpiece.  I should have rejected this approach, but didn’t.  It is hard to reject these approaches when they are suggested by people you have liked and respected for two decades.  I never saw the piece actually featured on the website, even though I check the site daily.  It must have flown in and out rather quickly.

More recently, an excerpted section of this blog post about Mark Lilla and campus politics was published as a letter to the editor in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  The blog post and excerpted letter defend contemporary college students from Lilla’s accusations that they are overprotected and disengaged from the communities around them.  This is the kind of piece (a letter to the editor on a higher education issue) usually posted somewhere on our website, even if a few layers deep, but it never made it on.  I can’t tell if it’s because it doesn’t rate or is linked to the blog itself.  A link to the blog, which mentions university unmentionables, is likely to be avoided at all costs.  I get that the university website serves to sell the university to its many constituencies, but I don’t understand why we don’t actually celebrate our ability to engage in disagreement and be richer for it.  I’ve heard myself say several times lately that the university (not just mine; probably all) gives and then takes away.  University officials assure us that we are addressing diversity issues head on, and then we slow things down.  I can’t imagine how presidents can balance pleasing all constituencies with making real change, but I can imagine how presidents actually make change.

I am not certain what I think about the representation of people of color on our website.  Students of color are featured somewhat often, I think, but I rarely see notices about staff and faculty of color.  We have trouble hiring and retaining people of color for a host of reasons.  We recognize many of these reasons (our name and heritage; homogeneity; rural Virginia; KKK leaflets on front lawns; flaggers marching down Main Street; and a long etcetera), but seem to have trouble grappling with them in forthright conversations and calls for transformation.

Back when Gender Shrapnel was published, the library staff generously asked me to do an author talk, and there was not even a whiff of censorship in that venue.  Librarians like books, and I believe they like information and respectful debate.  Several administrators, some staff members, and many faculty members have read, thought about, and encouraged the work on gender shrapnel.  I am not writing this post because I feel the book has been wholly neglected.  I’m writing it because I believe the areas in which the book has been neglected are precisely the areas in which our university needs to do the hard work of recognizing a racist and misogynistic past in order to make smarter decisions about the current state of the school.

At that same time, over at the university bookstore, in the faculty publications section, I noticed that Gender Shrapnel still had not appeared and that books that were a decade old were still featured front and center.  Even though it’s embarrassing to have to ask your own bookstore to pay attention to your publication, I mentioned to the managers that I would appreciate if they could include my new book in the faculty publications section.  They kindly agreed.  A few weeks later, I saw the bookstore’s special exhibit on banned books.  The bookstore had one or two shelves dedicated to Catcher in the Rye, The Call of the Wild, Catch-22, and Beloved, all books that had at some point been banned.  At that point, when I looked for Gender Shrapnel, I found it on the bottom-most shelf of the faculty section, in the left-hand corner, alongside a co-edited volume of mine from six years before.  It was hard to find the co-edited volume or the new book because placed in front of them was a large hat rack with men’s straw hats with the school’s ribboned insignia.  The university has found ingenious ways to comply with equitable treatment without actually complying with equitable treatment.  (*See photos.)

Like many of us, each morning I visit about six websites (banking, news, you know the drill), and one of them is my university’s website.  This summer the website featured the same white men for three months.  I like these men and respect their work very much.  I want to see them and their work featured on the website.  But I also want the institution to understand the message it sends, day after day for at least 90 days.  It is telling us that white men’s work matters and is to be featured.  The absence of features on the accomplishments of people of color and women just seems to communicate that people of color and women don’t do work that matters.  The omission reminds many of us that what we read about bias in student evaluations (*see this report; this one; this one; and this one, for example) is easily reinforced through broad institutional messages. Women are “helpful,” and men are “brilliant.”  Men are the doers; women and people of color are the helpers.

I strongly believe that some of these actions are deliberate—carefully protected messaging to a high-traffic site—and some are accidental—a constant forgetting that women and people of color actually exist and achieve.  In Gender Shrapnel, I say over and over that, in the end, intention or lack of intention matters not.  The effect is the same.  This is exactly what Dr. Wornie Reed said in his talk here in Lexington when he gave statistics on unequal policing across the races on Virginia highways.

Invisibility and visibility were themes of this Gender Shrapnel Blog post about a year ago.  Invisibility reigns when people of color and women accomplish big things.  People of color and women gain visibility when seen as appendages to others or when they/we are criticized for stepping out of line, for calling racism and sexism what they are, for protesting centuries of injustice.  (*See this blog post that briefly discusses Colin Kaepernick’s case.)  While Gender Shrapnel has been somewhat invisible in some campus and electronic locations, the blog has been visible enough to get me in hot water.  This post and this one must not have sat well with somebody, somewhere, because I was called in to an administrator’s office for a conversation about them.  This revealed the institution’s uneasiness on some level with frank discussion of the problematic history and recent events of our institution and our area.  I worry, too, that this action was an attempt to “manage,” or control, conversations that seem too out of tightly controlled bounds.

At the same time, individuals and groups from many corners of the institution where I work seem sincerely committed to understanding legacies of slavery, racism, and white supremacism.  This heightened awareness is to be embraced, but it is not enough, and it is not intersectional enough.  As demonstrated in this NPR piece of 2014, the institution already knew it had work to do three years ago, and we/it has a long way to go.  The formation of a commission to examine all the issues proves an excellent step, but we have to be careful not to give with one hand and take away with ten.  Citing Robert E. Lee at big events, celebrating alumni who use traditional women’s garb and Confederate flags as “just a joke,” and reinforcing millennia-old gender scripts through published materials detract from the good work and good words being done elsewhere.

Who’s Sorry?

Over the past ten days, I have had lots of exposure to airline companies of the United States.  As a person with a ticket to ride was being dragged off a United flight, I was trying to make it to Portland, where I would see old friends, give a talk, and meet colleagues whose work I admire.  I never made it to Portland.

On Wednesday, we were boarded onto the plane, only to sit on the runway for just under two hours and then be told that the flight was cancelled (no refunds for paid-for checked bags).  I was rebooked for the same flight the following day.  At 10:00 that night, however, I received a text telling me that the next day’s flight would also be cancelled and that I would receive notice of rebooking.  That notice never came, so I spent just over four hours on Thursday trying to get booked on a flight for Friday.  Once I had that flight, whew, I could rest easy, despite having had to juggle plans several times already.  When I arrived at the airport on Friday, the flight was delayed.  I would therefore miss the connecting flight and was told there was not one seat on any plane of any airline available to get me to Portland.

Who was sorry?  Every person I dealt with at ticket counters was a young, African-American woman.  To a person, they were knowledgeable, patient, and unfailingly polite.  They had to express to each new disappointed, frustrated, or angry customer that they were very sorry and were doing the best they could under the circumstances.  I started to think about how airlines operate.

We have all seen passengers lose their calm, become visibly agitated, raise their voices, and even threaten gate agents. The bigwigs (CEOs) are men (only 5% of all CEOs of all airlines in the world are women; none of these airlines are in the United States).  The pilots are usually men and usually white (see 2011 statistics from CNN here; this 2016 CBS piece reports that 6.5% of U.S. pilots are women).  The flight attendants and gate agents are usually women (in 2014, 75.8% of flight attendants in the United States were women; I haven’t yet found data on gate agents).  Men get to hide from the problems of the airlines, while their lesser-paid and more visible counterparts, predominantly women, are on the front lines.  When things go wrong—major weather systems, mechanical failures, absent flight crews–, passengers are often the last to know, and the visible front-line people are the first to have to apologize for natural occurrences and administrative mistakes that are not their fault.  In sum, the United States airline industry puts its men in the cockpit and its women in a “pink ghetto” (1983 term coined by Stallard, Ehrenreich, and Sklar and cited in this 2010 Washington Post article; historical background available here) of apology politics.

Last week Elle (even the beauty mags are getting more feminist in our current climate) featured an article by Sady Doyle titled “Women Don’t Need to Apologize Less—Men Need to Learn How to Apologize” (4-13-17).  In the article, Doyle cites research that confirms that women apologize more than men, but also expresses frustration that this is often erroneously attributed to women’s low levels of self-confidence.  She stresses that the research signals that “the disparity arises not from the fact that women are socialized to apologize ‘too often,’ but from the fact that men are not socialized to apologize at all.”  Doyle then underscores how problematic this is when a Sean Spicer needs to apologize for deeply misinformed and insanely insensitive comments about Hitler and chemical weapons and doesn’t know how to.  A life of privilege is a life of not having to say you’re sorry.  Doyle sums up Spicer’s “manpology” problem in this way:  “Sean Spicer has spent hours of his life flagrantly not apologizing for something he has clearly gotten wrong.”  The airline miscommunications I experienced ten days ago were the result of too many higher-ups exploiting too many lower-downs—their own employees and their customers.

This apology differential works in physical space as well.  You recall that I was desperately trying to get on a flight ten days ago.  When I did finally get on a flight (not to my original destination), I sat in the middle seat with men about twenty years younger on either side of me.  They were generally nice, and we shared mints and pleasantries.  Nevertheless, each assumed that the armrest was his, one constantly jabbed me in the side with his elbow, and the other rested his bare foot on my seat tray.  No apologies, no “excuse me’s,” no recognition that this shared space should be truly shared.  Meanwhile, two inches over, in the aisle, the flight attendants were moving heavy carts through tiny spaces, saying all the while, “Excuse me.  Sorry.  Watch your elbows.  Careful with your shoulders.  Please move your feet.  Excuse me.”

I offer one final example of the uneven apology culture.  A colleague of mine stated last year that she was told her e-mails were too long, “just like most women’s.”  She decided to limit her e-mails to three lines so that they would be edited for appropriate brevity and could be read more like the e-mails of male colleagues.  In a sense, her self-editing was an apology for an e-mail style she had obviously developed over decades.  I have always found this person’s e-mails to be clear, thorough, and polite, and, therefore, to not need much follow-up.  To me, this approach requires no apology.  In fact, it’s a solid way to get the job done.

Homework assignment:  Figure out how much “I’m sorry” has to do with civility impositions.