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.

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 it 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.