Impatience is a Virtue

When our children were small, I always used to say, “Days are long, but time flies.”  When I teach about cultural differences, we discuss how people in a new culture adjust to the schedule (when you eat, sleep, work, and play).  As I think about social and political change, I watch people experiencing time in different ways.  For example, since the events of Charlottesville, more white people are “woke,” but I don’t think many more white people are moving more quickly to upend racist institutions.  They’re/We’re absorbing the images of what we saw and examining the undeniable and unfair realities for African American people across the United States. We do need to keep absorbing and examining, but we also need to act.  Charlottesville opened Pandora’s box, and we have been stung by the moths of turmoil and death.  Instead of slamming the lid shut, we can deal with the evils, make reparations, and create new signs and symbols that represent us and don’t oppress. It is time to make some progress.  In the case of racial justice, and social justice more broadly writ, impatience is a virtue, or, at the very least, a necessary bedfellow of patience.

Over the past week or so the English department at my university has come under fire for making what seems to many a bold statement about the events of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia and how they are related to what we live here in Lexington. (*See this August 20, 2017, Gender Shrapnel Blog piece, “Charlottesville (and Lexington),” for more information.) Several other departments and programs are drafting statements, a challenging task for groups of people who don’t always share core values or modes of expression.  Washington and Lee Rhodes Scholar Paqui Toscano (Class of 2017) had two thoughtful and beautifully-written op-eds (on disability and on Confederate legacies) published this summer in The New York Times.  Some universities would feature this front and center on the website, maybe with a headline like: “Recent Grad and Rhodes Scholar featured again in The New York Times.”  I understand the politics of patience in the university’s choice not to publish a piece that accelerates questioning of names and monuments.  Nevertheless, I wish the choice were to share this piece–to announce and embrace that our graduates are successful critical thinkers and public intellectuals.

The backlash against the English Department statement and the hush-hush of the op-ed remind me again of what I always say about a racist or sexist status quo—that some people believe that challenging the status quo is more brutal than the racism or sexism itself.  How are we so easily shocked by mild protest based in historical fact?

This week a group of people at the University of Virginia put a shroud over a statue of Thomas Jefferson.  University President Teresa Sullivan expressed strong disagreement with the covering of the statue and the signs that called Jefferson a racist and rapist.  She reiterated that the University has acknowledged its slave-owning past and is working towards healing the wounds of the August 11th weekend.  Virginia Republican Party Chairman John Whitbeck referred to the actions (in the same piece from The Washington Post) as “vandalism.”  The actions of the student protesters, as far as I can tell from the reports and photos I’ve seen, don’t seem to constitute vandalism in that the statue itself was neither destroyed nor defaced.  In fact, this kind of symbolic protest (a shroud, some signs) seems about as respectful as it can be, unless we are still not supposed to acknowledge either racism or rape.  The over-protection of Jefferson’s image seems to imply an under-protection of those who have suffered from his legacy.

Years ago, a colleague and friend said to me, “The best way for an administrator to slow something down is to create a committee.” With a hot-button topic, like, say, Confederate monuments and celebrated Confederate generals, or, maybe, sexual assault, a committee can be appointed to study the topic and issue a report a year or so down the line.  Many constituencies are then convinced the issue is being addressed, and then high-level folks can convince big-money folks that nothing has changed, that the status quo can still be embraced, and that the coffers are still open.  I believe that these committees can do good work and actually do good work, and I appreciate the generosity of time and expertise of committee members.  I appreciate the generosity of time and money of philanthropists as well.  But I also believe that the work of these committees should be accompanied by shorter-term actions that ask difficult questions and seek necessary change sooner.  My own impatience has me ask—what are we waiting for?  The time to stop celebrating structural racism and idolizing Confederate heroes is…now!

We all live and experience both ambiguity and hypocrisy.  This is part of being human.  When we don’t recognize these experiences, however, we diminish our ability to assess our condition and change it for the better.  In my current state of hypocrisy, I occupy a newly renovated office which is quite palatial.  The office is in the last building of Washington and Lee’s historic colonnade to be renovated, and this renovation was funded in large part by a billionaire who, at a Wall Street fraternity induction event several years ago, dressed in drag (a fine thing to do, generally, but in this case the action seems to mock women and of course signals the small number of women at the exclusive fraternity event) and wore a Confederate flag on his head.  I don’t know this person, but I cannot condone or celebrate these actions, nor do I think they are counteracted very well by major philanthropy or good intentions in other arenas.  If I were to don a Confederate flag and then go teach a class, I might expect people to condemn my action.  If the individual or the University had ever explained or apologized for the message sent by this person’s actions, I wouldn’t feel as impatient as I do today.  I confront this hypocrisy (criticizing the actions of the person who paid for the fancy office I inhabit) here in this blog, usually read by no more than 350 people in a week.  I wish we as individuals and as parts of institutions could name the hypocrisies we live, critique them more soundly, and work to overcome them.  Ardent defense of these actions has a chilling effect for those who prefer that African Americans not be threatened and women not be mocked.

My frequent use of passive voice in this post reveals some of my own cowardice.  I may well be hiding behind language so as not to call people out directly or simply to protect myself.  Confronting specific events and people and asking for change challenge us.  While many people will read this post and find it too harsh, others will read it and find it too forgiving. Despite the different ways in which we measure time and societal change, I’m still advocating for picking up our pace. Last night I attended Dr. Wornie Reed’s excellent presentation on race, racism, and civil discourse.  Reed strongly stated that racial justice must come from gathering data about the policies, practices, and procedures of our institutions, confronting the data, and recommending change based on the information.  Dr. Reed specifically mentioned employment, medical care, housing, and law enforcement as institutional zones that need our attention.  Although I don’t collect data for a living, I try to understand published data that inform policy decisions.  As a humanist, I listen to language and observe signs and symbols in order to interpret messages and understand how, when, and why they are sent.  The language, signs, and symbols are my version of data, and we need to understand them as well to make informed recommendations for change.

Charlottesville (and Lexington)

(Photographs of “flaggers” in Lexington, Virginia)

If the events in Charlottesville did nothing else, they made clear to multitudes of people who somehow weren’t yet sure that, since the nation’s inception, we in the United States have created and sustained in overt and covert ways profound systems of oppression—especially of black and brown individuals and communities and Jewish peoples.

The flood of articles, interviews, longer magazine pieces, and more informal posts on social media take our nation, and especially and appropriately white people, to task for ignoring realities and/or taking no action in the face of awareness, and they reveal the many gulfs of levels of belief and understanding between and among us.  Sherman Alexie’s poem “Hymn” speaks beautifully to the sadness and complexities of our current moment; “Renegade Mama” reminds white women that “This is definitely us” (meaning we are complicit in the system of oppression); Ijeoma Oluo’s piece on The Establishment gives practical advice on battling white supremacy; the UVa Graduate Student Coalition published “The Charlottesville Syllabus” to teach us about “the long history of white supremacy in Charlottesville, Va.”; presidents of academic organizations and universities and mayors, congresspeople, and governors have made statements about Charlottesville to condemn white supremacists and their umbrella groups.  This video clip of Toni Morrison on the Charlie Rose Show in 1993 has also recently made the rounds on social media.  Of course, we all know that our oppressor-in-chief was prepared from the very start of his term (and seemingly throughout his life) to support white supremacist groups.

I am a white woman who still has a lot to learn about the history of monuments, the rise of white supremacist groups, and the daily dangers, obstacles, and challenges in the life of people of color living in the United States.  I am writing about Charlottesville this week because I cannot think or write about anything else (except for the additional tragedy of the events in Barcelona and Cambrils), nor can I sleep, nor can I feel safe for friends, oppressed communities, or my own family.  In this blog post I’m going to provide cultural context to my own living situation and then list briefly the major issues that I have seen underscored in the week since white domestic terrorists armed themselves to the teeth, marched triumphantly through various areas of Charlottesville, chanted vile words against African Americans, Jewish people, women, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and killed peaceful activist Heather Heyer and injured many more.

I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, where I always wondered at the lack of nuance in official discussions about Thomas Jefferson and at the banal insistence on putting a Jefferson quote on every building stone and t-shirt.  For 20 years I have lived in Lexington, Virginia, home to Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University.  Lexington continues to confront its own problematic history of slavery, the Civil War, complicity with Jim Crow laws and culture, civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 60s, and present-day conflicts about what the city does or can represent.  This week there has been discussion here among knowledgeable and generous people of generating a “Lexington Syllabus” to make more transparent the conflicted history of white supremacy in this town.

VMI was founded in 1839.  Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson taught at VMI and is kept alive in the town through the following: his statue at VMI; his gigantic tomb, flanked by those of other Confederate soldiers, at the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery; the Stonewall Jackson House; the Stonewall Jackson Hospital (where my two children were born); Stonewall Street; Jackson Street; even Jackson’s horse, Sorrel, is stuffed and housed at the VMI Museum.

Washington and Lee University was founded in 1749.  As you can tell by the name, the university was named for its founders, two of the most famous generals (the “Generals” are also the mascot of the university) of United States History.  As president of the school from 1865-70, Robert E. Lee lived on the university campus.  “Lee House” is the name of the presidential residence at W&L.  The university’s chapel is Lee Chapel, in the basement of which you can find the crypt of Lee and several family members.  Even his horse, Traveller, is buried right outside the chapel.  A famous statue of Lee literally occupies center stage in Lee Chapel.  This statue is called “Recumbent Lee,” but I usually call it “Incumbent Lee,” because it feels as if he’s always about to return to the university presidency.  Besides W&L’s numerous reminders of Lee, the town of Lexington boasts the RE Lee Episcopal Church, the Robert E. Lee Hotel and Lee Street.

The university has celebrated Lee as just another one of its presidents.  In 2006, the incoming president of W&L said this about Lee: “Then of course, there is Robert E. Lee, assuming the leadership of Washington College after the Civil War. Offered numerous other opportunities, Lee chose a college presidency because it was the only option that allowed him to help bind the wounds of a divided nation. If the United States was to recover from the devastation and moral wounds of the Civil War, the healing had to begin with education. We build upon the legacy of Lee, the educator, with an ongoing commitment to educating citizens and leaders for a complex world.” (Here is a piece that president wrote almost six years later, more nuanced, but still adopting a rehabilitative view of Lee.)  Ultimately, though, this president did take down the Confederate flags that were displayed on the W&L campus.  If I recall correctly, the university (where I teach) has also sponsored exhibitions and workshops of “Lee the Educator.”  When I interviewed at W&L on a January Monday, the university was celebrating “Founders’ Day” (Washington and Lee), while the rest of the nation celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

In the Gender Shrapnel Blog, I’ve written on several occasions about the oppressive nature of civility codes and the problematic silencing of so-called identity politics.  I suspect that this week’s post will be unpopular among some groups of my town and university, but I also think we must face the hypocrisies we continue to foment as we fear airing the dirty laundry of our past and present.  Four years ago, W&L rightly determined that it would publicly reckon with the institution’s slave-owning past.  To do so, the institution placed an historical marker on the side of Robinson Hall on the university’s historic Colonnade to show that donor John Robinson had been the owner of 84 enslaved people and to name those 84 individuals.  This marker was visible from my office window, and I was glad to see even the smallest nod towards understanding that W&L had benefited from the ownership and labor of enslaved peoples.  At the same time, renovation of the entire Colonnade was nearing its end, supported in large part by a big donation from W&L alumnus and former trustee Warren Stephens.  Stephens has been listed as part of the Wall Street fraternity not-so-slyly named Kappa Beta Phi.  In a 2014 article in New York Magazine, Kevin Roose recounts his infiltration of the group’s big annual event, which featured Stephens and his “fraternity brothers” doing skits.  Roose writes, “Warren Stephens, an investment banking CEO, took the stage in a Confederate flag hat and sang a song about the financial crisis, set to the tune of “Dixie.” (“In Wall Street land we’ll take our stand, said Morgan and Goldman. But first we better get some loans, so quick, get to the Fed, man.”).”  This link from the Arkansas Times used to contain a link to the audio of the performance.  As I recall, the New York Magazine piece originally included video coverage of the event, but that has also been removed.  This Salon piece comments on Stephens’ link to the Confederate flag, and extrapolates to a discussion of Wall Street’s ties with the Confederacy.

While the historical marker for 84 enslaved people is found to the side of one of the buildings on W&L’s historic Colonnade, Warren Stephens is honored with not one, but two, rectangular stones, placed right on the Colonnade itself—one at either end of the brick-lined walk.  Stephens frames the Colonnade, and W&L’s enslaved peoples are tucked to the side.  There is still much work to do in terms of the semiotics of remembrance, reckoning, and reconciliation.

One of the Lexington citizens who led the way to make illegal displays of the Confederate flag in public spaces used to own the house I live in.  Groups of “flaggers” still drive by our house every year throughout Martin Luther King Day Weekend and, on occasion, they hop out of their cars, 30-40 women, men, and children abreast, line up by the curb in the front of our house, wave their Confederate flags, and sing “Dixie.”  (See photos of this, above.) They also remark at the “Latinos for Obama,” “End Crooked Districts,” “Safe Space,” and “Take Back the House” bumper stickers on our 21-year-old car.  These are the days we don’t allow our children to walk home from school or go outside without us.

Three days ago, as the town worried about increased activity and potential for violence, especially given the events in Charlottesville, the U.S. “president’s” continued support of white supremacist groups, and our proximity to Charlottesville, I heard myself say to my daughter, “The flaggers are out.  Please be careful after school.”  After I said this, I realized how normal such a statement had become and thought about how that statement must feel more acute and necessary in homes of black and brown residents of our town.

This week my mind has done daily roundtrips between Charlottesville and Lexington.  The major issues that keep popping up include (but are by no means limited to):

-Real violence and real threats of violence being enacted by white domestic terrorists on communities of color and their allies;

-White House cultivation and support of these groups, including Neo-Nazis, Neo-Confederates, and the KKK;

-Discussion of white supremacy, systems of oppression, our nation’s history as the present, and the need for greater awareness and action, especially on the part of white people;

-Awareness of increased tensions for Jewish peoples and women as well;

-The clash between the 1st and 2nd Amendments; how to protect free speech and the right to assembly when weapons of war are used against us;

-Monuments and memorials (See Barton Myers’ interview in the Los Angeles Times);

-Complicated conversations among people on the left, revealing some intersectional and generational splits, or rifts; a recognition of the need for more education, dialogue, and action on the issue of white supremacy.

Our “president” is both a symptom of and a catalyst for oppressive systems that have been in place here in this nation for centuries.  His “vice president” can’t be much better.  Therefore, even an accelerated change in the leadership of the White House to an entirely different administration won’t reduce or eliminate white supremacy.  We citizens have to do it, and we’ll need to do so with a multi-pronged approach.  This should include firmness about the terms we use, the legal implications of the 2nd Amendment and the powerful NRA lobby, the monuments we remove, and the hours we devote.  We also need a heightened understanding of the politics and ethos of non-violent protest.  And we need to show up. The resources are out there.  It’s time to read, learn, and act.

Stag-Nation

Here is just a smattering of recent battering headlines:

“The Rise, Then Shame, of Baylor Nation” (The New York Times, 3-9-17)

“Sexual harassment:  Records show how University of California faculty target students” (The Guardian, 3-8-17)

“Inquiry Opens into How a Network of Marines Shared Illicit Images of Female Peers” (The New York Times, 3-6-17)

“Why So Few Women in State Politics?” (The New York Times, 2-25-17)

“Donald Trump remains silent as white men continue to terrorize America” (New York Daily News, 2-17-17)

“How a Fractious Women’s Movement Came to Lead the Left” (The New York Times, 2-7-17)

“Report that Trump Wants Female Staff to “dress like women” Sparks Movement on Social Media” (The New York Times Live, 2-3-17; reported by MSN here)

“The Trump Administration’s Dark View of Immigrants” (The New Yorker, 2-2-17)

These are national headlines that clearly speak to the white supremacist heteropatriarchy in charge of our nation.  I usually soft-pedal my language a little more, avoiding such charged terms as “white supremacist heteropatriarchy,” but let’s call things as we see them.  The photo above, from Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal,” speaks more than a thousand words.  The “president” has effectively created a boys’ club (almost all white) of men between the ages of 55 and 80.  He has sent the message that all people who aren’t part of this group are unworthy.  We know, though, that this group only survives through its attempt to appear strong by making others weak.  Groups like these are doomed to fail.

In the meantime, I wish I could say that the United States were just stagnating.  The unfortunate fact, however, is that we are moving rapidly backwards.  The world can see it, we know it, and only the little Trump pumpkins continue to prop up our stupid dictator.  *Check out Mexican surrealist painter Antonio Ruiz’s painting “El líder/orador” to understand this reference to the people I would like to officially dub the “trumpkins.”  Take note, too, that Ruiz painted “El orador” in 1939, a significant year in dictator history.

(http://www.artnet.com/artists/antonio-ruiz/past-auction-results)

There is no room to breathe now as we play defense on behalf of the First Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX, and the Affordable Care Act.  At the same time, we are reasserting what we thought were core values, such as welcoming individuals and groups from other nations, understanding that often it is better to keep families together, rather than wrench them apart, body autonomy, and loving our neighbors.  As the stags run (and ruin) our nation, they eliminate from their path anyone and everyone who is unlike them.  Those who are unlike them is a large and ever-growing subset of people.

Nevertheless, high-level business people know that well-run organizations encourage expression of divergent opinions and the cultivation of healthy debate.  These elements keep the organizations on their proverbial toes—innovative, collaborative, comprehensive.  (See Section III of Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace for data and practical solutions on this issue.)  Isn’t democracy at its very core the idea that the people—in all of our differences and commonalities—will learn about the issues, educate others to be part of a well-informed citizenry, debate wholeheartedly, and then make decisions together about the best courses of action for all?

The national examples of stag-nation that I’ve provided here are replicated at the state and local levels.  In my state, Bob Goodlatte for decades has honed a dictatorial machine fed by national, white, male supremacist machinations.  (See previous posts in the Gender Shrapnel blog for examples of Goodlatte’s scary-ass brand of government.  Also check out Chris Gavaler’s Dear Bob Blog and Gene Zitver’s Goodlatte Watch.)  At the regional level, Ben Cline has consistently supported policies that are dangerous to all women.  (See last week’s blog post for more information.)

At the University of Virginia, where women comprise 56% of the student population, less than 30% of the presidential search committee is comprised of women, with two of those women being students.  In daily life, I watch my children perform in concert after concert whose playlist includes only male composers (some of whom, at least, are of color).  They participate on an official school academic team, for whose competitions they are asked questions primarily about Western civilization up to the year 1800 (i.e. not many women included, unless they are mythological figures or real-life muses).  They play on sports teams for which the girls teams are still playing in the smaller gyms or swimming in the shallower lanes.  They learn at school that transgender people will be forced into a bathroom not of their choosing.  In other words, we as a culture are not even moving forward on the smallest of everyday issues that affect us all (or many of us, at least).  We are seeing and experiencing how draconian governmental restrictions are severely limiting self- and group-definition and freedoms at the national, regional, and local levels.  This will affect our culture for decades to come.

What are Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Bob Goodlatte, and Ben Cline so afraid of? Why must we who live in this country cater to their bizarre fears?  If they’re afraid of nothing and simply want unquestioned power, then why are we letting them have it?  We need fewer trumpkins and more resistance.  After “Willly Wonka”’s Veruca Salt, we need more resistance, and we need it NOW.