I started this blog in part because the air around me was too thick with gaslighting. Because I needed to tell the story of what was happening at UWS and in the UW system not just to the world outside, but to myself. Because I needed to write down and tell so many stories. Writing makes things clearer and makes them make sense. When I don’t have the time to write I start to feel the walls close in and everything feels too quiet here. Up starts to feel like down. I hope I can be back to writing the world into sense again soon.
Pink Ribbons, Inc.
Pairs well with: organic foods, soil-testing kit, and solitary activities once you become unpopular for wanting to make space for the truth and criticizing “Pinktober”
This is another documentary based on a book, an academic text by Samantha King who also appears in the documentary. The film covers the problems with reducing fighting breast cancer to buying stuff with pink ribbons on it and includes many of the problems people have with the Komen foundation. More interesting, however, the film is a powerful discussion of the ways that relentlessly positive thinking is really harmful to people. It shows persuasively that when we focus on positive thinking, we center quick and easy solutions and end up missing real solutions, which are harder and take more time. We do not think about what causes cancer (e.g., living near oil refineries), and how more people are getting it. Instead we focus on finding it early on as if it were an inevitable fact.
Most strikingly the film includes interviews with women dying of breast cancer who discuss how there is no room for them or their experiences in a “movement” which only wants to hear happy stories and see pink objects. Where can one process the experience of dying from a horrible disease if people only want to hear about happy things? How can this be a “good” way of dealing with a disease if there is no room for the people actually experiencing its effects in an authentic way?
A great film for understanding how focusing only on the positive can literally harm the people around you.
I did not plan to be a college professor when I entered my PhD program in sociology. I was interested in more directly community engaged work and writing. I fell in love with teaching during my fieldwork at a movement run high school for adults in Buenos Aires, where I co-taught social sciences in a classroom populated primarily by young women who lived in the neighboring shantytown. But even so, I was highly suspicious that this experience could be replicated inside of a bureaucratic institution of higher education in any meaningful way.
It was only toward the end of my tenure as a graduate student when I saw one particular job listing that I decided to look for jobs teaching at the university level. The job was at the University of Michigan-Flint, a regional comprehensive university where my mom had graduated when I was a kid.
Looking at the posting brought back a flood of memories of attending classes the few times she didn’t have childcare, and had to take me to classes with her. These days are burned into my memory, because the visual inspection, behavior talk, and overall prep was intense! I must have been in about second grade, and I can remember my mom talking me into wearing my best clothes by telling me this is what all the “college girls” would be wearing. I know I was much more dressed up than I usually got just to go to my own school. Now I can see that my mom was worried about being embarrassed by having me or us look too poor, since having to bring your kid to class is already a bad way to stick out at college. Once I can remember getting a new toy doll just in order to go to class to be sure that I wouldn’t become restless during the lecture. Although I was generally a pretty good kid, I still remember the very serious talk I got before going to those classes about how essential it was that I be absolutely good.
I have told this story to more than one student at UWS, because I wanted these students to feel welcome in my classes and on our campus. And I always tell them their kids are welcome in my classes, because I know they will behave. After all, I know exactly the serious talk they got before coming to the class. I have wanted to be part of expanding these students’ access to education, their access to big ideas, and part of expanding their world. My mom’s life circumstance forced her to leave high school but her child is a college professor, in no small part because of my exposure to the importance of College, capital C, through her and her persistence in completing it.
I didn’t get the job at U of M-Flint, but after I saw that listing I knew that I wanted to teach students like my mom. Not just students with kids, but nontraditional students; students who never thought they’d find themselves in a university for a variety of reasons including race and social class; students who are afraid that if something goes wrong, someone will figure this out, and they won’t be let back in. UW-Superior has provided a tremendous environment for doing this, because it is open enrollment, has small class sizes, has a public liberal arts college mission, and my department is very supportive of deeper methods of teaching and learning. All of this is unsustainable with the loss of any faculty voice in the running of the campus, the partnership with for-profit companies who will put pressure on the campus to develop easier curricula for faster degrees regardless of what is being learned (if they haven’t already started), and the elimination of nearly all the liberal arts disciplines on campus. There is no longer any institutional support for these experiences.
I have been able to be a part of amazing transformations in my few short years at UWS that are considered impossible in most educational environments, and I will be grateful for that experience. But I will mourn the tremendous loss for all of us in the region at the abandonment of that mission, and I will not participate in the charade that it has not been abandoned. This is no longer the UWS where I hoped to spend the next twenty five years teaching.
Last fall my university made the very sudden announcement to close the sociology program as well 24 others. Part of this experience as a faculty member is being told that it’s our fault, constantly. We are implicitly and explicitly blamed for not doing enough before this point. Chancellor Wachter has said over and over again that the “students voted with their feet,” which is just a way of saying if I/we had been offering worthwhile classes, I/we wouldn’t be in this situation (among other problematic implications of this phrase she loves so much). And yet here I am, literally awake at night, either still thinking (uselessly) about what I could do to try to stop these cuts from happening, or about what I could do make our program better, or about how I could recruit more students. The other night I lied in bed with a new idea for bringing back successful graduates (which is most) to meet our current students. I had pretty much fully developed the idea before I realized the entire thing is moot. There is no sociology program to recruit anybody in to. There is no reason to ease anybody’s fears about majoring or even minoring in sociology. In fact, perhaps students have good reason to be afraid of these majors and minors. Perhaps they should be afraid the administration will eliminate them, or the faculty time and resources need to sustain them. Working to recruit more students at this point would just be more time I’d spent on something that wouldn’t be valued, and if successful, I’m afraid it would ultimately place more students in the path of destruction.
But thinking about such solutions has become almost like a reflex for me, so that even six months later it’s still hard to stop. So I still haven’t been able to stop. And I don’t know when I will be able to, because ultimately I love(d) what I do. And I wasn’t coming up with ideas to recruit students to the major just to satisfy some bureaucrat or looking for ways to assuage student fears about what it would mean to major in sociology to bolster our numbers, but I was doing it because I wanted to teach. Because I thought that majoring in sociology would actually be meaningful for students, and because I know our graduates are actually out in the world happy with their work and I’d love to see more people doing that. It’s hard for me to turn that off, because it’s hard to accept the destruction of that possibility.
I see the same difficulty turning this impulse off in my colleagues too. We keep trying to do our jobs as if the old things mattered, although we have been pretty much told over and over again by our bosses that none of what we do matters, or at least not a lot of it. But old habits die hard, and it’s precisely because we believed passionately in those old habits. Because we weren’t and still aren’t the people we’re accused of being. And that’s one of the most painful bits. We’re accused of being these lazy arrogant out of touch people who don’t care at all for our students by people who actually seem to be all of those things.
I’m left with a few hanging sociological questions for another day about the myth of the lazy professor: Who does the myth connect with? Who believes it? Anyone? Our students’ parents? Do the administrators and politicians who deploy it, or is it used totally cynically? (I don’t think the administrators believe it; I suspect they know it’s untrue and that’s why it will offend us so much.) Why does it hurt me so much if I’m not sure who believes it?
I am angry. In fact, I am really fucking angry. And one of the things that continually fuels my anger is the way that anger is a prohibited emotion. Socially unacceptable. I feel that each time I am openly angry, people around me wait quietly for me to finish my tirade. Or worse, try to calm me by telling me to see things another way, or to try to have sympathy for the other person or something like that. All of this sends me the message over and over, constantly, that being angry about the world is not OK.
But Black people are being murdered in the streets by police in the United States.
But I am a queer person who has lived my entire life in the closet because I wasn’t sure what else to do because heterosexuality is still that normative.
But femicide is still the norm not only through Latin America where the women are marching and yelling “Ni Una Menos” (not one woman less) but here in the US too where domestic violence continues to be a raging problem and I do not believe there is a person assigned female at birth, woman, or femme who has not experienced some form of sexual assault/harassment.
But almost no one gives a real shit about poor people or understands exactly why there are still poor people who lack access to stable food, water, and housing.
But having a disability makes a person dramatically more likely to be subject to the above problems and eugenics is still our normal way of thinking about bodies with differences.
I could go on.
This world is an enraging place and it’s probably not a stretch to say that most of these problems are caused or at least perpetuated by indifference.
And without even going that far, why aren’t the whole range of human emotions permissible? Why do we want, and enforce on each other, an impoverished society where people are not allowed to express sadness and anger and joy? I don’t want to live in that sad little range of emotions either. I’m not advocating throwing a chair and breaking into sobs, necessarily but we not express verbally the way things do actually make us feel? I am at a loss for a rational argument against that.
But although I am a sociologist, and although I am a nonconformist with a lot of training in not giving many fucks what anyone thinks, it gets to you after a while when people just seem to think you are being too angry all the time. Maybe it is too exhausting. Maybe you are overreacting and getting angry at things that aren’t there. Maybe I have lost my ability to “look for the other side” as we did in the movement where I found the most meaning, and try to find community. Maybe I am alienating those I want around me.
And then I realized there is a name for this behavior, and this treatment. I am behaving like an angry feminist. I am being treated as such. How boring. How frustrating. I am scary enough that no person in my life would ever dare to literally tell me to calm down, but tacitly that’s what’s happening.
But I’ve snapped. Sara Ahmed describes this experience beautifully in Living a Feminist Life. Ahmed describes how when a feminist or a twig snaps, it can seem sudden because the pressure leading to the snap (what the twig or the feminist experiences) can’t always be observed from the outside. She writes:
“You might experience that pressure only when you are under it, rather like you encounter the wall when you come up against it. The weightiest of experiences are often those that are hardest to convey to those who do not share the experience. If a snap seems sharp or sudden, it might be because we do not experience the slower time of bearing or of holding up; the time in which we can bear the pressure, the time it has taken for things not to break. If the twig was a stronger twig, if the twig was more resilient, it would take more pressure before it snapped. … And then: violence is assumed to originate with her. A feminist politics might insist on renaming actions as reactions; we need to show how her snap is not the starting point.” (2017: 189)
This passage resonates very much with the anger I’ve experienced lately. When I express anger, it is regarded (and sometimes I am told directly) that it’s “distracting” from whatever I’m trying to explain or call attention. No one is interested any more in what lead to the anger—the pressure that lead to the snap. As if I were in perfect control, as if I were perfectly able to not be angry, as if I could avoid snapping. Can you bend a twig all the way back and then blame the twig for its lack of flexibility?
I love how her metaphor also makes me question the concept of resilience as a good thing. It doesn’t seem good to accept more pressure, to work harder to hold things together, especially when “things” are dysfunctional or especially sexist and racist institutional cultures that are harming human beings. The image that comes to mind is a woman with two feet on two different icebergs floating in different directions. She too will snap, sooner or later. Why not call attention to the problem sooner?
As feminists we know it’s important for us to have each other’s backs in a shitty heterosexist world. We have often done this by reassuring each other that we are strong and brave people. The thing is, after the year I’ve had, I’m not sure telling our friends over and over that they’re brave works the way it’s supposed to.
When you call someone brave you pretty much mean to say that they’re doing something that you’re not sure you would do in their situation. And that’s a compliment, but it also pushes that person away from you by making them different. When I spoke out openly about my experience as a stalking survivor and the incredible failures of the institutions that were supposed to protect me, it started to feel less like “brave” was about having my back and more like no one else was “brave” enough to have my back.
It started when I was doing things that did not feel like they even involved a choice, let alone courage. What I learned in surviving stalking is that even if you think you don’t want to go on, you pretty much do because there just aren’t that many other choices available. With the exception of suicidal depression (which I’m not minimizing, but I didn’t have), you will have to get out of bed sometime. I missed more days of work than ever before, but still I couldn’t just stop going altogether. I wasn’t so out of it that I couldn’t calculate those risks. I kept putting one foot in front of the other and showing up. Surviving.
My acts are not what I would characterize as “brave” necessarily. They are acts of resilience, like the acts that human beings who have survived worse things before me like intimate partner stalking, colonial wars, and daily racist police violence. Human beings are, at the end of the day, apparently pretty good at surviving some pretty terrible things, but that doesn’t make us all brave, and being called brave, when I was busy just surviving stalking, was almost like salt in the wound. Because all I felt, all the time, was fear.
I advocated, loudly, for my safety in my campus workplace. And, because I am a feminist activist, I did this in a way that I hoped would benefit future stalking victims and tried to point out how inevitable it is that this problem would happen again. I published my story with a major web outlet clarifying why I thought we needed better procedures on our campus not just for myself but for all of us, and called out my campus for their shameful disregard of the safety of my body and their refusal to “set a precedent.” I went forward with this story publicly even after I was issued an ultimatum insisting that it needed to be published anonymously or it could not be published. In each case, I was told by my friends and colleagues that my actions were very brave but in each case, I felt like I was simply doing the only right thing.
When my friends were calling me brave, it really felt like they were just letting themselves off the hook for not taking actions that were similar to mine or, worse, for not joining me in solidarity in the ways that they might have been implicated. I do not think my friends consciously meant anything negative when they told me I was brave. I think they really meant it. But what it usually means to say someone is brave is – what I heard–was, “oh wow, you have so much courage. I could never dare to do that.” What I needed to hear was: “man that situation sucks! Let me join you in this struggle.”
As a feminist method of support, bravery seems to work okay when we assign the label to ourselves. The women who wrote the groundbreaking All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave obviously got a lot out of it. There were times when I liked the idea too, but only when I decided on my own to do something that I felt was brave. When the idea of bravery backfired, it was when someone else called me brave. Like a lot of terms, there’s a big difference between applying it to yourself and having it applied to you by someone else.
The concept of bravery though is one that always sets people apart. It’s an idea that’s usually associated with extraordinary individuals. Extra-ordinary. And maybe that’s why it hurt me so much, because I was already feeling so isolated. Bravery just seemed to set me even further apart from the pack.
But there are other reasons to avoid setting people apart, even when they haven’t necessarily survived something traumatic. If we want to build social movements that will change the world, we will need groups of people, not a few extraordinary individuals. I don’t dispute that to do this work we will have to be brave, but maybe we need to stop calling each other brave. Instead we have to find ways to be brave together. The first step to doing this will mean not holding each other up on pedestals too tall to reach but alternatively trying to learn how we can better support and understand each other’s necessary and chosen risks. Here in the United States the cliché is that one person can change the world but the reality is that it takes many people to change the world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did not boycott those buses on his own. Assata Shakur didn’t break herself out of jail. Although in the course of history we’ve exalted only these single individuals, their names would mean little without the movements full of other people around them. If they had been set apart in their own time as singularly brave individuals, as merely exceptional people, we wouldn’t even know who they were today because nothing would have been accomplished.
I know by telling me how brave my actions were that my feminist friends were trying to be nice and supportive. I can see that I was moving from surviving to advocating and that people wanted to pat me on the back for that forward movement. But what I want is to change the world, and for that I need my friends to join me, not laud me. I want my acts, just like my feminist ideals, to become ordinary, not extraordinary.