The State (SC), Letters: We should reject spanking

We should reject spanking

I was disappointed with Ron Prinz’s incomplete and misleading guest column on corporal punishment (“The truth about spanking,” Sept. 26). Prinz claimed he was “getting past myths,” but there is in fact no debate about the correct use of corporal punishment.

Elizabeth T. Gershoff of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, in analysis for the American Psychological Association, has concluded: “Until researchers, clinicians, and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of corporal punishment, including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior, not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists can not responsibly recommend its use.”

Few, if any, parents are qualified to know the line between mild and harmful corporal punishment, and the research is clear that all corporal punishment is ineffective. Just as we do not justify any man hitting any woman, we should reject any adult hitting a child.

Gender Problem in Academia Tip of Iceberg

Readers often find the concluding section of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tales, titled “Historical Notes,” somewhat disjointed—if readers continue to the section at all.

While these final pages are important to helping readers understand many of the nuances of the narrative constituting most of the novel, “Historical Notes” is also a brutal satire on academia, spurred by Atwood’s own troubling experiences with graduate school that exposed to her a stunning level of patriarchy and misogyny common in universities in the early 1960s.

Nearly five decades later, Roxane Gay, novelist and author of Bad Feminist, details her own experiences of being marginalized, of feeling as the Other in higher education, first as a graduate student, like Atwood:

At both my master’s and doctoral institutions, I was the only black student. Any success I achieved only spurred me to work harder and harder so I might outrun whispers of affirmative action and the arrogant assumptions that I could not possibly belong in those institutions of supposedly higher learning.

Like many students of color, I spent a frustrating amount of time educating white people, my professors included, about their ignorance, or gritting my teeth when I did not have the energy. When race entered class discussions, all eyes turned to me as the expert on blackness or the designated spokesperson for my people. When racist “jokes” were made, I was supposed to either grin and bear it or turn the awkward incident into a teachable moment about difference, tolerance, and humor. When a doctoral classmate, who didn’t realize I was in hearing range, told a group of our peers I was clearly the affirmative-action student, I had to pretend I felt nothing when no one contradicted her. Unfortunately, these anecdotes are dreadfully common, banal even, for people of color. Lest you think this is ancient history, I graduated with my Ph.D. in December 2010.

And then as faculty:

Today, I teach at Purdue University, where in the semester I write this, I have no students in either of my classes who look like me. I have yet to see another black faculty member in the halls of my building, though I know some exist. I previously taught at Eastern Illinois University, where, in my department, I was one of two black faculty members, one of only five faculty of color in all. The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is the price of exceptionalism—you will always be the only one or one of a few. There are no safe harbors. There are no reflections of your experience.

While Gay highlights racial inequity and Atwood has confronted gender inequity, these experiences reflect systemic failures in higher education—ones that impact those of us who come from working class backgrounds as well.

So when I read Curt Rice’s Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried, I had multiple response to his opening claim:

Young women scientists leave academia in far greater numbers than men for three reasons. During their time as PhD candidates, large numbers of women conclude that (i) the characteristics of academic careers are unappealing, (ii) the impediments they will encounter are disproportionate, and (iii) the sacrifices they will have to make are great.

First, since my own university is currently conducting a gender equity study spurred in part because a disproportionate number of women faculty have left over the last few years, I strongly agree with the premise that women faculty are justifiably rejecting higher education, notably for the three points identified by Rice

Further, however, the recognition of the gender problem and then the likely responses to that problem both remind me of the recent thirty-year cycle of public school reform.

In both contexts, the problem is misidentified and then the solutions remain trapped within marginal policy tinkering.

Education reform, for example, has focused mostly on the achievement gap (occasionally acknowledging the relationship between poverty and measurable academic achievement, but primarily in order to note poverty is not an excuse) and then has addressed that problem by a recurring cycle of the same types of reform—accountability based on new standards and new high-stakes tests.

That process fails because the core problem, poverty, is marginalized by both how the problem is defined and what steps are taken as solutions; the process ultimately fails because we refuse to identify systemic problems and refuse to offer systemic solutions directly confronting those weaknesses.

This, of course, is the same critique I have of now (belatedly) recognizing the gender problem (or race problem, or class problem) in academia and the likely response: how do we hire more women, how do we insure equitable pay and promotion for women, etc.

Now to be clear, those policy issues must be addressed, but I suspect when and if they are, the consequence will be that systemic problems in academia will be left untouched.

As a tenured white and male faculty member now submitting my dossier for full professorship, I recognize that academia is too often a glorified fraternity, steeped in secrecy and academic hazing.

The structures remain hierarchical, the policies continue to be cryptic, and the entire process for hiring, evaluation, tenure, and promotion appear capricious—and often are capricious—despite there being very formalized steps, mountains of paperwork (literally paper), and arcane systems of titles, committees, and traditional norms of scholarship.

As just one example, high education functions under an unwritten (although often expressed in veiled ways) “know your place” policy aimed at junior faculty. For people who already live in marginalized situations due to gender, race, or class, this dynamic is especially corrosive.

It is not surprising that women are rejecting the Social Darwinism and hierarchical silencing in academia; what is surprising is that not everyone is rejecting these norms.

Just as education reform is committed to a flawed hope that reforming schools will eradicate crippling inequity, poverty, racism, and sexism in the U.S., addressing gender inequity in academia will too fail if we see the solutions as only policy reform—if we point to more women hired, higher salaries and more promotions for female faculty without taking any real steps to dismantle and then rebuild an enlightened and equitable academy.

Again, as with education reform, let’s address inequity at the policy level in academia—inequity related to gender, race, class, and any marginalized status—but let’s also not allow those reforms to replace the greater need to confront the systemic failures of academia that manifest themselves as gender, race, and class inequities.

Atwood’s novel ends with a keynote speech by Professor James Darcy Pieixoto of Cambridge University. His final words are grand, and empty in the way scholars often are: “As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes,” for example.

But the most powerful aspect of this talk is possibly the most subtle—Pieixoto ends his talk with a question, one that rings as mere rhetoric as no one responds, no one is likely allowed to respond: “Are there any questions?”

If we are serious about gender equity, for example, in academia, we must ask women academics and scholars what the academia should look like, not simply give them raises and promotions in hopes that we have solved the problem.

We must ask, we must listen, and then we must act. Otherwise, we are saying that we really do not take gender inequity seriously (again).

 

Beyond Toilet Seat Etiquette

In her The Airplane Seat Theory of Education post, Nancy Flanagan asks:

When did we stop cherishing our small communities in favor of looking out for number one? When did we lose the idea that we have accomplished great things collaboratively, as a nation of small communities–the GI Bill, the Hoover Dam, the middle class–not as individual, high-profile wealth-producers?

Schools, too, are temporary communities, that function best when the folks involved understand the importance of consideration for our fellow humans, which leads to the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Within a week of my reading this, I was sitting at my sister-in-law’s, surrounded by my niece, daughter, wife, and sister-in-law as well as my niece’s two children while I held my granddaughter. In the flow of unrelated discussions, the women in the room had a quick but notable discussion of the age-old anger at men who leave the toilet seat up. The consensus of the women in the room was that such acts are essentially rude, an inconsiderate act that fails to recognize the basic human dignity of other people using the toilet differently.

I think it is fair to say that these women felt as if leaving the toilet seat up was a statement that suggested they simply don’t exist—a pretty awful feeling for a loved one to have.

Since then, I have found myself contemplating the toilet seat in a similar way to Flanagan’s consideration of the airplane seat, and I think her question deserves a fuller reply.

Community and collaboration, I think, are not concepts we have lost in the U.S., but ideals we have never really embraced. And the reason why lies with our essential materialistic consumerism linked to our embracing the rugged individual myth.

The problem with materialism, consumerism, and broadly ownership in Western and U.S cultures can best be revealed through toilet seat etiquette, but let’s start somewhere else—the car.

In the U.S. (and especially in the rural areas), we not only covet our cars, but also each person old enough in the family has his/her own car—and mass transit isn’t even an option. To have your own car in the U.S. is a teenage rite of passage—often a very public marker of class that further ostracizes young people.

Much the same can be said about iPods (and earbuds) or smartphones.

But the toilet is a different matter.

Even in our own homes, the toilet can and will be a communal possession—guests have access to the toilet as do all who live in a home.

Just as death and bodily functions level (and thus humanize) people despite their class, race, gender, or ideologies (we all die and we all must evacuate our bladders), the toilet challenges our individualistic sense of ownership—or at least it should.

“Ownership is an entirely human construct,” writes Barbara Kingsolver in “Making Peace” from her collection High Tide in Tucson, adding:

At some point people got along without it. Many theorists have addressed the question of how private property came about, and some have gone so far as to suggest this artificial notion has led us into a mess of trouble….[T]o own land, plants, other animals, more stuff than we need—that is the particular product of a human imagination.

In the beginning, humans were communal and social creatures. (p. 26)

I would add to Kingsolver’s excellent essay that this tipping point in which, as she explains, humans have come to see ownership “as a natural condition, right as rain” (p. 30) is the imbalance at the foundation of our loss of community, our honoring of individual ownership to the exclusion of communal property and thus eroding the very individual rights we claim to cherish.

The problem is one John Dewey, William James, and others have confronted in philosophical terms—the fabricated choice between the individual and the collective, an either/or in which the U.S. and most Westerners have lined up to support only the individual.

And thus, men lift toilet seats and leave them up as if no one else exists—especially and most damning, as if no women will need to use that particular toilet in a way different than he has.

Failure to honor basic toilet etiquette is simply callousness, selfishness, and a lack of self- as well as collective awareness. It is a very impersonal and undignified “Up yours,” offered in absentia.

As Kingsolver notes, we have abandoned collaboration for competition and championed “I” over “we” to the detriment of each of us as well as all of us.

Again, to Dewey—the individual/community dynamic is not a choice, but an inseparable and symbiotic relationship. To honor the individual, we must simultaneously honor the community, and to honor the community, we must not ignore the individual.

Thus, to recognize the toilet as mine (either literally as in “I bought it” or temporally as in “I am currently on it”) as well as always someone else’s is the toilet seat compact that would benefit all of humanity if we were to expand that premise to essentially everything. This, of course, is the argument Kurt Vonnegut offered over and over in the waning years of his life about the planet: It is in each of our selfish interests to treat the planet as if it belongs to everyone.

“Life is better,” ends Kingsolver, “since I abdicated the throne*. What a relief, to relinquish ownership of unownable things” (p. 33). And I am certain that if we could balance our sense of individual ownership with communal ownership, we would have a similar response because life would be better if we humans lived each moment with the simple compassion and awareness found in toilet seat etiquette that honors communal dignity while also challenging the patriarchy of lifted seats.

* Yes, “abdicated the throne….”

Idealizing, Misreading Impoverished and Minority Parental Choice

In his The Charter School Paradox, Walt Gardner asks: “If charter schools are guilty of all the sins described in the multi-part cover story, then why are there waiting lists across the country of mostly poor black and Hispanic parents who are desperate to get their children enrolled in these schools?” And then he concludes:

I continue to be a strong supporter of traditional public schools for reasons I’ve explained in this column and in other venues over the past two decades.  But I also support parental choice. I don’t see this as a contradiction in terms. Yes, parents often make mistakes in their decisions.  However, I maintain it is their right alone to decide what is best for their offspring. Charter schools are accused of increasing racial segregation, but that does not seem to bother poor black and Hispanic parents who want to enroll their children.  I wish The Nation had addressed this paradox in its cover story.  It’s too important to brush aside.

I recognized the role of parental choice in the larger school choice debate as well as how that element complicates both advocacy and rejecting a wide range of school choice initiatives, resulting in my writing an extended examination of the issue in Parental Choice?

Despite spending a great deal of time on school choice research and finding little to support advocacy for choice options such as tuition tax credits, public school choice, or charter schools, I too was baffled by the apparent appeal of charter schools, notably among impoverished and minority parents—particularly in the context of my own claim that “no excuses” ideologies are racist and my concurrent rejecting of paternalism. I was able to understand that tension, however, once I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, in which she confronts the same tension over mass incarceration and intensive (as well as disproportionate) policing of high-poverty minority neighborhoods.

In Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era, I reached the following conclusion:

Since market-oriented education reform is producing evidence highlighting the ineffectiveness and even negative outcomes associated with those policies, that the agendas remain robust suggests, again like mass incarceration, education reform fulfills many of the dynamics found in the New Jim Crow.

Just as mass incarceration from the war on drugs continues institutional racism once found in slavery and Jim Crow, education reform, especially the “no excuses” charter school movement, resurrects a separate but equal education system that is separate, but certainly isn’t equal. The masked racism of mass incarceration and education reform share many parallels…

This last point—that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools—presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow. [emphasis added]

For example, [Sarah] Carr reports [in her Hope Against Hope] that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons'” (p. 210).

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters—and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools—the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters.

The charter school movement, specifically the “no excuses” versions, represents a skewed choice environment; again one that does not include the qualities found in many selective and expensive private schools.

We must be careful, then, not to idealize parental choice and not to misread the choices in limited contexts of impoverished and minority parents who in fact are not being offered the sorts of choices that would likely erase their apparent support for charter schools.

Well-funded, safe, and high-quality public schools would negate the need for choice, and that should be what we are pursuing, as I have detailed before:

People in poverty deserve essential Commons—such as a police force and judicial system, a military, a highway system, a healthcare system, and universal public education—that make choice unnecessary. In short, among the essentials of a free people, choice shouldn’t be needed by anyone.

No child should have to wait for good schools while the market sorts some out, no human should have to wait for quality medical care while the market sorts some out, no African American teen gunned down in the street should have to wait for the market to sort out justice—the Commons must be the promise of the essential equity and justice that both make freedom possible and free people embrace.

The Ignored “R” Word of Education Reform: “We must be exceptional if we are to be anything at all”

Although the foundational approach to education reform has remained the same (as has the structure of and instruction in public schools) for about a century—one grounded in revising or updating in-school-only elements such as standards/curriculum, technology, and testing—the past thirty years have seen education reform increase accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing (despite that approach never working) while rushing to experiment with charter schools and value-added methods of evaluating teachers (despite neither working as well).

And thus the “R” word that has remained ignored in education reform is not “reform,” but “race”—or more directly “racism.”

Throughout our current three decades of education reform, poverty has been a significant part of the discourse and equation—often framed as “not an excuse” or misrepresented as the “achievement gap.” Poverty, then, has been allowed in the conversation, included in the policies, and identified as a significant barrier to learning, but only as something we must overcome through racketing up the same old approaches to education reform noted above.

Just as one example, every year SAT data are released, the strongest correlations with scores remain the socioeconomic status of students’ homes and the academic attainment of those students’ parents. Yet, these historic and current patterns remain for the education reformers evidence not of systemic social inequity and not evidence of failed education reform or systemic school inequity, but proof that teachers and students simply are not trying hard enough.

Education reform not only ignores inequity bred from racism, classism, and sexism, but also actively perpetuates and even increases that inequity (most significantly reflected in high-stakes standardized testing).

The political, media, and public narratives in the U.S. focus only on the individual, and in the relationship among effort, talent, and opportunity, those narratives address only effort.

We must ask: Who benefits from cultural narratives that claim success comes from effort and failure from sloth? Who benefits when those cultural narratives begin by claiming everyone has the same opportunity in the U.S., by erasing the evidence of the power of privilege and disadvantage, most often grounded in race?

Sloganism and the Racist Politics of Education Reform

The ugly answer to those questions is that white and affluent privilege benefits from these cultural narratives that are in fact false and racist.

But we aren’t allowed to utter “lie” or “racism” in polite company in the U.S.—and such decorum, of course, may have sprung from those privileged few who are the ones most likely to have their sensibility bruised by both the directness and accuracy of those claims.

In a land where “racism” is not allowed in the conversation, racism does not disappear, but remains corrosive, powerfully so; as poet Adrienne Rich notes, “what is missing, desaparecido, [is] rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.” If we cannot say it, if we cannot think it, we certainly will not act to eradicate it.

And to demand individuals simply try harder in a context where effort is not the problem, and not the solution, is a harsher and more damning racism than in those days not too far in the U.S. past where racial slurs were public, frequent, and normal. “Work hard. Be nice” is the twenty-first century masked racial slur:

Currently, the grotesque reality we have created includes shunning direct and public racist language in the same ways we deflect credible acknowledgements of racism.

Just as book censorship is an effective and masked act of racism and sexism (authors or color and female writers are disproportionately impacted, silenced), just as mass incarceration is an effective and masked act of racism (white males outnumber black males 6-1 in society while black males outnumber white males 6-1 in prison), “no excuses” education reform focused on in-school policy and driven by accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing is an effective and masked act of racism.

The primary sloganism used for effort is “grit,” and the anecdotal proof remains the Great White Male (Steve Jobs, for example)—with the exceptional outlier of color tossed in for good measure (the election of Barack Obama proves U.S. is a post-racial society, goes the claim).

Calling out racism is ignored, is shunned because the “grit” narrative and the Great White Male fall apart in the light of such calls—like a vampire reduced to dust by the risen sun.

Confronting Jonathan Chait directly in Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind, Ta-Nehisi Coates also dismantles the “grit” narrative by stating what shall not be uttered in the U.S.:

Arguing that poor black people are not “holding up their end of the bargain,” or that they are in need of moral instruction is an old and dubious tradition in America….

The “structural conditions” Chait outlines above can be summed up under the phrase “white supremacy.” I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be “independent” of white supremacy. I have not found one.

And then it is Coates’s conclusion that exposes the essential racism in education reform—demanding exceptional effort by those marginalized exclusively for their race:

There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.

Possibly an even greater refuting of the “grit” narrative—the perverse demands of more effort from “the deliberately silenced,” “the preferably unheard” in the U.S.—is The Price of Black Ambition by Roxane Gay.

Gay has been brought to the place where she is confronting her ambition as a black Haitian because she is riding a wave of success for her novel, An Untamed States, and a collection of essays, Bad Feminist. “I began to understand the shape and ferocity of my ambition when I was in kindergarten,” Gay admits, adding a haunting event:

Each student had been given a piece of paper in class, bearing an illustration of two water glasses. We were instructed to color in one-half of the illustration. I suspect we were learning about fractions. I diligently shaded in one half of one of the glasses and smugly turned my work in to the teacher. If it had been the parlance of the day, I would have thought, Nailed it. I had not, of course, “nailed it.” I was supposed to color in an entire glass. Instead of the praise I anticipated, I received an F, which, in retrospect, seems a bit harsh for kindergarten. I couldn’t bring such a grade home to my parents. I had already begun demanding excellence of myself and couldn’t face falling short.

On the bus ride home, I stuffed my shame between the dry, cracked leather of the seat and assumed the matter had been dealt with. The driver, a zealous sort, found my crumpled failure and handed it to my mother when he dropped me off the next day. She was not pleased. I was not pleased with her displeasure. I never wanted to experience that feeling again. I vowed to be better. I vowed to be the best. As a black girl in these United States—I was the daughter of Haitian immigrants—I had no choice but to work toward being the best.

Like Coates, Gay recognizes her experience is not only hers:

Many people of color living in this country can likely relate to the onset of outsized ambition at too young an age, an ambition fueled by the sense, often confirmed by ignorance, of being a second-class citizen and needing to claw your way toward equal consideration and some semblance of respect. Many people of color, like me, remember the moment that first began to shape their ambition and what that moment felt like.

Coates’s “superhuman” and Gay’s “outsized ambition” reverberate inside the walls built in the U.S. to keep such voices quiet because the truth is harsh, and ugly—as Gay explains:

I am thinking about success, ambition, and blackness and how breaking through while black is tempered by so much burden. Nothing exemplifies black success and ambition like Black History Month, a celebratory month I’ve come to dread as a time when people take an uncanny interest in sharing black-history facts with me to show how they are not racist. It’s the month where we segregate some of history’s most significant contributors into black history instead of fully integrating them into American history. Each February, we hold up civil-rights heroes and the black innovators and writers and artists who have made so much possible for this generation. We say, look at what the best of us have achieved. We conjure W. E. B. Du Bois, who once wrote, “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” We ask much of our exceptional men and women. We must be exceptional if we are to be anything at all.

While Gay as a black Haitian woman and I as a privileged white male have experienced much different lives, I can strongly identify with the allure she feels for the myth of the rugged individual:

I have come to realize how much I have, throughout my life, bought into the narrative of this alluring myth of personal responsibility and excellence. I realize how much I believe that all good things will come if I—if we—just work hard enough. This attitude leaves me always relentless, always working hard enough and then harder still. I am ashamed that sometimes a part of me believes we, as a people, will be saved by those among us who are exceptional without considering who might pay the price for such salvation or who would be left behind.

Further, in the way that we should be confronting education reform, Gay unpacks President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper, exposing the essential failure of the policy (an essential failure identified by Martin Luther King Jr. as addressing social inequity indirectly, instead of directly):

The initiative is certainly well-intentioned, but it also speaks to the idea that black Americans must make themselves more respectable in order to matter. In its initial incarnation, it also gave the impression that only boys and men matter. On its surface, My Brother’s Keeper is a program that does nothing to address the systemic and structural issues young men of color will face, no matter how well prepared or respectable or personally responsible they are.

Gay warns us about the dangers of exceptionality: “We forget that we should not only measure black progress by the most visibly successful among us, but also by those who continue to be left behind.” And then, after wrestling with the tensions created by her advantages shaded by burdens of her race and gender, Gay concludes:

I have achieved a modicum of success, but I never stop working. I never stop. I don’t even feel the flush of pleasure I once did when I achieve a new milestone. I am having a moment, but I only want more. I need more. I cannot merely be good enough because I am chased by the pernicious whispers that I might only be “good enough for a black woman.” There is the shame of sometimes believing they might be right because that’s how profound racism in this country can break any woman down. I know I am one of the lucky ones because unlike far too many people of color, I had far more than “half as much” to work with, the whole of my life. It is often unbearable to consider what half as much to work with means for those who are doing their damndest to make do. I call this ambition, but it’s something much worse because it cannot ever be satisfied.

What I Have Learned from Sports

In my introductory education course and two first year seminars this fall, I have shared Gay’s wonderful and complicated essay. That education course has begun to confront the uncomfortable facts of privilege and race, and those first year students (since I teach at a selective university which results in a student population disproportionately white and affluent) echo Gay’s experiences with ambition and guilt. Gay’s kindergarten memory reflects something quite wrong about how all children are raised in the U.S. as well as revealing the scar of racism.

With those first-year students, we confronted the public and adult messages they have been sent about effort, talent, and opportunity. That discussion was sobering.

I shared with them my own journey—again one resting on significant privilege since I am white and male, but tinged slightly by my working-class background—to rejecting the “grit” propaganda—a journey traced through my efforts to be a successful athlete.

In high school, I worked doggedly to be a good basketball player; I made very little effort in school. I was usually the last player selected on the basketball team each year (primarily because the coaches knew my father) and then rode the bench, but I made mostly As and a few Bs in my classes.

At basketball practice, I often tried harder than anyone, something noted by the coaches even. But on game day, the better athletes (some who made almost no effort in practice) played. I had been raised in a “Word hard. Be nice” household, a vestige of 1950s idealism in the U.S. But the world of sport showed me the truth: Talent trumps effort when given the opportunity.

In other words, the “grit” honoring of effort first (and even exclusively) is a warped version of the real order of things: Opportunity, talent, and then effort.

The “grit” narrative, then, and the sloganism of “Work hard. Be nice”—regardless of good intentions—are the racial slurs of our time.

To end that racism, it first must be named, and then directly, we must attend to the opportunities denied so that talent and effort can matter. And the first opportunity every child, every person deserves is the basic human dignity that is destroyed when, as Gay stated, anyone feels that “[w]e must be exceptional if we are to be anything at all.”

Road Cycling, the Little Things (Or, Are You a Fred?)

The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.
The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club!
Fight Club (1999)

For my local cycling community, I have written often about what I would call first level issues related to road cycling: holding your line, holding the wheel in front of you, proper fit and positioning on the bicycle, riding in a paceline, and recognizing when you should contribute in a paceline or stay out of the mix.

Here, however, I want to address second level issues related to road cycling, the social or aesthetic elements of the recreational sport. And those second level issues can more efficiently be covered by the simple question, Are you a Fred?

First, let me caution that parts of speech matter here, notably the article “a.” This is not about being named Fred, but being a Fred. In fact, my lessons in not being a Fred were handled classically and ironically by Fred Gobillot in the 1980s. Fred was the most not-a-Fred among our cycling group, and he would regularly drop me, only to ease back in order to pull me up to the group so he could drop me again (often berating me and questioning my humanhood; think the drill sergeant in An Officer and a Gentleman, but not as compassionate).

Next, it helps to recall those glorious days of middle or high school—or those rush weeks in college—when you either witnessed or were a part of the ugliest possible clique you can remember. Road cycling’s social dynamics are about 300% worse than that.

Road cycling is about bodily fluids—sweat, urine, and occasionally blood—intense physical pain, and relentless public shaming. In fact, the greatest moments of recreational road cycling are those in which you can maintain intense pain longer than others, ideally by causing that intense pain; and then the best of the best is when you pop or drop a close friend during all this pain so that you can mention that event as often as possible over the next 3 decades.

Now, again keeping in mind that first level issues of road cycling are in fact primary, let’s examine those second level issues. In other words, Are you a Fred?

  • Do you use the plastic cap and fixing bolt that come with inner tubes? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 1: The technical term for both that cap and fixing bolt is “garbage,” thus toss both in the trash or recycling bin. Pro Tip 2: If your stem rattles, take a 1-inch piece of black electrical tape, poke a small hole in the middle, and then carefully slip it over the stem, sticking it neatly to your rim.
  • Do you have the plastic spoke protector behind your cassette, the reflectors in your spokes—both of which come with bicycles purchased in shops? You’re a Fred. See Pro Tip 1 above as same applies—’tis all garbage.
  • Is your rear wheel skewer pointing backward? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 3: Close your rear skewer into the rear seat/chain stay angle; close your front skewer pointing backward and parallel to the ground.
  • Is your stem pointing upward? Are your hoods and handlebars turned slightly upward also? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 4: For stems, hoods, and handlebars, flat is where it’s at.
  • Do you call your tires “wheels,” as in “I need new wheels” when you mean tires? Do you call your saddle a “seat”? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 5: Know all the proper names of the parts of a bicycle.
  • Do you not shave your legs? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 6: Shave your legs or be better than average at first level issues of road cycling.
  • When you have a flat, do you: (i) exclaim that you have never changed a flat before, (ii) tell everyone you do not know how your CO2 cartridge head works, (iii) not have an extra tube, Co2, boot, etc., with you? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 7: Know how to change a flat and use your equipment; in other words, practice.

I know all of this may seem juvenile and trivial—because it all is juvenile and trivial, much like recreational road cycling. Keep in mind that most recreational road cycling involves grown men [1] with shaved legs wearing lycra while riding a mechanism most strongly associated with children, a bicycle.

Two final points: (i) there is no shame in being a Fred, and luckily, it isn’t terminal (thus, I share remedies above), but (ii) road cycling is a lot like Fight Club because I have broken the sacred rule: Don’t tell a Fred he/she is a Fred.

But I am willing to sacrifice myself, now that I am aging and see the likelihood of being thinned from the herd, I mean pack soon simply because whether you are a Fred or not, if you are younger and stronger, you’ll be able to pop and drop me soon enough.

[1] Women constitute a minority in all this ugliness, and of course, the leg shaving thing is inconsequential for them as it comes with all the other social norms that make being a woman a struggle that dwarfs all the silliness I am discussing above (seriously).

ADDENDUM

Melissa Storm asks:

Being one of the shaven-by-social-norm gender, I need a little clarification here. If I can change a tube on my properly de-cluttered bicycle, and know I’m certainly not needed in a pace line right now, but have my handle bars and stem as not-slammed as possible, am I a Fred? Or am I a hardass for getting on my bike during my third trimester? Are there ever exceptions? I’m just wondering since I don’t seem to remember any of TheRules addressing the issue. You seem like the one to ask. I don’t mind at all if you deem my sadly mismatched kit to be over the Fred line.

Excellent question, Melissa, which brings us to one zero tolerance area and the appropriate exception.

First, regardless of Fred or non-Fred status, there is zero tolerance for being unsafe.

That said, there is a hardass/badass exception (note from above: dropping everyone while having not shaved your legs). Thus, riding your bicycle while in your third trimester clearly affords you the hardass exception, and notably in a way no male rider can equal. Bravo.