Breaking the Gender Codes of Dress Codes

A popular meme in the wake of even more mass shootings makes a powerful, if somewhat hyperbolic, point:

Image result for girls clothing in schools more regulated than guns

DAVID MACK/BUZZFEED NEWS via TeenVogue

With most formal schooling restarting now, the dramatic consequences of gun violence is more likely to overshadow the more subtle negative and disproportionate impact of dress codes, especially on girls and young women as well as black and brown students.

When I raise the topic of dress code early in my foundations of education course, where students are required to tutor in a nearby school once a week, the young women invariably respond in ways that confirms what research has shown about the gender inequity of dress codes and how they are applied.

An early-career high school teacher and I were discussing her school and the new year starting with a different principal; she noted that principal is taking a different approach to the school’s dress code, specifically focusing on applying the existing code uniformly and more strictly.

She is concerned about the strictness, knowing that dress codes and their implementation tend to target girls more harshly than boys and perpetuate slut-shaming culture as well as placing the burden of “proper attire” on those girls instead of addressing toxic masculinity and sexism among the boy students. However, the consistency, she thinks, will be welcomed and much better for the students and the teachers.

Her next comment was important for me since she plans to ask the principal to re-examine the dress code next year, stressing that administrators and teachers need to explore the purposes of that dress code as well as the details (including the gender inequity likely in the current code).

This discussion spurred in me a more nuanced way to think of dress codes in the context of both the #MeToo movement and the rise of pronoun preferences and greater gender sensitivity in, especially, formal schooling.

I have always been skeptical of and resistant to dress codes in schools or in the workplace. I find the broad message about clothing to be superficial. But I also have rejected school dress codes because of their sexism and racism, and how they perpetuate blaming girls/women for boys/men being sexist and abusive.

Now, I want to consider if dress codes can be created and designed to work for equity by, as the teacher above suggests, first having administrators, teachers, and students clearly defining the purposes of the dress code, keeping in mind elements of equity and not simply the traditional focus of dress codes on discipline and compliance.

Next, writing a dress code that is gender neutral is an essential step that is also a valuable exercise for administrators, faculty, and students.

While searching to see if gender neutral dress codes exist, I found this from Roanoke County Schools in Virginia and this from Gender Inclusive Schools.

A final element in transforming from traditional dress codes that perpetuate inequity to equitable dress codes must include maintaining data and evidence on how the code is implemented as well as who is impacted by the implementation.

Equity and community not only can be but also must be a part of the codes that govern public institutions; formal education that claims to be in the service of freedom and democracy cannot achieve those goals when the codes and rules work against that freedom and shared ideology.

Breaking the gender codes of dress codes is more than rejecting them if we can agree to create new ones that recognize the humanity, dignity, and autonomy of all students, teachers, and administrators.


Sample Dress Codes

Evanston Township High School’s student dress code

Eastside High School dress code

Boys can wear skirts under Taiwan school’s gender-neutral uniform plan

See Also

‘It’s About Power’: D.C. Students Seek To Remove Bias In School Dress Codes | WAMU

Students Want to Know Why Girls’ Clothing Seems to Be More Regulated Than Guns

NEW: Comic Connections: Reflecting on Women in Popular Culture

In the U.S., Where the Female Nipple Is More Dangerous Than a Gun

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The Matrix and the Failure of Diversity

Several years ago, I wrote a confessional and tongue-in-cheek poem about having watched The Matrix a full 13 years after its release.

My childhood and adolescence had been fully steeped in science fiction—including my mother’s love of mid-twentieth century B-movies that often blurred science fiction and horror as well as Star Trek. However, just as I resisted Star Wars, I somehow never gave into the cultural phenomenon of The Matrix trilogy until 2012 when the films ran on my cable service, and I became hooked.

That initial viewing, as I explore in the poem, left me focused on how The Matrix trilogy often has at its core the Hollywood compulsion toward relatively formulaic love stories, but the films also pay homage to nerdom—or what may (dangerously) be interpreted as an endorsement of misogynistic male fantasies often embraced by incels and social media trolls.

As a child and teen, I moved from science fiction B-movies to science fiction novels and then comic book collecting. I have left none of this behind, but I also have had to confront how science fiction and superhero comic book narratives are often deeply problematic in terms of gender, race, and sexuality.

The Matrix trilogy, however, may seem at first glance to be in many ways a revolt against these flaws. The Wachowski Brothers, now trans women identified as The Wachowskis, gained their fame for the film franchise. With the racially diverse cast and high-profile women characters, these films may appear to be bold efforts at diversity.

However, as I have been rewatching the films recently, the trilogy remains despite some of the surface features a white savior narrative—sitting among other movies such as The Martian and Gravity.

Image result for the matrix

Despite its iconic place among science fiction films, The Matrix trilogy remains a white savior narrative with Neo as the constant center. (Sygma via Getty Images)

One way to unpack a film’s gender diversity is the Bechdel test, and these guidelines help viewers recognize that many of the high-profile women characters remain merely in orbit around men—notably Neo and Morpheus. Expanding similar tests to race exposes that while the films are visually diverse (consider the slow-motion orgiastic scene in The Matrix Reloaded), the characterizations and narratives remain primarily normative because The Chosen One is Neo as white savior.

The Matrix trilogy proves to be the Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas of diversity initiatives because the films address only empirical diversity (not substantive diversity) while reducing that diversity to the service of racial and gender norms centered on whiteness and men.

Three Types of Diversity—and Why Many Diversity Initiatives Fail

In the U.S. where whiteness and being a man are centered, the first type of diversity is similar to how The Martian and Gravity as films work as if race and gender do not exist in any expressed way. In other words, the centering of whiteness and being a man are not acknowledged and rendered normal, and thus correct or best. Often the mask used in this type is to call a narrative or character “universal.”

A second type of diversity exists in organizational efforts designated as diversity initiatives, such as those commonly found on university campuses. This second type most often resembles The Matrix because the manifestations of these diversity initiatives tend to be limited to rhetorical outcomes (mission and diversity statements, etc.) and superficial goals (hiring or admitting people who can be labeled “diverse,” etc.).

This second type can be dangerous since it does not disrupt the status quo of centering whiteness or being male but seems to be diverse; this second type can also spur open hostility to diversity as well. Those who unconsciously or consciously oppose diversity as a goal tend to confront the superficial possibilities of diversity initiatives by asserting “We can’t just hire/admit diversity for diversity’s sake”—a claim that can seem credible if not fully unpacked (ignoring, for example, the long history of people being hired because they are white or men).

As I noted above, this superficial diversity allows lifting identifiable diverse people, Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas, to positions as a nod to diversity even as those so-called diverse people work against the interests of marginalized people. Carson claims racism no longer exists, and Thomas works to dismantle the affirmative action that he benefitted from in his career.

Yet, the Republican Party can point to these men as proof of diversity in the party.

A third type, the elusive type, of diversity in which both empirical diversity exists—we can see black and brown people, and women in roles and positions disproportionately dominated by white men—and their status actively de-centers whiteness and being a man.

During the current 2019 women’s World Cup, we may be witnessing something close to this third type in the person of Megan Rapinoe who is centering being a world-class woman athlete (deconstructing the “plays like a man” narrative and among women teammates demanding equal pay for their performance) and gay:

“To me, it’s literally all the same, insofar as I want people to respect who I am, what I am — being gay, being a woman, being a professional athlete, whatever,” Ms. Rapinoe said in the article. “That is the exact same thing as what Colin did.”

For films, or any art, and organizations claiming to seek diversity as a goal, then, there is much more involved than simple empirical diversity.

The Matrix trilogy remains an iconic work of cinematic science fiction, and much about the narrative breaths life into traditional frames, such as the white savior, in ways that we can enjoy and even praise.

But the success of The Matrix also depends on a lazy public, one awash in the first type of diversity and occasionally tolerant of the second type. There also is a great deal of flash and visual spectacle that makes The Matrix appealing—and ultimately dangerous like Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas.

Even for those of us who have affinity for The Matrix trilogy, and the resurgence of admiration for Keanu Reeves, we must be able to confront the failures in this series in terms of diversity and then admit we can, and must, do better.

The Best Candidate: On Resisting Diversity and Equity

The 2019 version of March Madness has provided two powerful and different images of the passionate coach.

First came the brief controversy over Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, captured in this frame:

Next, despite the typically less well covered women’s game, Muffet McGraw, who coached Notre Dame to the National Championship game, falling a point short, offered an impassioned plea for coaching equity:

When I posted McGraw’s video on social media, the connection between these two moments was highlighted by one of the responses on Facebook: “Just hire the best candidate.”

That plea for something like meritocracy in the face of McGraw’s argument for equity has been repeated often during my time in higher education as I have worked on committees seeking ways to increase diversity and equity among our faculty.

“Just hire the best candidate” is a refrain, in fact, among white men in all sorts of professions. The implication is that what is past, is past, and if we value equity, then we must practice a sort of color- or gender-blind policy now in order, well, to just hire the best candidate.

“The best candidate” response, however, is a dodge because it is overly simplistic and it exposes the lack of self-awareness among white men.

White male privilege is not a thing of the past, as exemplified by Izzo and a large percentage of coaches who are allowed nearly any fault—as long as they win. Izzo is no outlier; the abusive coach, the coach who loses his temper while also admonishing his players to perform with control is the marker for the mediocre white man who glides along on his privilege while also believing he has earned everything he has attained, while believing that he is “the best candidate.”

Etan Thomas explains about the inequity of the coach/player dynamic, captured in stark relief by the tenure of Bobby Knight:

Luke [Recker] and Jason [Collier] had each played two seasons at Indiana University under the legendary but volatile coach Bobby Knight before transferring out to different schools. They spent for two straight hours telling stories about Knight. I was completely shocked by what I heard. The level of torment they both endured: the public and private humiliations, the degrading outbursts, the verbal abuse, the physical abuse, the cursing, the yelling, the screaming, the insults, the attempt to completely break them down and – most of all – the outpour of support their former coach received from all of the adults who worshipped at his throne. Basketball is a religion in Indiana and Knight, who coached the Hoosiers to three national championships, was the pope.

The comparison at the end shouldn’t be ignored since the long and ugly history of abuse of power in the Catholic church and its terrifying consequences for children remain a scar that almost no one seems motivated to heal.

So when McGraw asserts that she will no longer hire men as assistant coaches, that 99%-100% of women’s sports should have women coaches, she is confronting by saying aloud the unspoken reality of white male privilege: Men coaches of men’s sports do not consider women for assistant coaching positions, but never have to utter those words because there is a veneer of coaching hires being about “the best candidate” with the assumption that can only be men.

In all fields where there is gender or race inequity, the solution of “just hire the best candidate” is inadequate because it doesn’t seek ways to investigate that “best.”

Years of experience and success in a field or the education/credentialing needed to enter a field are often aspects of “best,” and those have been gained through, in part or whole, the privilege of white men at the expense of women and people of color.

Coaching, for example, is a real-world example of the “good ol’ boys club,” those coaching trees widely hailed and acknowledged in fact.

How can anyone find fault (and keep a straight face) with McGraw’s argument for women creating their own version of the “good ol’ girls club”?

Ultimately, calls for hiring “the best candidate” is a diversion and a lie perpetuated by those who have for most of history benefitted from unfair advantages while being allowed to pretend that they have succeeded on merit.

Coaching is one of the most glaring examples of how white male privilege elevates the mediocre white man—the hard-nosed point guard who becomes a Division I head coach and then is allowed on a daily basis to yell at and berate young and mostly black men who themselves have no recourse for that abuse.

Those same coaches all go on and on about building character in their players, about the whole athletics scheme being mostly about preparing young people for life after sports.

Part of McGraw’s message confronted the need for role models:

“How are these young women looking up and seeing someone that looks like them, preparing them for the future? We don’t have enough female role models. We don’t have enough visible women leaders. We don’t have enough women in power.”

If we really value merit, and character, I want to ask that for anyone regardless of gender or race, who should we emulate, Izzo or McGraw? Whose message and passion resonate in ways that should guide young people, or any one of us?

The best candidate? McGraw because she offers the voice of real merit and a genuine understanding of inequity.

The NFL and the Politics of Lies

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –

“This World is not Conclusion” (373), Emily Dickinson

I taught throughout the 1980s and 1990s in my small rural hometown in Upstate South Carolina. That town literally had a railroad track separating the black and white sides of town.

The very small school district includes only four schools—primary, elementary, middle (junior, when I attended), and high—that encircled the largest church in town, Woodruff First Baptist, its steeple looming prominently over the schools and the town.

white church near trees at daytime

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Many of my students attended that church, and for a time, virginity pledges became a thing. Sunday morning services included girls and young women coming forward to pledge their virginity until marriage.

These young women received praise and recognition throughout the town and at school. At one point when this trend was at a peak, a group of young women came to me upset that, as they explained, most of their peers taking the virginity pledge were far from virgins, before the pledge or after.

These young women taking the pledge were playing a powerful game of making public displays that gave them social capital but required in no way that they practice what they proclaimed.

The young women who had not pledged, were mostly not sexually active, and felt a great deal of resentment also informed me that one of the young women who had recently been praised in front of the student body, and was also a very popular student and cheerleader, was among a secret group of young women who helped each other pay for and acquire abortions.

I have dozens and dozens of these stories, since I grew up in the deep South and am well acquainted with the power and hypocrisy of the Christian veneer.

While I have mostly stopped watching all organized sports, college or professional, I was wrangled last night into viewing the 2019 Super Bowl. What resonated with me above the lackluster game itself and the disappointment of another success story for the New England Patriots (with a coach and quarterback who personify all that is wrong with the NFL and the U.S.) was the clear drumbeat throughout the event by the NFL that the organization is deeply committed to social justice.

Over the past few years, the NFL has ostracized Colin Kaepernick for political protests and perpetuated the vapid notion that some of the athletes have sullied the game with their politics.

This same NFL began the most recent Super Bowl, as usual, with nothing except politics, the National Anthem and a military flyover. But most disgusting of all was the use of Martin Luther King Jr., ostensibly since the game was played in Atlanta, GA, to associate billionaire owners and the league with social justice.

I have never seen anyone look more out of place than the images of Commissioner Roger Goodell touring Atlanta and marking great places and moments in civil rights.

The NFL is a master of the politics of lies, playing up its own brand while simultaneously beating down any millionaire worker who has the audacity to be anything other than a player-drone for the billionaires who own them.

I understand how many NFL players feel compelled to remain stooges for the corporation that pays many of them well, even as the evidence is mounting that almost all of them are being physically and mentally maimed, that virtually all of them are just cogs, expendable. None the less, I cringed when Marshawn Lynch showed up in one of the most popular feel-good spots portraying the NFL as all that is good and happy:

There is a world unlike this one in which I imagine Marshawn Lynch as the hero and not bent by the great burdening weight of the NFL.

But that is not this world.

Concurrent with the Super Bowl has been a brewing controversy about the governor of Virginia, which Chris Emdin confronts broadly:

Today, as everyone indicts the governor for his racism and everyone professes to stew in anger at how he has let down his constituents, I am most disturbed by the ways that we allow folks to construct progressive public personas that are allowed to mask a problematic past even as the country endorses the past and the masking. WE have allowed people to use buzzwords like equity and social justice to mask their racism. WE have allowed sitting next to the right people or hanging the right painting to erase things they have done that cause pain. WE have failed to allow folks to face their history and the part they play in what they profess to fight against. It is easy to advocate for something without acknowledging that you are part of what caused it. It is easy for the governor to denounce the hatred in Charlottesville without acknowledging that he is a branch of the tree that the hate there grew from.

Emdin unmasks the progressive veneer that works like the Christian veneer—for some. Mostly for the privileged who use that veneer to maintain a death-grip on their unearned power.

In this age of Trump politics, we must recognize that billionaire NFL owners are no more committed to social justice than Trump is to Christianity.

Billionaires have been afforded their billions because of inequity, and the only real threat to their egregious wealth is equity, the cleansing sunshine of social justice.

The NFL exists on lies, it needs lies. The NFL is a microcosm of U.S. capitalism that exists on poverty, that needs poverty.

Kaepernick was sacrificed exactly because he was the Truth, unadulterated because the banishment was swift and seemingly invisible, silent. Allowed to return to the NFL, like Lynch, Kapernick likely and excusably would have merged into the fold in some uncomfortable way—like Jim Brown’s face if the commercial above is paused just right.

The NFL’s lie is just another Great America Myth, another cultural lie. The Super Bowl was its crowning act of this year’s season of lies.

The perfect team, the Patriots, now sit on that throne of duplicity like an arrogant middle finger to all that is decent and humane.

Like the church steeple ringed by my home town’s only schools.

Dark Histories Cast Shadows over Diversity Initiatives in Higher Education

Sitting 30 miles apart, two upstate South Carolina universities seem to have mostly proximity in common. Furman University is a small, selective, and private liberal arts college while nearby public, land-grant Clemson University is the second largest research university in the state, touting a high-profile football program.

Yet, these universities represent higher education’s struggles with dark histories and a stubborn gap between faculty and student demographics compared to the communities and states they serve.

Private colleges with restrictive admission guidelines and higher costs have long struggled with diversity, but “[a] growing number of public universities are becoming less affordable and accessible for low-income students and people of color,” reports Ashley A. Smith for Inside Higher Ed.

In one ranking from 2016, Clemson (HHI 0.707) sat 98 among the top 100 universities, even less diverse than Furman (HHI 0.662), ranking 85 among the top 100 liberal arts colleges*. Both schools serve, notably, South Carolina with a black population of 26% (national rate 12%).

While many universities have begun reckoning with their histories as well as committing to diversity initiatives, diversity goals for faculty and student populations mirroring the general public remain elusive.

Reckoning with, Not Erasing, the Past

One permanent shadow appears to be Tillman Hall on the campus of Clemson University, the source of a contentious 2015 debate among students, faculty, administration, and the community.

Tillman Hall is named for former SC governor and senator Benjamin Tillman, who also founded Winthrop University (Rock Hill, SC). Will Moredock explains, “Modern historians generally regard Tillman as a fire-breathing racist, opportunist, and demagogue who played on the worst of human nature to promote himself to the highest levels of state government.”

The lack of action by administration concerning Tillman Hall spurred a student organization formed about a year earlier, See the Stripes, to continue urging Clemson toward greater diversity and inclusion:

The central idea of See The Stripes is an acknowledgement that The Tiger has stripes, which are an integral part of its existence and survival. While The Tiger could be seen as “Solid Orange” a solid orange tiger could not survive without its stripes. Similarly, Clemson University’s history has its dark parts that should be acknowledged—particularly the histories of laborers who contributed significantly to its development: slaves, sharecroppers and convict laborers.

The Tillman Hall stalemate represents one powerful hurdle for diversity goals at a university when the past remains an unaddressed stain on the present.

Furman’s reckoning has come in the form of a Task Force on Slavery and Justice, prompted by a new provost, and a diversity and inclusion committee charged by the university president.

The Task Force report, Seeking Abraham, confronts slavery and  racism in the founding of the university, but also details a roadmap of actions for moving forward as an essential part of creating a university community that is more inclusive.

Good Intentions, Rhetoric Not Enough

None the less, Furman student Juhee Bhatt blogged that good intentions of diversity initiatives are not enough:

Inclusiveness is much more than portraying students of color in news articles or acknowledging Furman’s role in slavery. Inclusiveness is an unfolding process of action that affirms the humanity of each minority on campus, it is not only displaying a headshot…or working to strengthen diversity statistics. Inclusivity is not a one-step process, rather it demands individuality and intentionality.

Across the U.S., college and universities employ faculty that are disproportionately white and male (especially at the higher ranks) and serve students channeled through narrowing admission processes and limited by increasing costs.

Further, diversity initiatives are often dulled by external forces, such as undermatching, and suffer from student and faculty skepticism about programs that seem to be more rhetoric than action, as Bhatt expresses.

Another challenge for diversity and inclusion programs is implementation, too often targeting diverse populations instead of acknowledging that diversity and inclusion awareness must be for all stakeholders—especially majority populations.

“Inclusivity Is Not a One-step Process”

A 2016 U.S. Department of Education report outlines the complex ways that colleges and universities can better attain diversity goals. These steps include more than diversity and inclusion programs, but include the following:

  • Creating mission statements to provide a context and foundation for action and policy.
  • Recognizing diversity must pervade the entire campus—faculty, administration, staff, and students—in ways reflecting the rhetoric of those mission statements.
  • Prioritizing diversity through admissions and hiring practices.
  • Providing diverse populations with on-campus support.
  • Establishing and maintaining inclusive climates as a precursor to increasing quantifiable diversity throughout the institution.
  • Resisting silver bullets, and dedicating funds and policy to a “multi-pronged commitment to diversity,” as the USDOE report concludes.

The U.S. must have colleges and universities where faculty, staff, and students represent the entire spectrum of diversity within the communities they serve, but commitments to diversity and inclusion must be more than banners, rhetoric, and public relations if those goals are to be met.


* The ranking index used (HHI): “A student body that is entirely White would have an HHI of 1. A student body that is equally made up of people from five different racial groups would have an HHI of 0.2.”

Barbara Kingsolver’s “Justicia” and “Refuge”

“I wasn’t prepared for the knowledge of what one nation will do to another,” Barbara Kingsolver explains near the end of the Introduction to her poetry collection, Another America/Otra America, continuing:

But knowledge arrived regardless. I saw that every American proverb has two sides, can be told in two languages; that injustice does not disappear when you look away, but seeps in at the back of the neck to poison your soul. The unspeakable things can be survived, and sometimes there is joy on the other side. (pp. xvii-xix)

And so Kingsolver presents a collection of poems, each translated into Spanish by Rebeca Cartes, written over many years and finally published in 1998.

“My way of finding a place in the world is to write one,” Kingsolver concludes. “But when I want to howl and cry and laugh all at once, I’ll raise up a poem against the darkness. This is my testament to two Americas, and the places I’ve found, or made, or dreamed in between” (p. xix).

This idea of two Americas grounded in culture and language, poems now two decades old and well before the rise of Trump’s America, offers a way to navigate what seems to be contradictory claims: Trump’s politics represent enduring ideologies and patterns that in fact reveal who America is while also confronting the nation and the world with a unique bravado and crassness that deserves an equally resolute response.

“Justicia” and “Refuge” speak to historical problems with the American character and current tensions inflamed by Trump’s rhetoric and policies.

“The feral incantations of our dreams” begins “Justicia,” a title evoking “justice” but also (possibly) the flower of that name. Nature is always prominent in Kingsolver, and this poem is grounded in the lone wolf (given a human pronoun):

His orange pain becomes a desert sunset.
His hunger perceives the scent of blood
on the wind,

the sleep of sheltered animals,
everything
but borders.

Kingsolver investigates civilization (“borders”) and the wild, the wilderness (“feral”), a paradoxical tension in which it is the wild that is framed as violent and dangerous but that is often sacrificed.

Next, Kingsolver turns to the politics of race and geography:

The television says McAllen, Texas,
is closer to Managua than to Washington, D.C.,
and housewives in McAllen

check their own
possibly Bolshevik eyes in the mirror
and lock the windows.

The poem ends with a crescendo of “peaceful,” “liberty,” and “justice” building to “the wolf deserves a meal.”

Reading “Justicia” in 2018, in the wake of Trump’s incessant demonizing of Mexicans and invoking images of immigrants as “animals,” I am compelled to suggest Kingsolver is offering a powerful exploration of racism and nationalism folded into the image of the lone wolf reappropriated as a sympathetic symbol of the dignity all living creatures deserve.

Quoted in full in Feroza Jussawalla’s “Cultural Rights Theory: A View from the U.S.-Mexican Border,” “Refuge” fits equally as well into the state of mangled U.S. politics under Trump.

Kingsolver dedicates the poem “[f]or Juana, raped by immigration officers and deported”—replayed with an awful intensity during the current debate about separating children from parents seeking political asylum and reports of children being sexually assaulted by immigration officials.

“Give me your hand,/He will tell you”—the opening inviting tone triggers for me Adrienne Rich’s equally disturbing interrogation of how the criminal justice system subjects victims of rape to a second assault in her “Rape”: “There is a cop who is both prowler and father.”

“[B]arbed wire,” “desert,” and “hunger” create next an oppressive tone, building to “I will/take your hand./Take it” and then:

First
He will spread it
Fingers from palm
To look inside,
See it offers nothing.
Then
With a sharp blade
Sever it.

Again paralleling Rich’s poem, the language is both violent and sexual, dehumanizing and invasive.

The final stanza is disturbing in its simplicity detailing the officer keeping the severed hand as a token of “the great/desirability/of my country.”

In these two poems, civilization—specifically America—is the rapacious aggressor, the taker that objectifies the weak, as Others, foreign, less than. This is the America that is contrasted with the America claimed.

Kingsolver’s poetic recreation of two Americas, another America, resonates in awful ways that should turn our stomachs, that may prompt us to turn our eyes.

“Another America” confronts us as not the America we claim to be; “another America” challenges us to become the ideal we have yet to achieve—a people devoted to human dignity, to enduring values such as each child is everyone’s child, such as there are no strangers, such as anything we have we will halve and share.

In her poems, essays, and fiction, Kingsolver implores us to be our better selves. I wonder if that is a dream also, an ideal, something we simply are not capable of being.

Free Speech, Free Market, and the Lingering “Rigid Refusal”

In the documentary Corridor of Shame, which explores the historical inequities of school funding in South Carolina along lines of race and social class, Senator (R, SC) Lindsey Graham claims while speaking at MLK Day in 2005: “We have a disparity of funding in a region of our state…. The reason we have disparity in funding is not cause we are prejudiced at the governmental level. It’s because we collect taxes based on property value. And our property value in those counties are pretty low because there’s no industry.”

Graham’s denial of systemic racism represents what Ta-Nehisi Coates called “elegant racism” while confronting the “oafish racism” of Cliven Bundy and former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling:

The problem with Cliven Bundy isn’t that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad. The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state’s rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s singularly segregationist candidacy.

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.

Graham acknowledges inequity, but uses “prejudiced” instead of “racist,” and casually rejects systemic racism.

As Coates explains, whites in the U.S. are more apt to acknowledge oafish racism while almost always employing elegant racism, such as denying systemic racism; therefore, Graham’s obfuscation is a powerful and effective political ploy, especially in the South.

In the matter of a few days recently, this distinction has played out in a public way with the NFL instituting a new policy about players protesting during the National Anthem and Roseanne Barr having her ABC sit-com canceled after a racist outburst on social media.

The NFL Anthem policy and Barr’s show cancelation have two important elements in common: what they represent in terms of how the U.S. confronts and understands racism, and how many in the U.S. have a deeply flawed understanding of free speech.

First, when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick initiated protests during the National Anthem, the public and political response has tended to misrepresent the actions. Kaepernick and other players were protesting systemic racism, inequitable policing of blacks often resulting in death, during the Anthem.

Notably, Barr’s oafish racism, comparing a person of color to an ape, has resulted in a similar outcome for Barr and Kaepernick—the loss of work—although the former is a racist and the latter is protesting racism.

While Kapernick and other protesting NFL players have been condemned for being political (disregarding they are taking credible stands against a reprehensible social reality), Barr has a history of being bigoted.

Writer Roxane Gay has examined that history and then the recent cancelation, in fact.

Also significant about these two situations is that the new NFL policy does in fact limit when and how NFL players can express themselves, but Barr was perfectly free to share her comments, with an incredibly wide audience.

That comparison leads to the now common aspect of the public discussion of Barr’s cancelation, claims that they are about free speech: Since the NFL and ABC are not the government, neither of these situations is an issue of free speech.

As Katherine Timpf explains:

First of all, this is in no way a free-speech or First Amendment issue. The First Amendment protects us from facing consequences from the government over our speech, not consequences from our peers or our employers. Yes, what Barr said, although abhorrent, absolutely was constitutionally protected speech, and, of course, it should be. After all, giving the government the power to decide what is and is not “acceptable” speech would be giving the government the power to silence whatever kind of speech it felt like silencing, which would be very dangerous indeed. Anyway, the point is, a free-speech-rights violation would be someone trying to, say, arrest Barr for her comments, not firing her for them. Her rights were in no way violated in this case. ABC simply exercised its own rights as a private company to decide whom it does and does not want to associate with, and it’s my view that no one should blame its executives for making the decision that they made.

Therefore, the NFL policy on the National Anthem and the cancelation of Barr’s sit-com are not about free speech but the free market. Both the NFL and ABC are hedging that their actions preserve their audiences, their bottom line.

And what those concerns about their audiences reinforce is that the public has a much lower tolerance for oafish racism (Barr) than for confronting elegant racism (NFL protests). The NFL believes its audience either denies or cannot see systemic racism, and thus does not support the so-called politics of NFL players who protest while ABC feels that continuing to give an oafish racist a major platform will erode their audience.

Here is where we must confront the problem with trusting the free market since doing the right thing is linked to the moral imperative of the majority, the consumers. Currently in the U.S., that majority remains insensitive to systemic inequity and injustice; therefore, elegant racism survives—even bolstered ironically when oafish racism is shamed and seemingly blunted.

When each oafish racist is given their due, those denying systemic racism have their worldview confirmed since they see individual punishment as justice.

These actions by the NFL and ABC reflect that in the U.S. whites are still in the early adolescent stage of racial consciousness. Being able to confront oafish racism isn’t even fully developed yet.

Many in the media called Barr’s slurs “racially insensitive,” showing the same sort of refusal to call a lie, a lie that now characterizes mainstream media. But a few in that media are calling Barr’s words “racist,” and ABC folded under the weight of that fact—although we should be asking why Barr had this second chance considering her history of bigotry.

As a people, white America is not adult enough, however, to move past finger-wagging at oafish racists and to acknowledge systemic racism because, as Coates recognizes, “to see racism in all its elegance is to implicate not just its active practitioners, but to implicate ourselves.”

James Baldwin’s “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'” remains a chilling warning then: “This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.”

That anything, as the NFL and ABC have exposed, is racism—the cancer destroying our democracy and our free market.

As consumers, we have a moral obligation to tell the NFL it is wrong; we will not stand for systemic racism. And we must tell ABC that canceling Barr’s sit-com is a start, but it isn’t enough.

As citizens, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror of the voting booth—something we have failed to do yet in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

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