Invisible in Plain Sight: On Refusal

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

A few days into my first-year writing seminars, I have begun to guide students toward reading like writers, navigating texts for the what and how of written expression.

As a way to interrogate their misconceptions about the essay (grounded mostly in inauthentic templates), we walk very carefully through the first six paragraphs of James Baldwin’s A Report from Occupied Territory, published 11 July 1966 in The Nation.

The essay exposes students to the historical realities of racial and racist police brutality—which we connect to Colin Kaepernick and NFL protests—as well as Baldwin’s powerful craft as a writer of non-fiction and a more rich and subtle awareness of the essay. This report helps, for example, students re-imagine how effective writer’s create essay openings—not functional single-paragraph introductions with unimaginative thesis sentences.

Each time I explore this essay with first-year students, however, I am reminded of how some of the best elements of the work—Baldwin’s use of “occupied territory” and “a foreign jungle but in the domestic one”—remain mostly invisible to those students.

Baldwin is referencing war, the Vietnam War that was pervasive at the time of the essay, in order to create a critical portrayal of the police as militaristic. Many students are inhibited from recognizing this analogy.

They have a sanitized view of war (contemporary war as drone attacks has been rendered invisible). I grew up in the 1960s watching the Vietnam War on the nightly news.

They are also blinded by their assumptions about authority figures, such as the police.

While not all of my students view the police positively (perspectives among races and social class vary among my students as we explore the NFL protests, for example), they have recently left K-12 education where the norm is that all authority must be respected, where the adults in authority appear mostly uniform in that deference to all authority.

Dominant ideologies, then, have the power to create invisibility in plain sight. Once anything becomes normal, many simply refuse to see what is right their before their eyes.

Consider the dilemma by a woman scholar, Nikki Usher, prompted to cite a scholar she had actively worked to avoid because of his sexism:

And for those men whose academic sexism hasn’t risen to the level of actionable correction, and very likely won’t — while they continue ignoring female scholars and belittling their work on a daily basis — their reputation overall will remain clean. A serial sexist is unlikely to cite the work of female scholars, but if he is a predominant voice in your field or subfield, there is no way for you to avoid having to continue to build his academic reputation through citations, even if you would like to avoid doing so.

In my first-round submission, instead of mentioning this male professor’s work, I found and cited a half-dozen other scholars who made the points I needed for my theoretical scaffolding, although not in the same foundational articles. But of course the journal reviewers went looking in my manuscript for a citation of the serial sexist’s name and work.

This is a bind that we have yet to account for — how the process of building on academic work itself burnishes the reputations of people whose scholarship is good and sometimes even foundational, but whose characters are awful. In the case of a sexist jerk, you are often left without recourse: Cite him, or look like you don’t know what you’re talking about to reviewers and readers.

Sexist men scholars not citing women often works invisibly and makes women scholars invisible, when the field refuses to see that, of course.

Scholars taking the faux pose of objectivity (citing the seminal work of men scholars, and claiming not to be endorsing the scholar as a person or his behavior) create another level of invisibility—both of which work to perpetuate disciplinary status simultaneously along with refusing to hold abusive scholars accountable.

Those who refuse to see white and male privilege are complicit in maintaining both as invisible in plain sight.

One problem with invisibility as refusal, however, can be seen in my students reading Baldwin and Usher struggling to manage her own scholarship and status.

That problem is grounded in how the marginalized are often positioned with the responsibility to bring that which has been rendered invisible into the light while also being poised to suffer the greatest consequences for that unmasking.

The student stepping back from idealized views of the police in order to acknowledge Baldwin’s criticism is taking a risk in a context that is mostly authoritarian.

A woman scholar taking ethical stances against the powerful current of her field is assuming risk in a context that maintains a false veneer of objectivity and high rigor.

To focus on Usher’s dilemma, this is a nuanced aspect of the #MeToo movement that itself has been rendered invisible, micro-aggressions of scholarship dominated and controlled by men. There is a pretense here that scholarship is somehow distinct from the personal, the person.

I imagine for those outside of academia, sexist men scholars systematically ignoring women scholars (not citing) seems a pale thing when compared to Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK.

For women, however, the cumulative and ultimate consequences of all types and degrees of sexism and gender-based aggression are similarly erasing, paradoxically creating women as invisible in plain sight.

I think about Margaret Atwood recalling that when she attended an all-male graduate course at Harvard, the professor sent her for coffee—Atwood the woman as scholar was rendered invisible behind her perceived status as servant to men.

Ultimately, those left invisible in plain sight remain trapped by the system that perpetuates itself, as Usher exposes.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man recognizes his invisibility and in the novel’s end has embraced it, reclaimed it, hibernating himself as a sort of resignation.

This too is a paradox, the incredible weight of invisibility, the burden of being erased through refusal.

If we are to experience a revolution of recognition, the leverage of those with privilege is essential, to pry away the cloaking in order to see what has been right their in front of our eyes all along.

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“If you read this story out loud”: Carmen Maria Machado’s Stories

A former first-year writing student who has transferred to another university to become a writer shared Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” with me.

I fell in love with the story and the writer almost immediately, reading the story so quickly I had to throttle myself repeatedly—pausing and then looping back to re-read. I recalled the first time I read Roxane Gay’s “There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We,” my gateway into her An Untamed State.

Machado’s stories are more than compelling; they are precise, incisive, and disturbing.

Fortunately, Machado has collected eight short stories in Her Body and Other Parties, a volume that has garnered praise and awards but also establishes her gifts for storytelling, blending and blurring genres, and making the lives and terrors of being a woman central to the universes she conjures.

The stories weave together deftly meta-fiction (the volume begins parenthetically, “If you read this story out loud…”), horror, science fiction/fantasy, and experimentation (although this isn’t an exhaustive list) while also remaining true to the art of storytelling. The reader is always compelled by what John Gardner called a “vivid and continuous dream.”

Melissa Febos’s examination of “Intrusions” steers quickly toward literature, John Cheever’s “The Cure.” Throughout this haunting personal essay, Febos returns again and again to fiction—film and TV specifically as well as literature.

As she navigates her own disturbing experience with a voyeur, Febos confronts the reader with the perverse normalcy of other women’s stories against the backdrop of fictional recreation (Brian DePalm, Alfred Hitchcock, and “[o]ne of the many friends and acquaintances whom I began interviewing a few months ago about being peeped on”):

It is also a narrative that exonerates men. The more plausible it seems that women are always performing, the less indictable the watching. If we want it, where is the crime? Better yet, make us seductresses, inverting the men’s role even more extremely: They are our victims! One of the most shared qualities of all predators is their self-conception of victimhood.

And then:

Women are bombarded not only with suggestions that we are always performing for men but also with prescriptions for doing so, from the moment we are able to take direction. “A man’s presence,” John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing, “is dependent on the promise of power he embodies . . . A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you.” Conversely, “How a woman appears to a man can determine how she is treated. To acquire some control over this process, women must contain it and interiorize it.”

Febos eventually confronts her “peeping tom,” and even overcomes her hesitancy to seek out the police (having been at that time a sex worker). But similar to other women she interviews, Febos discovers moving as her best option in a world where men in power view women as complicit, a prop, and where her role as victim creates a repeat performance as object, as the intruded, chillingly examined in Adrienne Rich’s “Rape”:

You hardly know him but now he thinks he knows you:
he has taken down your worst moment
on a machine and filed it in a file.
He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined;
he knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.

Just as Febos’s story and the stories of other stalked women are terrifying, they provide a counter-narrative to fiction:

A big difference between the two cultural narratives about peeping—that of the harmless romantic lead and that of the violent—is that one is much truer than the other. … Many of those television narratives boast of being pulled from real headlines, which gives the false impression that women are mostly murdered by sociopathic strangers. In reality, more than half of female victims are murdered by their romantic partners. … The documented frequency with which women are murdered by their lovers is why the pop-culture narratives in which the line between danger and romance gets purposefully blurred are most troubling to me.

The real-world violence and fear women live with and against pervasively also contrast the ultimate failure of pop fiction’s romance with peeping and stalking: the use of “women solely as a backdrop for his tableau of masculinity,” returning to Cheever:

The Cheever story is also interested in women solely as a backdrop for his tableau of masculinity—though in this case featuring conflict rather than collaboration. When the narrator of “The Cure” spots his peeping neighbor with his daughter on a train platform, the apparent purity of the daughter persuades him not to confront the peeper. … We are meant to be impressed by how deeply the protagonist is affected by the neighbor’s violation, and by his impending divorce. Alone in the house he usually shares with his wife, our protagonist’s behavior is weird, but not unsympathetic. Bachelorhood and the intrusion on his privacy seem to have agitated a deep well of aggression whose contents require some receptacle or outlet. He’s not a creep; he is reclaiming the masculine presence that Berger describes as “dependent on the promise of power he embodies,” and passing on the baton of victimhood. The woman’s fear assures him that he is no longer the object, but the subject.

And then back again to the real world:

One of the most common denominators in the stories I heard from women was of other men dismissing the peeping, as has long been done with so many forms of abuse. Freud himself considered the incest reports of his female patients to be fantasies. … We have all fielded this kind of response to one thing or another. We are exaggerating. We are overreacting. We are villainizing hapless men. And besides, it’s flattering.

Febos’s masterful essay ends with “I am still waiting,” chilling the reader the same way I felt by the end of Machado’s “The Husband Stitch.”

Experimental and long for a short story, “Especially Heinous” offers “272 Views of Law & Order: SVU” through each episode over twelve seasons, including each original episode title and Machado’s own rendering of that episode’s synopsis.

This story is challenging in many ways, but it also provides a companion to Febos’s “Intrusions” while illuminating how fiction can rise above Febos’s powerful critiques of fiction’s persistent failures about the lives and terrors of women.

“Especially Heinous” builds its own narrative over the course of 272 faux-synopses, simultaneously breathing life into the horrors of inhabiting a woman’s body and dismantling the often trite and lifeless tropes of pop culture:

“DISROBED”: A disoriented, naked, pregnant woman is discovered wandering around Midtown. She is arrested for indecent exposure. …

“REDEMPTION”: Benson accidentally catches a rapist when she Google-stalks her newest OKCupid date. She can’t decide whether or not to mark this in the “success” (“caught rapist”) or “failure” (“date didn’t work out”) column. She marks it in both. …

“GHOST”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too tired to become a spirit.

“RAGE”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too angry to become a spirit.

“PURE”; A prostitute is murdered. She is too sad to become a spirit.

Reading “Especially Heinous” and all of Machado’s stories prompt me toward sentiments repeated in Fabos’s essay:

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I asked. …

“What the ever-loving fuck?” she commented.

Machado and Fabos, through fiction and non-fiction, illuminate and confront the gross negligence of a world in the hands of men who refuse to listen, who persist in driving their words and images over and through the terrors of being a woman as if those men are the only things that matter.

When you finish Machado’s collection, return to the opening parenthetical words, “”If you read this story out loud, please use the following voices,” and then say aloud the last directions as directed: “ALL OTHER WOMEN: interchangeable with my own.”

Can you hear it?

“That’s How I Got My Name”: Expanding the First Day of Class with Baldwin

Last academic year, I wrote about considering our students’ names more intentionally in terms of diversity and inclusion through activities around the following texts:

Today as I began an introductory course in education foundations and two first year writing seminars, I confronted students about how these texts address names and gender, familial connections in names, power dynamics, race and culture, and the connection between a name and understanding Self.

Instead of the usual cycling around the room for introductions, I asked which students disliked their names (see “My Name”), calling on them to share their names and why. From there I asked who liked their names, using the same process, and then prompted those with clipped names or nicknames, and those who went by middle names.

Many of the students during this discussion of the text did, in fact, introduce themselves, and we also shared stories of our names.

I explained that when I was in second grade Mrs. Townsend told me I was named for my father. However, I was Paul Lee Thomas, II, and named after my paternal grandfather (my father was Paul Keith Thomas, and went by Keith).

Since I grew up in a small town where everyone knew each other, my teacher identified my grandfather as Tommy; I suspect almost no one in the town were aware of his full given name.

I correct Mrs. Townsend, politely offering, “No, ma’am, I am named for my grandfather.”

This was the late 1960s in small town America so I was immediately sent into the hall as punishment for arguing with a teacher.

I was terrified, mostly about what punishment awaited me when I returned home. My father’s standard rule was my sister and I would receive double the punishment for any trouble we caused at school.

I imagine my parents either called Mrs. Townsend or my mother spoke with her. None the less, the next day, Mrs. Townsend took me in the hall to apologize.

To this day, I recall all this, more than 50 years ago, and I still resent that she refused to apologize in front of the class.

My story fits well against Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” which explores identity—student/black, instructor/white—and the imbalances of power connected with identity.

That power imbalance in schools and schooling is particularly important to name and address the first day of class, when our teaching is grounded in critical awareness.

With the first year writing seminars, I also added this year a talk by James Baldwin, “Baldwin’s Nigger”:

We watched the first 7 minutes or so, including when Baldwin uses the phrase “Baldwin’s nigger” to explain “That’s how I got my name.”

First, I shared this clip to explain to students my own complicated relationship with the racial slur—refusing to say the word aloud except when I am reading passages that include it, confessing I was raised in a racist home and community where the slur was all too common in the mouths of whites.

From there, I introduced my students to discomfort in a formal learning setting. They should expect to be intellectually uncomfortable from time to time, but none of them, I stressed, should be emotionally or physically uncomfortable.

Further, I guaranteed that they could come to me in private and their discomfort would be honored and addressed. For first year students, these are likely new concepts, I realize.

Baldwin’s talk also addresses the weight of names and ownership (similar to Kingsolver’s “Naming Myself”) so we explored the impact of names on gender and racial stereotypes as well as how names and titles can create or perpetuate imbalances of power.

I included a brief discussion of Malcolm X (renaming himself in defiance of enslavers’ names) as well as the “ordinary thing” of women giving up their maiden names and the implication of ownership in “Mrs.”

Including Baldwin’s talk, I think, has made this opening activity much richer, breathing even greater vivacity into starting a journey with students—notably since I also challenged them to seek ways to be humans and not students in our class.

We ended class by brainstorming about student behaviors that are not common outside of school—having to ask to go to the bathroom, raising a hand to speak.

While I was excited last academic year about my name activity and having a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of diversity and inclusion, this expanded version, adding Baldwin, has greatly enhanced the experiment—one I think I must always see as in progress.

“I was formed in a certain crucible,” Baldwin explains. For my students, today began a “certain crucible” for each of them, one they will eventually name and one that will, I hope, deepen their own understanding of the names and identities they choose and cast upon them.

A few months from now, we will all be something different, something new, and maybe even something better.

“We’ve Done It, Or We’re Doing It, Or We Could Start Doing It Tomorrow”

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Trump rightwing women

(From upper-left to lower-right) Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen (credit), Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter (credit), Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (credit), and Kellyanne Conway (credit).

Some often muse whether life imitates art or if art imitates life.

For Margaret Atwood, the debate is more nuanced and about genre: “The Handmaid’s Tale…is set in the future,” Atwood explains in “Writing Utopia.” “This conned some people into believing it is science fiction, which, to my mind, it is not.”

What may seem like a trivial distinction—something merely academic—is incredibly important to Atwood, and to anyone reading this novel (or more recently, viewing the Hulu series):

But in The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing happens that the human race has not already done at some point in the past, or that it is not already doing now, perhaps in other countries, or for which it has not yet developed the technology. We’ve done it, or we’re doing it, or we could start doing it tomorrow. Nothing inconceivable takes place, and the projected trends on which my future society is based are already in motion. So I think of The Handmaid’s Tale not as science fiction but as speculative fiction; and, more particularly, as that negative form of Utopian fiction that has come to be known as the Dystopia….

Dystopias are often more like dire warnings than satires, dark shadows cast by the present into the future. They are what will happen to us if we don’t pull up our socks. (pp. 93, 94)

What might these dire warnings entail in 2018 Trumplandia? At least two come to mind: The manipulation of women to control women and the threat of theocracy to a democracy.

“Puritan New England was a theocracy, not a democracy;” Atwood explains, “and the future society proposed in The Handmaid’s Tale has the form of a theocracy, too, on the principle that no society ever strays completely far from its roots” (p. 97).

These words should be echoing in the background each time we hear or read “Make America Great Again” since Atwood warns, “But true dictatorships do not come in in good times. They come in in bad times, when people are ready to give up some of their freedoms to someone—anyone—who can take control and promise them better times” (p. 98).

Two aspects of Atwood’s speculative Republic of Gilead should give us pause in fact: “biblical justification” and:

Woman’s place, in the Republic of Gilead—so named for the mountain where Jacob promised to his father-in-law, Laban, that he would protect his two daughters—woman’s place is strictly in the home….How do you get women back in the home, now that they are running around outside the home, having jobs and generally flinging themselves around? Simple. You just close your eyes and take several giant steps back, into the not-so-very-distant past—the nineteenth century, to be exact—deprive them of the right to vote, own property, or hold jobs, and prohibit public prostitution in the bargain, to keep them from hanging out on the street corners, and presto, there they are, back in the home. (p. 99)

And, as Atwood’s dystopia dramatizes, create a hierarchy of women so that they become consumed with controlling and resisting each other—while failing to see the higher hands of men controlling the entire puppet show.

Dire warning?

Like the legitimate and illegitimate women of Gilead, enter the women of Trumplandia: Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Kellyanne Conway—quoting scripture, invoking the sacred nature of Law, and routinely lying with well-manicured hair and the sort of make up rendered illegal in Atwood’s dystopia.

“At the front of The Handmaid’s Tale there are two dedications,” Atwood notes, detailing:

[T]he American Puritans did not come to North America in search of religious toleration, or not what we mean by it. They wanted the freedom to practice their religion, but they were not particularly keen on anyone else practice his or hers. Among their noteworthy achievements were the banishing of so-called heretics, the hanging of Quakers, and the well-known witchcraft trials. I get to say these bad things about them because they are my ancestors—in a way, The Handmaid’s Tale is my book about my ancestors—and the second dedication, to Mary Webster, is indeed to one of these very same ancestors. (pp. 96, 97)

“Half-Hanged Mary” is Atwood’s poetic recreation of Webster’s monologue throughout her being hanged as a witch, an act that, remarkable, ended with her surviving: “Under the law of double jeopardy,” Atwood adds, “you couldn’t execute a person twice for the same crime, so she lived for another fourteen years” (p. 97).

In the poem, Webster narrates:

I was hanged for living alone,
for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin,
tattered skirts, few buttons,
a weedy farm in my own name,
and a sure-fire cure for warts;

Oh yes, and breasts,
and a sweet pear hidden in my body.
Whenever there’s talk of demons
these come in handy.

And then about her hanging:

The men of the town stalk homeward,
excited by their show of hate,
their own evil turning inside out like a glove,
and me wearing it.

The men shouting the authority of God attempt to execute Webster—a woman, and poor—while “The bonnets come to stare,/ the dark skirts also.”

Yet Webster implores:

Help me down? You don’t dare.
I might rub off on you,
like soot or gossip. Birds
of a feather burn together,
though as a rule ravens are singular.

In a gathering like this one
the safe place is the background,
pretending you can’t dance,
the safe stance pointing a finger.

Does life imitate art, or art, life? And as Atwood suggests, when art is drawn from life, why do we resist the dire warnings?

Biblical justification and the sacred rule of law by a people shouting “Make America Great Again” over the cries of children behind chain-linked fences after being pulled from their parents’ arms.

Dire warnings we either cannot see or will not see: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (William Butler Yeats).

See Also

There’s no reason to believe that women like Kirstjen Nielsen and Sarah Huckabee Sanders are more empathetic by virtue of being women, Jessie Daniels

Please. Don’t. Stop.

My formative years included a literary heritage that may seem rather low-brow—collecting, reading, and drawing from Marvel comics as well as reading (consuming) every issue of National Lampoon.

Although the Internet has been surprisingly unhelpful for me to verify this, I recall very vividly a Foto Funnies in one issue in which a young woman is being physically propositioned by a young man: Images of him reaching for her, touching her, or forcefully kissing her in a sequence in which she rejects him with “Please!” and then “Don’t!” followed by “Stop!”

The final picture, however, is the couple in the throes of passion, I seem to recall him on top of her and her legs wildly raised, but the key is she is shouting enthusiastically: “Please don’t stop!”

In my adolescence, I found the word play brilliant—a key element of the humor I relished in the magazine each month. But this comic is also another lesson, one taught directly and indirectly to men and women: Men, just wear women down when it comes to sex because women really want it too but must put up the proper resistance at first to protect their reputation.

As I have witnessed the growing #MeToo movement—especially in the many brilliant and disturbing pieces written by women confronting how the male world is all too often misogynistic and rapacious—I have thought more and more about the dynamic captured in the National Lampoon comic and echoed in Richard Dreyfuss’s retort (one shared by many men confronted with their coercive behavior, such as Aziz Ansari) to charges against him: “Dreyfuss told the New York magazine blog Vulture he flirted with and even kissed Los Angeles writer Jessica Teich over several years but thought it was a ‘consensual seduction ritual.'”

Further, I have grown less comfortable with how we manage consent, a complicated concept that isn’t being investigated as fully or well as it deserves, notably in terms of the dynamic between Bill Clinton (resisting his #MeToo culpability) and Monica Lewinsky, who now has reconsidered if she was capable of consent in the relationship with Clinton.

Bill Clinton as one of many powerful men in the long procession that has brought the U.S. to Donald Trump as president and the most disturbing Teflon celebrity—this is a reckoning about much more than sexual harassment and rape culture.

It is reckoning about men as conditioned sexual predators and women as conditioned sexual prey.

Recreational sex—sex for physical pleasure without romantic intent—has profoundly different consequences for men and women; it is often positive social capital for men and nearly always negative social and personal capital for women.

Sex also remains strongly associated with physical and moral cleanliness—almost entirely as the expense of women who are either clean (sexless) or dirty (sexual).

Professional and personal taboos lend themselves to further eroding healthy relationships and interactions between men and women along the spectrum of platonic to intimate.

In many ways, the response by men—hyperbolic—that they do not know what they can say or do around women in the workplace is ridiculous and disingenuous, but there are real problems being unmasked by the #MeToo movement that these disingenuous responses cannot be allowed to derail.

Intimate relationships must begin at some point, being initiated in some way between people who have to risk asking about what the relationship is, where it may go, and how both people feel. When the context of that risk includes extenuating circumstances—think about the imbalance of power and age between Clinton and Lewinsky, for example—then the margins for those risks, how people interact, become narrower, more precarious, especially for the person with less power (often the woman).

Here, I am most concerned about not just consent, and all the problems with consent such as time and power, but what behaviors and characteristics of men that we reject as well as give a pass.

To many people, I think, Clinton and Ansari are qualitatively different than Harvey Weinstein (charges against whom include violent sexual assault and aggression); Clinton also viewed not as crass as Trump.

Where these distinctions fail, I fear, is not recognizing the ethical failure of men as dishonest sexual predators—the real-world manifestation of the National Lampoon cartoon.

Men who prey on women for sexual pleasure, not seeking romance or relationship, while cloaking their behavior otherwise—here is the behavior needing greater inspection: There is a misogyny and objectification in men who are sexual predators that is just as repulsive as men who commit the more immediate rape or sexual assault.

To extrapolate an analogy from Kurt Vonnegut who wrote that smoking was a socially acceptable form of suicide, sexual predators who wear women down to garner consent are socially acceptable rapists.

And that is why the National Lampoon cartoon haunts me; these are lessons taught to men and women about how we should conduct our sexual lives, our intimacies.

I have been listening very hard to women, coming almost daily to recognize the inordinate weight of being a woman constantly aware of her fragility in a man’s world that seems mostly not to acknowledge any woman’s full humanity.

The existential burden of gender for women parallels the existential burden of being black in the U.S.; these conditions are about existing always in a state of awareness and threat.

Talking with a young woman last night, we were standing on a side walk up the street from a bar. Three young men stumbled by, one guy was big and muscular; they were loud, drunk, and motioning toward us for high-fives.

We quietly stepped aside, and at least one of the guys paused and motioned as if he was offended we were ignoring them. The situation was relatively brief, and we didn’t say anything, but we both knew the event was terrifying for the young woman in a way it could never be for me.

They crossed the street to the hotel; I walked her to her car while watching the three drunk men. We needed them to move on, disappear.

This moment will now rest in a topic we have discussed often: The dilemma women face when guys approach them at bars, offering to buy drinks. For women, even when they genuinely are not out looking for any sort of socializing with these men, refusing the free drinks can be more dangerous than just playing along and trying to extricate themselves later.

We have created a culture in which men physically approaching women must be viewed as predatory, intimidating. We have created a culture in which women are responsible for managing that the world is threatening.

We still haven’t begun to fully hold men responsible for changing that culture, even as we are not demanding that some men take culpability for being sexual predators—such as Clinton.

#MeToo, I think, cannot be about turning our gaze even more intently on the victims and cannot be about rape culture only as a way not to investigate the normalized acceptance of men as sexual predators and demonizing of women who are sexual (consider the standard posing of Stormy Daniels as “porn star” versus Trump still never being held accountable).

In her excellent reflection on John Hughes, Molly Ringwald also turns to National Lampoon, where she confronts the contradictions she feels about Hughes:

It’s hard for me to understand how John was able to write with so much sensitivity, and also have such a glaring blind spot. Looking for insight into that darkness, I decided to read some of his early writing for National Lampoon. I bought an old issue of the magazine on eBay, and found the other stories, all from the late seventies and early eighties, online. They contain many of the same themes he explored in his films, but with none of the humanity. Yes, it was a different time, as people say. Still, I was taken aback by the scope of the ugliness.

Ringwald’s looking back and unpacking a “different time” speaks to our own need to admit that very little is different in terms of the dynamics that matter between men as sexual predators and misogynists and women as prey, dehumanized.

I think in most ways I survived the horrible lessons about men, women, and consent—such as the cartoon I once found funny and now find deeply uncomfortable. I was also able to cast off eventually the racism I was taught growing up.

A different world will mean that we all refuse these lessons, of course, but an even better different world will be when we no longer allow the lessons to begin with.

There is nothing funny about a man coercing a woman into consent. There was never anything funny about that.

Reader: False Equivalency, Offensive Language, Racism

False equivalency “simultaneously condemns and excuses both sides in a dispute by claiming that both sides are (equally) guilty of inappropriate behavior or bad reasoning. While the argument appears to be treating both sides equally, it is generally used to condemn an opponent or to excuse ones own position.”

After Roseanne Barr’s sit-com was canceled due to her racist Tweet, some have tried to equate Barr’s racism with, for example, Samantha Bee’s use of “cunt.” A similar dynamic occurred after Michelle Wolf’s routine at the White House correspondent’s dinner.

Another example of false equivalency has been to suggest Barr’s racism and the actions of ABC are about free speech and equivalent to the NFL banning players from protesting racism. These events are not about free speech, but being racist and protesting racism are simply not the same.

All of this can be couched in the false equivalency of most debates and discussions about race and racism that are punctuated by whites who derail the topic with “reverse racism” and “blacks are racists too.”

Here, I list resources for understanding better these debates in order to refute false equivalency:

The Reappropriation of Stigmatizing Labels: Implications for Social Identity, Adam D. Galinsky, Kurt Hugenberg, Carla Groom and Galen Bodenhausen

The semantics of slurs: A refutation of pure expressivism, Adam M. Croom

Appropriating a Slur: Semantic Looping in the African-American Usage of Nigga, Andrew T. Jacobs

‘Cunt’ Should Not Be a Bad Word, Katie J.M. Baker

Laurie Penny: In defence of the “C” word

Reclaiming “Cunt,” “Bitch,” “Slut,” and more

The feminist mistake, Zoe Williams

The Secret History Of The Word ‘Cracker’

Understanding Racism as Systemic and about Power

11-Step Guide to Understanding Race, Racism, and White Privilege

Black people cannot be racist, and here’s why

Response to “Black people cannot be racist, and here’s why”

Reverse Racism, Explained

Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism

8 Things White People Really Need to Understand About Race

Complicating “White Privilege”: Race, Poverty, and the Nature of the Knapsack, Paul Gorski

White Privilege and Anti-Racism, Paul Gorski

Language of Closet Racism, Paul Gorski

Does Your Academic Institution Value Diversity, Equity? (Probably Not)

Several years ago, my university was forced to acknowledge it has a gender problem. As a selective liberal arts university, the institution had already begun addressing its race and diversity problems among students admitted and faculty hired.

Two gender concerns could not be ignored: Women were paid less than men at the same ranks, and faculty attrition was overwhelmingly among women professors, who constitute only about 30% of the faculty.

A gender equity study was commissioned, but when the report was issued, a group of male faculty circulated an open letter challenging the methodology of the report, raising concerns about a lack of empirical data and expressing the need for quantitative versus qualitative methods.

This response certainly had an image problem—white male faculty calling into question a gender equity study—and the concerned faculty did eventually withdraw the letter in deference to the good of the university community.

However, this study and the response illustrate a serious problem in academia, the pervasive power of traditional structures (expectations about what data matter, what types of research matter, and a lingering argument that objectivity can be achieved) to serve as a veneer for entrenched, and thus rendered invisible, sexism, racism, and classism.

A parallel example is when my university seeks to increase the diversity of the faculty, that effort is always contested with “Let’s just hire the best candidate,” again often voiced by white male faculty [1].

“Best,” of course, like quantitative methods and empirical data is a veneer for the embedded biases that have been normalized (and thus seemingly invisible to the power structure itself and those who benefit from the bias).

White and male privilege, then, are institutionalized in higher education (see here and here for ways those privileges exist, again, invisibly to white men). Despite the popular claim that higher education is some liberal indoctrination factory, higher education is incredibly traditional and conservative at its core; only the edges appear liberal.

But, I can feel many wanting to interject, how can calling for high-quality research to address gender equity on campus and expecting candidates for open faculty positions to be the best constitute flawed practices in academia?

Let me often another example, one that calls into question the grounding of those arguments themselves, the claims of fidelity to high standards.

Another traditional practice in higher education is the use of Student Evaluations of Teaching (SET), feedback gathered from students and then used in various ways to evaluate faculty for tenure and promotion.

Notably, a significant body of research [2] has revealed that SET lack validity and negatively impact women, faculty of color, and international faculty (in the U.S.).

Concurrently, the use of SET positively impact the existing and skewed white male faculty at most universities, who disproportionately dominate higher ranks and salaries.

Guess what happens when concerns are raised about SET based on high-quality empirical data and quantitative studies? The same faculty crying foul over gender equity reports and hiring practices toss up their hands and say, “O, well, we have to have something.”

As Colleen Flaherty explains:

While some institutions have acknowledged the biases inherent in SETs, many cling to them as a primary teaching evaluation tool because they’re easy — almost irresistibly so. That is, it takes a few minutes to look at professors’ student ratings on, say, a 1-5 scale, and label them strong or weak teachers. It takes hours to visit their classrooms and read over their syllabi to get a more nuanced, and ultimately more accurate, picture.

For example, my university’s self-evaluation form and the connected chair evaluation directly instructs in the teaching evaluation section: “Give particular emphasis to evidence of teaching quality, which could include numerical results from student opinion survey forms, written comments from student opinion survey forms, and comments from faculty or other consultants visiting your classes.”

“Evidence” is bolded and then the first example is “numerical results from student opinion survey forms.” There are clear biases here that privilege an instrument invalidated by a body of high-quality research—exactly what some faculty deemed missing in our gender equity study.

Junior faculty explain, often in private, that they are aware numerical data from the SET are the most important element of their case for tenure and promotion. As well, our Faculty Status Committee has provided workshops directly detailing which data from those forms are most influential, providing, as the committee claims, ways to distinguish faculty from each other.

Virtually every college and university has a diversity and equity statement and a perpetual formation and reformation of diversity and equity committees.

No statement or committee can make existing institutional sexism, racism, and classism disappear—especially if those words and that work are forced to work within existing biased structures.

“Research is reviewed in a rigorous manner, by expert peers,” writes Flaherty. “Yet teaching is often reviewed only or mostly by pedagogical non-experts: students. There’s also mounting evidence of bias in student evaluations of teaching, or SETs — against female and minority instructors in particular. And teacher ratings aren’t necessarily correlated with learning outcomes.

As long as calls for “high-quality” and “best” to guide policies and practices remain selective—and clearly in the service of the existing inequities and lack of diversity—we must admit the real commitment is not to”high-quality” or “best,” but to the status quo.

While not the only litmus test, a powerful way to determine if your academic institution values diversity and equity is if it continues to implement SET. Almost all do, so the answer remains, probably not.

See Also

Is Your University Racist? Bedelia Nicola Richards


[1] See how “merit” can work in the service of privilege in this reconsideration on Jordan Peterson:

I met Jordan Peterson when he came to the University of Toronto to be interviewed for an assistant professorship in the department of psychology. His CV was impeccable, with terrific references and a pedigree that included a PhD from McGill and a five-year stint at Harvard as an assistant professor.

We did not share research interests but it was clear that his work was solid. My colleagues on the search committee were skeptical — they felt he was too eccentric — but somehow I prevailed. (Several committee members now remind me that they agreed to hire him because they were “tired of hearing me shout over them.”) I pushed for him because he was a divergent thinker, self-educated in the humanities, intellectually flamboyant, bold, energetic and confident, bordering on arrogant. I thought he would bring a new excitement, along with new ideas, to our department.

[2] See: