Tag Archives: activism

Back to School: Creating an Equitable Workplace

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Only 2% of K-12 teachers nationwide are Black men, and just 4.5% are Black women. Black teachers are 50% more likely to leave the profession than white teachers. Just 4% of university faculty are Black. (Photo: teacher.org)

This piece is the second in a three-part series about education in the US. The first is Back to School: How to Be a White Teacher, As Taught to Me By Students of Color.

A few years ago, when I was the senior lecturer at [name redacted] university, the only time my “senior lecturer status” was ever mentioned was when the department chair offered me a class in Black theatre because they “had to” due to my “status.” I told them to hire a Black colleague instead. My “status” as “senior lecturer” had never come up before and never came up again. In fact, that same year I was roundly scolded for “assuming” I had a particular class just because it had been offered to me. They suddenly announced at the last minute they were hiring a white man, lecturing there for the first time, and when I brought up the fact that the job had already been offered to me, I was sternly rebuked. So much for my “senior lecturer” status. I was scolded again by senior staff for later refusing to assist the new hire without pay.

My story is not unique. It’s not even particularly unique in my own academic career. White educators, especially white male educators, experience enormous privilege in the workplace, whether they know it or not.

White men are over-represented in all academic leadership roles. In public high schools, 70% of principals are male, almost all white. Independent schools fare no better; 90% of school heads are white and 64% are male. Over 86% of public school superintendents are men and 92% are white.

White men also enjoy a host of privileges as teachers. In an era when student test scores have become a (mystifyingly) critical marker of teacher performance, white men are assigned high-performing classes more often than women and people of color. Men are given better evaluations than their female colleagues and colleagues of color, even when teaching online classes with literally identical, copy-and-paste content. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in non-union independent schools, men are paid a full 32% more than women. Even in unionized public schools, men are paid 12% more than women. This may sound impossible given the codification of pay scales in teaching positions, but schools have a great deal of flexibility in determining which step on the pay scale a teacher begins when hired and what kinds of classes, certifications, and degrees they will accept for pay-raising post-graduate education. Educators of color are less likely to be retained, and Black teachers’ expertise in both subject matter and pedagogy is routinely downplayed or overlooked.

In short, discrimination is rampant in academia, and, although this piece focuses primarily on race, it’s not limited to race alone. Teachers with disabilities are routinely refused accommodations, and in most areas of the country, transgender, non-binary and gender-nonconforming teachers are deeply discriminated against. Shockingly, half of transgender teachers report being harassed by colleagues and administrators.

White educators, we can create a more equitable workplace for educators of color. Male educators, you can create a more equitable workplace for women. Cis educators, we can create a more equitable workplace for transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming educators. Able-bodied educators, you can create a more equitable workplace for educators with disabilities. While this piece focuses on race, there is much work to be done in all areas of inequity, and the techniques described below can be used to create diversity, inclusion, and equity for all.

EXAMINE RETENTION RATES. A site’s retention rates are key to understanding the experiences of those who work there. Is your site able to retain white people, but struggles to retain people of color? Are men retained longer than women? Has your site lost a number of women of color all within a short time frame? Examining your retention rates will provide valuable insight into whether your site is truly welcoming and equitable. If your site utilizes exit interviews, perhaps compiling the answers of the people of color who have left your site within the past few years will prove enlightening. Believe what people of color tell you about working at your site, and pay careful attention to trends in the compiled exit interview data.

ENCOURAGE DIVERSE HIRING AT YOUR SITE. Diversity in the workplace, both in teaching staff and in leadership, has numerous benefits. Although our student population is now “majority minority,” US teaching staff is 80% white, with many sites lacking even a single Black or Latinx classroom teacher, even in diverse areas, while evidence continues to mount that students of color have better outcomes when they have teachers of color. A 2015 Stanford University study showed that Black students are disciplined more harshly for the same infractions than white students. The odds of being assigned to a “gifted” or advanced program are 66% lower for Black students and 47% lower for Latinx students than they are for white students, even with high placement test scores. Non-Black teachers have lower expectations for Black students than Black teachers do, even when evaluating the same students. Non-Latinx teachers have negative perceptions of Latinx students, especially when they’re EL students. A more diverse teaching staff is the first step in creating a more equitable education for students of color. White staff will also benefit from working alongside educators with diverse perspectives and experiences.

Is your site hiring? Spread the word to colleagues of color. Post on social media and ask your friends to keep an eye out for candidates of color. Mention to administrators the critical importance of a diverse staff. Advocate for candidates of color when they apply. When you have the opportunity to invite guest speakers to your classroom, look for people of color regardless of the topic. Both students of color and white students need diverse role models.

SUPPORT YOUR COLLEAGUES OF COLOR. It’s not going to do much good if you hire educators of color and then dismiss, minimize, or contest everything they have to say. This is diversity without equity—hiring people of color and then relegating them to a voiceless underclass. Practical ways you can support your colleagues of color (and remember that all of these can be extrapolated to colleagues with disabilities, LGBTQ colleagues, etc):

  1. Educate yourself. Read writers of color and believe what they have to say about whiteness. If you’re uncomfortable with their critiques, work to change the impact of whiteness on their lives rather than fault writers of color for telling the truth of their lived experiences. A better understanding of the experiences of your colleagues of color will increase your effectiveness as an ally.
  2. Listen and believe your colleagues of color. Do not argue with people of color about their lived experiences of racism, especially if your argument is about intent (“I didn’t mean it that way!”). Impact is much more important than intent. If a colleague of color trusts you enough to educate you about something racially problematic happening at your site, or something racially problematic that you’ve done or said, listen to them. Your colleague of color is taking an enormous risk by discussing this with you. Honor that by listening sincerely. Then support your colleague if further steps need to be taken, such as bringing a proposed policy change to administration, or requesting administration reverse a racially charged decision.
  3. Work with administration to get diversity and equity training for the whole staff, and approach the work sincerely by educating the staff about white fragility beforehand. I’ve been through many diversity trainings, and I honestly think most white people imagine diversity training will just be a lengthy affirmation of our cherished belief that we are “not racist.” We imagine that we will sit for a few hours shaking our heads in dismay about “those racists over there” while congratulating ourselves for being “not that.” White people in diversity trainings become enormously fragile, defensive, and even angry the moment they realize that diversity training is actually about combating our own implicit racism and the ways in which we support systemic racism. White people will angrily or tearfully insist we’re “not racist” and “a good person,” insist we “don’t see color,” insist the trainer is incompetent, crow about our resistance to the training (such as boasting about “stumping” the trainer with whataboutism or examples of “reverse racism”), state that we feel “attacked,” dismiss accounts of racism by people of color as “exaggerated,” and more. Staff-wide education around white fragility could provide some tools to mitigate those all-too-common negative reactions to the work. Until white staff are past fragility and defensiveness, little progress can be made.
  4. Work to create clear policies and procedures. When we leave decisions to “case-by-case bases,” more often than not, implicit biases create inequity. Clear policies and procedures, applied equitably, can insure that decisions are as untainted by implicit biases as possible. For example, it’s startlingly common for white male administrators to plan privately with white male educators, securing the most desirable classes and assignments for the white men and then offering the remainder to the women and people of color on staff. “We didn’t know you were interested!” is always the excuse, an excuse created by keeping initial planning secret so the question is never asked. Codifying equitable policies would avoid the resentment that such favoritism breeds, increasing retention.

DIVERSIFY LEADERSHIP. In the US, the vast majority of educational leadership is both white and male. Such homogeneity not only reduces effectiveness, but perpetuates itself in that white males are far more likely to hire and promote other white males, minimize or discount their errors and failures, and assume competence even with extraordinary evidence to the contrary. (We’ve all been in situations where a white man who failed spectacularly at another site is hired for a position of leadership at ours.) Homogeneity in leadership leads to the implicit biases common to that group running unchecked through the industry as a whole. Leadership– from department leadership all the way through the superintendent and school board or board of directors– must reflect the diversity of the surrounding community if it is to effectively serve that community.

Diversity without equity is not effective. Hiring women and people of color and then refusing to pay them equitably, promote them, or even listen sincerely to their input is not reflective of a true “commitment to diversity,” a phrase every school and university across the nation displays proudly on their websites. We have much work to do in our industry– and in our culture at large– to live up to that promise. Let’s get to work.

Next: Back to School: How to Fix the “Broken Education System”

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Back to School: How to be a White Teacher, As Taught to Me By Students of Color

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Image: JSTOR Daily (daily.jstor.org)

This is the first piece in a three-part series about education in the US.

I taught for many years as a lecturer at a state university in the Bay Area. Once, after the first day of class, a young Black student stopped me to ask a routine question. He was a freshman, at the start of his college journey. We walked together to my next class for a bit and chatted. I asked him what I asked many of my students when we had a chance to chat: What did he want to do with his life? What were his dreams and goals? He stopped in his tracks, turned to me, and said, “No white person has ever asked me that.”

This was very early in my teaching career, and was a formative moment for me. In one comment, this teenager had given me a master class in being a white teacher, and in whiteness in America. No white teacher– no white PERSON– had ever cared enough to ask this young man the ubiquitous, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That broke my heart and changed my life as a teacher. I began to think hard about how white teachers serve– or do not serve– students of color. I began to think hard about the many ways in which living in a society flooded with racist messaging has influenced the way we teach, the expectations we have of our students, the material we teach, and our classroom cultures.

While many assume education is extremely diverse– I’ve had white people tell me they believe their whiteness is a liability on the academic job market– 80% of public school teachers are white, and 90% of full-time professors are white (but when you include underpaid lecturers, that number drops to 79%). A full 77% of K-12 teachers are women  (but of course just under a quarter of full-time professors are women). White men are given school leadership roles at all levels– K through grad school– at astonishingly higher rates than anyone else, even though they are underrepresented in K-12 education. The more prestigious the educational institution, the more likely white men are chosen for leadership roles.

Most American teachers are white, and most of us are teaching under some form of white male leadership, while the US student population is more diverse now than ever before. Yet we’re also confronted with the reality that white fragility around conversations about race and white resentment are both at a fever pitch, making support around these issues from parents, colleagues and, most importantly, administrators uncertain and often conditional.

How do we support all our students whether leadership is on board or not? How do we create a curriculum and a classroom culture that support the needs of all students using the tools available to us, with or without outside support?

EDUCATE YOURSELF. Read writers of color, and not just when they’re writing about race. Seek out writers whose lived experience differs from yours and learn what they have to say about a wide variety of topics. Believe what writers of color have to say about whiteness. If you begin to feel uncomfortable with a writer’s criticism of white people, lean into it. This is where the growth happens. Don’t allow yourself to pretend that your own resistance, defensiveness, or anger mean that the writer is “wrong.” Defensiveness, resistance, and anger are far more likely to mean that the writer is discussing an uncomfortable truth you do not want to confront. Do you want your students to give up the minute something gets difficult? If we’re asking for that kind of disciplined effort from 14-year-old students around algebra problems or essays, we can certainly give that disciplined effort ourselves about the systemic racism that has destroyed lives for generations. If you’re unhappy with the way writers of color critique whiteness, work to change the impact of whiteness in their lives rather than dismiss the writers for telling the truth.

BUILD A DIVERSE CURRICULUM. Don’t worry about being a white teacher teaching material by people of color. Just don’t present yourself as an expert in the race-related material. It’s enough to be the expert in, say, novel structure; you do not also need to be the expert in Black lives to teach a novel by a Black writer. Read the work of Black scholars when prepping Black material. Present the material to your students as something you are exploring together. Tell students why it’s important to read writers of many different perspectives. Model humility; model the desire to learn about people different than yourself, to learn from people different than yourself. Demonstrate to your students that material by people of color isn’t “Black history” or “Latinx literature” but “history” and “literature.” “History” and “literature” are not naturally white, requiring modifiers to demonstrate distance from the natural whiteness of the fields. All work comes from specific perspectives, including white-written work. We just pretend white-written work is “neutral” and “universal.” White work is heavily influenced by the writer’s whiteness, not “neutral,” but we read whiteness as “neutral” and everything else as defined by its distance from whiteness. All work is both specific in perspective and universal.

Scholars invented “the canon” and we can reinvent it to include writers of color. Writers of color are not temporary diversions from “important work,” existing solely to speak specifically about people of color for a moment before we return to work about more universal themes. Writers of color are firmly enmeshed in the same web of influences and references, and handle the same universal themes, as “canonical” writers. But because scholars privileged white work and relegated, for example, Black work to a “Black lit” or “Black history” sidebar, we’ve been taught to see it as an extra, a detour, a specialization. American writers of color are only considered “canonical” when writing about their identity, while we deem white writers the only people capable of writing work that speaks to the human experience as a whole. Does that seem exaggerated to you? Look for the American writers here, here, and here. Works by writers of color about identity are critically important, and of course do indeed contain universal themes, despite generations of white academics ignoring that. But works by writers of color about other topics are also important and also deserving of inclusion in curricula. Any list or syllabus that includes Orwell and Bradbury but not Butler is broken. Academics invented the broken canon, and we can repair it. Start with your syllabus.

If you’re a Humanities teacher, diversifying your curriculum is easy, especially if you’re already seeking out diverse writers and educating yourself about diverse perspectives. There are literally thousands of articles and lesson plans available online. There are social justice-focused lesson plans, lesson plans about writers of color, lesson plans based on primary source material written by people of color throughout history, and so much more. If you’re a STEM teacher, this might seem more complex. How do you “diversify” an Algebra 2 curriculum? The website Teaching Tolerance has sample lessons for all subjects and grade levels, and is a great place to start. They also published a useful article about diversity in STEM teaching called “Planting Seeds, Growing Diversity.”   There are many resources online for STEM teachers looking to create diverse curricula.

EXAMINE YOUR IMPLICIT BIASES. Implicit biases are unconscious responses to internalized cultural messaging. In a culture rife with systemic racism, we encounter racist messaging every day of our lives. (The same goes for misogyny, transphobia, ableism, etc.) Our implicit biases are not consciously racist, but rather a reaction to our understanding of our culture shaped by a lifetime of racist messaging. All humans have implicit biases and must work to uncover what they are before working to counteract them. I won’t lie to you; it’s difficult work and it’s never-ending, but the results are critically important for teachers. What are your expectations of your students? Do you unconsciously expect white boys to be “better” at some things? Do you allow a Black girl’s math errors to slide because “that’s the best she can do”? Do you see rowdiness from Black students as “inappropriate” and requiring consequences, but rowdiness from white boys as “high spirits”? Do you make up nicknames for students when their names are “too hard to pronounce”? All humans have implicit biases, and all Americans, especially white Americans, have a host of implicit biases about race that we must examine intentionally in order to overcome. Not sure where to start? Take a look at this article from the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, “Awareness of Implicit Biases” and NEA Today’s “When Implicit Bias Shapes Teacher Expectations.”   This is a life-long project with no finish line, so don’t look for quick, easy answers or a bullet-pointed “to do” list for the classroom. This is about examining our own thoughts and behavior over time.

RESPECT STUDENTS’ CULTURES. One of the most frequent mistakes we make as white teachers is around the usage of English dialects such as AAVE (African American Vernacular English). What we call “correct” or “proper” English is just one style of communication students will need to use as a tool in a few, very limited settings. Even in the business world, most communication is done in a slang-y, jargon-y English that is nowhere near “correct.” While formal English skills can indeed open doors for you as the lingua franca of many aspects of our culture, it’s just one style of English communication. When I mark something on a paper as “incorrect” grammar or syntax, it is “incorrect” for formal English, not for all English communication. “Correct” grammar and syntax are always changing. Case in point: Americans insisted on using “momentarily” incorrectly so persistently dictionaries now include “in a moment” as an “alternate usage” along with the original “for a moment,” which quite frankly galls me, but language evolves despite my personal feelings about it. White people complain bitterly about various dialects but don’t know how to use “whom” properly and can’t tell the difference between “every day” and “everyday.” I see white people writing the utterly incorrect “I drink coffee everyday” while sneering at the usage of “ax” for “ask,” a pronunciation that goes back 1200 years. Learning to code switch from AAVE, Hawaiian pidgin, or Spanglish to formal English is a skill, and a deeply useful one. When teaching, emphasize that you’re using one style of English—formal English—in your classroom, not that you’re using “correct English.” No one dialect is always “correct” for every setting.

Think about when formal English is required in your classroom and when it isn’t, and be certain that you’re monitoring that equally. During class discussions, too many teachers allow white slang while “correcting” students who use AAVE (even though the vast majority of “white slang” was appropriated from AAVE). If you’re using “cool,” “hang out,” or the prepositional because (“because science”) but “correcting” students who use “finna,” “ax,” or “I got out the bed,” you’re creating a classroom culture where random white slang is acceptable but a longstanding dialect with its own grammar and syntax–AAVE– is not.  We need to teach formal English to our students, but we can (correctly) recognize that code switching is a complex and useful skill rather than denigrate one dialect while teaching another. You don’t need to denigrate other English dialects to teach students formal English any more than you need to denigrate English to teach Japanese.

LISTEN TO STUDENTS AND COLLEAGUES OF COLOR. Most of what I’ve ever learned about serving students of color as a white teacher came from listening to students and colleagues of color. But in order to listen to colleagues of color, you need to have colleagues of color– and you need to have colleagues of color who are able to speak out without consequences. In the next piece, I’ll examine our role as white allies in creating diversity and equity in the academic workplace.

Next: Back to School: Creating an Equitable Workplace.

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Jeff Sessions Does Not Know His Bible

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Jeff Sessions. (Source: Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Today, speaking in Indiana, Jeff Sessions used Romans 13 to justify the Trump Administration’s brand new policy of stealing children from their parents at the border and locking them in detention centers. He said, “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”

Sessions does not understand Romans 13.

Time for Bitter Gertrude Bible Study!

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Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

It appears that Sessions has not read the full chapter. For example, Romans 13:6 tells you to pay your taxes, yet the Trump Administration changed the law so wealthy people would not have to pay their fair share. Romans 13:9-10 states that all God’s laws boil down to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and that we should therefore “do no harm” to our neighbors. It says that love itself is the “fulfillment of the law.”

So I think it’s clear Sessions has not read Romans 13 in its entirety, or he would not have called attention to it.

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No, Sessions got no further in Romans 13 than Romans 13:1-5. I won’t quote the whole thing here. (The full chapter is linked above if you’re curious.) Romans 13:1 gives you the basics of the text and the basis for Session’s quote:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

Romans 13:1-5 tells us to obey the law. Using this to defend the brand-new policy of the Trump Administration is an egregious– and deliberate– misuse of the text.

“Obey the law” does not mean “the law should never be changed.” If it did, Sessions and Trump would be in a Biblical bind because they very recently changed the policy to order border agents to steal children from parents at the border. This policy change was ordered specifically for its cruelty, as Trump and Sessions believed that people considering coming here to seek work or asylum would reconsider if they knew their children would be stolen from them and locked in cages. The Trump Administration has  snatched infants at the breast. They’ve pulled screaming toddlers away from weeping mothers. These stories are being witnessed, recorded, and retold every single day. Those appalled by this horrific human rights violation are demanding the policy itself be changed, not that individuals disobey the law. It is not against Romans 13 to demand that an immoral law be changed. If anything, it’s required by 13:9.

“Obey the law” presents a serious Biblical problem for the Trump Administration, as border agents are stealing children from legal asylum seekers as well as from undocumented workers. It’s the law of our nation that people can come here, claim asylum, and live under US protection while their cases are being considered. The Trump Administration itself is in violation of US law by stealing the children of legal asylum seekers, in addition to being in violation of Romans 13:1-5.

“Obey the law” and “authorities have been established by God” do not give those authorities carte blanche to commit whatever cruelty they please as punishment for disobedience to the law. Undocumented people crossing into the US are breaking US law, but the Bible—and basic human decency—forbids us from torturing children simply because their parents brought them here. In fact, Romans 13:9 is very clear that cruelty is forbidden, and the Bible specifically forbids cruelty to strangers in our land repeatedly throughout the Old and New Testaments. In Matthew 25:37-46, Jesus himself damns those who did not “take in strangers.”

An infant cries as U.S. Border Patrol agents process a group of immigrants in Granjeno, Texas, outside of McCallen on June 25, 2014.

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. — Matthew 25:41-46        (Photo source: Jerry Lara/San Antonio Express-News/Zuma Press)

Romans 13 does not support what you’re doing, Jeff Sessions. The Bible is abundantly clear that what you are doing is wrong, which is likely why so many religious leaders– even (finally) conservative religious leaders – have spoken out against it and against the Trump Administration’s denial of asylum to victims of domestic abuse and gang violence. If Senate Democrats do not succeed against the Republican majority in their attempt to reverse this policy, it will not be long before the other world powers issue sanctions against us for it, as indeed we have done for similar human rights violations in other countries.

Jeff, as you pointed us to Romans 13, I point you to Isaiah 10:1-3. If Trump cared about the Bible in the slightest, I would ask you to read it aloud to him (since he won’t read it—or anything—himself):

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.

I’m no Christian—I’m even a bad Jew– but I do know how to interpret text. Jeff Sessions, you lied about your own Bible to defend an unjust policy that breaks numerous Biblical precepts and US law. If you truly believe you will one day stand before your God on Judgment Day, you should repent—and quickly, before more people get hurt.

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When White People Say “I Don’t See Race,” We’re Lying

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“We don’t see color!” (Source: Honestly? I found this doing a google image search for “wypipo.” Public domain, according to google.)

“I don’t see color! WE ALL BLEED RED.”

People of color, you have almost certainly had white people say this to you, or some version of it, numerous times. It’s a lie. But you already knew that.

White people, of course we “see color.” We see that people are Black, or Asian, or Latinx. So what is our intent when we say “I don’t see color” to a person of color? What we’re trying to say is “We don’t care about your race! We’re judging you as a person.”

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(Source: stonecroft.org)

I know many white people have good intentions when we say this. Our intention is to advertise ourselves as “not racist.” But intent is meaningless. Impact is what’s important. Intent is unknowable, untouchable, and, let’s face facts, easily reverse engineered. Our words and actions have an impact on the people around us, regardless of our intentions.

So what are we really saying when we say “I don’t see color” or “I don’t see race”?

“I don’t see race” means “I am uncomfortable talking about racism.” When you claim that you don’t even see, for example, your friend’s Blackness, you’re refusing to recognize, understand, and accept that her experience of the world is fundamentally different than yours. “We all bleed red” would have more meaning if some of us weren’t bleeding far more than others. Until you can accept that as fact, you can’t be a good ally, let alone a good friend. Racism exists whether you “see” it or not, and it impacts the day-to-day experiences of people of color. It’s understandable that white people are uncomfortable talking about race, but remember that that discomfort is what people of color experience every day in the US. “I don’t see race” signals to people of color that they can’t be their whole, authentic selves with you.

“I don’t see race” means “Your non-white race is a liability, so I am generously ignoring it.” A racial and/or ethnic identity is a beautiful, meaningful part of a person’s identity. When we tell the people of color around us that we “don’t see race,” we’re saying that we are deliberately ignoring an enormous part of their identity. No one would take that as a compliment. We only claim to “not see” things that are liabilities.

“This whole time, I had spinach stuck in my tooth!”
“I didn’t even see it!”

“I dropped a line in that scene.”
“Did you? I didn’t even notice.”

American culture routinely frames European cultures as intrinsically superior to other cultures, a fact that is unexamined by many people who claim they “don’t see race.” They will proudly wear a kilt or celebrate their Viking ancestry, but see it as a praiseworthy act of generosity to “not see” the ethnic origins of non-white people, having never paused to consider how meaningful it is to be, for example, Black. Almost all Black Americans are descended from enslaved Africans, ripped from their cultures of origin, grouped with people from diverse African ethnicities, and forced to speak a new language and worship a new god while being treated like animals. The families they created here were often ripped apart; children sold away from mothers; husbands sold away from wives. No social or familial bond was safe from destruction. And yet out of that horror, they managed to create a unique American subculture that has been one of the most powerful influences on global culture in the history of humanity. Think about the enormity of that achievement for a moment. Telling a Black woman you do not see her race is like telling a queen you do not see her crown. All racial and ethnic identities have rich cultures and histories. “I don’t see race” is saying “I see an important and beautiful part of your identity as a liability.”

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Hiding from discussions of race does not mean you’re “not racist.”

 

“I don’t see race” means “I’m afraid of being called ‘a racist.'” You cannot hide from discussions of race to avoid racism– quite the opposite. Seeing race does not make you a racist. Stating that you refuse to acknowledge race brings you much closer to that line because you’re rejecting the reality of racism in our culture and its impact on people of color. We live in a racist culture. The culture relentlessly bombards us with racist messaging. Fighting that requires constant vigilance. It requires questioning everything you think about race, everything you read, everything you hear. It requires factchecking statements about race and believing the nonpartisan factchecker rather than the racism. In short, it requires that we see race. It requires active examination of race in both self-reflection and education. If you feel so at sea in these discussions that you avoid them for fear of screwing up and looking like a racist, educate yourself! Read about racism. Read writers of color, and not just when they write about racism. And remember: not every discussion requires your participation. Sometimes you can just listen and learn when people of color are discussing racism around you.

Never try to “play devil’s advocate.” Racism is not a game. It’s an extraordinarily disrespectful thing to say in discussions of race, in no small part because it’s one way people who are afraid of being called “racist” air their racist views. If you find yourself wanting to say, “I don’t see color, but let me just play devil’s advocate here,” stop and spend some time honestly reflecting on what you were about to say.

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(Source: KC Green, gunshowcomic.com)

“I don’t see race” means “The problem will go away if we ignore it.” Talking about racism does not cause racism. Despite the efforts of white people like Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), you do not “make America great” by ignoring race-based discrimination. “We need to stop talking about discrimination and start talking about the nation,” Kelly said, revealing his belief that racism is best swept under the rug, and that people of color are not included when we say “our nation.” Kelly went on to shout at Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), “We’re coming together as a people despite what you say,” meaning America is “coming together” to shut out people of color. The bill for which he was arguing, SJ Res. 57, passed both the House and the Senate, and it is once again legal for auto lenders to discriminate on the basis of race. Fighting racism requires active involvement, and that begins by recognizing the people of color around you in all aspects of their humanity.

“I don’t see race” means “Please praise me as a ‘good white person.'” As a white person trying hard to interrogate my whiteness, be a good ally, and work to create equity in our culture, this is the one I most deeply understand. It’s a struggle to walk around in a body every day that symbolizes hatred and danger to others, and the desire to be recognized as “not that”– as a good person– is strong.

The irony, of course, is that our culture frames people of color, especially Black and Latinx men as violent and dangerous. Despite the generations of oppression and violence white people have inflicted on people of color, our culture gives white people the benefit of the doubt, sees us as individuals, and expects our goodness while assuming people of color, especially Black and Latinx men, are weapons waiting to be used against us. When popular right wing site Breitbart was run by former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, it featured an entire section labeled “Black Crime,” which was, after public scrutiny, demoted to a tag, then finally deleted. (The stories weren’t deleted– just the tag.) President Trump himself has called non-white nations “shithole countries,” and a man who made a recent failed bid for governor of Georgia toured the state in a “deportation bus” emblazoned with “Danger! Murderers, rapists, kidnappers, child molesters, and other criminals on board,” “Follow me to Mexico,” and “Fill this bus with illegals.” Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, commit fewer crimes than people born here, but racism is driving the inaccurate narrative that immigrants are dangerous. That kind of narrative, designed specifically to facilitate the oppression of people of color, cannot simply be ignored.

See race. If you want recognition as a good person, you must act like a good person and actively fight racism. Even then, being anti-racism is like being anti-murder or anti-theft. Don’t expect praise for that. Michelle Obama won’t come to your house with a trophy for being against racism any more than she would because you stopped stealing your co-workers’ lunches from the break room fridge.

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Not coming to your house. (Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP)

Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching. Being a good person is its own reward. Fight racism because it’s the right thing to do.

 

 

 

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Mass Shooters: More MAGA Than Misunderstood

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March for Our Lives. March 24, Washington, DC. (Source: washingtonpost.com)

I’m deeply moved by the nationwide youth protests. The March for Our Lives was breathtaking for so many reasons, not the least of which was its diversity, seamlessly incorporating issues of gun violence from all over the nation.

But the adult backlash is an embarrassment. It’s a real-life Scooby-Doo episode, with unsavory adults shaking their fists at the heroic “meddling kids.” Adults have viciously disparaged, slandered, and even threatened the Parkland survivors. (Imagine what it must feel like to attack a teenager who survived an unspeakable tragedy and believe you’re the good guy.)

In addition to all these attacks, adults are placing the blame for these tragedies on the students themselves, claiming students could solve everything if they’d just be nicer to their fellow students. This is the core of the popular “walk up, not out” campaign, an adult backlash ideology that holds that students should not protest for better gun legislation but should instead be putting their energies into being nicer to their fellow students, since, the theory goes, oddball kids are all the next school shooter, and all they need is a smile!

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More powerful than sensible gun legislation, according to “walk up, not out” (image source: a jillion memes)

 

The idea that teenagers could solve mass shootings by just socializing with “social outcasts” is a dangerous fantasy. Mass shooters do not actually come from the ranks of bullied kids. Many mass shooters were bullies themselves, and a large percentage of them had abused girlfriends and/or wives prior to the shooting. “Walk up, not out” and the entire mythology around the “misunderstood loner” obscure a deeper, more troubling truth.

On February 5 (just days before the Parkland shooting), the Southern Poverty Law Center published an article called “The Alt-Right Is Killing People.” Almost a year prior, The Nation published a piece called “Why Does the Far Right Hold a Near-Monopoly on Political Violence?” There are numerous studies and articles covering the fact that, beginning in the mid-90s, most mass shootings and domestic terrorism have been carried out by white men aligned with the extreme right-wing.

Most white male mass shooters– and most mass shooters are white males– are not “misunderstood loners.” Instead, they’re coming specifically from a place of entitlement– the straight white male entitlement that is a core belief in current extreme right-wing ideology. 

There are, of course, instances of left-wing violence, but they are dwarfed by the much more numerous instances of right-wing violence. Elliot Rodger didn’t want a girl to “walk up” and talk to him– he had been convinced by the alt right “manosphere” that he was entitled to a sexually available girlfriend and that violence was a logical expression of the anger he felt at being “denied” that. There are alt right spaces dedicated to Rodger, calling him a “hero.” Dylann Roof believed he was entitled to an all-white nation. Jerad and Amanda Miller believed they were entitled to freedom from the “tyranny” of the Obama administration, seeing their murders as the start of a right wing “revolution,” as did Paul Ciancia. Even Chris Harper-Mercer, who was biracial and shot people who self-identified as “Christian,” was acting from a place of injured, unfulfilled entitlement, writing a manifesto that bemoaned the fact that he was a virgin alongside racist rants, while using the screen name “ironcross45” (a reference to Nazi Germany). He was identified a year before the shooting as a white supremacist by the US Government Accountability Office.

Much was made of Nikolas Cruz being mistakenly identified as a member of a white nationalist group, but whether he was a member or not, he posted selfies in a Trump MAGA hat, called white women who dated men of color “traitors,” and advocated for racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic violence on social media.

The preponderance of evidence has shown that mass shooters have two things in common: they are “wound collectors” who obsess about the many ways the world has “wronged” them, and they have access to guns. These two combined are the reason most mass shooters now come from the ranks of the extreme right.

Since the founding of Fox News in the mid-90s, right-wing media has been spending billions of dollars and enormous effort to spread the idea that liberals, feminists, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, “coastal elites,” and Muslims are the enemy, less than human. They stoke fear and hatred of these groups, falsely claiming fellow Americans are out to “destroy America,” “destroy our way of lives,” “destroy our values.” They foster wild conspiracy theories, even conspiracy theories they invented and thus know are wrong. They deliberately skew news coverage, reporting some stories and not others (here, here, here, here, here), and providing inaccurate commentary, all to foster fear and hatred of the left. Online and radio sources take this even further, outright defending– or even advocating for— violence against liberals.

This disinformation campaign has been alarmingly successful. Read the comments even on a relatively mainstream site like FoxNews and see for yourself. In fact, here’s one now, from the California math teacher I quoted in my last post:

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Most extreme right wing thinkers won’t become mass shooters, of course. But all mass shooters dehumanize their victims like Marcus F dehumanizes Democrats above, and most mass shooters in the US now express that dehumanization in terms they learned in extreme right-wing circles.

Conservative media and the extremist right-wing online sphere it spawned consistently, incessantly, tell people they are entitled to something that has been stolen from them by evil, “satan-infested” liberals.

You are entitled to this, conservative media trumpet to millions of people, and these bad people are the reason you don’t have it. Respect. A better job. A gun. All the guns. A submissive girlfriend. A nation full of submissive women. A nation where Black people know their place. An all-white neighborhood. An all-white nation. A nation that speaks English and only English. A nation where gay people never mention being gay and gratefully accept their place as second-class citizens. A nation where transgender people do not exist, at all. A nation where “male” and “female” are the only gender options, and “male” always comes first. An all-Christian nation with an Evangelical government.

You’re entitled to a straight, Christian, white male utopia, they say. You deserve it. It’s your cultural heritage. It’s your American birthright. It’s the way things always were, and THEY took it away from you, those inhuman creatures, those “satan infested scum bags.”

Then they make semi-automatic weapons available by the handful to anyone who wants one. A gun is easier to obtain in most areas of the US than a roll of stamps.

These aren’t misunderstood outcasts who can be saved by eating lunch with a pretty girl. These are violent, angry men who commit murder to express their outrage at being unable to control the people and the world around them– unable to make people accord them higher status as white men, unable to create an all-white, straight, cisgender, Christian world, unable to make women submissive and sexually available. Unable to live in the MAGA utopia they are told repeatedly by the extreme right wing they’re entitled to, but wrongfully prevented from achieving by evil feminists, Black Lives Matter, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and “libtards.”

It’s important to note that we only call white male criminals “misunderstood outcasts.” Everyone else is a “thug” or a “terrorist.” We have created this elaborate mythology about the poor, misunderstood white male as part of our larger mythology about the primary importance of white men that permeates the entire culture, left and right.

But while this is an issue on both the right and the left, since the mid-90s, the right has been directly focused on rhetoric that both creates wound collectors and prevents sensible gun legislation. This has proven to be a deadly combination, made even more deadly by the recent campaign to discredit the fact-based media that could mitigate both.

The ability of extremists to convince millions of people that the truth is “fake news” and that unbiased journalists are “liars” is without question a toxic and extremely dangerous development. And while that is, without question, far more common on the right, existing even in the conservative mainstream, it does also exist on the extreme left. We must be vigilant whether the toxic rhetoric comes from the right or the left.

We need to rein in the dangerous extremes of propagandistic right-wing media that have infected the discourse of the nation, turned us against each other, and given rise to a populist movement that put an open racist and cyberbully in the White House. We must also ensure that this kind of fear-mongering propaganda on the left is never allowed to make it to the mainstream as it has on the right.

And we must, we must, we must have more sensible gun legislation. The right has whipped its followers into a frenzy of fear that makes them terrified of any change to current gun laws. I’ve seen multiple gun owners call gun ownership a “God-given right,” as if the 2008 DC v. Heller SCOTUS decision is God. It wasn’t the second amendment that made it possible for private owners to have guns; it was Antonin Scalia. And since that decision, gun deaths have increased in the US 17%. We must have more sensible gun laws in this country that more accurately reflect the second amendment and Scalia’s own 2008 decision that allowed for sensible restrictions rather than reflect the NRA’s desire to protect the interests of gun manufacturers.

We’re not going to end mass shootings in a day. Shifting the culture takes time. But we must try.

And if we fail, I do know this: this next generation, this glorious generation of fierce feminists, of queer brilliance, this generation that is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation of any culture in human history, this generation of vision and ferocity and strength and fearlessness, is going to succeed where we failed.

About ten million people in the most diverse generation in human history will become old enough to vote before November 2020. Behold your future:

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(Source: Shawn Thew/EPA, abcnews.com)

I cannot fucking wait.

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I’m a Teacher. Please Don’t Give Us Guns.

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Emma González. Source: cnn.com

Listen, you and I both know that conservatives squawking about wanting to arm teachers have no intention of doing so. They refuse to pay for pencils, desks, adequate pay, building maintenance, or updated textbooks, so there’s no chance they’re allocating the funding to buy us all Glocks.

Recognizing this, Trump has floated the idea of issuing concealed carry licenses for teachers. This is a breathtakingly bad idea. Teachers carrying guns means students shot out of anger. How do I know? Because humans carrying guns means humans shot out of anger. And how do I know that? It happens in the US every single day of our lives. Almost all shootings are between people who know each other, and happen in the heat of the moment because a gun was readily available.

Who gets shot most often when an armed government employee confronts an unarmed teenager? Get ready for this headline at least once a month: “White Teacher Shoots Black Student; Says He ‘Felt Threatened.'”

As a teacher married to a teacher, I am always reluctant to point out the foolishness of my fellow educators. Most of us are working very hard for very little money and even less respect. And yet, I cannot pretend that teachers like this do not exist:

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It took me just a few moments to connect this commenter to his teacher page on the website of his southern California public high school, in a city with 30% registered Democrats and 39% registered Republicans. Given the progressive bent of modern high school students, it’s a safe bet that this guy’s California classroom is at least half “satan infested scum” on a daily basis. Are you certain you want this math teacher, who not only openly despises half his students as Satanic scum, but feels perfectly fine stating so in a public forum, given the right to carry a firearm in the classroom?  Someone who believes half of America’s youth are “satan infested” but Donald J. Trump is “Godly” is so far removed from reality I would hesitate allowing him a sharpened pencil. We want to allow this man to carry a deadly weapon into the classroom?

While delusional, angry conservatives are thankfully rare in the teaching profession, they are not nonexistent. Nor are liberal teachers with short tempers, for that matter. Nor are clumsy teachers, or teachers with poor vision, or teachers who are easily flustered, because teachers are human beings. We are trained to educate others in specific academic disciplines. We are not trained armed guards. Even if we were, many schools (and other sites) that have experienced mass shootings have had armed guards or police on site. If a trained, experienced police officer can’t stop a shooter from killing people, what makes you think a Language Arts teacher can?

How would police arriving on scene be able to distinguish between a “bad guy” shooting into a crowd of running, screaming students and a “good guy” shooting into a crowd of running, screaming students? How many more innocent lives would be taken by an inexperienced teacher taking ill-advised shots? An active crime scene does not look like it does in the movies. The bad guy doesn’t stand there, in the open, monologuing, while everyone stands aside to give you a clear shot. It’s chaos. Professional law enforcement officers who are expert marksmen hit their target during an active shooter situation 18% of the time and sometimes hit innocent bystanders, but you expect Ms. Reynolds in Room 8 to take out an active shooter without accidentally killing students?

While we have far too many mass shootings, we have even more individual shootings. The presence of a gun greatly increases the likelihood of an innocent person getting shot, which seems painfully obvious, yet somehow still fought by gun nuts. Most of us have not been in a mass shooting situation, but all of us have seen a student piss off an overworked, frazzled teacher. Every teacher knows at least one colleague who has been threatened in their classroom by a student or parent.

We have ample evidence to demonstrate that angry, frazzled, or frightened people in power shoot young Black people and Native American people at alarmingly high rates. Black people are routinely shot when they are doing nothing more threatening than riding as a passenger in a car, playing with a toy, holding a cell phone, or walking down the street. Black and Native American people are shot when they are running away (see also this), complying with an officer’s orders, or sitting with their hands up. Black children are shot sleeping.

What about Black teachers? There are numerous Black people in the teaching profession. While Caucasians are quick to defend Caucasians who shoot a person of color, they are filled with rage and calls for retribution when a person of color shoots a white person, even accidentally. Are we going to arm Black teachers and defend them when they shoot innocent students the way we defend white police officers who shoot innocent citizens? Are we going to defend a Black teacher who shoots a white student because she “felt threatened”? Or even when she’s actually threatened by a student or parent?

And how many gun-toting teachers will shoot the woman who rejects them in the heat of the moment? Women are attacked or killed for rejecting men every single day. Are you ready for “Math Teacher Shoots Sophomore Who Rejected His Advances, Threatened to Tell Principal, Wife”?

There are many solid reasons not to arm faculty, but there are none more solid than this: students want fewer guns in their schools (and in their streets, and in their lives, and in their nation) and they’re not going to stop until they get exactly that.

Those fiery, witty, brilliant Marjory Stoneman Douglas students, who responded to their personal tragedy by setting the nation ablaze with their fierce activism? Those students are not at all unusual. Emma González, with her shaved head and her historic “we call BS” speech? Half my girls are like that. What gives these kids the guts, grit, and strength to put themselves out there, open themselves to the relentless harassment, death threats, and smear campaigns by gun-loving adults, is that they know this, too. They know there’s an entire generation behind them, they know that Black teens have been advocating for gun control for years (and received even worse harassment and threats), they know that their generation will swiftly outnumber us, and, as digital natives, they can organize more quickly and effectively than we can. We clutch our pearls complaining about teenagers and cell phones while those teenagers use those cell phones as hammers to reshape our world.

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Emma González will be old enough to vote in 2020, and so will my students. “Libtards” aren’t coming for your guns under this extreme right wing administration, but Emma González and an entire generation of fierce, pissed off youngsters certainly will be soon enough. Soon enough those kids, in all their diversity and fierceness and lack of interest in your “BS,” will outnumber us. Soon enough the Senate and the House will be filled with those kids. Someone like Emma González– if not González herself, because DAMN– will be sitting in the White House. You think these kids are entitled, selfish, whiny snowflakes who need safe spaces, yet they are already demonstrating how much braver, how much bolder, how much tougher they are than we ever were. Compare adults who need a gun to feel safe, who need to pretend these kids are “crisis actors” in order to feel safe, who need to pretend young Black activists are “thugs” in order to feel safe, to González, and Cameron Kasky, and Sarah Chadwick, and David Hogg and Maxine Wint, and all the kids who continue to speak out, organize, and protest despite relentless harassment and death threats from adults.

I’m a teacher. If you want students to be safe at school, giving us guns will achieve the exact opposite. President González will just recall them all in 20 years anyway.

 

 

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Why Didn’t She Just Say No To Aziz Ansari?

 

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The internet is blowing up with speculation about the Aziz Ansari allegation posted in Babe. People are desperately seeking to define it. Was it sexual assault? Was it not? The thinkpieces are already rolling out. People are boiling over with excitement to lay some of the blame on the young woman, Grace, for not rejecting Ansari forcefully enough. I’m seeing reasonable people somehow imagining that a 22-year-old woman could gather her resolve, push aside all her cultural training, and tell an older, wealthy celebrity, in no uncertain terms, NO.

I say “push aside all her cultural training” because women in our culture are trained from birth that men are fragile, emotional creatures who cannot withstand the slightest discomfort or rejection from women, and men prove that to us over and over and over.

How, you ask?

Like this:

These Fourteen Women Were Brutally Attacked for Rejecting Men

Nearly Half of All Murdered Women Are Killed By Romantic Partners

Black Woman Attacked, Beaten Unconscious After Rejecting Man’s Advances

Rejecting Men Has Deadly Consequences

Woman Beaten After Rejecting Man’s Advances

Man Strangles and Kills Teenager for Rejecting his Marriage Proposal

11 Black Women Who Were Killed for Saying “No”

#YesAllWomen: A Short Fuse Between Rejection and Violence

Young Mum Battered in Nightclub After Rejecting Thug’s Advances

NYC Man Who Attacked Asian Women Blamed Them for Rejecting Him

When Women Refuse

Man Confesses to Killing Woman Who Didn’t Want to Date Him

Man Viciously Attacks Woman for Refusing to Give Him Her Number

Female Tourist, 60, Repeatedly Punched in the Face After Rejecting Sexual Advances

Female Comic Brutally Beaten After Rejecting Men’s Advances

Irish Woman Beaten and Left in French Street for Rejecting Advances

When Men Attack the Women Who Reject Them: Terrifying Accounts from Their Victims

Pregnant Woman Slammed on the Ground, Stabbed, After Rejecting Man’s Advances

This Is What Happens When Women Reject Men Online

Man Sexually Assaulted Woman After Kiss Rejection

People are defending Ansari for not being able to “read her mind,” but completely miss the fact that she could not likewise read his. Women are attacked every single day for rejecting men. How was she to know if Ansari was going to be gracious or shout profanities at her, push her to the floor, spit on her, or kick her (literally) out of his apartment? I’ve had all that (and more) done to me as a young woman by men. Did every man I encounter do that to me? No. Was I able to know, in advance, who would push me violently and who would walk away? Also no, especially not on a first date.

Women are attacked every single day for rejecting men. For every story that makes the news, there are a thousand you’ve never heard of. It’s not just obvious douchebags or “men like that” (whatever “that” is). Women are attacked by men who are “nice guys.” Women are attacked by men who swear publicly they would never hit a woman. Women are attacked by men who are wealthy professionals. Women are attacked by older gentlemen. Women are attacked by celebrities.

I could not be less interested in Aziz Ansari and young Grace. This is just celebrity gossip unless we’re using this one story as an example of several larger issues that must be addressed in our culture.

  1. Men attack women for rejecting them so often that woman are terrified of rejecting them. This is a problem in a world where clear, enthusiastic consent is a must.
  2. You must get clear, enthusiastic consent before you put your hands on somebody. That burden is on the active party, not the passive one. The active party could be male, female, or nonbinary. If you’re going to put your hands on someone, it’s your job to get consent, not their job to stop you mid-grab and say no.

Let’s stop this victim-blaming nonsense. Women have every reason to fear giving that clear, unequivocal, forceful NO you’re all blaming Grace for failing to give. You put us in a no-win situation. If we fail to say no, we end up forced to do things we don’t want to do when you’re too inept and/or selfish to get clear consent. If we do say no, a large percentage of you attack us, and we have no way of knowing in advance.

Stop attacking women who reject you. Give us no reason to fear saying NO.

UPDATE: This piece from KatyKatiKate, “not that bad,” is well worth your time.

 

 

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“This is Not Going to Go the Way You Think”: The Last Jedi Is Subversive AF, and I Am Here for It

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John Boyega as Finn, Daisy Ridley as Rey, and Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi

NOTE: This post is full of spoilers.

“This is not going to go the way you think.” — Luke Skywalker

Star Wars has always had its finger on the pulse of the cultural fear of the moment. In the original trilogy in the 1970s and early 80s, it was The Man– an evil establishment that needed to be purified by a younger generation. In the prequels of the 90s, it was evil corporations secretly colluding with a corrupt government to create endless war.

Now, in early 21st century America, the villain is an unstable young white man who had every privilege in life, yet feels like the world has wronged him. Unbeknownst to his family, he finds and communicates with a faraway mentor who radicalizes him with a horrific, authoritarian ideology. By the time his family finds out, it’s too late, and now this unstable young white man has this horrific ideology, access to far too many weapons, and the desperate desire to demolish anything that he perceives as a threat– or is told to perceive as a threat.

Star Wars has always pushed at the boundaries of its culture. Princess Leia was mainstream filmmaking’s first self-rescuing princess, and the films were unstinting in depicting her importance to the military strategy of the Rebellion, reflecting an incipient 70s feminism. The prequels were clear that we were all complicit in a corrupt system whether we admitted it to ourselves or not, symbolized by noble Jedi finding themselves leading an army of slave clones that were purchased from part of a massive military industrial complex. For all the films’ faults– and they are legion– this was a stunning accusation, and played to the 90s’ growing concerns of big business’ influence on government.

The new films are again at the vanguard of cultural concerns, but push harder and more subversively than any of the previous films. Above all else, The Last Jedi is about smashing patriarchal white supremacy– smashing it to the ground and starting over– and I am here for it.

While the earlier films were about the need to purify corrupt systems, the new ones are about smashing everything and starting over.

At every turn, the new films are about “letting the past die.” At its most broad and obvious, this means killing off the older generation and handing the narrative to the new. The Force Awakens killed off Han, which was no surprise as Harrison Ford had been badgering them to kill off Han Solo since Empire. Then The Last Jedi turned a hard corner by killing off Luke when everyone expected to lose Leia due to the loss of the great Carrie Fisher. Luke sacrifices himself in one last spectacular moment of force-wielding brilliance in order to save Leia and the Rebellion. This kind of sacrifice is something we’re used to seeing from extraordinary female characters (see every extraordinary woman from Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web to Eleven in Stranger Things). In TLJ, the central white male hero of the original films dies to save an exceptionally diverse, gender-balanced group of people who are, as Poe says, the “spark that will light the fire that will destroy the First Order.” Not “save the galaxy”; not “save the Republic.” This is not about saving something from corruption. It’s about ending the old order and creating something completely new.

As the older generation dies, the older way of doing things dies as well. Luke can’t bring himself to burn down the tree containing the sacred Jedi texts, so Yoda force ghosts in and does it for him, cackling, telling Luke that Rey already has “everything she needs,” then dropping this bit of heartaching profundity: “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” Anyone who has ever been a teacher or a parent understands this most painful and exhilarating of truths, but Yoda says it as the foundational texts of the Jedi order burn (as far as Luke or the audience know at that point). “We are what they grow beyond.” Not just us, but our old ways. Specifically, the old ways of hierarchical privilege.

Luke believes the Jedi order needs to die for this very reason. “The Jedi don’t own the force,” Luke says. The force is in everyone. Leia reflects this as well. “Why are you looking at me? Follow him,” she says, handing leadership to a random pilot who came from nowhere to become central to the Resistance. And although I am the first person to sign up for Team Leia– she was more than worthy of every inch of her power in the Rebellion– the door opened for her because she was part of the royal family of Alderaan. Her mother was the Queen of Naboo. Poe Dameron’s mother was a Rebel pilot. As the Rebels follow Poe, waiting for them on the other side is Rey, whose parentage was the subject of feverish speculation. Certainly she must be someone— she must come from some kind of peerage, pedigree, or privilege to be so special. But she is nobody from nowhere, daughter of unsavory junk traders who sold her for booze and died on Jakku. The force belongs to everyone, not just the pedigreed. 

Privilege is handily dismantled wherever we try to create it. Rose Tico is awed by meeting Finn, now a hero of the Resistance, only to have her hero worship dashed when she realizes Finn is trying to escape. Finn comes from nowhere– one of many nameless troopers stolen as small children. Rose, as well, comes from nowhere– daughter of miners who now works as a tech for the Resistance. Some have criticized the Finn/Rose subplot, but thematically, the meaning is critical– these young Rebels are the new generation who will build the new society on the ashes of the old. They’re played by actors of color. Rose is respected by Finn for her expertise and quick thinking as a matter of course, not as a reveal (“Oh look! The pretty girl is actually smart!” or “That competent person took off their helmet and HOLY CRAP IT’S FEMALE”). When she falls for Finn, it’s not the usual trope of Hero Wins Sexy Woman, and was therefore criticized for being “shoehorned in.” Rose wasn’t wearing a low-cut top; we never saw Finn ogling her; we never saw the camera linger over her ass. We were never given the signals “SEE HER AS A SEX OBJECT,” so her love for Finn is “shoehorned in.” But this is the stirrings of the new society. Any idiot can ogle a woman’s ass, but the man who automatically respects a woman’s expertise is well worth falling for. While Leia and Poe are trying to save the Resistance on one front, Finn and Rose represent what they’re trying to save.

The Resistance is impressive in its casual diversity. Women and people of color are valued for their expertise as a matter of course; nowhere does the film congratulate itself on its diversity by making a huge point of highlighting it, demonstrating white male benevolence by the generous inclusion of women and people of color, positing a white male audience nodding along, agreeing that we are so wonderful for allowing our White Male World to donate a very small corner for the Less Fortunate. The Resistance is naturally diverse, and no one even seems to notice. That is masterfully subversive.

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Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) addressing the Resistance in The Last Jedi

It’s not enough to destroy the old order from without. The Last Jedi demands that we examine our own complicity in the corruption of the old ways. Poe’s belief that all problems can be solved by shooting something down is shown as dangerous when unchecked; it’s the same toxic masculinity wielded by Kylo Ren, and a mainstay of war culture. The film indicts war culture and toxic masculinity throughout. Leia slaps and demotes Poe for sacrificing lives to bring down a dreadnought instead of escaping as ordered (“dead heroes. And no leaders”). Later, after his failed mutiny, she tells him that Holdo was more interested in “saving the light rather than looking like a hero.” But nowhere is the struggle against our own complicity with war culture more prominent than when Benicio Del Toro’s amoral DJ reveals to Finn and Rose that the “worst people in the galaxy”– the wealthy arms dealers who congregate at the Canto Bight casino– make their money selling weapons to both the First Order and the Resistance. 

The Last Jedi has a clear message: The nearly all-white, overwhemingly male, privilege-based way of thinking that celebrates war culture and toxic masculinity and that created the First Order has to go, both in the larger world and as it’s internalized in our hearts and minds, and in its place will be something entirely new, created by diverse young people who are walking away from war culture, walking away from toxic masculinity, walking away from systems of privilege. What new society will they create? We don’t know. But we do know that old ways of thinking have failed us in every possible way. The wisest of the older generation, like Luke, have known this for a long time. The selfish, small-minded, hateful, and power-hungry in the older generation will continue to hunt and seduce the next generation, but the light still stands. No matter how much power they accrue, no matter how many angry young white men they convince we are the enemy, the light still stands. The future is brown, and female, and brilliant, and fierce, does not give even one single fuck about the way things used to be.

Those who wanted a safe and comforting Star Wars movie are understandably upset. The Last Jedi is anything but safe. It’s as subversive as it gets, and I am here for it.

P.S. Dear Lucasfilm:

Please attack cisheteronormativity in your next film.

Cackling Along with Yoda,

Melissa

 

 

 

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How Theatre, Film, and TV Can End Sexual Harassment

During Thanksgiving, I was having a conversation with a very liberal family member. He was adamant that he supported and believed women. Then he immediately went on to tell me that women are exaggerating about sexual harassment. We had had this conversation before. I had sent him links with hard data and links with personal stories. “Did you read the links I sent you?” I asked him. “Yes. I still don’t believe it’s as pervasive as women say.” This man says he believes women, then in the next breath says that he knows better than women do what our lives are like.

A very few, very powerful men have been openly accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. A handful have lost their jobs, all of whom were already so fabulously wealthy that they were working for the pleasure of working. After generations of women* having to endure “but is she lying? She’s probably lying” as the men who assaulted them received fabulous power and wealth, we’re just at the very beginning of believing women. 

Yet we’re already seeing the inevitable backlash– men (and a few women) whining about “witch hunts,” the irony of which is jaw-dropping.

We’re already seeing articles worrying about men being fired without “due process,” which, like the first amendment, limits governmental power, not the ability of a company to fire someone. Conservatives have worked hard enough to make every state an “at will” and/or “right to work” state, so they of all people should know that a private company can fire anyone for any reason in most places.

We’re already seeing men hysterically screeching about being “afraid to talk to women at all,” as if you could accidentally grab a woman’s breasts, shove her up against a wall, and stick your tongue down her throat, as if you could accidentally take your penis out in your office.

And we’re already seeing thousands upon thousands of men who, like my relative at Thanksgiving, believe women only in the abstract, but who actually still believe that they know better than women what women’s lives are like, who believe that their opinions about which women’s stories are “real” and which are “exaggerated” should be given more weight than the millions of women saying “this is the truth of our lives.”

How do we make sure this cultural moment doesn’t backslide into the same age-old sexism we’ve endured for centuries?

Like racism, sexism is systemic, and the response must be systemic. We are all complicit in a system that creates and maintains an environment of harassment, and we must all examine both our complicity and the way male privilege works in our lives.

The men in our culture who are not sexually aggressive had to learn that the culture was lying to them, had to learn that the sexual aggression and conquest mentality they saw glorified in every corner of our culture was harmful. They had to learn how to navigate a culture that expected it of them, and that shamed them for not participating.

Those of us who create the various forms of media that have a powerful hand in shaping our culture are uniquely positioned to change that.

In addition to our own individual work examining our own complicity with fearlessness and examining with equal fearlessness the way male privilege works in our lives, we must look at the work we create and the messages we’re sending into the world. 

In no small part, we, as content creators in theatre, film, television, books, advertising, and video games created this.

We produced Oleanna and pretended it was a “balanced view” instead of a sexist takedown. We looked the other way and hired men we knew were harassers, telling women, “Just don’t be alone with him backstage.” We gave those men positions of power and awards. We regularly produced work that showed women as collectible sex objects. We glorified work that shows men pressuring women to have sex, and then shows those women finally giving in and enjoying it, as if caving to relentless pressure is an expression of normal and healthy female sexuality. We used sexual aggression as a joke. We showed women being raped and in the end, enjoying it.

There are countless films, TV shows, plays, and ads that laugh at attempted rape– or actual rape. That show women enjoying rape. Look at old episodes of MASH, where random men literally chasing weeping, frightened women are given laugh tracks, as if it’s hilarious when a woman is fighting off a rapist. Look at Pepé le Pew. Look at Madeleine Kahn’s character in Young Frankenstein. Look at 80s comedy films. And of course it’s not just a thing of the past. Look at this, this, and this.

Look at the much-lauded Stranger Things. Of course the Duffer brothers rewarded Steve’s sexual aggression by depicting Nancy caving and loving it. In these tropes, it’s common for the girl to be shamed if she refuses (“prude”) and shamed if she caves (“slut”). The Duffer Brothers were heralded for “subverting the trope” simply by delaying Steve’s inevitable shaming of Nancy. Of course, Nancy forgives Steve for her public shaming, just as she forgives Jonathan– with a smile– for stalking her. These (now) 33-year-old male writers have a clear message for 16-year-old girls, and it’s “Male sexual aggression should always be rewarded. You secretly like it anyway, so your discomfort isn’t important.” Later, they pressured an underage actress into an unscripted kiss during shooting, then laughed publicly about her discomfort. And we are still rewarding them.

Our culture has relentlessly shown that sexual aggression is rewarded, and that women who complain about it are just humorless killjoys who should relax and enjoy it.

If we want to change the culture, we must stop trivializing sexual assault and rape in the material we create. Of course we can’t do anything about old MASH episodes or Stranger Things. No one is advocating for banning existing properties, although the male hysteria on this topic would make you believe otherwise.

We can effect change by flooding the culture with new work that doesn’t make light of sexual assault, that doesn’t use rape as a way to advance a male narrative, that doesn’t reward men for sexual aggression. We can flood the culture with work that depicts women as human beings with our own stories and motivations, whether we’re the main character or not.

Imagine a romcom that doesn’t frame stalking as romantic. Imagine a horror film that doesn’t objectify women or punish female sexuality. Imagine material that does not require women to always consider male sexual pleasure, even in the midst of a crisis, that does not require women to laugh along when our assault is the butt of the joke, that does not depict sexual aggression as “natural,” “boys being boys,” or what “real men” do.

We must think critically and fearlessly about the work we write and produce. We must refuse to continue supporting work that rewards and valorizes sexual aggression. How many times have you seen two or three young women with no lines, reduced to breasts and asses, draped across a man simply as a marker of his power? How often have you seen a man depicted as exceptionally virtuous and good simply because he didn’t immediately assault a woman he was alone with? How often have you seen rape used to advance a male plotline (NOW HE MUST GET REVENGE), or to transform an “unlikeable” character into a “good” character (HER TRAUMA HAS FOREVER CHANGED HER)? How often have you seen science fiction where all the aliens are visibly male? (And before you say, “But they’re aliens! Those could be females!” they’re all cast with male actors and discussed using male pronouns.) How often have you seen projects where women are shown only as functions of the male characters (as collectibles, prizes, sex objects, impediments)?

Part of the issue is that women directors and writers in TV and film are rare. In theatre, while the numbers are slowly improving, women writers are rarely produced in larger theatres, and women artistic directors in LORTs and producers on Broadway are exceedingly rare. (That’s so well documented, I’m not even bothering to link it.) We have sexist media in large part because you don’t let us in the room, and when you do, we’re shouted down, ignored, and minimized. (And while this particular post focuses on women, these issues are intersectional, and everything I’ve said here is even more egregious for women of color, women with disabilities, women of size, and gender nonconforming people.)

We make culture. We can change it. Let us in the room. Listen to what we have to say. Examine the work you make fearlessly. Don’t cave to nonsense; hold the line against “it’s just a joke,” “she needs to be sexier,” or “she needs to be more likable– soften her character/shorten her skirt/make her younger/give her lines to a man/make her less angry.” Refuse the conventional wisdom that women can’t be more than 2 out of the 5 main characters without losing mainstream appeal and becoming “for women.” Refuse to make sexual assault a cheap plot device or a joke. Refuse to produce work that glorifies or rewards sexual aggression.

As content creators, when we refuse to support the expectation and glorification of sexual aggression, when we create work that shows women as people who are naturally part of the world, not provisionally part of the world as functions of men, we will be changing the messaging of our entire culture. The majority of our cultural messaging is disseminated through the media– through OUR WORK. Change the media, change the culture.

 

*I am using “women” to mean “female-identified people,” not “cisgender women.”

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What About Franken?

Senator Al Franken is the latest in an enormous string of celebrities and politicians accused of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault. I’m not going to list them all here, as that list will surely be outdated the moment I hit “publish.”

Franken himself is accused of an overly aggressive unwanted kiss, a “funny” picture where he pretends to grab the breasts of a fellow USO performer as she sleeps, and grabbing a woman’s butt as he takes a picture with her at a County Fair. There have been numerous calls for him to step down, most notably from the Republican politicians who would benefit from the loss of Franken, while those same Republicans ignore the dozens of women who have accused Donald Trump of much worse.

I don’t think Franken should step down. In fact, I think Franken stepping down is counter productive.

Men– and women– who commit sexual assault should be prosecuted. Rapists should be behind bars. Women should be believed. It’s great that we’re finally being believed (when the perpetrator is a Democrat only). It’s great that rapists like Harvey Weinstein are being exposed.

But Franken is not accused of rape. Franken is accused of the low-level sexual aggression which every woman experiences routinely. Franken is accused of the kinds of things almost every man in the country has done. Our culture not only winkingly allows sexual aggression in men; it rewards it. We teach men to be sexually aggressive by valorizing it in films, TV shows, plays, books, music– you name it. We punish men who openly treat women with respect. The problem isn’t Franken. The problem is systemic.

As is the case with all systemic issues, the problem can only be addressed by a culture shift. We all must examine our complicity. We all must examine the ways male privilege works in our lives. We all must examine the ways we have perpetrated or supported sexual aggression.

Putting Franken on the altar as a sacrifice does nothing for women.  All it does is provide a scapegoat. It enables men to continue pretending this is about a few bad actors who need to be punished. Once a few “bad guys” have been ruined and shamed, men can shake hands and call the job “done,” promise on social media to do better in the future, and nothing changes.

The vast majority of the men doing the same kinds of things Franken has done are not famous. Your wife, your daughter, your sister, are all still slogging through this kind of male behavior every day, and not telling you, because you’ll throw a fit and make her life miserable, or because she brushes it off as the basic cost of being publicly female, or because she feels shamed by it and hides it. I have never reported every single instance of sexual harassment to the men in my life. Why would I?

That silence is part of my complicity in this. My complicity extends in many directions. I didn’t fire a man who forced an aggressive kiss on a woman at a cast party. She and I both were like, “SO CREEPY” and never thought to hold him accountable. Why would we? We expected this kind of thing from men. It was my home, and my theatre company, and I did nothing. 

Franken himself has called for an ethics investigation, and of course I support that. I also support him staying in the Senate unless we apply these consequences in politics evenly. If Franken is forced to resign without the GOP putting similar pressure on Trump, then they’re just using our pain for their own political gain, and should burn in hell for that. (They’re already burning in hell for supporting Roy Moore, whom I do not include in this article, as he is a sexually aggressive pedophile, which is entirely different. He should be fired into the sun.)

But if we demand Franken step down without also seriously examining the systemic sexism that supports this kind of low-level, constant sexual aggression– without every single adult human examining their own complicity in systemic sexism– nothing will change.

You want to be a good ally to women? Start by examining your own behavior. Start by calling out the men in your life when you see their sexual aggression instead of high-fiving them. Start by examining the media you make and the media you consume, and demanding better. The issue is not Al Franken, or any one man. The issue is systemic sexism.

UPDATE 12/6/17: When I wrote this piece, the number of women accusing Franken were two. Now, the number is eight. While I am still waiting for Republican men to be held to the same standards we hold Democrats (the number of women who have spoken publicly about being sexually assaulted by Donald Trump is now 20), I want to repeat that sexual harassment is never OK, and that ALL who harass and assault should be held accountable while we simultaneously respond to sexism in our culture as a systemic issue. Holding men accountable is step one, and Franken, Trump, and every other man who sexually assaults others should, without question, be held accountable.

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