I saw a great Tweet recently. It really captured something I have been struggling with for the past year or so. The Tweet said (and I paraphrase): it’s fine to process with friends sometimes, and to listen when a friend is in need. However, a friend is not a therapist, and certainly doesn’t get paid to be one. In a nutshell, don’t dump too much emotional baggage on people- it’s not their responsibility, and it can be quite taxing.
There are of course layers to this- therapy is expensive. It isn’t accessible to everyone, to most. Therapy doesn’t work for all, and a majority of therapists are white and cisgender, which is important to note because people of color and trans folx especially experience much more difficulty accessing a good therapist if they have the resources in the first place. That is not to say therapists must share all life experiences with their patients, but it is to say therapists are people and have limits.
What I am struggling with is taking on the emotional dump for a particular group of people- cishet white men. I am struggling because it is my burden and I want to own that. At the same time, I find some of their “confidential” complaints problematic. Further, when confronting the problems, the response I receive is often one of outrage and gas lighting. As in, “I just wanted to complain, I don’t need advice,” or “You’re not listening, you’re being condescending.” Their complaints are about a felt “oppression” because of who they are. While I can’t fight feelings, I can correct the false narratives that lead to these feelings- one of these narratives is that “white people aren’t given positions of power anymore.” So, what is the balance between listening to a fellow white person when they absolutely should not be airing these unfounded grievances on people of color, and struggling against the exhaustion of fighting this emotional labor handed off to women and non-men?
Giving up is not an option, because that would invite two different scenarios. The first is perceived agreement- allowing these bullshit complains to seem valid just solidifies their position of unchecked privilege. Ignoring them and demanding they take their problems elsewhere is also unhelpful, because then someone else is burdened. I’m working on developing more skills to confront without feeling emotionally wrecked after a thirty minute conversation, but this question interests me.
I think beyond working on stamina skills there is a fundamental point of view that needs to change. It is very related to this popular quote that has taken 1000 iterations, something like “Equality feels like oppression when you’re in a position of privilege.” The reality is, as we work toward equity and eventually liberation, privilege needs to be dismantled. It’s ok to be passed over for a job despite having the proper qualifications. It’s ok to not have the mic or be the face of an office or a movement. The reality still is that white folx will demand positions of power and more air time, and continue to espouse a narrative that allows us to claim oppression. Another reality is that white men will continue to dump these feelings on non-men unless other men learn how to listen and hold each other accountable. I think the most dangerous position is to be in one without introspection.
I’m definitely not saying anything in this post that has not been said before. It’s been said many times, it’s been said recently, it’s definitely been said today. Like five minutes ago. Because most likely, someone didn’t listen. And not listening meant upholding patriarchy and continuing to allow dehumanization and violence toward women. Toward womxn. Toward survivors and victims. I’ve heard excuse after excuse and experienced literal yelling over social media. I’ve gotten dismissive, unthoughtful responses like, “there is no evidence, so how can we know who is telling the truth?” or “think about his situation and how hard this is for him.” Consider: why would someone lie about trauma- especially knowing full well the absolute storm of disgusting responses you will receive?
On the other hand, the sarcasm and sass on the internet gives me just a little bit more life. “Maybe he should smile more. Maybe he shouldn’t have worn that and he wouldn’t be accused.” ABSOLUTE GOLD. It makes me laugh so hard because it hits so directly on what women have been saying over and over in so many intelligent, patient, “civil” ways (I hate that word). It’s funny because it sounds SO stupid! And yet- advocating for the rights and innocence of someone who commits assault is SO stupid. And it is happening every minute.
So why won’t they listen?
I’m going to share a story that is not meant to equate experiences with race and gender or experience of violence. This is only to illuminate a point. I remember, before engaging in racial justice and what we usually call “diversity” work how defensive I could feel when someone called me out. Especially if they used the term “racist.” Because even though no one told me that I, as an entire human, was a racist, I associated racist behavior with being a racist, which I knew to be very bad. I did not want to be a very bad person, so I shut down a few times. I got defensive and didn’t listen or learn anything. And that was a shame, because the folx telling me truth were offering a huge gift- a gift they had no responsibility to give, that probably contributed further to baggage and eliminated a potential future ally. That is- I eliminated myself from that, and caused harm. I knew I was complicit. I didn’t want to admit it.
This is aimed not so much at abusers and perpetrators- y’all can honestly rot for all I care- this is for the people who are defending the abusers and perpetrators. The people who “can’t believe her without evidence.” The folx who want to cite some completely false statistics that more women and womxn are lying about assault now so they’re ruining other “real” survivors experiences by creating a girl-who-cried-wolf-scenario. This behavior is why interrupting and catcalling and booty calls and excusing terrible behavior and assault and rape happen ALL THE TIME. This is perpetuating rape culture. It’s not only excusing the event but denying any agency when someone bravely comes forward. I want to emphasize this because I honestly had a stronger reaction to 45 mocking someone who did the best she could to tell her story than a rapist acting like an angry child. Perpetuating allows behavior to continue. Perpetuating= complicity. It’s like telling someone’s fortune, except it’s invoking future trauma.
So. I’m coming out strong to say that if you tell me your story of trauma and survival, I believe you. Thank you to those who listened to and believed me. I am working on checking my own actions that perpetuate.
After an all-too-indulgent weekend, I climbed into a Lyft at San Jose Airport, headed back to my apartment in Palo Alto.
I stumbled a little. “I’m…both going home and coming from home,” I finally mustered. That morning, my mom raced to Burbank airport in rush hour traffic. I boarded exactly twelve minutes before the flight was scheduled to take off. As we drifted up and over the San Gabriel mountains and up the coast, the landscape reminded me: this is home.
This past week I finished my first year of graduate school. Admittedly, it was more emotional than I imagined it would be. I didn’t turn in the last paper feeling like the stress was barely beginning because the grade is what matters. Letting go felt like permission to celebrate an accomplishment- staying in the room when things got rough. After I turned in the paper, I turned on the Dodger game, threw some clothes in a suitcase, and started a memoir I’ve been hoping to read all year. I kept telling myself it was ok to enjoy a few hours of no commitment.
What does “home” have to do with the PhD program? I could be studying anywhere, but I’m back in California like I hoped. That same night I finished, a student who will start the program in the fall sent me a message. “You finished! What is your biggest piece of advice to a first year?”
Part of me wanted to say, “You have no idea what you’re getting in to. Even if you have a Master’s Degree, you have no idea what kind of caliber work is expected. And how many hours a day you’ll spend reading, or preparing, or formulating a single sentence.” But I didn’t say that, because what use would that have been to me nine months ago? I probably would have cried a little and moved on without any real wisdom. So instead, I said what I truly wished someone had told me before I started, which is how lonely this work can be. This might sound obvious- you read and write all day? Of course these activities are done solo. But the detachment from a community can deeply affect even the quality of our work.
It was really the writing class in the winter quarter this year that helped me expand my purview of “home.” As the weeks went by and we joked about how #transformed our writing would be by the end of the class, I started feeling like maybe this was something I could do. Maybe I could even be good at it. That feeling came from the work of building community based on appreciative critique (though some days, critiques escalated to strong words) and well, internet memes. The point is, I began to see how crucial it is to involve others in every step of my thinking.
I remember the day I walked into our writing professor’s office. “This isn’t the paper I want to write,” I confessed. “I really want to write about how patriarchal and white interfaith dialogue spaces are, and how I think we can do better.” She jumped from her chair and handed me three books. “It’s like you’re talking to three different fields,” she said. “This could be helpful to so many people.” At the end of the day, I’m carrying on in the long nights of reading and early writing sessions because I do want my work to be helpful. Feeling at home means I talk to the people for whom it will be useful and finding my voice in the meantime.
You’re a professor, a teacher, an instructor, a TA…anyone with some power to craft a syllabus or introduce material you haven’t written for the purposes of learning. That’s a big net, but this is a big problem. Let’s say (like me) you’re developing a World Religions syllabus. You’re really into it- So many great readings! An interesting assignment! Field Trips! Guest speakers! Literally, you cannot wait to teach this class because you’ve curated the entire semester down to a note and the students will be AMAZED. Ok. Here’s the problem: you find out one of your most crucial readings, one written by a foremost scholar in the field, has been arrested for something icky. I’m not picking one thing because this isn’t just a “one instance” issue. I’m asking what we do. Because so far, everyone I have spoken with rightfully thinks long and hard before answering. No one has really offered an answer.
I do not have an answer either. My first reaction? Take it off the syllabus, take it off websites, get rid of it. Poof, gone. That’s an option. My friends and colleagues have responded with thoughtful questions to this idea:
-What if the reading really is that crucial? I ask- can we differentiate who influences our students based on the quality of their work, or more likely the level of their fame? And isn’t any press good press- won’t students go looking for this source when they learn the scandal?
-What if the crime really has nothing to do with the scholarship? Someone stealing cars could definitely still write an excellent history of Early Christians. I ask- does any part of our lives have no bearing whatsoever on our work? Can we really separate ourselves from our research?
-What if the person admitted the crime, served their time, and apologized? What if they really feel sorry? I ask- is it good to find redemption in people? Do we have to forgive if someone has been harmed? Does an apology change trauma that someone faces every day? (No. That’s a no.)
-We need to know the identity of this person. Maybe they aren’t guilty. If you start finding dirt on one person, how far will it go? No one is perfect. I ask- how should we view law and the justice system in this conversation? Can we trust that people who “do bad things” will get in trouble for it? (That’s also a big fat NO.)
I have been grappling with these questions in the midst of deep reflection on the #MeToo Movement. About a year and a half ago, I wrote my #MeToo story. To date, it is the most read story on this site. We cannot ever downplay the widespread violence on women that happens every single day because we live in a culture where rape is normative and sometimes even celebrated. This is where my initial reaction- tear it all down!- gets tricky.
I sit in the “remove” camp still. If anything, I believe my role is to be upfront with my students about why they will not read the best article on “X” subject. I think in order to stop violence against women and others, the change in resources should be as widespread as the culture that allows the President of the United States to laugh about sexual assault. In order to change normativity, that’s what it will take. In closing, I do think we need to consider that we humans, no matter how famous and learned and experienced we are, do our work from the wholeness of ourselves. Our research, our teaching, our careers are all influenced by who we are and who we have been. The question becomes- how do we let ourselves come in?
This past weekend, I traveled all the way across the bay to the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley for the American Academy of Religion Western Region Annual Meeting. That title sounds intimidating to me, but the meeting itself was great.
Why was it great? Well, there WAS a bookstore around the corner. First of all, every panel I attended had more POC presenters than white people, more non-men presenters than cis-men, and the audience felt empowered to participate in deep conversation after each presenter finished their paper. The papers all mattered- they told stories from unheard actors, suggested how the way we do things in the academy and elsewhere is perpetuating harm, and offered alternatives. Keynote speaker Dr. Jane Iwamura led us through meditation in her talk on kindness. The audience members told their stories to gentlely tweak or further a presenter’s point of view. People didn’t feel afraid to put themselves in their work. Overall, I found myself at home in this space as a listener and learner (and especially an un-learner).
I also found something bugging me, that I myself need to unpack and unlearn. While the meeting was one of the least-white of any academic I have been to, whiteness still permeated the spaces. That isn’t surprising. One of my classmates developed the hashtag #maleconferencing a few weeks ago after a particularly egregious all-white, all-male panel responded to all-white, all-male audience questions. That hashtag definitely surfaced here too. Beyond the visible panel-audience relationship, I have found that white people who feel “aware” or perhaps as allies or “hopeful allies” find ways to confide in other white people to whom they feel “safe” admitting things. Better than putting the burden on a POC. The problem is when we separate ourselves and our “knowledge” from “those people.” We lift ourselves up by putting others down.
This comes in a few forms. At the meeting, I presented a paper on college chaplains and how they cross boundaries to serve students. What my research showed was a lack of real intention, in some cases, toward students’ racial, ethnic, gender, ability, and other identities. In my paper I didn’t make a value judgement on this because it is “research” and I was channeling what my subjects shared with me. But the audience rightfully didn’t buy that. They wanted to know who served students without thinking about this. “Maybe this is obvious, but mostly white men,” I told them. “White men, white women, and Christians.” The people for whom the institution of chaplaincy was built. After the panel ended, a few folx found there way to me. They started telling me about “a terrible person who did ____.” How heartbreaking and shameful. In doing this, we white people uphold white supremacy. We just do it a little differently.
I struggle with this because something I’ve been socialized and taught to do is “be an expert.” Not to mention focus on strengths and not weaknesses. Skills not growing edges. The idea has always been to further hone what I’m good at and forget what I’m not good at. Most all white people are not familiar with admitting their own harm and reflecting on it. I definitely avoided it for a very, very long time. My goal was always to prove “how much I listened.” Truly, the only thing I prove is how much privilege I hold in being able to learn from the folx who taught me. It seems so laughable now, but I write this because I hope to nudge the folx that look on disgusted at white people who perform acts of racism to self-reflect more. We all perform them, and letting go of our need to separate ourselves begins to break down supremacy in ourselves.
Another week of reading and writing and pretending I know what I’m talking about! The third week of the quarter floats away into the distance, drawing the looming final papers, conference presentations, book reviews, grant proposals and other exciting checklist items menacingly closer. At least the sun stays out longer.
As a first year PhD student, one of my constant learning goals is how to design strong syllabi for courses I would like to teach one day (could be next quarter, could be next year, could be in thirty years). I enjoy pouring over potential books and articles. The experience throttles me back to my favorite classes at USC. It’s easy enough to google syllabi for similar courses, but in order to really hone a spectacular combination of readings, assignments, and learning outcomes, I have to pay attention to detail. Campus cultures are very different. Students learn in different ways. Heck, the quarter system creates a storm of issues- you only get ten weeks, minus intro week one and wrap-up week ten. What if a holiday falls on class day? All questions to consider. In this recent quest, one question yanks at me with every reading I assign. Representation.
By representation, I mean who gets to speak via the texts listed under each weekly heading. As the curator, I hold a substantial amount of power in my pen (ok, keyboard) to introduce students to material that will assist them in discussion, dialogue, even debate. Of course, not every source makes it to the homework section (that’s an understatement. Ask my older colleagues about paring, paring more, paring even more). Our vast knowledge proves too much for a semester-long course. It should. We work for years to make it that way. But with power comes responsibility and for me that responsibility is to represent identities that often don’t have a voice. I’ll use gender here, because inserting more texts written, edited, and translated by non-males has been my focus this week. Recognizing that every discipline splits into sub-disciplines and subsequent areas of focus, some folx might have more difficulties than others. I’m not a listicle writer (though I love a good one that features gifs of sassy animals), but I think this merits some bullet points for suggestions that have helped me. And while I focus on syllabi design because of my profession, I think this question expands to many different fields. Who is in the room, at the table, has the mic? Who makes those decisions?
So. How do we think about better representation on our syllabi?
Do a LITTLE research. Think Creatively about Where You Find Your Sources.
Ahem, pardon my sarcasm. Of course we do research. But are we keeping a critical eye out for authors and speakers who may have been passed over because they aren’t white men? Someone once trashed a book I chose for a week on Muslim experiences in the United States because it was a memoir, ie, not academic. The thing is, academic books about “the” Muslim experience tend to be written by non-Muslims. There is nothing wrong with this. But there is a difference in someone’s own story- we get vulnerability and the chance to make connections with someone who might be different from us. Pro-tip: working at a university is great because we have colleagues who may study very different subjects but these subjects intersect at points. I remember reading a theological text in my Arabic class during my master’s program, for example. If you can’t think of any sources written by women, pop over to a colleague’s office and ask for suggestions. Ask for a translation. Ask them to lunch. Hey, lunch date!
Change Unit Weekly Topics or Themes to Make Sources Relevant.
But the quarter is only ten weeks! We have to get through units 1, 2, and 3 and that’s pushing it in ten weeks! Putting in a source written by a woman throws a wrench in my WHOLE jam here! Ok, I hear you- learning goals and outcomes are important. We usually write them for administrators because students don’t read them (why should they? They’re usually bland!). Maybe you can’t change these outcomes/goals. You can change the topic of Week 5 instead (NOT to “women/females/anyone not male in ___ subject. See point below.) and make it work with the source. Use a source that reveals a kind of methodology in the field. I might have trouble finding a source about a religious community that doesn’t allow women (or maybe we just don’t know) in a specific place and time period. Think classical Taoist texts, for example. I have this other text that dates later, but comes from the same general area and falls under the general theme of the course. Instead of “Classical Taoism” Week, I get rid of the word classical and say “early.” Or I find a secondary source that talks about the Daode Jing as a potentially feminist text. I have the students debate whether this makes sense after they read some sections.
Don’t Pigeonhole Gender to One Day/Week/Topic.
Please don’t do this. I can just see the sense of accomplishment. Alright, I found not one but TWO sources written by women about women in ____ field. I organized a WHOLE class period to discuss it. I even invited a women SPEAKER to come talk about women! I’m amazing. Ok, you know what this feels like? It feels like pity. It feels like when you leave the food waste out for the raccoons (no offense raccoons. Y’all are cute.). It feels like the only time women get to be represented is when we are talking specifically about gender and that in any other theme, women just aren’t allowed or important. Representation matters on every.single.level. I’m not saying all the sources need to be written by women. I’m saying think about who speaks through the sources every single week. Looking further than the usual suspects means I get to have more innovative discussions with my students. I might even learn something new. Learning? That’s not…that’s literally my job. Yay.
If You Really Can’t Find Any Authors, at Least Look for Texts Written about Non-Males.
I’ve looked EVERYWHERE, taken my colleagues to lunch, poured over other syllabi, picked through the archives. There just aren’t any women who have written about _____. Unfortunately, given the history of oppression and gatekeeping for non-male scholars, writers, thinkers-anyone with a voice, really-sometimes the sources don’t exist. It’s not acceptable to just revert back to the all-male cast. Are there any texts written about women? And they don’t have to be about a superhero. I fell into the trap earlier of getting frustrated because I couldn’t find a “strong” female character in a set of texts. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any. That means my students should learn to engage with how writers depicted women and not just label them “sexist” without further examination of context. Let’s be honest (as honest as we can, given the limited material we have) about experiences that run the spectrum of heroic to traumatic to “mundane.” The point is my students learn to ask questions, not assert unfair judgments about cultures they do not know.
Thanks for your consideration. Now go out to lunch so you can grade those midterms.
This weekend marked one year. Women swarmed the streets again. We aren’t finished here.
This year felt slightly different, in my book. The marches focused on increasing voter turnout and encouraging potential candidates to run for political office. Toxic feminism still reared its ugly head, excluding trans women and centering whiteness, in some instances. But some organizers intentionally welcomed non-cis marchers and centered stories from women of color. We can recognize good practices and confront where xenophobia still dictate who holds the microphone.
The county still feels more divided than ever. The government shut down illustrates how impossible and frankly, how oppressive “compromise” is. The people continue to organize. The artists keep creating. The musicians imagine lyrics. The scholars continue to interrogate, analyze and hopefully disseminate their findings in a way that reaches beyond the academy. We need work in all disciplines.
Today I found myself at an interfaith panel put on by the Islamic Networks Group, an organization whose main purpose is to educate the American public about Islam. The panel featured five women who shared some beautiful stories about women leaders of their faith traditions.They also acknowledged how scriptures and practices have held women back. In some instances, religious communities perpetrated violence or legitimized oppression. I appreciated the critical yet appreciative flavor to the conversation. It’s a flavor I’ve been trying to apply to my research.
One of the panelists was a bada** Buddhist feminist who reminded me that we must be endlessly compassionate while taking the firmest stand against bigotry, racism, and xenophobia. She told a story about losing it when one of her students wouldn’t read her work any longer because his friend convinced him that it wasn’t worthy. Or when she wasn’t allowed in the “monks only” lecture because of her gender. I fell in love with her honesty. In my practice, I often feel guilty about allowing anger or frustration to permeate my body and thoughts. But she is absolutely right- we can and should practice compassion by speaking up when possible (and safe- it is NOT the obligation of marginalized people to educate others about their oppression).
This past week I felt frustrated by a few incidents that demonstrated a clear prioritization of maleness where I study. It made me exhausted. Thankfully, I had a willing sounding board after a long week, and decided to inflict some wrathful compassion and speak up for myself. I don’t always feel safe doing this, but I’m willing to push my limits because I also live with several privileged identities.
Sitting in a room full of women who understand faith as complicated and helpful reminded me how sacred these spaces are. The first ever ordained woman Conservative rabbi extolled us to take this sacred with us, even in a world that feels unwelcoming. I held her words as I reflected on the weekend while driving home, at the same time comparing the ideas of Revolutionary Love to wrathful compassion. At the core of both is radical joy, the pursuit of happiness despite a plethora of suffering.
The patriarchy runs deep. So deep. How many of us hesitated to post the hashtag because a) we felt ashamed, b) we felt triggered, c) we felt invalidated (I “only”…”just”…”not a big deal”…) or d) all of the above? No victim or survivor owes social media any indication that they, too, have suffered. But the problem is a tangled web, not a straight line of perpetrator- victim.
Who is “us”? We can’t just include women, here. Not only does that invalidate the experience of queer, non-binary, non-conforming, and others who have born witness via their own bodies to sexual harassment and/or assault, but by ignoring anyone except women, we take away agency from everyone. Survivors live every single day, and that takes agency. As little as it might feel we have.
Something else that bothers me about the past two days’ worth of posts on this hashtag: it is so easy to sympathize without owning one’s role in the abuse. This doesn’t just go for men. The first time I grappled with the truth that I experienced assault, I was not much younger than I am now. Not only did I have to relearn that what I experienced wasn’t “meant to be flattering” or “because of what I was wearing,” I began to realize that I had said those things about other people. I questioned women who wore short dresses and high heels and layers of makeup. What did they think would happen? By thinking these things, I participated in the patriarchy. Even as a survivor, I can still uphold misogyny.
Dismantling is not a one-and-done experience, either. Even now, I catch myself feeling irritated by a student who speaks too much in class- but would I feel as annoyed if the student were a man? Subconsciously, I felt more comfortable calling a female professor by her first name than a male professor with the same qualifications. Why? I’m disgusted with my subconscious. This is the problem with categorizing “assault” and “harassment” as different from “microaggressions” or “casual sexism.” While one may involve physical violence, and each experience brings a different kind of trauma and need for subsequent processing, the idea that one can’t participate in the hashtag campaign because the only real experience they have was “just” when their boss interrupted them constantly, or they’ve “only” been catcalled by strangers, not raped after drinking at a party, so blatantly hides the existence of misogyny everywhere, among all people. These “small, meaningless” gestures are the most dangerous because they are so hard to call out, and further, to explain to the perpetrator- the burden of course falls on the oppressed. Yet these acts uphold rape culture. As harmful as this has been to me, I cannot help to dismantle unless I examine my own interactions with it.
I am in awe of the friends who have shared their voices and stories these past few days. I couldn’t do it. It is so common to internalize our shame. Me too: I am a survivor. Me too: I am complicit. Me too: I pledge to bring my subconscious participation into the conscious, stomp on it, and work to liberate my fellow survivors.