Archive: Oct 2015

As a feminist, I recognize power in the structures and symbols that regulate society. I see how intersecting privileges and lack thereof operate to allow some communities more access to opportunities and others less. I know that while power and privilege may be firmly entrenched in ways that systematically marginalize large swaths of society I also know that people have agency. Feminists challenge power imbalances in the spaces we frequent most; in my case, the academy. Mentoring women of color and non-traditional students in their research prevents scholarship and the resultant status from producing it, from remaining the domain of the privileged. I believe that student researchers from marginalized populations challenge the racial/ethnic, class, gendered, and sexualized hierarchies that shape undergraduate research arrangements and thus the academy more broadly.

I teach at the University of Washington Bothell, an institution that greatly values the professor-student relationship. Our student body is very diverse: 42% students of color, 46% first generation college students, and 60% on financial aid. Many of the students I teach have life experiences meant to keep them out of college. For example, one Chicana student shared with me that her high school guidance counselor told the Latinas that there was no need for them to try in high school because they were just going to get pregnant and drop out anyway. This hateful, racist, and sexist message from a woman paid to be a mentor! Feminist mentoring of undergraduate students is a post-intervention, of sorts. Here I want to share the successes of five of my students; all five of whom represent communities of underserved populations.*

In May of this year I saw a CFP (Call For Papers) for an author of an encyclopedia entry about Chicana feminism. I had an idea for three of my undergrad students to work together to research and co-author the entry, with my close mentoring. The editor agreed, I asked the students, who enthusiastically and proudly said yes. I know these three students very well; they were in their third and fourth classes with me, have done research papers in my classes, and worked on group projects together. They are all excellent students but I knew the project was going to take a lot of my time, regardless. And it did: six iterations amidst an already hectic quarter. I knew I wanted these students to have the opportunity to write the essay; an opportunity typically not available to the demographics they all represent.

Donning their Latino/a Student Union shirts, Alejandra Pérez, Elizabeth Huffaker, and Jessica Velasquez
From left to right are co-authors Alejandra Pérez, Elizabeth Huffaker, and Jessica Velasquez. Alejandra and Jessica are seen in their Latinx Student Union shirts.

Alejandra is a Guatemalan born, 1.5 generation, undocumented immigrant and first generation college student. Alejandra, her brother, and mom came to the US in 2006 and were just reunited with her father after 8 years. Her mother works as a nanny and her father a construction worker. Alejandra is financing her education through scholarships and working; additionally, Washington state recently passed SB6523 which makes financial aid available to undocumented students. She does spectacularly in school, on top of her being an activist with a job. If given the chance she will eventually become anything she aspires to be. Or her parents may be picked up by the INS or ICE and deported to Guatemala. Her future is anything but certain.

Jessica has also overcome odds. She too is a first generation college student. Jessica is a Chicana, born to immigrant parents. She was raised in Eastern Washington (home to most of the state’s agroindustry) where her father works as a laborer and her mother a sorter for a produce company.

The final co-author is Elizabeth; a white mother/grandmother/ great grandmother from the Midwest. Elizabeth returned to college at the age of 65 after a 22-year hiatus when she worked as an accountant and a single-mother of six. Together these three rock stars rejected the social messages that tell them the privileged class in the academy has no room for them and in 2016 their names will appear in a prestigious encyclopedia as co-authors of an essay I will eventually assign in my classes.

shayne hires 2 revises.inddThe next two rock stars worked individually on pieces that now appear in my edited collection Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas (SUNY 2014). During the revisions my editor asked me to write introductions to each of the three sections of the book. I loved the idea but had no idea where I was going to find the time. I called upon one of my undergraduates, Jessica (a different one) that I have a long history with, starting with her first quarter of college. I asked her if she was interested, she said yes, we found her a small stipend, and I handed over the unpublished manuscript and asked her to make sense of each section. Once she did, she wrote the introductions in a concise way to communicate the overarching themes. Jessica did an amazing job. Her accomplishment was also personally important as her family was not pleased with her choice or majors (not-Business) or her recent coming out as a lesbian. Jessica is a proud mixed Brazilian who has been in the U.S. since 2010. She is pursuing her dream to be an academic and will no doubt serve as a role model and mentor to queer and straight women of color.

Finally, Mahala. I have known Mahala the longest of all of these students. She took a Latin American studies class with me which required a research paper, and then another and unable to stop, eventually a directed study so she could keep researching. Her paper ultimately became a chapter in Taking Risks. Mahala is a white woman in her mid-twenties. She returned to college after a 5 year leave, while raising her 2 and 4 year olds, largely alone. She worked and single-parented full time, and quietly excelled in all of her classes. I saw her brilliance in her first very short paper for me and sought her out. She was always silent in class and was oblivious to her intelligence. I worked hard to get her to present her papers, get fellowships and anything else to make her realize her competence. I eventually asked her to transform her paper into a chapter for my book. Jessica and Mahala didn’t end up in my book because I was doing them a favor; my name is on the book so I needed to feel good about their work and I absolutely do.

From left to right are Shayne's colleague and co-author Kristy Leissle, author Julie Shayne and student authors Mahala and Jessica.
From left to right are Shayne’s colleague and co-author Kristy Leissle, author Julie Shayne and student authors Mahala and Jessica.

The results with these and other students I don’t have space to write about here energizes me to keep pouring my all into my undergrads and mentor them to go out and be confident social justice and feminist advocates in whatever professional sphere they choose. As feminists, especially those of us with status and privilege to mobilize, we need to undermine the power imbalances in the spaces to which we have access and in my mind, working with the aforementioned researchers is a small but important move in that direction.

* The students mentioned in this essay all read and edited it before I sent it to the editors at Feminist Reflections.

Image of Julie ShayneJulie Shayne is author/editor of three books: Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas (editor), They Used to Call Us Witches: Chilean Exiles, Culture, and Feminism, winner of the Pacific Sociological Association’s 2011 Distinguished Scholarship Award, and The Revolution Question: Feminisms in El Salvador, Chile, and Cuba. She is a Senior Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell and Affiliate Associate Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies & Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Washington Seattle.

Links:                                  

My personal webpage http://www.julieshayne.net/

Taking Risks http://www.sunypress.edu/p-5884-taking-risks.aspx

They Used to Call Us Witches https://rowman.com/ISBN/0739118501

The Revolution Question http://rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/product/Revolution-Question,2223.aspx

Singer-songwriter Hozier played “guess the man buns” on VH1, and Buzzfeed facetiously claimed they had “Scientific Proof That All Celebrity Men are Hotter with Man Buns.” Brad Pitt, Chris Hemsworth, and David Beckham have all sported the man bun. And no, I’m not talking about their glutes. Men are pulling their hair back behind their ears or on top on their heads and securing it into a well manicured or, more often, fashionably disheveled knot. This hairstyle is everywhere now: in magazines and on designer runways and the red carpet. Even my neighborhood Barista is sporting a fledgling bun, and The Huffington Post recently reported on the popular Man Buns of Disneyland Instagram account that documents how “man buns are taking over the planet.”

David Beckham, Orlando Bloom, and Jared Leto all sporting man buns/elle.com
David Beckham, Orlando Bloom, and Jared Leto all sporting man buns/elle.com

At first glance, the man bun seems a marker of progressive manhood. The bun, after all, is often associated with women—portrayed in the popular imagination via the stern librarian and graceful ballerina. In my forthcoming book, Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry, however, I discuss how linguistic modifiers such as manlights (blonde highlights for men’s hair) reveal the gendered norm of a word. Buns are still implicitly feminine; it’s the man bun that is masculine. But in addition to reminding us that men, like women, are embodied subjects invested in the careful cultivation of their appearances, the man bun also reflects the process of cultural appropriation. To better understand this process, we have to consider: Who can pull off the man bun and under what circumstances?

I spotted my first man bun in college. And it was not a blonde haired, blue eyed, all American guy rocking the look in an effort to appear effortlessly cool. This bun belonged to a young Sikh man who, on a largely white U.S. campus, received lingering stares for his hair, patka, and sometimes turban. His hair marked him as an ethnic and religious other. Sikhs often practice Kesh by letting their hair grow uncut in a tribute to the sacredness of God’s creation. He was marginalized on campus and his appearance seen by fellow classmates as the antithesis of sexy. In one particularly alarming 2007 case, a teenage boy in Queens was charged with a hate crime when he tore off the turban of a young Sikh boy to forcefully shave his head.

Stylehunter.com encourages men to "Think more Indian Sikh than Kardashian at the gym" when creating their man buns.
Stylehunter.com encourages men to “Think more Indian Sikh than Kardashian at the gym” when creating their man buns.

A journalist for The New York Times claims that Brooklyn bartenders and Jared Leto “initially popularized” the man bun. It’s “stylish” and keeps men’s hair out of their faces when they are “changing Marconi light bulbs,” he says. In other words, it’s artsy and sported by hipsters. This proclamation ignores the fact that Japanese samurai have long worn the topknot or chonmage, which are still sported by sumo wrestlers. Nobody is slapping sumo wrestlers on the cover of GQ magazine, though, and praising them for challenging gender stereotypes. And anyway, we know from research on men in hair salons and straight men who adopt “gay” aesthetic that men’s careful coiffing does not necessarily undercut the gender binary. Rather, differences along the lines of class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality continue to distinguish the meaning of men’s practices, even if those practices appear to be the same. When a dominant group takes on the cultural elements of marginalized people and claims them as their own—making the man bun exalting for some and stigmatizing for others, for example—who exactly has power and the harmful effects of cultural appropriation become clear.

Actor Toshiro Mifune in the movie, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto/whitecitycinema.com
Actor Toshiro Mifune in the movie, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto/whitecitycinema.com
Sumo Wrestlers with the traditional chonmage/japanesetimes.co.jp
Sumo Wrestlers with the traditional chonmage/japanesetimes.co.jp

Yes, the man bun can be fun to wear and even utilitarian, with men pulling their hair out of their faces to see better. And like long-haired hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, the man bun has the potential to resist conservative values around what bodies should look like. But it is also important to consider that white western men’s interest in the man bun comes from somewhere, and weaving a narrative about its novelty overlooks its long history among Asian men, its religious significance, and ultimately its ability to make high-status white men appear worldly and exotic. In the west, the man bun trend fetishizes the ethnic other at the same time it can be used to further marginalize and objectify them. And so cultural privilege is involved in experiencing it as a symbol of cutting-edge masculinity.

http://www.aal-europe.eu/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/challenge1.jpgWhile male managers must survive in a politicized environment, one that can be emotionally and intellectually challenging, it is harder for  women because of the added gender dynamics embedded in the…culture. Women must deal with narrow parameters for what is considered acceptable behavior. They must contradict the stereotypes their male colleagues have about women, but avoid being considered too macho. They must be decisive, but not pushy; ambitious, but not expect equal treatment in terms of pay or rate of promotion. They must take initiative, but they must also follow other people’s advice.

This quote is taken from a book I wrote 20 years ago, in which I examined the workplace culture of a financial services company for the workers – women – who used its parental leave policy. (Men only took vacation time when their babies arrived.) I spent a year observing workplace dynamics with a gender and occupational status lens. And I learned that being a woman on the top was not easy.

http://siliconangle.com/files/2012/02/scaling-mountain.jpgI think about this study as I observe Hillary Clinton navigate the precarious waters of power politics. As I review what I wrote a couple of decades ago, it’s clear that while it may be easier now for women to rise to executive positions, it’s no picnic trying to get there, or for that matter, trying to stay there.

For women in politics, getting to, and being on, the top is fraught with personal and professional land-mines. Former Google executive, Cheryl Sandberg, advises women to be more assertive in the workplace and demand equal treatment, while Ann-Marie Slaughter, CEO of the New America Foundation, pushes for work and family policies that create a more even playing field. I tend to think that both approaches are relevant and true, and either alone is insufficient. Despite the unfriendly climate for women who seek and occupy high political office, there are a number of prominent women who have traversed this terrain.

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-FTFg4WK2C7U/TvsghnwosGI/AAAAAAAABv4/zaDB9k7nUU0/s1600/41547857Growin_unequal_cover_anim.gifWhile some would argue that women are more likely to promote policies that bring about peace, or work-family balance, or gender equity, this is not inevitable. Women are operating within the broader system, and their power is not necessarily equated with progressive social and economic policies, much less the promotion of gender equity. That said, there are women political leaders who are making real change. It’s fascinating to see how these women – and others who are less progressive – have historically risen and currently rise to the top.

Increase of executive women leaders globally

One can rattle off a list of noted women leaders over the decades, from the first female Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, and the former Prime Minister of the UK, Margaret Thatcher, to more contemporary women leaders, like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet, or Brazilian President, Dilma Vana Rousseff. Or one of my favorites (more later!), former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Concurrent to this rise of women executive leaders, there have also been a record number of women voted onto national parliaments worldwide.

http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2015/01/ST_2015-01-14_women-leadership-3-03.pngUp until a couple decades ago, women were entering the high echelons of political power at a very slow pace. But in the 1990s, 26 women became executive leaders, and 29 more women entered the ranks by 2009. Between the 1980s and 1990s, the number of new female leaders nearly quadrupled, and this trend continued through the 2000s. According to political scientist Farida Jalalzi, 71 women from 52 countries became national leaders between 1960-2009. While the greatest number of women in positions of executive leadership come from Europe, overall, they represent five world regions, including Asia, African, Europe, Latin America and Oceania. Hillary has a number of sisters who have done it for themselves.

I can imagine that Hillary has a bevy of advisors telling her how to navigate the treacherously gendered waters of power, telling her what she should wear; how she should balance a direct style with her desire to be approachable and likable; how she should argue and debate without being considered arrogant; or even how to use humor to deflect criticism. Just thinking about all of these considerations is exhausting!

Gendered landscape for women in the political process

Who are the women politicians who Hillary should be looking to for inspiration? How did they rise? What are the issues they are passionate about? What are their contradictions? How do they survive?

In her writing about the gendered landscape of women in the political process, political scientist, Farida Jalalzai, reports that the increased numbers of women in top political leadership positions has “sparked widespread discussion of the role of sex and gender in political life…For some, the rise of several prominent female leaders reflects the important gains that women have made in the political sphere”. But she warns that “the experiences and portrayals of female politicians, as well as the continued under-representation of women in politics more generally, draw attention to the many ways in which access to political office is still very much stratified by gender”.

Characteristics of global women leaders

http://news.yale.edu/sites/default/files/Women's%20Forum-3.jpgJalalzai offers some important insights regarding which women rise to executive power and in what contexts. Interestingly, women tend to become national leaders in countries where women’s education and economic status lags far behind that of men. Think, Indira Gandhi of India or President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. Women leaders in those countries are usually highly educated, and have far more privilege then most women in their countries. Gandhi was mostly taught at home by tutors when she was young, undoubtedly to ensure that she had access to quality education, and later studied political science, history and economics at Oxford university.

Sirleaf didn’t complete college in her homeland, but came to the US to do her BA degree, and then studied economics and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she received a Masters of Public Administration. In a 2011 speech she made at Harvard’s commencement, she thanked the university for the many professors and the “compliments you paid when my papers and interventions were top rate, and for the patience you showed when I struggled with quantitative analysis”. She also noted that the “self-confidence, sometimes called arrogance, that comes from being a Harvard graduate can also lead one down a dangerous path”, as she describes the consequences of questioning her government’s failure to address long-standing inequalities, in a speech at her high school alma mater.

http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02171/Ellen-Johnson-Sirl_2171981b.jpg

This forced me into exile and a staff position at the World Bank. Other similar events would follow in a life of in and out of country, in and out of jail, in and out of professional service. There were times when I thought death was near, and times when the burden of standing tall by one’s conviction seemed only to result in failure. But through it all, my experience sends a strong message that failure is just as important as success.

Later, Sirleaf was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, along with two other women activists, in recognition “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.

A number of high level political women were part of political family dynasties – like Indira Gandhi, who rose through the ranks when her father was Prime Minister, or Isabella Peron who became Prime Minister of Argentina following her husband’s death. Jalalzai also found that women were more likely to serve in parliamentary systems and as Prime Ministers, where they are selected by their own party, rather than as presidents, who come to power through popular vote. Moreover, she argues that there is a gendered nature to this role, as Prime Ministers tend to share power with cabinet and party members so they exhibit more so-called “feminine” qualities like negotiation and collaboration.

So what about Hillary?
http://www.taylormarsh.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Hillary_Clinton_2016.jpg
Like many international women politicians, Hillary was introduced to the public through her status as wife to the President. Traditionally, the wife status is “lesser than”, but there has certainly been precedence for wives emerging as political leaders. Hillary is highly educated – undergraduate degree from Wellesley College and Law degree from Yale – and while she was being groomed to rise politically during her husband’s tenure as President, she was given the opportunity to demonstrate her strong leadership abilities, notably her efforts to reach consensus on health care policy in the US, an unwieldy job that was destined to fail, given the disparate forces involved.

Hillary was dealt a huge setback when her husband got caught having sex with an intern and then lied about it. All eyes were on her, as she – and her husband and all of their political consultants – had to figure out the smartest way to help her survive unscathed, walking a fine line of avoiding being perceived as a “scorned” woman, while personally maintaining self-respect, as an independent woman who was disconnected from her husband’s bad behavior. Ultimately, Hillary was able to establish herself as a professional, separate from this crisis that could have marred their family’s prospects for political engagement. And perhaps by some, she was viewed as grounded and able to tolerate adversity, and ultimately proved herself as a capable Senator and Secretary of State.

Many progressives are critical of Hillary’s moderate economic policies and links to big money, at the same time, feeling outraged at the sexism and ageism she endures. In a recent campaign speech, she retorted,

Well, I may not be the youngest candidate in this race. But I will be the youngest woman President in the history of the United States!

Which women leaders around the world should Hillary look to for inspiration?

Which political leaders’ playlist can Hillary learn from?

Let’s start with former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who lambasted her opposition leader, Tony Abbott, in her now-infamous and highly watchable “Misogyny Speech”, in which she says, “I say to the Leader of the Opposition I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not!” When Abbott claimed he was offended by a colleague’s discovered sexist texts, Gillard doesn’t buy it, saying:

http://www.abc.net.au/news/linkableblob/4328810/data/julia-gillard-holds-up-finger-in-question-time-data.jpg

Let’s go through the Opposition Leader’s repulsive double standards, repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism. We are now supposed to take seriously that the Leader of the Opposition is offended by Mr Slipper’s text messages, when this is the Leader of the Opposition who has said…and I quote, in a discussion about women being under-represented in institutions of power in Australia, the interviewer was a man called Stavros. The Leader of the Opposition says “If it’s true, Stavros, that men have more power generally speaking than women, is that a bad thing?

Or perhaps Hillary could learn a few things from Dilma Vana Rousseff, current President of Brazil, who – like Margaret Thatcher – has been dubbed “the Iron Lady” because of her apparent “brusque manner and short temper”, a title that doesn’t seem to faze her. She grew up in an upper-middle class home, joined the left-wing movement against Brazil’s military dictatorship which had seized power in 1964, and was imprisoned for three years during which she was subject to torture, and refused to break. She was called “the high priestess of subversion” during her trial. From 2005-2010, she was Chief of Staff to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. And then she was elected President in 2011. While Rousseff is progressive around some economic issues, she is also a leader in a religious country. She herself is pro-life, supporting abortion only in certain circumstances (e.g., health of mother, cases of rape), but even then was criticized by the Roman Catholic Church and other religious groups. Rouseff is also opposed to gay marriage, even though she supports same sex civil unions. Nothing is simple.

http://thehoopla.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Leymah-Gbowee.jpgI return to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia since 2006 and the first elected head-of-state in Africa. Her collaboration with Leymah Roberta Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist who led a women’s peace movement, helped bring an end to Liberia’s civil war, which enabled a free election in 2005 that resulted in Sirleaf’s winning the Presidency. Gbowee was one of the activists who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Sirleaf, who understood the importance of being aligned with a social movement that reflected her values and promoted peace. Sirleaf has said she promotes women’s involvement in politics because she says women “have a story to tell” and their participation can promote more peaceful policies, economic empowerment, and provide young girls with role models and aspirations.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bc/Tarja_Halonen_1c389_8827-2.jpgAnd finally, if Hillary is looking for a real ally, she should look no further than Tarja Kaarina Halonen, former trade unionist turned lawyer and two-term President of Finland (2000-2012). A human rights activist and avid supporter of LGBT rights with an 88% approval rating throughout her tenure, Halonen is currently an active member of the UN’s Council of Women World Leaders. Were Hillary ever to become President, this international “network of current and former women prime ministers and presidents” is a place she could possibly call home. The Council was founded in 1996 by Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, President of Iceland (1980-1996) and the first woman in the world to be democratically elected president; Mary Robinson, President of Ireland (1990-1997) and Laura Liswood, Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders. It aims to “support(s) women’s full participation and representation in the political process at the highest levels, and future women leaders”.  Commenting on the status of women globally, Liswood said, “There is no such thing as a glass ceiling for women. It’s just a thick layer of men”.

Some may argue that women rule differently from men. But we have learned from history that all political leaders operate within the social and political context of which they are a part. Politics is a gendered space, and women leaders walk a narrow line. The wisest of political leaders look for allies who build the base and fight for change from the outside in, as well as the inside out.

Who are the other global women political leaders you admire?

http://www.unfoundation.org/features/cwwl-main2.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10:15 a.m. Ten minutes before my first class of the semester. It was January and Connecticut was buried under several feet of snow. Damn. There was no point trying to run over to one of my friend’s offices to find an accomplice for my exercise. I’d never make it back in time. Who could I grab for this experiment so last minute? As I pulled out my phone to check the time, I mentally smacked myself on my head. Of course!

But I should back up a bit before I go on. Every year in my Introduction to Sociology class, I like to start the first class with an experiment. This is often an exercise that introduces my students to basic sociological concepts, such as norms, cultural values, roles, and legitimate authority (since all of these are very central to what I teach in my course). In the past, my experiments have included asking students to follow me around the building without explanation and then returning to the classroom and resuming the lesson; asking them to jump around the room; asking them to switch their seats in a given pattern (first two rows move to the last two rows, the middle rows switch left and right). But this year, I wanted to do something more. Something that was blatantly wrong. My original plan was to ask a faculty colleague of mine to stand outside the classroom with me and chat past the time that class was supposed to start. But now, just minutes before my class, my friend had told me she couldn’t make it. So here I was, considering my options. And now as the solution dawned on me while I stared at my phone, I muttered, “Who needs humans in the flesh when you have a phone at your disposal.” I went over the plan in my head. “Don’t give in in less than 10 minutes… you have to make it last.” I said to myself as I took a deep breath and walked into class.

From my position behind the podium, I watched the students shuffle in without greeting them. When they were all seated I announced, “This is Introduction to Sociology. Please put all cell phones away.” I then pulled out my own cell phone, walked behind the desk, sat down and started scrolling through my email on my phone. The students sat patiently. A couple of minutes went by and no one said a word. I was getting nervous at this point myself. I giggled as if I had read something funny. Clearly, it was not an emergency that was forcing me to stay on the phone. The students started to shift in their seats a little. I looked up and glanced around the room. They looked at each other. I went back to my phone.Using smart phone

Five minutes passed, although it seemed much longer. Not being one who uses her phone very much, I was really struggling to keep busy with my phone, plus I was nervous. I made a point to look at the clock. 10:32 a.m. Seven minutes had passed since the start of class. I heard a couple of students laugh uncomfortably but no one spoke to each other. I went back to my phone and pretended to scroll through news. “Just a few more minutes,” I thought to myself. “You need to go past the ten minute mark at least.”

At 10:37 a.m., exactly 12 minutes since class was supposed to start, I put my phone away, picked up the syllabus and started class as if nothing unusual had just transpired. After going through my office hours, assignments for the semester, policy on late assignments etc. I looked around and asked, “So, what questions do you have for me?” I encouraged them to deviate from the syllabus, “Ask me anything,” I prodded, “If appropriate, I’ll answer it.” They asked me all kinds of questions . . . but not the one I was waiting for. After a while, I looked around and said, “ Is there ANYTHING else you think you should ask me about?”

The students shook their heads.
At this point my experiment was complete and it was time to let them in on it.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
Uncomfortable silence.
“No really, why are you here?”
“To learn”, a student in the front row said after a while.
“Then why didn’t you ask me to stop using my phone and teach?”
The students gave me range of obvious answers, from they don’t know what I would do in return, to they don’t want to question the professor.
“What if I told you, you are also here to un-learn?” I countered.
Uncomfortable laughter.

From here on, we had a lively discussion about the lessons learned and un-learned from this exercise. To briefly summarize:

1) The first lesson of this exercise is to understand that social norms – how we are expected to behave in a given situation—are always working on us whether we know it or not. For my students, it was their socialization in schools, the expectation that they do not question their teachers that encouraged them to not challenge my inappropriate behavior. Students could probably excuse a professor coming in late by a couple of minutes, or taking a couple of minutes to get themselves together. But I had made certain that the experiment lasted longer than ten minutes – an arbitrary choice by me, but one I felt made the experiment long enough to make the situation absurd and unreasonable.

2) This experiment also exposed the power of the “path of least resistance”, (as Allan Johnson discusses in his book, The Forest and the Trees) for my students: nobody else was questioning me, so why should they? It’s much easier to do what everyone else is doing in a given situation. This lesson is one of the most valuable one perhaps, especially as we cover the by-stander effect later on in the semester when discussing hazing in fraternities, or military abuse of prisoners for example.

3) Relatedly, it also revealed the nature of legitimate authority and obedience to authority: my students obeyed my instructions (putting cell phones away) and did not question my behavior, not because they knew who I was as an individual, but because of the authority vested in me by the title of “professor”. In our society, we see professors and teachers as generally moral, intelligent, and ethical. The authority of a professor is further emphasized by the physical structure of the classroom with the professor at the front of the room, and by the “material culture” of a classroom: desk, podium, chalkboard, and smart-board for professors. The students on the other hand, sit in chairs, physically looking up to the professor.

These are all sociological lessons that my students learn on the first day through this experiment. But implicit in this experiment is the hope that they will “un-learn” some of the behavior that they’ve been socialized into, whether it’s being a passive student or a passive by-stander. It is only through learning about and critically analyzing our social world that we are actually able to “un-learn” or challenge the many lessons we’ve been taught.

As a critical, feminist sociologist, that is the most important lesson that I can teach my students—sociology is not a collection of facts and theories, it is a perspective, a way of seeing. And as the writer Arundhati Roy says “once you see, you can’t unsee.” To this I would add: truly seeing, that is, seeing the world through a sociological lens, is the first step towards unlearning. Welcome to Introduction to Sociology.

Works Cited:

Johnson, Allan. 2014. The Forest and the Trees. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Roy, Arundhati. 2001. “The Ladies Have Feelings, So . . . Shall We Leave it to the Experts?” In Power Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

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Jafar-2015Afshan Jafar  is in the sociology department at Connecticut College. She studies globalization, gender, and the body.

In 2010, PinkRibbon.org did a “quick poll” to ask “whether commercialization of the pink ribbon adds to the cause.” They reported that 71 percent of respondents said “YES” – pink ribbon commercialization adds value. Well, there we have it! But is it true? As I wrote in the new introduction to Pink Ribbon Blues,

Breast cancer is indeed one of the most popular and profitable social causes of our time. The pink ribbon not only signifies a good and moral cause but also functions as a proxy for awareness and support. Countless promotions and publicity materials are carefully crafted to capture the hearts, minds, and wallets of eager, well-meaning consumers as imperative language echoes across the pink cultural landscape: hope, fight, win, celebrate, give – now, today, forever. The formula morphs into any number of fun-filled activities from pub crawls and fashion shows to the now commonplace runs and walks “for the cure.” While these actions offer symbolic support and raise money, they sometimes do little to help the diagnosed, promote real awareness, or impact the epidemic at large.

Public attention to breast cancer and the pink ribbon have grown over the past thirty years entwined with a medical system at once the hope and bane of the disease, situated within communities of advocacy and support that help as much as hinder, and popularized to the degree that pink consumption has become more of a trendy lifestyle choice than a rallying call for social change.

Hidden beneath the highly publicized pink ribbon celebration, the push-pull of breast cancer advocacy gave way to those with the largest megaphones, political influence, and marketing potential. As pink ribbon promotions increasingly exploited the cause for public relations purposes and to keep revenues and profit streams flowing, tenacious groups continued to work on the margins to affect the epidemic and support the diagnosed in meaningful and healthful ways.

A persistent reticence persists amid the halo of sound bites, survivorship mantras, product placements, and inattention to strategies and actions that may be more useful. These individuals and organizations go beyond fundraising and self-promotion to consider issues of bioethics, evidence-based medicine, health communication, social justice, conflicts of interest, neglected areas of research, and the limits of consumption-based advocacy. Though they diverge in the problems they tackle and the methods they use, these groups share a critical stance that fosters new thinking about breast cancer and how to address it.

In recent years members of the public have joined their voices to a chorus of serious and uncomfortable questions about breast cancer:

• Are we any closer to knowing what causes breast cancer, how to prevent it, how to keep it from coming back, and how to keep people from dying from it?

• Why are the“slash, burn, and poison” approaches to treatment still the norm?

• Are pink ribbon products outpacing efforts to provide meaningful support to the diagnosed and to influence the epidemic?

• Where does the money go, and who/what does it help?

Not long ago, outside of trusted circles, such questions would have been uttered in hushed tones. Many, including those treated for breast cancer, felt guilty for doubting a cause that was commonly accepted as overwhelmingly good. As the inner workings of pink culture and industry become more visible, largely through the misconduct of breast cancer charities and profit-driven industries, growing numbers are calling for transparency, accountability, and alternatives.


This year for breast cancer awareness month, let’s get behind those calling for change. Let’s move beyond the pink pendulum of fear mongering and feel-good, consumption.

Let’s look at the messaging for what it is.

Simple. Emotional. Symbolic. Advertising.

Breast cancer exists.

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Be afraid.

CheckYourself Before Its Too Late

All women are at risk.

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Have hope.

HopeIsBeautiful

Show courage.

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Cop a feel.

ProjectBoobies

Get a mammogram.

Mammogram Billboard

Have a biopsy.

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Think Pink.

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Shoot Pink.

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Cheer Pink.

Atlanta Falcons cheerleaders

Jeer Pink.

Go Pink or Go HOme

Fight Pink.

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Win Pink.

Triumphant

Walk Pink.

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Drive Pink.

FrenchieTruck

Eat Pink.

mmsForTheCure EgglandsBestPinkRibbonEggs

Drink Pink.

0197 Sip, Swirl, Support Wine

Porn Pink.

Porn Hub

Pee Pink.

0159 Pink Potty

Shop Pink.

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Spritz Pink.

Promise Me Perfume

Debit Pink.

Drill Pink.

pinkdrill

Live Pink.

Live-Laugh-Love Pink

Die Pink.

Die Pink

Women and men with, and at risk for, breast cancer deserve better. #rethinkpink