Archive: Nov 2015

Mindy Fried:  “New Chapters”…

Francesca Ramsey, De-Coded
Francesca Ramsey, De-Coded

This is the second year that Feminist Reflection editors have tried to write something about Thanksgiving. I say “tried” because for something that seems simple, we have found that it’s not an easy charge. Here is a holiday that calls upon people to feel thankful for what we have, but we can’t ignore the fact that the holiday is framed around a distortion of American history that is, in actuality, about genocide. So I will start out by saying that I’m grateful for a very funny, but informative, web video, De-Coded, created by actress/comedian Francesca Ramsey, where she sets her family straight about Thanksgiving.

As guests admire a child’s drawing showing Native Americans and Pilgrims sharing a meal, one person reads the picture’s text: “After the Native Americans helped the Pilgrims survive their first winter in America, the Puritans invited them to share the first Thanksgiving dinner.” Guests pass the child’s drawing around the table, with approving oohs and ahh’s until it gets to Francesca, who holds up the child’s picture and says slowly, “These are adorably…WRONG!” She rips the drawing in two, to their shock, and then provides her family with the real history lesson about the genocide of the Native Americans by the Pilgrims, using humor as her weapon. By the time she has deconstructed the real meaning of the holiday, family members start questioning the meaning of everything, even the cranberry sauce! Lesson learned; humor prevails.

crazy worldWhen we at FR think about what to write, we’re initially up against our despair, not only about the lies about this holiday, but about what a mess our world is in:  rampant Islamaphobia following the Paris attacks, pervasive racism throughout our communities and on our college campuses, the all-out attack on women’s reproductive rights and so much more…  At the same time, we feel lucky that we can enjoy the pleasure of our families, our friends, our teaching and research, and our communities. That’s a privilege that not everyone has…

So we write this Thanksgiving post with the understanding that so much is wrong with the world, but that we have an opportunity to notice what is good; to put down our cell phones and (momentarily) walk away from our computers and maybe even other technology, to enjoy a minute, an hour, a day where we can be grateful for what we have. Because regardless of the holiday’s history, it is important in these difficult times to appreciate one another and our loved ones, to appreciate the food we share, to be joyful, to sing and dance in ways that move our hearts, to take joy in the people around us, including young and old, to recognize our accomplishments along with our struggles, to feel our connectedness along with our isolation. And certainly, to recognize the opportunity we have to make this world a better place, in whatever way we can.

Athieno Band; Photo Credit: Olivia Deng
Athieno Band; Photo Credit: Olivia Deng

What am I grateful for this year? Over the past two years, I have taken a leap and started producing music and art festivals with a dear friend. It began with the organizing of Jamaica Plain Porchfest, a decentralized music/arts festival in which people perform on porches throughout the community. Previously, my work kept me tethered to my computer, a meeting room, and sometimes a classroom. This work has grown into producing other community-based events throughout the City of Boston where I live. I am deeply grateful to be living this new chapter in my life, one that allows me to work with artists, other producers, and inspiring community activists who also see the value in using the arts to grow social movements.

And now on to my wonderful colleagues, for whom I am very grateful!

Kristen Barber: “Motherhood”

These days I am more thankful than ever. Having welcomed our daughter into our lives, my spouse and I now find the mundane more thrilling (albeit more exhausting). I am also reminded of my privilege more often than before. When I feed Bea a bottle of formula, change her soiled diaper, or buy her a new winter coat, I think of those parents who cannot afford to do the same for their children.

Other women who are not as privileged as I am remind me that I can feed my child without having to bear the evaluative eye of a state service worker rationing out formula and that I am buying premium formula. Moreover, I don’t have to scrape the waste from Bea’s diaper in an effort to make it last longer, I can feed her every time she cries in hunger, and I can pay my heating bill to keep her warm.

Below are some child welfare organizations helping to provide needy families with those items—like food, diapers, and coats—that babies and children need to stay healthy and warm year round. Go ahead and click on the below links for more information and, in the spirit of thanksgiving, consider supporting these organizations (and by extension struggling parents and their children), if you can.

  • National Diaper Bank Network: Directory to find a diaper bank that distributes diapers to families in your area. Disposable diapers cost $70 to $80 per month per baby and 1 in 3 American families report experiencing diaper need.
  • Feeding America: Largest nationwide network of food banks providing struggling families with healthy foods.
  • No Kid Hungry: Helps to close the food need gap given that the average monthly SNAP benefit is only $1.46 per meal.
  • Operation Warm: Provides new winter coats to children of families in need.
  • United Nations Children Fund: 90% of every dollar spent goes directly to help children around the world by providing food, clean water, and healthcare, including vaccines.

Trina Smith: “Social Justice & Compassion ”

In this world we current live in:

  • There are “cultural wars” based on visions of morality and often tied into religion.
  • We deal with terrorism and often react with fear as a citizens of a country rather than global citizens.
  • Racism is still prevalent, people fear for their lives, and young men of color of being killed.
  • Racing to the top is more and being the “best” trumps mentoring and compassion for others.
  • Folks who identify as LGBTQ, and particularly trans, experience hate, bullying, and death.

And the list could go on.

Sometimes, it’s hard to be grateful when you see this. When you witness this. When people live through it. But on this day, that has admittedly has its own “colonizing” history, I will be thankful.

I am thankful for:

  • People who take a stand for social justice.
  • For those willing to engage in civic dialogue about the issues.
  • To those are willing to talk to and teach their children, our next generation, about what the hate, violence, misunderstandings mean, including deadly consequences.
  • My students who persevere though hard times.
  • For the idea of compassion.

We all do not have believe the same thing to love or have compassion.

I hope we can continue to have civil dialogues, call attention the matters, and care for humanity based on compassion and not fear and hate.

Tristan Bridges: “Teaching values about sharing through warthogs…”

In our house, we read a short children’s book to my children by David Ezra Stein entitled The Nice Book. It’s a short rhyming book that teaches children about rhymes, and the basics of what it means to be kind and to interact with others in ways you’d like to be interacted with. So, there are lessons about recognizing your own limits, not hitting, talking through our feelings, not staring at others, taking care of those in need, and the like. And each page is accompanied by a cute painting of a pair of animals acting out the kind behavior. On one page is a warthog with a huge ice cream sundae. On the next page the warthog is sharing the sundae with a mouse. It’s accompanied by the text, “If you have more than you need, SHARE.” It’s a basic lesson. And it’s one we expect our children to learn at an early age. Both of mine are still struggling with this particular lesson. And if I’m being honest, it’s one I’m still working on, too. But, like most of the lessons in The Nice Book, they’re not just for kids—these are ideals toward which we can all work harder to achieve. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Many nights this week I felt choked up and emotional. Beyond the global issues we are currently facing- the attacks in Paris and many states refusing Syrian refugees- many of us are witnessing racism on our campuses. One of the students on my campus posted some provocative words on social media that resulted in strong emotional responses from both students and faculty.

BLM

Teaching Students of Color as a White Woman

Two years ago in my Sociology of Health Care class most of the students were women of color. When we studied health disparities and the impact of racism, the students were not surprised by what they read, specifically about the impact of racism on birth outcomes and mental health. I remember the day I showed a video on how racism affects birth outcomes, and the meaningful class discussion we had afterwards. As a white woman (and one in the South with credentials behind her name), I didn’t want to be “that” professor who talks about inequality based only on on data, with students assuming I am the expert, or that I might be trying to marginalize their experience and put it into categories, or that I knew what it felt like to be a person of color. Instead I told them I could share the sociological research and evidence, but as a white woman I was not going to pretend I had shared their experience, and that their voices were critically important in this discussion.

My beloved copy of Patricia Hill Collins book Black Feminist Thought is no longer on my bookshelf. I gave it to a student, a woman of color, who through tears, told me about the racism and discrimination she has faced in her life and on campus. Another student, a queer woman of color, waited a week during a break to come talk to me about a painful experience, where the intersections of race, gender, and sexual identities collide. I feel honored that these students trusted me and shared their painful stories. In saying this, I am not asking for an award for being an ally that my students trust. Instead, I am advocating that we let our students know we support them as allies. In doing so, we must listen to their experiences. Racism and social justice are issues we should all be working on and not just on the backs of those who already oppressed.

Free Speech? Social Media, Racism, and Threatening Language

Monday evening after arriving home from an event with my daughter, a post by a student I do not know at our institution made its rounds on Face Book (FB). The post critiqued the Black Lives Matter movement and associated protests in Missouri. This student didn’t just express their disdain for these protests; they made what some perceived as threatening claims about what would result if this happened on our campus. To add fuel to the fire, this student also expressed their severe dislike for those who are Muslim or Islamic, in response to the tragedy in Paris.

hateTo their credit, our administration responded through Facebook, as well as with a letter from our current president, acknowledging the importance of free speech as a constitutional right, and also saying that threatening comments violate our student code of conduct. The original post by the student has since been taken down. Unfortunately, too many people had taken screen shots of the post for it to be truly deleted.

As I was reading various responses via comments to the different Facebook posts about the incident and what students, alumni, and parents were writing, I was upset, angry, and sad. One set of comments ran the gamut, from the expression that God loves everyone, to the belief people were over-reacting, and that we can’t control free speech. Other comments pointed out the threats, the racism, historical legacies of racism, and emotions such as anger and fear. I felt a mixture of emotions as I read about how students of color feel on campus – many of them students I know personally. How do we advocate for social justice and ending oppression of our students while enabling free speech?

Our administration did respond, as I noted above, and I believe the incident is being taken seriously. Our NAACP chapter and minority students on campus also spoke out in regards to the incident. (Here is one story.)

I decided that this was an opportunity for my students to discuss these real life issues in one of my classes, where all but one of my students is a person of color. We discussed the Facebook messages, both in regard to racism on campus and also in relation to the Syrian refugee issues (as we live in state in which our Governor and leaders stated we would not allow them due “security” issues).

Students’ Voices on the Issues

I told my students this blog would be about these issues and they gave me permission to share with you part of our discussion. To preface this, I told them it was their time to talk. I wanted to know how they felt, what racism they have seen or experienced, and what solutions they thought might help. Not all the students agreed on solutions, but it was a fruitful discussion, and I wanted to share some of its highlights.

I admit it is difficult to put this in writing, as I do not want to misrepresent what students said nor just put their words into categories. To present important components of this conversation, here are summaries and a few quotes from the students, which is not in any particular order:

Whites are afraid of African Americans and when we (African Americans) speak it’s seen as riot comparable to the KKK.

Look around at us… 1 in 4 of us (as black) will end up in jail.

If a black student posted something with this hatred and threats they would be in jail.

Specific events have happened in the past on campus involving symbols of racism and slavery, which caused fear among students of color.

Children are socialized to be racist.

Greek residences on campus resemble plantations. Students of color feel uncomfortable with the whiteness in this space.

Things are not going to change until the system changes. We have to start with children and teach them what matters.

The Black Lives Matter movement can be seen in different ways in terms of it is going to work. “We are fed up” and “our people are dying” were stated.

Why are there mandatory classes on drinking and sexual assault on campus, but not about diversity issues relating to people of color? Why are we required to take math, but not a class on dealing with diversity? Even if classes are intended to be about diversity for incoming students, they may not really deal with the issues.

A student of color talked about a class she took on race issues, in which there were only two white students. One of these students was honest in the class and noted she wanted to learn more about diversity issues, but was afraid to ask questions as she might be labeled as racist in doing so.

Why is there a lack of diversity, more specifically people of color, as faculty and administrators on campus?

In summary, the conversation had many directions and I don’t think any of what my students said will surprise many people. Some of the conversation was hard as some students felt hopeless and angry. Others were more positive about change occurring and much of this was about kids and education. So, is presenting what the students said going to change things? I hope that it can lead to more conversations, but this is only a starting point. I feel that what I can do is listen, reinforce that their voices matter, and encourage them to talk to faculty and administrators on campus who do care. I take their words seriously and continue to think about through my role as an educator.

Understanding & Compassion vs. Violence & Fear

As I told my students, their voices are important, but it is not just their job to have these discussions on our campus (and all campuses) or in society. We can’t put the burden only on students of color and those who are oppressed, to do all the work. As part of systematic racism and oppression, we are all part of the problem and solutions. As sociologists who study and know that racism in all forms still exists, we can listen to our students and let them know their voices and concerns are legitimate.

ListenWe are not allies unless we are willing to listen. And in my eyes, this requires empathy and compassion. It’s also about acknowledging that for some of us, we benefit from and contribute to these systems of oppression, because of our own privileges. We need to have humility to take a step back. Even though we might be “experts” as professors and researchers, we need to listen. In doing so, we need to let our students, colleagues, and friends know our empathy is not just, “I’m sorry for how you feel”, but it’s also, “Please tell me how you feel and how do we work together to solve this.”

Black lives matter. My students’ lives matter. Let’s be there for them by standing up for social justice, enabling conversations to happen, voices to be heard, and recognizing our own parts in systems of oppression. I thank my former and current students for having these discussions.

In our society, within our local environments, within our country, and globally, it is evident we all do not all agree with each other or even understand each other. Because the root of many of these issues are structural, we are not going to solve all our social problems immediately. However, I believe we can try to understand with compassion, not fear or hate. In terms of all the current issues we are facing in society, with historical components, compassion and empathy is going to get us farther than threats of violence or actions based on fear.

 

Robin-Thicke-Blurred-LinesRobin Thicke’s song, “Blurred Lines,” achieved international recognition in 2013. But the lyrics were also heavily criticized as promoting sexual violence by celebrating “blurred lines” around sexual consent. Indeed, the song and video prompted an online photo essay in which women and men are depicted holding up signs with words they heard from their own rapists—some of which were almost direct quotes from Thicke’s song. The song received a great deal of negative and positive press all at the same time. The media attention seemed to prove the media adage that any coverage is good coverage if Thicke’s continued celebrity is any measure.

It’s not a new argument to suggest that many elements of what feminist scholars refer to as “rape culture” are embedded in seemingly pleasurable elements of pop culture, like songs, movies, television shows etc. And Robin Thicke’s song served as an example to many of how we not only tolerate rape culture—but how we celebrate it and render it “sexy.” Recently, Rebecca Traister discussed just how much rape culture even informs what we think of as “good sex” in her piece “The Game is Rigged: Why Consensual Sex Can Still be Bad.” In it, Traister challenges the notion that all consensual sex is good and shows just how messy the debate about what qualifies as “consensual” really is. In many ways, our national discussion around sexual assault and consent is taking up themes raised by feminists in the 1980s about what actually qualifies as consent in a society in which violence against women is considered sexy.

Compared with “Blurred Lines,” Justin Bieber’s newly released hit single, “What Do You Mean?” has been subject to less critique. The notion that women do not actually know what they want and that they are notoriously bad and communicating their desires (sexual and otherwise) is pervasive. In the song, Bieber asks the woman with whom he’s interacting, “What do you mean? / Ohh ohh ohh/ When you nod your head yes / But you wanna say no / What do you mean?” The lack of clear consent isn’t just present in the song; it is what provides the sexual tension. It’s part of what is intended to make the song “sexy.”

Sexualizing women’s sexual indecision is an important part of the way rape culture works. It is one way that conversations about consent often over-simplify a process that is and should be much more complex. The song itself presents Bieber nagging the woman to whom he’s singing to make a decision about their relationship. But there are many elements suggesting that the decision she’s being asked to make is more immediate as well—not only about the larger relationship, but about a sexual interaction in the near future. Throughout the song, the click of a stopwatch can be heard as a beat against which Bieber presses the woman to make a decision while berating her for the mixed signals she has been sending him.

Bloomingdales-Spike-Drink-Ad-jpg
Image from Bloomingdale’s 2015 holiday catalog.

Bieber is presented as the “good guy” throughout the song by attempting to really decipher what the woman actually means. Indeed, this is another element of rape culture: the way in which we are encouraged to see average, everyday guys as “not-rapists,” because rapists are the bad guys who attack women from bushes (at worst) or simply get them drunk at a party (at best).*  The controversy over the ad in Bloomingdale’s recent 2015 holiday catalog urging readers to “spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking” shows that this kind of rape culture is also casually promoted in popular culture as well.  But, the larger discourse that Bieber’s song plays a role in promoting is the notion that women do not know what they mean or want. Bieber plays the role of someone simultaneously pressuring her for sexual advance (“Said we’re running out of time”), helping her work through her feelings (“What do you mean?”), and demanding results (“Better make up your mind”). And, like the Bloomingdale’s advertisement, this is not sexy.

Indeed, the music video (above) takes this a step further. Bieber is shown at the beginning paying John Leguizamo on a street corner and asking him to make sure “she doesn’t get hurt.” We later find out that John was paid to orchestrate a kidnapping of both Justin and the woman whom he meets in a hotel room. Both are taken by men in masks, driven to a warehouse in the trunk of a car, and tied up. Justin is able to free them, but they are still in a room with their kidnappers. They back up to a door that leads outside the building and see that they are one of the top floors. Justin turns to the woman, holds out his hand and asks, “Do you trust me?” She takes his hand and they both jump out of the building. They jump and fall to the ground, landing on a parachute pillow only to discover that the whole thing was a trick. The kidnapping was actually orchestrated ruse to bring her to a party that they entered by leaping from the building away from the men who’d taken them. The men in masks all reveal themselves to be smiling beneath. She smiles at Justin, recognizing that it was all a trick, grabs his face, kisses him and they dance the night away in the underground club.

Even though the song is about feeling like a woman really can’t make up her mind about Justin, their relationship, and sexual intimacy, the woman in the video is not depicted this way at all. She appears sexually interested in Justin from the moment the two meet in the video and not bothered by his questions and demands at all. Though it is worth mentioning that he is terrorizing her in the name of romance, indeed the terror itself is a sign of how much he loves her—also a part of rape culture. This visual display alongside the lyrics works in ways that obscure the content of the lyrics, content that works against much of what we are shown visually.

justin-bieber-what-do-you-mean-cover-413x413Part of what makes rape culture so insidious is that violence against women is rendered pleasurable and even desirable. Thicke and Bieber’s songs are catchy, fun, and beg to be danced to. The women in Thicke’s video also appear to be having fun strutting around nude while the men sing. The woman in Bieber’s video is being kidnapped and terrified for sport, sure, but it’s because he wants to show his love for her. She’s shown realizing and appreciating this at the conclusion of the video. Rape culture hides the ways that sexual violence is enacted upon women’s bodies every day. It obscures the ways that men work to minimize women’s control over their own bodies. It conceals the ways that sexual violence stems not just from dangerous, deviant others, but the normal everydayness of heterosexual interactions. And all of this works to make sexualized power arrangements more challenging to identify as problematic, which is precisely what makes confronting rape culture so challenging.

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*See C.J. Pascoe and Jocelyn Hollander’s forthcoming work in Gender & Society“Good Guys Don’t Rape: Gender, Domination, and Mobilizing Rape”—for more on what this discourse looks like and how it works.

As our department and numerous others think about ways to increase majors, I left our last faculty meeting thinking “Why Sociology?”. Not just for students, but why we – as faculty – studied, are teaching, or are using sociology in our research or work. I thought about not only personal statements I had to write for the job market, discussing my parent’s influence on my sociological perspective, but also jobs (pre- and post-PhD), volunteer experiences, and in general, my life in terms of why sociology or how I use sociology and continue to learn.

One can read numerous reports by the American Sociological Association on why students major in sociology and their paths after graduation . Most do not go on the “sociological academic” track (i.e. PhD programs in Sociology), but instead if they go to graduate school, they do so in more applied fields such as social work, public health, or the law. Sociology majors with various degrees, from the Bachelors, Masters, to the PhD, also work in a variety of settings. So, why sociology for a major? The skills? The mindset? What can entice students towards this major and what are the “benefits”? I believe if we cannot explain our own sociological perspective and mindset, including the utility to everyday life and careers beyond academia, we may be limiting sociology as a potential major or way of thinking for students. In today’s post, I’ll relate how I “came” to sociology.

My Background: A Sociology Major from the Beginning

I grew up in a family that fostered my educational aspirations by providing the access and financial means to do so. Despite these normative privileges afforded to me, my parents taught me important lesions about society and inequality that has impacted my personal values, work, and scholarship.

Hooded as "PhD"!
Hooded as “PhD”!

Growing up in the Midwest, I watched my parents actively participate in the Elks Club, in which service to others was a defining element of this benevolent organization. Each Holiday season, I helped assemble and deliver food baskets to economically disadvantaged families with my parents. I remember one year when we met a family who could not afford to turn on their heat. The whole family sat in front of the open stove in the kitchen for warmth. When I asked my parents about this, they explained to me the existence of poverty and inequality in our society. This small incident began what has become my lifelong exploration of and work toward ending social injustice. I was shown through example by my parents that social justice was something to strive for and that that our own comfortable middle class status was indeed a privilege.

My childhood and adolescence were also shaped by my mother’s job working as a claims’ administrator at the Social Security Administration (SSA). In an emotionally challenging job, my mother worked with a variety of people, from those with disabilities to those with economic difficulties, who were usually on the lower rung of the social class and status ladder in society. My mother’s duties included determining whether they qualified for Social Security, and the amount of benefits the government would provide. During high school, my mother took an early retirement from SSA. We discussed her job at length and the reasons why she was retiring at younger age, as she articulated a description of structural inequalities in society. My mom existed as the middle person between those in need and the government, and she found the rules and bureaucracy limiting. Emotional strain resulted when she had to work with those in need who did not receive what they needed to survive. This profound sociological insight has had a lasting impact on my views of structural inequality.

My parents in their younger years. My role models.
My parents in their younger years. My role models.

Coming from a background where service to others was important, at the end of high school and in college, I started working with people with  disabilities. My work included program development, life skills training, and community integration. Doing this work, I not only witnessed, first- hand, the discrimination that persons with disabilities face, but also learned life lessons from my clients. They taught me about friendship, understanding, and the importance of appreciating the simple things in life in a society that promotes perfectionism, able-ism, and cultural consumerism to make us happy. This job has had a significant influenced on my life. They were a part of my family. Starting this work while I was in high school, while also taking a sociology class, combined with the influence of my background and influenced my decision to declare sociology as a major in college. I knew that I wanted to make a difference. Working with people with disabilities allowed me to see how society is structured in a way that creates and constructs differences and meanings, and from a “disability” lens, how it is structured for able-bodied persons.

I declared my major as Sociology from the moment I applied to and started college, which I now understand is very rare. Also rare, especially at that time, was my ability to take a Sociology course in high school. But in taking this class, the idea of sociology resonated with my values, how I thought, and especially the lessons my parents taught me, and in particular, in my work with people with disabilities.

Why Sociology? Learning, Living, and Applying the Sociological Imagination

A common critique we hear in the field is that those who are obtaining their PhDs are being trained to be academics and not how to apply or use sociology outside of a professorship in academia. While not all programs are like this and despite the critique, we also understand for the most post, this is how our professors were trained and this is what they know.

Grad Students Act out Famous Sociologists
Grad Students Act out Famous Sociologists

However, I want to move beyond the graduate school academic versus applied debate to speak to how we talk and think about sociology, with undergraduates in mind. Why is sociology useful? Why are we not just an “easy” major or one that “confirms” common sense (or “debunking” it). How or why can sociology be useful to our personal lives? To do this, I will tell part of my story, in my next post in a few weeks. Not all will agree with what I have to say, but the beauty of sociology is that it is flexible.

Yes, I am back in the academy and want to be successful, but I also want my students (and potential majors) to know sociology is useful beyond a classroom and beyond teaching. In my next post, I will center on jobs I have had with a degree in Sociology (beyond a tenure track professor job) and the strenuous event of moving across the country from a metro area of the North to a small town in the Deep South, in which thinking about things in sociological manner indeed helped keep me sane.

I leave you with the following questions that are relevant to us “selling” sociology, but also to our own continued learning in the field. This relates back to historical debates about what sociology should be, why it is not social work (though as an MSW, I see the connections), and contemporary discussion on what engaged or applied sociology means.

  • How did you come to sociology as a field?
  • How do you define sociology (beyond a “textbook” definition)?
  • How do you think sociologically and how do you explain this others?
  • How you use sociology in your life?
  • What are core or essential skills of sociology training?
My student wins a social activism award from SWS
My student wins a social activism award from SWS