Are you attending the 2016 SWS Winter Meetings this coming week in Memphis? If so, some of the Feminist Reflections Team will be presenting the following workshop/panel!
Encouraging Justice, Feminisms, & Diverse Voices
Through Feminist Public Sociology:
A panel/workshop on blogging as public sociology
Are you interested in blogging as public sociology? How can sociologists use blogging to promote justice, feminisms and diverse voices?
Come join us on Friday, 4-5:30 in Louis XVI!
Panel Description: In Feminist Reflections, we draw upon our personal experiences, linking them to our research and current social justice topics. In this panel, we will delve into the challenges of doing feminist public sociology to encourage justice and recognition of different feminist voices. We will share our experiences in order to encourage others to engage in feminist public sociology, especially the voices often left out.
The panel will consist of a short introduction by the editors and then discussion with participants about how to “do” public feminist sociology that draws our attention to feminisms, diverse voices, and the relationship between public feminist sociology and social justice. Panelists include Kristen Barber, Gail Wallace, Mindy Fried, Trina Smith and Tristan Bridges.
One of my mother’s favorite holiday songs is “The Little Drummer Boy.” The “original version”:
While we have numerous recordings of this on various holiday records, the one I know best is the Bing Crosby and David Bowie version, “The Little Drummer Boy: Peace on Earth”, which is a different song than the original.
While listening to the song this week, as I was trying to get into the Holiday mood, the lyrics “peace on earth” kept coming to mind. In doing a bit of research about this somewhat odd duo of Bing Crosby and David Bowie, I discovered that the initial lyrics of the song didn’t include the phrase “peace on earth” (http://www.41051.com/xmaslyrics/drummer.html). My curiosity was peaked, and I continued to google (I mean research!) how the performance of these two music legends came to be. While I can’t testify to the accuracy and validity of my sources, I read that David Bowie did not want to sing “The Little Drummer Boy” for Crosby’s Holiday special in 1977, and people wondered if Bing Crosby even knew who David Bowie was. However, it appears that at the time Bowie decided to be on this special TV show as a way to appear “normalized”. The story goes that the tune and lyrics for “Peace on Earth” were re-written by David Bowie, Ian Fraser, Larry Grossman, and Alan Kohan, just for this recording. If you listen closely, you can hear Crosby sing more of the traditional “Little Drummer Boy”, while Bowie brings in the phrase “Peace on Earth.” (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_on_Earth/Little_Drummer_Boy)
Though I’m not old enough to be part of Bowie’s “glory days” of glam rock, my older second cousins exposed me to this artist when I was a youngster, and I still have clear memories of seeing Labyrinth in the theater (i.e. staring David Bowie). Whether we attribute the meaning and lyrics of “Peace on Earth” to Bowie and his co-writers, I believe it is a beautiful song- one that still has meaning in a world not is still not peaceful, or for that matter, tolerant. See the powerful lyrics below, in which I bold the “Peace on Earth” message.
Peace on Earth, can it be?
(A newborn King to see, pa-ram-pam-pam-pam)
Years from now, perhaps we’ll see
(Our finest gifts we bring, pa-ram-pam-pam-pam)
See the day of glory
(See the fine King, pa-ram-pam-pam-pam, ra-pam-pam-pam)
See the day when men of good will
Live in peace, live in peace again
(So newborn king, pa-ram-pam-pam-pam)
Peace on Earth
Can it be?
(Can we come?)
Every child must be made aware
Every child must be made to care
Care enough for his fellow man
To give all the love that he can
(Little baby, pa-ram-pam-pam-pam)
I pray my wish will come true
(I see the child, pa-ram-pam-pam-pam)
For my child and your child too
(I’ll take my trumpet, pa-ram-pam-pam-pam)
He’ll see the day of glory
(I’ll play my best for Him, pa-ram-pam-pam-pam, ra-pam-pam-pam)
So you can see that David Bowie wanted to strengthen the message of this song. Yes, the lyrics he wrote used gendered language, but perhaps we can forgive him because this was 1977, on the Bing Crosby show, when he was trying to appear “normal,” and normal was gendered at that time. But if you know David Bowie’s work you know he was not about dichotomous gender roles. Think of “Rebel, Rebel”, one of my favorite songs by him.
Thus, dear Feminist Reflection readers, I leave you with this to reflect upon. This recording of The Little Drummer Boy was from 1977. It is now 2015. Where are we now? Do we have peace on earth? No. We still live with bigotry, prejudices, and fear. Racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and related oppressions still exist. Gains have been made, such as the legalization of same sex-marriage by SOCUTUS and students and others willing to stand up for Black Lives Matters. Yet, you can still be fired for being gay in some states, though you can be legally married. Young black men are shot. We deny sanctuary to refuges, although our government policies contributed to this global battle that resulted in a refugee crisis. We use our “beliefs” based on fear instead of compassion and tolerance.
As we approach the new year – in the midst of this Holiday season – I ask, how can we accomplish peace on earth? And how can we carry this message forward beyond “the Holidays” where giving seems to be cherished and praised more? How can we make structural changes that will bring about peace? How do we teach children and each other tolerance? How do we give peace to our own selves in a chaotic world?
Whatever you believe or do not believe in, I say, in trying to the be the most inclusive I can, “Happy Holidays”, but please keep in mind how we can create peace on earth.
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.
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.
To 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.
We 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
As sociologists and feminists we are quick to critique, which does have merit. We tend to look structurally and think individuals are for the psychologists. While we can offer needed critiques on society, it seems our limitation is in proposing solutions that look at both structure and agency, including an understanding of the daily lives of people, especially those who are marginalized in society and have less agency.
I started thinking of this post this the summer when numerous articles posted on the internet reported how a teen with Down Syndrome started modeling. While the articles were positive, I happened to see a comment on Facebook on a feminist group about this young woman modeling. Again, while most of the comments were positive, one person stated how this teen with Down Syndrome should not be modeling or aspiring to be a model because in so many words it reinforced gender subordination. It made me stop and think.
Yes, the modeling industry is not always an ideal industry. Airbrushed images have pushed women (and men) into eating disorders and unrealistic expectations of body image. Yet, do we critique the industry or the teen? A teen who has lived her life with Down Syndrome in a society that is not always friendly to different abilities? Can we change our lens to see this as someone changing the face or nature of the industry? The comment in ways could be read as critiquing the person, not the industry. How can we critique structures while also remembering how people may have limited options or want to feel included or normal. Can we think of how agency can change the structure?
While we study social problems and issues from a structural view and advocate what we think changes should be, we cannot forget the people who we as a society have not given agency to, such as those with differing abilities. Can we have a focus of inclusion, which sees these individuals as having agency as something that does change the structure for the better?
We can say “embrace your differences” all day long or “normal is boring”, yet it seems part of human nature to want to be included and to feel normal. Or at the least, not just treated with only sympathy and woe, but seen as a person who has something to contribute to society. This does not mean that structural change does not need to happen.
While I had already planned and drafted another post for this week, that topic, which would have been important and interesting to me on any other day, suddenly seemed trivial. One of my family members is in critical condition and on life support. By the time this post goes live, he will have passed. In the spirit of Feminist Reflections and talking about everyday life, this week I talk about grief and death. During this emotional time for our family, I have attempted to write this post with clarity. But I have a lot on my mind. I write with a heavy heart as my family experiences grief, and I ponder the meaning of death.
How do we mourn and comfort others who are grieving? How do we grieve differently when people die at different ages, or unexpectedly? Can we believe in something that will help us through our grief? How are our spiritual beliefs connected to, or guided by, our scientific training?
Sociologists attempt to use our scientific tools to understand the world, to give meaning and order to things. But as much as we can understand death as a physiological or biological event, the emotional and spiritual experience of someone’s death is often hard to make sense of with social scientific theories (at least, in my opinion). Still, I believe, as do many others, that emotional and “rational” thinking helps to make sense of the death of a loved one.
As an only child, both of my biological grandfathers died before I was born. My maternal grandmother died when I was five. My paternal grandmother remarried the year that my parents got married, and my “step-grandpa” (but in all honesty, my grandfather) died when I was in graduate school. My grandma lived on her own for a few years until her death.
Grandma died seven years ago on Memorial Day weekend. At the time, I was living about five hours from my hometown in Iowa. She had lived independently in her own house for a few years. When it became clear that she could not live on her own, my family decided to move her into an assisted living environment. She lived there only a short time before ending up in the hospital, for reasons I cannot remember, and then into hospice. Ironically, the hospice was located in the same nursing home where she lived before her death.
My grandma was in hospice for longer than the usual time. Dementia had taken over. She stopped eating. She muttered phrases. No one was clear of their meaning. My mom did not want me to see my grandma in this condition. But I was incredibly close to her. My friends loved her. As many of them said, “she had a lot of spunk.” When I moved away for college and graduate school, I called her weekly; that is, until she went to hospice and could no longer carry on a telephone conversation. Still, I needed closure. I needed to say goodbye.
My spouse, our daughter (age two at the time), and I went to visit my grandma that Memorial Day weekend. Grandma, who lay there in a fragile, non-coherent state, reached out and held my daughter’s — her great granddaughter’s — hand with a strong grip. The next day, she finally said goodbye.
I can believe my grandma wanted to see her great granddaughter and me before she died. Is this what was going on? There is no empirical way to prove it. Yet science and spirituality guided me in this belief.
Grandma lived longer than usual in hospice. My family has many questions about why she would not ‘let go’. She would say in her non-lucid state she was sorry, and mutter other phrases too. Since she was a former Catholic, we thought she was sorry for leaving the church and had her last rites read. Beyond this, every family member and friend spoke to her on the phone before she died. But she did not let go until the day after we visited her, and she held my daughter’s hand.
I cannot know, really, if my grandma needed to see us before passing on. But I believe that she did. This is one way I have dealt with my grief.
Seven years later, we have lost others. As much as I miss my grandma, I can accept her death as normative. She was in her mid-eighties. But my father-in-law died from cancer when he was only sixty-three, and the time from diagnosis to death was a short four months (after predictions of a year). The third anniversary of his death just passed. Although I can see my father-in-law, with his positive attitude and shining smile standing from his place above and telling us to live life to the fullest, he left us too early. I can talk sociologically about the factors that might have influenced his health, which helps me understand his death at an younger age. But this does not make my grief easier. And now, another family member leaves us too early, and unexpectedly.
While death is part of life, we often imagine it will happen in old age, near the end of the life course for most people. When it does not, when it is unexpected, it is harder to understand and to know how to comfort others or ourselves. Saying it was someone’s ‘time’ seems callous and lacks empathy, especially when the person was not in pain, was young, or the death was unexpected. Friends and colleagues have lost children at younger ages, and I cannot imagine the pain or the grief they experienced.
I do not study aging, death, dying, or grief. But as a sociologist I want to make sense out of the social world. Death and mourning, especially when we do not expect it, are hard to make sense of. There is no correct thing to say to those in mourning. Grief strikes. We can support our loved ones and acknowledge that there are different ways of grieving. We deal with it in our own ways.
While your death was untimely and we will miss you, we will never forget the memories and your positive spirit. You had a huge impact on your family and this world that will not be forgotten. May you rest in peace.
May is full of beginnings and endings — graduations from high school and college propel students on to new endeavors.
Chasity is a student who will always hold a special place in my heart. She’s talented, passionate, and hard working, and while I’m sad that we’ll no longer be part of each other’s day-to-day, I’m excited to see what the future holds for her.
It has been an exciting year, and I’ve enjoyed watching Chasity grow. She has worked with me as a research assistant; we traveled together to a conference where she received a national award. Chasity received our department’s Undergraduate Sociology Student Research Award, served as president of our Sociology Club, and won another award from our university’s Multicultural Center.
On Saturday she’ll walk across the stage and receive her diploma, marking the commencement of her undergraduate studies; she’ll move away with her fiancé and her new chapter will begin.
Working with Chasity as a student has been an honor and I’m incredibly proud of her. At the same time, it’s bittersweet. As teachers, we’re expected to teach and guide our students. But as I reflect on the past year, I’m also reminded of how much our students teach us. Chasity has been my student. She’s been my mentor as well. I’ve learned so much from her about social justice, activism, and staying the course. Teaching in the Deep South has been an adjustment for this Northern transplant, and students like Chasity remind me why I push through.
Mentoring & Recognizing Our Students
Mentoring relationships are often seen as one way, but I see them as reciprocal. Naturally, there are appropriate professional boundaries, but this does not mean our students do not impact or mentor us. They come to us from different parts of the world; they share their stories. When we are open, we learn.
This post serves as a thank you and a tribute to Chasity, as well as a testament to the importance of mentoring, with emphasis placed on what our students give us. While our job is to help students learn, learning is not just a give and take relationship. We are human. We teach sociology, where many concepts are personal for our students and ourselves. Emotions can not be removed from the learning process. We build relationships with our students, and we care about them.
I want to write this post within a framework of feminist mentoring, but today words fail me. This post is from the heart. At times, I think as faculty we are negligent in recognizing the talents and humanity of our undergraduate students. We may not take the time to tell them how they’ve changed us, taught us, and pushed us to be our best. We all need positive reinforcement and this is especially true of our students.
“I Just Do It”- Social Justice to Unite
Each year, SWS requests nominations for the Undergraduate Student Activism Award and Chasity was an obvious choice. Her work on campus speaks for itself. She’s served as a diversity peer educator, worked with the Gay Straight Alliance, engaged in research on racism, women, and mental health. She’s worked tirelessly with the Sociology Club and the Multicultural Student Center, volunteering and mentoring numerous students. She’s part of Model UN, and these are only the things I can remember. She does all this in addition to being an exceptional student.
For Chasity’s nomination for this award, I received letters of support from faculty and staff across campus. As I wrote in my letter,
“Chasity is dedicated to social justice, and is able to use a sociological lens to frame her inquiries. But most importantly, it is not just her experiences that fuel her activism, but her desire to build bridges among diverse groups, to relate to and understand people, and she does so in a professional, reflective way, serving as a role model to others who strive for equality.”
As the letters of support attest, Chasity takes a lead role in advocating for social justice and equality, and she does so with professionalism, empathy, and self-reflection.
Chasity is humble and her work is never self-serving or simply for fame. She does it because she cares deeply for others. She is passionate about social justice. This was beyond evident when we were working on her resume. I asked about her work and she responded, “I just do it; I don’t think about writing it down.”
The world needs more people like Chasity. Chasity is about action, authenticity and living her values. Students like Chasity inspire me to be better — a better person, as well as a teacher and scholar.
Mentoring Our Undergraduates
Chasity has helped me become a better person, but also teacher and scholar. She can tell you what I have helped her with, but this post is not about that. It’s about showing our own humanity and appreciation for students, particularly undergraduate students, who often get left out of the conversation about mentoring and positive relationships. I’m grateful to have been able to work with so many wonderful students in my teaching career. Mentoring undergraduates does not have to take away from our research or teaching. Seeing the humanity and positive attributes of our students can do wonders for their development and by actually listening to them, we can grow professionally and personally.
I encourage you to reach out to students who’ve made a difference in your life. I’ve learned so much from many of my students this year, but today is about Chasity. Join me in congratulating her as she walks across the stage on Saturday and begins an exciting new chapter.
A poet, I may not be, but this is the best way I can tell you and the fabulous folks who read this blog about you. Here goes…
You have my support and I am forever grateful.
After intense teaching days, you were there.
With a smile, words of wisdom, reminding me how much you learned.
You were the voice of reason when I was ready to run.
You listened and reminded me why I do this important work.
You were the calm during a long day of travel, despite your lack of sleep.
You even didn’t poke me when I snored!
You made me proud; you made me laugh; I cried when you won your award.
You made quite the impression with your authenticity, professionalism, and knowledge.
You worked hard collecting, coding, and analyzing data.
Your awards were numerous,
And you deserve every one!
You have made an impact.
On your peers,
On your mentors,
On our department,
As you move forward, I will miss you,
Yet you will forever be in my heart,
Guiding me, reminding me to build bridges and advocate for justice.
Why are mental health and disabilities fields that sociologists seem to neglect?
Historically, medical sociologists studied mental health and institutions. But there are few sources in the recent sociological literature on women and mental health. Feminist psychologists have done most of the research on these topics. With our intersectional frameworks, concern for social justice, and examination of structural oppression and intertwined institutions and identities, it is crucial for feminist sociologists to study gender and mental health (and disabilities).
We need to examine how women living with mental illness, and those with mental illness or disabilities in general, are labeled, viewed, and reacted to in a society that devalues emotions, lacks equity in access to quality mental health care, and criminalizes those with mental illness instead of supporting them. Even more necessary is perspective and insight on mothers who are living with mental illness, especially to give voice to women who may be afraid to speak about their experiences because of stigma.
David Karp is one of the few sociologists who has published on the experience of mental illness. In his book, Speaking of Sadness: Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness, he states:
“Given the pervasiveness of depression, it is not surprising that both medical and social scientists have tried to understand its causes and suggest ways of dealing with…… As valuable as these studies might be, something crucial is missing. My view is that to really understand a human experience, it must be appreciated from the subjective view of the person undergoing it. …Underneath the rates, correlations, and presumed causes of behavior are real human beings who are trying to make sense of their lives” (p.11).
As sociologists we need to move away from the debate on ‘what causes mental illness’ and make room for understanding the experience of those living with it, especially for women and mothers. As David Karp notes in his work, the etiology of mental illness is complex. Sociologists can add to this research on causes, but we cannot pretend we have the grand answer. Our focus seems to be on critiques of the pharmaceutical industry and how diagnosis can be a form of social control. These are important issues, but by focusing on critiques, we neglect the stories of those who experience mental illness.
Does this mean that we are saying mental illness is not real? From the stories of women living with mental illness, we can still understand the structural forces that shape the experience, without denying that experience, and hopefully decreasing the stigma surrounding it.
To support this idea, and as an introduction to my new research on maternal mental health, I share stories, in this post, and the work of those who are using stories to dismantle the stigma that women and mothers living with mental illness experience.
Motherhood and Mental Illness-Master Status
The blog post “Mothers and Mental Illness” written by Karen Spears Zucharias, author of Mother of Rain, tells the story of her friend who suffered from postpartum psychosis. (While this is something that can happen, it is rare. However, we may hear more about it because of the tragic events associated with it such as the death of a child.) Karen speaks volumes about mental health in this country including how we treat people with mental illness and how they may feel. These relate to sociological concepts of statuses, identity, labeling, and stigma. Karen states:
“People look at you differently when you’ve suffered from mental illness. Even when you’ve healed, there remains the nagging “what ifs” in the minds of others.”
Mental illness becomes your “master status.” With this being the case, do you ever get to have an emotion or make a mistake without your actions labeled as part of the mental illness, without the stigma? And more so, what are the consequences of this stigma, those negative sanctions that might include ending up handcuffed because of your mental illness?
A Mother in Handcuffs
Dyane Harwood, a mother of two who lives with the mental illness bi-polar, writes about a horrendous experience in her blog post “Handcuffed and Lactating.” When her husband called 911 when she was in a manic-episode, symptomatic of her bi-polar disorder, four police offers showed up at her house to transport her to the Behavioral Health Unit. Although she was being compliant, they handcuffed her.
In her words, from the poem that begins her post:
“To this day, I can’t believe it
Why a lactating mother of two would be such a threat
I needed treatment, but I complied; I was willing to leave
My children for the hospital, near the street where I conceived
I didn’t need handcuffs – I had to laugh a bit
I wasn’t armed with a gun…what a bunch of bullshit!
I hope no other mother who’s manic and admits it
Doesn’t go through the humiliation of being treated like a convict.”
Is it any wonder why mothers, especially those living with mental illness, are afraid to ask for help? Mental illness is not a crime, nor is being a mother with a mental illness. And handcuffs do not heal. These stories are real, but we do not hear them. We do not have a space for women and mothers to share them, save for a few blogs and websites.
Stories To Tell
The website Stigmama, founded by Walker Karraa, PhD, focuses on the perspectives of mothers and women living with mental illness, along with those who live with them. She argues that these personal perspectives make a difference and advocates that we use the term mental ‘difference’ instead of mental ‘illness.’ Dr. Karraa express this in a powerful way in the introduction to the website:
“I have always believed in the power of women, especially those who have been touched by mental illness or mental difference, to create change. We are different. We see what others don’t, write what others won’t, and give beauty to the deepest experiences of motherhood and the human soul. I created Stigmama for mothers of all ages to do just that. To speak their truths in a non-judgmental, supportive, creative community. We need the wisdom and support of others to unpack stigma of mental difference in motherhood.”
This relates to another quote from Karp, speaking to the importance of giving voice to those who rarely get to have a voice.
“The essential problem with nearly all studies of depression is that we hear the voices of a battalion of mental health experts (doctors, nurses, social works, sociologists, psychologists, therapists) and never the voices of depressed people themselves. We do not hear what depression feels like, what it means to receive an “official” diagnosis, or what depressed individuals think of therapeutic experiences. Nor do we learn the meanings that patients attach to taking psychotropic medications, whether they accept illness metaphors assessing their condition, how they establish coping mechanisms, how they understand depression to affect their intimate relationships, or how depression influences their occupational strategies and career aspirations” (pp. 11-12).
We need safe spaces for women living with mental illness to tell their stories and safe spaces, such as Feminist Reflections, to discuss the need for this research.
Moving Forward: A Call For Feminist Sociologists To Examine Mental Health
Like our fore-mothers in sociology, many of us as contributors and readers of Feminist Reflections want to make positive social change and give voice to those who are oppressed. While there is fabulous work done by sociologists on issues of race, gender, poverty, LGBTQ issues, and related identities and inequalities, we seem to forget about the hidden stigma and oppression of mental illness. Maybe we see it is as the psychologists’ domain as it deals with the mind. Or, we quickly turn to our critiques of medication and the pharmaceutical industry or diagnosis as a tool of social control. Maybe it is just too personal for some to study.
Whatever the reasons, I am pushing for feminist sociologists to study mental illness, especially women and mothers who suffer from mental illness. It is real for those who experience it— what we call the social construction of reality. Through women’s stories, we can deepen our understandings about the relationships among gender, motherhood, and mental health. And hopefully, we can help to decrease the stigma.
I know racism exists everywhere in the U.S., but as a newer person to the South, I have observed that segregation and racism are more visible and verbal here.
Prior to moving here, I lived in the inner-city of a metro area in the Upper Midwest where I observed racism in more covert ways: minority youth afraid of police, wedges between different racial/ethnic groups in the community, and strategies to work on these issues from “Facing Race” trainings and community-police relationship building, to the police force trying to hire more minorities. From a vantage point of moving from the Upper Midwest to the Deep rural South, racism can be seen differently.
“Standpoint” is not a new concept to sociologists, nor to people of color who have lived in both regions. And certainly all ways that racism is expressed and experienced is unacceptable. However, some folks I have talked to who moved to the North from the South have said that when racism is more overt, it is sometimes easier to deal with because you know what people think. Whatever the form, racism is something we shouldn’t have to fight. But as I share my observations to talk about why black lives matter, I see clearly that racism is not dead.
In this post, I am going to take a different stance from my co-bloggers on FeministReflections to share stories that demonstrate racism in everyday interactions, rather than the local or national protests currently underway. Organized protests are the manifestations of years and year of oppression; a build-up of blatant racist acts experienced by people of color. With permission, I share the following stories from one of my students. My student “Bob” (not his real name) is currently finishing his internship under my supervision. It is my ethical decision to write more generically about my student and some events to protect identities of persons and organizations.
Pickin’ Cotton: My Student’s Story
Bob is a large black man. Bob knows he is large. Bob also knows how people may perceive him, given the stereotypes about back men. Indeed, he’s told me about numerous times in his life of being pulled over by the police and the interactions that have happened. But the reason I want to talk about Bob is to point to issues about language and micro-aggressions as a form of racism occurring in everyday lives. Everyday interactions, including our language, whether people “intend” to be racist or not, are embedded in structural racism.
In a meeting discussing his internship, Bob told me about something that happened with a man who answered the phones at his internship site. While waiting to meet with another person at the organization, they engaged in small talk. After a rant about how people claim their race and ethnicity, the man told Bob that he could not call himself African American, charging that Bob could not trace his ancestry back to slavery or to Africa. Bob was shocked that this man had the audacity to make such a ridiculous claim. In trying to keep his cool while also advocating for himself, Bob gave the man “a short history lesson.” But while doing so, Bob had to maintain professionalism as an intern, despite what he had just heard, which of course upset him.
There were other stories Bob shared. Since we live in the rural South, we are surrounded by many cotton fields. When Bob was talking to another person at the organization, the guy told Bob “to go pick cotton.” A cotton field was, literally, behind them. Joking or not, why would he say that? Did he fail to realize that the remark harkens back to slavery? Why did the receptionist at Bob’s internship think he could tell Bob what racial or ethnic term he can or cannot claim or use?
Why did these people express these particular words and types of sentiments to Bob?
Rest assured, Bob handled the situations with professionalism and dignity. He brought the issues to the person in charge of the organization, who was concerned and took action.
However, as Bob and I talked about his experiences and I thought about them for days, the question about who tells a black person to go pick cotton kept coming to back to my mind. Language matters. Symbolism matters. If someone doesn’t understand why telling a black person to go pick cotton is not okay, that person may want to re-visit history.
The issues were taken care of internally before I had to get involved as a faculty internship adviser. But hearing about these daily micro-aggressions Bob was experiencing made me angry. If I had to get involved, what would have I said? I would have to use the language of treating my student with respect, in which racism will not be tolerated. But “who tells a black person to go pick cotton?” This is the question to ask in these kinds of circumstances.
My student may be “privileged” in that he is attending college, but this does not erase his race, the discrimination he may face because of it, nor his feelings when racial aggressions occur. He knows that in a professional setting in which many things are at stake including the security of his internship, which may be a stepping stone to a job and/or letters of recommendation for his future, he must tread lightly. As sociologists have shown, if a black person gets angry it is often viewed stereotypically as typical behavior, helping to reproduce the cycle of racism. Bob advocated for himself, but realized that he had to do so within the constraints of his professional setting.
While this interaction is not at the same level as the Ferguson or related cases, it shows how micro level interaction racism exists in overt ways. A black person carries the burden of experiencing racism in everyday life.
Beyond advocacy and social action through protests, rallies, and so forth, we must also listen and acknowledge the experiences of students and people of color that happen in everyday interactions. It is through some of these everyday experiences where we can see the ways in which racism is experienced on a daily basis by people of color.
These stories show the power of language, part of our (racist) culture. Micro-aggressions, including language and symbols, are symptoms of structural racism and perpetuate racism, intentionally or not. Intent is not the same thing as impact. And Bob is one of many students who have told me about these kinds of everyday racist interactions. Language matters. Unfortunately, language is often ignored.
I have encouraged my students to write about their experiences. My students have told me that they want to make a difference in the world and work for social justice in their careers and volunteer activities. Many of them in fact work or volunteer with student organizations, multicultural centers, and/or do internships at organizations that work with diverse and oppressed clientele. By documenting and reflecting on their experiences (sadly including the “isms” they experience or see others experience), using their sociological training, and reflecting on current ways of addressing inequality they witness, I hope we can find effective ways to work together to advocate for social justice. While I firmly believe that the oppressed should not have to teach their oppressors, I do think it is important for us as allies to listen and learn from the perspectives of people of color.
Often in our quest for public and feminist sociology, we do not hear from students or from those who experience everyday racism. I have invited my students to write their stories and reflect on how they conceive of advocacy and social change. We’ll share some of these on Feminist Reflections in the future to highlight student voices that exemplify feminist sociological principles. Activism through rallies, protests, and other forms of collective organizing are incredibly important, and so is listening and being there for our students.
In conclusion, please remember:
We cannot forget to be allies by LISTENING, leaning from, and supporting our own students whose lives have been affected by structural racism and experience micro-aggressions and every day, often overt, racism.
Today is Thanksgiving in the United States, a holiday we as children learned to celebrate as “the founding of America.” Our story books described a time when the Pilgrims became friends with the Natives and they all shared a feast together. Many of us, including sociologists, know that Thanksgiving could just as easily be considered a “white-washed” and Americanized re-telling of this moment in history. Like Columbus Day where celebration of the founding of the country is cast in patriotic terms, most people ignore, forget, or never knew about the oppressive history of this country’s founding.
So, today is Thanksgiving:
A day many of us eat turkey and pumpkin pie, and watch football.
A day of gendered roles and norms.
A day of rituals.
A day for family.
A day to be thankful.
A day ripe for feminist sociological analysis.
How do we hold a critical view of our nation’s history, acknowledge myths about family and gendered norms, and among other things, make sense of the partial truths that surround this holiday? How do we use a feminist sociological lens to see a more nuanced picture of a day many of us hold dear, understand the importance of rituals, and acknowledge our gratitude as human beings and feminist sociologists?
As contributing editors and guest bloggers of Feminist Reflections, we believe we do have much to be thankful for. So on this day — while acknowledging the cultural appropriation of the Thanksgiving holiday — we share why we are thankful for feminism, family rituals, gender transgressions, and stories that reveal resistance to cultural appropriation in its many forms.
Oh the reasons to be thankful…
1)I am thankful for feminist mentors I have who understand the need for both support and sometimes a gentle nudge (or not so gentle) to move you forward. We are dispersed across the country (and world), but you are a phone call or email away and usually giving me advice in my head! Times are never going to be “easy”, but without you, I do not think I would have made this far in my own conceptualization of success.
2) I especially thankful for this wonderful group of bloggers at Feminist Reflections who have taught me about writing, blogging, support, you all, and myself. Your support and mentoring is priceless.
3) I am thankful to our feminist fore-mothers,who fought for so many rights, from the right to vote, reproductive choice, to the ability to attend college and graduate school.
4) I am privileged and thankful to have found my “soul-mate” of a friend in my short time in my new place. A friend who supports feminism, who supports social justice, and supports those around her. A friend I can talk to about the “mommy myths” and the reality of parenthood along with all the other stress of adulthood. A friend who all her WGS professors still remember! You are one of a kind and I am so thankful for you!
5) And in speaking of feminism and thankfulness, I can’t leave out my family, from my “family of origin”, extended family, in-laws, and most importantly, to my spouse and children. My departed grandmothers were role models for their feminist granddaughter- working non-traditional jobs, marrying and having kids “late”, and being assertive, among other things. My parents, who never said I couldn’t be smart, a professor, or whatever I wanted to be because I was a girl. My spouse, who is my co-parent and made sacrifices so I could obtain my dream job. And who does the majority of the cooking, is not afraid to do our daughter’s hair, teaches our kids computer programming and how to cook, and who is a fantastic parent. And to my young children, in which I have watched you as a young “boy” and “girl” face gender socialization and questioning of our family’s social justice beliefs by some of your peers. Thank you for standing up for social justice for all those who are oppressed and for not being afraid to “bend” gender or use gender neutral language, even though the other kids may not get it. And for letting me teach you the truth of about some of the holidays often celebrated without attention to the hidden truths.
6) And I am thankful for my job, in which I get to work some of the most fantastic students and colleagues.
I wish all our Feminist Reflections readers an enjoyable holiday. I will not be cooking the turkey (which would be a disaster), but will be starting new rituals with my own family in a new place. And I hope on this day, we all can reflect and be thankful and supportive of those who have helped put food on our tables (farm workers), our family and friends, but also be cognizant of both the structural oppression many still face and hidden histories of this holiday, in order to join forces to advocate for social justice.
Last New Year’s Eve, I declared that 2014 would be my “Year of Gratitude.” I would express gratitude each day with a brief post on Facebook, reflecting on what I was grateful for that day.
It was a marvelous experiment for a while. At first, it came with all of the intended consequences. It felt good thinking about what makes life wonderful. It felt good to recognize just how many supportive, cool, fun, hilarious, smart, and amazing people I have in my life. It felt good to take the time – every day – to reflect on something positive. My Facebook friends told me how much they appreciated the posts; that the posts encouraged them reflect on feeling gratitude, too. It felt good knowing gratitude was contagious.
Then I started worrying I’d forget to post. Then I actually did forget to post – more than once. Then I started getting anxious every night before bed. If I hadn’t yet thought of something to be grateful for that day, I’d have to do it before I could get any sleep. I thought about the friends I’d be letting down if I couldn’t come up with something… Every.Single.Day.
This went on for months. One day I cried to a friend, “My gratitude is bringing me down!” I told her how I worried I’d be letting people down if I stopped posting. How the worry over my posts was exhausting me but I didn’t want to disappoint my friends. She laughed, noting the irony. My intention had been simply to express – and feel – gratitude. Somehow I’d wound up in the position of feeling responsible for helping others experience the joys of gratitude. By September, I decided to let myself off the hook. I continued to reflect on and feel gratitude but I stopped feeling responsible for posting about it every darn day.
What a wonderful thing a daily, public expression of gratitude can be. But the reality, for me at least, didn’t reflect the idealized vision I’d constructed when I’d made the commitment months earlier. Adding yet another “must do” to an already jam-packed list of must-do’s didn’t have the effect I’d hoped for.
Finding balance and letting myself off the hook when things don’t go according to plan have been themes (and challenges!) for me this year. Having Feminist Reflections, a community of smart and inspiring feminist colleagues, has helped. It’s been such a joy to be reminded of the importance of thoughtful, critical reflection and discussion. And to share the load.
Feminism has helped in other ways, too. Feminism has given me the courage to say no when that’s what’s needed. And to change the plan when changing the plan is what’s needed. Feminism has helped me see that I’m not alone in the struggle to find balance. It has helped me understand that I am worthy of balance; I am worthy of self-care when that’s what’s needed.
I’m reminded of the words of Audre Lorde, from her 1988 collection A Burst of Light. Lorde wrote about self-care in a much different context but her statement rings true, I think, for anyone struggling to be kind to themselves and banish guilt over not doing enough. I’ll leave you with those words. I certainly am grateful for them.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” -Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light (1988)
I am thankful for my aging. Yes, I said it!
As I age, I realize that “aging well” is not about botox, eye serums and face lifts, although our consumerist economy would like us to believe that. It’s about eating well, exercising, staying intellectually engaged, and open to new people and ideas.
We live in a youth-oriented culture where even young women are getting botox as a preventative measure! It’s time to reclaim our graying hair, our wrinkles and our sagging body parts. To love ourselves as we are…
When Trina first mentioned writing about feminism and gratitude, a specific set of words came rushing into my mind. They were lyrics written by one of my personal she-roes Ani Difranco in the song “Grand Canyon.”
i love my country
by which i mean
i am indebted joyfully
to all the people throughout its history
who have fought the government to make right
where so many cunning sons and daughters
our foremothers and forefathers
came singing through slaughter
came through hell and high water
so that we could stand here
and behold breathlessly the sight
how a raging river of tears
cut a grand canyon of light
why can't all decent men and women
call themselves feminists?
out of respect
for those who fought for this
i mean, look around
we have this
On this day of thanksgiving, I’m grateful to Ani D. for speaking so many of my truths. Every day, I am indebted joyfully to all the people who continue to fight the status quo in all of its peculiarities for the sheer purpose of making things right. And to all you decent men and women who call yourselves feminists… thank you for staking your claim to the greatest F-word ever!
I wanted to express gratitude today to this incredible community of feminist scholars of which I feel fortunate to be a part. It began as a round table conversation at a Sociologists for Women in Society meeting. And slowly, that idea turned into a new blog. It’s still taking shape, but the collection of scholars who write here have enriched my life and my work and it’s a great honor to be involved.
The private lives of men and women are political. There is no aspect of our lives that is not caught up by the political. How we spend and negotiate our time in relationships is political. How we exercise our power at work and home is political. How we exercise our sexuality is political. How we educate is political. How we contribute to the myths of gender is political. The very language we use is political. To be gendered is to be political. It is not necessary to be a feminist or a member of the Christian promise-keepers to engage in this political condition. Such associations are simply a more direct expression of what goes on across all societies between all men and women in all cultures—daily. (Whitehead 2002: 148)
There is no aspect of our lives that is not caught up by the political.