Cherrie Bucknor / Harvard University

It has been weeks since I have crossed the stage, shook the hand of my college’s president, smiled at my family in the audience, and received my Bachelor’s degree. It struck me knowing that I had finally got to that very moment. The moment I had been waiting and working at for four whole years, and a bunch before that. Although I can thank my family for the endless support, thank my friends for the long nights of studying, and myself for remaining determined through absolutely everything—I also must thank my professors. Especially the professor who allowed me to reach my fullest potential, push me past my limits, and allowed me to see that I am capable of achieving whatever goals I set for myself. Virginia Rutter, the professor for the independent study, Margin to Center: Black Women in Policy, facilitated the unique class, where we talked to a lot of great women, including  Cherrie Bucknor, a doctoral student in Sociology at Harvard University. Her research interests include class, race, gender, labor unions, and social policy. Previously, Cherrie Bucknor worked at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) where she developed a series called Young Black America. Sitting across the table from her at lunch in Cambridge, I was able to hear all that she had to say about her series, her advice, and so much more:

TC: What advice do you have for Black women who want to attend an ivy league school?

CB: This is probably going to sound a bit ridiculous coming from someone who is currently at Harvard and who got their undergraduate degree from Penn, but I would encourage them to not necessarily strive to go to an “Ivy League School”, but to go to the school that they believe will be the best fit for them, both academically and emotionally. That should be the ultimate goal. As in many things in life, there will be sacrifices to make in these two areas (and others), but the goal should be to try and end up at the school that will maximize those two areas and others that are important to you. Oftentimes, when we think of college, we only think about the academic aspect. But, for me, both in the past and currently, the non-academic parts of my life on campus really help to keep me on a good page emotionally when I may be dealing with things in class or with my research that would otherwise keep me down.

I would also encourage them to speak with Black women who are already at the institution to hear from them what their experience has been like. Our experiences as Black women are unique in many ways and for me, it was invaluable to hear from the Black women who were already in my program. The Black women who paved the way for us will have advice on how to navigate the particular environment that you will find yourself in. Every school and department is different, with their own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s best to know as much going in as you can.

TC: What gets you through your days/moments when you are discouraged?

CB: The short answer to this would be “my people”. More specifically, I have a community of people, both in the Boston area and elsewhere who get me through the moments when I feel discouraged. This includes my parents, siblings, and other family members who have been on this journey with me since the beginning and who are just as invested in seeing me reach my goals as I am. The friends that I spent the past 5 years with in DC are just as much a part of my life as they were when I lived in DC. They are always there for me to vent to. They know just the right GIF or meme to send me that will make me literally laugh out loud.

Over the past year, I have also been lucky to develop friendships with fellow students in my department and throughout Harvard who I really vibe with on many different levels, whether it’s because we have similar research interests, political interests, experiences as scholars of color, or we watch the same TV shows or hate the same sports teams. While these friendships are relatively new, and some were unexpected, I can already tell that they will be “my people” for years to come.

Lastly, as I’ve mentioned above, the non-academic aspects of my life here also get me through the moments when I am discouraged. My work with our recently-certified graduate student union brings me so much joy because of the possibility of making Harvard a better place through the bargaining process. I have also been working with a great, diverse group of students who share my interest in prison abolition and who experience similar challenges as students of color on campus. Every week or so, I know that I’ll be sitting in a room with or on a conference call with people who are committed to doing good research and good work in our community. I feel very fortunate in that regard.

TC: Why did you choose to focus on Young Black America as a series when you were at CEPR? What was it like to conduct and then communicate this type of research?

CB: My Young Black America series was actually my first solo-authored work at CEPR and it was about 6 months into my time there. I say this all the time, but I definitely feel as though CEPR spoiled me as a young researcher. The latitude that I was given during my three years there was truly remarkable. This particular research came about because of a curiosity that I had. I really just wanted to answer the question “what’s going on with young Blacks in America right now”? As a young Black woman, I wanted to know how our community was doing. The recovery from the recession was going along too slowly in my opinion and I had heard a great deal about the experience of workers overall, or Black workers overall, and I wanted to see if the story was the same for young Blacks. I presented my idea to my office mentor and boss and they both were excited about it and basically told me that I could design the series however I want and they would support me.

Given the fact that many people associate educational attainment and success with economic success, I decided to do the first two pieces on recent data on high school graduation rates, college entrance, and college completion. The third piece was about employment and unemployment rates, and the last piece was about wages. The series told a story of increasing educational attainment that has not necessarily translated to significant gains in employment and wages, leaving persistent racial and gender gaps.

As I mentioned above, this series was my first solo-authored work at CEPR. The very first piece in the series also ended up leading to my first interview with a reporter. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. I went into our communications director’s office and proceeded to vehemently protest against doing the interview and how I was sure I would make a fool of myself. However, after a mini media training session, I gained some semblance of confidence, or at least enough to go through with it, and it went perfectly fine. To this day, I still get nervous and worry whenever I have to speak to a reporter or do a radio interview, but I just remind myself of this: what good is it to do research that you think is important if nobody hears about it?

 

***

TC: Cherrie made it clear. As I move out of the world of undergrad and maneuver my way into a whole new environment in graduate school, having, as she puts it, “my people” when I get discouraged is exactly what I need. What is an important take away is that having “my people” will not be enough. I must make sure that I am focusing on myself too—the things that make me happy, the moments that bring me joy, and I must value my self-care because being a woman of color, the external social forces in our society are working against me. They do not want to see me rise nor do they want to see women of color shine. However, I must understand that since I am a woman of color, my self-care is revolutionary… and the bonds I create with other Black women as my future unfolds will be too.

Tasia Clemons is a recent sociology graduate from Framingham State University as well as a graduate assistant Hall Director at Canisius College. She tweets at @TasiaClemons. Cherrie Bucknor is a doctoral student at Harvard University and currently working on two projects: examining the union wage premium for young workers in the United States overall and by race and education level, as well as a project titled “Race, Economy, and Polity in the Trump Era.” She tweets at @CherrieBucknor.

 

Misha Hill \ Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy

Three weeks from graduation, and I’m still deep in my study of Black women who inspire me to do more and more great things. For me, this means focusing on my future that will involve some combination of work as a sociologist and educator, examining policies that affect those who look like me, and mentoring Black and Brown people to be the strongest leaders they are all capable of being. My future is becoming more clear and visible each time I hear of other Black women’s’ experiences.

This week, I share an eye-opening interview with Misha Hill, State Policy Fellow at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, who told me about variety of her experiences, insights, and work. While Misha was pursuing her Master’s in Public Policy at George Washington University, she was an intern with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Family Income Support team. In addition, Misha also interned with the Women’s Health Division at the Kaiser Family Foundation through the Person Foundation Fiscal Policy Internship. This is what she had to say:

TC: Taking your experience in working within policy, what challenges have you overcame that got to where you are now?

MH: My biggest challenge was lack of knowledge about policy careers. When I was applying for MPP programs [Masters in Public Policy], I didn’t know the difference between working at a think tank or a private consulting firm, and in undergrad I barely knew those types of organizations existed. I did not have many people in my network who worked in public policy, and my university didn’t provide a clear pre-professional path either. Those challenges are unique to my experience, but I think they also represent structural challenges for men and women of color interested in this career field. Because public policy organizations are still predominantly white spaces (Policy Link, the Urban League, and Unidos are a few critical exceptions) most Black folks don’t have many people working in public policy in their networks.

I overcame those challenges with reading, research, and reaching out. I read about policy topics I was interested in, researched the organizations that were writing on those topics, and utilized every aspect of my personal and professional network to find and build professional connections.

TC: What advice do you have for women of color who are interested in pursuing a career in public policy? 

MH: My advice to young women of color interested in pursuing a career in policy is the same advice I’d give young woman of color starting any career in the U.S. The system was not made for you to succeed. It may be hard to get your foot in the door, and you may take a path that’s longer and more roundabout than your white or male counterparts. That’s okay and the insight you gain on the journey will likely help your white and male counterparts if they’re willing to listen. Use LinkedIn and offline networking, strategically. Even if you don’t know someone working in the field you may have a mutual connection or be affiliated with the same school or organization. Don’t be shy to ask for an introduction or reach out to a stranger. Know your worth and ask for what you need to succeed. Channel the confidence of a tall, middle-aged white man and assume that people will give you the things you ask for. And lastly, stay in touch with people who have helped you out along the way. An email updating former supervisors or people who have written you letters of recommendations once or twice a year shows those folks that you appreciate the investment you’ve made in them and keeps you on their radar for future opportunities. 

TC: You do a lot of work focused around gender, specifically women, and wrote an article looking at the “tax perspective on International women’s day” that highlights the work that has been done and still needs to be done surrounding gender inequality. Knowing that the U.S has a long way before they start incorporating a gendered lens into their budgeting practices, how do you foresee gender budgeting, something you mentioned in your article, being used in the United States helping women? Specifically, how do you see it helping women with a variety of intersecting identities: immigrant, Black, Transgender, low-income, etc.?

MH: I don’t see the US incorporating gender budgeting, especially not on the federal level. My view is pessimistic and jaded. But this country has a collective refusal to acknowledge that inequitable policies negatively impact all of us, not just the marginalized groups that are hurt most. Setting that pessimistic view aside, I do imagine a world where a gender equity lens was applied to how governments develop their budgets and financing. A first step would be to analyze the differential impact of a proposed budgets on men and women. The U.S. does currently have programs on the revenue and spending side that inadvertently target women by linking benefits to children. But these programs are of little help to women without children. And current investments in these programs are inadequate at best, and often these programs are losing public investments. Hence, my pessimism. Currently, if a government applies an equity lens to a program it’s after the program is in place. In an ideal world gender budgeting, in combination with other equity lenses—like race, income, or immigration status—to policy analysis would provide data on the likely impact of a budget before the programs funded by that budget are put in place. Which is why we need more women of color working in public policy to push for and perform these analyses!

TC: Bottom line I see here: Do your research, keep connections, and trust that you are going in the direction that you need to be. There will be speed bumps on your path, dead-end zones in your life causing you to turn around—but if you trust yourself, things will fall into place. The end of the world does not have to be as dramatic as we, as college students, sometimes make it out to be. Misha, being so honest about her challenges, reminded me that yes—she is successful but with that, she is also human. Since we all are human, mistakes will be made, and still the path can make sense.

Tasia Clemons is a senior sociology major at Framingham State University, an Administrative Resident Assistant, and a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs Intern; she tweets at @TasiaClemons. Misha Hill is a State Policy Fellow at the Institute of Taxation on Economic Policy. 

Angela Hanks / Center for American Progress

It is my senior year of college and I am adjusting to the fact that in less than a month, I have to go out into the world and decide who I want to be outside of education. Although graduate school is in the future, navigating the world as a Black woman, carrying an abundance of interests, and ultimately just wanting to make the world a better place is at the forefront of my mind. Currently, I am enrolled in a course called “From Margin to Center: Women of Color Doing Public Policy” where I get to learn about women of color in Washington D.C, read their work, and gain personal knowledge and skills through interviewing some amazing women. I had the opportunity of learning from Angela Hanks, Director of Workforce Development Policy at the Center of American Progress (CAP), a policy institute focused on bettering the lives of all Americans through research and action. Her work focuses on promoting workforce development policies that raise wages and employment opportunities of workers. In this interview, I was able to get advice for women of color, like me, who want to shine in the world of policy:

TC: Based on your passions—what do you see yourself doing through your position as the director of Workforce Development Policy at the Center for American Progress?

AH: People who do policy work should always begin and end with the people they’re trying to help in mind. I work in policy because fundamentally, I care about marginalized people – whether it’s workers, women, communities of color, or anyone at those intersections – who face structural barriers to equality or economic security and have little or diminished political power. I also keep in mind that those structural barriers didn’t just appear; they are often the direct result of conscious policy choices. Policy choices that my work can and should help unwind.

For example, I work on policies to expand apprenticeships, paid training programs that have recently become popular among politicians because they often pay high wages and typically lead to a good job. However, these programs frequently do a poor job of including women at all, and people of color tend to get paid less than their white counterparts. So when I’m working on policy solutions, I tend to focus my attention on how we got here, and what policies are need to ensure POC and women have equal representation in the best jobs.

TC: What is one thing you wish you knew before entering the world of policy?

AH: Probably what policy work actually is? I went to college in D.C. because I thought I liked politics, and immediately declared a political science major at George Washington University. I had no idea what political science was, but it sounded right at the time, so I ran with it. I didn’t even really begin to wrap my brain around what policy is until I interned with my home state senator on Capitol Hill my junior year. The internship was unpaid, so I was only able to work part-time during the school year, while waitressing (pay your interns). Still, something clicked – this was what I was supposed to do. That internship helped me decide to go to law school, and after I graduated I found myself back on the Hill in the job I’d wanted back when I was an intern.

TC: Do you have any advice for young Black women who are interested in attending graduate school, a career, or participate in future work involving social policy?

AH: Know that your voice and perspective are valuable and deserve to be heard. There will literally always be a white guy who tells you he knows better than you – don’t take his word for it. Don’t let his confidence override your qualifications, or make you second-guess your own experiences.

Seek out other Black women in your field. I’m so fortunate to have a supportive network of Black women colleagues and friends at CAP and at other organizations (including the other women you’ve interviewed!) who make navigating spaces with very few people who look like us much easier. It makes a huge difference, I promise. Finding good allies who show you that they value you and your work helps too.

TC: What does it come down to? Believing in myself. In a field surrounded by people who might not look like me, as Angela Hanks said, I have to know that my voice and perspective are valuable. In a society demanding to cut the words of women of color out, I have to understand that I deserve to be heard—just like all other women of color deserve.

Tasia Clemons is a senior sociology major at Framingham State University, an Administrative Resident Assistant, and a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs Intern; she tweets at @TasiaClemons. Angela Hanks is Director of Workforce Development Policy at the Center of American Progress (CAP). Find her on twitter at @AngelaHanks.

 

 

 

Janelle Jones / Economic Policy Institute

This isn’t the first time I’ve interviewed Janelle Jones about women of color. I’ve been reading her recent work on racial wealth gaps, and I interviewed her about her career recently. She is an economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a think tank that focuses on including the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions. Janelle Jones works for EPI’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy (PREE), which is a nationally recognized source for expert reports and policy analyses on the economic condition of America’s people of color.

EO: A lot of your research revolves around the labor market for minority races. How do you use your platform to help people get an insight on the life of minority workers as not one dimensional?

JJ: Just as important as doing the research is how you communicate that to different audiences. Part of that message is to provide the data to support things racial and ethnic minorities have been saying for decades – there is racial discrimination in every aspect of the labor market that is no way the fault of workers. The other part of that communication strategy is to portray a larger vision of life for workers of color. In spite of structural barriers, racial and ethnic minorities are represented all across the labor market, in every occupation and industry. It is a mistake to talk about workers of color as a monolith. The obstacles to economic success for Latinas in the Southwest are different than the obstacles for black men in the Midwest. And at EPI, we try to make sure our data show the fullness of life for workers of color, and how that will take different policies to ensure economic equity.

EO: Do you witness these hardships in some of the people of color you know? How does that motivate you in your day to day work life?

JJ: A significant portion of my research is informed by the experiences I, and others close to me, have had in the labor market. There was a time when I thought researching topics of which I am personally invested would make me less objective, and thus a less effective researcher. I have come to decide that is completely false. My personal experiences have helped me in two distinct ways. First: It allows for a context and framing that is completely lost if there is only a focus on the numbers. It is nearly impossible, and I think less persuasive, to communicate economic data on racial and ethnic minorities without an accurate narrative of how we ended up in our current circumstances. Second: This is hard work, and to use “slow” as the pace of change is an exaggeration. But the potential impact on the people closest to me is a constant motivation that keeps me passionate and working towards solutions.

EO: How does your role as a black woman in policy research help to shape perspectives in think tanks such as EPI? Why does this representation matter?

JJ: If the voices of black women are not included in producing research and promoting policy solutions, then those products will not result in positive outcomes for us. So often I am the only person in the room that looks like me, and just my presence can change the direction of the conversation and make it more inclusive. There is sometimes useful discussion about women, or about racial and ethnic minorities, but it is that distinct intersection of race and sex that is often left out. The data show that this intersection, with overlapping and intertwined discrimination, is deserving of targeted research and policy.

Let me put it in a more personal way: Until I had a job in a think tank, I had no idea it is something black women do! I would like for no other little black girl to think this is a career she can’t have. 

Eunice Owusu is a Council on Contemporary Families intern as well as a senior Sociology Major at Framingham State University. Janelle Jones is an economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. Follow her on twitter at @janellecj.

Jessica Fulton / Equitable Growth

Last month I got to interview Jessica Fulton via Skype to learn more about her career and her work. She is the External Relations Director at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. Equitable Growth is a research and analysis organization that is dedicated to finding ways to promote broad-based economic growth. Before Jessica was at EG, she was the Outreach Director at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, an organization that focuses on budget issues for the District of Columbia. Jessica is an alum of the University of Chicago, where she received her Bachelor’s degree in Economics, and of DePaul University, where she earned a Masters in Economic Policy Analysis. Our conversation—and the interview below—focused on my desire to get some pointers on how more young women of color can make a difference in social policy.

EO: What are your top pieces of advice to young minority women seeking to work in social policy?

JF: If you’re able, try to get an internship in DC so that you’re able to learn more about how things work here. There are a few organizations and Members of Congress that pay their interns, and that’s obviously ideal, but many don’t. If you’re unable to find a paid internship, and can’t afford to take an unpaid one, consider alternate ways of getting into policy work. I know people who got their start by working in a paid position on a campaign of a candidate they really believed in. Others found entry level assistant positions to get their foot in the door. You can also consider getting an unpaid internship and supplementing it with a part time job, which is what I did.

Also, it’s much easier to get a job in DC if you’re actually in DC. It’s really expensive to live here, but if you can come sleep on a friend’s couch for a bit, you can set up interviews, informational conversations, and networking opportunities that could get you some meaningful connections. You should also try applying for jobs with a local address on your resume if possible.

EO: How do you advise people to zero in on areas of focus?

JF: I think one of the most important things that you can do is to start to get to know people who are working on the topics that excite you most. Ask people you know for introductions to people who might be willing to sit down with you to do informational interviews. If you don’t have connections already, think about your networks. Are there alumni from your university who might be willing to speak with you? Do your professors know people who work in social policy? Talking to those people about what they do and what their days look like can be a great way to figure out what you want to do.

You should also try to sign up for newsletters from the particular policy organizations or Members of Congress that you’re interested in. That way, you can get to know more about the topics different organizations work on and what they actually do. This could be helpful in future interviews, but also may help you to figure out which specific issue areas you have a passion for.

EO: Why are young minority women so important to the work of social policy?  

JF: A good number of social policy issues disproportionately affect people of color, yet there are usually very few of us in the room when the problems or the solutions are being discussed. And while things are slowly getting better, often women of color, especially black women, aren’t at the decision making tables even if they are part of a policy organization. I think that’s actually really important. For example, when I walk into a room, I’m bringing my education and work experience, but I’m also bringing my life experience and that of my friends and family members. The other folks in the room have important perspectives as well, but my friends, family members, and even myself, are more likely to have experienced certain obstacles and situations that are more common in minority communities. So when I’m thinking about problems and solutions, I can’t help but to look at it through that lens as well. And I think in the end, when you consider how any kind of problem solving works, the most effective solution is one where you’ve considered a diverse set of perspectives to arrive at your conclusion.

Jessica Fulton is External Relations Director for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.  You can follow her on twitter at @JessicaJFulton. Eunice Owusu is a Council on Contemporary Families intern and as a senior Sociology Major at Framingham State University.

I’m reposting this originally from 6/2/2009, because today is Peggy’s husband John Schmitt’s funeral.

That’s Peggy Schmitt: she’s my boyfriend’s mom. She died at age 68 on April 25, 2009, after a fierce yet sane battle with lung cancer. A remarkable thing happened last Sunday at her memorial service. Friends and family that spanned communities as diverse as an urban homeless (Protestant) ministry and a city Catholic parish outreach program along with teachers from Chestnut Hill independent schools, Philly public schools, and inner city academies, hipsters from the arts and culinary communities, some do-good doctors and one or two do-well lawyers, grieving friends from the very young to the much, much older, just hint at the kind of mind-boggling scope of her life.

Among the many ways in which Peggy was a force for good– for meaningful, substantial, public kinds of good, as well as the more intimate kind– was the discovery that she had been a feminist role model for women who are barely in their 30s, to those nearly in their 60s.

One after another, at our stylized Quaker meeting in Philadelphia, various women spoke at random, interspersed with men, interspersed with teenagers. The stories had thick resonance, as recollections of a life well and intensely lived often do.

The speakers, I started to notice, recalled crashing up against the heartbreak of being young, of wanting something, everything, that-not-this-but-something-else. We delicately avoided too many personal details, but the themes were about how to be kind to ourselves while doing big brave things in a world that wasn’t particularly on our side. We told our stories of Peggy’s compassion and confidence in the face of our pain, just as she had in the face of her own, right up until the until the very end.

Peggy did a lot of “empowering.” But the difference was her solidarity. This woman knew struggle; she recognized it without sentimentality, showed us how to respond without judgment of ourselve–or (and this was very important) others. She told us it was hard, but you can do it. And by telling and showing us what she did, she helped make it so.

Peggy herself had triumphed over hardship while creating a beautiful, beautiful life with four unusually wise, non-conforming, justice-loving children, and a life-long partnership with her soulful husband John. I met Peggy on Memorial Day 23 [now that’s 31!] years ago, and her solidarity from way back then was a lasting resource, and helped me through hard times that inevitably were to come. And here at her memorial were all these other people from different worlds for whom this was also true.

I don’t think that Peggy would embrace the phrase ‘feminist role model’ but I do think she would like the way so many women in her life felt her particular influence. She wouldn’t embrace the phrase because Peggy saw issues of justice as bigger than feminism, and saw people as much more than a reduction to a single or a few attributes. And that is precisely what, for me, makes Peggy one of my feminist heroes.

Thank you Peggy. Nice Work.

Have you ever seen a baton twirler perform? They manipulate a metal stick in magical ways: rolling it between their fingers, tossing it 20 feet into the air, and catching it between their legs or completely blind behind their head. If you have seen a baton twirler, it was likely a young woman in a bedazzled swimsuit-style costume. While it is true that baton twirlers are more often young women and girls, it was not always that way. In fact, much like cheerleading and figure skating, men were the first to twirl, not women.

Baton twirling as we know it today originated in the military where corps leaders and drum majors would spin maces and rifles. The tradition of the twirling drum major is kept alive in The Ohio University’s Buckeye Marching Band (check out the 2017 auditions). A part of Americana since the 1930s, today baton twirlers can most often be seen in football halftime performances and occasionally on parade. Because of the number of twirlers who took up twirling in the years following WWII, the notion that twirling a baton is “girly” persists, helping to shape the stereotype of the effeminate, presumably gay male baton twirler. The persona of the female twirler remains: graceful gals in sparkly costumes and tasseled boots prancing around the gridiron. Baton twirling for men is often stigmatizing because of its association with high femininity: such as beauty pageants like Miss America where it is often satirized.

Joe Rowe and Gwen McDonald posing for a photo op in “The Jackson Independent” local newspaper Jonesboro, Louisiana, 1952.

 

There is another, lesser known performance arena for baton twirlers, however: competitive baton twirling. Behind the scenes, baton twirling has developed into an athletic event rivaling rhythmic gymnastics, figure skating, and competitive dance. In the US, two organizations dominate: National Baton Twirling Association (NBTA) and the United States Twirling Association (USTA). Approximately 30 countries around the globe host baton organizations, many with individual competitors and teams that compete in world-level Olympic-style events. Given the history of the sport around which they were formed, in the US these organizations are have become increasingly feminized.

Thus, “boys don’t do that” is a script heard by boys who wish to pursue dance, figure skating, cheerleading, and baton. A baton twirler myself, I grew up hearing this phrase to which my response was, “why not?” Nobody seemed to have a clear explanation so I decided to investigate how the experiences of young men in baton twirling to show the impact of cultural scripts associated with gendered organizations. I found that the social costs of participating in a feminized sport leave boys feeling shameful and out of place—singled out for their lack of commitment to sports boys are supposed to play.

The men and boy’s divisions line up for award announcements at the 66th National “Majorette” Contest in 2016.

Kind of Like Unicorns

In my research where I interviewed men and boys who twirl or once twirled, I found that they stand out when in the limelight because, as one twirler, Hayden, mentioned, guys who twirl are “kind of like unicorns,” rare yet powerful. Even at young ages, male twirlers are aware they are not the norm because so few boys join them in baton classes and competitions. Their numerical minority in a feminized sport places them in unusual circumstances for experiences of advantage and disadvantage. In the realm of competitive baton twirling, the appearance of a boy is cause for excitement. In a rough estimation, I project that there is only one male twirler for every 100 female twirlers—a figure likely very conservative.

There are some benefits to being uncommon like unicorns. Male twirlers easily stand out and receive attention on a crowded competition floor. According to NBTA rules, no matter their skill level, boys do not have to qualify for national-level events whereas girls do in most events. And, it is suspected they are given higher baselines scores to encourage their continued participation. The advantage seems to stop there, however.

In constant comparison to their female counterparts, male twirlers detailed how they are not given the same spaces to twirl and are often relegated to awkward spaces under basketball hoops. They explained to me that they do not feel they receive the same accolades as the female champions with their crowns, banners, and trophies. Additionally, male twirlers are automatically placed in the Advanced difficulty division whereas young women beginning to twirl typically rise through Novice, Beginner, and Intermediate levels before moving into the Advanced category. While this may seem like a benefit, it is discouraging for young male twirlers like Garrett who has competed for only a year may compete against Brad who has been twirling for ten years. Needless to say, their skills are no match for each other.

Male baton twirlers are encouraged by coaches and judges to attach themselves to pieces of masculinity in hopes to remain within the parameters of acceptable masculinity. Male twirlers’ performances challenge notions of masculinity because baton twirling is simultaneously athletic, yet also aesthetic in a way uncharacteristic of sports associated with traditional notions of masculinity. To make up for this, they choreograph fists in their routines, twirl to rock music, and often wear “masculine” colored costumes in blue accentuated with anything from skulls and cross bones to animals, stars, fire, lighting strikes, and super hero emblems.

The Gender of Twirling

Perhaps the optimistic read of the unicorn men who twirl is that they challenge the effeminate image of the baton twirler and offer up a fresh interpretation of baton twirling. In recent years, three male baton twirlers have performed to great applause on America’s Got Talent, one of whom just missed the top ten by placing 11th. Male baton twirlers have also been featured with marching bands at high-profile universities across the country. During football season, fans at games root for the “baton guy,” and get in lines for autograph signings. Across generations, twirlers have performed at World’s Fairs and have been featured on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Author, Trenton Haltom, twirling fire at a University of Nebraska Husker football game in 2016. Image credit: Rose Johnson

Internationally, few countries with large populations of people of color compete on a world level (with the exception of Japan) pointing to how baton twirling is a Western sport. Yet, as twirling has spread across the globe, male twirlers have been met with praise indicating that perhaps some of the femininity of baton twirling is limited to American perspectives. For example, at the 2016 World Baton Twirling Federation championships, France competed an all-male team in which they played up their boyband-like sexuality. And, the current men’s world champion, Keisuke Komada, of Japan is a well- respected artist who has pushed the sport to new heights—literally. Baton twirling in the US is a predominately white sport and, in many ways, reflects class stratification and racialized inequalities.

At work here is a gendered organization (the sport of twirling) influencing gender at an individual level (male twirlers).With women increasingly entering male-dominated jobs like coaching in the NFL, men and boys have not equally been encouraged to enter female-dominated spaces with the same fervor. Male baton twirlers, just like female boxers or weightlifters, should be celebrated as gendered inequalities within organizations continue to be challenged.

Trenton M. Haltom is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His research sits at the intersection of masculinities, sexualities, and sociology of the body. He is a nationally recognized competitor, member of Team USA 2015, and a former feature twirler for the University of Nebraska Cornhusker Marching Band. His work on baton twirling has also been featured in MEL Magazine. You can find him at www.tmhaltom.com.

Girl w/ Pen is happy to share the following guest post from Kayla Parker, a senior Sociology major and Entrepreneurship minor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. (read more about Kayla at the end of the post)

Being a black woman in America can be absolutely terrifying at times. One of those times was a year ago when I stopped for gas off an unfamiliar exit and left thankful I still had my life. At this gas station, I was both objectified and degraded in a white man’s twisted version of a compliment. When I went inside for gum, one man shouted at me, “Oh you’re a cute little nigglet, aren’t you!” Acknowledging the 15:1 ratio of white men to my black ass, I turned to leave. Only to have one of them follow me. I left the gas station alive, but for a moment, I thought I would not. I remember hitting my lock button five times, like I do every time now. Regularly, I fear that my physical body will be assaulted for being a woman, being queer, or because of the melanin my skin contains.

In my Gender in Society class, we explored the unfortunate realities found at the intersection of race and gender and how those who find themselves there navigate white spaces. In The White Space by Elijah Anderson, Anderson defines white spaces as “overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, restaurants, schools, universities, workplaces, churches and other associations, courthouses, cemeteries, and situations that reinforce normative sensibilities in settings in which black people are typically absent, not expected, or marginalized when present.”

Black spaces, on the other hand, are often depicted as crime filled ghettos and are easily avoidable spaces for weary white people. Growing up black, I quickly learned that it would not be as easy for me to avoid white spaces as it was for white people to avoid black spaces. Finding a way to navigate these spaces is a condition of my existence and historically, navigating these spaces incorrectly has had negative and, sometimes, fatal effects on black women.

For centuries, black women have been persecuted in the United States and reminded that they are outsiders who need to find a way to incorporate themselves within our predominantly white and patriarchal society. Subtle reminders, such as the events that took place on the Napa Valley Wine Train in 2015, are intended to remind black women of how to behave in white spaces. One victim says it best when she explains that their only offense was “laughing while black”. On August 22, 2015, a group of book club members, ten of them black and one of them white, hopped aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train for a fun trip through the Wine Country. Though allegedly laughing no louder than the other inebriated white passengers on the train, they were asked twice by management to lower their voices. Minutes later, they were ordered off the train and turned over to the police.

Time and time again, we’ve seen differences between how black women and white women are treated when doing otherwise normal acts. A few actions that garner disproportionately negative and sometimes fatal responses for black people that achieved trending topic status on Twitter included: #LaughingWhileBlack, #DrivingWhileBlack, and #ShoppingWhileBlack. In my experience, I would’ve hashtagged #BuyingGumWhileBlack.

In The Continuing Significance of Race: Antiblack Discrimination in Public Places Joe Feagin states, “[One problem with] being black in America is that you have to spend so much time thinking about stuff that most white people just don’t even have to think about.” Activities that white men can do without simultaneously thinking of their race, gender, or sexuality are not available to me because I don’t have that privilege. I was born queer, black, and female so activities like buying gum at night put me at a higher risk for assault than most.

To navigate white spaces as a black woman, I am constantly making sure I’m Black but not too Black. To ensure my safety when I navigate these spaces, I stay strapped, but I also make room for white people. When I am walking on the street, I find myself constantly stepping out of the way for white men and I believed I was doing so at a disproportionate rate than my white female friends.

My friend Emma and I decided to obtain some empirical evidence. We sought to discover if white men, whether consciously or subconsciously, make room for white women on the crosswalk more frequently than they do for black women. Whenever the crosswalk had over five people, one of us would stand directly across from a selected white man. When the light would turn red, we’d cross the street and if we had to move out of the way within two feet of chosen white man, we counted it. Emma and I tested this and walked across the crosswalk over 250 times. Emma stepped out of the way for 51 white men. I stepped out of the way for 103.

My overwhelming feeling on this crosswalk was that I did not belong. There were several times when I would move out of the way too slowly and would find myself bumping shoulders with the men I passed. Twice, I found myself stepping out of the way for a gaggle of three to five white men. One time, one man angrily mumbled under his breath when I did not move out of his entitled pathway.

I believe this experiment speaks volumes to the character of our society and negates speculation that we are moving towards a “post-racial” world. For centuries, Blacks were legally banned from white spaces, thus coddling and developing white entitlement to these spaces. Today, Black women face the consequences of the white man’s entitlement.

In this era of Trump, a man who campaigned and won with rhetoric of textbook sexism, misogyny, and xenophobia, we must work to de-normalize the white supremacy that thrives at the expense of other minority groups. Stepping out of the way for a person of color may seem small, but I’m sure we’d see some positive outcomes from us feeling more included on the goddamn street.

Our society must be better and our society must be more tolerant. Maybe a world where black women and white men are equal on the street, is a world where a black woman doesn’t have to be afraid to buy gum from the gas station.

After transferring to UTK in 2015, Kayla continued her passioned for business but also discovered that she has a passion for social justice. When seeing the growing wage disparity, racism, and sexism in the world, Kayla began dreaming of ways to make Knoxville more tolerant and more safe for everyone, especially those who are disenfranchised. Combining her love for business and social justice, Kayla worked as a Marketing and Event Planning Intern for Big Brothers Big Sisters of East Tennessee. She helped plan, organize, and host their largest annual fundraiser, Cash 4 Kids Sake which helped pair more positive mentors with impoverished youth in the community. She continues to volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters during events. The marketing and event planning skills acquired during this internship with nonprofit, BBBS helped Kayla in organizing and planning events for her on campus organization, Students Who Stand (SWS). SWS is a support group for student sexual assault survivors. Their aim is to provide an inclusive environment to provide support to survivors, increase awareness, and engage in continuous dialogue with the University to encourage policy changes that will make campus safer and more supportive. Recently, Kayla organized, executed, and hosted a Sexual Assault Round Table with University administrators who handle sexual assault cases and activist Kamilah Willingham who was featured in CNN’s The Hunting Ground. She also organized an open mic for sexual assault survivors called Survivor Voices ft. Kamilah Willingham which gave other survivors a safe platform to share their experiences. Kayla has recently discovered her passion for writing and writes on her blog. In her final year of college, Kayla plans to continue to dedicate herself to her studies, grow her organization, and dream of the day she can finally own and love a Great Dane.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Adam and Eve, created by Albrecht Dürer, 1471-1528. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

On May 4, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that allows churches and religious leaders to explicitly endorse or oppose a political candidate without penalty to their nonprofit, tax-exempt status. Responses from white conservative evangelicals showed that this wasn’t what they were looking for. What they wanted, it seems, was legal protection for religious institutions and business owners to deny services to same-sex couples and transgender persons. The Conversation

I am a sociologist studying contemporary evangelicalism and sexuality, and my research shows that the political beliefs of white evangelicals have deftly shifted from the bully pulpits of the Moral Majority in the 1980s to cultural messages that appear hip and modern. In particular, Christian sex advice caught my attention because it showcases how evangelicals can hold beliefs that are simultaneously pro- and anti-sex.

Sex advice websites

In my book “Christians under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet,” I conducted a virtual ethnography of online Christian websites – blogs and message boards that discuss sex from a Christian perspective and online stores that sell sex toys and intimacy products.

In total, I studied 36 websites and conducted 44 interviews with users of two of the most active sites as well as six interviews with creators of different sites over two years – between 2010 and 2012. I collected survey responses from nearly 800 users of seven different sites. Collectively, these sites have attracted thousands of users who believe that God wants married, heterosexual couples to have great sex.

Though in my work, I use pseudonyms to describe the names of websites and their users, these sites are easy to find for anyone who is searching for “Christian sex advice.”

Christian sexual websites present evangelism as sexy for couples. Gill Poole, CC BY-NC

The problem that these websites try to solve is that many Christian couples don’t know how to achieve the great sex that God made possible, having grown up hearing a constant refrain of negative messages about sexuality. The content of these sites is a curious mix of secular and religious language that resembles both the liberal sex advice column “Savage Love” and the religious fiction novel series “Left Behind” – aimed at reminding believers that all of their actions are a part of a larger spiritual battle between good and evil.

On these websites, messages abound about self-improvement and being a good, giving and game sexual partner, as well the power of Jesus, the influence of Satan and the importance of being born-again.

Women make up the majority of bloggers and sex toy store owners I studied. They describe using vibrators and achieving orgasms; men talk about open communication with their wives about their deepest sexual desires.

It is a relatively recent historical phenomenon for Christians to claim sexual pleasure as part of their religious framework. As historian of religion Mark Jordan notes, sexual sins have included virtually every erotic action other than sex intended for conceiving children.

Christian sexuality websites, however, present evangelicalism as a sexy and modern representation of a religious tradition that is stereotypically the opposite.

Conservative beliefs

In the years I spent studying these sites, I never saw a single post endorsing or opposing a political candidate. Nonetheless, political beliefs were reflected in the implicit and explicit rules that were required of website users regarding their beliefs related to gender, sexuality and marriage.

On one website, for example, a message board where users post hundreds of comments every day, the moderators allow for “minor theological disagreements” among members, but require that “Members must be married (one man, one woman), and followers of Jesus Christ and His Word. Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the only way to salvation, and the Bible is the ultimate authority.” Off limits is “any defense of the practice of homosexuality, so-called ‘gay marriage,’ or the like.”

The beliefs on these websites are far from representative of American Christianity. Most Christians today believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society. A majority of LGBT Americans have some religious affiliation and there are LGBT-affirming groups in many Christian denominations (Matthew Vine’s The Reformation Project is one evangelical example).

Yet on these websites supporting gay sex (or gay marriage), sex outside of heterosexual marriage or any relationship that is nonmonogamous is fundamentally heresy.

In other words, the websites present a sexual logic that combines both limits and freedoms: Christian sexuality, all of these websites adamantly claim, is one full of choice and autonomy so long as Christians follow God’s demands for who is allowed to have sex.

As one blogger told me in an interview, “I think a couple has tremendous freedom” so long as sex is consensual and between husband and wife. In my book, I refer to this as the “logic of Godly sex:” a logic that makes sexual pleasure possible for straight, married Christians but forecloses it for everyone else.

Advancing conservative politics

In other words, I would argue, the sexual freedom that these websites claim to offer is illusory. This illusion is also central to the arguments that proponents present in favor of religious freedom legislation.

These state-enacted bills provide a practical route by which individuals can use the courts to make free exercise violation claims against the state.

The Christian sexuality websites do not accept homosexuality. Nathan Rupert, CC BY-NC-ND

For instance, Mississippi HB 1523 (passed in April 2016 but later blocked by a federal judge) protects persons who have “the sincerely held religious belief” that marriage “should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman” to decide whether or not to provide services, including housing and employment, to LGBT people.

It defines “a man” and “a woman,” according to law: “an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at the time of birth.” Laws like HB 1523 offer a strategy for religious conservatives to use their religious freedom to advance an anti-gay, anti-transgender, and anti-abortion political agenda.

In my opinion, emphasizing freedom and choice alongside conservative ideas about gender, sexuality and marriage is how conservative Christians can adapt to a changing world while maintaining their religious distinction.

After researching Christian sexuality websites, I am convinced that they do as much or more to advance conservative politics as does a preacher telling his congregation to vote for a particular candidate.

Kelsy Burke, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The essentialist and dichotomizing battle over who is ideologically, morally, indeed humanly, more advanced (the West or the rest), has for centuries been fought over women’s bodies. A few hundred years ago the rationale for imperialism in the case of the British Raj included the idea of white men saving brown women from brown men. The post 9/11 invasion of Afghanistan was also partly justified as a war between good and evil, with the US representing all that is good in terms of democracy, human rights, and, significantly, women’s rights.

The same debate, boiling down to the ideologically simplistic question of “who is better?,” continues to be fought over Muslim women’s bodies. In recent months, this has been acutely evident with the Syrian refugee crisis raising pressing questions in Europe about whether “these” people can assimilate given the difference in cultural values; as well as with the alarming stories of seemingly “modern” young women’s recruitment to the decidedly fundamental ranks of ISIS on the promise of marrying a jihottie.

Perhaps the most visually potent symbol of this assumed backwardness of Islam is the headscarf that some Muslim women wear. How emancipated can Muslim women really be, the argument goes, when they have to cover themselves lest they sexually tempt men?

So it’s unsurprising that much feminist scholarship on Muslim women, especially in the US, has sought to illuminate and unpack the multi-layered meanings of the headscarf for women who wear them – meanings which extend beyond religious identities and injunctions. Scholars have shown that for some Muslim women, wearing the headscarf is a defiant way of embracing their besieged cultural and religious identity; for others, particularly African American Muslim women, the headscarf offers a way of transcending a national, cultural context where black female bodies are particularly hyper-sexualized. This research highlights the idea that what may seem to some an incomprehensible and even regressive practice, is actually a far more nuanced, and oftentimes times agentic, experience for women themselves.

In my ethnographic study of American coverts to Islam at a conservative Sunni mosque in the United States, these experiences rang true for my participants. But they also rang incomplete. By imagining veiling as a necessarily agentic act, as much recent sociological research on religion has done, we obfuscate how religious injunctions – including in the act of veiling – can, and do, normalize unequal gender relations within, and even outside of, religious institutions, as they push women toward accepting certain unequal practices as divinely ordained.

Much of the sociological research on veiling in the United States, amongst converts and born-Muslims alike, imagines veiling largely as an individual choice. My own data suggested a more complicated process. From the women I interviewed and in my observations at the mosque I found that women in the process of converting were constantly being taught – through religious classes that new converts attended – about the proper way to be a Muslim woman. This unequivocally included wearing, at the very least, a headscarf. Rather than being a choice, wearing a headscarf here was clearly presented as a woman’s religious obligation. In their interviews, women who had converted to Islam explained the fraught process of learning to veil. One explained how she resisted wearing the headscarf for a while after she converted because she thought she looked ugly in it. She described her eventual ability to don the headscarf despite her initial misgivings as a triumph of Islam over Satan. She proudly added how she has overcome her vanity to such an extent that now she even incorporated the full-length abaya in her everyday life.

I don’t doubt that for the women I interviewed and observed, wearing a veil and expressing themselves visually as a Muslim was, as sociological literature would suggest, agentic in some ways. These women were, after all, “self-authoring.” But, it’s important to note that these women were also institutionally compelled to view being a “good” Muslim woman as someone who wears, indeed cherishes wearing, a headscarf. Alternative, and perhaps more liberal, forms of “doing” Islam were not here presented as viable ways of being Muslim.

My in-depth data was collected at one mosque. So does this type of soft coercion also occur in other mosques and religious spaces? I think that my findings are part of a broader global trend, where certain forms of conservative Islam are becoming more visible and more mainstream. An example of these well-financed efforts could be the enormous amounts of money that Saudi Arabia provides for building madrassas in some South Asian countries, where particularly conservative forms of Islam are taught to those who will eventually become religious leaders. It would also be in prioritizing the headscarf as symbolizing Muslim women’s identity, as done through the World Hijab Day, as though the headscarf is necessarily the most potent symbol of women’s religious belief in, and practice of, Islam.

Muslim women’s bodies will doubtless remain the ideological battleground over which these contemporary debates about Islam will continue to unfold – particularly given the acutely troubling and anti-Muslim climate in the US and Europe, where all Muslims continue to bear the burden of being seen as responsible for the acts of the aberrant few. Muslims, in ways specific to their history of being in each nation, nevertheless remain the perennial Other who have to disprove their Otherness. At this time, we would do well not to succumb to simplifying complex phenomenon, and to consider the symbolic nuances of the headscarf, as sometimes reflecting agency and sometimes not. As history informs us, this religious and cultural issue is inherently bound up in larger social and economic forces, where some versions of culture/religion may be mobilized more readily at particular times and in specific spaces.

 

Aliya Hamid Rao is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. Her research interests are in gender, family, work, religion, and emotions.