Who You Are vs What You Do

Today Meryl Streep said something stupid. If you want to be charitable, you could say it was inarticulate and insensitive, but if you didn't want to be charitable, you could also say it was racist.  While the particulars of this case are new, the general phenomenon of someone saying something bigoted or derogatory (whether well-intentioned or not) is not a new phenomenon, and generally follows the same format every time.

Person who is famous (or becomes famous) says something bad.  Person is called out for saying that something bad.  General public starts calling that person racist/sexist/homophobic/bigoted etc. and there are calls for the person to be punished.  Said person is boycotted, or fired, or demoted, people are generally gleeful about said bad person being sufficiently punished, and we move on.  Occasionally, it becomes more of a culture war (See Chik-Fil-A), with people taking sides over what is acceptable discrimination or not.

This kind of framing around bigotry is problematic, because while it is important to call out offensive language, it has a way of excusing all sorts of other behavior.  Under our current understanding of bigotry, only individual acts of ignorance/bigotry get called out.  As part of the calling out of bigotry, the person saying those things get's labeled a bigot, which implies that the person has malicious intent and should be punished. 

So, for example, in 2002 then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said the US would have been better off if Senator Strom Thurmond, famous racist, had been elected President. Senator Lott had to resign his position as Majority Leader, as was greatly diminished as a political force in US politics afterwards.  But acts of systematic racism generally get completed ignored, like Michigan's Emergency Manager law, that has disenfranchised majority African American cities of their right to local governance, and was part of the problem leading to the lead poisoning in Flint Michigan.

Our ritual of sacrificing public figures for being racist (or sexist, or homophobic, etc.), actually serves to maintain a system of oppression.  As long as we continue to equate saying something ignorant = being a bigot = need to be punished, we won't be able to make progress to stop systems of oppression.  Being labeled as a bigot is one of the worst things you can be publicly labeled as, and so there is a great amount of resistance any individual will reasonably assert to avoid that label.  It implies being a malicious and bad person, and no one thinks of themselves that way.  We know we have good intentions, and so as long as an act of ignorance automatically equals being a bigot, most people will fight very hard against that label, even if it means maintaining systems of oppression.

So rather than making excuses for Meryl Streep, or any other celebrity, who says something offensive, I would like to propose an alternate way of viewing issues of oppression.  Whenever possible, rather than making determinations about someone's character or intent, we should try and focus on the actions and impacts of individuals and systems.  This creates a space for individuals to be less defensive, to maintain their self-conception as someone who wants good things for others, and places the focus appropriately on the systems that work to maintain oppression.

So in this example, rather than saying that Meryl Streep is a bigot, it would be helpful to point out that what she said, regardless of the intention, is a way of justifying the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in film making, especially for the gate-keepers of the movie industry.  When someone famous, and held in very high esteem, says something like that, it takes pressure off of the movie industry to create more opportunities for non-White people, and means that your career opportunities are largely dictated by your race/ethnicity, which we would generally consider outright segregation and bigotry. 

With this alternate framing, people who sympathize with what Meryl Streep said, or maybe just don't think it's a big deal, can see how it was problematic, without feeling that they themselves are being labeled problematic.  This helps move people in a direction that is more inclusive, and can bring pressure on changing systems that are oppressive, even if they are not intentionally so.  It is vitally important to remove the requirement for intent from the way we talk about discrimination and oppression. 

If someone is intentionally bigoted that matters, and can be called out as such, but it can't be the only way we talk about oppression.  We need to move to conversations about how systems are built on top of oppression, and work to maintain it, in seemingly invisible ways.  We need to be able to talk about how some people benefit from this oppression, without ever intending to.  This is generally the part of conversations where White people/straight people/male people can get very defensive because they don't think of themselves as bad people.  Shifting away from actions, and individual intent, towards systems that we didn't ask to be a part of (but still are), is one way of creating space for people to acknowledge their privilege and help to move to end it.

Making this change, away from whom someone is towards what someone did, obviously won't fix the issue of discrimination and oppression.  This is incredibly difficult work that takes generations to address and make real progress.  Creating a space, however, for people to be more comfortable addressing the issue and admitting that they may be contributing to a problem, is an important step along the way.

PhD Quest: Year 3: The Program Strikes Back!

Continuing an annual tradition, it is that time of year again in which I reflect upon completing another year in my PhD program and think about how things have changed (or not) since I last reflected.

In my 3rd year as a PhD student, I finished my coursework, formed a dissertation committee, and successfully proposed my dissertation topic.  I also served as a Teaching Assistant for Introductory and Intermediate Statistics, and presented at an academic conference for the first time.  If I were to break my experience thus far into phases, I would say the first semester in the program was the introductory phase, and was the most difficult.  The next semester of my first year and the whole of my second year was the middle phase, and also the most enjoyable/fun part, because I knew what I was doing and had a good structure in place.  Then my first semester of my third year was the beginning of the last phase, and has been more difficult than the middle part but not as tough as the introductory part.

The first semester of my third year was the last semester of my coursework.  I had two courses, one independent study, and I was TA'ing one course.  It was very satisfying to finish my coursework, but it was also difficult to do everything for my courses, and make progress on my dissertation proposal at the same time.  I started that semester thinking I had worked out everything I needed to do and would be done with drafts of my first three chapters by December.  When December rolled along, I was still working on things I thought I'd be done with back in October.  It was demoralizing to watch my classmates make progress and move towards their proposal hearings, while I felt like I was banging my head against a wall, rewriting my first chapter over and over and over.  Second semester third year, I had no more courses, but kept busy with work and writing my proposal.  Just as I thought I might make my goal of having a proposal hearing before April, I had to rewrite everything with a new variable added to my dissertation by my committee.  Then just as I finally made chapter 1 work, I learned one of my committee members was leaving for the summer early, and I had to propose sooner than I expected or have to wait until September and perhaps miss my data-collection window!

Thankfully, with some good luck, help from my committee and especially my committee chair, I was able to make my proposal hearing in time.  I did, however, in the process hit my one mini-freakout, trying to figure out how to do an a priori calculation of the power for a negative binomial regression.  I knew just enough to know that I was in way over my head, and that I needed to ask specific questions to get out of this, but I didn't know enough to know what those questions were.  It felt like it was the Peter Principle in action.  Fortunately, that mini-freakout was contained to half-a-day, and by the evening I had figured out an approach to get me around my problem, although it did look bleak for a while.

While I knew it intellectually from watching other PhD students, going through the past year really reinforced how important your dissertation committee is in shaping your post-coursework experience.  Obviously they are the ones who sign off (or not) on your proposal and final dissertation defense, so they're important, but the way they do that job is perhaps even more important.  Your committee can make your dissertation more complex, or more streamlined/focused.  If your committee members work well together, they can give you feedback that feels congruent and help you move forward.  If they don't work well together, you could get feedback that is contradictory, or your dissertation can become the ground upon which faculty struggle with each other over.  All of this is especially true of your committee chair. They can make things more complicated or more focused for you.  If you work well with them, they can help push you forward and advocate for you.  If you don't match well with them (for personal or stylistic reasons, or any other reason) your experience can be much more difficult.

Although I struggled during my third year to figure out exactly what my approach to my research was going to be, and what the exact problem was I was going to investigate, I wouldn't change my committee if I could do everything over again.  Obviously it would have been easier if they just loved everything I did the first time I did it, but that would have been a pretty low quality dissertation.  I know that my committee wants me to succeed, and they want me to produce quality research.  My chair read drafts and gave me feedback faster than she had to, and my committee members were willing and able to meet in June, when they could have said no.  I'm thankful for that and know that when it's all said and done, I will have accomplished something truly worth being proud of.

Over the course of the next year, I will actually collect my data, analyze it, and create original knowledge.  I'll have to finish my dissertation, defend it, and hopefully graduate by the end of the Spring semester.  I'll also be job searching, and probably looking for a new place to live.  Look for (hopefully) many big changes reflected upon in next year's update!

Anesthesiologist Sued for Gender Policing

A story in the Washing Post describes how a man successfully sued an Anesthesiologist in Virginia, after he accidentally made an audio recording of the surgery.  He had used his mobile phone to record the instructions his doctor gave him, so he would remember them, and left it on in his pants, which were underneath him during the surgery.

In the audio recording, the doctor is heard calling him annoying, and made repeated comments about needing to "man him up" by hitting him, calling him gay for attending former Women's College, Mary Washington, and in an apparent attempt to humiliate the patient through homophobia, lied and said that he had hemorrhoids, even though there was no evidence of such, and put it on his chart.  The doctor also lied and said the man had STIs, insisted that assistants lie to the patient so she could avoid him, and at one point called him "retarded" for not liking seeing needles in his arm.

The whole gist of her complaints against the patient reek of homophobia and misogyny. While it is impossible to know if she disliked him because he didn't sufficiently meet her hegemonic ideals of masculinity, or if she didn't like him, which caused her to use that kind of language to insult, it is present throughout the comments that have been made public.

The patient who brought the case, has chosen to remain anonymous, and is not surprising that he has done so.  While many individuals would no doubt sympathize with him, it is inevitable that others would immediately start questioning his masculinity as well, to see if the doctor was "justified" in her hateful critique of him.

This case perfectly illustrates the ways in which the borders of gender, and specifically masculinity, are maintained and enforced.  Gender isn't something that you inherently have, it's something that you have to perform.  The things that the doctor insults the patient for are things that he did.  He didn't like needles, he wasn't "tough enough" so she wanted to hit him to remedy it, he went to a "feminine" school, etc..  This was offensive to her, so she then used homophobic language as a way to attack him, and although she didn't mean to have it shared with him, this homophobic language is meant to compel men to change their behavior.  She mentioned hitting him, and physical violence is often used against men who do not display sufficiently "masculine" behavior.  She lied and said that he had hemorrhoids, most likely implying that he had receptive anal sex, and should therefor be humiliated, and she generally complained about "whiny" patients and wanted to avoid them.  I say that this language was also misogynistic, because homophobia against men is rooted is patriarchy and misogyny.  The root of almost all homophobic attacks against men is that they are offensively feminine, and that is super damaging to men, because in the patriarchy, the worst thing to be is a woman.

This harassment of the patient is what Michael Kimmel refers to as Gender Policing.  It is when other individuals watch, and more importantly "correct," the behavior of other individuals when it broaches established gender norms.  Every time a boy is told to "man up" or "boys don't cry" he is being gender policed.  This is also one of the main reasons why men comply with "masculine" behaviors that are so harmful to themselves or run counter to actual human nature.  It's not only that men get privileged for complying to hegemonic masculinity/patriarchy, it is also that they get actively punished if they do not comply.

This case is also an excellent illustration of how misogyny, homophobia, and patriarchy harm all men.  Although the patient in this case might be gay or bisexual, the things that the doctor found so offensive were his behaviors, not his identity.  As a result, not only insulted him while he was anesthetized, but also actively conspired to compromise his health care and well being.  She told assistants to lie to him, conspired to avoid him, and actively lied and falsified his medical records out of spite.  His health was literally comprised because of her homophobia and misogyny.

An identity as straight would offer no protection from this, and his male privilege did nothing to save him in this situation either.  I suppose he could have complied with more "masculine" behaviors, but that still would have compromised his health, because then he wouldn't have been expressing concern for his own health, or asking questions about his surgery, and taking the follow up seriously.  It would have required him to put acting "tough" over his own health, well being, and to internalize any discomfort or unease that he might have had.

Guest Blog Author...

I wrote a blog post on masculinity and how college men perform their gender for my department's PhD student blog: Higher Education Scholars @ BC.  

"Undergraduate men make up less than half of the undergraduate population, and among non-white students, the proportion is even more lopsided. They are less likely to graduate than their female peers, less likely to vote, study, or use career services. While they are less likely to participate in student organizations, they are more likely to hold high-status leadership positions. They are more likely to drink alcohol in excessive amounts, vandalize property, and physically or sexually assault someone; clearly both men and women would be better off if men acted more like women in these respects.

Only focusing on men’s behavior as problematic, however, misses how men are also victims....."

You can read the full post here.

Selling (Wo)manhood: Infinity QX60

The way that people talk about gender make it sound like it's purely biological and immutable.  Boys and men are aggressive, driven by their biological urges, and competitive; girls and women are passive, reserved, and gentle.  What this idea misses is that gender is a social construction that has changed over time, and is shaped by many different forces.  One of those forces is from billions of dollars in advertising.

At first glance the Infinity "Reverse" commercial seems rather benign.  People get into accidents going in reverse, the QX60 has technology to help prevent them.  Seems fair enough.  Then you look at the examples they chose to use.  In the first example, a White man, going home from what looks like the end of work (business suit, has a briefcase) hears the beeping/sees the video, and stops in time to avoid an accident, and looks frustrated with the bad driver who almost hit him.  In the second example, an Asian woman (probably a mom judging by the two girls in the back seats) is backing up, doesn't hear/see the school bus coming, and the car breaks itself, and she steps on the breaks after the car has already stopped (and when it would have been too late).  The two girls look at each other like "Oh my goodness you almost killed us!" and the woman gives a sheepish look like "Ooops, did I do that?!"  Right off the bat, we have a man so he's about work and business, and then we have a woman, so she's a mom (and of course well dressed, thin, and attractive) because that's what women should aspire to, being mothers and physically attractive.

Although it is nice to show non-White individuals in a luxury car commercial, why did they have to be in an example the reinforces racist stereotypes of Asians and women as bad drivers?  Why did the White man get to be the responsible, pro-active driver?  I highly doubt there was any malicious or racist intent in the creation of the commercial.  My best guess is that when they were casting the parts, these were the people that seemed most "right" for the parts (or to the writer/director before the casting even occurred).  It's the subtle forms of racism and sexism that are so insidious, because they shape things like these commercials, which in turn, reinforces the racist attitudes that created the commercial in the first place.  Racist attitudes seem normal, so they make it into media - racist messages in the media then reinforce these messages and so they continue in people's daily lives.