Monday, June 13, 2016

What Are We Waiting For? (For Orlando, and for all of us)

I have been at loss for words.

My Facebook feed is full of "gun control," but also (because I have grown up with, and still talk with, people who are pro-gun-rights) "shooter shoots, not guns."  There are people condemning Muslim terrorists, and Muslim friends calling for more overt support of the LGBT community. (BTW, Donald: he was born in New York.)

CNN tells us the police have found no accomplices, though the shooter pledged allegiance to ISIS during a 911 call.  

The victims whose names have been released so far are largely from the Latinx community. Given where they were killed, a place that is a sanctuary, I wonder how many of them had families who knew, how many of them have families who will mourn, how many of them died with the only family they knew.  At least two of them were college students.  They could easily have been my students.

Everything we know about people who become radicalized suggests that they are isolated, disconnected, lost; that they turn to radical ideology (even if they're not religious) for meaning, for structure, for order in a world over which they feel no control, for belonging when they don't belong anywhere else.  Maybe they have parents who have fanned the flames of their hate.  But in the end, they're not so different from abandoned mentally ill people who, say, enter a theater and open fire.  Or who go to an elementary school and take the lives of twenty first graders. What happened in Orlando was a hate crime against LGBT people of color, against diversity of expression of love itself, done in the name of domestic terror. Hate, fueled by hate.

Let me be clear: I don't understand why anyone needs an assault-style or semi-automatic weapon for their personal use.  I don't understand why people don't have to pass the same kinds of tests to own and operate a gun that they do to own and drive a car. I don't understand why someone who has been the subject of a domestic violence report gets to purchase a weapon without some pretty detailed background investigation.

I also don't understand how, if this person was mentally ill, no one realized this before.  Did anyone at his college notice?  Did anyone at his security firm notice (did he have to pass any psychological tests)?  His ex-wife noticed. Did anyone do anything after she filed her domestic violence report?

And most of all, I don't understand how there can be so much hate, and how we can't seem to do a damn thing about it.

Particularly because the gunman wasn't an immigrant, but a native-born American who was just like any one of us, I've been thinking about this event in connection with the debate about free speech on our campuses, the ways in which some students say they don't feel safe when they hear racist or sexist or anti-religious or homophobic discourse.  As administrators, we try to walk the line between free speech and civility.  We try to make sure that everyone's voice is heard.  Some people even dismiss students' demands for "safety," saying that they shouldn't be so coddled, saying that they're in no real danger.  But when tragic events like this one unfold, and we have no mechanisms to prevent them, how can we be so sure?

I'm tired of signing my name to petitions.  I'm tired of having to explain to my son, who reads the news on his tablet before we can intervene, why this keeps happening. I'm tired of hugging my children and my friends and saying we should hold each other close. I'm tired of feeling powerless.

We are all victims.  We are Charlie, we are Aurora, we are Brussels, we are Charleston, we are Lebanon, we are Columbine, we are San Bernardino, we are Fort Hood, we are Sandy Hook. Now we are Orlando.  When will the loss be too great to bear?

What are we waiting for? When we will say we have had enough?  When will we put people in power who can do something in the name of love?

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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Brock Turner, Rape Culture, and Us

(with apologies for another angry post without mention of food. and with a warning for anyone triggered by sexual assault, in case it wasn't already obvious.)

I have been following the coverage of Brock Turner with my stomach tied in knots.

It makes me sick that he thought he could do this (or worse, that he didn't think it important enough to think at all); it makes me sick that the judge let him get away with it by handing down such a light sentence; it makes me sick that anyone would come to his defense after the fact, citing "political correctness" or "promiscuity" or alcohol as the culprit.

But perhaps it makes more visible than ever both the privilege of white male athletes (each of those words an additive in privilege), and the rape culture that is so pervasive we don't even see it any more.

I work at a university that, like most universities, requires all of its incoming freshmen and graduate students to complete an online mandatory sexual assault prevention program.  During orientation, students participate in an hour and a half long performance and discussion focused on sexual assault, rape, and bystander intervention. That program is followed by small group discussions, and additional information later on in the week.

During which many of them, I know, are thinking: "this would never happen to me."

And yet, it does.

A recent survey on our campus (with a high response rate) revealed that in the past year, 20 percent of all students (with a higher proportion of women then men, and higher proportion of undergraduates than graduates) have experienced sexual assault (which includes everything from harassment to stalking to nonconsensual sexual contact). And that during the past year, four percent of all students (men, women and gender nonbinary) experienced nonconsensual sexual penetration: rape.  Breaking that down by self-identified gender, eight percent of undergraduate women report that they were raped.  Mostly by people they knew.

One rape is one rape too many.  But 1 out of every 12 women?

We know that orientation isn't enough. So we try to start conversations that continue to loop students back in, remind them about how to have healthy relationships.  But they have had so much programming by age 17; it's an uphill climb.

They learn that if someone doesn't want to be with you, you buy them another drink.  They learn that no really means "not yet."  They learn that red means stop, green means go, and yellow means floor it so you can get through before it turns red.

Eighty four percent of college men who were found guilty of sexual assault did not believe their behavior was illegal.  Why?  Because women are described as objects so often that it becomes easy to see them as objects.  Because masculinity is described in terms of sexual conquest, and men--especially adolescent men, and they're trying to figure out who they're going to be--fall prey to those definitions. All of this makes rape culture normative, invisible, particularly, I'd argue, when it lives inside of white privilege, which is also invisible.  (*I am very aware that sexual assault is not limited to male perpetrators and female victims/survivors; I've worked with gay students who have been assaulted by other gay students, men assaulted by women, trans people assaulted by cisgender students. That said: rape culture feels rooted, to me, in power dynamics that are attached to gender.)

Why is it that so many people are more concerned about what will happen when a trans person steps into the bathroom than they are about what will happen when a white cisgender male is trying to prove his masculinity to himself in a culture where he'll never measure up?

I was heartened to read Vice President Biden's moving open letter today.  It was an important statement to make. But I also know that this river is deep. And that even Joe Biden doesn't go back to the place where rape culture begins.  Because you have to go back pretty far in the development of our children to learn when we first start to talk about consent, and bodies, and limits, and respect.

In case you hadn't heard, it turns out that Brock Turner will only be serving three months of his six month sentence.   Even college campus processes have more successful sanctioning than the prosecution record of rape cases. I don't have to ask you how you think this might have unfolded for a Black male, because we know.

Is it any surprise that survivors of rape don't want to report the crime to the police, knowing that this will be the outcome?

Is it any surprise that I didn't say anything to anyone about my own experience for more than ten years?

I know that many of you were silent, too.

What are we--you--me--doing to change this, not just at college orientation, but long before we ever have to have those conversations with our youth, before they ever find themselves bystanders?
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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Table Manners

Imagine, if you will:

Your boss has invited you to lunch to discuss your summer project plans.  This is not a special invitation, exactly, because she has also invited your colleagues to similar lunch meetings, all during the same week. But you have settled on a semi-fancy farm-to-table place, prepare a list of things you want to make sure you cover, stash said list in your purse, and wear something in which you take yourself seriously.

By Chrisrobertsantieau - Own work, Public Domain,
Things are going well enough; you have a good conversation, you enjoy a delicious meal, you manage not to have salad sticking out of your teeth.  You order coffee, after asking if she is also ordering coffee.  When it arrives, you select a yellow packet from the sugar bowl, stir, and sip.

Three sips in or so, you realize that the coffee needs cream, or milk, or whatever happens to be in the small creamer on the table, the one that is even smaller than your coffee cup.  She has already added cream to hers, so you reach for the creamer and begin to pour.

At which point, it slips from your fingers, and lands with an impressive splash directly in the middle of your cup of coffee, where it is now making cafe au lait of its own accord.

You have managed to splatter it all around the cup, but not on your dress, which, of course, is brand new.  You take your napkin, and wipe up around the spill; your boss asks if you are all right, you assure her that you are unscathed.  Nothing to see here.

And then?  Then what do you do?

Well, if you are me, and you want coffee, and you're not thinking very clearly, you gingerly fish the creamer out of the cup, wipe it off, add the appropriate amount of cafe au lait to your cup, making some comment about how much you'd had in the cup originally, and drink it.

And then, on the way home from work four hours later, you realize your faux pas, feel mortified, and wonder how you will now teach your children table manners with a straight face.
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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Look(ing) Out

Word travels fast.

Facebook told me this morning about an active shooter at UCLA, before any other media did, since I'd already gotten the Times digest for the day.  As soon as I heard, I went to the LA Times for more in-depth coverage.  Once I had the backstory I turned to Twitter for immediate updates, and back to Facebook for updates from a friend who was there.  Tomorrow there will be coverage in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in Inside Higher Ed, in The Skimm, and in my Thursday digest of the Times.

It all felt, and continues to feel, a little surreal.

I attended UCLA as a graduate student.  I know exactly what building the suspect and victim were in. I saw students running down paths that were familiar, hands raised above their heads.  A friend from graduate school, now returned to UCLA as a colleague, was there on campus, as were professors I'd had years ago. One of our current students was headed there to take a class this summer; we didn't know if she'd arrived yet.  My heart is with the UCLA community tonight, and everyone connected to the victims.

This could just as easily have happened at the place where I work.

There is no security stopping people as they enter campus.  There are no checkpoints.  There are no metal detectors to make sure students don't have guns when they enter a building. Yes, you can lock down a building, but not until it's already too late.  We are lucky that we haven't had anyone threaten to hurt others, but it's not uncommon for students to think about--and even act on thoughts of--hurting themselves when they can't cope.

via flickr user Duncan Rawlinson
I worry about a culture in which students who see themselves as academic or social failures feel that they have no recourse but violence.  We can debate about the need for gun control (making it the fault of a system that will allow people to acquire guns, though people who want guns badly enough can find less legal ways to get them); we can debate about the availability of mental health resources (making it the fault of a system that lets people fall through the cracks); we can debate about parenting (making it the fault of parents who are raising less resilient children).  We can even debate whether we should recognize achievement at all (like the North Carolina school board who voted to stop recognizing valedictorians just did), or whether we should "cover" grades (like many universities are doing) to remove at least one of the sources of stress.

But at the end of the day all we do is debate whose fault it is, if all we do is watch it happen over and over again, what good have we done?

With all of our social media voyeurism and instantaneous sharing of news, why do we do so much "looking out," instead of looking out for each other, from the moment we understand what empathy means?
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