flirting

On occasion, men hit on me. On very rare occasion, women hit on me. Usually I am slow to figure it out because I’m one of those people that has been in a serious monogamous relationship almost every day since I was 17. I started dating my husband at 20. I do not have a lot of dating experience, and I have never tried to meet anyone to date outside of my existing social circle, unless high school counts. So not only am I slow to notice when someone is hitting on me, but I’m really unfamiliar with the norms of flirting seriously with a stranger.

On two recent occasions, as I was standing alone in public, existing peacefully with myself, men have hit on me. The second one was tonight, when I was sitting on a bench at the gym. I work out at a gym attached to a health clinic, which is the kind of place where everyone wears sweatpants and is pretty non-competitive. After my workout, I was sitting on a bench drinking some water when the guy who was vacuuming the gym asked me how my workout was. I thought, hopefully, that this was just a friendly employee, and answered cheerfully “good!” Then he continued and added, “I saw you over there. On the—was it the treadmill?” “elliptical…” I answered, getting a sinking feeling. Then somehow the exchange ended, either because I looked down at my phone (very possible) or the guy just knew he should keep working and moved to vacuum somewhere else. As soon as he walked off I went in to the locker room so I didn’t risk seeing him again. The whole thing made me feel kind of creeped out and uncomfortable. I wondered what he meant. Had he been checking me out? Was he going to keep trying to hit on me or would he get the message when I hadn’t asked him anything in return? Did he hit on me because I made too much eye contact when I saw him a few minutes previously?

I was left wondering, too, if I was being oversensitive. I mean, after all, people have to meet each other somehow. Maybe this was a harmless flirtation, and all I had to do was politely indicate that I wasn’t interested. Why does this kind of attention almost always make me feel targeted?

One possible interpretation is that it has to do with my genderqueerness. Maybe my reaction to men who see me as a woman hitting on me is about feeling like I’m being misread. Maybe I feel like I’ll be found out as these men realize I’m not really the woman they are looking for.

But as I thought more about why I find it so impossible to just say “sorry, not interested” I realized that there have been times that I have tried to say that. And many of those times the man in question has immediately turned aggressive and mean. My first reaction to street harassment when I first ran in to it was in fact to politely rebuff. For my trouble, I got responses like “you’ve been sorry your whole life you white bitch!” So my reaction to stay silent and hide is probably the only rational one. If I continue the conversation, I’m leading the man on and I’ll just have to rebuff even more unwanted attention later on. If I try to end things quickly and clearly, like I’d like to, there’s a non-trivial chance the man will turn hateful.

I wrote this post in September, and it took me until February to walk back in to the gym again.

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On the need to write and to be brave (back to saying what I think)

Some days I feel like I am literally choking on a waterfall of words dammed up between my brain and finding a time and place to release them. Some days there just seems to be so much to say and my body and the hours of the day seem to be so limited at expressing everything there is to be said. This is when I know I need to write. Not that I should sit down and write, but that I actually need to. Usually this feeling overtakes me after reading something particularly good, but sometimes it just sneaks up because I haven’t written in a long while or I haven’t had very strong outlet for releasing everything I’m thinking about in speech.

I have the sense that my brain is tremendously active and tremendously verbal. I don’t mean to say that I think I’m smarter or better than anyone else; actually I think as a culture we over-value verbal facility as an expression of something we call “smarts” that I’m not even sure exists outside of racist classist sexist elitism. In point of fact the tremendous activity of my brain is often painful and troublesome. The inability to find time to actually process everything I’m thinking about can be crippling, along with the accompanying thirst for knowing and understanding more. All this thinking and need to verbalize is basically a neurosis in and of itself, and it certainly contributes to other neuroses (I am exhibit A for what it means to “overthink” anything concerning my body, for example).

Actually I suspect deep down most people could cultivate this same ability/affliction, and sometimes I wonder if they don’t because they are smarter than me and want to avoid the constant rollercoaster that thinking critically constantly can bring. My dear coauthors and I are not, as it were, poster children for the joys of the examined life.

Today I came across the blog of a brilliant sociologist Zandria F. Robinson, and I fell swiftly in love. For me, being in love means the urgent need to a) tell everyone you know and b) talk a lot about why l love what I love. Robinson is not only a gifted, incisive, and funny writer, but I have the sense that she never holds her tongue. Reading her blog I don’t know that I was shocked by any opinion or even way of putting something, but I found her blog shocking because she says what she thinks, without first making it palatable to the uninitiated, and not only uses her real name but often names names. I suspect that from this very radical act she derives not only freedom, but the kind of security that can only come from operating openly in the sunlight.

By contrast, I spend a lot of my time couching what I say in terms that will be palatable to those hearing them and essentially afraid of the force my own words can have. Maybe this is why sometimes they torture me.

Reading Robinson’s work I not only feel like a stodgy, unfunny, timid cultural commenter, but like a cowering mouse, afraid to use my real name or name my university and afraid of discovery in a world where discovery is inevitable.

rage not gratitude

Recently I have been thinking a bit about the role of anger in political struggle and specifically about social justice framing that seems to eliminate the constructive role of anger. Ironically my reflections have been prompted by wondering why certain things seem to fill me with rage.

For example, those “gratitude” posts a lot of my friend network is doing on Facebook. They make me roll my eyes and make it harder for me to like the friends who do them, even though I know and love those people, and I understand that in most cases my friends are just trying to search for the beauty in this beautiful, terrible world we live in. They are just trying to find their own reasons for getting out of bed every day.

Nonetheless, they have a stifling aspect as well. When people make a conscious project out of only posting – to others as well as for themselves – only the things that happen in their days for which they are grateful, it seems a bit self-righteous. It is certainly sending the message to “be grateful for what you have,” which is followed by a silent “instead of complaining about what you don’t.” I guess in some social circles complaining about what you don’t have might take the place of wanting a new toy or a bigger fancier house, but generally I use Facebook to complain about things like the fact that Black people in the United States don’t have the right not to be executed on the sidewalk by state- and public-sanctioned violence. Or the admittedly less tragic fact that capitalism makes me a sadder and more anxious person by requiring me to have a job for which I either feel a survivor’s guilt for my adjuncting friends, or in which I feel underappreciated because the state government which employs me is actively involved in ridiculing the value of what I do and teach, or where I must walk the line between “doing what I love” and allowing myself to be taken advantage of by an institution that certainly does not love me back.

I recently attended an event which honored the lives of Black men and women who have been murdered by the police across the United States. While the program was inspiring, no sooner had the possibility of anger been touched on than the (African American) organizers began to sidestep the blunt truth in an effort to make sure the police officers in attendance felt included and heard in the conversation. In fact, the officers in attendance were more profusely thanked than just about anyone else. Simply for being cops at a community event. I was personally enraged by the bending over backwards on display to make sure the cops at the event did not feel somehow personally implicated in these stories. Shouldn’t we be working to make sure that cops DO feel personally implicated so they can begin to reflect on the role they are playing in such an obviously racist institution? Don’t we need cops who can at least face the facts of what their colleagues across the country are guilty of if we have any hope of a less racist future for policing? Certainly love has a place in my ethos of struggle, but I’m not so sure about gratitude.

I am agnostic about the strategy of building bridges with oppressors in an effort to bring about change. I cannot say with assurance that there’s never a role or necessity of doing so, or that nothing good ever comes of it. What I can say with confidence is that this is most certainly not the ONLY way of bringing about change and that often this is a way to de-escalate successful radical tactics.

If we’re going to survive within a poisonously racist, patriarchal, heterosexist, ableist, and classist dominant culture, don’t we need to cultivate some rage to keep ourselves sane? Melissa Harris Perry draws extensively on the metaphor of the crooked room where women of color spend all of their time adjusting their behavior to the crooked room in which they stand. While there may be a place in such a struggle of radical love for oppressors, mustn’t we permit ourselves and other to first feel the rage that surely must attend the daily insults to our sanity in order to recognize ourselves as the fully human people that the dominant culture cannot see? How can we recover our own dignity without feeling anger at the systems and people who steal it from us on a daily basis?

As I write this I notice I’m feeling somewhat defensive about my embrace of rage. I wonder if my own vacillation between embracing my rage and trying to quell it can even be untangled from all of the bullshit sexist messages I’ve received over the course of my life about being such a polarizing, shrill, person. Actually I spend a lot of energy trying to shield others from the full-on, gale-force level, shrieking harpy brunt of my real rage at the hideous and preventable injustice I see at work every. fucking. day. in our world.

Why should I protect others from outrage at injustice I haven’t caused? Fuck that; rage it is.

out of the box

A while back I wrote a post or two about embracing life as a “ze” or “they” or, you know, “person” instead of a “she.” One of my major fears about doing this has to do with relinquishing the privilege of legibility out and about in public, part of the package of privilege that comes with being cisgender.

This weekend I had a most amazing experience. I was at a big summer event, wearing shorts and a tank top, and I felt the most comfortable I may have ever felt with my appearance. There I was with short hair, leg hair visible in boyish shorts, armpit hair not only visible but much longer than I actually like to keep it, and more comfortable than usual. It was if all of a sudden I just stepped over a line and I was no longer trying to be a woman.

The step itself was minute. It was tiny. I’ve been to the same event with the same hairy legs and armpits lots of times. It’s part of the summer, and along with that comes my discomfort with my body and my choices not to conform. People sometimes stare and when they don’t I spend most of my time worrying that they will. I’m always afraid some strange man is going to start yelling derogatory things at me about my “gross” legs. I spend a lot of my time thinking about how I’ll respond and almost daring people to actually say something. Every time someone whispers around me I think it must be about me. And the truth is, up until now, I’ve also felt that my legs are kind of gross. But I don’t shave, cause I also think that shaving makes my legs look pre-pubescent, which is grosser. It’s been over a decade since the last time I shaved and still I don’t actually like the look of my hairy legs in a nice dress.

But this time, something was different. We walked up to stand in line at the entrance, and as I looked around at all the things women around me were wearing, I felt calm, detached, and most of all, apart. I didn’t feel like I was in a struggle with those women over how women should dress or look, trying to make room for myself. I just thought “wow, women do really weird things. I’m glad I don’t have to wear paint all over my face in the sweaty hot or wear shorts that are going to ride up on me every time I sit down.” Later in the day I caught a pre-teen girl staring at my legs (this is the group I actually do catch staring with some frequency). For the first time ever, I enacted my plan for dealing with staring. I stuck my tongue out at her. And I didn’t feel angry or embarrassed by her stare. Instead, I thought “Good. Maybe she’ll know there are way more possibilities than she sees on a daily basis as she grows up.”

The thing is, the only step I’ve really taken is opening myself up to the possibility of being seen by strangers and friends as genderqueer and writing about that here. I haven’t asked anyone not to call me she, or changed my name, or even really changed my appearance. But I think I have decided that I would be prouder of myself if people cease to identify me easily and consistently as a woman. And maybe that’s where the line is. Maybe with that decision in and of itself, I stepped over the line and out of the box marked woman.

in defense of stridency

I am the kind of person that enjoys being loud, definitive, and often strident. This does not mean that I enjoy dominating other people or converting them to my point of view, but I often find it is a struggle just to openly hold my own beliefs, many of which are anti-mainstream. I am the kind of person who literally gets a jaw ache after a meeting or a cocktail party where I have self-censored and not spoken the majority of my thoughts. To some extent, this just makes me an extrovert. I think it also relates to my understanding about social change, which is, put succinctly, that the only place one can be free is in the struggle, but that connection is too elaborate and of too little interest to anyone else to unpack here.

More relevant to our project here, my inability so much of the time to just say what I think is directly tied to the racist, sexist, classist, speciesist, capitalist, ableist norms in the society at large (and society writ small in the institutions where we work and play). If what I fervently believe is anti-racist, then it stands to reason that it will be perceived as radical, and strident, and maybe even antagonistic, to the majority of people in a racist society. I’ll be a bitch if I say what I think.

I’m writing in circles here.

Maybe instead I should start at the beginning. I see myself as a person with a strong moral compass and a strong sense of ethical standards. Being an irreligious person, and a person who believes there’s no such thing as god, and having been raised outside of any formal religious or ethical traditions, I have spent a significant amount of thought developing my own sense of how to be a good person in the world.

I’ll explain this through an example. I don’t eat meat of any kind. And I do so for ethical reasons. Sure, it’s better for the environment. Sure, it’s pretty good for my health. But the fundamental reason I don’t eat meat is because I think it’s wrong to eat another living animal if it is completely possible for me survive (and even thrive) without doing so. And, if you really press me, it’s true that I find it abhorrent for others to eat meat. I think it’s wrong.

However, this is never, ever information that I volunteer. I do not shame others for what they eat, or ask them not to eat it in front of me. I simply refuse to eat, prepare, or have meat in my own house. If you ask me why I’m a vegetarian I will give you the short answer “for ethical reasons” specifically to avoid making anyone feel judged or uncomfortable about their own choices (which, after all, are theirs to make). It’s only if you keep asking that I’ll say what I said above—that I think it’s wrong to eat animals. The vast majority of people dearest to me in the world eat meat and a good portion of those disagree with me on the moral question; for me the test of those close to me isn’t whether they meet my moral standards, it’s whether I can be explicit and open about my moral standards with them and find a situation of mutual respect and tolerance.

The trouble is, this is how I see myself but this does not seem to be how others (less close relationships) react to me. When it comes out, as it did recently, that I hold some kind of core ethical belief, people sometimes react as if I’ve become a Puritan right in front of their eyes. As if it were unfashionable to have a moral compass, or as if I had begun praying for their souls right there at the dinner table. When my friends discover that I think they are wrong for eating meat, I wonder if they feel like I did in high school when I realized a Baptist friend was certain that I was on my way to hell, and that this fact regularly made him very sad?

The thing is, I feel like I’ve learned to live with having a lot of people around me who’s relationships with me co-exist with their sadness that I’m on my way to hell. Those are irreconcilable ethical differences, and to me the only thing we can do is set them aside and agree to disagree. They’re at once very deep and somewhat unimportant, because that’s how the world is. It isn’t consistent or tidy or permanent. In fact, that’s why I feel I need to have a clear sense of morality so that I can be guided in all this murkiness, but that also means that my sense of morality has to allow for change and compromise and above all the complete humanity of others. Which means respecting their autonomy and ability to make judgments and what David Foster Wallace called “the richness of their interior lives.” But somehow I feel that others are not always able to do this for me. When I sense that I disagree on some fundamental level with a friend (for example, about the existence of god), I don’t attempt to get them to tell me what they think so I can convince them otherwise. I think that fundamentally disrespects the other, because it implies that I don’t respect their ability to develop ideas as correct as my own – why am I sure I know better than them? I am sure of that for myself but it’s wrong to impose that.

My fear of how others will react to what I really think leads to self-policing, which inevitably leaves me feeling silenced and somewhat lonely. I have a deep need to say what I think (maybe we all do), and I don’t think this need implies a similar need to have others agree with me. I just wish I was sure I could count on receiving the same respect in return.

the university is and is not a good base for struggle.

CAUTION: THIS IS NOT A HOW-TO.

A few weeks ago I promised this post, and I want to start out by saying very clearly that I am not arguing that academia is the perfect activist career, or that it is an activist career of any kind. Academics do sometimes make this claim. Colleagues have at various times said that “teaching is my activism now.” I do not agree. While I think there is a role for activism in academia (and find it to be a good place for me), I don’t think anything about academia is inherently activist and I disagree that teaching in an institutionalized setting is in and of itself activism. Even more radical forms of university teaching are not actually the same as activism. That seems to be committing the same fallacy as believing that activism begins and ends with “awareness.” But making people “aware” of a social problem, no matter how important that may be, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with changing that problem or encouraging people to act. And it certainly doesn’t lead directly to any kind of collective action (usually just the opposite) which is likely to be the only way such problems will change. Good education encourages more engagement than that, but I feel strongly that it is no substitute for engagement itself.

OK, so being an academic doesn’t make you an activist. In fact, as Bodhi and Potato have been pointing out vividly, academia compares to other work environments as “same shit, different pay scale.” There are, however, some things about it that make it, for me, an excellent base for struggle. One is that while it compares poorly to non-jobs like being active in the struggle, it compares well to other jobs one can do in the capitalist economy. It’s not-for-profit, so while I may be participating in maintaining many forms of inequality (my classes, like most other college classes, certainly contribute to the reproduction of race-class-gender inequality), I am participating much less explicitly and directly. I am not aiming to increase anyone’s profits and everyone has to at least give lip service to having an interest in a more altruistic and intrinsic value to the work. I like that.

Even better, parts of my job can be successfully combined with things I’d do anyway as an activist, reducing the conflict I feel between how many hours a week I need to work in order to pay my rent and the time I can spend on activist projects. For my dissertation research I spent a lot of time participating in a movement as a member and doing the work of that movement. I’m now beginning another research project, and I’m hoping with this one to engage my students in some community activism and to use the format of a class to gather some useful data for community activists. I’m still ambivalent about whether the publication of this research constitutes activism, but the fact is that I can do grassroots work in my community and count those same hours as research instead of logging two separate activities in the same constrained time frame.

Some other advantages: (1) academic freedom–what’s left of it–prohibits my employer from firing me for my activism (unlike in the private sector); (2) I can use other job duties like reading and keeping abreast of advances in my field to keep myself informed in ways that make me useful to the wider community in which I participate as an activist; and (3) I remain in touch with young college activists, who are energetic, have a few fresh ideas, and most importantly are much less cynical than my own cohort.

Of course the most ethical thing to do is quit my job and join the struggle full time, amassing no possessions or career of my own. However I have found that very few people are able to sustain this attitude over any length of time, and in the long run it seems like having some slightly less committed folks engaged for decades in meaningful community work challenging power is probably better than having totally committed people who give up completely in a few years. This is what I meant by the “pursuit of lifelong militancy”; the university provides me with a salary and enough stability to reduce the possibility of burning out as an activist while placing those things in less competition with activism than they would be in most jobs. At this job, my responsibilities will not continue to increase if it seems like I have “too much time” to spend in the community (although the side-glances of my colleagues might increase and that is more true if I am not white). But I feel that academia complements my activism most of the time, especially the less invested I am in my prominence and success within it. Perhaps that’s whyacademia is so deeply under attack in the US today. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have found this base for myself. It’s not a bunker apart from racism, classism, and sexism, but I think it can be a haphazard lean-to in the capitalist storm.

end of the summer

This week, I’m stressed out and anxious. I’m trying to get a writing project finished before I leave town in 36 hours. I’ll be gone for a 4 day weekend, back for 3 work days, and then gone again for another 4 day weekend. My 9-month contract begins again 14 days from now. In lieu of a blog post this week, I’m choosing to provide a random list of some things—mostly work-related–that are on my mind. (Sure it’s self-indulgent, but I’m hoping that some of you or at least my friends who read this will be interested to see how the contents of my mind mirror or differ from yours.)

  • edits needed on my book proposal
  • the article that is almost done that I have still not submitted
  • whether my co-author for said article is not responding to my emails because he’s mad I haven’t done the revisions I promised or whether he’s just busy
  • whether or not the dress I bought in 2008 still fits me well enough to wear it to the wedding I’m going to this weekend
  • what shoes to wear with the dress since the wedding is in a gravel lot
  • how many hours of work do I have left on my sample chapter?
  • is my book project doomed to become like my article project?
  • wtf have I been doing all summer?
  • summer is for enjoyment, why am I wasting the end of it worried all the time about work?
  • the book I want to read before I teach a class on the same subject
  • the novel I want to read to enjoy the end of my summer
  • is it OK that I apparently didn’t mean the deadlines I set for myself in my pre-tenure review?
  • the active learning activity I was going to submit to TRAILS
  • how do other people always seem to get so much done?
  • my syllabi for the fall–no stop that, if i think about that it will mean the real end of my summer writing projects!
  • cleaning off my desk… both of my desks
  • is it too late to drop everything, max out my credit cards, and go to the beach before the semester starts? or is it just early enough to start planning that for the winter break?
  • will I ever have another full blown research project after my dissertation?