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.

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.

yes/no/maybe so

Last year when Potato had the idea for this blog it immediately took off and my friends and I began expressing some feelings we hadn’t quite been able to discuss directly with each other before. As she says, this is equal parts scary and exciting. My friends are taking risks here; emotionally and professionally and maybe even intellectually. I owe it to my friends of color (maybe) to bare myself and my own painful experiences and take the same risks that racist (or gendered racist) reality requires of them on a daily basis, albeit in different arenas. I never know when I’ve said too much or too little but here goes my best attempt to be brave:

This year I started wondering if I wanted to live my life as a truly genderqueer/trans* person.

This is not a Caitlyn Jenner kind of revelation although maybe in some ways it is.

Because first of all, what does it mean to be “truly” trans*?

Let me back up a mile or two. Transgender is part of a constellation of terms having to do with gender and sexuality that are, at this point, growing exponentially every year. It represents an evolution in terminology from the earlier cross-dresser, transsexual, and (often but not always pejorative) tranny. The simplest definition of transgender is someone who identifies with a gender or sex other than the sex identified for them at birth. Most commonly transgender is used as a modifier, as in “trans man” (a person now living as a man who was labeled a girl when he was born) or “trans woman.”

In contrast, cisgender is meant to identify the privilege associated with identifying with the biological sex on your original birth certificate. In other words, “cis” is the privilege of not worrying about what pronouns someone will choose for you when they meet you, whether you will be kicked out of the public bathroom you want to use, receiving appropriate medical care without argument about your sex, or otherwise suffering from the general problem of not fitting in with a binary system of gender. Astute readers will at this point recall my post from two weeks ago about being identified as a boy.

Last summer I attended a conference where Wendy Chapkis asked “cisgender/transgender: am I that name?” Chapkis is a self-identified woman, but she is hirsute. She spoke from her experience as a woman who is, in her words, “consistently misgendered in public” because of her mustache. As a person who did not make an effort to change her body to better conform with a binary notion of gender, she said that she had for a time identified herself as transgendered. Before transgender had come to so consistently refer to, as one audience member put it, ‘a path to a gender’ rather than a gender in and of itself. In other words, today transgender tends to mean that one is either a transman or a transwoman but it is not an identity in itself. But Chapkis, born a woman and woman-identified, is clearly not a transwoman (read more on her life here). The problem, Chapkis identified, is that as a woman with a visible mustache, Chapkis is a gender non-conformist and “cisgender” does not seem appropriate either.

Chapkis’ talk hit a nerve and seems to point to some thorny tensions in contemporary feminist ideas about gender. At one point, trans* meant transgressing gender, transcending gender, or perhaps even transversing gender. The gender outlaws, as Kate Bornstein says (more on her in a later post). Now trans is one half of a suspiciously straight binary: a person is either trans or cis, with little room for those in between.

Let me be clear: no one here is arguing that the powerful out and proud folks in the burgeoning transgender movement are traitors to the feminist cause or do not know what they are talking about in terms of their own identity. I am in no way qualified to speculate or opine on why many, many people find it meaningful to transition fully from one sex to another and I do not wish to invalidate that very real experience, nor is the (possible) lack of room for those in-between the fault of those on the marked half of the binary. The binary is important because it allows us to describe an unmarked privilege. Like Chapkis, I am simply thinking through where I belong and failing to find a side that really fits. Unlike Chapkis, I am almost never misgendered and therefore I experience a heap of cis privilege (never kicked out of the bathroom, never the cause of medical confusion, only rarely some stares). Unlike other ciswomen, however, it seems I experience an explicit consciousness about trying to make ciswoman fit as an identity. (At least I think that sets me apart from ciswomen- TBEL- to be explored later.)

Blog. By Anonymous.

Should I blog anonymously? Seems dangerous to say these things as me, wanna-be Professor of strategy. I could get fired (unlikely) or denied tenure (possible) for saying these horrid rude bitter things….like going to a wedding ceremony with smiling hosts and bringing in a pile of shit and placing it on the clean white cloth. The guests at this event, is it their fault, that they fit in and I don’t? It’s not their fault they found me outside looking into the party inside and were kind enough to invite me. And did I care much about class as an upper-class woman in India? No. Indeed, I remember spouting some nonsense about the government handouts given to lazy moochers. Hierarchy is a problem for me, it appears, only when I am towards the bottom of it. And these people, my colleagues, did I say bad things about them? And if I did, ‘tis not even fair what I said, and ‘tis not even true. My ire, my anger, is not about them, these are kind people, who took me in, and helped me, and guided me, and like me as one-of-their-own. No it is not them. They are me and I am them, at least most of the time.

My anger, my hatred is born of a thousand small bitter things, adding one upon another over 15 years, mementos of my career. Sharp, spiky things. Like walking into a conference event, for perhaps the hundredth time, and finding crowds of suited people, and only one approachable, a small Chinese woman as alone as me, a PhD student new to the field. Or looking straight at any security guard I walk past since I think they think that I might have stolen something but thieves don’t typically look people in the eye, I’ve read somewhere. Or when I am mistaken, for the hundredth time, to be a PhD student or an MBA student, by colleagues, students, administration, hitchhikers, neighbors, visa officials, everyone. It was flattering the first 50 times – the look of surprise when I said I-am-Prof, but after that, it is shaming – like a servant girl caught wearing her employer’s clothes. Like when I email some executive using my office email and they respond with deference-obsequiousness to this prof-in-HEC, and then I meet them in person, and inevitably, the deference vanishes replaced with “are you a Phd student?”, and a sense that I somehow cheated them. Or when my students just cannot believe that a core strategy course is being taught by someone-so-implausible, but they can’t put their finger on what exactly is wrong with me – maybe it is the content? Not really, the content is great. Maybe if I was more forceful. No, not really, no one wants a forceful Asian woman. Maybe, if I was just someone else, someone-more-plausible. But the worst is when fellow-researchers, like that guy from LBS, the Indian quant guy, or that one from INSEAD, the network guy, react with cold-hard-hate, looking away at anything other than me, moving one chair away in the round-table discussion (maybe-I-smell?). I don’t even know these people. What could I have done to earn this hate? I rack my brains, anger and despair warring within. Are they psychopaths? But they seem to get along fine with Adam-with-the-three-A-pubs.

Is it fair to use sometimes as examples my poor colleagues to make my case, just because this is where I am now, and I am writing this now because my friend suggested a blog, and I see everything now from this prism of hard-sharp memories? If my colleagues saw this, what would they think? They’d be hurt-surprised I think. And more instrumentally, if someone finds this, will I be able to find another job in a business school? Probably not since business schools are race-class-gender neutral zones where these petty-whiny-loser grievances don’t exist. So why do I want my name, my real name, to be on this? A death-wish perhaps, because I don’t want to be scared-little-girl, or maybe because I want an excuse for not succeeding in this my chosen battleground. Then I can say, with some earnestness, that I failed because of an honest blog, not because I am really not old-white-man-classical-scholar-Granovetter material, and then hand over the household reins back to my IIM-husband who always was much better at this breadwinner business.

Walk like a man

When I was in high school, I was sometimes mistaken for a boy.

As a gender scholar and feminist, I often think back to these moments. Currently, I see myself as a person actively involved in deconstructing the gender binary, which for one thing means I now feel I need to clarify that I found being mistaken for a boy difficult because I identified myself (and my family and friends identified me) as a girl.

Anyway, back in high school, it didn’t happen a lot, but it happened more than once. On the one hand, as a rebellious teen I pushed these limits intentionally. At the cheap haircuts place, I used to open the book and point proudly to a picture of a little boy as the haircut I wanted and dare someone to ask why a 15 year old girl would want that. I renamed myself Biff at camp one year. A 100 lb girl, I wore XL concert t-shirts; for Halloween I spiked my hair, wore a thrift store suit, and said I was a punk. On the other hand, the few times someone said “what can I do for you sir?” I turned beet red and lost the power of speech. The only thing I could do was try not to cry, and I was always strangely unable to correct the speaker. One time it happened at school in the office, and though I was angry and hated the teacher (for this as well as other minor offenses), I still found myself unable to correct him. Later I would rant and rave about how stupid someone would have to be to mistake someone my size and shape for a boy (I was not curvy but slim and short enough to be unlikely to be male). In the moment though I only ever felt shame.

It is true that I asked for boys’ haircuts and refused to wear much, if any, form-fitting clothing. I didn’t wear make-up, and my mother was always bugging me about looking prettier. But I did wear skirts and dresses, just not the pretty kind (it was the 90s; think grunge dresses). I had crushes on boys and although I liked to push the limits, I never thought of myself as anything but a girl. Being misgendered cut into that identity so sharply and so publicly that the shame left me speechless.

In college, I read an article about the way Weather Underground members Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn raised their children to negotiate gender. Their son had long hair, and was often mistaken for a girl. They described how, when corrected, the speaker would always sputter in embarrassment while the child would simply shrug off the mistake, unable to see any harm in being called a girl.

I think I have been aspiring to be as cool as that child ever since, but even now discussing my gender or gender identity with others brings a hot rush of blood to my face. I no longer shave my legs or armpits, I don’t own any makeup, and a few years ago I cut off my long hair because I disliked how gender normative it felt. And yet in some ways I think I still cling to the identity of woman.

(To be continued…)

Landmines

I just finished reading what my brilliant friend Bodhi wrote for this blog, and I have a jumble of feelings. Outrage, sadness, anger, fear for her and her family, fear for all my friends, and guilt. I wonder why I didn’t know she was such a fantastic writer. Why didn’t I know she was having such a hard time? Is it because this “hard time” is normal for women of color so it’s not like a situation that bears commenting and is just one that even though I try to understand I still don’t really get as a white woman?

How can I contribute to this conversation when my friend is so eloquent in describing her own experience? Paradoxically reading Bodhi’s posts filled me with words, inspiring me to write this response, but now that I’m actually writing I want to sit back and listen. I want to figure out how to encourage the women around me to tell their stories. I want to figure this out so that I don’t have to wait for the chance discovery of this rich, complicated anger after another friend’s exciting idea (to start this blog).

But my friend’s post also made me feel afraid. She asked us before about “quality control,” although I emphatically replied that I didn’t want to screen what anybody said. But now I am filled with questions about whether or not she really wants to post the deeply true things she’s written to the big bad internet where it exhausts me just thinking about how to disguise our identities. Then another doubt surfaces, one I’ve experienced commonly since becoming an academic: am I contributing to her silencing by asking her if she is afraid? I can never tell the difference between helping friends navigate the landmines of appropriate behavior in the academy and further silencing friends by scaring them away from landmines that may or may not be there. But I guess that’s the fucked up thing about landmines—you never know whether or not they are there until it’s too late. And even as a sociologist all I can tell you about socially constructed landmines is that I know they’re out there somewhere, just as I know I expand their reach by trying too hard to avoid them. I know that the more times they’re exploded the fewer there are, but you can never tell for sure if you’re going to set one off.

I’ve experienced this fear of social landmines more times than I care to remember since entering the academy, and almost never before that. Perhaps before that I just stepped on them and set them off without caring much because I was young. Perhaps it’s because my class background didn’t imbue me with enough cultural capital to understand the rules of politeness in this place. Perhaps I find myself on the silenced end more often as a woman here than I did in previous woman-centered workplaces. Perhaps I have finally started listening to those who are being silenced, like my friend.

How can I protect my friend without silencing her? I guess the answer is that I can’t and I probably shouldn’t want to. After all, I’m not out to be a white savior. Ok, more honestly—I’m trying my best not to be a white savior. I will assume my senior colleague knows what she is doing, and perhaps even follow her lead.

With love, solidarity, and rage,

Unamerican

May 15, 2014