Racism, Anger, and Not Going Away Quietly.

I wrote this post in response to the events in Ferguson, MO in November. And now, we see another death of a man of color in the hands of law enforcement and another community expressing their pain and anger, feelings which, in some cases, have been expressed as more violence.

I still do not condone or advocate for violence. But I can understand how the response to a lifetime of physical and psychological violence is violent. If you look around and see that your life, your body, your community is not fully valued, is not protected or respected, what choice do you feel like you have but to fight back and attack that system?

Ashley N. Robinson

I’ve heard that there is no excuse for violence in Ferguson.

I’ve heard that America needs to get together and “solve these issues”.

Which we are supposed to do peacefully, politely, and nicely.

To solve an issue, you first must look it in the face. You must name it, and know it, and critically examine it before you are able to build the resolve to undertake its destruction. The current state of anger, rage, and upset that is spreading across our country is unsettling. It is upsetting and, in some cases, has become destructive. As emotion pours into the streets of our nation’s cities, it is worth noting that it does not come from a place of random, unassigned destructiveness and disregard for the social contract. It comes from  a place of deep pain, developed over decades of sustaining a social condition of pervasive inequality in our nation. The rage…

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Our Common Purpose is Inclusion. Change the Location of NASPA 2016.

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The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in times of comfort and convenience, but in times of challenge and controversy. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The 2016 NASPA conference has been planned to be held in Indianapolis, IN in March of next year.

Today, the Governor of Indiana signed a bill into law known as the  that would allow businesses to challenge local laws that forbid discriminating against customers based on sexual orientation in court. It codifies the ability of businesses to defend discrimination based on sexual orientation. 

And we are going to go there. For our conference. Where we will be going to businesses. Businesses that feel that they now have a justifiable legal basis on which to openly discriminate against someone based on religious objections to their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. In a state that has openly institutionalized discrimination and oppression.

We are an association that professes our commitment to inclusion. We have a GLBT Knowledge Community. We have gender neutral bathrooms at our conferences. And now we have a huge national conference in a state which has just become much more hostile toward people who carry marginalized sexual orientation and gender identities.

Moving the conference with just less than a year to go would require a lot of time, energy, frustration, and financial loss. It would be a phenomenal pain. It would be very problematic. Not nearly as problematic as the discrimination and institutionalized oppression that we will implicitly support by bringing our business to Indiana. Not nearly as painful as the impact of oppression in the everyday lives of people with marginalized sexual orientations and gender identities.

And now, we as the members of the association, must call on NASPA Leadership to change the location of the 2016 conference. We call on them to be true to our guiding principle of Inclusion and choose the often inconvenient path of Integrity.

Fellow members, please join me in encouraging our association to take action on this matter and to stand in solidarity with all those who have been and will be negatively affected by this oppressive and unethical legislation. We have an obligation to demand this of those who lead us. NASPA, as an educational association, has an obligation to demand better from the governing systems of our country.

You can make your voice heard in this petition to NASPA President Kevin Kruger, NASPA Board Chair-Elect Frank Lamas, and NASPA 2016 Conference Chair Frank E. Ross. 

On NASPA, Yik Yak, and Perhaps What Really Matters

imageI’m in the airport on my way home from the annual NASPA Conference. And I’m thinking about the great NASPA Yik Yak fiasco of 2015. If you haven’t caught up yet, there’s a lot of brouhaha about a variety of yaks that have been made by conference attendees over the past couple of days. It made it into The Chronicle, in fact. I find this whole situation to be fascinating. The presence of the offending yaks. The responses. It’s all very interesting.

Let’s start with the very beginning: the types of things people are saying on Yik Yak. There are yaks about the other SA pros that people find hot. There are yaks about getting drunk. There are yaks about being hung over. There are yaks about hooking up and getting laid. There are yaks complaining a bit about sessions or the conference in general.

It’s sort of like Yik Yak on every other day. It’s an anonymous, written manifestation of the reality of social interactions, behavior, conversations, and personal thought in the microcosm of the immediate geographic community.

Don’t get me wrong; do I think it’s the epitome of professionalism to be focusing on getting laid, getting wasted, and dropping snarky or hurtful remarks about others while at a conference? Nope. But I invite you to consider with me the ways in which some of our natural or first responses to this behavior are tinged with hypocrisy, naïveté, and some unrealistic expectations for ourselves as profession.

Response 1: Yik Yak is the enemy. How dare you use Yik Yak (thereby compromising the good fight)? Yik Yak is definitely not the enemy. Yik Yak is just a platform. It’s a forum. The real enemies are hate, misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, bullying, harassment, and the inhumanity and harm that come from fear, anger, and misunderstanding. If Yik Yak is a “problem” on your campus, I promise you that the problem is not the app. The problem is the culture and our society at large. Don’t fight the symptom, fight the cause. Mocking and shaming SA Pros for being on Yik Yak is not productive. In fact, it’s sort of ageist, because younger professionals are much more likely to be using emerging social media technologies. I understand that some responses that fall under this category are attempting to call out specific types of behavior on Yik Yak, but generalizing and shaming use of the app overall is not helpful.

Response 2: Shame on you. You should know better. Implicit in the act of shaming someone for behavior that is regarded as unprofessional, unethical, or otherwise inappropriate is an unwillingness to understand, engage with, and call in our colleagues. When our students act in a way that we find unacceptable, we have educational and meaningful conversations with them to discuss the impact of their behavior, understand where they are coming from, and make plans to help them act in ways that are more appropriate in the future. But when our colleagues foul up? So much for compassion. The student affairs sword of judgment is swift and sharp. We need to be willing to challenge and support each other. Development does not end after graduation. Making mistakes does not end after graduation. Young professionals are still developing and learning ways of being in the world and acting professionally. If you bear witness to a colleague behaving in a way that is detrimental to their career, to our profession, or to the well-being of students, please summon the courage to hold that person accountable in a caring and compassionate way. Maybe they don’t really know better. Be a role model. Let them know (but try to do it without condescension).

Response 3: Student Affairs is better than this. I really don’t even know where to begin with this one. This response feels most defensive and most likely to be hypocritical. Last time I checked, Student Affairs professionals are humans. Humans who get drunk and get it on. I’ve only been in the profession for a handful of years, but I’ve always found it to be an incredibly…progressive…space. A space in which people regularly get very drunk at conferences. A space in which professionals are definitely sexually and romantically involved with each other. I’ve been watching professionals get drunk at conferences since I was an undergrad. These things are not secrets! Also not a secret is the fact that individuals and the field are still on a path to more socially just practice, and that not everyone is “there” (wherever exactly “there” is) yet. So yeah, people are going to make comments that are not cool, that are micro aggressions, and that are harmful, and we need to call them in and invite dialogue to move everyone forward.

We absolutely cannot act like our whole field is constantly attaining some level of ethical and professional perfection. We are educators, not saints. The reason that we have standards and competencies is because we need to work to meet them, not because becoming a student affairs professional comes with automatic immunity from making mistakes or acting human. It’s unfair and unreasonable to set up shaming systems that promote double standards of behavior. We talk constantly about living authentically. Authentic living includes mistakes. It also includes examining where judgmental reactions come from. Are we afraid that if people get turnt at conferences, we won’t be taken seriously as a field? Are we worried that such baseness will mar our prestige? Are we worried that this is making us look bad with our academic colleagues who are reading about us in The Chronicle? Because I promise you, they are turning up, too.

Of course, we need to promote and foster boundaries regarding ethical and professional behavior in all aspects of our supervision, mentoring, and role modeling. The behavior of student affairs professionals at conferences and in Yik Yak and other forums indicates something about the culture of our field, of our institutions, and of our association.

I’m willing to bet that the sources of these offending yaks were new professionals. And I feel fairly confident in saying that this is a symptom indicating that there are gaps that exist in either how we are socializing new professionals into the field or in how we enact vs. espouse our values. I think that it’s a little bit of both, to be honest. Responses to issues like this go beyond public shaming. Certainly, given the anonymity involved here, it is impossible to target specific individuals with caring and compassionate professional interventions. But perhaps that is for the best, because that challenges us to consider the way we hold ourselves at all times, with all colleagues, around social expectations, role modeling, and fostering reasonable and authentic standards of ethical behavior.

#50DollarsNot50Shades: Boycott 50 Shades of Grey

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Today, I decided that I was going to write a feminist literary critique of the insidious 50 Shades of Grey. As a feminist and someone who spent four years being trained in literary criticism, this seemed like an ostensibly easy task. I would read said piece of “literature” and apply various lenses to it. I told myself that we all must suffer for our crafts. I told myself that you must truly know your enemy. I was committed to getting on the level of this book.

I got through a handful of chapters, having fully realized that it was written in the style of a 12 year old’s diary, which is not a literary style I have dabbled in much since about 2001, and at that point I had firmly received my confirmation that the character of Christian Grey is a violent, controlling stalker. Because, you know, he shows up at the workplace of a young woman who he has only met once in a business setting, and that’s not something that is terrifying and completely unacceptable or anything. And he makes her sign a contract that strips her of her free will. Normal stuff. Totally healthy. 

So at this point in the game, I feel perfectly justified in transitioning my literary critique to a social critique because I have better things to do with my life than subject myself to actually reading this book. You’ll have to forgive that I have interpreted some plot points from secondary sources. 

Dear Women;

Please don’t go see 50 Shades of Grey. Really. Please just don’t.

I get why people (10 million people) are obsessed with the books. Well, I mean, I think that the writing is complete rubbish, so I’m still really struggling with that part, but I understand that women are sexually oppressed, and being able to buy soft core porn at Barnes & Noble has really changed things. I’m not telling you to boycott 50 Shades because I’m a prude who doesn’t want you to get your jollies. I’m very sex-positive. I think that the world would be much better off if we didn’t act like sex was some big old secret and if we could actually have open, positive, productive conversations with partners and others about the topic.

But I think it’s insane to act like 50 Shades is a vehicle for sexual empowerment and enlightenment. These books are about an extremely abusive relationship. A relationship in which one person endeavors to do everything he can to control all aspects of the other person’s life. In which he guilts and shames the other person into believing that she has to save or fix him. A relationship in which a man stalks a woman. In which he controls her appearance, socialization, and other relationships. In which he isolates her from friends and family. In which consent is swapped for coercion. In which he pressures her into getting an abortion. This is what we call abuse. This is what we call sexual violence. This is what we call rape. 

50 Shades has filled an apparent void of sexual empowerment for millions of women. This void is a result of the continuous shaming and devaluation of women’s bodies and experiences in our society. It is harmful and pervasive. What is even more harmful and pervasive is to continue to spread abuse-positive, violence-positive, and rape-positive messages related to sexual and romantic relationships. These messages are part of the very reasons that women are sexually oppressed in the first place.

If any person I cared about were ever in a relationship like the one depicted between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, I would do everything I could to get her to one of the many thousands of organizations that support, empower, and protect women and children who are victims and survivors of violent, controlling, damaging domestic relationships every day.

Before you go see this film, realize the incredible influence that the media plays on our lives. Realize that watching this movie and reading these books causes us to internalize messages that abusive and controlling romantic relationships are desirable, exotic, and exciting. Realize the message that this sends to our children: that the only way women can achieve sexual satisfaction is to completely demean ourselves at the hands of men and sacrifice our own free will for their pleasure and control.

And perhaps, instead of spending your money on that movie ticket, you will think twice and donate those funds to one of the numerous agencies that work tirelessly to truly empower women and free them from the deadly constraints of domestic abuse and sexual violence.

Love (real love, not the kind of love in which you control someone else),

Ashley

If you would like to donate, you can find a shelter or agency near you. Here are some suggestions that serve the communities I call home: 

Spruce Run Womancare Alliance (Maine)

Center for Family Justice (Connecticut)

RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence (Rhode Island)

Brooklyn, NY. 12.20.14

Today, a violent man shot his girlfriend in an act of domestic violence, murdered two police officers, and took his own life.

Today, and every day, racism and all forms of institutionalized oppression pervasively and negatively impact the lives of people across our nation, manifested in countless ways. Excessive use of police force and police brutality exist, too frequently against black and brown people.

Both of these things are true. Both of these things are awful. One does not make the other any less true or awful. Murderous violence is not the aim or mission of the important and necessary movements for social change and police reform in our country. The angry rhetoric of an obviously deeply disturbed person with a history of violence does not stand for the movement. Saying “they took one of ours, I’ll take two of theirs” does not represent the calls for social justice in our nation. An isolated incident, awful as it may be, does not in any way negate the realness of racism.

There is an endless cycle of violence in our country. This violence is both the effect and the fuel of institutionalized oppression. Systems of oppression hurt everyone. There is no justification for cold blooded killing. Polarizing rhetoric and actions will not solve our problems, and most of us who seek progress for our society are deeply aware of that. It is possible, and necessary, to simultaneously deeply mourn the death of two law enforcement officers while calling for accountability and reform for all law enforcement in our country to best serve the needs of and allow for the fundamental human rights of all people.

Two officers died tonight. A violent man used the movement as an excuse for his violence, hid behind the bravery of words and actions that so many thousands of people have given life to over the past few months, tarnishing the call for a better, less violent society with his individual, reprehensible actions. Reactions that suggest that this incident negates the realness of what is going on in this country right now not only tarnish the true nature of this social movement, but also do a grave disservice to the memory of these officers, who died protecting their community. Should we not all endeavor to seek out, through critical dialogue, reform, and continuous calls for action, the truest realization of justice and protection in our communities?

Merry Christmas on Campus: A Real, Live Case Study

The University of Maine is apparently trying to ruin Christmas. 

I woke up this morning to an onslaught of Facebook vitriol from my fellow Black Bears following some questionable and sensationalized reporting from WABI news that the university was forbidding holiday decorations and had, in fact, taken all of the holiday decorations down after an email was sent to staff instructing them to remove them. So this is obviously the biggest issue facing UMaine alumni right now (not state-sanctioned torture and human rights violations, or police brutality, or the pervasiveness of institutional racism, or anything else at all…) But I digress; let’s proceed with our analysis.

WABI informed us that the email went out and then all of the Christmas trees that Alpha Tau Omega fraternity had put up for their yearly philanthropic fundraiser were suddenly gone. That all of the decorations on campus disappeared.  The way they, and many subsequent sharers, painted it, you would think that President Susan Hunter herself had sent out a message to the university forbidding any holiday decorations anywhere, personally knocked over each happy little Christmas tree in the Memorial Union, ripped up all of your Christmas cards, and set fire to every cookie in the dining hall in a fit of Grinch-like rage, surrounded by the swirling fumes of burning sugar and broken dreams. I don’t think that WABI did a very thorough job of actually investigating this matter before airing it, but I don’t know that journalistic ethics or decent reporting in general are really the forte of this particular local news outlet.

Of course, what actually happened is that the Assistant Vice President for Auxiliary Services, Dan Stirrup, sent an email to his staff (the folks who work in Dining Services, Housing, the Bookstore, etc), reminding them that winter decorations are okay, but holiday-specific decorations are not okay. His email read thusly:

Just wanted to remind everyone that Auxiliary Services is not to decorate any public areas with Christmas or any other religious themed decorations. Winter holiday decorations are fine but we need to not display any decoration that could be perceived as religious.

This includes xmas trees, wreaths, xmas presents, candy canes, etc.

What is allowed are winter themes, plain trees without presents underneath, decorative lights, but not on trees, snow flakes, etc.

If you are unsure, best to not use or ask me for clarification.

Regarding the removal of the ATO Christmas trees, their philanthropy event had concluded and so they took the trees down. Kudos to UMaine student organizations for collecting a bunch of food items for a local shelter. Way to go.

So here’s my thoughts on this email and the actual implications of it.

Within this email is a very, very broad interpretation of what “religious” means. I do think that this is one place in which Stirrup misstepped a bit. Legal interpretations of the establishment clause of the First Amendment (the part that tells us that the government can’t establish a religion) for public (aka government) institutions such as public universities generally consider secular items such as trees, wreaths, gifts, candy, etc to not be religious symbols. Putting up a nativity scene next to the card swipe station at York Dining Commons? That’s gonna be a religious display. Better not do that. But in a strictly legal sense, in terms of what a public university is allowed to do, putting up a wreath is legally protected. Just don’t put a giant cross in the middle of the wreath (catch my drift, here?)

Of course, there’s a big difference between what a university can do and what a university should do. So let’s dissect some of the cultural and climate-related implications of holiday decorations.

One of the common arguments that I have seen in response to this situation is that instead of taking down Christmas decorations, we should just put up decorations for everyone’s religions! Celebrate diversity! Now, I love me some celebration of diversity, but not when it’s done in a privileged, Christian-centric way with the implicit goal of allowing the dominant group to feel good about keeping their dominant holiday decor up. What do I mean by this? Well, for starters, it doesn’t really make sense to celebrate the significant holidays of all world religions at the end of December. Hanukkah is in December, but the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Passover are generally considered to be more significant and meaningful. The important Muslim holiday of Eid, which is at the conclusion of Ramadan, was at the end of July this year. The Hindu festival of Diwali is in October. The most important Buddhist festival, Vesak, is in May. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate holidays. So putting up a bunch of other religious artifacts next to your Christmas display doesn’t really meet the goal of promoting religious diversity and inter-faith exploration. It promotes you feeling politically correct about putting up your Christmas display. Political correctness is not the same thing as true understanding and dialogue. Other religions should not be treated as a cute accessory to the dominant religion. So if you are a proponent of the “celebrate diversity” stance, let’s please do it in a non-appropriative, humble, and authentic way. And if you’re not willing to fight the fight for inter-faith dialogue all year long, please examine your motivations.

Although I think that Stirrup misinterprets, in his email, the legal definition of what are actually religious artifacts, I believe that it is important to consider the impact of the secular symbols of Christmas on implicitly and explicitly supporting the assumption of a Christian-normative climate on campus. We know what a Christmas tree looks like. It’s different from a non-Christmas tree. We recognize a Christmas wreath when we see it. When we see wrapped presents under that Christmas tree, we know that they are Christmas presents. They aren’t birthday presents, or baby shower gifts, they are Christmas presents. During December, the symbols of Christmas are ubiquitous. The secular decor that indicates the dominance of the most important Christian holiday is everywhere, continuously asserting the supremacy of mainstream Christian belief in an endless cacophony of jingle bells, holiday hymns, and boughs of holly.

Let me take a moment to personally state that I really like Christmas, a lot. I look forward all year to this outpouring of holiday cheer that reminds me of wonderful childhood memories, supports the belief system of my entire family, and gives me a reason to put up a bunch of decorations. And that, my friends, is called privilege. So although the directive to use holiday decorations that are winter-themed instead of secular-Christmas-themed, and to not wish patrons a “Merry Christmas” is not legally required of a public university, I think that it is an inclusive stance that minimizes the microaggressions that non-Christians experience in their place of learning, work, and living. When you are a member of the dominant religious group (ie. Christian-identified) and someone wishes you a “Merry Christmas” at the bookstore or you spend your dinnertime sitting next to a display of Christmas baubles and gifts at the dining commons, you are entirely comfortable and pleased as punch because your belief system is being explicitly upheld by the symbols around you. When you are a member of the non-dominant religious group (ie. non-Christian-identified) and someone wishes you a “Merry Christmas”, you may not feel so kindly or welcomed (when was the last time they started wishing people a “shabbat shalom” at the bookstore?)

For Christians, is it so important to us to see the symbols of our religion and experience represented everywhere that we are willing to lose our shit over a more neutral stance that is not exclusive of people who have other beliefs? No one is coming into your living room to rip your tree out of its stand. No one is coming into your residence hall room to steal your Christmas pillow off of your twin bed. You are not going to lose one ounce of your ability to freely practice and enjoy the crap out of Christmas when the dining hall decorates with snowflakes instead of Christmas wreaths. So please recognize your outrage for what it is: privilege.

So keep on keeping on with the snowflakes, UMaine. Because if there’s any true shared experience in Maine at the end of December, it’s those snowflakes.

Racism, Anger, and Not Going Away Quietly.

I’ve heard that there is no excuse for violence in Ferguson.

I’ve heard that America needs to get together and “solve these issues”.

Which we are supposed to do peacefully, politely, and nicely.

To solve an issue, you first must look it in the face. You must name it, and know it, and critically examine it before you are able to build the resolve to undertake its destruction. The current state of anger, rage, and upset that is spreading across our country is unsettling. It is upsetting and, in some cases, has become destructive. As emotion pours into the streets of our nation’s cities, it is worth noting that it does not come from a place of random, unassigned destructiveness and disregard for the social contract. It comes from  a place of deep pain, developed over decades of sustaining a social condition of pervasive inequality in our nation. The rage of our nation is legitimate, founded, and demands attention.

I do not promote any type of violence, ever. Acts that cause physical, emotional, and psychological pain to others rob us of our own humanity and damage opportunities for connection and compassion. But resistance to the pervasive inequality in our society cannot be quiet, polite, or peaceful. Because the nature of oppression is that the oppressed are divested of their voices and the privileged get to go along without ever having to hear the cries of injustice and pain. So it seems that the cries must become louder. Those who know that what’s happening is unjust and who are not willing to accept the tired excuses of a self-serving system need to start yelling about it. Especially if you have privilege. If you are white, step up and start doing something and saying something. And if you are white and don’t think it’s your responsibility, or role, or whatever, take one tiny step out of the shroud of your privilege and get your shit together. Seriously.

Darren Wilson gave an interview tonight and said that his “conscience is clear.” This surely illustrates the pathology of privilege in this country. He shot an unarmed kid twelve times and he’s cool with it and doesn’t think that he could have done anything differently. Not a single conscience in this nation should be clear. Not a single one. Because we are embroiled in a system of privilege and oppression. We are existing every day in a system that gives value, opportunity, and safety to some while literally taking the lives of others. If you have found yourself justifying or explaining away the outcome of the grand jury proceedings in Ferguson, if you have found yourself saying “police officers are hardly ever indicted,” or “I don’t know what really happened, because I wasn’t there,” or “the justice system did its work and we just have to trust it,” stop letting those excuses exist and see what happens. Start listening to the radical voices. Start listening to the voices that say “I’m not sure that I trust our justice system,” or “I just can’t understand why a police officer would shoot an unarmed person twelve times,” or “I’m disturbed by police brutality in our nation,” or “I know that racism is a pervasive force that influences my thoughts and actions.” Listen to those thoughts, and then get angry.

If we want to get together and “solve our issues,” we need to let the fear, anger, and frustration about racial inequality have a voice and a space. We should all be profoundly uncomfortable and disturbed about what’s happening in our country now and what has happened in the past. So let’s start by believing that we have a big problem, making noise about it, and forcing the nation to listen.