Risk Without Reward

This morning, as I was walking across campus, my mind was racing with the events of the past few days. The murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, now counted among the continued, senseless murders of black and brown people; the swirling anger and vitriol that encompasses our national landscape–the blaming and finger pointing; the senseless killing in the line of action of Dallas police officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, and DART officer Brent Thompson; the violence that has occurred in Tennessee, south Georgia, and St. Louis. There is so much. There is too much. It is so clear that in a system of privilege and oppression, eventually, everyone starts to lose. 

But the thing is, at the same time that I can and should feel legitimate anger, fear, and sadness, the reality is, I still feel pretty damn safe. Because I am a highly educated, middle class white woman who lives in a predominantly white town, around a predominantly white university. My partner is white. My family members are white. So although there are plenty of things that I feel pretty awful about, the reality is that I still feel very secure for myself and the ones I love most.

The big issue that I’m dealing with this week is along the lines of “What do I say?” and “What should I do?” and, frankly “What about when I say/do the wrong thing and hurt/offend/piss off/oppress someone?” Never once in my life has it ever crossed my mind that I am going to be shot and killed by police while living my every day life. I don’t wake up in the morning or go to bed worried about what might happen if I get pulled over for speeding, or what might happen if my partner neglects to change a taillight and gets pulled over on the way to work at 4:30am, or if my sister might be walking down the street in Boston and might look a little “suspicious,” or if my Dad decides to have a bonfire in the backyard and the neighbors think it’s a problem. I never think about the result of my loved ones interacting with law enforcement being their sudden and tragic death. But people of color in America? They do have to worry about this. And the reason for this incredibly jarring disparity is white privilege.

And yet, against this stark reality check, I still struggle with questions about what to do and how to react to racism, oppression, and racial violence.  A lifetime of white privilege has made me feel that I’m almost always right, and if not, I gave it a darn good try and I should probably get a gold star for my efforts anyway, so it’s hard to admit that the root of the aforementioned struggle is the fear that I am going to potentially be utterly and completely wrong, shitty, and possibly racist in my thoughts and reactions. My friends, colleagues, and students of color are worried about getting killed and I’m worried about getting called out. The unjust absurdity of this is not lost on me, but that doesn’t change the fact that I need to deal with this to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. This week is hardly the first time that I’ve reckoned with this, and if I know anything about the pervasiveness of white privilege and white supremacy, I doubt it will be the last.

Fears of being “wrong,” of being rebuked, of being accidentally racist, of not recognizing white supremacist attitudes and behaviors, of not having something good to contribute to the conversation…these can often deter white folks from entering into conversation and action as we start to understand and realize the impact of racism. Privilege tends to protect us from those fears, instilling in us that we have a “right”to be in charge, to be expert, and to be given a high-five for our contributions. (Side note: white privilege also often intersects with various forms of identity oppression, so I have plenty of fears of being heard and respected as a woman, but that’s a different blog for a different day).

It’s uncomfortable to start to realize things, to start to wake up to the fact that you thought you had life figured out but oh my goodness, you had no idea. To think that you’ve got the rationale and the logic and the explanation, but there are people looking back at you like you are just absolutely not even in the ballpark of objective reality. To be called out for any number of things. It feels like shit. But I’m a firm believer that sometimes we need to get up close and personal with shit because our world is so horribly messed up. The systems in place are so unjust, violent, and pervasive. And if you’re privileged, most of the time you get to float around and above it all, relatively unscathed. In some ways, experiencing that horrible feeling is an invitation into understanding, and if you are starting to experience that, I invite you to lean into it. Lean into it with some degree of self-care, forgiveness, and support and connection with other anti-racist white folks. I invite you to consider asking yourself how you can show up and take risks, be uncomfortable, be wrong, make mistakes, apologize authentically, seek understanding, and don’t expect any reward to come your way. Consider how you can do that in the pursuit of an equal and just society in which all individuals and groups are able to freely and equally participate without fear of being shot in broad daylight at a traffic stop.





This is an angry feminist rant.

It has come to my attention that we are now in Women’s History Month. Oh, GOOD! This month, children shall learn about women. If you are counting, last month they learned about Black people. Across the nation, we will take opportunities to celebrate the accomplishments of women. To ask ourselves “How have women made history? How have women been important?”

And frankly, I’m a bit upset about it. I’m a bit upset that I went to the Library of Congress website, navigated to the Women’s History Month page, and was greeted with a slideshow featuring a grand total of 10 different women in American history. TEN. And one of them, by the way, was “archetype of Rosie the Riveter”. So nine women, and one symbolic representation of women. I’m not questioning that the folks down at the Library of Congress are aware that there have been more than a handful of great women in the history of our nation. But highlighting the same handful of “historical” women every once in a while (let’s say for one month out of each year) really does not do much of a service to recognizing the real, genuine experiences of women in our country.

The theme of Women’s History Month is “Women’s Education–Women’s Empowerment”. Which, of course, the Library of Congress dutifully introduces by pointing out that women have recently surpassed men in rates of college attendance, but you know, things weren’t always this way. Wait one second, it sort of seems like we are saying “Oh look isn’t it great, women are MORE educated now, so we don’t really have to worry about this anymore! It’s been FIXED. But we can look back, for old times’ sake”. This makes me cringe for a multitude of reasons.

Let’s talk about education, for starters. As of this year, women are enrolled at higher percentages than men in higher education at every level. For the record, the population of the U.S. is about 51.5% women, 48.5% men. The percentage of women who have earned at least a Bachelor’s degree is slightly higher than men–36.9% compared to 34.7%. But when you look to higher levels of education, things look a little bit different. Slightly less women (9%) than men (9.5%) have master’s degrees. But only .8% of women age 18 and over have a doctoral degree, compared to 1.5% of men. Comparatively, that means that of all people holding doctoral degrees in the U.S., 63.3% are men and only 36.7% are women (U.S. Census Bureau data, 2010). This speaks volumes for higher education, where women are significantly underrepresented in many disciplines. Virginia Valian explores this topic in depth if you want to look into it, but the reality is that women do not have equality in this area.

While we are on the topic of empowerment, let us turn to business and the Forbes Fortune 500 list. In 2011, the number of women on the list reached a record-high 18. That’s right, 18 out of 500 of the CEOs were women. That’s 3.6%. This record-breaking 3.6% made CNNMoney declare that “It has been a banner year for women in business” (see the article here). Are you kidding me? Why are our expectations so deliriously low? 51.5% of the PEOPLE in this country are women. Only 3.6% of the most powerful CEOs are women. One commenter on that article noted that when 250 of the Fortune 500 are women, it will be a banner day. I agree. Or perhaps when 258 of them are women, because that would reflect our population.

When you turn to the governance of our great nation, things aren’t looking too great for women, either. 16.8% of Congress is women (down 2 seats from the previous year). There are only 6 female state Governors. Out of 16 administrators in the President’s Cabinet, four are women (CNNMoney probably thinks that this is a real banner year for women in government at a whopping 25%). 3 out of the 9 Supreme Court Justices are women. And again, if you are keeping track, 0% of U.S. Presidents in the history of our nation have been women.

So here’s the truth: the “gender gap” has NOT been closed, as the Library of Congress might have you believe because more women are enrolled in higher education. For goodness sake, there are more of us to begin with. The institutions and systems of power in this country are still unquestionably controlled by men. So don’t show me a slideshow with black and white pictures of 10 women. Don’t pretend like things are fixed, that girls and women in America have all of the opportunities we could imagine, because things are not fixed, and we don’t. And the only direction pretending is going to take us is backwards.

I’m a confident, self-assured, ambitious young woman. I plan to have a PhD by the time I’m 40 and I will proudly join the ranks of the .8% of women in America who do. I have spent my entire life being called a perfectionist, bossy, controlling, cocky, overly opinionated, intimidating, and a bitch. The boys in grade school and middle school didn’t like me because I was taller than them, got better grades, and spoke my mind. In college and high school, my female friends would often confess to me that they found me “intimidating” or “too strong” until they got to know me and decided that I was a great friend and role model. I’m incredibly grateful to my parents for raising me and my sister to be women who know that we can do whatever we want, who told us as children that we were great, that we were not just beautiful but strong, independent, intelligent, and impressive.

I do not think that I am the norm. I do not pretend that I am a shining symbol of the experience of all women in the U.S. Which is why I have no intention of celebrating Women’s History Month by pointing to the women who have been exceptions and saying “Look what she did, wasn’t she great?”. I intend to celebrate EVERY month, and every day, by looking at women and girls, and pointing to THEM, and saying “Look at you. You ARE great.” So yes, we do need to educate and empower women. But if we say that’s what we are going to do, let’s also educate ourselves and everyone else about how things actually are. Let’s stop pretending. And let’s start doing something a little bit better than looking at grainy old pictures. Let’s look at the living, breathing, 51.5% of the United States who are, who will be, and who can be great.