The Role of the State

When working for Legal Momentum this summer, I had it drilled into my brain that fostering social change through the implementation of new policies was the chosen method because of the universality of laws and the respect they command. I didn’t ask myself until recently how things like implicit bias—something I also learned about through my internship—created “unintended consequences” based on years upon years of socially ingrained opinions that were often formed as a result of policies—like the Jim Crow Laws.

One of the major critiques against VAWA is the part it plays in a much larger crime bill that unfairly targets racial minorities and places too much emphasis on the role of the state. Despite the fact that moving onto “state terrain” often paves the way for getting more resources and funding, it often ties the influence and direction of bills to “traditional moral values” or the “patriarchal structure of society” promoted by the state. As evidenced in Bumiller’s book In An Abusive State, the battered women’s movement core philosophy was anti-state—“part of the core beliefs of the grassroots movement was that the shelter was both a physical and symbolic boundary between women’s space and the violence of the male world.” Another critique is that VAWA is “a limited remedy that fails to protect women or to discharge the United States’ obligations under international law,” due to its non specific language, lack of funding, and inadequate protection for victims of domestic violence. Because of the aforementioned critiques of VAWA, would it make sense to refocus the direction of the Violence Against Women movement, away from the criminal justice system and towards policies that favor community-based responses and dispute resolution? More importantly, is it even possible for this to happen?

I don’t claim to be an expert on the violence against women movement, I’ve never proposed a policy nor do I even know how to go about making that happen, but I have a grasp on what works and what doesn’t. Economic power is social power. Putting less emphasis on what happens to perpetrators and more emphasis on rebuilding the lives of their victims is what will create empowered women instead of perpetuating the creation of the broken family. People underestimate how powerful communities really are—in advancing movements, pushing activism, but most importantly, in helping their own members. If the Violence Against Women movement is to get past the restrictions of bureaucratic red tape and truly help women, perhaps they should look to the individual communities to foster these principles.

Get Right or Get Left: Identity Politics in Activism

The most complicated aspect of articulating the frameworks and functions of race, gender, class, and sexuality in society, in my humble opinion, is that these categories can never stand alone, even as we analyze them. That is, Western notions of identity are not only gendered, or only racialized, but are rather, the constant intersections of these (and more) categories.  I can never be, as some feminists seem to want to imagine, just a man. Nor can I ever be just black, or just heterosexual.  In any given sphere of life, public or private, I am necessarily required to navigate several of these parts of me at once.

So when our class is brainstorming ideas for our final project that involves some form of feminist centered activism on campus and the issues of lighting on Central Campus is raised, I find myself in a bit of an academic quandary.  I personally think Central Campus, as well as East, and West could be better lit, and I’ve never been a fan of light that isn’t white.  I understand that safety is much more of a concern for any given woman on campus than it is for myself, and I realize that better lighting means much more to those same women than it will to men.  However, when I think back on the entire scope of emails from Larry Moneta involving violent crime, robbery, assault and the like, I am hard pressed to think of a particular incident that took place on or in immediate proximity to Central Campus.  I am by no means chronicling the locations and type of crimes we receive Duke Alerts about, but I would say, with a fair amount of certainty, that most of these reports of crime are on or around East Campus.  So when I ask another friend who is not the class, and who is not white (all of my classmates are), what one thing she felt needed to change the most on campus in regards to gender inequality, and she repeats this Central Campus lighting concern, I don’t quite know where to go.  As I’ve said, the lighting could be better. At the same time, who are we keeping away with these lights? Does the fact that central is perceived to be “in the middle of Durham” and thus the most accessible to Durhamites (who we at Duke collectively imagine as lower class blacks and Hispanics to be avoided, especially at night, at best) have something to do with this?  So while I recognize my male privilege that provides the very basis for my critique of this concern, I also know that the white supremacist state (or institution, in this case, Duke) has an agenda of promoting this idea that blackness is equal to criminality, that nowhere is safe without police power or without surveillance because minority men are predestined criminals.

Now what I have previously described as an academic quandary would be just that, save the fact that we have to actually produce a product. So as we move forward it may be best described as an activist quandary.  Do I act in the best interest of women while risking the promotion of a framework that has been a massive, destructive force in my own life and that I abhor to no end, or do I call into question the thinking of the women and reproduce the sexist space of invalidating a woman’s experience precisely because she is a woman?  Maybe a bit of both?  And in that case, have I sold out everyone involved, myself included?


Angry Women: Harnessing & Hurting Revolution

Def Jam recording artists and pop star, Ne-Yo, (Shaffer Smith) released a song about four or five years ago entitled “When You’re Mad.”  The song is a catchy ballad-esque track about the singer’s arousal whenever his female partner gets angry, and how any expression of her outrage is essentially a plea for sex as far as he is concerned. As I read this week’s pieces on Nikki Craft and revolution at the hands of angry women, I began to examine my own notions and feelings about angry women at the individual and collective level.

The answer I came to, of course, was informed by gender privilege and patriarchal foundations that even as I am aware of, (in some small way) I cannot fully purge myself of.  To begin with, I certainly take a woman’s anger just as “seriously” as I would that of a man on a personal level, but I acknowledge that this does not mean I treat them the same way. I can’t imagine that many men do.  An angry woman, though in many ways equally capable of causing me harm (physical, political, social) does not occupy the same space in my imagination as that of an angry man, regardless of race or class, though I would not say the two are not factors at all.

Now there are certainly women out there who could physically harm me, however, I have not been socialized to imagine the anger of a woman as something to be feared and therefore respected in the same way as that of a man.

So when I really analyze how I react to an individual angry woman, I am, quite frankly, shocked at how closely my way of thinking aligns with Neyo’s.

Moreover, as this extends to a collective level, I am still, as a man, not convinced that my reaction to women’s collective anger is the most productive or empowering one.  Throughout my summer with Hollaback! and the Moxie Project (both of which were woman-centered spaces for lack of a better term) I have always treated the anger of women collectively as something to be respectfully validated (which is also problematic) but always distinctly different from my anger, or outside of the space accessible to me as a black man.  That is, while I can understand and even articulate (to some meager extent) the collective anger of women in a patriarchal state, I have never been angry with them.  Specifically, I can agree with Nikki Craft destroying the work that she felt perpetuated violence against women in art and society at larger, but I have yet to reach the place where I am ready to go with the Nikki Crafts of my time and place and risk expulsion.  So when I allege that angry feminists often want gender reform with no attention to the role of race or class in society, I am frequently correct, but what is my motive for that critiqueIs it because their collective anger, at its core, unsettles me with the possibility of a world where I will have to revere and fear a woman’s anger the same way I do a man’s because the two are equal, perhaps indistinguishable?  How much of my objection then can be attributed to the logic of self-preservation, to perpetuating the patriarchal state that has privileged me when it comes to facing a woman’s, as well as women’s anger? When does complicity become active repression in and of itself? These are the questions that the reading sparked for me, and I definitely think that they are one’s any man who claims he is interested in gender equality or equity should be asking himself and the men around him.


The Ugly Truth

If you could receive a pay raise worth hundreds of thousands of dollars by declaring yourself “ugly,” would you do it?

Some people would. Maybe they should; that is, maybe their looks really are costing them job opportunities, promotions, sales, trials, or a better deal on their mortgage (see this New York Times op-ed to read more). Studies over the past twenty years demonstrate that the attractively challenged have a valid argument.

Daniel S. Hamermesh is a professor of economics at the University of Texas, Austin and author of “Beauty Pays.” He suggests this form of prejudice deserves compensation like any other “disability.” But why is monetary compensation our reaction to hearing this information? We’re told that “ugly” people are being disadvantaged solely due to their lack of attractiveness, and our response is to say “we’re sorry, how much can we pay you to make up for it?”

We seem to have very little faith in ourselves. We’re better than this. Monetary compensation shows that we don’t think this behavior can be changed. And by behavior, I mean that of the prejudicial perpetrators of “ugly.” bias– which, according to these studies, is everyone (whether we realize it or not). Compensating attraction bias would normalize the behavior that we should be attempting to eradicate. The focus should be on acknowledging and confronting this bias, rather than ignoring it or accepting it by trying to pay it off. Kenan’s Ruth W. Grant communicates the effects of incentives and their ethical implications in her book Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives.

The strategy of compensating for bad behavior happens more often than not. Rather than fix the system, we go the easy route and try alleviating the symptoms of the systemic flaw.  Over the summer, I worked at a nonprofit that deals with gender bias and sexual assault. What I learned is that we tend to put all of our attention on the victim: how did they end up in this situation? But what we should really be focusing on is the root of sexual violence itself. Only when we address gender norms and their implications will we begin to see significant and sustaining change.

While bias in the workplace may seem trivial when compared to rape, similarities can be found when we look at how we approach these two issues. We need to stop excusing the behavior by attempting to lighten the burden of the victim, and instead work on addressing why these prejudices (physical appearance and sexism, respectively) exist in the first place. I refuse to dismiss the behavior by accepting that our biological make-up is inherently prejudiced. We are not animals. That would be no different than blaming the rape victim for showing too much cleavage and then claiming she was asking for it because men simply “can’t help themselves.” As humans, our behavior is not purely instinctual.

There’s no easy answer to combatting this prejudice, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Let’s set the bar higher, and start asking more of ourselves as a society.

A Review of “One Day, All Children”

Before I sound like I completely condemn Wendy Kopp and all that she’s done in the field of education, I want to stress that I think Kopp has a very noble goal and (most of) her ideas were really inspring and resourceful in connecting an answer to a need. My biggest issue with “One Day, All Children” was the book itself—I had trouble moving past was the fact that I couldn’t tell what the purpose of this book was. I vacillated from, on one hand, thinking it’s an autobiography of Wendy’s experience with Teach for America, and on the other hand thinking it’s a book she wrote as a guide to inspire and mobilize young people around new ideas they have. Those were the two main goals I came up with when trying to understand the goal of the book, and maybe Kopp was trying to do both, but I have to say, unfortunately I don’t think Wendy achieved either objective.

“One Day, All Children” did not feel like an autobiography to me. While reading the book, I was often really frustrated with the lack of personal reflection Wendy included. For example, I was in awe of how, even as a recent graduate, she was somehow able to hold her own in meetings with top executives of Fortune 500 companies and senior people in the foundation world. She acknowledges her amazement at how these meetings came together, but she doesn’t reflect very much on how she gained the skills and confidence to lead a meeting with professionals, make a pitch about her organization, and firmly convince people to support her. For example, at one point Wendy recounts how she didn’t plan to leave a certain CEO’s office until he agreed to give some money to Teach for America, all with a pretty “matter-of-fact” tone like it was the most natural thing to do.

I was left wondering how on earth she gained the skills and the confidence to do all of this work with seasoned experts in various fields. It isn’t until roughly midway through the book that Wendy mentions that she is naturally an introvert, and that she had to learn people skills and conversation skills from one of her co-workers at Teach for America. This was a point that I was personally interested in because I consider myself an introvert in some situations. However, instead of thinking deeply about how she worked on this personal trait, she simply says that watching the coworker helped her get over her introversion. I can’t imagine overcoming that characteristic was that easy, and she doesn’t go into detail about how she learned to not only to feel comfortable simply conversing with others, but also feel confident making “asks” and inspiring confidence in adults. Kopp does little deep reflection about other issues that one would think were important to her, such as how TFA became increasingly professionalized and how she dealt with the fact that there was such little diversity early on in the organization. Reading about her honest personal experience with each of these issues would have made the book that much more meaningful.

While Kopp’s book fell short of truly showcasing her personal story, unfortunately I think she was similarly unsuccessful in providing a roadmap of how organizations form and how any young activist can follow her example. Wendy’s book highlights the nearly inhuman amount of work it took to build TFA, and she also stresses the fact that much of TFA’s success is due to a lot of luck. It is important to acknowledge the role good fortune has, but if Wendy’s goal is to inspire others to believe that they can act on their ideas too, her method of framing TFA in this book might not be the best way. I don’t mean to diminish the huge amount of work that many people did to make TFA what it is, but the ultimate takeaway I had from the book is that things often miraculously work out and funding will somehow come through at the last minute. While I’m happy that TFA had such good fortune, I am not convinced that that can happen for everyone.

If a reader is trying to get a sense of how organizations are started and what stages of growth they go through, they wont find that information in this book because Wendy doesn’t deeply address many of the nuts and bolts issues. For example, Kopp glosses over the fact that TFA’s pay structure changed from being egalitarian to more hierarchical. She simply says that it was a consultant’s suggestions, and doesn’t deal with the internal struggle she must have had when giving up this idealistic structure to be more professionalized and mainstream.

“One Day, All Children” was certainly a fascinating read, and I was on the edge of my seat at some points, wondering along with Wendy if their funding would come through from week to week. However, if I were trying to learn more about Wendy as a person or about her organization’s growth and structure, I would be somewhat disappointed on both accounts, for Wendy does not discuss many of the personal and professional obstacles she faced in enough depth.


Risky Business

I don’t like drawing attention to myself. Nor do I like doing things that force me to step outside my comfort zone. Throughout my time at Duke, and especially during this past summer in New York, I’ve learned that to grow and to change requires making sometimes uncomfortable decisions when confronted with challenging situations. The Moxie project has given me the chance to think a lot about social change movements both from the past and in the present. Prior to this year, I read and learned about protests and other radical forms of activism that led to triumphs in areas such as civil rights and women’s rights movements. Looking backward makes these strategies seem so obvious and simple, perhaps because I knew the outcome, but they were stories that I felt disconnected from. Making social change seemed to require the presence of a certain kind of person who has a strong, radical personality. Or so I thought.

But, maybe not. It wasn’t until a class period a couple weeks ago that I began to see how being an activist in promoting social change wasn’t such a far reach for me. I read articles on Nikki Craft, a woman who took radical action, including vandalizing photographs that depicted women negatively and destroying copies of Hustler magazines that also depicted women in an oppressive nature. While Craft destroyed private property, she brought attention to an issue she felt needed addressing: how society devalues women. If the intention of the action is to benefit a larger community—in this case women—is it okay to undertake that action, despite illegality? After all it is our society who creates the laws that we abide by, so if a law is discriminating against a portion of the population the law is supposed to protect, why shouldn’t we change it?

Thinking about Craft’s decision in this way rationalized how extralegal tactics may be okay in some circumstances. Raising awareness is an important factor in changing a cultural norm and individuals certainly listen when the legal system is involved. But what role could I play in addressing issues that are important to me? What strategies could I use? I’m certainly not as bold as Nikki Craft. I prefer to do what’s most comfortable. But for an issue that I’m passionate about, how far would I be willing to go to meet my social change goals?

I’ve been thinking more about this question as my class has been thinking about our final project. The project’s aim is to identify an issue on campus in need of address and develop an intervention to raise awareness and/or change the way our campus culture perceives the issue. Not that my class is considering extralegal tactics to address issues, but there is still a certain amount of social risk that remains when challenging the status quo that most people are willing to accept. Am I willing to take actions that may isolate myself from my friends or even anger my peers? Asking people to reform views they have come to accept as the norm is difficult and many may not be willing to do so. Then again, it’s possible that other students are also angered by the same issues that I am. In either case, I feel many social change movements, or at least social change conversations, begin this way: with an idea, passion, and courage to undertake action that may carry heavy legal or social risks. There comes a point when making individual sacrifices are necessary to produce long-term, wide-scale benefits for the community. In these cases, assuming those risks just may be worth it.