Not in Our Name: Sacrifice and Social Justice

“We do what we can.” This quote was taken from the film our class viewed last week, Operation Lysistrata, and was given in the context of an Arabic Proverb that meant to convey a sense of realism and pragmatism around our efforts to fight for change.  Sounds simple enough right?

Well as I began to think further about Operation Lysistrata, a tremendous world-wide protest of the reckless manner in which George Bush plunged the country into a senseless war with Iraq, I began to really scrutinize this phrase.  To be sure, the thousands, maybe millions of people involved in and touched by Operation Lyistrata were not capable of strolling into the Oval Office and demanding that George Bush call off the dogs of war.  The protest, a performance of the humorous anti-war play, Lysistrata, definitely required long hours of toil and an unspeakable effort for coordination.  One gentleman in the film remarked that the demonstration was a way of saying, “If you do this, it is not in our name,” to the American government and to the world.  I wholeheartedly agree here.  But I cannot readily accept the idea that any protest movement is the best protest movement, that every act of resistance chosen was the only act available.   I have to wonder whether or not “we do what we can” is another way of saying “We do what we want. What is comfortable, what is safe, what will ease our consciences.”

Now in no way do I mean to suggest that the motives of these individuals are somehow questionable, that is beyond me, or anyone for that matter. But what I am saying is that we must be accountable for the manner in which we declare that an evil is not done in our name.  Fighting oppression and injustice will never be as easy or enjoyable as we might like it to be.  Sacrifice is inseparable from resistance. And on a world stage where millions of innocent Iraqi men, women, and children were murdered, and where thousands of American soldiers’ lives were taken we must examine our sacrifices and how they measure up.  An anti-war protest is not successful simply because it prevents war, but throwing a rock at a brick wall does nothing to bring that wall down.

Finally, as I examine our course of action for our final project of the class, these same questions linger.  Of course I can always revert back to the rhetoric of “many ripples start with one small stone” or “we can only do so much,” both of which are very true, but I just wonder, is it because we only want to do so much?

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.


An Inescapable Network of Mutuality

Alex interned at Hollaback this summer.

The Department of Health and Human Services recently required all new health insurance plans to cover birth control for women. Annual exams, breastfeeding tools, and a host of other services were a part of the new requirements as well; and all without co-pays, co-insurance, or a deductible.  Not too long ago I would have told you that the Affordable Care Act was definitely a victory for women, and it certainly is.  At the same time, however, making healthcare (including contraceptives) accessible to women regardless of their income level is a victory for a larger group; anyone who believes that healthcare should be affordable and available regardless of gender, race, religion, etc.  Now I don’t mean to take anything away from those who were in the trenches and on the ground pushing for this reform.  My point, rather, is that we are all connected, caught in what Dr. King called “an inescapable network of mutuality.” This is also to say, the systems and institutions that oppress us are all connected.  Now I’ve “known” this for quite some time, but this summer has really forced me to come to terms with this reality in a way that, quite frankly, makes me uncomfortable.

Working for Hollaback! this summer I got to see this inter-connectedness I’m referring to play out first hand.  We, as Westerners, have this idea of public space and that it belongs, well, to the public.  The reality is that some people in society have more access and more power in certain “public” spaces than others. Some people have no claim to “public” space at all.  For instance, when a man wolf-whistles or yells an obscenity at a woman in public he is exerting his power over her.  Compile all the times any given woman has been harassed in a public space and what you begin to see is that whether on the train or walking down the street, women do not “own” public space the same way men do. That is, women cannot exert the power, whether that pertains to sexual harassment or just physical intimidation, that men can.  This holds across other power dynamics as well.

My heart would race every time I walked by what I deemed to be an armed officer in the city this summer.  Whether he or she was on the S.W.A.T Team, a member of the NYPD, or just a security guard with a gun, I would literally watch myself being riddled with bullets at the drop of a dime every time this happened.  Now you might suggest this is just a familiarity issue, and that my comparison is invalid. Well, true, its not everyday in North Carolina that I see a cluster of assault rifles being fingered around children in a park. (That’s a calamity of its own on behalf of NYC but I digress).  The fact is, however, the police have more power in a public space than I do.  Now you’re thinking, “Of course. They should. They protect us.”  Well I won’t debate that, nor can you debate that ultimately the way the police maintain order, with the threat of violence (a result of their power), is the same idea behind a man assaulting a woman in public space, our patriarchal society has given him that power.  In the case of the police, they aren’t purposefully intimidating me right? The point is, they don’t have to, that’s the power differential that I’m getting at. If I walked by a lone woman on a street anywhere at night she would not be wrong for feeling uncomfortable would she?  No.  There is already a difference in power that has made her uncomfortable about that situation before she ever even sees me.

My point is, and forgive me because it has taken me a while to get here, that the catcalling man on the street or the creepy guy leering at teenagers in a restaurant are directly tied to being stopped for driving while black or being called “boy” by an old white woman. It all comes back to power. And the identity of “woman” is just one that is used to confine, restrict, and deprive people of power. No, being poor, or being black, or being gay, or a woman, are NOT all the same experience. Not at all. But they are all the result of marginalization, of dehumanizing done by one group to attain power over another.

Now if you understand but disagree with my point, well, you have just helped me make it.  The next most important thing this summer taught me is that power is interested in the fragmentation of the oppressed. Those in power do not want the white feminist with a J.D. from Columbia living on the Upper East Side to see what she has in common with the black teenager from Brownsville carrying a gun to school because he heard someone wants to fight him.  And if my examples sound absurd, it is in fact because those in power are winning! They have disconnected and therefore disempowered us.  Even as I look at feminism, I see that so many staunch feminists fail to realize that we are ALL caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.

The significance of all this you ask?  Well, for me personally coming to terms with this sort academic or intellectual understanding of how our world works brings up a lot of questions.  Is oppression is simply embedded in our DNA? Equality is always on our lips but is it really in our hearts? Founded in pools of blood and on the bedrock of so much injustice, can America ever really be anything more than that? Will we ever begin to move forward for justice as a whole rather than just separate factions pushing each other down to get to the top? And my honest answer to these and similar questions is “No.”   But it doesn’t stop there for me.  What, then, does it mean for anyone involved in “social just work” that we really have no idea of what we claim to be working toward looks like?

In closing, I don’t think we can only be committed to fighting for change if we are promised it will come.  There is a quote, by who I forget, but it reads, “We don’t hope because things will get better, we hope because we know that they will not.” King himself mentioned “hewing a stone of hope from a mountain of despair.” I think this summer has helped me size up that mountain and see just how big it is. Now, I imagine, I can get to the task of hewing that stone.

Lingering Eyes: My New Take On “Partnership” After Duke Engage

Alex Alston has been interning at, a movement to end street harrassment.

At the time I thought the Duke Engage Academy was one of the most redundant environments I have been in since I left public school in eastern North Carolina. I distinctly remember back in early May, as the conversation began to turn toward “help” vs “partnership” and the nuances around community service, much of this was new to many students.  I was certainly surprised, and rather than take the more productive approach of working to see these concepts from a new angle, I was content with mentally ridiculing those who had yet to make a distinction between them at all.    Many of my peers had never considered the negative impacts of community service or even thought about that service in larger global and historical contexts. Looking on as some of them considered for the first time that there were people out there who, in fact, did not want their “help,” was slightly entertaining (in a cynical way) but mostly disheartening.  I did a lot of head shaking during those discussions, “How do people not know this?” I asked myself.  I clearly had a thing or two to learn about introspection.

Fast forward 2 short months, and here I am grappling with much more developed, much more dynamic definitions of “community service” and “partnership.”  My question has now become, “How did I ever think I really understood this?”  This summer has really given me the chance to be an intricate piece (my organization is staffed by 3 people including myself) of a partnership, and to be involved in serving the community.  But I will never again be able to think about those terms without a host of questions like, “What community am I actually serving?”, “Is this a community that wants my services?” , “What am I willing to sacrifice for the success of a partnership?” and perhaps most importantly, “What privileges of my own am I jeopardizing by rallying to the causes of other marginalized groups?” In other words, the concepts of community service and partnerships are now much more complex than they ever were to me.

If the questions that I mentioned above are a little abstract to some or maybe even slightly “meta” to others, allow me to be a bit more concrete.  Before this summer I certainly would not have considered it problematic to let my eyes linger on a passing woman that I thought was attractive, whether that be in the city or at Duke.  Of course, staring is rude, and gawking is creepy, but lingering eyes, especially in the case of a well-dressed or beautiful woman, was not a problem. This would have been the extent of my thought process in May.  But now, having worked as a partner with Hollaback! in the fight against sexual harassment in public space, I’ve really had to call into question that way of thinking.  I’ve been forced to consider whether or not the way I look at any given woman that catches my eye is intimidating or simply unnecessary.  What does it mean that I feel inclined to hand out my approval of a woman, even in a way as subtle as looking at her for a split second longer than I would anyone else?  The point is not the physical act of looking. The point is my mentality, my way of thinking that says, “You should definitely let her know she’s attractive by making eye contact, or fixing your eyes.”  The fact is, validation is not something most people look for from strangers on the train. The warped sense of reality that says it is in a case like this, is undeniably a product of my male privilege.  Now, I’m not asking you to pity me for my terrible dilemma of having to try and not stare at all the beautiful women in New York, but I am saying that working as a partner, rather than just a volunteer or intern, with Hollaback! has pushed me to think about what it means for my own privileges to help others who are fighting for equality, legitimacy, or power.

Ultimately, I think my attitude toward community service and partnerships, particularly regarding social change, will definitely change in the future.  In many ways I have learned that it is important for me to be very aware of what I need to be willing to surrender if my goal is to help someone else achieve something.  Generally speaking, in order for all of us to be on the same plane, many of us need to be brought up, but others need to be brought down.  At the same time, I don’t anticipate this will turn me away from advocating for social change or doing community service. I imagine, rather, that I can march forward, more conscious of the sacrifices that have to be made, the privileges that must ultimately be surrendered, and better equipped to do the work of movement building.

The Blind Leading the Blind

Alex is working this summer at Hollaback.  By collecting women and LGBTQ folks’ stories and pictures in a safe and share-able way with its mobile phone applications, Hollaback! is creating a crowd-sourced initiative to end street harassment.

This week we asked students to reflect on their own “gender socialization” growing up; how did they learn what it meant to be a girl or a boy?  And how did that connect to the ideas they read about in Jessica Taft’s book Rebel Girls: Youth Activism and Social Change Across the Americas.  Taft argues that while many programs focus on girls’ “empowerment,” which she suggests mostly prepares them to fit in to the way the world is today, she supports a focus on girls’ “activism,” which helps them find ways to make a real difference in the world.

One distinct memory I have of my father during my childhood was his constant desire to berate me with what it meant to be a “man.” Usually he was using it to accuse me of not being responsible, or timely, or focused, or honest or anything that he wanted me to be, that, of course, didn’t really have anything to do with being a man.  There are plenty of irresponsible, impolite, dishonest, and simply unpleasant men in the world; it seems most of them have been elected to our federal government but I digress.  “When you become a man, you’ll understand.” If he only knew.

I’ve always thought of socialization around gender to be very implicit, but the fact is, it wasn’t.  It was rarely audibly articulated, but it was, on the other hand, quite explicit.  In my case, much of what I learned about gender roles growing up was a product of my parents’ attempts to bring my siblings and me up in the Christian faith. I can definitely see, now, that implicit in their moral and religious agendas were very defined and limited gender roles.  My mother was never loud, rarely argued with my father or even disagreed, always cooked and cleaned the house, did most of the childcare, and later on dealt with most of our issues surrounding school.  My father on the other hand, always gave his critiques of dinner though he never made any effort to make it himself, ordered my siblings and me around as far as yard and school work, taught us to read and write and play instruments, while always managing to keep us fearfully obedient with his booming voice among other things.  All in all, I might as well had been sent to a deep south “gender school.” The interactions between my parents, much more so than anything they ever said to me, were responsible for socialization around gender.

As it pertains to the empowerement vs activism debate, the ideas I got about what a woman should be from my parents were strictly limited to the empowerment model.  A woman should be confident, articulate, intelligent, and so on.  If, for some reason, she could not succeed at something in life, it was because she was not doing something right.  Activism, on the other hand, was beyond the scope of proper for a woman.  After all, if there were no institutional inequalities, then there was no cause to be an activist about.  I’m still curious to this day if either of my parents is even aware of the advantages/disadvantages their respective genders have faced them with in life.  And considering that fact, I can’t really blame them for giving me a dynamic view of gender roles in society that they didn’t even have themselves.

By the grace of God, (oh the irony) and perhaps because of my natural hostility to authority, I never really took well to a lot of the things my parents told me, including the way my father and my mother proceeded to socialize me around gender.  In some ways, where I am today is because much of it has backfired. This story probably sums it up well; on one occasion I recall my father discussing with me how Adam and Eve were once only Adam, neither male nor female having the control over the other.  “In a perfect world man was not over woman,” he earnestly explained, “they were equals.”  But of course we all know what happened when Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and quite predictably, my dad never seemed too upset about that.

This Is What A Feminist Looks Like(?)

Alex is a rising Senior working at Hollaback, which is dedicated to ending street harassment using mobile technology.

My “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” pin that I keep on my book bag has definitely gotten me some attention around Duke’s campus since I put it on last fall.  From everything to, “Wow, I love that pin!” to “So you would consider yourself a feminist?… That’s interesting.”  Either way, I was never really concerned about people’s perceptions of me if I identified openly with feminism.  After all, I was not shy about institutional racism and inequality, or poverty, and there was no way I could separate these issues from those that feminism dealt with.  For quite some time now, I have been convinced, and unshakably so, that I was, in fact, what a feminist looked like, or at least could like.

Perhaps I should backtrack.  No, I definitely should backtrack.  The 21-year old self-identified feminist from rural North Carolina attending Duke University is no way to begin telling any story.  In my first two years at Duke I thought of myself as a very “race-conscious” person, someone who was not afraid to articulate what I felt were the undeniable and ever present systems of inequality still at work in America. But my scope, in retrospect, was dangerously narrow.   As I think college is supposed to do, Duke provided me with exposure to people and ways of thinking that I would have never come across in Wilson, North Carolina.   Slowly, I began to understand the inter-connectedness of racism, classism, sexism, and able-ism, from an academic standpoint.

Fast forward to this past spring semester, and my amazing course with Robyn Wiegman “Thinking Gender.”  This was perhaps the most influential class I’ve taken during my time at Duke, and it really transformed my approach to understanding systems of oppression and the histories foregrounding the institutions that make up these systems.  From Judith Butler and Bell Hooks to Marx and Foucault, I really felt like I was on to something, I really identified with what I came to understand to be the feminist approach to the world.  Very quickly I came to consider myself to be a feminist, and had no second thoughts about it.  Of course, not everyone, especially men and minorities, saw what I saw in feminism; a link to new ways of thinking, new ways of creating and articulating truth, that possessed, at their core, the ability to speak to and about this world the heterosexual, middle class, white man has constructed for us here in the West.  I took the criticisms of my position in stride, after all I could understand how the socialization of these groups could lead them to approach feminism the way they did.

Now the ground has begun to shake.

I have long been aware of the critique that feminism has become a white woman’s movement, but I’m convinced my own privilege has helped me approach that fact as one that could possibly change.  However, as I look around at the leaders of the organizations Moxie is working with, the beneficiaries of the work these organizations are doing, the ways of thinking that led to their existence, and even the very demographics of the Moxies, it has become very apparent to me, with an unnerving quickness, that I am in fact, possibly not what a feminist looks like.   This is definitely not the end of the story, but I can’t say I know where it goes from here.  In the coming weeks and months I really will be considering what the price of my pin’s message is.  What does it mean for feminism to have physicality, for feminism to be embodied?  How can identity politics be quarantined from and re-employed against, especially here in the US, the discriminatory institutions that have lived on them for centuries?