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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, and the Absence of Memory

There has been a resurgence of news items recalling numerous rape allegations made against entertainer Bill Cosby over the course of several years. One article in the New Republic  queried how “such incendiary material” could be “both public and simultaneously hidden from view” and suggests that the rape allegations against Cosby create dissonance with many people’s desire to believe that racial and sexual inequality are problems of the past.

The allegations regarding Bill Cosby have proved very timely for recent discussions in my Race and Law class, as we just completed a unit on the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and the allegations of Anita Hill. I was somewhat surprised that some students had apparently never heard of the sexual harassment allegations against Justice Thomas. 

I was completely flabbergasted, however, at the fact that some students, including some women, thought that even if Justice Thomas had done and said the things that were alleged, they did not constitute sexual harassment and/or did not have anything to do with his fitness to serve on our highest court. Some women opined that this was "just how some men are" in the workplace, and women needed to deal with it or get out. 

I don't think that this bodes well for us as a society. And not because I consider the students’ comments blameworthy. I myself have been in situations involving sexual harassment of epic proportions, and my thoughts ran much the same way at the time.  For instance, at my law firm summer job following my first year in law school, I was treated to remarks so vile and behaviors so obscene that I have never fully recounted them to anyone. When it became clear that this kind of behavior was pervasive in the firm, I agonized about what to do. Should I tell someone? Tell who, I thought.  Some of the name partners were the worst offenders.  Should I quit? I dismissed that possibility immediately.  Though I had very good credentials, finding a firm job after first year summer had been like grabbing the brass ring, especially when so many of my classmates of color had not gotten such a job.

In addition, I did not wish to quit or address the harassment head-on because the money at my job was very, very good.  It was more than I had earned in my life up to that point.  It was more than my parents earned. And, as a poor kid, I needed that money.  I more than needed that money. I wanted that money and the things that it could buy. There are pictures of me from that period of my life wearing one of my new Nordstroms business suits, standing next to my new car, holding my new briefcase, smiling broadly. It was a cynical inversion of a g-money cash fanning photo, except instead of selling drugs I was selling cool, college educated, black upwardly mobile yearnings.  Not unlike those shown on the Cosby Show, which, not coincidentally, was a staple of my law school viewing. So, I soldiered on in the malign conditions of sexual harassment at my job.  When, at the end of the summer, I was offered part-time work during the school year, I accepted it.  I reasoned that it made no sense to pass up such high wages. 

Finally, a few months afterward when I could take it no more, I walked purposefully into the hiring partner’s office and told him…that I needed to quit in order to insure that my grades remained high.  We looked each other in the eye, and I knew that he knew the real problem.  We shook hands warmly, and he gave me an excellent reference that sent me on the way to the rest of my career. Did I miss an opportunity to fight against women’s oppression? Maybe. Were the hiring partner and I complicit in maintaining the hideous atmosphere, with my excellent reference being the price of my silence (never mind that I had outworked every associate in the place)? Again, maybe. But more likely is the case that my relatively low status at the firm would have meant that my complaints would fall on deaf ears.  Also more likely is the case that I would have been blackballed from other employment in the immediate future.  So it went, and so it goes.

As I wrote in a piece in the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law and Justice reviewing a recent book by Anita Hill, Hill’s testimony at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings “both engendered and gendered a national conversation on sexual harassment in the  workplace and demonstrated how such harassment had the potential to oppress and demean even relatively privileged women.” However, that testimony, and its aftermath, quickly became a part of what film theorists call the “space-off”: spaces not visible within a camera’s frame that may only be inferred from represented (main frame) spaces in the center of the camera's eye. Space-off material is sometimes even erased or subsumed in the represented space by cinematic rules of narrative. And from the space-off of so many years ago, Hill’s testimony, much like the allegations of rape by Cosby’s accusers, has traveled even farther, seemingly falling into the void of absent memory.

The absence of memory regarding allegations against Justice Thomas and Bill Cosby, and the ways in which the allegations have been addressed when they are remembered, speaks to how much work still needs to be done to secure the rights of women in the workplace and elsewhere.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The So Diverse and the Faux Diverse: Child's Play in Black-White Relations

As the curtain opens on another school year and on the start of another course on race and law, I have pondered the mournful plethora of real life examples to present to students about the nature of race, racism and law.  We start the course by talking about how the black-white binary, the notion that issues of race in the United States are framed around a two-tiered hierarchy wherein blacks are diminished and whites are exalted, is still very much useful for understanding both historic and contemporary United States racism.  Yes, there are other people of color.  And of course their voices count.  But at the beginning and at the end of the day, some of the most pernicious, ongoing, and intractable race prejudice is that perpetrated against black people.

We need not look far for examples. There is, of course, the fatal shooting of an unarmed black youth named Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  There is also the choke hold death of an unarmed man named Eric Garner by a white police officer in Staten Island, New York, a choking that persisted even though Garner called out, “I can’t breathe.” A few weeks ago a Dearborn Heights, Michigan white homeowner was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to a minimum 17 years in prison for shooting in the face and killing Renisha McBride, a 19 year old black woman who knocked on the man’s door for help after an auto accident. The New Yorker magazine, in describing McBride’s death, related it to the shooting of Trayvon Martin by a white vigilante and recounted how McBride’s killing, even in all of its horror, was “a cliché with a casualty,” another all too commonplace killing of an unarmed black person by an armed white civilian or white police officer.

These are, of course, examples of some of the worse cases in black-white relations. Cases that involve racist practices but do not result in deaths would have to be, by necessity, classified as less bad. As we see situations such as the revelation that yet another NBA owner has engaged in racially “insensitive” comments about black people, we are left to feel grateful that nobody’s dead.  If an owner feels comfortable enough to write in an e-mail to numerous people that his “theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites,” or that he wants some white cheerleaders or that he “balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black,”  this is merely an example of his “subtle biases and preconceptions when it comes to race.”  I suppose anything less subtle would have to involve signs at the game saying “No blacks allowed.”

In the middle of all of this is the continuous insistence by some people that we are living in a “post-racial” climate where diversity is a given. But what goes under-discussed and un-discussed is the specious nature of these claims. Even in neighborhoods and institutions boasting racial diversity, there are often gaping divides. There is the careful, cool exclusion of non-white families from neighborhood events and activities (“Oh, you didn’t get the flyer for the block party? Maybe it blew away; it was so windy….”).  There are the school-within-a-school strategies that result in virtually all-white classrooms in overwhelmingly minority schools.   There are the stony silences when black people pass by on the street or arrive in all-white settings, the absent greetings not because of forgetting who you are but choosing not to demonstrate remembrance.  Sometimes it feels like child’s play, really.  In fact, my 12 year old recently laughingly observed that only one of her numerous white former classmates acknowledged knowing her after her recent few years’ absence.  That she laughs instead of cries about it instills a sad sense of pride in my wounded parent heart. She knows already to look beyond the game being played if she expects to be happy. But this bitter game is played by children and adults alike, this faux diversity.  It’s a game with sometimes fatal consequences.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

It is Michael You Mourn For (Or, the Man in the Mirror)

Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson on June 25, 2009.  I am republishing this blog article, originally published July 7, 2009,  to help commemorate the life and death of a great artist.

When I was in high school my English teacher Mr. Tattu made us do something that I hadn't done since third grade: memorize a poem. I was indignant. "Why should I have to do something so hopelessly old-fashioned?" I fumed. Still, being heavily vested in my identity as a Good Girl and a Good Student (at least at that point in my life), I did it. The poem was Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child". It goes:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! As the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

I have never forgotten this poem, especially since, as time has passed, I've come to truly understand its meaning. This is a poem about a child's innate understanding of her own mortality. Someday, sooner or later, we will all be gone. This poem kept playing in my head during the last few days as I reflected on the death of Michael Jackson. On the day that he died, I was traveling west to a conference and had been ensconced in a plane for several hours. I had passed the time doing something that I rarely do on such trips: conversing with the passengers next to me. It's not that I'm antisocial. It's just that, mostly, I've found that the average business traveler (and that's who I often run into on my itineraries) seems to have no interest in conversing with me. Maybe I don't seem…adequately business-like. Yes, we'll call it that. As I've remarked to some friends, there has been a remarkable upsurge in the desire of fellow business travelers to converse with me over the last year or so. When I think about it, it seems to coincide with Barack Obama getting the presidential nomination. Really. I think I have Barack (or maybe Michelle) to thank for making me more acceptable as a traveling companion. Anyway, as we touched down for the landing in Seattle my seat mate was showing me his Blackberry and its amazing bells and whistles. He turned it on as we reached the ground. I read the screen: "Michael Jackson dead". I frowned and started to tear up, catching my breath sharply. My seat mate, puzzled, looked at the screen to see what had caused my reaction. "Oh, is Jackson dead? Wow, that'll be a big deal for a while."

A big deal indeed. I saw my whole life, and especially my childhood, pass before my eyes. Suddenly I was back in primary school listening to a Jackson Five song for the first time—somebody had brought it in to play during free time, as we were permitted to do. The class froze. "Who is that?!!" we shouted. Even we little kids knew that we had just heard something special. It was as if the unbounded joy and unmet longing of childhood came together in a heartbeat. Very quickly, the Jackson 5 consumed our and the public imagination. Michael, especially. We dreamed of meeting him. All the more we dreamed of it because we were from Los Angeles. Star sightings were common enough. My mother once worked in an upscale department store where she waited on Diana Ross. We actually knew people who had met Michael Jackson. Michael sightings and interactions became the highest-valued social currency of our childhood. A girl across the street from me named Juliet got a puppy from Michael Jackson because her grandmother, a maid for a Really Famous Person, had met him. A girl from my neighborhood named Venus got to go on the Dating Game with him. Yes, we had only a few degrees of separation from Michael Jackson. He was, to us, like a much better off, distant relative. Maybe none of us could be him. But we could see him; he was always there, somewhere.

As we grew up he was still there, but somehow far larger than life by then. We read tabloids, we heard the stories. Michael was…different. Maybe. But Michael was ours. He was like a cousin that you used to hang out with but then there came a day that you really didn't hang anymore but you still loved and admired him because he was great. And he was…yours.

So, if it seems strange to people that I am mourning Michael Jackson the International Pop Star, so be it. That's only a small part of who he was.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

College Teaching While Black and Female: Sustaining the Culture of Open Minds and Open Hands

An article in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education discussed whether there is a propensity for black female professors to become “mean.” You can read the entire piece at A Black Female Professor Struggles With 'Going Mean'.

The author writes:

...we forget that minorities and women, especially minority women, are not granted authority even after earning a doctorate and being hired in a very competitive academic market. It is an uphill battle for authority; they must prove their merit. For women and minorities, it is a frustrating process, and feeling as if they don’t have the same status creates distance between them and their colleagues and their students. I believe that helps explain why some minority professors become so overwhelmed that they "go mean." They become cold and, dare I say it, angry.

I have been there, struggling with coldness and anger in the course of my professional life. I have, for the most part, managed to retain the grace and warmth of my true self. But it is not easy.

As I explain to people, college teaching while black and female is, for some of us, a little like constantly putting your hand out for a handshake and having it ignored or slapped (and I don't mean the slap of a high five, but rather something more violent. However, even getting a high five when you meant to solicit a traditional handshake can be an odd form of cultural violence when performed by non-black people on blacks) students and colleagues on numerous occasions. Thank heavens, it doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes you get a true handshake of fellowship when you extend your hand. But because of all those negative experiences, after a while, you are more inclined to either keep your hand to yourself or, even without your knowing it, your hand begins to form into a fist at every new interaction, as you anticipate what comes next. Hence, for many of us who have been in academia for a while, extending your open hand for a handshake sometimes takes an enormous amount of psychic and emotional energy. These are efforts that are often unacknowledged and uncredited.

I have found that there are more open hands and open hearts in places where there is open-minded inquiry and mutual respect for others. Of course, we cannot always know where these places are. And even when places start out that way, they can and do change.  Hence, the job for those of us who care about these issues is to put practices into place that create and sustain the culture of the open mind and the outstretched, open hand.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

#BringBackOurDaughters, #BringBackOurGirls

#BringBackOurDaughters, #BringBackOurGirls

The kidnapped girls of Chibok are on my mind.  On April 15, 2014, armed men kidnapped well over two hundred Nigerian schoolgirls (estimates range up 276) from their school.  The kidnapping occurred at the Government Girls Secondary School, in Chibok, Borno State, Nigeria. Chibok is a rural village in the northeastern portion of Nigeria near the borders of Chad and Cameroon. The kidnapped girls were in the midst of taking examinations. While some of the kidnapped girls have escaped, the majority of the girls remain either in the hands of the captors or in parts unknown.  As horrifying as the kidnappings are, perhaps more distressing is the fact that to date there is apparently no official, state-based or international effort to recover the girls.  Instead, parents and concerned citizens have formed groups to attempt the rescue of the girls.

#BringBackOurDaughters, #BringBackOurGirls

The kidnappings are a reminder that despite the freedoms that some women enjoy today, there is an ever-present fact that shadows the scene: women’s bodies are often the field on which political, social and legal battles are fought. These battles are seen in the continuing threat of sexual assault and gender-based violence; these battles are also seen in efforts to control reproductive freedom and access to education, and in proliferating pornographic norms that elide art, aesthetics, commerce and political speech and in the process demean and diminish women. While in some ways some women gain power, at the same time many women’s rights are reduced, and their voices are frequently silenced. Women too often find themselves not only muted but transmuted from members of the body politic to principal objects in the politics of the body.

#BringBackOurDaughters, #BringBackOurGirls

The politics of the body put the human body, and especially women’s bodies, at the center of political engagements and manipulations. The kidnapping of the girls of Chibok, in order, say some, to make then “wives,” not only terrorizes the girls and their families, but also serves as a means of relegating girls and women to civic outsiders, mere pawns in a cynical game of political brinksmanship. And the tepid response of the international community makes it difficult to distinguish condemnation from condonation.

#BringBackOurDaughters, #BringBackOurGirls

So please join me in moving this matter to the center of public consciousness. Don’t be saddened. Be outraged. Command, demand. Speak, write, march to bring our daughters, our girls, home.