I am woman…

The title of this article in the New York Times sparked a shudder of recognition in me: Backlash: Women Bullying Women at Work

A few years ago, when I was still a fresh-faced PhD, thrilled to have found a job that met all of my outlandish requirements, a female colleague announced to me that I was “male identified” because I got on better with my male co-workers than most of my female ones. It’s worth noting that “got on better with” meant I had virtually no problems being direct with them and didn’t get too worked up if they disagreed with me from time to time.

I should come clean from the start and say I’d not been one to call myself a “feminist” much before this moment because I don’t like labels, and it seemed that the women who attached the label “feminist” to themselves paid lip service to helping oppressed women when their real goal seemed to be developing a sophisticated language of victimization. They were also too obsessed with talking about their feelings at work. The concern seemed more about the right to be hairy than actual “sisterhood” and I’ve never had the impulse to sit topless in a circle and celebrate my breasts. Seriously.

I also noticed something really creepy in graduate school that I’ve since seen among many female PhDs: they are as mean and nasty and judgmental of one another as their unwashed (read: non-feminist) sisters, but their self-righteousness is naked and aggressive.

I’ve never fit in much with women, though, because I’m an emotional tomboy. This is not to suggest that I don’t have soft feelings and insecurities. It also does not mean that I am invulnerable. In fact, I’m rather weepy and fret about the things a lot of women (from the bold to the timid) think about during the course of the day. I am perfectly comfortable talking about my feelings and will vent with the best of them. The difference, I think, is that I’m lead more by my dreams and ambitions that my frets and my weepiness. So while I’m just as likely as the next woman to crawl under a blanket and feel like utter shit, I think I’m probably more likely than most of the women I’ve met to also feel like it’s up to me to crawl out from under the blanket. Yes, I will, eventually, recognize the patriarchal structure of said blanket, but then I will figure out how to work around it.

The first time I realized I wasn’t “normal,” I was too young and naïve to understand why this marked me as different. I was the youngest woman in an all female office, and I was hazed in ways that still give me chills: Information readily available to my colleagues was kept from me (like the home phone numbers of co-workers I was expected to collaborate with…as they worked at home); I was regularly chastised for not having the proper wardrobe (I got the job a few months out of college) and then ridiculed when I bought clothes for work (not because they were unprofessional but because I had gone to the “wrong” store); speaking up in meetings I was accountable for running was frowned upon and viewed as impertinent (even if most my comments were well received); taking the “listening” approach was a sign that I wasn’t assertive enough.

I, who had been a confident, happy young woman, developed ulcers, stopped sleeping, and started getting ragged around all my edges. I quit, went to grad school, and autonomy became my best friend. It was in grad school that I began to understand that what had happened at my first job was not so much about me but about how women treat one another, especially young, single women.

Among self-proclaimed feminist I saw backstabbing, pettiness, passive aggressiveness, and narcissism of the kind that makes me think we need to go back and re-write the legend that gives us that label. Male academics, I noticed, could be obnoxious too, but the competitiveness was right there on the surface and resentment was sparked by real rather than perceived unfairness. And it was about real stuff that could be measured—not about who was most popular but about who got published and where or won a spot in a prestigious seminar.

Now, I know that patriarchal systems reward male directness and punish female assertiveness, but what I found (and still find) abhorrent is that feminists who can describe this power structure wield it like a cudgel against women they don’t like, and the reasons they don’t like these women has little or nothing to do with the quality of their work and everything to do with whether or not these women have made the kind of choices that so-called feminists value.

“I am woman here my roar” has been replaced with “I am woman and your job as a woman is to validate every choice I’ve made by making the exact same choices that I’ve made so that I never have to question whether or not I made the right choice to begin with.”

I’m not so fresh-faced anymore, but after being hazed by yet another group of women, I made a few promises to myself:

  • I will be kind to younger colleagues and offer them information that is useful and then give them space to use that information as they see fit and not as I would like them to use it
  • I will never feel I have to be “friends” with everyone I collaborate with
  • I will not try to “nurture” everyone who crosses my path
  • I will seek professional validation from my work and personal validation in my personal life
  • I will always support a woman’s right to shoes* and not judge any woman for any of the shoe choices she makes
  • I will be compassionate, but I will not be an enabler
  • I will be less critical of Oprah
  • I will get angry and fight against the real source of trouble: patriarchal power systems

If that makes me “male-identified” so be it. I’d like to think it makes me a feminist.

*borrowed from an episode of “Sex and the City”

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Good Rule of Thumb #1

A few Saturdays ago, I got waylaid on a trip to Brooklyn by construction in New Jersey. It mucked things up forever and ever. In fact, even though I am no longer there am, in fact, in Louisiana enjoying Southern sunshine and my mother’s cooking, I know I left part of me on the New Jersey Turnpike, that part of me is still sitting with the car in park, watching bright day turn into dark night.

But I digress.

When I finally broke free from the New Jersey Hell Pike (where I’m convinced I still am), it was too late to make the event I planned to attend in Brooklyn, and I found myself on the Upper West Side, alone on a Saturday night, peckish, tired, and restless. I decided I’d eat within a block of wherever I could find parking. Along the way to a favorite restaurant, I popped into a small bookstore to find something to read over dinner. I saw a used copy of Helen Fielding’s Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination for $3.25 and decided it was worth a try. Until I got queasy about how Fielding mocked competent, ambitious women, I liked Bridget Jones’s Diary, but I found the sequel annoying and unbelievable. I’d heard that Fielding had “gone another way” with this novel, so I thought I’d give it a try, and I’m so glad I did.

Olivia Joules has all the best qualities of Bridget Jones–a tendency to fantasize as a way to cope with what could be a vapid or boring life, an ability to see the bright side of things without being annoyingly chipper, good taste in men–and she’s competent to boot! Olivia Joules is a free-lance writer who so desperately wants to be a secret agent that she tries to report on mysterious events that aren’t real at all. As a woman whose letter opener in her office is actually a dagger she was given during a role-playing game she made up with her friend Elissa when they were both in junior high, I can relate. The novel made me laugh aloud over my scallion-ginger pancakes and warm asparagus salad and weeks later, enjoying a quiet evening at my parents’ house, it made me anxious (in a good way) and sigh (in an even better way). And along the way, I picked up a good rule of thumb. I’d tell you who says it in the novel, but that would give the plot away:

The corruption of the good by the belief in their own infallible goodness is the most bloody dangerous pitfall in the human spectrum. Once you have conquered all your sins, pride is the one which will conquer you. A man starts off deciding he is a good man because he makes good decisions. Next thing, he’s convinced that whatever decision he makes must be good because he’s a good man….Always stick with people who know they are flawed and ridiculous.

100 Days: A View from Canada

I am very pleased to have a post from a good friend from the North. We talk politics, clothes, and pop culture, and I promised her that if she wrote about the President, I’d put together my thoughts about the First Lady. She finished first…

I didn’t watch the U.S. Presidential election coverage on November 4th, 2008. I couldn’t. In fact, I was on a complete, self-imposed, media blackout that day. As a Black woman, that may seem shocking. But, the dream of an African-American becoming President of the most powerful nation on earth was too overwhelming, too tantalizing, too impossible for me to take the risk of watching that dream not become a reality. After all, this election came on the heels of not one, but two elections that took place under, shall I say, “suspicious circumstances.” That, coupled with the vitriol and hatred being spewed by Obama’s detractors, made choosing not to watch the election coverage a no-brainer. Of course, on November 5th, 2008, I watched every online video of that historic moment that I could find!

Fast-forward to 100 days later, and I feel as though I am in a dream. I’m not African-American – an important distinction that I’ll elaborate upon in a minute – but the fact that Barack Hussein Obama, an African-American man, is President of the United States of America is incredible to me. The fact that, by any thinking person’s standards (so, yes, Rush, Ann, and all your “sheeple,” this does not include you), he is doing a great job with what is – as my colleague Nicole would say – a “hot mess,” leaves me in awe… even though I’m not at all surprised. The fact that leaders around the world appreciate and respect him (even my own country’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper who, if he turned out to be a borderline sociopath, I also would not be surprised) fills me with such hope for a better political and socio-economic future for our world.

And, as someone who makes a living from researching and analyzing the intricacies of race and racism, the fact that the whole world wants to claim Obama blows my mind. Everyone…from the Trinidadians

…to the Irish

The fact that countries the world over want to claim Obama is, to me, the most telling thing about the power of his presidency. Here’s why:

As I said above, I’m Black, and not African-American. (If asked, I would identify as Canadian. If pressed, as so frequently happens, I would identify as Caribbean-Canadian.) This needs explicit mentioning because too often “African-American” is used as a catch-all term for everyone who is Black, or who appears to be so. In my view, this is mostly due to the fact that the United States’ biggest global export is their culture: their norms, values, and terms of reference. This is problematic for many reasons, but mostly because it ignores the diversity within the African Diaspora, thereby denying the specific historical, political and socio-cultural experiences of people of African descent. It sends the message that all Black people look the same, think the same, live the same, act the same… in short, are the same. Newsflash, world: we aren’t (and never have been. This explains, for example, the existence of Black Republicans).

What ties Black people together is a shared history and experience of systemic racial discrimination and oppression.

This is why, when I saw that PowerPoint presentation of the racial history of African-Americans, set to Sam Cooke’s “Change Gon’ Come,”* I could relate to it, but not identify with it: I have no actual lived experience of those events–and neither do my parents and grandparents, because their experiences with oppression took place in the Caribbean, which is a different racialiazed context than the U.S. This idea of “relating to”, but not “identifying with” is key, because it goes a long way to explaining why so many people around the world endorsed Obama, and effectively claimed him for their own.

Since he doesn’t fit neatly into conventional categories of racial difference– born to a Black African man and a White American woman; raised by a White American mother and grandparents; spent his formative years in “exotic,” non-mainstream U.S. locales; identifies as African-American–Barack Obama, himself, becomes a catch-all: in this case, for everyone’s racial hopes and desires (or, fears and horrors, but that’s a conversation for a different post). People of colour relate to him because they know that he has faced racism, yet his success signifies an end to it. White people relate to him because he gives them hope that maybe – just maybe – they’ll finally get to stop worrying and feeling guilty about racism, because his success signifies an end to it. I get that. I really, really do. I also want, more than anything, to live in a world that’s free from racism, and other forms of discrimination and oppression.

But, the significant thing about the Obama presidency is not that it’s going to usher in this post-racial utopia that we’re all envisioning: it’s that it won’t.

It won’t, unless we decide to make it happen. It won’t, unless we are brave enough to start having those difficult and painful, yet honest, conversations about how we are all complicit in maintaining racism. It won’t, unless we acknowledge that racism is connected to, and supports, the other “-isms.” And, it won’t, unless we refuse to continue making excuses for, or otherwise covering up, racism when we witness and/or experience it, in all its myriad forms.

The real power of the Obama presidency is that we now have a common point of reference from which to begin.

*

Dominique is a Canadian researcher who focuses on equity and social justice in education. So, she knows that terms like “Black”, “White”, “African-American”, etc. are not neutral and shouldn’t be used uncritically. She’s hoping you’ll cut her some slack, though, because she was trying to keep her post short.

On the Nose: Gail Collins on Joe the Canary

In this morning’s New York Times column “Joe Biden, the Flue, and You”, Gail Collins describes Biden’s role quite well:

The swine flu scare has made it clear why Barack Obama picked Joe Biden for vice president.

As the White House’s unfiltered talking head, Biden is the perfect warning bell to show the White House when things are veering out of control. A kind of mental canary in the governmental mine shaft.

Obama is too cool to panic about anything. The best he can do is look unhappy when someone around him misbehaves too much (see: Joe Biden makes fun of Chief Justice Robert). Then he purses his lips together like Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada” and everyone shakes and shivers. Biden, on the other hand, is totally uncool (like totally, man) and more like school officials closing down schools because someone in an adjoining state coughs a time or two. He could at least be funny like my mother who apparently had good time making her own flu mask, which she put on just as my father returned from work. At least she told me it was a flu mask. I hope it wasn’t some new “game” (ahem) that my parents are playing now that mom is retired….oh dear. I’d prefer to think about swine flu.

100 Days; 100 Words: Barbara

An Acrostic

Before Barack, we were locked in a red/blue struggle

Against each other, against other nations, against our principles.

“Restored” is how I feel now. We can thrive — not just endure.

After Election Day, we woke like children on

Christmas morning. Even Republicans looked happier.

Kids love Barack. He makes it cool to be smart, work hard.

One hundred days, each bearing progress, transparency. The

Black experience, the spirituals, the blues, woven through our tapestry

And now fully claimed. I breathe easier now, on the streets, in the world.

Melting cynicism, igniting dreams,

America surprises, delights the world.

100 Days; 100 Words: Debra

I am very impressed with President Barack Obama. Wanting the job of president, knowing the many outstanding negative issues that he would inherit, says a lot about his integrity, his intelligence and his confidence. Being the president in good times is no easy task. Being president, who happens to be black, in these very tough and uncertain times makes it that much more difficult.

I like the fact that with the name Obama, there is NO mistaking that he IS a Black Man! And a good looking one too. Maybe the positive Obama family with help change the negative stereotypes that so often cloud our African-American family image.

I don’t follow all of the reports as I should; however, I think he’s doing a fine job. I believe God has a plan for President Obama and this country ~ a plan that will open many eyes and surprise us all.

Let us all support President Obama and the decisions he has to make for each and every one of us. After all, we are The United States of America, aren’t we?