Monday, April 14, 2008

Race, Class and Gender - A Semester of Frustration

Below is a guest post from a co-worker and friend, Brandi. For me, one of the most interesting things to witness is the formation and development of feminist consciousness in another person. I experienced this in my first WS class during college, some stages that i went through to form my feminist identity included challenging my former beliefs, admitting my own privilege, realizing that indeed there is a problem, outrage, and recognizing the need for collective action. Feminist identity develops during different times in peoples lives and not always out of academic circumstances. Below is an example of a woman who is going through this now and would love feedback on other people's experiences and when to (and how to) speak up for what you believe in.

From Brandi:

Last summer, I had a chance to work closely with Galina. Galina was hired to work for the company I work at about a year and a half ago though we never actually worked together. Fortunately she had some down time in between research studies and she was able to help me out during a time of turnover/trainings, etc. I got to really know her and I’m so thankful for that time – even if it was difficult. I learned that she is strong-willed, is passionate about her views and sticks up for what is right. I don’t think I have ever met someone with such conviction before and it is so refreshing and inspiring.

Admittedly, prior to meeting her and reading her blog, I myself never understood what being a feminist means. Like many other (ignorant) people in this world, I too thought feminism was a “dirty” word and that feminists fit the following criteria: they are always women, are mean, mostly lesbians, have narrow views of the world, and are just out there to cause trouble. I understand now that this is all cultivated by the media. I now proudly claim to be a feminist – if ever I’m asked to describe myself, that is a word that I use.

This semester I enrolled in a class called Race, Class and Gender. Once the end of January rolled around I was excited about all the topics we would cover and the heated discussions that would transpire. I was fully expecting some people to be shocked and a little hurt. What has been happening in class; however, I was not prepared for.

There is a group of females that sit right in the front of the class in a gaggle. I hate to stereotype, but they are all carbon copies of each other – they go tanning, have manicured fingernails, expensive and trendy haircuts, carry Coach bags, etc. Often times in class they are giggling and distracting to both the original professor (we had to have a guest professor come in from now on since someone complained about the class and my professor’s accent – I have good reason to believe it was one of said girls) and the rest of the class.

One day we were discussing patriarchal societies and our professor asked, “Do you think we live in a patriarchy.” I nodded my head as did several other people in my class. The ringleader of the group of girls in the front (we’ll call her A.) said, “I don’t think we do.” My professor was curious as to why – she’s very good at letting us make a case for our opinions. A. said very surely, “Well, I’m ok with how things are so it’s ok.” Clearly, this is not a valid argument. Just because you yourself are ok with how our society is does not a non-patriarchal society make. Until we have equal pay for equal work, we are in a patriarchy. Until a day goes by where the media doesn’t comment on Hilary Clinton showing her emotions or tearing up during a speech, we are in a patriarchy. Until a woman CEO is not compared to her male colleagues, we live in a patriarchy.

Two weeks ago, one of A’s friends did a presentation on an article about teenage girls getting plastic surgery. This lead to a discussion about America’s Next Top Model which I admit I love to hate to watch. Another one of A’s friends mentioned that there is always a “bigger” girl on there but “they usually don’t make it far”. Our guest professor asked, “Oh, you mean she’s like the average woman in America, not just a size 0?” and the friend said, “No, they’re obese.” OBESE?? Whitney who is this season’s token “plus sized model”, if you could call her that, is a size 10! How is that obese? Seriously, look at her photos!

Then A. opened her mouth again and said that she didn’t believe that the teenage girls who get plastic surgery are doing it because of the media or society, they just, you know like want to look good. Well A., who makes them think a tiny waist, small thighs and big boobs make ya look good? SOCIETY.

Last week’s class was the icing on my cake. The same girl who thinks the “plus sized” models on ANTM are obese did her presentation on an article about a boy in middle school who was gay. She ended her presentation with a little gem that tied the article into her own life. She said, “I have a friend who is a lesbian and I just don’t understand how she knows she is a lesbian if she has never slept with a boy.” In her mind you need to at least sleep with one guy before you make a decision to be attracted to girls. Maybe the same should be true to be sure you aren’t gay? I don’t know. Our guest professor calmly turned the tables and asked her “Well, how did you know you were attracted to boys?” The girl turned her eyes upward and thought for a minute and then said, “Yeah, I guess I can see that.” I really hoped this was true and was satisfied with the discussion.

BUT THEN, my original professor said, “Well, there have been some studies to show that many people who are gay have been abused early on and that is why they are gay.” And of course that gaggle of girls in front all nod their heads. So now they are walking out the door of the class thinking that people they meet who are homosexual have been abused and poor them, they don’t know any better! I was seething in my seat and I looked around at my class but no one else had the reaction I had. How could she just make a statement like that without the exact statistics and source to show that?

So, I tried looking them up myself. I couldn’t find anything right away. But then I stumbled upon the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force website and did a keyword search of ‘sexual abuse’. What I came up with was a report called “Love Won Out: Addressing, Understanding, and Preventing Homosexuality”. Basically in 2004 there was a conference called Love Won Out which was sponsored by Focus on the Family (Feministgal interjection: they also promote creepy pro-life fetus comics such as Umbert!). There were several speakers who identified as “ex-gay” and “ex-lesbian” and the conference focused on the prevention of homosexuality and that both change and hope is possible.

“Speakers frequently claimed that childhood sexual abuse is a prominent cause of lesbian orientation” (p. 5). Also, on page 4, “Homosexual behavior is an attempt to “repair childhood emotional hurts” through same-sex sexuality. As such, homosexuality is a kind of reparative drive.” Here for more of these gems (click through some of their “resources”.)

Interestingly, I have not found any actual statistics on the rate of homosexuals being abused in their childhood, aside from a plethora of religious websites. Even the American Psychological Association website states: “There are numerous theories about the origins of a person's sexual orientation; most scientists today agree that sexual orientation is most likely the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive and biological factors. In most people, sexual orientation is shaped at an early age. There is also considerable recent evidence to suggest that biology, including genetic or inborn hormonal factors, play a significant role in a person's sexuality. In summary, it is important to recognize that there are probably many reasons for a person's sexual orientation and the reasons may be different for different people.

Is Sexual Orientation a Choice?

"No, human beings cannot choose to be either gay or straight. Sexual orientation emerges for most people in early adolescence without any prior sexual experience. Although we can choose whether to act on our feelings, psychologists do not consider sexual orientation to be a conscious choice that can be voluntarily changed.”

This has been a difficult semester for me, and I know that I should feel free to stand up and say “This is ridiculous!” but I need some advice on how to handle this. I thought about emailing both the original professor and the guest professor and ask exactly where these statistics are and explain how I did some research and could not find anything other than Christian websites. You would think Sociology professors would know to question the source, but you never know.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever experienced anything like this?

(PS – don’t get me started on the day in class when A. did her presentation on Abercrombie & Fitch being sued for keeping minority and overweight employees off the sales floor. Guess what her sweatshirt proudly said across her chest. ABERCROMBIE).


Vesper de Vil said...

excellent post. and infuriating! i wish i had been there. i think emailing the professors is the best way to start communication.

Heather said...

I have two thoughts on how Brandi can handle the situation as a woman and as a student. (1) Try not to react to the gaggle of girls as "them." They are uninformed women, and hopefully they will mature someday. But reacting in anger to them will only hinder the onset of that eventuality. I would encourage Brandi to think of herself as more informed, and react to this group of women as if they were 5-10 years younger than herself. (2) When looking for statistics on the correlation between sexual abuse and same-sex orientation, be sure to check and find out about the correlation between sexual abuse and heterosexual orientation as well. For the statistics to mean anything, they have to be represented accurately.

Supergirl said...

they say ignorance is bliss, right? well, i applaud people like you who can take the ignorant and make them uncomfortable, if even for a moment.
i was lucky enough to be part of a women's studies teaching collective in college, and i know i not only made some students open thier eyes, but it made me open mine to a new degree as well.
keep on fighting the good fight! you rock!

Kandee said...

Oh goodness. That's a frustrating situation. I was recently in a class like that, but it was on the world economy where the class chimed in on how poverty was the poor people's fault. I didn't manage to have as much self-control as you and became more and more frustrated as the course progressed. Eventually, after fighting with many students and having them attack my appearance instead of my argument, I stopped going to class. Looking back now, I can see how immature the students were (they were significantly younger than I) and how the professor was playing into their ignorance to spread his own. I can also see now that they represented the broader beliefs in the MSM that I work so hard to fight against. I have learned and am continuing to learn how to engage others in difficult concepts, especially when they challenge previous beliefs and privilege.

KELLY said...

I love this post. I wish I had been there too... I've never been afraid to speak my mind and I would have torn through this gaggle of girls.

How irritating, frustrating, and ignorant.

Allison said...

And I think it's important to remember that when you argue with them, you're really not doing it for them. You probably won't change their opinion. However, there are other people in the class who are on the fence. I know that when I grew up in a conservative area, I just felt that some of the things being said were *wrong*, but I didn't have the words for them. So now, I generally try focus on those people with a strong, rational argument presented calmly and respectfully. I don't think that approach would work for everyone, but considering how much I hate really intense conflict, this walk-softly approach makes me feel like I might actually be changing opinions, rather than just venting against the patriarchy.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Do email the professor and ask for the source. The professor is supposed to be there to moderate the discussion, to call students out when they make claims that can't be backed, and to teach them how to distinguish between logical arguments and anecdotal evidence.

Smirking Cat said...

It's very difficult to react to such ignorance without anger. Or disgust.

phd in yogurtry said...

I second (or third) asking the professor to provide her sources. Its all in the bounds of good collegiate interplay. And I'm curious. I've had the same question myself.

Kahless said...

I actually believe our sexuality isn't fixed, more like a continuum. There are very few that are 100% either hetro or gay.

These people are ignorant and scared of their own sexuality.

As for the abuse I reckon that the % abused is pretty much the same whether gay or straight.

Good for you for standing up. Though I find most of the ignorant are ignorant because they want to stay that way.