Protesting While White

A blog reflection written by Women’s Center intern Bree Best

For the past several months I have been trying to conceptualize what I wanted to say about white privilege and protesting, the struggle of identifying power structures, access to privileged dissent, and a whole litany of other things that I could go on about dealing with Racism = Prejudice + Power. One recent experience sticks out in my mind as indicative of just how harmful white privilege can be in spaces that are supposed to be about social justice.

Thirty-five of the 46 women who have publicly accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault are featured on the cover of New York Magazine.

Thirty-five of the 46 women who have publicly accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault are featured on the cover of New York Magazine.

At the end of March 2015, I went to protest Bill Cosby at the Lyric in Baltimore and immediately I noticed the appalling disparity between white women to women of color. As I looked for the protest organizer to discuss my concerns, I heard the protesters shame the patrons as they were walking into the Lyric – patrons who were overwhelmingly people of color. I came to protest Bill Cosby’s rape allegations and bring awareness to sexual assault, not to further marginalize already marginalized people.

When I expressed my concerns to the white woman protest leader, her response was immediately defensive: “We’re supposed to shame the patrons. They’re the ones that paid for the tickets to come see this show. That’s how a protest works.” I tried explaining my discomfort as a woman of color seeing mostly white women protesting a black man by yelling at people of color and mentioned that many of these same people being yelled at may have experienced white people yelling at them while protesting for Civil Rights, so perhaps a different strategy would be worth considering.

Peak white feminism at a Slut Walk NYC march in 2011. Using racism to combat sexism = FAIL.

Peak white feminism at a Slut Walk NYC march in 2011. Using racism to combat sexism = FAIL.

Ultimately, I ended up leaving the protest after the organizer told me that I was being combative (among other unsavory things). As I drowned my intersectional feminist rage in Blue Moon and mixed drinks, I considered how much more effective the protest could have been if the white organizer and participants had used an intersectional lens to think about how systems of power influence their lives, including their approach to activism. We need more critical dialogue not just about race and racism but specifically about whiteness, which is often forgotten in these discussions because it is the invisible norm against which everything else is othered.

Disrupting this white-centric framework is crucial for engaging in anti-racism. On a national scale, the Black Lives Matter protests are a direct interruption of that a Eurocentric worldview. Just as we need to decenter whiteness in the physical spaces like these protests, we also need for “allies” to decenter whiteness mentally so that they can engage in social justice without reproducing oppressive power structures or erasing the voices of people of color.

I’ve been in many situations like the Cosby protest when a white person got defensive when I pointed out a racial disparity or racially motivated power dynamics and I tried to push them to understand how problematic that can be, at which point they would either leave or ask me to leave by insinuating that I was being “difficult to work with.” These racial interactions are an everyday occurrence for me because I and many other black people must continually navigate “white space” while also decentering whiteness. However, in order to effectively dismantle white supremacy, black people cannot be the only ones working to disrupt white space – in our communities and our minds – but rather white people must also take on the often-uncomfortable challenge of confronting their own privilege.

Most places can be considered spaces of privilege and prejudice unless they actively work against oppression.

Most places can be considered spaces of privilege and prejudice unless they actively work against oppression.

With white spaces being virtually everywhere, my beloved Women’s Center at UMBC is no different. Throughout my internship I’ve had many conversations with Women’s Center staff about we can continue working to decenter whiteness, including more intentionally focusing on the voices and perspectives of women of color and developing strategies to more effectively enable white people to engage in constructive dialogue around race and racism. Dismantling white supremacy is a daunting task and I am equipped with the skills and opportunities to aid in this endeavor despite how exhausting this work can be.

As with most social change work, progress in anti-racist work takes time, a humbled nature, and patience. People make mistakes and call each other out. If that is the case, use the white leadership from the Cosby protest as an example of how not to react. Instead I would suggest: Take a breath, assess your privilege, welcome the lesson, and ask engaging questions that focus on creating an effective impact in communities of color. If people want to build diverse communities, then we as a community have to acknowledge and embrace our differences through understanding the greater systems at large that privileges few and oppresses many.

Another Women’s Center Director Confession: On Trolls and Harassment

Every once in a while on Facebook, I’ll post a “Women’s Center Director Confession” as a nod to truth, vulnerability, and my acknowledgement that I am always growing and learning when it comes to gender, gender equity, women’s issues and beyond. This confession needed more space than was Facebook-appropriate so I’m taking to the blog to write this latest reflection.
-Jess

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It’s been a year since the Women’s Center first started getting trolled on our Facebook page. In response, we created filters on our accounts to block those posts. The troll found a way around that by posting comments on photos. We created more filters and still the troll found ways to battle us. We blocked the accounts and new ones were created. Staff members were named and fat-shamed or slut-shamed in the posts. In the trolling posts, words were always spelled wrong and the grammar was worse so we did what we could do to laugh about it and find power in doing our own shaming of their editing skills in person together. We did inquire if there were ways to track IP addresses and see if the troll could be identified, but the quest seemed hopeless.

I wanted to share some of the trolling

I wanted to share some of the trolling “receipts” but they were too jarring to share on blog page that aims at being a safe and inclusive online space.

As summer turned into the fall semester, in addition to the online harassment, the Women’s Center staff also began to experience what I call face-to-face trolling. A group of guys would sit in the lounge area outside the Women’s Center front door seemingly not paying attention to anyone but themselves and their video games until individual staff members walked by. Suddenly, their conversations would shift to laughing about “wanting to f*** fat b******” or having threesomes or something transphobic. This was experienced in different ways by almost all the staff members in the Women’s Center and some of our regular community members, but it went on for several weeks without anyone bringing it up to each other. To each of us individually the comments were just odd and frustrating but not seen as a repeated pattern of harassment that needed to be addressed. Until one day, a staff member finally did mention one of these odd interactions during a staff meeting. Suddenly, all of us were sharing similarly weird interactions and comments made as we passed by the guys as well. In our ah-ha moment, we also began to wonder with each other if perhaps the online trolling and face-to-face trolling were somehow connected.

I reached out to others for help and while their responses varied, for the most part they weren’t as supportive as I thought they might be which led me to remain hesitant in pressing the issue further. So, I let it go on for far too long and with a laundry list far too long of various levels and examples of harassment. Looking back on the experience, I wish I would have called out (or called in, if you prefer) our allies to rally behind us sooner. I wish. Having had a lot of time to reflect on this, I’ve identified two big reasons on why I didn’t ask for help.

The first. Pure and simple sexism that had manifested within me as a type of gaslighting. Was it really a big deal? Was I over-analyzing the situation? Was I being the stereotypical crazy** lady who just is too damn sensitive and needed to lighten up? I thought, probably, maybe, yes???

Second, we were the Women’s Center. The Women’s Center is supposed to be the office helping others experiencing harassment and not necessarily the other way around. I needed to fix this. It started to feel like a dirty little secret. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I felt like it was my fault. (For a more in-depth read on internalizing victim-blaming, check out this post shared on our blog).

The situation culminated with a pumpkin. Yes a pumpkin.

During a Women of Color Coalition meeting, a loud bang was abruptly heard outside the Women’s Center outside exit. When staff members went outside to inspect where the noise came from they found a pumpkin smashed to pieces on the sidewalk and exterior of the door. A sense of panic overcame them thinking the trolls had taken things to the next level. We later found out the pumpkin accidentally fell out of the window two floors above us. No foul play. While I was thankful the situation wasn’t what we initially thought, it provided an opportunity for me to hold up the mirror for myself and look at the reflection. What did I see? My staff was tense. I was tense. We felt unsafe and it didn’t matter if a true threat was there or not. It was our lived-reality and I needed to get my butt in gear and demand help.

We Hollaback at UMBC! event... Thanks to Shawna and Mel for the validation, empathy, and support!

We Hollaback at UMBC! event… Thanks to Shawna and Mel for the validation, empathy, and support!

So fast-forward to the start of the spring semester when I invited Hollaback Baltimore to the Women’s Center to give us a boost of confidence when it came to addressing street harassment, especially as it related to the work place. As we explained the events that had unfolded over the past semester, the facilitators, Mel and Shawna, listened in solidarity and without judgement. It wasn’t until then that I realized how much I needed someone to empathize with us (because that hadn’t happened yet). I needed someone to say they were sorry for what had happened (because no one had). With their empathy and support a weight felt lifted off my shoulders. A wave of healing came over me in a way I never knew I needed to be healed.

Addressing harassment is easier said than done. I now know that to be true. I’ve been quick to respond and move into action when others have shared experiences of trolling, harassment, and assault. I’ve created plans, put on my ally hat, and raised some noise. When I’ve been asked to take action, I’ve never thought, well this person is exaggerating and this really isn’t a big deal. I believed, supported, and validated with feminist rage. What I’ve learned from this experience is to allow others to do the same for me and my spaces and community. Asking for help is a strength not a failure. In fact, I’ve learned from this experience the importance in demanding for help.

Add this to my list of Women’s Center director confessions. It continues to grow as I learn more from my feminist community of students, friends, and colleagues. I am humbled. It’s vulnerable to share these failures, but I know I’ll do better next time… because sadly, I know there will always be a next time.

** Yes, I know I’ve promised to drop crazy from my vocabulary. This was an intentional move to highlight the experience of gaslighting.


Author’s Update: 

Since sharing this reflection, the Women’s Center has received a great amount of outreach and support. Thank you. This further proves the power and importance in naming our experiences, sharing our stories, and asking for help.
I also wanted to share an important part of this story that may not be as clear to others who were not closely connected to the experience. Through the help from other UMBC offices and departments, the issue has been resolved and we are okay! Thank you to all of those who expressed their concern and shared their ideas for “next steps” and how to help. Moreover, If you or someone you know on campus is experiencing harassment or unwanted behaviors, UMBC has policies and support people in place to help you. So, when you’re ready to ask for help, here’s some great campus resources.

I Loved You Once – Reflections from NCCWSL on Authenticity and Leadership

The following post are reflections from rising-sophomore Nitya Kumaran who represented UMBC at this years National Conference for College Women Leaders (NCCWSL). When Nitya found herself in my office after attending the conference in May she was full of energy, passion, complex thoughts, and challenges for herself. I asked her to write some of what she was thinking and feeling down so others who didnt attend the conference could also learn from her leadership journey. Nitya took up this challenge by sharing her thoughts in a conscious-raising way that presents itself as raw and authentic reflection of her journey and growth as a feminist leader. 

-Jess

***********

I Loved You Once

IMG_1395

Nitya with Elizabeth Acevedo at the Women of Distinction Awards

At the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders’ Women of Distinction awards, the last award winner was National Slam Poetry Champion — and a woman comfortable with her natural skin and hair — Ms. Elizabeth Acevedo! This Dominican woman had unabashed curls springing from her head like fresh beans from the soil, like flowers in the sun. She had coffee skin and a smile that charmed me to the floor. There were cheers all around and they took on a new volume at the mention of that last phrase. A few black women around me cheered particularly loud and I cheered with them.

Try Fair and Lovely for radiant skin!

The skin-whitening creams, my own dark skin, hate from another place and time struck my mind.  I couldn’t fathom the weight of that last accomplishment.

Easily and graciously, Ms. Acevedo’s whole face smiled and thanked us.

“I was a nina de la casa. A girl of the house. That’s all I was expected to be. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that if you want to do that, but I think everyone should have the choice.”

Her own difficult journey to become “her own woman” was shared with us with both hands. We weren’t supposed to become her, we were supposed to become our own women, find our own destiny.

The slam poetry began then and phrases still remain in my mind a month later and will remain years later:

“We may not see the fruit but we can be the roots.”

“The moments… Never regret how you spent them or how you meant them.”

As she shared her poetry, I thought of the oppression my mother had faced as a woman.

I thought of the memory of shame I had repressed for months.

I thought of how I had given myself the backseat in the car of my own life at times.

How the girls I grew up with had bowed to their own self-loathing, their own fears.

I willed it all to leave me now and forever.

Ms. Acevedo was the kind of woman who wouldn’t be quiet if she knew the answer.

She was the kind of woman who saw the miracle and victory of her existence.

She was the kind of woman who wouldn’t take up less air or space than what she fully deserved.

And she knew what she deserved.

The urgency in her voice made me shake inside and my tight self-control left me as tears found their way onto my cheeks. She was a speaker for the unspoken, for the silent and injured, for the ones who were shunned from the podium she gracefully occupied. I had witnessed a living free spirit, I had witnessed a woman who loved herself.

***********

“They tell us fat women can’t be loved, that we’re not attractive.”

I cannot believe she said that. The silent rule.

I thought of how I had picked the loosest shirt I could find before the conference, scared of exposing the flaws of my flawed body. My flawed mind. My flawed speech. I needed to cover my whole self because god forbid if anyone ever found out that I was never a perfect child.

I looked at the attractive lady in front of me and realized that I wanted to hug her. She was an attractive woman — period.

You are beautiful. You are gods child. Youre my child. Youre so beautiful. Dont say that. Dont do it. Please, my dear.

I have been a real hypocrite. I know that “fat” only refers to someone’s weight, and has nothing to do with beauty. Why is “fat” ugly, huh? If I gained weight, would I stop being beautiful? My mother and some of the most beautiful women I know are not skinny, and don’t look exactly or are exactly what the world says we must be to be worthy of love. And yet, if I put on weight, I am embarrassed of my body… how will anyone love me now? It’s a similar narrative that runs through my mind when people put me down because of my dark skin in the past. I thought I wasn’t enough to receive anyone’s love.

I realized then that every flaw of mine that I hate might be someone else’s flaw that they hate. My flaw is the same flaw that my sister might be hating in herself or my mother or my father or my future children or my friends. How can I look someone in the eye and tell them I love and accept them anyway, when they might have the same flaw of mine that I absolutely cannot stand?

I realized then that my life is going by and I’m only here to be happy and to make other people happy. Each person is someone’s child, is someone’s baby, is a beautiful creature who is learning and growing. And all children are beautiful, vulnerable, magical and valuable in their own unique existence.

Every time I hate on my flaw, I am also hating on someone else with that same flaw. When I tell myself that I am unworthy of love, I am telling someone else that, as well. And I would never want to do that. I love people. I want them to be happy. I mean we each started out as a single cell — we are walking miracles and we have so much to give to each other and the world.

So I’m trying to accept where I am right now. I’m trying to love myself so that I can share better love with other people — the kind of unconditional love we deserve. I’m trying to be brave. I’m trying to speak with confidence in silent classrooms. I’m trying to raise my hand. I’m trying to listen to my inner voice even when no one else believes in me. Because I have something to give to the world and my own hatred is not going to stand in the way of that. I am a leader.

I loved myself once. I loved everyone. I will love everyone again. I’ll love myself again.

Nitya and some of her newest NCCWSL friends!

Nitya and some of her newest NCCWSL friends!

Telling Our Stories at NCCWSL

On May 27th-30th, I went to University of Maryland, College Park for the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders (NCCWSL) to present the semester long Campus Action Project (CAP) Women of Color Coalition’s Telling Our Stories in a Workshop dedicated to combating women of color stereotypes. I, one of CAP team members, along with Megan, the advisor of the CAP, had fifteen minutes to talk about the semester long project and how our project addressed the stereotypes women of color are associated with and just importantly how they can reject it in favor for more nuanced stories and counter-narratives.Before I get to the presentation, I would like to talk about overall conference and its inner workings. These include the workshops, the keynote speakers, and the feminist camaraderie.

UMBC represented at NCCWSL!

UMBC represented at NCCWSL! Here Bree is with two other UMBC students, Isabel and Vanessa.

NCCWSL, sponsored by American Association for University Women (AAUW) and National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA),  is a three day excursion that takes you from workshop to workshop, keynote speakers, and moments to network throughout the day. I came to UMD on Wednesday, May 27 at around 8:30pm, settled in, tried to plan my few days at NCCWSL, and then fell asleep at around 12am. On Thursday, I woke up at around 8am got ready for the $tart $mart salary negotiation workshop. While getting ready, I met my roommate for the conference, Shauna, who just graduated from a university in Iowa. She and her advisors drove from Iowa to be at NCCWSL and present a workshop on their CAP project which was one big event involving women in male dominated fields. I liked the $mart $tart workshop (which are also offered, here at UMBC once a semester!) because it gave me the tools to know my worth going into a job and the confidence to argue for that worth. But still at the end of the workshop, I was still struggling with the idea of negotiating my salary but the leaders of the workshop were really helpful in reassure me about its merits. Then I went to the Finding your Voice and Sharing Voice workshops which  helped me and other conference goers hone in our voices and share them around us. I loved the speed networking workshop because I feel like I have a handle on networking but I need to pickup the pace with it while meeting other women.Then I went to the Women of Distinction Awards ceremony and I enjoyed the diversity of the people being recognized for their work in opening more doors for women to make more successful strides. I got a picture with Elizabeth Acevedo and Amanda Simpson and thanked them for their words of wisdom and hope.

Meeting Elizabeth Acevedo at the Women of Distinction Awards.

Meeting Elizabeth Acevedo at the Women of Distinction Awards.

The next day began with an empowering breakfast with fellow college women leaders and the sounds of the women drummers from the Bele Bele Rhythm Collective and then a great keynote by Maysoon Zayid, an actress, comedienne, and writer. If you have no idea who Zayid is, here is her Ted talk about having cerebral palsy and acting. She said some amazing and moving things about the leadership and inclusivity not only among gender and race but also ability. I felt like it was great bringing ability into context of activism and leadership because not everyone can go to protests and do physical action related things when it comes to activism. I really loved that addition to the line up as something to consider when leading a group. I transitioned from Zayid’s keynote to the From Silence to Self-Authorship: Storytelling for Empowerment workshop where talked about reading stories as children and what was missing from them. As expected, we talked about women’s stories as well as women of color stories are completely missing from young children’s stories and trying to find ways to start including those narratives in our present world. It was nice to see other people notice what I was noticing throughout my childhood. Then I went to the Career Fair and Dismantling Double Standard: Combating Gender Stereotypes on Campus which focused on other universities CAP Presentations related to about rape culture, domestic abuse, and racial discrimination. What I took from most of the workshop was shedding light on the different people effected by the double standard and how we can support them and create an area for people to share. After that workshop, my workshop group Addressing Stereotypes of Women of Color through a Gendered lens was up next!

Presenting at NCCWSL!

Presenting at NCCWSL!

Throughout the bustle of the conference, I managed to review my slides and major points that I wanted my audience to take away from the presentation. I was still very nervous but as soon as I got up and fumbled through my introduction I was ready! We asked about stereotypes and microaggressions  that the audience hears on a regular basis. Each answer to the question was well received with snaps, claps, and nods in solidarity with their replies. We talked about the idea we developed from Women of Color Coalition discussions and interests. The we discussed the photo campaign and its reception (34,000+ notes on Tumblr :-D). We discussed the people we utilized to embody the message of storytelling, from national speakers, Franchesca Ramsey keynote lecture for Critical Social Justice Week  and Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls fame, to community artists QueenEarth and Hollywood Infinite who are  singers, songwriters, and spoken word artists, to institutional scholars, Professor Kimberly Moffitt discussing the politics of woman of color hair.We then shared the experience of the showcase which was the culminating event. We ended by telling our own stories of how the project impacted our thinking about having a discussion of racism through creative means like this project. I told the story about a white guy saw my poster which said, “My name is Bree and I’m not white on the inside.” He bristled then asked me if it was offensive to make a comment about someone being “white on the inside” and replied with yes and an explanation about agency and how you are actively telling your black friend a story about himself that he probably does not identify with. He looked at me with disbelief and then said that no one explained to him why things like this was offensive. He thanked me for widening his perceptions and giving him something to think about. I left with the knowledge of engaging with people that I would have otherwise thought they won’t understand the politics behind identity. The audience loved my story about my interaction with the white presenting guy. We got some questions and applause for our work. I felt a deep connection with this particular group and their willingness to hear our project and its inner workings. I will take that with me throughout my life knowing that the work that I do is important, the critical racial lens I bring to discussion, and have confidence in those two things.

Presenting at NCCWSL!

Presenting at NCCWSL!

Throughout the planning and after presenting this particular project, I developed deep pride for the project and I hope to carry the spirit of Telling Our Stories alive beyond just this spring semester. I was genuinely shocked that it was so well received and that people were talking about it every where I was at the conference and some of the AAUW interns were buzzing about it. They even wrote a blog post about our presentation and how amazing it was to here about the way that we had to present. Getting to talk to other college women student leaders about their struggles and triumphs was really relieving. Seeing women of color in student affairs and doing other things besides being a bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, or Kimberly Crenshaw was really awe-inspiring because it shows me that I can do the important social justice work I was born to do and work up to the black feminist philosophy. Overall, I felt pretty welcomed in the conference, not only in physical presence, but also in suggesting ideas and talking to different people about general things that I am doing and in life. I didn’t have to preface things about the social justice work I do because the other attendees are doing the same work I am doing. It felt pretty intersectional from the keynote speakers to the workshops to the college women student leaders I talked with. This experience helped me in so many different ways I am glad I had the opportunity to represent the Women Center through the Women of Coalition. As I left NCCWSL, I brought with me a confidence that was always with me and an eagerness to make a difference that gives me hope that I can make my aspirations come true.

Working Mom: A New Adventure

A blog reflection written by Women’s Center student staff member, Carrie Cleveland

For the past ten years I have not had a paying job.  For the past ten years I have been home raising children.  For the past ten years my boss (or bosses) were little people who required me to tend to their every need. That is not a job where anyone gives you money.  There are performance reviews, bonuses, deadlines, and a ton of stress, but no monetary paycheck.

This week I started my first paying job in ten years.  I am the newest student staff member at the Women’s Center.  I am helping to program the Peer Connections Program for Returning Women Students for the next academic year.  Day one was perfect.  I was here on time, got my work done and went home without any drama.  Day two, well that is a different story.

Two hours into my five hour shift I got a phone call from my daughter’s school.  Luckily my husband was home so he could handle the situation, but he seems to forget that I am a work.  I am here to do a job and I am not available to answer every question immediately.  Now, I am not a globe-trotting mechanical engineer like he is, but this is a job and something that means a great deal to me.  So, after a quick little vent to my supervisor, Jess, I realize I may need to set some limits with him.

As I enter the world of a working person again, this means that some things in my home life will change.  I feel like it is a good build up to when I have a full time job as a social worker in a couple of years.  I also think it is great that my three daughters see that mom can do things that are important to her and that my life does not completely revolve around their lives.  So here I am.  A working mom.  Not a title I ever envisioned for myself, but I kinda dig it.

*Reaching* to Encourage Young Women in STEM : A Guest Post

Meet Isabel - the founder of the UMBC Reach Initiative.

Meet Isabel – the founder of the UMBC Reach Initiative.

This is a guest post written by UMBC rising junior, Isabel Geisler, who is leading the charge for a new initiative on campus called The Reach Initiative.

When I was 4 or 5 years old, I wanted to be an Astronaut. Mostly, because it was the closest career to being a Jedi, but I also loved space, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and theoretical physics.

I remember one night when I was young my sister and I were waiting for our mother to come home from work.  We were excited because on that night, Nova was doing a special on Quantum Physics. There was one part I remember specifically, where the host is pushing up against a wall and telling the audience how theoretically, if he pushed against the wall long enough for thousands and thousands of years there is a chance that he could just push his arm though the solid wall.

This is obviously a gross over-simplification…but for a 5 year old, this was the closest I could get to magic.

“Quantum Physics: The Fabric of the Cosmos” you can still look up the show today, I even found out that the entire episode is actually from a book by Brian Greene. Last winter, I saw it in a used bookstore, but didn’t buy it because I didn’t think I’d understand it. I don’t know when and why specifically I lost interest in pursuing physics, but I’m guessing it started when I got my first ‘B’ in math and I hate to psychoanalyze myself…but this is how it starts off and ends for many young women who were previously interested in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) fields.

When we look at the STEM fields and look at the proportion of women and men who are pursuing degrees you will find that the majority are men. When speaking of primary education, boys are 6 times more likely than girls to have taken engineering. When speaking of college, the gap gets wider. Despite the fact that roughly 58% of all college students are women, in a computer science class men will outnumber women at a ratio of 8:2. When speaking of professional careers, on average, men will hold about 76% of all STEM jobs. These percentages are reflected across the US –including UMBC- and this does not even begin to include the gaps between Women of Color and their representation in the fields.

The STEM pipeline is the term used to describe this phenomenon. At every gap in this pipeline, for example, elementary school to middle school, we see women dropping out of STEM. Many assert that this is simply because women are not interested in a career that is famous for being unsociable and sterile. This is the wrong assumption.  If we were to look at the experiences of many women in STEM, we would find an ongoing trend of implicit bias, discrimination, and a lack of institutional support. The gross underrepresentation of women in the STEM fields is not only unfair, but it is dangerous.  How can our society expect to be innovative when 50% of our intellectual power is missing from the STEM workforce?

There have been many successful programs that aim to get women interested in STEM, but very few of them acknowledge the inherent bias in the STEM fields that many women struggle with. In the program that I am leading at UMBC, the UMBC Reach Initiative we do not simply want to encourage young women to enter into the STEM fields, we want to retain them. We want to create a network in a world where sometimes that network is non-existent.

For more on the UMBC Reach Initiative, visit their Facebook page!

For more on the UMBC Reach Initiative, visit their Facebook page!

The Reach Initiative is a yearlong program mentorship and research program for high school women who are interested in entering the STEM fields based on the research by the American Association for University Women, Girls Scouts, and several independent organizations funded by the National Science Foundation.  In our first semester, we will provide our scholars a chance to explore the STEM fields, but we have also infused gender empowerment into the curriculum, with varying topics from combatting micro-aggressions to consent. During the second semester, the young women in our program will work with her UMBC mentor to create a research project that they can enter into science fairs and that they will present to their peers, families, and UMBC faculty at an end-of-the-year banquet.

We are currently looking for mentors for the young women who have decided to be a part of the program. If you are a passionate women attending UMBC who is pursuing a degree in the STEM fields or Environmental Science you can find the application here and a link to our FaceBook page here if you would like to learn more.

If you find yourself unable to apply as a mentor because you are not pursuing a STEM degree, do not have the time to commit, or are a female student please contact me at my e-mail (geisler3 at umbc dot edu) to learn more about how you can contribute or act as a leader as we pursue this project.

The Mentalist Model and the Issue with Playing Devil’s Advocate to People’s Experiences

Today I’d like to talk about “Devil’s Advocates.

This is the person who is often situated in a place of both privilege and ignorance, but simultaneously has the confidence to suggest simplistic, often black-and-white, solutions and questions for an often complex and multifaceted issue.

As an activist, woman of color, undocumented immigrant, and survivor of violence, I have encountered my fair share of devil’s advocates to the very issues that impact my life daily.

“The Sake of Argument” xkcd web comic [xkcd.com/1432]

I’d like to first recognize that I am all for respectful dialogue in which both parties are listening and considering each other’s points of view. I understand that we are not all going to agree on everything and this is what helps us expand and even strengthen our own perspectives.

So how does this differ from people who play “devil’s advocates”?

I first look to an article written by Juliana Britto Schwartz called “An open letter to privileged people who play Devil’s Advocates”  in which she articulates the potential harm in using this strategy: “These discussions may feel like ‘playing’ to you, but to many people in the room, it’s their lives you are ‘playing’ with. The reason it feels like a game to you is because these are issues that probably do not directly affect you… You can attach puppet strings to dialogues about real issues because at the end of the day, you can walk away from the tangled mess you’ve exacerbated.”

Often, devil’s advocates (or DA’s) aren’t open to engaging in a real dialogue because they are so committed to proving that they’re right… so they’re unwilling to listen, learn, and potentially change their opinions. DA’s don’t want to learn from a discussion — they want to win a debate.

Interestingly, a devil’s advocate isn’t even necessarily trying to prove that their position is correct; in fact, quite often they don’t even necessarily believe in the position they’re arguing! DA’s might argue a devil’s advocate position not to prove themselves right, but rather to prove someone else wrong– they’re not arguing for their position so much as they’re arguing against yours. So the difference between someone who engages in conversation in good faith versus a devil’s advocate is that for a DA the conversation is an impersonal and abstract intellectual exercise, whereas for people actually impacted by these issues it’s very personal and significant.

Like Britto Schwartz describes, it can be incredibly hurtful, damaging, and insensitive to approach a conversation with a person about a painful experience with an “objective” viewpoint and expect the person to do the same. You might hear comments like, “Don’t be so sensitive…”, and “But I heard that…*insert story about the exception to your point here*”

This is where the idea of “objectivity” as “truth” comes into conflict. I’d like to challenge this idea of “objectivity” and the misguided assumption that someone who has not had a personal experience or investment in an issue is necessarily better able to understand it and is thus more equipped to provide critical perspective and solutions. I, along with many of my friends, particularly women of color, have often expressed our frustration with this idea of “objectivity” as truth.

Why is it that an issue or experience can miraculously become relevant and worth listening to when someone who is not directly impacted talks about the issue? It’s as if people are more willing to listen to and empathize with someone who they feel is not “too involved” or a “direct survivor” of an experience because it is more comfortable.

As I was working on my senior capstone, I came across an insightful and informative research report called, “American Perceptions of Sexual Violence” from the FrameWorks Institute. The goal of the research was to figure out some of the effective ways of communicating what constitutes sexual violence and what can be done to address this in the United States. The study measured both experts’ and the public’s perceptions about sexual violence and showed the discrepancy between experts, who looked to larger social and cultural patterns to explain why sexual violence is pervasive, and the public, who often saw sexual violence as a problem that rested within the minds, hearts, and actions of particular individuals. Interestingly, one of the main thought models that the public most often used is similar to what I have often seen used by devil’s advocates.” This thought model is called the Mentalist Model. 

“According to the mentalist model, Americans tend to view outcomes and social problems as a result of individual concerns that reflect character, motivation and personal discipline. As such, the use of mentalist models by the public has a narrowing effect—it boils complex interactions among individuals, contextual determinants and systems down to either the presence or absence of individual motivation and internal fortitude.

Sexual violence continues to be perceived as a problem solely and fundamentally created by individual moral failings on the part of the perpetrator and, on the part of the victim, the lack of responsibility to ensure one’s safety (often seen in Victim-Blaming).” (4)

While this research was focused on attitudes toward sexual violence, I find it incredibly relevant to many other social issues in our society. For example, in discussions about unemployment, a DA can be heard dismissing or ignoring the importance of systemic inequality, generational poverty, and racial discrimination by reducing the problem to “laziness.” Or talking about how “illegal” immigrants are taking “hardworking Americans'” jobs, when undocumented workers are not even eligible for the jobs that DA’s allege they’re “taking.” How people of color need to “get over it” and “stop talking about race” because we live in a “post-racial” society in which racism no longer exists and everyone has equal opportunity for success (also meaning that any disadvantage is, again, caused by the control and decisions of the individual). And of course, when we talk about sexual assault and gender-based violence and the DA references how one woman lied about her rape, thus reinforcing the idea that women are vindictive, untrustworthy, and constantly “crying rape,” or the popular favorite: “Not ALL Men…”

When we are faced with challenging discussions about social issues, particularly those that we have not experienced, it is so important to take a step back, consider the larger perspective, and listen to the members of the community who actually experience the issues that we might only talk about in the comfort of our homes and schools. Playing devil’s advocate to someone’s life experience by spurting out counter statistics and black-and-white solutions can be both isolating and damaging. It is important that we all check our privilege, recognize and acknowledge when we do not know things, and make clear our intentions when we engage in critical dialogues.

The path to social change requires community and solidarity. In order for solidarity to develop, we must practice listening to and talking with— rather than talking at. We are not all going to see eye-to-eye on everything, but by taking the first step to solidarity, I believe we can get a lot more done together.

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Here are some helpful videos to check out!