Archive | December, 2011

Saturday quote

31 Dec

 “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

—Maya Angelou

Merry Christmas!

25 Dec

Wishes for a merry, merry Christmas full of presence.

–Alison

Saturday quote

24 Dec

“We tend to think of ourselves as nouns, when we’re really verbs.”

—Jack Kornfield

Happy Hanukkah!

20 Dec

Happy Hanukkah to all on this first night of the Festival of Lights!

–Alison

Monday quote… and going on holiday

19 Dec

“None of us is getting out of this life alive.”

–Andrew Poutiatine, brilliant medical device engineer and my sage husband

** So live it. Thanks for reading in 2011. Blink will be back in 2012–taking some time off to reflect and revel. Enjoy the holidays.

Saturday quote

17 Dec

“The facilitator’s job is to support everyone to do their best thinking and practice.”

—Sam Kaner

Culture can make you do (almost) anything

16 Dec

Here’s a headline that grabbed my attention earlier this week: “[Penn State University] culture explained away Sandusky”  (http://www.newsday.com/news/ap-impact-psu-culture-explained-away-sandusky-1.3383179).

While the article recycles a lot of familiar information, it’s a chilling read nonetheless because it’s still stunning and profoundly disquieting to be reminded of this alleged serial child molester’s 12-year, community-enabled victimization of children that his community credited him for helping.

In calling out the school’s culture, journalist Brett Blackledge and his colleagues don’t let individuals off the hook: rather, they offer an explanation of how otherwise sensible, aware adults who are certainly opposed to child sexual abuse could be passive accomplices to Sandusky.

Yeah, I know. It’s still hard to fathom.

Let’s start with culture: Michael Pollan calls it, “Mom.” What he means is that culture is those values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors and rules that comprise our sense of what is normal and right because they were taught to us by caregivers, mentors and role models. Culture is: look both ways before crossing, eat vegetables, have children, try to balance work and play. But wait, aren’t those just truths, or at the very least universal good advice? Well, consider if: you’re Papuan (and live in a remote area of Irian Jaya that has no roads), Inuit (and walrus is available year-round but plants aren’t), Chinese (and live under a one-child policy) or French (and you have a legally enforced 35-hr work week). But I’ll also say that culture doesn’t have to be unique. Many cultures can share the same ideas and practices. It doesn’t make those ideas and practices acultural.

Culture is also: rape and child abuse are wrong. While these seem like even more universal truths, I would argue that “rape” is defined differently across nations and cultures (including whether or not a culture acknowledges that a wife can be raped by her husband, or a man can be raped at all). And what we do when confronted with these wrongs is also cultural: whether we yell for the police, dole out justice privately among ourselves, sweep things under the carpet or phone it in to the newspapers.

Families have cultures; workplaces have culture; teams, clubs, political parties and schools have cultures. We learn these cultures when we first become part of these organizations, and if we stick around, we soon forget there was any culture to learn because it becomes so ingrained it like’s breathing: we just follow the rules. And that seems to describe some of what was happening at Penn State: people breathed in the culture of reverence for football, Paterno and Sandusky. Meanwhile, they breathed in the culture of the school handling things itself.

But the Penn State case cannot be explained by culture alone. The concerted nonaction of multiple university officials and employees seems like a textbook example of bystander effect (Genovese syndrome), which I wrote about in my 11/21/11 post. The bystander effect is the social phenomenon of collective passivity in an emergency situation: the theory is that the mere presence of another witness allows me to rationalize that there’s no real problem or reason to intervene (because surely they would do something, if something really needed to be done. Right?) The bystander effect is evidenced in 2008 National Crime Victimization Survey statistics that reveal that 68% of all physical assaults are witnessed by a third-party. In a gross contradiction of odds, the more bystanders, the more likely no one will do anything, according to research.

So we have cultural norms, bystander effect… and still, the equation seems incomplete. Because there is, as we all believe, still individual sentience and will to consider. There is the agency of one person to make a choice, despite conditioning and inertia. And we are horrified that so many individuals did not exercise their consciences and their free will.

To that, I say: when did they practice? When did they previously learn, observe and get to try for themselves standing up, instead of standing by? When did they get to practice resilience and persistence: saying no, and when told to be quiet, saying it again and again, until they were finally heard? When did they have a chance to exercise their voices and see what impact they could have?

In my opinion, lack of practice is a critical part of what happened at Penn State: we all have strong convictions about what is right and wrong, and believe that when compelled to step up, we would. But without practice, how can we be so confident that we’ll be ready to put one foot down, and then the other?

Justin Beiber is not a victim

15 Dec

If, like me, you cannot resist pop culture news, you may be aware that a paternity suit was brought then dropped against 17 year old pop star Justin Bieber.

His accuser, a 20 year old “fan”, has claimed that she and Bieber had sex last year. When the singer was 16 years old.

While the earliest stories covering this litigation mention this fact, I was struck by just that: that Bieber’s age only got a mention. For example, in its first article about the paternity suit, People magazine noted almost as an aside:

“The allegations are further complicated by the age gap between Bieber and Mariah Yeater, the fan making the claims. In California, the age of consent is 18, and the teen idol would have been 16 when the alleged sexual encounter occurred” (http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20541938,00.html).

The rest of the article is dedicated to some sordid details of the alleged encounter and competing she-said, he-said claims–with no further mention or explanation of the “complications” that Bieber’s age presented.

And so the frenzy of coverage continued across print and internet media, with a small but notable silence in the middle of it all.

Two weeks after the story first broke, I finally saw it. Rolling Stone published an update on the scandal that spelled out the Bieber “complication”:

“If Yeater’s allegations were proven to be true, police told the Associated Press that she could be investigated for statutory rape” (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/justin-bieber-paternity-suit-dropped-20111116).

There it is: rape. That word that took approximately 14 days of avid coverage to surface. Longer than I imagine it would take for the press to mention statutory rape if the story were about someone claiming to have sex with a 16 year old girl. About 14 days longer, to be exact.

Given that statutory rape is both sensationalistic fodder for tabloids and straight-up fact for reputable news sources, it’s both intriguing and obvious why it’s been so glaringly omitted from Bieber news: rape happens to girls.

That, of course, is not true. (See anti-sexual assault organizations RAINN and One in Four for statistics.) However, this myth is part of our social narrative about women and men, and about femininity and masculinity.

And perpetuating traditional notions about gender and power is part of the Bieber persona. To be clear, this is Justin Bieber: 

Bieber embodies a mix of first boyfriend/good “just a friend”/younger brother/choir boy/darling rascal. He’s an impeccably coiffed and dressed teen. He sings about young love. He has nail polish and perfume lines. He’s hardly the poster boy for Manly Men. In fact, there’s a Facebook page devoted to people who agree “The Powerpuff Girls are more masculine than Justin Bieber!” But this is all applying a narrow, stereotypical, default notion of “masculine.” 

To be clear, when we talk about sex, we’re talking about biology: what reproductive organs we have and how that identifies us as male, female or intersex. When we talk about gender, we’re talking about notions of masculinity and femininity–in other words, our socially constructed ideas of how men and women should appear, behave and even feel. And when we talk about sexuality, we’re talking about emotional and sexual attractions and behaviors. 

While sex, gender and sexuality are related, they do not determine each other. But that doesn’t stop us from insisting that boys and men fulfill certain expectations of masculinity, and when they don’t, from assuming that they’re gay. Justin Bieber is a classic example: as a (in some ways) non-traditionally masculine male, he is a lightning rod for gay speculation (adolescent boys who can’t fathom his appeal sling homophobic epithets to describe him, and the internet is abuzz with stories about Bieber coming out).

So what do I mean when I claim that perpetuating traditional notions about gender and power is part of the Bieber persona? Check out the lyrics from his hit song “Baby” (I’ll keep it short–it’s mind-numbing reading):

Baby, baby, baby oooh

Like baby, baby, baby nooo

Like baby, baby, baby oooh

I thought you’d always be mine (mine)

 

For you I would have done whatever

And I just can’t believe we ain’t together

And I wanna play it cool, but I’m losin’ you

I’ll buy you anything, I’ll buy you any ring

And I’m in pieces, baby fix me

And just shake me ’til you wake me from this bad dream

I’m going down, down, down, down

And I just can’t believe my first love won’t be around

With his soft tenor, Bieber hits all the notes of the traditional love song boyfriend:

  • calling his girl “baby”
  • asserting his ability to care for her by buying her “anything”
  • offering “any ring” to make her happy
  • trying to “play it cool” but loving her so much that he’s willing to seem uncool/unmanly in front of her

He doesn’t have to swagger or punch the other guy out to be masculine: he asserts his gender identity through crooning about how much he loves his baby. Tellingly, the video for this song features a giant neon King Kong and his iconic blonde baby in the background, letting us know that no matter how poppy and frothy Bieber may sound, he is part of the very masculine tradition of men laying claim to their women.)

So when some older female fan claims to have sex with Bieber, it’s just part of the fame game. In fact, a baby-daddy accusation is arguably good for his masculine credibility. However, when that claim would mean that he was raped, it’s another thing entirely for the sweet-faced teenage singer who relies on his soft but masculine persona for his success. It’s a triple threat to his maleness, his masculinity and his heterosexuality because even though the alleged encounter was heterosexual, “rape” casts him as the passive, submissive, weaker and ultimately “feminine” partner.

Regarding the statutory rape possibility, Steve Cron, a California defense lawyer, told the New York Post: “Under a normal situation, no harm, no foul … I would think [prosecutors] might let it go. But under these circumstances, the DA’s office has to show they’re not treating women differently, not treating a celebrity differently, [and] they might have to do something” (http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2011/11/02/la-woman-claims-justin-bieber-is-father-her-baby/).

While Cron doesn’t explicitly include the importance of the DA’s office not treating male victims of rape differently, it’s implied. As if to call it out is just over the line of what needs to or should be said. Maybe we’ve come far enough to recognize women as aggressors, but, baby, we have a ways to go before we can acknowledge men as their victims–at least in crimes of rape. 

Bieber’s own statement about the paternity suit perhaps says it best: “None of those allegations are true.  I know I am going to be a target, but I am never going to be a victim” (Today Show, 11/04/11).

Never a victim. While he was ostensibly responding to a question about his alleged paternity, it seems to me he’s really defending much more than that.

I’m not sure how or why there has been a collective muting around the r-word in the Bieber case, but I suspect it’s a collaborative effort, among a gender-conforming mainstream media, the gender image conscious team around the singer, and a gender-traditional public. And while Bieber, his career and the fantasies of his pubescent female fans may benefit from preserving his perceived masculinity, the traditional gender stereotypes that have created silence, shame and avoidance around this case don’t help other victims of rape: male, female, intersex, transsexual, transgender, feminine and masculine.

This means war?

14 Dec

Here’s what still bugs me about Phil Bronstein’s San Francisco Chronicle op-ed  “Seeking diversity through segregation” (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/12/05/ED5E1M7H7G.DTL):

Remember the waterboarding opening? Bronstein writes, “San Francisco parents are going through the annual academic version of waterboarding–abused, suffering and praying in order to get their kids into finite slots in the city’s top private schools.” Then he seems to switch topics to his gripe about affinity occasions for prospective families of color and LGBTQ families.

Seems to.

At first, I read the first few paragraphs as unskillful transitioning, but what I realized after reading the whole op-ed over is that he isn’t changing topics at all. If we connect the dots Bronstein provides, the LGBTQ and Families of Color nights that he decries are part of the “cruelty” (on par with torture) that San Francisco parents are subjected to.

Although he never explicitly demonizes anyone, choosing instead to direct his critique at a general mentality he sees as obsolete, Bronstein’s allusion to waterboarding invokes an “us v. them” war mindset, which begs the question: who is the enemy?

Let’s think about this… if the admissions process is like torture, and affinity events are part of the torture, are LGBTQ families and families of color… the enemy? (And then, when Bronson speaks for the tortured SF parents, does he really, more specifically mean the white heterosexual parents?)

While he never come right out and says any of this, I can’t help but hear the implications simmer just under the surface of his outrage. Diversity, like war, tends to create a combative mentality, as if justice is a zero-sum equation, in which more for you means less for me. Thus, any of “you” who stakes a claim to more rights and privileges is a direct threat to me.

This logic is flawed not only because justice is not a zero-sum equation–rather, it is an all-or-none proposition: either we all have it, or none of us do–but because it ignores the impact of social context on each of us, including our respective access to opportunities and resources.

Justice is not just a matter of counting how many “parties” (to use Bronstein’s parlance) I get, and how many you get. Justice asks us to recognize the systems, precedents and current circumstances that shape the experiences of people of diverse and unequal social identities.

Now, before we argue about merit (i.e. if there is a majority of white heterosexuals in independent schools, it’s because they all deserve and have earned their place), let’s be clear that a myriad of factors have limited diversity in admissions, including:

  • special consideration for legacies
  • the need for full-tuition-paying families
  • the need for full-tuition-paying-and-generous-donation-making families (I say this with no disrespect to schools or the generous families that give to them: donations are part of the lifeblood of non-profits, including schools)
  • inequitable distribution of application resources (application and essay writing coaches, SSAT test prep, family friends who know someone in admissions, etc.)
  • previous independent school experience and cultural fluency
  • sibling policies that give special consideration to children who already have a sibling attending the school

And that’s not even considering the impact of larger, social and historical phenomena like red-lining, which, in actively discriminating against people of color seeking to secure home and student loans, has had a domino, generational effect on the financial worth and security (including the educational access) of countless individuals and families of color.

Let me be clear: I am by no means arguing that white heterosexual kids, kids who come from white heterosexual families and/or kids who come from wealthy families have gotten into independent schools illegitimately. I am arguing that their individual merit is inextricable from social and historical circumstances that advantage them.

So if Bronstein wants to keep score, tallying who does and doesn’t “get a party,” all I ask is that he keep the full score, not just this myopic one.

In the larger picture, I would also ask that he reconsider the histrionic torture metaphor he invokes to exacerbate an already emotional and charged process for kids and their parents/guardians. This is not war. And we are not enemies.

Stupid? Hardly.

13 Dec
[Disclaimer: I used to work in independent, aka private schools, and still work with many of them, making me biased about them, for better and worse, and perhaps more insightful about their cultures than the average SF Bay Area resident.]
 
Perhaps you read Phil Bronstein’s op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle last week? The one in which he compares applying to private schools with waterboarding? “Seeking diversity through segregation” (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/12/05/ED5E1M7H7G.DTL) opens with that metaphor and then catapults into its main topic: Bronstein takes issue with affinity events for prospective families/guardians, specifically LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/sexual and queer) Families and Families of Color nights. Granted, this is an op-ed, not fact-driven reporting. Still, as Bronstein takes the “op” in op-ed to unapologetic, imitation-fact extremes (as if exclamation points make an assertion any more valid), I must beg to differ on several counts: 

Bronstein marshals support for his outrage from a sympathetic parent, who declares, “[Having a Families of Color night is] really offensive. And stupid. Can they still be pigeonholing people based on race? This is 2011!” First of all, let’s agree to use clear antecedents before we start slinging names and accusations. I am tired of using “them” (the conveniently multipurpose, unidentified and, in this case, unintelligent people we don’t like) getting blamed for everything. “They” suggests a culprit without us having to do any critical thinking or inquiry–let alone being held accountable for our words. In this case, identifying “them” (schools, and more specifically, their leadership) would result in admitting that “they” aren’t forcing families to identify. Some–not all–families in the application process choose to self-identify as LGBTQ and/or of color. And they ask schools to recognize their self-identification. Is it “offensive” and “stupid” for us to recognize that we and our child(ren) have social identities that impact our experiences, including our abilities to learn, make friends and thrive in a community? 

As for “pigeonholing,” I wonder what this anonymous commentator thinks about grade levels and same-sex groupings. These are commonly implemented and accepted categorizations that co-ed institutions use to facilitate individual and group development. And I like to think that, rather than holes kids get stuck in, these are occasions in their education, mixed in with other occasions that provide kids with diverse opportunities for self-discovery, social engagement and learning.  

Moving on, Bronstein makes a subtle but critical shift in his argument, asking, “Can the most prestigious places of learning really believe that meaningful integration is accomplished through segregated events?”

Whoa. Who said this was segregation? While he interviewed heads of schools David Jackson (from San Francisco Day School) and Wanda Holland Greene (from the Hamlin School) for his op-ed, Bronstein seems to base his language choice on the opinion of his disgruntled fellow parent. Having worked with over 35 SF Bay Area schools as a diversity consultant, I think I can safely say: schools are not down with segregation.

To clarify: segregation is forced separation based on identity, with an underlying intent to institutionalize the inequities between groups. In other words, to maintain the privileges of the group in power. Affinity, which is how I understand both SFDS and Hamlin talk about their initiatives, is the elective opportunity to explore social identity development and connection to community in a dedicated forum that welcomes normative questions about identity and diversity. The purpose of affinity occasions is to cultivate integrated self-concept and engagement with a community of still diverse peers (because we may all identify as LGBTQ, but we also identify, in terms of socioeconomics, race, religion–and yes, politics, among other aspects of our identities).

I would ask Bronstein and others who understandably may not have considered or had the opportunity to learn about and experience affinity firsthand, to choose their language with more consideration. And for accuracy over inflammation.

Bronstein goes on to ask, “So does everyone get a party?” He seems to perceive minority prospective parent/guardian events as a privilege and unfair advantage these groups enjoy. My answer is: yes. White and heterosexual families often get a party (even parties) by default. One of the perks of being in the majority is that the party gets thrown for you: the party is designed to make you comfortable, from the casual banter (“So, what does your husband do, Alison?”) to the unspoken rules (not identifying the race of an individual, unless that individual isn’t white. Bronstein practices this favoring of white as the norm in his op-ed, in which he identifies Wanda Holland Greene as “herself African American,” while not identifying himself or David Jackson. I wonder if he even asked Jackson? He does cheekily identify his parent ally and her/his friends as “of one color or another.”)

As for “getting” to have this party with other like-identifying families, I would argue it’s a questionable “get.” Another perk of identifying with majorities is that because you know the party (including the venue and, to extend the metaphor, the decorations, the entertainment, the food, the music and the games) is designed for you, you have a degree of automatic assurance that the party will be safe and, of course, fun… for you. Minority-identifying “guests,” on the other hand, bear a greater responsibility for themselves and their children to investigate how safe, nurturing and actively inclusive schools are for all students: when and what does the school teach about race? what happens if a child makes fun of another kid for having two dads? how does the school support the particular emotional, social and academic challenges that LGBTQ youth may face? are racial-minority children spread out across classrooms, or are they given the same opportunities as their racial-majority peers to be with like-identifying kids? 

Some would argue that these are the questions of people who “insist” on “always bringing up” [fill-in-the blank]. I would posit that most parents and guardians want the best for their children. In my experience, these questions aren’t for fun or to fulfill political agendas: they’re for a fuller understanding of what the deal is for kids and families who are historically under-represented as fully acknowledged members of equal standing in school communities that are, by fact of tuition (even with financial assistance) and a network of social insider connections, private and unequal in access.  

Finally (I’m trying to keep this concise because I could go on…) Bronstein turns to his 11 year old son for his conclusion. When his son asks, “Isn’t that racist [to have what Bronstein calls “‘People of …’ nights”]?” Bronstein answers that it isn’t… explaining to his readers that his son “is a sensitive kid.”

Play that again? It’s not that Bronstein thinks affinity isn’t racist; it’s that he’s concerned about upsetting his kid with the r-word. That’s a whole other issue: not teaching children about what’s racial v. what’s racist. Racial has to do with the fact of race as a phenotypic, genealogical and social part of our identities, experiences and perceptions of others. Racist is about perpetuating systemic stereotypes, discrimination and inequalities of access and opportunity on the basis of race as some arbiter of human value and merit. 

What I would tell Bronstein’s son is: no. These affinity events are not racist. They’re a way to stand up to racism, particularly the kind that gets perpetuated when we refuse to acknowledge how race matters. And until all adults and children–regardless of they identify or are identified–become cognizant and skillful around their own involuntary awareness of race and society’s default racism–and, for that matter, heterosexism–Families of Color and LGBTQ Family nights are, in my opinion, critical. 

Unlike Bronstein, I don’t hope that we dispense with affinity in some post-identity future. Because allowing people to acknowledge how they identify and are identified isn’t “a relic of separation.” It’s actually very human.

* Thanks to my colleagues DJ and RO for the inspiration.