A false inequivalence

15 May

Consider this: someone is accused of murder, and 60 other people step forward, offering as a defense of the accused that they themselves weren’t murdered by this person.

Does that sound absurd? 

How about if someone is accused of sexual harassment or assault? Because that’s what’s playing out in the accusation—now three accusations—against Tom Brokaw. After one woman spoke up, 60… 65… (and perhaps still counting) women have publicly and collectively vouched for Brokaw’s “decency and integrity.” 

The rationale seems to be that if he didn’t harass them, he couldn’t have harassed the other women. And in the court of public opinion, the fact that there are more women whom Brokaw hasn’t allegedly harassed than there are women whom he has allegedly harassed, well, it’s all the more proof that he couldn’t have harassed anyone. Ever.

And this standard seems to be unique to sexual harassment and assault claims. Think about it: when someone is accused of arson, do their defenders point to all the buildings that person hasn’t burned down as evidence that they couldn’t have burned down the building in question? Or, in a more pointed case, when Wells Fargo was accused of opening over 2 million accounts in customers’ names without the knowledge or consent of those customers, was the fact that other clients didn’t have accounts opened fraudulently on their behalf considered proof that no crime had been committed?

A different twist on this “proof is outside the pudding” logic, there was the defense of Sean Spicer’s treatment of journalist April Ryan: apparently, since Spicer was rude to lots of people, that was evidence that he wasn’t racist or sexist.

What the Brokaw and Spicer situations have in common is the perceived insufficiency of not just the claims made against them, but who made them: women, and in Ryan’s case, a woman of color. The idea being that they are inherently untrustworthy because, you know, they’re prone to “playing the [insert identity] card,” possibly hysterical and have “an agenda” that could irreparably damage the good names of the professionals whose “decency and integrity” we can all rely on without a petition.

Now, you’re thinking: don’t forget that those are 65 women who’ve spoken up in Brokaw’s defense. Yup. Like all people, they each get to make up their own minds about what and whom they believe. It’s just that whether or not we believe them depends on the side they pick. 

Another perspective on the NSWO

16 Mar

I found Megan McArdle’s Washington Post column “The student walkout said more about adults than kids” to be a useful additional perspective on a topic that, quite honestly, I’m not just biased about, but pretty strongly biased about (meaning: did I support the National School Walk Out? Absolutely, no question). Personal certainty is usually a good indicator that I need a perspective-check.

McArdles notes that in coverage of the walk out:

… one moment in particular seems especially popular among conservatives: the kids in Tennessee who used the opportunity to rip down an American flag and, allegedly, hop on the roof of a police car.


In response to this incident and its use as “proof” that the walkout was no more than an opportunity for youth to skip school and break rules, supporters of the march responded, “C’mon, these are kids.”

Which is particularly interesting, since the justification for the march, coming from the very same folks, was that we need to respect youth and what they have to say, not just dismiss them as children.

McArdle teases out this contradiction, writing:

The idea that children, in their innocence, have special moral insight goes back a long way in Western culture — perhaps to the biblical injunction that, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” It has, of course, always warred with some variant of the belief that “children should be seen and not heard” — that children are not yet ready to hold up their end in adult conversations.

So when does the special moral insight of children manifest itself? When they are telling us that algebra is a stupid waste of time and the drinking age should be 14? No, funnily enough, children are only gifted with these special powers when they agree with the adults around them. Our long-standing cultural dichotomy lets adults use them strategically in political arguments, to push them forward as precious angels speaking words of prophecy to make a point, and then say, “hush, they’re just kids” when the children mar that point by acting like, well, children.

… if you wouldn’t be swayed by a 17-year-old’s passionate advocacy for a lower drinking age — or for that matter, their ideas about Federal Reserve policy — then you should probably apply those same cautions to their other views…

I appreciate the point that listening to youth–listening to anyone or any group–isn’t about convenience. It’s about the fundamental recognition that youth, people of color, evangelicals, women, rich people, people with disabilities, immigrants, all of us are people, even when our perspectives don’t serve your agenda or cause. Something I need to remember while I’m turning the volume up/down on someone else’s voice because it does or doesn’t confirm my bias or prove my point.

The National School Walk Out: What are youth learning?

14 Mar

Today is the National School Walk Out, in which reportedly thousands of students across the US are participating. A colleague sent me this article from The Guardian, urging adults to “Drive them to a march. Buy their gas. Whatever it takes, support all kids marching today.

In the article, Sarah Smarsh notes “a social media refrain [that] has emerged among sympathetic adults: Don’t listen when people say protesting will hurt your future. The ‘permanent record’ they talk about doesn’t exist. Your high school punishments are meaningless once you graduate… March on.”

To which I say, yes.


I appreciate the clarification that most actions and their consequences are situational–ex. things that happen in high school are often contained within the community and the records (formal and informal) of that school. Of course, with the power of social media, it’s arguable that there is a permanent record of sorts, at least virtually. And it’s simply true that some actions and consequences have in the past and will in the future transcend their locality because of the sheer size, impact, significance and communicability (once again, thank you, internet) of the events. Just search a phrase like “college acceptances retracted” and see what pops up, including infractions at your high school that your school feels a duty to report to your next prospective community.

Which brings me to the perspective from which this article seems to be written: there’s an underlying foundation of privilege.

Notice that the headline opens with two financial ways to support today’s activism. Absolutely, yes, if you have a car and disposable income to cover someone else’s gas, please do use those tools for social justice. And, there are plenty of non-additional cost or equipment-intensive ways to support youth today, including cheering when you walk by a march, joining them for a few minutes, writing a letter to your representative/congressperson or talking with youth about what they’re going to do tomorrow. It’s critical to convey from the top that this isn’t only about how to support youth if you happen to have the financial resources. This is about a diverse group of adults supporting a hopefully diverse group of youth in making themselves heard.

Then, back to the refrain: Don’t listen when people say protesting will hurt your future. I believe it’s more honest and useful to say: Protesting may hurt some future avenues for you. Just like not protesting may. It’s up to you always to discern and choose which possibilities are worth it to you. And which potential consequences you can afford.

The idea that all youth can equally afford to be civilly disobedient is just untrue. And irresponsible to suggest. Protest in its very nature challenges authority. Who is immunized from any and all consequences to their actions? No one. But you have better odds when you have some authority standing behind you, whether that authority comes from your identity (ex. whiteness, wealth); or your family and community’s identity and resources (ex. a parent who is a lawyer, connections at your school or local police department, or just coming from “the right neighborhood”).

Privilege as it plays out regarding the National School Walk Out and other activism in general has made me wonder: what are we teaching our youth about social action? Many of the independent schools with whom I work have planned with or on behalf of students regarding today. Specifically, schools are articulating how they are supporting participation in today’s event, and what is or isn’t acceptable (ex. younger children are not allowed to leave campus, while US/HS students will be supervised and/or accorded space in front of the school). So what are the potential lessons learned by students who are ostensibly being “supported” today?

  • What issues to care about. Because support for today’s protest against gun violence in schools is not identical to support in the same schools for activism supporting DACA protections, transgender rights or the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • What side to take on these issues. Where is the space for students who actually advocate for maintaining or increasing gun ownership rights? The students who are indifferent? And how are we cultivating discernment–not just a hive mentality–among all students, including those who, because they identify into a popular opinion majority, are at particular risk of mindlessly basking in a sense of right(eous)ness, rather than thinking critically through the issues? Notably, in 2017 in SF, the Women’s March coincided with an antiabortion march. Some of the schools that explicitly promoted or supported participation in the Women’s March did not even mention the antiabortion march. I’m not arguing that all issues are of equal importance or that all sides of any given issue are equal. I am asking: how are we teaching students to discern equivalence and i in social issues? How do they learn that white supremacy and civil rights for all racial identities aren’t equal perspectives, socially, morally or legally? And, to bring the focus back to today’s walk out, how do they address what is and isn’t equivalent about the different positions on gun violence in the US, and why their schools as institutions may take a position–not just be neutral?
  • That resistance, protest and civil disobedience are always risk-free. With good intention, some schools are extending their support to students marching against gun violence today through by deciding that students will not be penalized for participating. I’ve seen this before in everything from coordinating around senior cut day (when schools inform teachers that they shouldn’t assign homework or plan any quizzes, and ask parents/guardians to communicate with the school about planned absences) to supporting absences due to other activism (again, see: Women’s Marches). This is great, and… I think reinforces a privileged notion of activism. That it never costs you anything or poses any risks financially, socially, emotionally, or physically.
  • That resistance should always happen on the terms that authorities to which you are beholden offer you. It is absolutely a school’s responsibility to say that students cannot just leave campus (especially younger ones) because schools must consider safety and liability. But the school’s responsibility is not the individual student’s–or teacher’s or staff person’s or administrator’s. I write this not intending to say that all students should buck all considerations or safety and rules that are put in place on their behalf by the adults that care for and have responsibility for them. I am saying that resistance and protest by definition take on institutions and authorities that have been setting the rules of engagement. And without abdicating the responsibility we have right now for the children and youth we serve, many of us have a concurrent responsibility (under mission and core values) to prepare the same students to stand up when there is no authority behind them to guarantee their safety and success.

So I say yes, and… to supporting students’ engagement at today’s march, and the next demonstration on this and other issues, and on all the days in between specially organized events, when we’re still practicing our values and have the opportunity to stand up for what we believe.

** Thanks to my colleague MB for sharing this article.

Not just an 11 year old girl

14 Dec

Here are some headlines reporting on an incident that happened in Grand Rapids, MI last week:

Headlines Dec2017

One of these headlines is not like the others. It’s the one that describes the victim of this “disturbing,” “wrongful” and “embarrassing” incident as not just any 11 year old Michigan Girl but as a black 11 year old Michigan girl.

Now hold up. You may be wondering: why do we always have to make everything about race? I mean, this is a human being. Isn’t that what matters?


It matters if anyone is “inappropriately treated” (ABC News) by the police.


If age and gender are relevant to understanding how and why Honestie Hodges was “inappropriately treated”, how is race not also relevant?

Because what we know, based on research across experiences, disciplines and contexts, is that race matters in how a human being is perceived:

race matters in ed

And no, it’s not that race only matters. In fact, what happened to Honestie isn’t actually surprising when you recognize her as black and female and a child in the US. As Ruth Graham wrote in Slate earlier this year, “Black Girls Are Too Often Treated as Older Than They Are—and Suffer for It.” And it’s not news, at least to the African American Policy Forum that black girls are “Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected.”

I would argue that it’s critical for all of us (not just the Black Christian News Network One) to recognize Honestie as both “just” another human being and as a black 11 year old Michigan girl so that we don’t lose sight of our expectations of fair and just treatment, dignity and respect for all, while reckoning with disproportionate violations of those expectations for particular groups of people who are human, just like us. Because unless we see who is being treated unfairly clearly and completely, we can’t effectively address the systemic prejudices, discrimination and inequities that are just setting us up for the next headline.

On hybridity and why we keep arguing with each other (and should continue to)

3 Dec

At the NAIS People of Color Conference this past week, Eric Liu, founder of Citizen University, reminded us that “[the United States of] America is an argument.” That since our founding through today, this republic has been about tension: between liberty and equality, between pluribus and unum, between centralized and local government, between identity-blindness and identity-seeing. Thus, “claiming a place” in the US means “getting comfy” with arguing as participation in civic life. Liu defined our challenge not “as getting into a defensive huddle,” but as “telling an affirmative story of us.” And to decide personally whether I will be an asset or a problem in the telling of this story. He called upon us to commit to hybridity: the combination of like and “super-unlike” elements in order to solve problems. In other words, diversity is not the problem or the answer: it’s just a fact—a historical, universal fact, despite the myths of some lost “purity” (racial purity, religious purity) that fuel too many of today’s political and social movements around the world. But it’s not enough to acknowledge, accept or even value diversity. Liu asserts that we need to activate hybridity. How do we do that? By explicitly integrating hybridity into our experiences, whether it’s a conversation with a friend or a lesson plan for students. And by creating environments that require hybridity: bringing like and “super-unlike” people together to “work on a third thing”—not to just talk about you and me, but to leverage our like- and unlikeness to solve a complex problem that will be enriched by having a diversity of perspectives brought to bear on it.

Thanks to Eric for the reminder, the inspiration and the challenge to do–not just be–citizens. Because citizenry shouldn’t just be about whether you happened to be born within a set of political boundaries or have documents: it should be about civic ownership and action. For more from Eric, check out his latest book You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen.

Quote of the day

27 Oct

“If you steal money, you probably get arrested and convicted, because everybody says stealing is wrong. But if you do something that is very sexist or racist, because there still is a critical mass of bias in this country, it takes more cumulative instances for it to be recognized.”

–Gloria Steinem, 2017

This is Gloria Steinem speaking in an interview alongside Jane Fonda about why the allegations of sexual harassment, abuse and assault against Harvey Weinstein seem to matter to people now. As Fonda put it, “It feels like something has shifted. It’s too bad that it’s probably because so many of the women that were assaulted by Harvey Weinstein are famous and white and everybody knows them. This has been going on a long time to black women and other women of color and it doesn’t get out quite the same.”

… which in itself is a quotable quote.

But I was struck particularly by Steinem’s naming of the “critical mass of bias in this country.” She flipped the script on something I try to illuminate, when I work with groups around -isms and -phobias, and specifically around what makes them hard to address: it’s that any real -ism or -phobia is, by definition, systemic. It’s the way things work. And it’s very hard to notice the default: the ways things normally are and seem always to have been. So it’s been harder than one might rationally expect for instances of violent and repeated sexual harassment, abuse and assault to be recognized, at least in part, because as a culture we have an alarmingly high level of tolerance–and even acceptance–for misogynist and sexist attitudes and behaviors. Socially acceptable gender and sexual biases don’t just blind us to everyday, pre-assault/harassment/abuse behaviors; they inure us to the very fact of how people are degraded on the basis of their gender everyday, publicly and with our tacit consent.

What can I do? How can I help?

12 Oct

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

–Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 1963

While Martin Luther King, Jr. was writing about social injustice when he wrote those lines, they seem entirely relevant as well to the natural disasters that are befalling communities near and close to us, within and across national lines, and across vast stretches of land and water.

Wherever you are, I realize that many of us who haven’t experienced the devastation of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate or the Napa and Sonoma fires, know people who have. I hope you and your communities are safe.

And if you’re having conversations with students, colleagues, friends and family about how to help, I wanted to share some resources: I’m just learning about the concept of effective altruism, and came across this tool: the Greatest Good Calculator from the Center for International Disaster Information.

I offer these not so much as any right answers to the questions so many people are asking: “How do I help? What can I do?” but as ways to advance our discernment about how to effect our values and aspirations most impactfully.