Monday, August 22, 2016

The Price of Stories

Do you believe that racial discrimination and harassment occur in your department? Do you believe that sexual harassment has impacted the careers of its victims? Do you believe the climate in your department is safe for our LGBTQIA colleagues and students?

Your belief is irrelevant. We have facts at our disposal. Yet we extort a high price from those who experience harassment and assault in our community. 

“I need to hear it from the horse’s mouth.” 

“Why did it take so long for her to say something?”

“His story is fishy.”

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t just come talk to me.”

“It just didn’t seem like the guy I know.”

Studies and statistics tell us harassment, abuse, and discrimination are occurring frequently. But too many people seem unable to identify the need to act when confronted with the very data we’ve been trained to treat as evidence. Instead we demand stories. We require victims and survivors to lay themselves bare. We want the opportunity to try them in the court of our human feelings. 

Do you understand the cost of retelling for the sake of your consumption? It is yet another way that minoritized community members are required to renew their “membership” in a way that applies only to them, and continues the violence of the initial abuse. 

There are different kinds of stories. There are the stories we choose to tell, about ourselves. These are stories that serve many purposes. Perhaps they tell the people we care about where we come from and what our context is. They are a shorthand to try and explain a small piece of ourselves. There are the stories we tell to ourselves, our personal narrative that shape us - our narrative path that helps us make sense of the world. There are the stories we tell that empower us - that help us take back the events in our life we don’t control in their happening but can shape in some small way by sharing them after the fact. There have been some powerful projects of people using a supportive group to testify, to remove stigma, and to expose abuse. In the arena of sexual harassment in astronomy we have seen a small group of survivors take on this roll - sharing their stories to try and pry open our field, to confront our community with the need to repair ourselves, and to regain agency.

But then there are the stories we extort. These stories become the price of admission, the cost of doing business. These stories are demanded before belief or assistance are provided. These stories are shared and gawked over. These are the crocodile tears cried when war is reduced to a picture of a dead or wounded child. You know the price of war. Worse, you know the price of war and *even* this picture (heartwrenching though it is) will not change anything about your behavior, belief, or life. 

These are the stories that lately have really started to chafe.

Do you need to hear a student in tears in your office to understand that rape is wrong? How many colleagues need to tell you that sexual harassment has derailed their careers? How many students need to tell you they experience racism every single day, on campus and off, before it becomes worth acting on? And who are you to judge the right way to experience that discrimination? 

“She didn’t seem upset enough.”

“Why wouldn’t she just drop the class?”

“Why did he drop the class instead of sticking it out?”

“Why was he so hysterical?”

Indulging our desire for narrative context is damaging and wrong. It centers us, the observer, where we do not belong. If someone is coming to me to get help, my needs *are not* the thing we need to be focusing on. Harassment and abuse are wrong, even if you don’t have a redeeming back story. And I’m unwilling to put people in the position of needing to perform victimhood for my support. 

The studies provide the answers to the questions above. Sexual harassment is happening in all of our workplaces. Racial discrimination shapes our society and our departments.  Our LGBTQIA colleagues do not feel safe. We have the data but we cling to our ignorance in the face of all evidence to the contrary. We are failing to meet our remit to build a creative scientific community that cherishes and protects our members so they can do revolutionary research. 

I am here for stories. I am here for people accessing their power and agency, and for sharing their wisdoms through stories. But I need us to put a halt to requiring performative victimhood before progress is made. We have the research. We have the insight. The change needs to come from us. We need to stop asking our minoritized community the bear the burden of our ignorance and laziness and do the work to transform our institutions.