Wednesday, November 4, 2015

What a Just Response to Oppression Can Look Like

The below guest post by Dr. Sarah Ballard has been reproduced (with permission) from Prof. John Johnson's blog: Mahalo .ne.Trash.

“What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face?” – Audre Lorde

I’m writing this piece to say things women of color have already said, and better than I could have. Please read their work.
Our community has suffered a traumatic upheaval this month. I won’t attempt to link to even a representative sample of the articles, think pieces, and anti-harassment policy documents that circulated among astronomers. Trusted colleagues and friends urged folks to care for themselves. The groundswell gave rise to a “widespread ripple of PTSD (or something close to it) through women in the field,” as Lucianne Walkowicz put it. I saw other male astronomers I deeply esteem publicly grappling with feelings of complicity. Every day brought fresh distress as the extent of harassment, and the secrecy and protection of it, became apparent at every level within our academic institutions.

Colleagues had urged me to prepare, before the publication of the Buzzfeed story (both emotionally and with respect to my internet presence), for a GamerGate-like backlash.  

I am relieved to report that the number of supportive letters, phone calls, and text messages outnumbered the trolls (whom I did not know personally) by between 2 and 3 orders of magnitude. Even the tiny handful of critical messages I received were toothless (my friends roundly and joyfully mocked a letter I received asking me if I’d “even heard of Susan B. Anthony?!”). I was honored with the most gracious language about my “courage” and “leadership,” some of it from leaders within our field themselves. Many astronomers vowed to support me in their notes, and listed the concrete actions they would take to prevent harassment within their own departments. Other messages contained only the two words: “Thank you.” I was so overwhelmed that I responded to only the tiniest handful. Please know that I read them all, and they often brought me to tears of gratitude and relief. 

Yet, I also felt mortification in my heart when I considered my experiences in light of another traumatic upheaval within the field earlier this year. It similarly played out on social media. It brings into stark relief the treatment of sexism (particularly as it pertains to white women) and our treatment of racism. 

I won’t try to rehash here some of the points of deep conflict that arose within astronomy around the TMT, and subsequently around racism generally. I look back on that period of time and see with painful clarity the things I ought to have done differently and better; I’m sure I’m not alone in those feelings. I only want to draw your attention to what became so glaringly obvious to me in the last month, which is: how I was treated as a white woman drawing public attention to the real harm of sexism, versus the responses to some of my colleagues of color drawing attention to the trauma of racism. This is especially dismaying, since women of color experience sexual harassment at higher rates than white women like myself, and with less just outcomes. 

I never once in the past month suffered the indignity of being told that I was imagining my experiences with oppression. No one demanded that I repeatedly define sexism, nor argued that his or her theoretical ideas about sexism/sexual harassment were more important and true than my own lived experience. I never once was accused of “hurting the field” for drawing attention to its shortcomings; rather, I was lauded for my bravery in doing so. I received not a single death threat, and no letter to me contained a slur of any kind (and I dearly hope I can say the same for the coming weeks)—while astronomers drawing attention to racism have indeed received these kinds of threats. 

Message after message inquired with empathy about how I was bearing the stress and offering help, rather than inflicting upon me stresses to compound the existing pain. I never once was accused of alienating others from the cause with my frankness, even though I spoke very plainly indeed. And I have a hard time thinking of a single person who used his or her own hurt feelings, fear, and shame that originated from the news to chasten and silence me. I bore witness to all of these things and more being inflicted on some of my friends and colleagues of color, for the similar offense of pointing out injustice and asking for a just response in return.  

Please reflect now on the “reasons” that are now coming up in your mind for why this case of “oppression in science” was treated so differently from the other. I urge you, as I’ve urged myself, to acknowledge that my whiteness played a role in my treatment within our community within the past month. I was considered worthy of protection and deserving of justice in a way that a non-white person very probably would not have experienced in equal measure. I contend that the incomplete (and even actively harmful) response of our own community to racism, in which I am complicit, is painfully obvious now. This is because we’ve now seen what a just response to oppression can look like.  

The second half of the Audre Lorde quote that begins this essay is:  “What woman’s terms of oppression have become precious and necessary to her as a ticket into the fold of the righteous, away from the cold winds of self-scrutiny?” I have been gifted goodwill and positive attention in abundance, at least within this moment. I want to put it to use, and urge you to consider why I was deserving of it while others were and are not. I’ve suffered and I’m still standing out in the cold wind—please join me. 


Anonymous said...

These essays are nice, but is this actually translating into concrete political action? It needs to.

Are the readers of this piece contacting their local, state and federal representatives, demanding police reform? Are they writing e-mails demanding reforms to mass incarceration and private prisons in America? Demanding that local police stop over-policing communities of color? Demanding that America finally give a damn about poor communities of color, and give economic opportunities to East New York, to South Chicago, to Dorchester MA, to the South Bronx? Are we demanding that we stop the death penalty in the US, where in the "Old South" states routine execute black men? Where you're 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is black, 22 times more likely to get it if the defendant is black and the victim is white?

Or, are we just bitching about our feelings on Twitter? I think the communities of North Philly or West Baltimore care more about lack of jobs and lack of a future.

It would be nice if these essays had more concrete plans towards changing the status quo instead of discussing feelings. These are political problems with political solutions.

Anonymous said...

It only makes sense to invoke your whiteness as to why the responses were almost entirely positive here (but not in TMT's case) if you believe people are generally racist but generally not sexist. Which is ... hard to justify.

Indeed, we've seen recent cases where actions have been decried as sexist, and the community's response decidedly more mixed, where race wasn't perceived as a factor. Bad choice of shirt for landing Philae, and "Sometimes you fall in love with your labmate" come to mind. I won't offer my own guesses as why this case is widely seen as unacceptable while others are more contentious, but to imply/assert it's because people are overwhelming not sexist is just not right.

Anonymous said...

As a woman engineer working in Silicon Valley, I find the assertion that "white" women are affirmed when they report harassment and sexism, while "non-white" women are not, to be highly naïve, and perhaps a reflection of your specific experience in the rarified atmosphere of Berkeley astronomy, rather than the reality that is experienced by the majority of women in STEM fields.

As a "white" woman in Silicon Valley, I've frequently (on a daily basis in some companies), been interrupted, talked over, and ostracized for trying to contribute to technical projects as a capable, assertive team member.

I personally have been passed over for promotion and had my salary compressed compared to my male colleagues doing similar or inferior work on a repeated basis. I've been marginalized when I have tried to address these issues. I've had employers in Silicon Valley fail to deliver stock options according to my employment agreement while my male peers were stroked at patted with stock options and preferential treatment. In the cases where I attempted to report unfair treatment and a hostile work environment, the response is one of invariable stone walling.

Katie Moussouris' experience at Microsoft is common. She is white. Her legal filing at Microsoft includes complaints against her superiors, who are of diverse backgrounds. They are not only white. In fact, there is some evidence that her bosses are in majority, of Indian background.

As has been discussed on other forums, all women, including "white" women, experience sexism.

You haven't discussed ageism. A recent study showed that women over 50 have extreme difficulty getting hired, compared to men of a similar age and experience:

You haven't discussed sexism against mothers.

That being said, the statistics for the technical workforce at companies like Google and Apple indicate that discrimination against Black people, American Native people, Latinos and Latinas, is particularly severe. The severity of these statistics (the very low numbers) should be raising alarm bells and cries for immediate intervention. I've personally seen a drop in the number of American Native people and Latino/Latina workers in the Silicon Valley workforce since the early 2000s.

I would also point out that in some fields of STEM in Silicon Valley, the workforce is more than half non-white. In these workplaces, in my experience, the situation for women is not better, and in some cases, is much worse for women, including white, black, American Native, and Latina women, who are not of the dominant ethnic group of particular Silicon Valley mono ethnic work places. I've often interviewed at some of these companies and based on the interviewing style, suspect that there is active discrimination against people who are not of the particular ethnic group some companies are seeking to hire from.

I'm tired of hearing sexism discussed as one of being an issue only of white men behaving badly toward non-white women. Your write up reflects that you haven't worked in engineering, or in manufacturing, in Silicon Valley, where the demographic mix is quite is quite different from academic astronomy. It also reflects that you are young, and have not yet dealt with the ageism that women in particular experience in STEM fields.

Sarah said...

Hi! Sarah here, author of the post.

@First anon: I think activism takes many forms, and I disagree that pointing out a perceived injustice in a public forum "doesn't count" somehow. It all counts. I agree with your take that so-called "concrete" action, such as calling your congressperson, is good. It's one tool in the toolbox. There are other tools. I think social change happens along many axes at the same time. What you call "bitching on Twitter" I would call a crucial public dialogue that occupies a pivotal place in all modern movements.

@Second anon:
I don't believe people are generally racist and not generally sexist. I think individual people and our culture are very clearly both. I don't claim that white women have achieved parity somehow, because we haven't. What I did claim is that sexism against white women, while it of course exists, is still treated very differently from racism. I linked directly in the article to a comparison study w/r/t harassment specifically. I don't think it's treated "well" in the vast majority of cases of white women experiencing sexism. But women of color have it even harder than white women. This article is comparing two case studies within the same year, within the same community, that played out similarly on social (and other) media, so I do think it's useful to make a comparison.

@Third anon: I hear you. Your experiences and my own, and those of many thousands of women, are reflective of a culture that degrades women and devalues our contributions. You'll hear no argument from me on that, because I think it's true. I did not deny the existence of such a culture, in tech or in the academy. The article does not claim that sexism is over. It claims that racism is treated differently and very often *much* more clumsily. My gender made me vulnerable to harassment and less overt forms of oppression, but by the same token, my whiteness helped me. I don't claim that because of personal feelings. It's demonstrably so that people of color face different obstacles. Like I said to previous anon, I think the difference between two obstacles is really highlighted in this case study: same community, same media channels, same claims of systemic injustice, and yet an extremely different outcome for myself than for astronomers of color who took a public role in some fashion. That's why it's worth saying: whiteness very probably played a role here. That's not the same thing as saying that white women don't experience oppression.

Anonymous said...

First anon here:

I never said it "doesn't count".

My point is that if you have time to tweet about injustive, read essays on Medium and read essays on womeninastronomy, you have time to write to your local, state, and federal politicians to demand change.

Think about it: your tweets and Facebook posts are reaching maybe 10e2-10e4 people. Your letters to political representatives are reaching people in a position to implement political reforms.

Anonymous said...

"My point is that if you have time to tweet about injustive, read essays on Medium and read essays on womeninastronomy, you have time to write to your local, state, and federal politicians to demand change. "

Actually, I have written to Congress people many times over the last five years. My own Congresswoman, Nancy Pelosi, could not care less about the situation of women in science and engineering. She's too busy earning piles of cash off of her Visa and Apple stock. I've never heard back from her in regard to anything I have written her.

Other Members of Congress, the courageous Jackie Speier for instance, I have contacted by phone. Members of her office appear to be highly informed on the issue of sexism and racism in the science and engineering workplace.

Surprisingly, the Republican Chuck Grassley appears to be quite informed and concerned about the negative environment for women scientists and engineers.

Don't think that a few calls to Congress people will make much difference, however. Silicon Valley has a huge lobby that could care less about the plight of women in science and engineering.

It's only just this last year, after decades of avoidance on the issue, that they have published their diversity statistics. For the technology workforce, those statistics are abysmal and have dramatically worsened in the last twenty years.

No one hears anything about this. Apple, Intel, Cisco, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the VCs invest millions of dollars in lobbying every year to pave over issues of sexism, racism, ageism, and family hostile policies as they affect hiring, promotion and pay.

It doesn't help that companies such as Facebook, Google, and Yahoo strategically install women at the top, who are mostly *not* scientists or engineers, to be the female talking head for these companies, and to make it look like things are really not so bad.