This past week ended in a bit of a blur for me. It started out harmlessly enough, with days full of course prep and teaching in the evenings. I even got to have lunch with my Aunt Mary, which was wonderful. However, things came to a head on Thursday.
For those who are not in the field of student affairs, one of our leading professional associations (ACPA – College Student Educators International) announced that Laverne Cox would be the closing speaker for this year’s Annual Convention. However, what was exciting news was largely overshadowed by the use of an overtly racist slogan in the announcement. The next day (Thursday), the Association posted an apology for the underlying racism in the announcement. In one sense, this was revolutionary for ACPA, which, as an Association, has made a number of gaffs throughout my 10 years of membership, but has not always apologized (or done so far too late and after a lot of hemming and hawing). Unfortunately, the apology was further problematic in a number of significant ways. First, it traded in deficit-based rhetoric, highlighting the importance of Cox being the closing speaker as a way to highlight the fact that “millions of trans-identified individuals experience bias, hatred, violence and the threat of death every day” (We’re Sorry. We Made a Mistake, 2014). They went further, saying they “hope[d their] mistake didn’t overshadow this [reality of ongoing fear and violence]” (We’re Sorry. We Made a Mistake, 2014). There was no mention of the fact that being trans* is not always already synonymous with tragedy. Additionally, ACPA marketed Laverne’s speaking by way of her being in the Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black,” which led me to wonder if the Association was trading on her celebrity as a way to get people to register. Essentially, I wondered what the effect of highlighting Cox’s being a part of a hit show shadowed her radical gender activism, and, by extension, allowed ACPA to back away from the reality of genderism within higher education and the Association itself. ACPA also missed a chance to interrogate the propagation of the Prison Industrial Complex (and the school to prison pipeline that pervades in US education) by trading on Cox’s stardom in “Orange is the New Black.” Needless to say, there was a lot amiss with the apology, regardless of how great it was to see an apology happen (and for it to come so quickly).
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Cox’s coming to ACPA may not really signal the sea change I (and likely others) were hoping it would bring. Historically, I and other trans* individuals and advocates have had to push very hard to get minimal accommodations (like all gender restrooms). Even when we have gotten these in the past, the LGBT affinity group has had to pay for marketing materials, and the only support we have gotten from ACPA has been largely due to one or two compassionate LGBTQ advocates. Problems abound, and history has taught me to feel ambivalent at best about ACPA’s commitment to their mission of social justice. I don’t think I am the only one, either.
After posting a message on my Facebook wall about the complicated emotions I was experiencing regarding this all, I was contacted by a flurry of people. One individual is a dear friend of mine who asked if she could pass my messages along to members of the ACPA leadership team. I let her know I was fine with that, and although I was uncomfortable speaking on behalf of all trans* people, I was glad for others to see my message as my thoughts as a trans* person and as someone who used to serve on the ACPA leadership team. About twenty minutes later, I received a Facebook message from the person who had been sent my status updates. The message was, well, not good. It was defensive, minimized my feelings and experiences, and gave a lot of ‘perfectly logical explanations’ for how things were being taken care of for the upcoming Annual Convention. So, basically, it was a bit of cisplaining, wrapped up in some language about wanting to ‘work together to create change.’ To be clear, there was no togetherness in this message.*
Oh, and did I mention this all happened about two hours before I had to facilitate a dialogue on race and sex for the Diversity and Social Justice class I am teaching at Merrimack this summer? Because it did…so there was that, too.
I ended my day exhausted. Class went well, which was life giving, but it gave just enough energy to allow me to drive home. I ended my night by sending a message back to the person who had sent the defensive note to me. I tried very hard not to call this person out, but to call them in…which was way harder than I had wanted it to be. I detailed how the original message did not acknowledge anything I had said, operated at an individual level of oppression without addressing the historic institutional and systemic genderism throughout ACPA, and minimized my perspective. What I received back was a message full of apologies and the recognition that, yes, the original message was very defensive. We left it at trying to contact each other over the next few days to talk via phone.
Now that I have had a few more days to think about all of this (much of it done alongside some amazing colleagues who has reached out to me and done an amazing job listening and allowing for dissent to exist without needing to come to a resolution), I keep going back to something the students and I discussed in our Diversity and Social Justice class. We were unpacking an article by Audrey Thompson (2003) called, “Tiffany, Friend to People of Color.” For those who have not read this yet: do it. Seriously. The article is amazing, life changing, and an amazing challenge to the notion of being a ‘good White person.’ In the article, Thompson wrote about a situation that I feel deserves to be quoted at length. Specifically, Thompson wrote:
Guilt is indeed paralyzing. But I do not think it follows that the solution to white guilt is to help whites feel “good.” Let me tell you a story that I hope will show you what I mean. A year or so ago, I spent a couple of weeks taking care of the children of my friends Howard and Janet, who live in another state. A few hours after Janet and Howard left, I realized that they had forgotten to leave me any keys to the house or the car. I knew that the next-door neighbor had a spare key to the house, but no one had a spare key to the car, so I phoned my friends’ hotel to leave a message asking them to Fed Ex me the car key. After they got the message, I received daily, anguished phone calls about how dumb it had been to forget to leave the key, how guilty they felt, and how lucky it was that I am a bus person and could make do without a car. During one phone call, Howard urged me, “Be sure when you talk to Janet that you make her feel better; tell her it doesn’t matter. She feels so guilty, and it’s just ruining our vacation.” “There’s no need to feel guilty, Howard,” I said. “Everything’s fine. These things happen. Stop feeling guilty. Just send me the key.”
In reply, Howard suggested various ways to get around the car problem – maybe call the dealers to see if they had a copy of the key, maybe ask neighbors for rides to the grocery store and the dentist, maybe ride bikes or take the bus. “Why don’t you just overnight me the key?” I asked. He hemmed and hawed and finally said, “We’re not sending the key. It just doesn’t seem practical. By the time we find somewhere to mail it and everything, we’d almost be home again. And we just don’t want to think about it any more. It’s ruining our vacation.” In later phone calls, therefore, I concentrated on making my friends feel better and assuring them that we were having fun, that the kids were enjoying the adventure of taking buses and bikes everywhere, that it was no big deal and not to worry about it. Once I knew that there was no question of doing anything about the key, I focused on making our conversations as comfortable as possible. But I did wonder why alleviating their guilt was the issue. Recently it occurred to me that there was an analogy here to white guilt about racism. It is not a perfect analogy, by any means – putting up with racism for a lifetime is not exactly like having to take the bus for a couple of weeks – but there’s one point I think the two situations may have in common. People of color are not really interested in daily phone calls about how bad we feel. They just want us to send the key (pp. 15-16).
Admittedly, this is a bit of a clunky analogy for me to make, because genderism is not (nor should it be seen as) the same as racism. They have different historical legacies, political realities, and impact people differently across a variety of social contexts. However, like Thompson’s analogy, I have come to the point where I just want ACPA to send the key. I don’t need apologies, or messages about the fact that people are working on it or there is progress being made. That is all fine and well and good, but…send the key. Don’t tell me you’re sorry…just don’t mess up in the first place.
I know I run the risk of being seen as a fuss-fuss, or as an angry trans* person, or as someone for whom it is never good enough. But I have to say, for an organization that has had an affinity group for LGBT individuals for 30 years now, I expect a bit more. I expect not to have to push so hard for all gender restrooms, or the recognition of various pronouns and honorifics on name badges, or the recognition that the sharp increase in registration cost over the past three years (the cost has remained steady from last year to this year, thankfully) does not create a situation whereby young professionals (that make up over half the Association’s membership) can readily access the Annual Convention. I also shouldn’t have to remind people in leadership of the inexcusable reality that several years ago, the Governing Board structure was changed to remove marginalized voices from the Governing Board itself! And remember, all of this happens in spite of the Association heralding its commitment to social justice. So I guess I am okay with that risk…and I am okay with calling it all out.
Don’t get me wrong; I have loved ACPA for 10 years. I have gone to the Annual Convention and been so pleased to have created microclimates of support. I have been involved in some truly radical educational sessions and have created an amazing group of colleagues who are badass radicals and activists. These people, spaces, and sessions have been life-giving beyond belief, and I feel so honored to be accepted as a part of these initiatives, groups, and spaces.
But at the institutional and systemic levels, I just need ACPA to send the key.
*I included this piece of the story as it is very important to the unfolding events and my overall thinking. However, I did not, nor will I, reveal the individual who sent me the original message. This is not important, as I am focused more on the broader systems at work rather than the "who" of the message's origins. As I was recently reminded by a colleague (who was quoting another individual), "Oppression is the enemy, people, not each other."
ACPA -- College Student Educators International. (2014). We're sorry. We made a mistake. Retrieved from http://www.acpa.nche.edu/article/were-sorry-we-made-mistake.
Thompson, A. (2003). Tiffany, friend to people of color. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(1), 7-29.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.