Most people do not place much faith in bus schedules. Congestion and traffic lights always conspire to delay buses by five minutes or more. When I moved to London, Ontario, I learnt quite swiftly that the arrival and departure of buses in this city do not follow any logical system. At least their randomness allows me to practice the art of waiting and thus cultivate the virtue of patience.
I do not have a car or a driver’s license, so the bus is the only mode of transportation that can take me from my neighborhood to the university campus. I expect that I will regret my decision not to take a driving test when I am shivering at a bus stop in the middle of the harsh Ontario winter. Then again, I am a dangerously incompetent driver. On my very last driving lesson, my instructor advised me never to get behind the wheel of a car ever again. He assured me that lives were at stake. Driving, like filing your taxes or installing your Wi-Fi router, is one of those things that needs to be done right or not at all. I suppose that waiting at a bus stop is the price one must pay for not committing any acts of manslaughter through clumsy driving.
While I look down the road in the hope of spotting the approaching bus, I think idly about the set text for today’s seminar: Hannah Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. The book’s editor, Ronald Beiner, compiled Arendt’s lecture notes on Kant’s Critique of Judgement to supply a surrogate for the book that Arendt never finished. According to Arendtian lore, a sheet of paper was found in her typewriter after her death that bore two epigraphs and the title Judging. It was the first page of the final part of her trilogy The Life of the Mind. So, what is judging?
Judgment has a bad reputation nowadays. Being judgmental is perceived as a vice and conjures up the image of an entitled prig who believes that his opinions are unquestionably superior and meritorious. Moreover, judgment is too closely related to prejudice (Latin. praeiudicium—“prior justice”) for anyone to think that there is anything redeemable about it.
Nevertheless, I believe that we can rescue the exercise of judgment from accusations of judgmental-ness and prejudice. After all, stubbornness of mind is not an inherent quality of judgment. In fact, Arendt quotes a letter that Kant wrote to his friend and pupil Marcus Herz in 1770: “You know that I do not approach reasonable objections with the intention of merely refuting them but that in thinking them over I always weave them into my judgments and afford them the opportunity of overturning all my cherished beliefs.” Judgment cannot take place without an open mind. Since we share the world with others, no one can make a claim or present an argument without encountering someone else’s opinions and objections. Furthermore, Arendt argues that this acknowledgment of the existence and intelligence of other people is already weaved into a judgment. She explains that imagination—the capacity to make present what is absent—enables us to anticipate the responses of others and imagine why they might agree or object to our opinions. In a sense, imagination enables us to host a roundtable discussion in our own minds.
It is apt that I am thinking about judgment on my way to a seminar. Whereas lectures present authoritative answers, seminars provoke curious discussions. Incidentally, the word seminar originates from the Latin seminarium— “breeding ground, plant nursery”— which, in turn, derives from seminarius— “of seed.” No one is expected to present a fully-grown tree of an idea in a roundtable discussion (Truthfully speaking, few scholars seek definitive answers unless they are consulting the O.E.D.). Every remark or question is a scattering of conceptual seeds that might grow into an offshoot that takes the conversation into an unforeseen direction. There is something playful and rewarding about seminars. Debates remind me of games of chess, in which two combatants must compete until one of them emerges as the victor. Seminars, on the other hand, evoke the image of several friends jogging together in the park on a Sunday afternoon. No one needs to win; there is no score. Just as jogs exercise body, seminars broaden and sharpen the mind.
Although scholars are usually caricatured as solitary and unsociable types, we crave and cherish the company of our peers. Even when we appear to spend too much time in silence and solitude, we are never completely alone. Whenever we quote a statistic or reshape an old idea, we enter a genuine relation with our predecessors, contemporaries, and descendants. Yet, I fear that this joyful and spirited play between history and the future is under threat.
Like many others, I have puzzled over the meaning and purpose of a scholarly life in the age of revitalized fascism. Times of crisis can inspire feelings of futility and fatalism. I worry that someone who is prepared to plow through a crowd of innocent people in a sports car may not be bothered about the fact that graduate students attend and participate in seminars. Nonetheless, something as simple as sitting in a room with others and discussing a topic respectfully is antithetical to fascism.
Fascism offers a simple explanation of the world for those who cannot confront the unpredictability and complexity of modern life. Different groups are cast in the roles of the good guys and the bad guys. Nothing is safe or sacred whenever fascists plait their ideology into the texture of life. Anyone who publishes an inconvenient fact is accused of spreading fake news; anyone who stands up for the rights of others is ridiculed as an “SJW.”
Fascism overpowers imagination with delusion. Whereas imagination requires the humility to admit that someone could rightfully disagree with you, delusion requires the staunch belief that anyone and anything that contradicts your worldview is objectively wrong. Everyone knows that it is easier to delude oneself than imagine the perspective of someone else. Novelists struggle for years to grasp the essence of what it means to live and act as a human being before they can craft fictional characters that “ring true.” In this light, one can understand the appeal of Ayn Rand’s novels to right-wing libertarians. Her characters are nothing more than mediums for competing ideologies. No depth, ambiguity, or mystery is permitted in the system of Rand’s objectivism. Think about the rape scene in The Fountainhead. Under fascism, intimacy and tenderness can play no part in sexual intercourse; there is only abuse, aggression, and domination. That’s why contemporary fascism is so keen to defend our pernicious and pervasive rape culture. Fascism refuses to accept that people deserve dignity even when they are inconvenient. Women deserve respect even when they withhold consent. Protestors are not terrorists just because they disagree with you.
Riding on a bus teaches me a lot about living with others. As much as I would like everyone on this bus to be quiet enough for me to read Simone Weil in peace, I do not suffer from the requisite megalomania to think that I should force them into silence and submission. People cannot be manipulated like pixels on Photoshop.
Noise is just a part of public space.
I think about a counter-protest that I attended recently in opposition to the gathering of an anti-Islamic group that claimed to promote the right to free speech. While they yelled their hateful speeches into a megaphone, we banged on drums and blew on whistles to drown them out. Later, a member of that group approached me and asked why I wanted to deny his right to speak freely. I told him that our confrontation had nothing to do with free speech. Given the authority, their group would have ordered the police to arrest every single participant in the counter-protest. They did not want us to listen. They wanted us to be silent.
Fascism cannot tolerate the existence of seminars, because they prove that the alt-right’s conception of the right to free speech is just a pale facsimile of the real thing. Seminars reveal that coming closer to the truth requires conversation and collaboration. Broadening one’s mind means opening oneself up to the sacred inconsistency of the world. In a more mundane sense, it means waiting for a bus even when it is a few minutes late.
I am sitting in the seminar room now. People nod in recognition whenever someone new enters the room. There is casual chatter about the reading for the week. Someone scribbles a few prompts into their notebook to remind them of significant points to raise as soon as the discussion gets underway. Someone starts the seminar with a question and someone else offers a tentative answer, then someone refines the answer with stipulation, which, in turn, prompts someone else to pose another question. As I listen, I think: “Fascism has no home here.”
“Did I tell you my mother, she never did stop dancing?”
“Yes. You told me. And mine, she never got well.”
Roberta lifted her hands from the tabletop and covered her face with her palms.
When she took them away she really was crying. ‘Oh shit, Twyla. Shit, shit, shit. What the hell happened to Maggie?’”
from “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison
In my English Composition II course this spring a student gave an exceptional presentation on Queer Theory citing J. Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. They discussed precarity relating to queer people, something I wanted to prod when we got to Q&A. A problematic moment arose, for me, when my student, to support Halberstam’s thesis about Lady Gaga being the beacon of queer fluidity and new conceptions of the individual, said “Lady Gaga went to Tisch School of the Arts, so you know she’s really smart.” Now I would tend to agree: I think Stefani Germanotta, the artist known as Lady Gaga, is talented, smart, and fascinating. But this false equivalency of equating NYU with what is considered the pinnacle of intelligence affirmation was troubling to someone who understands the myth of American meritocracy. You can be smart and go to NYU, I agree, but you are not smart because you go to NYU.
The class I mentioned was not at a tier one school, or even ivy league periphery, so while this may have been an offhand comment on the part of my student, I took it seriously. Did this student think the work they were doing at this university, ranked 61 in “Regional Universities North” on U.S. News and World Report, was a waste of time? Another more important question, for the purposes of this essay: do students, or any people, understand the ways social and cultural capital work to insert people in particular stations in American society?
This is not meant to be a “call out” of the student, so this gives me an ethical concern, but I do wish, in that moment, I had a chance to explore American “meritocracy.” The most pressing concern at that time was highlighting the student’s research and hopefully leading their audience to understand more about Queer Theory. Later in the semester we were able to discuss meritocratic matters, especially when we read Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif,” which emphasizes the intersections of gender, race, and disability in America.
Halberstam also wrote The Queer Art of Failure, a text “about finding alternatives—to conventional understandings of success in a heteronormative, capitalist society; to academic disciplines that confirm what is already known according to approved methods of knowing; and to cultural criticism that claims to break new ground but cleaves to conventional archives.” Halberstam suggests: “All losers are the heirs of those who have lost before them.” Halberstam posits that “failure is built into capitalism.” So what does that mean?
It helps to define social and cultural capital first—two similar concepts that usually work in tandem:
Social capital–the network you are part of, the connections you have. You may have earned these through working for them, but they may have also been inherited by your family. People enter college to earn social capital through learning about the vast systemic workings of our society. But to enter college it helps to already have:
Cultural capital– the access to prior education, intellect, style of speech, dress, or physical appearance.
Some people will say these are the same, but they are slightly different. These forces are what give people power and mobility. It’s important to deconstruct our own sources of power, and that’s what I’ve been trying to get better at.
One of the most important reasons to understand social and cultural capital, hitherto known as “privilege,” is to know meritocracy is a myth in order to deconstruct the apparatuses that keep the same people in power generation after generation.
“Oh this is a good quote for me,” I said to my partner as we sat at the dine-in section of the grocery store. It was a quote by André Gide:
I thought maybe I would post it on my Instagram page, after all people love their inspirational quotes, and though I try not to perpetrate ones as generic as this one, I do have moments. It did personally speak to me since I’ll be moving 5 hours west at the end of this month.
I’ve learned over time to think over the most mundane posts, quotations, and pictures because there might be something I’m missing.
The first act I took was to look up André Gide and find out what kind of person he was. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked up biographies of public intellectuals to find they were slave owners, Nazi sympathizers, misogynists, racists, homophobic…the list goes on. This summer I was writing a paper for a course and could not use Heidegger after I researched his ties to Nazism.
I’m glad I looked Gide up: he was a pedophile who used his position of power to molest young boys. Now when I read the quote on the bottle cap it feels creepy.
One of the very first points Ange-Marie Hancock makes in her book Intersectionality: An Intellectual History is that her colleagues, on a panel about intersectionality at a Western Political Science Association conference when explicating power dynamics, were citing Michel Foucault instead of the theories of Patricia Hill Collins. Why, she thought, were a group of panelists discussing intersectionality failing to be intersectional? Of course I reflected on all the times I’ve used Foucault instead of Collins to explain power. In terms of marginal identity, Foucault was gay and has contributed much to the field of cultural theory, but if I cite him every time when he may not even be the best person to cite all I’m doing is privileging one critical perspective over other, possibly more nuanced critical perspectives.
As someone who has accumulated social capital (through education related activities) and possesses cultural capital (as a white woman) I have to be careful about what I portray as acceptable. If I find out something is unacceptable, I also must apologize and account for that. One of the reasons people who use their power in questionable ways are able to maintain that power is because, either by citing them (or even making them president) people show the ideas they want at the fore of our society.
Privilege is the force that allows fluidity of being. As the public has seen with someone like Rachel Dolezal: Dolezal, at any moment, can go back to being a white woman. People who are born with cultural capital, like Dolezal, have choices. Those born without it do not.
The 1995 song “Common People” by the band Pulp comes to mind: a narrative of an economically privileged woman going out:
She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge, She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College, That’s where I, Caught her eye. She told me that her Dad was loaded, I said “In that case I’ll have a rum and coca-cola.” She said “Fine.” And in thirty seconds time she said,
I want to live like common people, I want to do whatever common people do, I want to sleep with common people, I want to sleep with common people, Like you.
Well what else could I do I said “I’ll see what I can do.” I took her to a supermarket, I don’t know why, But I had to start it somewhere, So it started there. I said pretend you’ve got no money, She just laughed and said, “Oh you’re so funny.” I said “Yeah? Well I can’t see anyone else smiling in here. Are you sure you want to live like common people, You want to see whatever common people see, You want to sleep with common people, You want to sleep with common people, Like me.
Privilege implies choice. For instance if you are cash poor and someone tells you to “manage your money better” they are asking you to make a choice you don’t have. If you have money left over every month after you pay your bills and buy essentials, maybe then people can talk to you about budget and savings, but otherwise, no. There are no choices involved.
A few weeks ago, the Hollywood Reporter sent out a tweet to correspond to the ending of the HBO show Girls:
So while Dunham may have been female and body non-conforming (she points out her body is not a typical one you see as a main character), she started at a place that was not as hard of a climb as many articles have pointed out. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a big difference between Dunham’s show and, for instance, an “ole standby” like Friends, a show that is only recently being dragged for the same reasons, or Sex & The City (basically Girls a little older), and Frasier, a show about affluent people problems.
How is ABC Television allowed to have a show entitled "Blackish"? Can you imagine the furor of a show, "Whiteish"! Racism at highest level?
(Also not surprising: #45 doesn’t know what racism is…)
As I talked about in my last post, now that our culture is becoming more transparent, people know Dunham is the daughter of a famous and well connected family and was able to make her feature movie, Tiny Furniture (which was the ticket to Girls) using her parent’s resources. It’s not shocking people are disgruntled that we all do not have the same opportunity, and there’s a larger system at work behind it.
Pretend you never went to school. But still you’ll never get it right, ‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night, Watching roaches climb the wall, If you called your Dad he could stop it all.
You’ll never live like common people, You’ll never do whatever common people do, You’ll never fail like common people, You’ll never watch your life slide out of view, And dance and drink and screw, Because there’s nothing else to do.
Sing along with the common people, Sing along and it might just get you through. Laugh along with the common people, Laugh along even though they’re laughing at you, And the stupid things that you do. Because you think that poor is cool.
Like a dog lying in a corner, They will bite you and never warn you, Look out, they’ll tear your insides out. ‘Cause everybody hates a tourist, Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh, Yeah and the chip stain’s grease, Will come out in the bath.
The new show on Amazon I Love Dick is based on a book of the same name by someone Dunham has cited as a favorite: Chris Kraus. The entire narrative seems to center on the follies of people who don’t care about anything greater than themselves. Woman as nonredeemable, unremarkable is posed as a radical action.
Recently Kendall Jenner received her due for the infamous Pepsi advertisement where she pacifies police at, what looks like, a Black Lives Matter protest with a can of Pepsi. An outrageous and ahistorical piece of trash, from the same industry that in the 60’s brought you “I wish I could buy the world a Coke,” (an ad promoting global consumerism as a Band-Aid during the time of the Vietnam War) Pepsi pulled the ad. Onlookers were quick to defend Jenner citing she’s “just a kid” (not factually accurate considering she’s way beyond a legal adult at 21). People snapped back saying “Trayvon Martin was a 17 year old kid walking when George Zimmerman shot him, but nobody usually points that out when they try to justify his murder.” For 21 year old Jenner (not a kid), unlike Trayvon, life will go on, she will receive financial benefits for parodying an important movement as solvable by a consumable good.
and to think, all rodney king needed to avoid that beating was a pepsi
You will never understand How it feels to live your life With no meaning or control And with nowhere left to go.
‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night And watching roaches climb the wall, If you called your dad he could stop it all Yeah
You’ll never live like common people You’ll never do what common people do You’ll never fail like common people You’ll never watch your life slide out of view And then dance and drink and screw Because there’s nothing else to do
On a clip of an early season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Rob Kardashian apologizes to his sister, Kourtney, for missing an interview she set up for him at a law office. While reprimanding him, she said: “Rob, you have to start from the bottom just like we [his sisters] did.” I laughed to myself for the obvious reason that they did not start “from the bottom” as she phrased it, but that’s how she perceives her level of trying. This is never to say that people with existing privilege do not work hard, they just have less of a climb than those without privilege, whether it’s money, social or cultural capital.
In later seasons, Rob is the sibling that struggles with maintaining the level of success his sisters have. Kim says during an interview with Oprah, “Nobody gave us anything.” Rob corrects her and says, “We wouldn’t be anywhere if it weren’t for our parents.” Kim scoffs at him, not understanding. The other siblings are silent. Rob seems to deal with mental illness throughout the show, compounded by the thread of his older sisters’ obtuse “nobody helped us, Rob.” Rob also does receive a considerable amount of help through all 13 seasons and 4 spin-offs (including his own: Rob & Chyna).
To take it down a peg from the simulated Kardashian-sphere, people I’ve met who would otherwise appear to understand how social and cultural capital works through their activism, still misunderstand that we do not actually live in a meritocracy. Eliza Cummings-Cove, a student from University of Durham in the U.K. recognized the cultural impact of the Kardashians and decided to explore whether or not they had created a “post-feminist” environment on KUWTK. She concluded “the culture they exist in is still very much rooted in misogyny and inequality.” It’s a difficult terrain because on one hand we can’t fault people for trying to thrive in broken systems. We can, however, point out if they are contributing to that system and reifying it instead of trying to change it. Then it gets tricky again: what if people are only changing it as much as they know how?
People with knowledge of one type of oppression can be obtuse to other kinds. I’ve met feminists who are homophobic and queer people who are ableist. Social capital is a shifting terrain, and to some degree cultural capital is too when you consider “passing.” You will not always know the struggles people go through because in a capitalist society, passing (for abled or white comes to mind) keeps your life sustainable financially. (To understand that you’d have to first acknowledge there are specific disadvantages for people who are non-white and disabled).
Sometimes we can be certain how privileged people are, but there are people who are “passing” who struggle silently.
Other activists should not re-traumatize people who live with invisible burdens by asking them to self-identify if they are passing. In these times passing can be the difference between surviving and not. People are rarely sensitive to this preferring a town-hall style call out culture, relying on ableist language (when somehow also being sensitive to every other justice struggle except for disability).
But when we, like Kourtney Kardashian (above), don’t consider our own privileges granted by cultural and social capital, especially as it pertains to a meritocracy, we end up looking foolish.
I think of privilege and lack of it like I would the psycho-social traits we inherit from our parents. If you’re anything like me, sometimes I dwell on the difficulties I inherited and not the privileges. Both of my parents struggle with mental illness. My father is a misogynist. My mother does not conform to normative gender stereotypes.
But both of my parents are white and able bodied. My mother read to me every night until I was 11 years old. I always had clean clothes to wear to school…
I could come up with infinite personal examples of how I understand privilege in my own personal life, but white privilege is more far reaching than just those interpersonal examples.
There are parts of myself, like my gender, that make me feel like I’m up against a lot. So much that I can overlook my whiteness as something that protects me in this society.
Barbara Smith echoes in my mind:
The reason racism is a feminist issue is easily explained by the inherent definition of feminism. Feminism is the political theory and practice to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women, as well as white economically privileged heterosexual women. Anything less than this is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.
Feminism without examining privilege is just self-aggrandizement…
College student Jenny Lundt was angry when a classmate of hers, a Person of Color, was harassed by campus authorities for carrying a glue gun to class for an art project. Authorities put the school on lock down. Lundt pointed out a year prior she wielded a sword around campus and was not looked at with the same suspicion and extreme reaction:
My privileges are my whiteness, education, mostly abled body, loving partner, and emotional buoyancy (now I know not many people would cite emotional buoyancy as an official category, but I believe it to be one). My disadvantages (visible) are my gender, (invisible) PTSD related anxiety and depression, chronic physiological illness, and current lack of economic security. The latter (lack of economic security) is filled with meritocratic connotations, even from people who are activist-identifying and questioning.
“Doesn’t educational privilege grant you economic security?” Whether they know it or not, they have just asked me a question which reinforces the American exceptionalist idea of “personal liberty” related to work (again, there’s that idea of “choice” again) and doing this disregards what many activists understand as intersecting systems of power known as privilege. I’m an adjunct. No, I do not have economic security. Telling me to “get a better job” implies 1. I can “beat” out the competition (not in my hands and people tend to take for granted there are hundreds of applicants who apply for one position, in academia and beyond), 2. I should not be paid well for what I already do, 3. I’m not “trying hard enough,”4. my online activism (using my real name to post about controversial issues I believe in) holds no bearing in the real world (hint: it does).
We do not live in a meritocratic society. I would love to have commensurate success matching my level of education and spiritedness. A lot of people have “merit,” but in addition to a variety of societal constructs working against them, when lumped in a pool of others with similar merit with only a few achieving “status,” there is a “luck” factor in the mix.
One of my friends, who is a low-key genius, started college with me in 2004. He never finished because of reasons relating to a disability. As I read more for my dissertation work, I think of people I know dealing with various PTSD related to trauma and other mental health issues correlating with less initial economic advantage has impacted their standing in society, invisibly. People can also become disabled because of their working conditions, and because of the ableist undercurrent in our society this is frowned upon, even though that puts the onus on the casualties. My growing dissertation reading list is filled with people who’ve studied this.
One thing I’ve realized over the years is I must appropriately assimilate to a new place in the realm of social capital relating to my educational achievements. People who traverse higher education are tasked with using their social capital to benefit everyone, not just themselves. If intellectualism wasn’t frowned upon and 74% of the academic labor force wasn’t adjunct, maybe academics’ financial status would reflect our intellectual achievements. But even so, our education is as much of a privilege as it is a responsibility, and those who are able to complete it have social and cultural capital to thank both for getting them to that point and for completing schooling with a diploma. It is harder for people who do not possess these personal forms of capital to get through the rigors of higher education.
Recently the term “Men are Trash” received a great deal of attention in the internet sphere. In reaction to that someone who did not understand the full cultural intimation behind “men are trash” created a shirt on Teespring reading “Black Women are Trash.” What most people did not notice past their immediate defensiveness was: “all men are trash” was never said. “Men are Trash” implies some men are trash for reasons such as sexual and other forms of violence against women. When someone says to me “white people are trash” I have to realize that in most cases, like any privileged group, yes, many white people are trash. I’m not talking about the phrase “white trash,” I’m talking about everything you’ve ever heard about what white people do in our society: from microaggression to police murder. When I say it like that, I’m sure you know what I mean. So when people say “men are trash” if that isn’t you then move along.
Talib Kweli Greene explained this best:
Regarding the "men are trash" shirt, do. y'all always vet t shirts slogans for 100% accuracy? Or only when patriarchy is challenged?
In terms of my whiteness, sometimes I believe things without recognizing the codified variables behind them. For instance, I might admire a famous woman for her shunning of gender conventions, but that same woman might be cherry picking bits of LatinX culture to appropriate into their music that LatinX people get criticized for (I know this seems oddly specific for just an “example”). If I practice intersectionality, I must recognize that person has become problematic until they understand, apologize, and explain how they will do better.
Consider the term, “White trash” and how it has to be linguistically specified that this person is “White” but also “trash.” Other races that may fall into similar socioeconomic backgrounds as poor White people don’t need the racial linguistic qualification. Language mirrors reality more than most of us are aware of. Even a term that is meant to be a pejorative for a racially privileged group, still ends up exposing privilege.
The purpose of understanding White privilege and Whiteness is not to point fingers or place blame on entire groups. The purpose is to understand how many of us, including those who are disadvantaged by the system are still complicit in that system. The purpose is to be more aware of our thoughts, words, and actions, and how they might contribute to a system that disadvantages entire groups of people.
Lori Lakin Hutcherson wrote a thorough explanation of white privilege that detailed her interaction with a Facebook friend from high school who asked people to enlighten him about how white privilege had helped him along in life. She enlightened him with a generously long posting and went on to publish it in detail on Everyday Feminism.
When I was in 4th grade Mom and I moved again. Mom wanted me to go to make friends in the new school district and let me wear a large brimmed hat she got from the thrift store to mingle with the new kids. What I now know to be a Gaucho hat was appropriated by affluent white people after being a staple of farm work culture and re-assimilated as a marker of class privilege. Just like people cite being tan as growing in popularity after Coco Channel was tan from her vacationing (though it also seems like another way white people poach “aesthetics” from People of Color without repercussions), it became another marker of class privilege. Prior to that, a tan meant you were a worker. I wore this hat and someone asked me “Are you rich?” I looked at them and they continued “because you have that fancy hat. I thought you were rich.” A completely unearned designation they were giving me by this conjectural marker of class.
I wonder what my great grandmother thinks of me her great granddaughter who sits across from her at the restaurant we’re at for Mother’s Day. I draw up a picture she must have of me: I just got done with a year of teaching at a university, after this summer I will change from a PhD student to a candidate. This fluidity is made possible by my whiteness. The difficulty that adheres is from my gender, recurring chronic illness and mental health issues. I’m wearing acid wash jeggings, a black tee-shirt under a blazer with some light shoulder padding, my hair has blonde highlights with a purple toner, my face has carefully placed cosmetics. Maybe she thinks I’m rich until I tell my mother who sits with us we’re “splitting the bill.” But in many ways: I am rich, especially from my educational privilege.
I remember Toni Morrison’s quote, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”
Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist also asked us to remember: “aren’t we all privileged in some way?” I’m not trying to be the “privilege police” anymore, I’m simply saying that recognizing our own privileges can be a form of activism.
Giving power to others also means taking stances that don’t always coincide with your identity. For instance: my MA thesis was uplifting to sex workers and then I had a period where I was questioning the misogyny inherent in sex work (honestly from a specific interaction with a misogynist I had around that time) not thinking “hey, you have the privilege to consider such things: you’re not forced to become a sex worker.” Therefore, it was a step back for me to point out the already obvious misogyny in sex work instead of advocating for sex worker protection.
In Disidentifications: Queers Of Color And The Performance Of Politics, José Esteban Muñoz writes about AIDS/HIV activist Pedro Zamora of The Real World: San Francisco fame, and how, through the Greco-Roman concept of “Care of the Self” (Muñoz was writing in 1999, we now say “Self Care”), he turned the corporate MTV atmosphere into a teaching space. He simply lived his life in public and opened up people’s hearts to him. There was a huge cost to him for doing this: his health declined from stress. All the while he was working against his antagonistic housemate “Puck” who was both causing him immense stress and lessening his visibility and also just proving his point about straight white cishet men. Zamora’s work caused him stress that probably contributed to the acceleration of his illness, ultimately leading to his death, and that was the risk he took when he entered The Real World house. As Muñoz poses it, he was the only “real” part of that artificial environment.
For people who do not already hold every marker which would make them powerful in society, they will need to gain social capital in their lifetime to take care of themselves. We must also acknowledge this will only be possible with the help from others and certain privileges. Meritocracy is one of America’s gods, but it is a myth.
How do we balance getting enough power for ourselves while giving some to others? It’s a mixture we all figure out along the way, I think. At the minimum we need to like ourselves, have a good quality of life where we can take care of our health, and be around people we love and who love us back.
What I tend to appreciate about people with power usually is: if they give to others and how much. This act shows me they know how privilege works.
What I try to hold close is if and when we can take care of ourselves, we can’t decide that all the power we’ve gained is only for us. We have to recall the many and varied intersecting forms of privilege, luck, and people who have helped us. Only then are our moral legacies worth more than a “grab bag candy game.” That glint of recognition is what makes truly “smart” people.
Currently, I am a PhD Candidate in the Humanities, which sounds more glamorous than it really is for those who inhabit these liminal places.
The Humanities has always been considered the alternative intellectual arena for those who do not deal with the natural sciences. The sciences are labeled as “dealing with the world as it is,” and the Humanities as a “safe space” for those who don’t do too much thinking: socially viewed as a place for people who love books. Unfortunately, the Humanities does not “rake in” the money the way that STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) Nursing, Sports or Business does for universities. Therefore, Humanities programs do not receive the same amount of funding for undergraduate and graduate programs.
Far too often, students who are admitted into PhD programs in the Liberal Arts and Social Sciences are partially or not funded at all. If they do receive funding it is usually to cover coursework, they may be responsible for fees, and are (most always) responsible for finding ways to support themselves during the summer months. Consequently, when the PhD student reaches their candidacy and are only left to write and defend their dissertation that is “original research” they are forced to work as adjuncts or find other means of support. These stipulations force the PhD candidate to make harsh decisions, often related to not being able to devote the required amount of time to write a decent dissertation.
The politics of survival and thriving are not taken into consideration when universities want the prestige of being a doctoral degree granting institution, completely ignoring the timeline to complete Humanities PhD Dissertations– which are supposed to contain original research conducted by the candidate.
Original dissertations require extensive research, and, in some disciplines, data collection must be funded in order to conduct. That means it will take time and money.
Institutions do not consider the amount of physical and psychological toll that PhD programs require of candidates. Instead, the institution only wants the numbers and the recognition, but they do not provide adequate support for their students. A PhD student will not fill the seats of a sports arena, secure funding from a fortune 500 company, gain employment before graduation at the rate of a Nursing, Business, or STEM candidate. Yet, they are expected to dedicate 5-7 years of their life conducting research and teach undergraduate classes that are far too often overcrowded and under-resourced. Courses which are essential building blocks of undergraduate development and success in all fields.
Many institutions in the United States only focus on what brings in money, not what sustains and strengthens the institution.
Humanities students are asked to be interdisciplinary, strengthen deficiencies in the students they teach, publish peer-reviewed articles before graduation, secure external funding, and land a Research 1 job while working 60+ hours a week. It is no wonder that many students that pursue a PhD in the Humanities:
A) don’t graduate
B) don’t pursue jobs in Academe if they do graduate
C) take more than 5 years to graduate
D) suffer multiple health issues
E) Don’t seek medical or mental health services
F) suffer trauma correlated with their programs.
The home department of the candidate and the institution would rather place blame on the current political administration in Washington, D.C. or the local and state government instead of looking at the unjust and inhumane labor practices of the institution. Despite New York State recently granting free tuition to residents to four year institutions, it is only for those that will attend the SUNY (State University of New York School) system. Meaning: only those that will attend SUNY institutions will be supported post graduation, which will only work to serve those who are fiscally, politically and culturally “superior.” There is a 2 and in some cases 4 year, state residency requirement and you must find employment with in 12 months of graduation. It does not grant the same protection and benefits to those who are in graduate programs. Nor does it grant fiscal protection for the adjunct laborer, the backbone to 90% of these institutions. It is the equivalent of placing a Band Aid on a gunshot wound.
It is no wonder that many of those who are in graduate programs, in New York and elsewhere, are considering the dilemma: “why am I doing this?” Many students in doctoral programs are finding alternative careers and ways to market themselves as not being too educated. Candidates in Humanities PhD programs are finding it more lucrative to omit that they have graduate degrees on resumes and CVs and are landing jobs that will help them with their debt and gain a consistent income.
The CEO/PhD is the state of the academy, and the corporatization of intellectual capital that forces those who want to stay within disciplinary strictures of “first comes degree then comes tenure track” left out in the cold. Now, candidates are finding it much more viable to blog and then apply to programs because they get better funding packages. Those who begin while in a program are doing workshops to learn how to become content writers, playwrights, or seeking jobs in corporate because the poverty narrative is too high. The amount of debt that was accrued while on the road to the PhD can be outrageous.
This is not to deter people from entering PhD programs completely. It is to say the system is designed to create an illusion of a surge of PhD degree holders versus the number of jobs available for the number of PhD degrees that are annually produced.
For example, an institution that has an annual endowment of 600 million dollars per year spends it on AstroTurf for the athletic fields and the iconography of the institution. Yet, the library is only two floors. In addition to that, most institutions admit too many students per year which leaves the students that are admitted highly underfunded. Ironically, these students defeat the odds and finish their degree and are now faced with having to enter a market where jobs are often absorbed by administrative cuts and their jobs being done by two faculty members or the real laborers: the adjuncts.
Why? Because it is cheaper to have temporary labor. Administration will not release their annual or semi-annual bonus to support the temporary labor of the student or adjunct. Instead, Freire and other critical pedagogues have highlighted the far too real reality of the University Industrial Complex.
The problem isn’t the student that wants a degree, or in this case an advanced degree, it is the institutions that allow this form of abuse and exploitation to persist.
I often come across many authors and thinkers in my reading who argue writing their own history is an emancipatory practice. In other words, they believe that taking control of the narrative of their past is the first step in creating their own distinct identity, which allows for the development of a particular social and political philosophy.
I understand this argument. The violence of empires leaves us no other choice but to rip the pen from the hand of imperial historians and give it to the people who have been brutalized. Lions writing histories while telling the hunters to take a hike, and all that jazz. But for me, personally, I’ve never felt that way about my own personal history. In many ways, it terrifies me.
Why? Because, I suppose, I see writing down my own history as freezing the fluidity of who I am. Histories have a troubling tendency to become established tributaries to the present moment. Small streams to artificial lakes.
Who are we? We are the rapids in one time period coming to a rest. We are the foam of a particular waterfall easing back into the water. We are waves from someone else’s stone being skipped across the surface. We are change over time.
So, by hiding who our past selves are, by grounding ourselves in the present and in our future hopes, we don’t become the descendants of someone else, the sum at the end of a mysterious mathematician’s equation. We become the birthplace for a new era.
I am fully aware that this is a contradiction.
I’m a historian who feels more comfortable racing to the future than walking in the past. Is this just “white guilt”? Possibly. A good portion of my own collective history is one of being a direct descendant of colonists. Europeans, (some willing, many reluctant), were removed from one continent to work on another. I remember first reading about this history in graduate school. Historians like Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker challenged the older narratives I had been told. Many of my white ancestors had not come for “opportunity.” Instead, it was a longer history of forcing people out into the Atlantic World to create new profit for the newly emerging global capitalist system.
But, despite that, we were still colonists. We were the people who moved into areas, violently pushing others out of their homes and land.
Growing up everyone, and I mean literally everyone, told people in my generation to get an education so we could transcend our socio-economic status.
We should be doctors, lawyers, educated elite people who didn’t have to work in the service industry, one of the last reliable ways of life in mountain towns and cornfield villages.
And some of us did just that. But the further we went with our education and the more we learned, the more we became alien to the very culture that produced us. Didn’t matter that Appalachia had produced its fair share of artists, thinkers, writers, teachers, and scientists (not to mention politically radical movements).
Ohio rural culture had swallowed the Kool-Aid. We were “hillbilly proud”! Our collective poverty not a social problem, but a feature that made us “more honest.” Apparently being on welfare, with poor health care, while white and with cows around you, made you some kind of “noble frontiersman.” Funny, since the same people who argued this thought being in the inner city, with darker skin, and the same socio-economic status, somehow made you a “social degenerate.” This was an attitude shared by both rural whites and many cultural elites. Better to be a “Son of the Earth.” It made you somehow more “honest and hardworking,” I guess.
Is it any wonder then that so many people from rural white communities end up feeling alienated from the very culture that produced them? When your entire education is predicated on the hope that you will “escape,” education and thoughtful expression cease to be the natural elements of that society, and instead become a rocket ship that is constantly struggling to break the gravitational pull of the past.
We create a situation that views a connection with the past as a failure, because conscious, educated understanding is supposed to leave that society once attained. It is the very foundation of the philosophy “get an education, and get out.”
Appalachians and small town Midwest denizens internalize this feeling, creating a popular cultural expression enslaved to the past, conservative in all respects.
“Do you refer to Christian thought and belief as mythology in your classrooms?” I asked my friend Podge over coffee one day.
We had been having a conversation about one of the textbooks used in one of the introduction classes at Purdue. He was angry because the text had referred to Christian belief as “Christian mythology.” It was a swipe at the validity of religion, in his opinion.
I disagreed, but understood where he was coming from. It is hard to climb in the head of textbook authors, but anyone who knows anything about the scholarship around textbooks knows that they are as much historical documents as the documents we use to inform the textbooks in the first place.
Referring to Christian belief as “mythology” could be, and probably should be, read within the broader historical context of the so-called “Culture Wars” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, where cultural conservatives and social liberals duked it out for dominance in educational materials. In that context there was “scientific fact” and “cultural belief.” Science equaled “truth,” while cultural belief, that is mythology, was synonymous with “fantasy.”
Podge told me as much. “Wes, science with its belief in unending, continuous progress is as much a myth as any system of religious beliefs.”
I didn’t disagree, but I told him, I thought the real issue was with the scientific materialists corrupting the word “mythology.”
“Myths shouldn’t be synonymous with ‘fake,’” I said. “Myths are just cultural stories we, as societies, tell ourselves to organize our universe. It gives us meaning because it claims to know where we came from, and where we are going.”
It is why I personally do refer to Christian belief as “Christian mythology” in classrooms. But I do so while trying to make my students understand that mythology is not interchangeable with “lies.”
It is not an easy thing to accomplish. In order for people to fully understand that Christianity is as much a system of mythology as Greek religious thought, or Norse belief, they have to first understand that everything we think as humans is historically constituted. There is no system of thought that is either permanent or forever-true.
Sorry, Plato. There are no absolute forms. Just historically constructed variations of ideas dependent on a time period. What is true in one era is false in another. What is basic common sense in one era is utter gibberish in another.
But, this is hard to understand. Why? Because the system of thought we currently live under is a powerful ideology. That’s a byproduct of the hegemonic power of modernity.
“Science” is one way of understanding our place in the cosmos. It orders the world, is open to change, and spins off both beautiful and often terrifying human creations. But science is not the only way of understanding human existence. Furthermore, it only exists if a culture believes in conceptions of historic progress, materialist reality, and human ability to accurately measure and observe said reality. That supposed “truth” is actually a house of clouds shifting through time. It will not always be with us. It will eventually change to the point that the new system of thought that comes from it no longer resembles the previous. Science, as a system of belief, actually is fully capable of understanding this feature of its existence. Evolution, one of the major achievements in thought for science, demonstrates this aspect of our shared reality.
We continually change until we are no longer that thing we used to be.
“Mythology” (categorized as a previous society’s way of understanding) is another way we do this. Myths are the cultural stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, our ancestors, and our future generations. It gives us meaning because it connects us with a collective past and common future.
Hercules slays the Hydra. Pandora opens a box. Nudists eat forbidden fruit. Prophets speak to gods. Gods visit wrath on people.
All of these communicate, a universe where humans are just a part of the cosmos. Often, they are not the most powerful in the story. They have choices, to be sure, but that choice is not radically free. Choices lead to new situations, which creates new conditions, which influences future states.
This is the basic principle of historic social change. We are the products of people and forces before us, not just our ancestors, but also large cosmological forces. We don’t pick our past, and we are only able to select a limited set of options for the future. Furthermore, simply because we choose and push for a certain social ordering, does not mean we will actually achieve it.
So, we walk about this world as modern actors with ancient understandings. We are a collage of various time periods.
Lincoln sits in a temple modeled off of Zeus.
Washington is remembered with an obelisk.
The so-called “canon wars” continue to rage in vital ways. Who we collectively deem as our legitimate authors for our civilization determines not only how we talk about ourselves, but it informs how we literally build the intellectual stage for our possible future actions.
It is why that argument of people writing their own histories is so important. Who we deem ourselves to be, and who argues that self-identity is the future’s beliefs, an eventual present’s truth, a probable past’s mythology.
Myths are powerful and they are important. Those stories matter.
But even as I understand this, I find it difficult to write about the past, present, and future of the culture that produced me. Much of what I’ve been told in my life says that in order to produce something worthwhile I should not focus on the factors that created me. Instead, I should look to another’s ideals. Not an archaeologist’s pick and shovel, but an astronaut’s star charts and rocket fuel.
Get out, don’t come back, escape and make a better life for yourself.
This is only complicated by the twin irrational argument that to do the very thing my education was supposed to do is to become arrogant, a know-it-all, an alien in one’s own home world.
What is my collective mythology, then? What orders the subset of the culture I come from?
A few weekends ago my partner and I went home for a weekend visit. As we pulled off the highway I looked out the window at the valley farms, and changing landscape. Buildings I had known as a young person were beginning to decay and fall in on themselves. They were like collapsing black holes dotting the Ohio valley’s landscape, yet instead of gravity, history pulled them toward their destructive centers. Lack of funds and ability to keep up these 19th century homes and barns determined their fate. It was a perfect symbol for what I had been thinking about. History served as a point of destruction, violently pulling the past together until it was destroyed by its own weight. History did not radiate outward.
We drove past several older buildings and before pulling into my partner’s parent’s home, we saw a new barn being built by an Amish family. It was a sign that human civilization in this area would continue, but that it would look different from what we had known.
Perhaps that is just a common state of affairs for all people. But as we crossed the final stream to pull into our destination I thought about how that stream eventually led to the largest artificial lake in the area.
Back in 1937 the federal government had entered the area and drastically changed the landscape. Taking the various swamps and floodplains of the Ohio valley region, the New Deal organizations had flooded close to 3,000 acres of land creating “Seneca Lake.” It was one of the permanent features of my childhood. Every day to get to school involved a half an hour drive around that lake on a school bus.
The New Deal, one of this nation’s most celebrated ventures into social democracy, had radically altered the landscape of our homes. If you ask most people, especially the tourists who come during the summers, the lake is one of the most beautiful features of the landscape. But we ignore this history, just like we ignore the radical coal miners who fought wars against corporate capital. We ignore this history and instead opt to believe that our area is essentially conservative. Bodies for the masses needed by reactionary movements. Such collective aspirations make people like me unreadable to their home culture. We are placed on starships and told to fly as fast as we can, and then are slightly scorned for doing so.
We drive around the floodplains of social democracy and grasp at what mythological figures we are. What mythological figures we could be. I suppose it will be determined by those who have the wherewithal to write about it.