What is my lane?

One of the most important things I’ve grappled with as a teacher is how to be empathetic, caring, and supportive to students while not crossing ethical boundaries. My work in Trauma-Informed Pedagogy (TIP) has been a big part of this, as have my studies of pedagogy, psychology, sociology, leadership, and ethics. But it goes back even further—when I was an undergraduate voice student and later a young professional opera singer, most of the voice teachers I interacted with were super fused with their students in one way or another. They gave relationship advice, screamed at us, critiqued our bodies, and in some cases, had intimate relationships with us. This happened across the field also with conductors, directors, and other people in positions of authority.

I sometimes joke (but not really) that I got a degree in leadership and ethics because my former career had none. This is an oversimplification—what we often had was leadership in the absence of ethics. The “artist temperament” was used to gloss over things like psychological abuse, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. I witnessed many instances of highly effective, but totally unethical leadership in my first career. A talented conductor can still be an asshole and a sexual predator. A seasoned director can produce an amazing show and also be a cruel sociopath. They’re not mutually exclusive and they don’t cancel each other out. But we didn’t have HR departments watching for violations of statutes like the ADA, or the Civil Rights Act, or Title IX. We should have—but we didn’t.

I left opera because something was deeply wrong with the field and my growing awareness of this wrongness made it impossible to stay. While some of my experiences with singing were transcendent, it didn’t change the fact that it was mostly dehumanizing and awful. Auditions just sucked. Singing for a bunch of people whose job was to disqualify me, over and over again, sucked the joy right out of me. Being in a field where it is perfectly acceptable to be discriminated against for your beauty, size, height, race, and many other things that have nothing to do with your voice and musicianship was just ugly and demeaning. Having to explain to my voice teachers that emotional abuse was 1) unacceptable and 2) ineffective, got really old after fifteen years. Don’t even get me started on sexual harassment. It was so normalized that it barely registered on my radar. Decades later, in the wake of #metoo, I had to take a hard look at many of my experiences and recognize that they were often coercive and nonconsensual.

So a good part of the rest of my life (age 30 on) has been centered around figuring out who I am, what I’m good at, and what my lane is. There’s a lot of crowing about “staying in your lane” on social media or directed at artists whose opinions differ from their fans or whatever, but I mean it in a different way. Here are the big questions I’ve been asking myself over the last 20 years:

  • What am I really gifted at?
  • What makes me feel fulfilled?
  • What are the healthy limits around my assigned roles (such as mother, wife, teacher, and friend)?
  • What do healthy boundaries look like when I have a lot more power than the people I work with? (What are the ethical limits to my relationships with students? To my child?)
    • How do I support my child without diminishing or parentifying them?
    • How do I support my students but not attempt to take responsibility for problems I am not qualified to handle (drug addiction, eating disorders, mental illness, traumatic events)?
  • Where is the line between support and caring, and crossing into territory that needs to be handled by someone in a different lane, like a therapist, or nutritionist, or doctor? How do I hold that line compassionately?
  • How do I hold space for other people’s emotions and experiences while making sure my own boundaries are healthy and not fused? (If I experience secondary trauma from hearing about a traumatic event, how do I manage that?)
  • Where do I have the right to speak authoritatively and where do I not? (I piss off a very small percentage of white dudes each academic year who think that talking about the developmental effects of family child separation or racism is somehow not based in the science of my discipline. It is, but I am not an authority on many things and should not speak to them authoritatively. )
  • How does my positionality—my privilege and place in society, limit or increase the ways in which I should take up space?
    • When am I ethically obligated to speak out?
    • When am I ethically obligated to leave space for others to speak out?
    • When should I give up my space to others so they can be heard?

All of these questions have come up repeatedly during my academic teaching career. I’ve done a whole lot of ranting about the empathy gap among my colleagues, but some of that comes from our utter lack of training. College teachers are not taught how to teach. We’re not taught the ethics of teaching (and grad school is at least exploitative and often abusive so we don’t have good examples). We’re not taught to recognize how our privilege affects how we perceive our students’ struggles. We’re definitely not taught how to handle student trauma or crisis. K-12 teachers do certifications and ongoing education, but we are assumed to have everything we need because we know a bunch of stuff about one area of scholarship. We’re not taught how the ADA, Civil Rights Act, and Title IX affect our students and our jobs, beyond surface-levelˆ mandated training. So it’s somewhat understandable that my colleagues balk when I talk about understanding and responding to student trauma. Nobody told them that was part of the job—but it is.

I’ve gone about finding the answers to these questions in a variety of ways. I’ve talked to my therapists about things like processing secondary trauma and holding healthy boundaries. I’ve studied psychological theories that help me understand how and when unhealthy fusion and transference happen and how to avoid it. I’ve studied and explored many spiritual paths to understand what makes me feel centered and fulfilled. And I’ve studied ethics and leadership to understand the responsibilities that come with power. Most recently, I’ve learned about social justice, intersectionality, and the history of oppressions in the US in an attempt to better serve my diverse students and community and to minimize the harm I can thoughtlessly cause with my privilege. I’ve also leaned on my TAs, who are often from different backgrounds and have different knowledge areas. I still have to be aware of power distance—because I am their pseudo-employer—but recognizing that people with less status may have more experience or knowledge than I do in a given area has saved my ass many a time.

This is not a checklist for perfection. In fact, I think humility is possibly the best trait to cultivate if you have the ability to influence others. If you are in a position where you teach or parent or treat or manage other humans, you need to cultivate humility. I have fucked up on all of these things many times. But if I had fucked up, rationalized it, and moved on, I would have continued to do harm and I would be an unethical jerk. Unfortunately, those of us driven to learn all the things, like academics, or be the best at things, like artists, often resort to defensiveness rather than recognizing that we don’t know everything and our power gives us many opportunities to cause harm. The challenge of fucking up is recognizing that it is also an opportunity for growth. I know one more thing that I didn’t know before, and I can choose not make that mistake next time.

Early in my teaching career, I was having adult undergraduates build personal websites for a career development course. I required that all of them put good headshots on their home pages. One student kept avoiding it. I tried to explain that it was really important, but she avoided discussing it with me. We became friends after she graduated, and one night over cocktails, she told me it was because her culture doesn’t think it’s okay for a woman to put her picture on the internet, and her family would judge her. It had never crossed my mind that it was a cultural thing. It should have, but it didn’t, because I am super white and just didn’t think to ask. Now I do. I have my students do LinkedIn profiles with photos, but I also give them a pass on it if they tell me they don’t want to include a photo for any reason. So for the low, low price of apologizing to my former student for being an idiot, I learned something that positively affected all my future students.

When I taught people my own age, I would respond to overtures of friendship if I was interested and I was no longer their teacher. As I moved to traditional undergraduates, it became clear this would not work. There is too much power distance between a 45-year-old professor and a 20-year-old undergraduate. This doesn’t mean that my relationship with all my students ends when they graduate—I remain available to those that are interested, but in a mentorship role, not a friendship role. We chat over zoom about career stuff, they update me on their grad school admissions, or sometimes just ask for advice. While with adult undergraduates I had to prove my worth as an authority figure in their age range, with traditional undergraduates I have to break down some of the power distance in order to engage them fully in the material, but not to the extent that I pretend I’m one of them. I think of my role as “weird professor aunt” rather than “weird peer with specific knowledge.”

I figured all of this out on my own, and with the help of my own good professors, therapists, and friends. I learned by example, both good and bad, and I learned from my many, many mistakes. Parenting, too, is an endless exercise in humility, guilt, joy, pride, and frustration. Our society makes a huge mistake by discounting the experiences of parenthood on the workplace. I was a far less empathetic person before I had a kid and had to face my daily failures. I used to freak out every time I had to teach attachment theory because I was sure I had totally fucked up my kid. I was also far less forgiving of myself and others. Eventually, I realized that nobody does parenting perfectly because there’s no such thing. You’re different people and sometimes you don’t mesh. And sometimes you have to pass the ball to another person. When my kid was having anxiety after a couple of really scary life events, I got them a therapist because I knew that helping them work through the trauma was not something I could do on my own.

The same thing applies to my students—I’m a caring, responsible adult, but I’m not a doctor, psychiatrist, therapist, or nutritionist. I have a list of those people to refer them to when needed. And I have my own people for when I need the same help.

Anyway, I think this is the beginning of a larger body of work. I think knowing your lane is the heart of what I’ve tried to do and be in the second half of my life, and I think it can be helpful to others. How have you learned what your lane is? And how have you learned what it isn’t?

Anti-Fat Bias in Academia: The Monetization of Self-Hate in Science

I teach in the human development department, in the school of human ecology, in a natural sciences college at a major university. Yes, that is a mouthful. University>College>School>Department. This will be important to my story so listen up.

During my first year of teaching at this institution, I encountered a couple of instances of discrimination or prevalent fatphobia. As the years have progressed (5 of them so far), and I became more engaged with faculty committees and such, I have encountered many more.

Before I start cataloging the shit I’ve seen (and experienced directly) I want to establish some evidence-based facts. Fat bodies are not inherently unhealthy. Fat people often live longer than thin people. While some diseases are correlated with (not caused by) higher weight, weight loss does not cure them. Intentional Weight Loss (IWL), otherwise known as dieting, does not last, and almost always results in regaining the weight lost, and often more. However, anti-fat bias in healthcare can affect your health through underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis of symptoms. Exercise and a varied diet are both very good for your health but do not necessarily make you thinner. Healthism, or the idea that healthy people are superior to unhealthy people, is based in bigotry and prejudice. The roots of fatphobia are in white supremacy and racism, both in culture and in western science.

In essence, one’s appearance and weight do not determine their health, happiness, or lifespan. This is all well documented and researched, but is only starting to make its way into the public consciousness.

So back to my job. In my first semester, I taught a class on the socioeconomics of families and children. It was my first sociology-based class and it was pretty fun. I inherited a good syllabus from the previous teacher, and it included a formal research paper. Working late into the night to finish grading at the end of the semester, I read a paper about childhood obesity written by a Nutrition major. She claimed that the Body Positive movement was bad—because diabetes. I was pretty upset by this, as a fat woman and the teacher of the class. It felt pointed. I learned not to grade papers late at night when my defenses were low. I also learned (from other students) that the Nutrition department had a lot of students with untreated eating disorders and pathologizing fatness was very common. Nutrition is part of the School of Human Ecology (remember my flow chart?) so this comes up again later. The other departments are Textiles & Apparel and Public Health.

Next up, senior theses. I gained popularity as a teacher pretty quickly and my classes filled up. I was also asked to be the first or second reader (supervisor) on a variety of senior theses (these are research projects like master’s theses but for honors students in undergrad). When I went to my first day of presentations of these works, almost every single one was about the horrors of obesity and how to make fat people less fat. It was deeply uncomfortable. I learned to show up for my students’ presentations and then leave quickly.

There were a few other incidents in my first couple of years. I had a TA whose research was on how parents could make fat kids less fat, and she told me, to my actual fat face, that she had to be thin because she had to set a good example for her research. Yeah, that happened.

I need to backtrack for a second. When I was finishing my Ph.D. and freaking the hell out about how to pay it off, I looked at think tanks as possible places of employment. I found many of them doing research on the so-called obesity epidemic, but not any particularly interested in fat discrimination. That was my first clue that funding research that problematizes fatness is big money in academia. I already knew that the diet industry made tons of money off of people’s insecurity and fears, and that patriarchy was all about social control, but I hadn’t realized how monetized the research was. I was long past the point in my life where I felt like I had to perform self-hate while being fat, so this was pretty discouraging.

Anyway, back to the saga. As I’ve written about (and published!) when COVID hit online support became really, really important to my mental health. I met regularly with my Trauma-Informed Pedagogy peeps, who were very anti-fatphobia and pro-eating disorder recovery. That was awesome. I also started going to monthly happy hours with other teaching faculty, and then committee meetings as I became more engaged in university service. I don’t remember any weird moments in the early days, but over the last two years, I’ve noticed some really toxic stuff starting to spill out in these non-student groups. A shortlist of weird shit I’ve seen/heard:

  1. A discussion of the best pies before Thanksgiving in a committee meeting led to someone commenting that the person who liked baking pies was so thin and them talking about how they used to be fat.
  2. A breakout room in a faculty meeting about how to support students where a Nutrition faculty member told the rest of us how they performatively eat salad and use their Peleton during Zoom student meetings to “set a good example” but they secretly like cheese.
  3. A committee meeting where a discussion of favorite Easter candy was ended by a white male faculty member asking how many of us had diabetes (two of us were visibly fat).
  4. The same meeting – a teacher said that students got “soft and flabby” during quarantine and that was why they had sports injuries.
  5. I observed a senior colleague’s class in my department who discussed the health risks of ob***y including a diagram of a “healthy” thin body and an “unhealthy” visibly fat and conventionally unattractive body (both female) without any discussion about the flaws or variations in this research.
  6. A lack of accessibility for both disabled and larger bodies in many classrooms, roads, and building entrances throughout the campus.

On the positive side, my students and grad students seem far, far more aware of the dangers of diet culture than in the past. I see and hear many more discussions of the problems with diet culture and eating disorders than I hear fatphobia from this population, which is an encouraging, welcome change. That said, I’ve had many students confide in me about their EDs and seek treatment, especially during quarantine.

I spoke with one faculty member in Nutrition who was combating diet culture and anti-fat bias. This was because she was assigned a large class with a syllabus that demanded students count calories for a week. While she admitted to me she was in eating disorder recovery, she didn’t rethink the calorie counting assignment until some of her students told her it was harming their recovery. She removed it and started including more Health at Every Size information. I don’t know if she made much progress or not on that front, but at least she was supporting a student-driven change.

To return to the funding issue, consider this: the US government is prohibited by Congress from funding research into gun deaths and injuries as a public health issue, but there is copious funding for why it’s bad to be fat. The reason behind this apparent contradiction is the same: money. The NRA funds a good chunk of the Republican party and has insisted on the block on funding research on gun violence, in spite of it being one of the biggest public health risks in our country (especially compared to other wealthy countries). Meanwhile, continuing to support research that upholds constructed ideas like the “ob***y epidemic” and uses made up and thoroughly discredited measures like BMI to assess individual health is a veritable cash cow.

We cannot change public perception if we continue to uphold and recreate biased assumptions in scientific research design. Anti-fat bias in research intersects and complicates false assumptions about women’s bodies, black bodies, queer bodies, and disabled bodies, all of which are well-researched and deeply harmful. I have a non-exhaustive but significant list of articles and studies on gender and race bias in medicine and research that I share with my students, many of whom will have careers in related areas. It is my hope that my students continue to unpack these biases and critically consume research that upholds inequity in medicine as they progress in their careers.

My students give me hope for the future; unfortunately, many of my colleagues do the opposite. We must stop upholding the hierarchy of bodies if we want academia to be a less toxic place to exist if you are not a thin, hetero, cis-gendered, white man. And finally, we must consider the ethics of research funding. If your funding requires or allows you to build on false assumptions about a marginalized group of people, it’s not ethical.

TIP and CRT: What they are and why they matter.

So this happened:

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy:
“Trauma-informed pedagogy adapts the trauma-informed care framework from health and human services for the practice of teaching. Trauma-informed approaches to teaching strive to understand how various forms of trauma may have impacted the lives of learners and use that understanding to accommodate learners’ needs, prevent further or retraumatization, and promote resilience and growth.” — ACRL

Critical Race Theory
“Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.

The basic tenets of critical race theory, or CRT, emerged out of a framework for legal analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s created by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, among others.” –Education Week

Critical Theory is a foundational piece of the discipline of sociology. Sociology studies how and why we organize and relate as humans and looks particularly hard at systems of hierarchy that claim to be “natural.” To be a trauma-informed educator, I must understand systems of power and oppression and how they create trauma in the populations I work with. There are a lot of types of trauma. Some are generational. Some are social. Some are related to natural disasters, war, and disease. As an educator, it is my ethical duty to recognize how trauma affects my students and take it into account when I design courses, classroom interactions, and policies. That includes systemic trauma.

If you have taken a course on Gender studies, African American Studies, Latinx Studies, Queer Studies, Disability Studies, or Feminist Studies among others, you have interacted with critical theories. If you have taken a course in critical thinking, you have interacted with critical theories. If you have studied history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, the arts, law, or science, you have interacted with critical theories.

At the intersection of critical theories and TIP, we must be educated, open, humble learners who are willing to unpack our assumptions and strive to not assume we understand other people’s lived experiences, especially if they are different from us. TIP demands that I am a learner first, and an educator second.

Simply put, if I think I know all the things, I’m not going to be very empathetic or flexible. If I assume that I don’t know all the things, I am open to recognizing, learning from, and repairing my mistakes. TIP is not about perfection, it’s about jettisoning ideas of hierarchy and power and really committing oneself to the heart of education.

Education changes the world. It is often the one thing that pulls historically oppressed populations out of poverty. Education improves human rights, economies, and public health. But if we pretend that historical oppression doesn’t exist and that it doesn’t affect the ability of students to access education, then it is not education. It is a system for maintaining parasitic class systems that ultimately harm everyone. It’s the Tragedy of the Commons, y’all. And we are on the brink

The amount of trauma I have witnessed in my student population over the last two years is staggering. It’s not getting better; it’s getting worse. If the Texas government, in its infinite wisdom, decides that I can’t talk about racism, or sexism, or transphobia, or the legacy of slavery, or medical bias, or homophobia, it will compound already dire situations for my minority students. It will also be totally impossible since I teach in a multidisciplinary department that studies the wellbeing of children and families, WHICH INCLUDES MINORITIES.

One thing I really want to point out to those still susceptible to the dog-whistle CRT pearl-clutching is that understanding how systems of power and oppression affect minorities does not negate the trauma of my white students. It is not a competition. Trauma is trauma. Recognizing that I come from a privileged background does not negate any of the shit I have been through or the challenges I have faced. It just means that none of them are related to or compounded by the color of my skin. Sexism is alive and well in America and I have faced more than a little of it, but it wasn’t affected by my skin color. That’s why Kimberlé Crenshaw developed CRT: the law, at the time, left no room for the experiences of discrimination faced by black women. Discrimination was determined based on race or gender, but not both. Which is nuts, because of course they intersect. Hence, intersectionality.

As a systems theory nerd, it is impossible not to see COVID as both a result of and a cause of systemic problems, which are inevitably be worsened by systemic inequalities. This plays out for my students every day. As a trauma-informed educator (or as Dan Patrick prefers, a Looney (sp) Marxist Professor), I must recognize that my own experiences are not enough to inform how I view my students’ traumas. I must actively seek out more information, read new research, and listen deeply to the words of my students. And no matter how many times CRT is dragged out as some kind of white middle-class bogeyman, I must not compromise on the foundations of my discipline and the health and wellbeing of my students.

It’s still trauma, Mary

I wrote quite a bit about a month ago about my tween’s experience with an abusive teacher at their school. While we finally got their 504 accommodations updated, and I’m guessing that teacher got a talking to, they continue to be unpleasant. They have continued to tell their students that they are emotionally underdeveloped because of their year (ostensibly slacking off and not dealing with any trauma or stress whatsoever with their perfectly stable and unstressed parents) off from in-person school due to Covid.

Recently this teacher decided to ask their students why they thought they were so emotionally impaired. (Who does that?) My kid raised their hand and said, we’re not impaired, we’re traumatized. This gave the teacher momentary pause, but then they responded by saying that all the students can’t be traumatized.

Really, Mary? In pandemonium? In a panorama? Two fucking years into a constantly mutating, killing people every day pandemic from hell? Just the fact that you said that indicates trauma. Our number one defense mechanism is usually denial. We ignore or minimize things that we can’t deal with. It’s the “This is fine” syndrome. And no shade to defense mechanisms — they help us function when everything is weird or horrible. We really do feel like everything is fine — until we don’t. Long-term trauma has long-term effects. We are less resilient. We have memory and sleep issues. If we have diagnoses like depression or anxiety, they can get harder to manage. When we inevitably encounter additional stressors or traumas, we don’t have the bandwidth to deal with them as well as we would during a time of relative peace and calm.

When my husband was hospitalized, people commented on how well I kept my shit together. And I did. Until I didn’t. We get this blast of hormones during emergencies that allow us to dissociate from the immediate horrors that we are dealing with and just function. But this is a temporary fix; afterward, you have to deal with all the emotions that your body helped you stuff down. I had an epic meltdown a few weeks after my husband got out of the hospital that was totally expected, and my resilience is still low while my anxiety is high. This is normal. But if you don’t understand the trajectory of trauma (and compounded trauma) you may think you are functioning because you are a superior life form and everyone else is weak. You are not and they are not.

This applies to EVERYONE. We are all living through collective trauma. Some people have been devastated by the effects of Covid, and some have just been inconvenienced, but nobody can ignore how terrifying and confusing and disruptive it has been.

However, Teacher of the Year, just because you haven’t experienced compounded, impossible-to-deny-trauma, doesn’t mean that your students haven’t. Kids have fewer defense mechanism tools in their psychological toolbox, even though they may seem super cool on the outside. Kids rely on adults for survival, so when we are unstable they often compensate by over-functioning or functioning for us. This does not make them extra great kids or mature beyond their years, or old souls. It makes them traumatized. Kids adapt because they have no choice. Adults have a choice. You can get therapy, scream into a pillow, journal, hike, whatever helps you get back into your body and your feelings, and then just fucking deal with the pain and fear and insecurity that comes up. Or you can blame your middle-schoolers for your own stress and make them feel like shit about themselves. Because apparently, that’s an option.

Once again I find myself saying to adults who parent or teach or take care of other people: unpack your shit. Your kids (and students) are an extremely convenient screen upon which to project your problems, issues, and flaws. Doing so is an abuse of power and you need to stop.

If you want to know more about how trauma passes through generations and how it plays out, I highly recommend learning about Family Systems Theory.

Why is white fragility?

Book Bans in Texas Suck

My husband and I caught the last segment on This American Life today, titled The Farce Awakens and I highly recommend it. It discusses how a Black children’s author found his books banned from school libraries in Katy, Texas. This horseshit is going on all over Texas and the south and it’s harmful and insane. But today I’m going to address specifically what the “concerned white moms” had to say in this segment because there is only so much I can yell at my radio.

Their argument was that exposing white children to the multitudes of microaggressions that black children face is harmful because it will make them feel guilty. (They also claim that there is no way that Black kids experience this much aggression. They do.) Let’s unpack this.

White guilt, of which I have had a good amount, is when you realize that you have been taking part in or advantage of oppressive social and institutional systems that make things easier for you and harder for Black people. I was raised believing that as a good Californian white liberal, I couldn’t be racist. It just wasn’t in my DNA. So when I said or did incredibly stupid things, I reacted with confusion and dismay. When I was forced to recognize the actual gulf between my experiences and my peers of color, I realized that I was full of shit and that I had no idea what they were going through. It was deeply uncomfortable and I did a lot of bullshit rationalizing of things to make me feel better about myself. Eventually, I realized that my sensitivity to terms like White Fragility WAS ACTUAL WHITE FRAGILITY. That was a start.

Why is this important? Because one of the most basic things you need to help your children learn while they develop is the difference between discomfort and danger. Guilt is uncomfortable, not dangerous. Shame is uncomfortable, not dangerous. Racist systems and racism are physically dangerous to short and long-term health and wellbeing.

So to the white moms in Katy who want to spare their children guilt for oppressions that they didn’t create (but are likely propagating because their parents can’t grow a pair of ovaries and woman up), I say GROW THE FUCK UP. It’s you who can’t deal with your guilt and discomfort. Your kids still have a chance to become more resilient, humble, and compassionate without a fuckton of therapy. You, my ladies, do not. You need to start learning to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and thoughts instead of trying to control everything your little angels come in contact with. Instead of banning books, get you a therapist and work on your shit.

In Transformative Learning Theory, we call this the Disorienting Dilemma. When a learner is faced with new knowledge that calls into question their sense of self or reality, it causes stress and discomfort. As educators, we can help them process it, but we can’t do it for them. Y’all need to take several seats and start thinking about whether or not you want your kids to be as easily disturbed as you are.

I want my kid to be more resilient than me. More ethical. More compassionate. More humble. I want them to outshine me in every way possible, not reflect back my own limited view of the world so I don’t have to have any uncomfortable feelings. I want the same for my students. If you can’t even imagine your child learning to empathize with a Black kid who gets picked on, harassed, and gaslit for being Black (or gay, or trans, or Asian, or Latinx, or Muslim, or disabled…), you are not living in reality and you are doing your children exactly zero favors. Learning to tolerate discomfort like guilt, anxiety, fear, and shame are the building blocks of adulthood and good-personhood. I really want the next generation to be less fucked up than mine, and y’all are not helping. Do better.

The Iceberg Model: What it isn’t

One of the great mysteries of the social sciences isn’t the way we share, borrow, and reinterpret great theories, it’s why we dumb them down.

In my studies of organizational development at the masters level, we learned about the iceberg theory:

So clean. So fresh.

The image above looks a lot like the one I studied during my degree. Policy and organization on top, behavior (and occasionally *gasp* emotion) on the bottom. All cultures, including organizational ones, have norms that are picked up and spread without being written down. However, this is a very sanitized version of the original, by none other than Papa Freud himself:

Freud did not fuck around.

Freud says that the stuff below the water’s surface consists of repressed trauma, early childhood experiences we can’t remember, disowned personality traits, and repressed impulses like competition, rage, lust, territoriality, fear, etc. All of that stuff does not magically disappear and turn into “behavior and engagement” when we go to work in the morning. The basic law of human psychology is that what doesn’t get expressed comes out in some other, usually unintentional, (and potentially harmful) way. People continue to be people, and the more we pretend otherwise, the murkier that water gets.

Another prominent example that I won’t go into in this article (because it deserves its own) is the coopting of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (a developmental theory) for capitalistic ends. There has also been recent criticism of how Emotional Intelligence theories are used in repressive ways. The linked article is highly recommended.

Unfortunately, much of organizational development literature tends to be self-justifying. It does not delve deeply into the historic and often inhumane reasons behind gender and racial wage gaps, the confluence of power around white men, or the exploitative nature of capitalism. Much of it is still of some value, and a few prominent theorists do, in fact, look at organizations more thoroughly and don’t engage in the circular reasoning of much of the literature. Largely, however, capitalism, and by extension organizational development theories, are self-justifying and lack vital critical perspectives that could improve working life for many people.

In my classes on career development and ethics, I have often likened corporate culture to the upper crust characters on the popular show Downton Abbey. They are masters of understatement (I mean…) and substitute cutting wit for frank conversations (or visible emotion). Unfortunately, undergrads don’t watch Masterpiece Theater so the metaphor is usually lost. Nonetheless, the writers of the show masterfully demonstrate how the characters reinforce cultural (and gendered, and racial) norms through subtle barbs and jabs, or well-placed silences, rather than oh, I don’t know, actually talking directly about whatever the hell they are feeling.

Unfortunately, organizational culture, in general, follows this pattern, and the fact that it can’t recognize its own repressiveness is just further evidence of the same. Attempts to frankly discuss any number of elephants trundling around the room usually result in accusations of overstatement or drama, while vague, ambiguous language is much safer when dealing with conflict. Long live passive voice!

Conflict resolution in the therapeutic context usually involves clearly stating your own feelings and experiences in a way that does not blame, nor excuses, other people involved. If my husband and I are fighting over the dishes, a therapist would encourage me to say, “I feel hurt when I cook dinner and you leave the dishes on the table.” My husband might say, “I feel frustrated when you use so many utensils to cook with and don’t clean as you go. I feel taken for granted when I clean up after you.” In corporate-ese, this conversation would be closer to (and over group email), “I’m confused why there are so many dirty dishes in the sink! Did I miss something?😺 “Oh, I didn’t know that cleaning other people’s dishes was my job! I’m sorry, can show me where it says that in my job description?😉” Translation: “Wash the damn dishes, Mary!” “That’s not my job, Karen!” <resentment grows> And, scene.

I find it particularly bizarre that in academia, where our work and writing is often judged on our ability to clearly and accurately state the reasons for and results of our research, we suffer from the same problem. Three years into a pandemic I still get astonished reactions (as do the select colleagues who are also fed up with artifice) when I point out that shoving unvaccinated, tightly-packed, unmasked students into lecture halls will result in deaths, and that the safety of students and the community at large should maybe be a high priority of an R1 institution whose reputation is built on scientific rigor. The audacity!

Another thing I tell my students is that the difference between the dynamics of school and the dynamics of the workplace boils down to one thing: survival instinct. Our work pays us the money that allows us to eat, pay for shelter, and meet the basic conditions for life. Our hindbrains and those of our colleagues are easily activated when we feel our income and by extension, survival is at risk. At the same time, organizational culture encourages us to suppress or hide emotions like fear, anxiety, sadness, and insecurity. You know, feminine emotions. 🙄 Nonetheless, these emotions exist in abundance for most of us, especially during times of social and economic upheaval. So I warn students they may see some really weird behavior in the workplace, and subsequently feel like they are taking crazy pills because everyone else is ignoring, minimizing, or justifying it.

Many things in organizational culture have changed over the last decade, but this; not so much. This recent case at Netflix shows how much power rests in the hands of those least able to perspective-take, and consequently affects what issues are discussable, conscious, and able to change. All of Netflix’s work on affinity groups, trans visibility, and representation amounted to shit when the CEO decided that he hadn’t done anything wrong.

In conclusion, if you are married to a particular organizational development or industrial psych text, please do check the references and learn about the theories from which it is derived (or in some cases, stolen). We cannot break out of exploitative, toxic, and repressive norms at work without a clear-eyed look at what we are leaving out of the picture, or what lies below the surface of the water.

Trauma Informed Pedagogy and Whiteness in the Classroom

Over the past few years, but particularly near the 2020 US Presidential election, I have gotten subtle, and not-so-subtle messages that being too political can be dangerous as a professor. Particularly because I am not protected by tenure, student feedback that labels me as biased can harm my job security.

This isn’t easy to navigate at the best of times. I teach ethics, leadership, developmental psychology, and sociology of the family. I can’t ignore the developmental harm caused by separating children from parents. To do so would be unethical. I can’t ignore the trauma and harm my students, and their families experience at the hands of ICE, racists, homophobes, Islamophobes, police violence, and a harmful justice system. Again, to do so would be unethical. The issues that have become front-page news directly affect many of my students. They tell me about them. I have heard many first person accounts of traumas that I will likely never face. While I have experienced this era’s stress, it hasn’t really affected me directly, mainly because of my whiteness. I did not earn whiteness, yet I get all the unearned privilege that comes with it. Most of my students do not and face dangers I cannot imagine.

I integrate current event discussions into all my classes because I believe it is irresponsible not to. In the process, I learn about the worlds in which my students live, about how campus policies and local politics and national policies affect them, about what they care about, what makes them happy, and what keeps them up at night.

I don’t consider a discussion of current events to be more political than any other aspect of public life. It’s just that, as has been said by women wiser than me, the personal is political. My students’ lives are deeply affected by the community, university, and country’s cultural and political climate. To ignore this fact erases them, causing further harm. It also disengages them from the learning process.

When the Black Lives Matter protests happened this summer, my institution listened to students and faculty and did some promising introspection. I hoped that this constant, low-level pressure would lessen. However, we were instructed to be as apolitical as possible in the wake of the presidential election.

This made me deeply uncomfortable, as I have witnessed the direct harm the current political and social climate has caused to my most vulnerable students.

Almost 95% of my students are women, and about 60% of them are non-white. They are the ones who have been most endangered by the policies and climate of the last four years (and the last 400).

Many of my students are or have been in crisis this year. I try to create a space in my classroom where they can relax a little. Where they can talk about their lived experiences if they want to. And where we all listen, and laugh a little, and think about the world from each other’s perspectives. Most are juniors and seniors worried about the future, worried about choosing a different path than their parents envisioned for them, and right now, worried about social violence and COVID. That is a lot to carry.

Yes, my few conservative white students are probably feeling pretty freaked out right now, much as I was four years ago. But I was never going to be the victim of increased social tolerance for white supremacy (because I’m white), Islamophobia (because I’m white), and the demonization of brown-skinned immigrants (because I’m white).

Part of engaging in Trauma-Informed Pedagogy entails knowing your own issues and dealing with them appropriately. The rules of processing trauma dictate that we take our trauma to someone who is 1) emotionally available, 2) has consented to hold our feelings with us (like a therapist or close friend), and 3) is not experiencing worse trauma than we are. Cognitive dissonance, like I experienced in 2016, and my conservative white students may be experiencing now, is very uncomfortable. It is not, however, life-threatening. I try to listen deeply to my students when they talk about trauma and not impose my own schemas on theirs in an attempt to relate.

I am not a therapist. But I am older, more financially and emotionally stable, and more experienced than my students, so I consent to hold space for them within the classroom boundaries and the teacher-student relationship while referring them to more qualified resources as needed. This is Trauma-Informed Pedagogy.

The mythology of false equivalency created over the last few years and further reinforced by social and mainstream media shows up like this:

Worrying about your Black child being killed by the police during protests is proportionate to feeling angry that a Black man was president.

Avoiding taking your kids to the doctor because ICE has been raiding your neighborhood and has put your uncle in detention is proportionate to being upset that gay people can get married.

Being verbally or physically attacked because you wear the hijab is proportionate to being upset that you are required to wear a face mask.

Physical danger and emotional discomfort are not proportionate.

False equivalency seems to be a pervasive byproduct of an era with continually mainstreamed racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, ableism, and misogyny. Feeling uncomfortable is not the same thing as being in physical danger. Moreover, being in constant danger due to increased tolerance for hate crimes and discrimination has far-reaching negative effects on mental and physical health.

Cognitive dissonance is the feeling that the world is not as it should be. We may experience it when someone says something in public we believe is false — when someone describes reality in a way we don’t experience. We feel it as tension in our bodies and perhaps as a flood of thoughts trying to defend or justify our position. It doesn’t indicate the rightness or wrongness of our position; it just is. We may also experience it as a symptom of intellectual and psychological growth. In Transformative Learning, a theory that underlies my pedagogy it is referred to as the disorienting dilemma. This happens when a learner is confronted with a viewpoint of the world, or perhaps themselves, which is new and uncomfortable. They must grapple with this discomfort as they test and then integrate the new knowledge into their world and self-view.

I experience cognitive dissonance when a Black activist criticizes white liberals on an issue I haven’t confronted yet. Over time, I have learned to lean into this discomfort, wait for it to pass, and then look at the issue without the need to rationalize my feelings immediately. Often, this causes me to grow just a little bit and to integrate some new knowledge into my world view. When I learned to do this, I stopped being as defensive when my demographic, white women, was criticized and learned to listen more deeply. This makes me a better person, a better ally, and a better citizen. Not perfect — not even close — but a little bit better.

I try to model this in the classroom by remaining receptive to criticism of what material I cover and how I teach it. If a student expresses concern that I am marginalizing a group or leaving out an important perspective, I will discuss it with the class, apologize if necessary, and adjust my approach. It’s not the responsibility of my students to fix my issues — I continue to engage in learning about systemic inequality and improving my practice — but when it happens, it allows me to model humility and flexibility to other privileged people and show that you can screw up and make amends and you will be okay. I try to show privileged students that discomfort is okay; marginalization is not.

Here is an example. I was teaching a class on families’ socioeconomics, and we were discussing current events, which included a wave of performative white supremacy online. A Black woman mentioned that some white people were posting videos of themselves drinking gallons of milk because they claimed that the ability to process lactose as an adult is a sign of racial superiority (rather than a random mutation). I laughed it off as too absurd to be real. Then I googled it when I got home. Yup. It was totally real. So in the next class, I publicly apologized for disbelieving my student and promised to do better. I ate some crow because 1) I totally deserved it, 2) I owed her an apology, and 3) other people need to know that admitting you are wrong won’t actually kill you.

The point of this story is not that I am a super woke white lady. Obviously, I’m not. It’s that I believe that teachers must model ethical, mature behavior, which includes owning our mistakes. (Note: ethics are messy) My Black and Brown students should not have such low expectations of white teachers that I am the best they can hope for. My conservative students should not be so brittle that they can’t handle some alternate perspectives. If I keep trying to be better, then maybe my minority students will expect more from me and my white students will expect more from themselves.

Cognitive dissonance is not life-threatening.

Racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and ableism threaten students’ health and projected lifespan. They affect my students’ likelihood of experiencing violence, the quality of medical care they receive, their job and financial stability, and their access to housing, all during a pandemic that endangers our species. So I cannot in good faith pretend that white students’ discomfort is equivalent to marginalized students’ lack of safety. They are not. I try to center the experiences, critiques, and stories of my non-white students because I believe it is unethical not to. Marginalizing at-risk students isn’t just unethical; it’s dangerous.

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy is not trauma-informed if we do not consider the ways that our social, financial, and political system does disproportionate harm to non-white people. In the aftermath of a contentious election and in the middle of a global pandemic, I cannot ignore this fact at the expense of my ethics, teaching, and, most importantly, my students.

It’s not developmental delay, it’s trauma

There has been a disturbing trend at my kid’s mostly amazing middle school. One teacher started telling my kid’s class (they are in the 6th grade and in person for the first time since spring of 4th grade) that they were underdeveloped and behaving like 4th graders. She told them she had discussed this with other teachers who agreed.

This is problematic, to say the least. Stigmatizing and shaming a group of kids is just stupid, stupid pedagogy. Shame and fear shut down the higher functions of the brain. Learning becomes close to impossible. It certainly does nothing to endear these students to this teacher or create a safe container for learning.

Later that week the teacher stressed my kid out and they started crying. The teacher took them into the hallway and tried to force them to calm down, while my kid begged for a little time by themselves to self-soothe. The teacher ended up sending my kid to the counselor’s office, who called me while I was teaching a class. This shitshow was entirely avoidable.

Some of the reasons my kid is struggling in this class, much more than their other classes, are they are dyslexic and the philosophy of this teacher seems to be “more is better” and “peer pressure makes better performance.” None of this tracks with kids with neurodiversity, so I do not know what her deal is. We’ve asked to have my kid transferred to another teacher’s class for this subject.

I talked to the counselor about my concerns and contacted my kid’s 504 coordinator. My kid has had very few issues with their other teachers and is doing pretty well for a dyslexic kid newly in middle school. Imagine my surprise when the principal sent out his weekly newsletter, usually a mildly interesting mix of updates and recommendations, and instead echoed what my kid’s less-than-stellar teacher had been saying. They are having discipline issues and it’s because kids are emotionally delayed due to quarantine.

I have been beating the drum of Trauma-Informed Pedagogy for a while now, but this was special. How the fuck do we get from almost two years of uncontrolled sickness, death, and job loss to “emotionally underdeveloped” and just whiz past trauma? More than 50% of the school population in Austin is Hispanic. The Hispanic community has been hammered by COVID. My college students of color are much, much more deeply impacted by the pandemic than my white students, me, and my contemporaries.

At the beginning of the last school year, I published a screed about forcing elementary school kids to be on camera all day for zoom school, because you don’t know what kind of shit they are dealing with. The same applies here. How many relatives have they lost? Have their parents lost jobs? Are they homeless? Are family members experiencing mental health or addiction issues? Have they been deprived of social interaction beyond computer screens because their parents have to work and don’t have time to provide them with stimulation? Can they even access the internet for what little social interaction is available? HAVE YOU ASKED YOURSELF ANY OF THESE QUESTIONS WHITE PRINCIPAL DUDE? Our kids still can’t get vaccinated, are trying to acclimate to an unrecognizable world where a deadly virus is still killing hundreds of people a day in our state, and you are acting like our kids took a fucking vacation for a year.

White Principal Dude, you have trauma. My kid’s abusive teacher has trauma. I have trauma, and so does my kid. We are all just trying to roll with the continuing punches and function as best we can.

Trauma-Informed Pegagogy means we take stock of and honor all trauma, including our own. And as trauma-informed teachers, leaders, counselors, and parents, we do our absolute best to not make our trauma the problem of people with less power than us. EVER. If you are assuming that everyone has a problem but you, you need to take several seats.

My kid got COVID from their school last week and my husband and I have breakthrough cases. As older, higher risk-people, this has not been a cakewalk. but our main fear has been for our kid, who is unvaccinated. Our kid is struggling with guilt for making us sick, despite our assurances that it is not their fault. We are angry at the school for crappy contact tracing. THIS IS ALL TRAUMA. It does not disappear because we don’t want to deal with it. Our tendency to blame, mine included, is a way to avoid the helplessness we feel in the face of this invisible, deadly virus.

Schools, teachers, and administration need to stop putting all the responsibility and blame for COVID onto those with the least power and start dealing with everyone’s actual trauma. Blame is avoidance, which only gets you so far. Our kids need boundaries, yes, but they also need compassionate, healthy teachers, who in turn need emotional, psychological, and financial support to weather this continuing shitstorm. We must do better.

Cyberpsychology in the Time of Pandemic

Yes, that is a cheap headline. Sue me.

As a cyberpsychology researcher and generally internet thinky-person, I spend a lot of time defending electronic forms of communication and community from the “get off my lawn” crowd who tend to view it as an abomination, or hotbed for addiction, or being solely comprised of the worst that it embodies. However, research (including mine) has shown, the internet is just us. Good, bad, ugly, beautiful, wise, and ignorant. Like any creation of humanity, it’s just us.

Similarly, coming from a very Dawkins-esk background, I heard a lot of “religion makes people stupid” and “religion is irrational” growing up. Nope. Religion is people. It is the best and worst of us and everything in between. Dogmatic beliefs are in no way relegated to just believers. Whether or not you experience the divine, the range of human experience can’t be bracketed out of the institutions we create. Religion doesn’t make people stupid. People make people stupid. The internet does not make people cruel. People make people cruel.

Does this mean that the internet is the same as non-digital socialization? Nope. So while the whole internet addiction mishigas has taken a backseat in a world where the internet is the only thing that connects us to people outside our homes, the news, medical information, and myriad other things, I’m now taking a hard look at what digital communication leaves out.

I’ve always believed that digital communication enhances human connection and that people are way too quick to judge the quality of digital communication. Sometimes they don’t even realize it’s taking place. A student told me about a time she and her shy, adolescent cousin were texting each other in the same room. Her mom chewed them out for being antisocial when it was actually one of the best conversations they’d had. A friend spotted me and my husband looking at our phones instead of each other in a restaurant. She gave us a hard time for not “connecting.” One of our favorite things to do is read quietly together, and we hadn’t been able to do it in months because we had a young child. So date night was when we would read together, at dinner, on our phones. These instances of misinterpretation are minor but telling about the value people place on digital activity. For people who are homebound due to illness or disability, digital connection may be the primary form of human connection they have.

In the time of Covid-19, those of us who have access to the internet are relying on our computers and phones to connect with friends and family with whom we can’t meet in person. I often find myself feeling unsettled or sad after Zoom sessions with friends, and drained after Zoom classes and student meetings. It’s funny because one of my main struggles during the not end-times is with social anxiety and hypervigilance. I tend to worry after being social if I have done something insensitive or humiliating or exposing. I’ve worked pretty successfully on methods to diffuse this anxiety, especially since my job entails potentially making an ass of myself about 9 times a week in front of an audience and I don’t have time to freak out about it. Social anxiety can be released as it is just unsettled energy in my body. Stop ruminating and relax the body and presto. Okay, it took a lot of therapy and practice, but still, presto. I can let that shit go most of the time.

But now I face a whole new set of struggles, and this time it’s not particular to my psyche. I still have some social anxiety from online interaction, but less than in FTF interaction. What I have more of is this sense of being drained of energy and feeling emotionally unfulfilled. The more intimate the relationships, the more intense the feelings. I talked to a friend who is a therapist and she posited that our brains are in search mode for the other social cues we get during face to face interaction. This is similar to an article I read on the exhaustion many of us feel around quarantine. In both situations it’s like that spinning search thing on your computer – it’s like a background process that’s always going and not finding what it needs but is draining computational power. In the case of connection, it’s our psyche’s need for physical proximity and the information that we don’t get online. Sympathetic nervous systems stuff, the full range of visual information, movement, microexpressions, pheromones, smell, and touch if the relationship involves that.

I miss proximity. I miss it a lot.

In many of my classes, I emphasize research that has shown that strong social connections and close relationships are significant predictors for longevity. They are much more highly correlated with longevity than diet or exercise (just a lot harder to commoditize). These connections are also interdependent – a thing US culture has a really fucking hard time with, as evidenced by our inability to recognize that our individual and collective survival during this pandemic are inexorably linked. So when I talk to my students about it, I urge them to remember to prioritize social connection as they move into a period of their lives that can be very isolating. Whether it’s graduate school or their first job-job, social connection is no longer built into the environment and is, in fact, fraught in ways that it is not during their undergraduate years. Friendships at work are tricky and need to form over time. Dating at work is risky at best. Graduate school is notoriously isolating and graduate students tend to have very poor mental health. I try to teach them that we have to really push against our perfectionistic,  bootstrappy, individualistic culture because it can be quite literally bad for our health.

Which leaves us where, exactly, right now? I really feel the loss of connection day-to-day. Seeing my students and talking to them after class while we walk to our next stops. Lunches with friends. Hanging out with other parents on the weekends and letting our kids play while we chat. Chatting with servers, and checkers, and other random people in my usually friendly city. Just sharing eye contact and a smile. I’m learning how to read smiles through masks, but I’m not out often enough for it to feed that part of me that is just starving right now.

I’m glad Zoom is a thing. I’m lucky to have internet-linked devices and good wifi at home. I love all the different ways I can contact my people, and sharing memes and stupid videos and random thoughts or pictures of my kid being extra. But I still feel this tug in my heart. I want to be with my people. Just near them. I am maintaining the rules of social distancing because I understand how this virus works and I do not want to get sick with it or god forbid, give it to other people. So this isn’t complaining. I’m just reflecting on the realization that I am suffering from withdrawal from a drug that we all need. And that I will not take for granted again.

There will be lots of studies on this. Actually, there are a crapton of studies already starting. They will measure the effectiveness of coping, and mental health among different quarantined demographics, and the effects of socioeconomic status on mental health, and cortisol levels before and after a video chat with a friend, and lots more necessary stuff. But I hope that we also, as researchers, really dig into the emotional and physical phenomena that we and others are experiencing during this time due to separation. What is happening to our bodies when it feels like our hearts are shriveling up? What does loneliness taste like during this weird-ass time? How do we and others describe it? What will we experience when we come out of our caves again? Will it look like PTSD or will it be something new?

Who will we be, and who will we be to each other, once this is over?

Policing policers by policing

Editor’s note: This is very pre-vaguely wokeish for me. Proceed with caution. There’s a lot of white butthurt going on and it’s all. mine. 

As I’ve become more involved in activism, both as a participant and an observer, I’ve also become increasingly uncomfortable with the policing of each other that activists engage in. In my corner of the internet, body positive activism, I’m seeing more and more of the “10 Ways to Be an Ally” and “20 Ways We Do it Wrong” articles. I’m seeing a lot of women telling other women that they’re not allowed to talk about feeling fat if they’re not fat (by some nebulous standard that sounds a lot like the same one that goes with being skinny or healthy), or that they’re not being inclusive enough, or that they’re getting activism wrong. This worries me. In my current dissertationy frame of mind, it sounds like defensiveness, not inclusion.

I think it’s incredibly powerful to stand up and say, “No! I do not like how you talk to me. I do not like how you treat me. I do not accept this. I will not disappear.” I am so down with this. But constantly telling other people how they’re doing activism wrong, or doing advocacy wrong is so freaking counterproductive. It’s globalizing an individual experience, and turning it into a set of rules.

It’s like the difference between saying, “Do not ignore or marginalize me. I am here, and I want you to know how I feel.” and saying, “Do not ignore or marginalize me or anyone like me, ever, or you are a shit activist.” From a psychological point of view, the globalizing that goes with the “10 Things” lists seems like a defense. Don’t get near me. Don’t talk to me. Don’t engage with me. Don’t ever fuck up and say the wrong thing. Maybe if I write enough lists of things people shouldn’t do, I won’t ever get hurt.

Human relationships are a series of fuck ups. The taboos that allow us to marginalize and harm others are ways that we protect ourselves from our own capacity to do harm. So it seems like creating a whole new set of taboos, instead of just getting down and talking about the harm, is just more of the same shit.

The problem with this is we all fuck up. We all get hurt. We can’t renegotiate the social norms that hurt us without getting messy, fucking up, and letting other people get messy and fuck up. I like the articles that tell individual people’s stories and experiences, letting the reader relate to them as another human. I’m so sick of the ones that tell everyone how to act and how to not fuck up. This one got to me the other day so I ranted on Facebook:

http://www.bustle.com/articles/109422-17-shame-y-comments-plus-size-people-are-tired-of-hearing-from-other-plus-size-people

This article brings up ways that fat stigma is hard to shed, even for those of us who are part of the movement. However, I don’t love that it’s framed as a list of do-nots. We all struggle to accept ourselves as we are, and that means we are not perfect activists at all times. I don’t think I even want to be a perfect activist. I just want to grow in compassion and awareness of myself and others, as I continue to deconstruct the social norms that keep me from being fully at peace with myself. It’s up to each of us to speak our truths to each other and connect as humans. I don’t think the plethora of do-not lists bring us together. I think they freeze us up. I’d rather fall down and learn than stay frozen for fear of breaking a new rule.

Is the author trying to show ways in which we are all still struggling to undo the harm done to us by bullshit corporate/patriarchal norms? Or is she/he saying, “You’d better not do this…” If it had been written as interviews or a first person story, I would be so down with it. Yes! We all still judge ourselves and others in ways that are harsh and unfair. Let’s talk about it! But that’s not how it’s written. It’s written as a warning about how you, too, might be a secret douchebag. And that doesn’t make me want to talk, or share my experiences, or learn, or expand.

I think that’s what it comes down to. Do we want to expand or contract? Do we want to live fuller, more expansive lives (wherein we are likely to fuck up, fall down, get up, and make amends) or stick ourselves in a new little box with a new set of rules guaranteed to keep us from every connecting with another person? The box may seem like it will keep us safe, but we should know by now that it will not. This is often the major difference I see between second-wave feminists in the academy and third and fourth wave feminists online. We’re constantly negotiating boundaries and norms – second-wavers often (not always) see the rules as set. And you get called a gender traitor if you violate them (Hilary vs. Bernie, anyone?).’

This is not an argument that political correctness is evil and unfettered personal expression is good. What gets labeled political correctness is just new emerging norms that take marginalized people into consideration. Considering other people’s feelings and talking about them and taking personal responsibility when we hurt or get hurt is good.

When you were little, did your parents ever tell you that you should have known better? Well, it turns out, most of the time,  you couldn’t have. A lot of the stuff we learn to do as adults — empathize, abstract, predict — kids can’t do that stuff. Their brains grow those capacities in the teen years. So we learn to feel retroactive shame for being human kids, instead of being gradually introduced to concepts that will one day make sense to us. That’s what some of this stuff feels like to me. I hate seeing the BOPO movement eat itself, but I’m afraid of the direction it’s headed in. So many other beautiful movements have dissolved into infighting and chaos. Can we find another way? Can we inquire instead of judge?

As a culture, we are just starting to deconstruct a whole lot of harmful nonsense around gender, bodies, and race. THIS IS MESSY. If it’s not messy, we’re not actually doing it. Can I tell you how many times I’ve tripped over my own privilege as a teacher? So. Many. Times. Face-planting is part of the job. All I can do is try to make amends and do better next time. I can’t avoid the next landmine because I don’t know where it is. But it’s still my responsibility to clean up the mess when I do something unintentionally insensitive.

What if we lived in a culture where we took responsibility for speaking our own hurt and anger and drawing our own boundaries? What if we were allies to those who need help without becoming caricatures of the very ideas that we’re trying to change? What if we just rolled up our sleeves and talked and listened and yelled and cried and hugged? What if we got messy instead of militaristic? Messy is scary, but that’s where the growth is.

Instead of saying, “You’re not inclusive enough!” What about saying, “I feel invisible when you ignore my body type/color/gender expression, and it hurts.” And what if I said, “Holy crap, I’m so sorry! What can I do to help?”