Sounding Off about Coming Out

About a month ago, it seemed like folks were coming out left and right, first was Diana King – yes, she was FIRST – then came Anderson Cooper‘s almost-confessional like acknowledgement via Andrew Sullivan’s blog, then third was Frank Ocean. As I watched reactions via Facebook and Twitter, I had a blog post forming in my mind, but too many other things were hot and it seemed like everything worth saying had already been said. And then Sally Ride passed away a little over a week ago and “came out” in her obituary, acknowledging that she was leaving behind a woman partner of 27 years and it all started all over again.

In the last month, I’ve heard praise and celebration as well as criticism and frustration. One blogger , Cathering Lugg went so far as to tell White queers to get over themselves, suck up their White-middle-class privilege, and be visibly out as queer. Another blogger, Emily Manuel for Tiger Beatdown, chastised folks who didn’t think Anderson Cooper’s coming out was really news since it was commonly suspected already that he was gay, because it takes courage to come out and everyone journey toward coming out is different and it’s really quite heterosexist of people to require that queer people reveal their queerness when straight people don’t have to “come out” as straight. Various commentators on Facebook and Twitter forwarded and shared both of these perspectives and other iterations of them. However, I think there’s another perspective in this conversation that borrows from both seemingly oppositional perspectives and creates a third place to stand.

Let me share what informs my perspective on all this. First of all, I am queer (a masculine-of-center lesbian kind of queer) and didn’t come out to myself, let alone anybody else, authentically as queer until I was in my mid-30s. That means I spent most of my adult life as I’ve lived it so far passing as heterosexual.  Since then, I think I’ve been on a steady march of increasing transparency as I’ve gotten settled and clear on who I am, what that means for me, and steady in defending myself against the typical attacks and questions that always come when sharing that with folks who think they know more about me than I know about myself. Second, I am a student, teacher, and scholar of identity development. That means my knowledge base is built on established research literature as well as autobiographical and anecdotal evidence. Third, I engage in multiple networking circles, several of which are ever-expanding, so I am constantly confronting people who don’t know, assume, or think they know what my sexuality is. In other words, like most queer people, I live coming out as a daily experience and as an evolving process, not as a one-time event. When I first came out, I used to wish that there was some way I could just come out to everybody who I’d ever known, all at once and be done with it. But even if that worked and I didn’t keep running into people who knew-me-when (go back to “first of all”), there would be all these new people that I keep meeting everyday to whom I would have to decide how much my queerness is salient to who I am in relationship with that person in that moment.

It’s really quite exhausting. It’s also a lot more nuanced than what I usually see in average discussions about coming out.

Underneath most of these discussions has been the presumption that publicly, continually, and consistently coming out as queer is necessary for positive, healthy, and mature development as a queer person. An example of this is in Lugg’s blog post, where she equates silence about one’s sexuality to keeping a secret and secrets are akin to pathology. This way of thinking has been around for a long time and can be traced back at least to Vivienne Cass’ model of homosexual (that was the wording she used for that era) identity development  for gay men published in the 1980s. Coming out is stage 1 and a healthy gay identity is  not fully resolved until one actively engages in activism on behalf of LGBT issues at stage 6. This model has been heavily criticized as too linear and hierarchical and not reflective of the complexities of people’s lives or of coming out. Other theorists, like Anthony D’Augelli have pictured identity development for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals as more of a sequence of processes that are neither linear nor hierarchical, but which still include exiting a heterosexual identity as the first process and later includes the process of entering LGB activism.

The paradigm that one must come out to be psychologically and socially healthy and mature as a queer person isn’t really disrupted in identity development models until Ruth Fassinger’s work more recently. In her research, particularly in her studies of lesbian women, identity development includes two developmental processes, one intrapersonal the other interpersonal, that parallel each other. Intrapersonal and interpersonal development processes may be happening simultaneously, but could also happen off-cycle so-to-speak. Although coming out to oneself is necessary, coming out publicly may not be necessary for healthy identity development and resolution.

So, let’s go back to Diana, Anderson, Frank, and Sally. Diana and Anderson, based on their own words, seem to have come out in response to persistent questioning  about their sexuality by others who had already assumed they were queer. If you read both their statements, you’ll be struck perhaps as I was, by the similarity of the language they used. Both of them say that the reason they were finally openly saying that they were queers was because not saying so was giving people the impression that they were ashamed of their sexuality, thought it was wrong, or were deliberately hiding it for some other reason. Both Diana and Anderson deny any such feelings saying only that they felt it was “private” and for Diana, the added layer of concern about how fellow Jamaicans would react (more on this later). Although he was also responding to rumors and questions, Frank doesn’t take such an apologetic approach. Reading his open letter on tumblr really sounds more like he’s just sharing something with others who matter to him; there’s no defensiveness about the timing of his announcement or explanation of why he didn’t say anything before. Sally, we know now, never said anything publicly about her sexuality, but allowed her obituary to speak her truth for her. However, comments from her sister (who is also lesbian and is publicly out as one), suggest that Sally never consciously “hid” her sexuality – she was just really a “private” person.

Private – that word pops up a lot in these discussions and why shouldn’t it? Who I sleep with is my business isn’t it? Well, yes and no. I think it all turns on how people view their sexuality as part of their identity in the first place. If sexuality is just a matter of sexual behavior then by all means perhaps we all should keep it to ourselves! But if you view your sexuality as a core anchor for the self, as a lens through which you see and understand the world and want to be understood by it, then that’s another matter entirely. Sexuality as bedroom behavior behooves privacy. Sexuality as life rudder or philosophical standpoint behooves public acknowledgement.
How one moves from one to the other is a personal matter, possibly an issue of development, but not seeing one’s sexuality as bedroom-only relevant should not be assumed to also reflect an immature or less developed sexual identity.

A similar distinction is sometimes made for other social identity facets. I’ve known African Americans, for example, who have viewed their racial identity as a mere accident of melanin, as nothing more than skin complexion. I’ve known others who see their racial identity as a fundamental and orienting aspect of their personalities and worldviews. Students who I have interviewed have held both opinions (Stewart, 2002, 2009). I’ve heard women discuss their sex and gender identities in the same fashion.

Perhaps someone who views their identities as biological facts would be less likely to be politically active around those identities than someone who views their identities as worldview portals. Maybe. I haven’t done research around that and if you know of something out there, share it please.

There’s something else here though also. Lugg talks a lot about privilege in her post and I think that’s a really important factor to consider in this discussion. Just about everybody has at least one social identity (race, ethnicity, native language, citizenship status, sex, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, education, religion, ability/disability, age, body size, etc.) that is privileged in this society. And just about everybody has at least one social identity that is targeted, disadvantaged, or oppressed in this society. Allan G. Johnson, in the 2nd edition of his book Privilege, Power, and Difference, discusses the paradoxes of privilege. That one can be privileged in one facet of one’s identity and never recognize that privilege, especially if one has a salient identification with another social group that is oppressed. A member of an oppressed social group also may not recognize their oppression because it hasn’t personally affected their lives in a tangible way. How could that be relevant in this situation? Well, it’s possible that Sally Ride, for example, didn’t see her lesbian sexuality as oppressed. Despite the absence of the 1400 state and federal unearned advantages (i.e., privileges) that heterosexual couples face, Sally and her partner Tam, likely had the economic privilege to buffer against that. (Although it’s been touted heavily on Facebook, I seriously doubt that Tam is going to become destitute without Sally’s social security death benefit.) On the other hand, Anderson Cooper may be more aware of his targeted group membership as a gay man, thus fostering the perceived need for silence, than he is of his many privileges as white, male, and upper-class (see Beverly Tatum for a great discussion of identity awareness and privilege). And for Diana and Frank, who also have racially marginalized group memberships, the complications increase as one considers what it means to come out as a marginalized person within a group that is already marginalized. Diana was cautious. Frank appears not to be and maybe he didn’t come out enough, according to some.

This has gotten really long – sorry – so I’ll wrap it up. In a nutshell, having a public forum to come out is a privilege – most of us have to do it the old-fashioned way, one conversation at a time. But coming out is also a declaration of identity and how one sees the world. And it’s always, always risky. Whether someone has enough other privileges stored elsewhere to buffer against the risk, really can’t be determined by counting up privileged statuses. It’s not a math problem. As intersectionality theories of identity discuss, people’s identities aren’t additive and unitary. You can’t amass privilege the way you can amass wealth and losing privileged status is much easier than gaining it. The costs of both silence and transparency are more complex than either is given credit for. As a mentor and friend, Dr. Cynthia Dilliard has said, we’ve got big work to do.

Racing the Olympics

Today’s opening ceremonies launch the 2012 London Olympics. For nearly two weeks, fanatic and occasional sports enthusiasts will watch the world’s best compete for the title of THE best athlete in their event and nationalists across the world will keep track of the medal count for their country’s athletes. It is heralded as a time when political squabbles take a backseat to international cooperation and camaraderie. Of course that’s not always the case and the Olympic Games have often served as a stage for political rivalries, David-Goliath dichotomies, and whether one way of life will win the day over another.

As a critical race theorist (CRT) (click here for a summary of CRT), I recognize the prevalence and pervasiveness of race and racism in daily life and so I have paid attention, or tracked, issues of race and racism in this year’s Olympic Games. For some reason though, issues of race haven’t been hard to notice at all. They’ve been practically screaming even before the games began this week. First was the controversy over London’s logo for the Olympics that has included concerns over insensitivity to people with epilepsy, whether the logo is part of an Illuminati conspiracy and concerning race, earlier iterations of the logo have been criticized (ironically) for both harkening to Nazi symbolism in one iteration and by Iran for covertly supporting the Zionist movement in another form. It’s also the 40th year since 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and murdered in Munich during the Opening Ceremonies of the games in what was clearly an ethno-religious hate crime and the IOC has refused to hold a moment of silence in remembrance of this horrific act that violated not only the spirit of the games but human dignity and equality. Most recently, on Thursday, it was reported that a Greek Olympic athlete, Voula Papachristou, a member of their track and field squad who was to compete in the triple jump, was expelled from the Olympics by her home country for a racist tweet that when translated read, “With so many Africans in Greece… At least the West Nile mosquitoes will eat home made food!!!”

Clearly that is a WTF moment.

Elsewhere, the presence of race and racism (and suspicions of it) are less obvious. Also this week, the Huffington Post reported that British weight-lifting Olympic athlete, Zoe Smith, was taunted via Twitter with bullying tweets disparaging her and her teammates for being female weight-lifters. Smith fired back with some truly excellent zingers and wrote further about it on her blog as reported here by Yahoo! News. So what’s this got to do with race, you wonder. Well, one of the tenets of CRT is a recognition of the intersections of racism with other forms of oppression. Zoe Smith appears to be a young woman of African descent, and although not unique to Black and other women of color, the hateful comments targeting her take on the same look as those that have been used to brutalize women of African descent in the U.S. and globally since Europe colonized Africa. I was reminded instantly of South African track athlete Caster Semenya, who was accused in 2009 of being a man for her very muscled body and undeniable dominance in the 800m event, supposedly not natural for someone born female. Semenya was ultimately required by the IAAF, the world athletics organization, to take a gender test to prove she was female. Although not as extreme as Semenya’s case, the bullying Smith endured is very reminiscent of the ways that pan-African women have long been de-sexed and made anti-feminine by White European standards of hegemonic femininity and heteronormative sexual desire.

Yet there is another way in which race plays a subtle, often overlooked role in the Olympic Games and in sports in general, through what bodies are on the playing field for any respective sport and which bodies are expected to win. Racialized expectations for performance outcomes in the Olympics have become trite: an African will win the long-distance running events, particularly one from Kenya or Ethiopia; the Chinese will do best in diving; the Central Europeans excel at gymnastics, while South Americans are the key threat in soccer on the world stage.

Meanwhile, for as much progress as has been made in racial equality and opportunity through athletics, we will still see most of the Black athletes on the track, the long jump, the soccer pitch (outside the US), and the basketball court, especially when they’re from the US (the football field is another place but that’s not an Olympic sport – yet). People of African descent and darker complexion will be noticeably far fewer on swimming, gymnastics, golf, and tennis teams, for example (with equally notable exceptions in 2012 like Gabby Douglas and John Orozco for the U.S. gymnastics squad, and Lia Neal, who is one of 3 Black swimmers on the U.S. swimming team). Latin@, Asian American, and Native American athletes are few and far between in the sports that get the most press coverage in the U.S.

Is this a problem? What difference does it make that there isn’t more racial diversity in our Olympic cycling, rowing, or lacrosse squads? Isn’t this just a matter of preference and talent? Well, putting the eugenics tone of the last question aside, I guess it doesn’t matter – unless we care about the intersections of racial and economic inequality. The marginalization of people of color from higher-income employment sectors depresses the economic mobility of people of color and their access to a wider variety of leisure activities, including sports. What I’ve noticed is that sports with a lower entry fee, so to speak, are the sports where you’re likely to see a higher proportion of people of color. When all you need is a ball, or a pair of sneakers, or both those things and a hoop, and when you can play anywhere – the middle of the street or somebody’s schoolyard, the sport is more economically accessible. If the sport you play requires not only pricey equipment, but also many acres of manicured grassy lawns, access to a natatorium (even public pools are few and far between in most economically challenged areas), an ice rink, gymnasium, long trails to ride, or a lake AND coaching supervision to prevent injury inherent in the sport (thinking about gymnastics especially), you’ve changed the complexion of the sport. Basically, the price to play structurally and systematically excludes significant numbers of people of color from playing the game on the basis of the ways that race and social class intersect. The result is fielding an US Olympics team that doesn’t reflect the total diversity of our multicultural, multi-ethnic nation, but does reflect the racial segregation that still marks our daily lives from Sunday morning at 11am (tip of the hat to MLK) to the playgrounds and backyards of our children’s lives.

One thing I know is that the ability to play together is fundamental to creating bonds of loyalty, mutual care and respect, and cooperation. We see it in groups of young children, the best of our intercollegiate athletics, and through the boardroom deals that begin on the golf course or squash court. Maybe we’re stuck in this quagmire in our nation because we don’t know how to play together and don’t seem to want to. What do we do about this? Honestly, I haven’t a clue. But another thing I know is that in order to get to an answer, we’ve got to start talking about the question.

Monday: Coming Out as both Risk and Privilege

Beyond Retribution at Penn State

On Monday, Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, announced their sanctions against Penn State University and the conspiracy of silence, uncovered by the Freeh Report, that protected now-convicted child pedophile Jerry Sandusky for 14 years from 1998 through 2011. Penn State officials have responded with appropriate chagrin and determination to continue “to move forward.” Mark Emmert called the cover-up and child abuse “perverse and unconscionable” in his press conference announcing his decision. Many, many others have written and given television interviews about whether or not the NCAA’s sanctions were a “bad decision” and questioning “is this fair?”

This post isn’t about all that. I’ve got a real simple answer here: Nope, it’s not a bad decision, the NCAA has not set a “dangerous precedent,” and it’s still “fair” to all the student-athletes. Current and would-be incoming athletes can transfer and maintain eligibility AND will likely be able to stay on track to complete their degree. As my colleague Dr. Christina Lunceford, a former student-athlete herself schooled me, student-athletes have to show that they are making adequate progress toward a degree as a part of maintaining their eligibility. For players who have their hearts set on winning a championship or playing BCS bowl games over the next four years, they can seek transfer to another institution. For players who want to remain at Penn State and be student-athletes, they’ll retain their grants and aid and still play football. The $60 million fine will go into an ambiguous fund to support the “detection, prevention, and treatment” of child abuse.

Paterno’s legacy is forever tarnished. The university president ordered the removal of Paterno’s statue outside the football stadium and it is now completely demolished, wall and all. As Dr. Catherine Lugg wrote in her blog yesterday, there are many dangers inherent in “bronzing the living.” Winning more football games than anybody else shouldn’t make you great; character and integrity should be the test of greatness. I’m sure Paterno taught his players and fellow coaches many valuable lessons about teamwork, about perseverance, about passion, and about loyalty. Unfortunately, he failed to teach critical lessons about how to put that teamwork, perseverance, passion, and loyalty in the service of those who are vulnerable, marginalized, and most in need of justice.

So much emphasis has been put on the punitive part of the NCAA sanctions. To listen to ESPN and most other news outlets, bloggers, and folks talking around the water cooler, you’d like all there was to the sanctions was retribution and punishment. Heck, that’s all I thought there was until I went to NCAA’s website myself. Look at the sanctions yourself and scroll past what’s been blared all over the news for the past 72 hours: the 5-year probation, the $60 million fine, the “significant” scholarship losses, the 4 year ban on postseason play, the vacated wins from 1998-2011, and the change in Paterno’s coaching record now putting him down to 5th in Division I and 8th all-time. If you stop there, I think you’d be right to be a little off-put by it all and figure that it won’t address the issue. I was initially going to write this post about the overemphasis on retribution and the absence of significant restorative, corrective action on the part of the NCAA that would actually help prevent this from happening again in the future and serve as a model for other institutions to follow.

But if you look past all that to the corrective sanctions – it’s even labeled that way on the page – you’ll see much more that actually is substantive and directed at transforming the structures of how Penn State athletics, particularly its football program, will operate in the future. The NCAA has recommended the adoption of ALL of the recommendations made in Chapter 10 of the Freeh Report. Going further, though, the NCAA has required the creation of an Athletics Integrity Agreement (also in the Freeh Report) and an “independent Athletics Integrity Monitor for at least five years.” Together these additional sanctions would initiate the creation of several compliance systems to provide the checks and balances that were sorely missing which allowed Sandusky to victimize children in Penn State facilities with the knowledge of Penn State officials.

Learning, development, and growth don’t happen just by punishment. I might even argue that punishment rarely, if ever, leads to deep learning, development, and growth. Corrective action, restorative justice if you will, is about inspiring learning, development, and growth, and it has to go beyond retribution to cause the offending party (not just an individual in this case but a system, a structure that failed) to look within, to study itself, to change the way it operates. Only then will real change, will transformation even, occur. Corrective sanctioning takes faith, hope, and love. We only try to redeem the things we love. I love athletics for what it brings in positive growth and development to those who play and for the enjoyment it delivers to fans. Because I love it, I think it’s high time that we take very seriously its reform.

I think we need to talk more about the corrective sanctions (I’m looking at you ESPN especially, but also our higher education news outlets) and how we can transform toxic institutional structures that give too much autonomy and too little responsibility to intercollegiate athletics in our institutions of higher education.

Next time on Friday: Race and the 2012 Olympics

On Being an Angry Black Woman

Yes, I am an Angry Black Woman and I’m not sorry for it. Last Monday, The Root featured an article from Clutch Magazine by Shayla Pierce titled, “Sorry to Disappoint You, But I’m Not an Angry Black Woman.” This immediately piqued my interest and I read both the short excerpt on The Root’s website and the full article online at Clutch Magazine with a fair bit of wary curiosity.

In the article, Pierce recounts an encounter with a waiter while having lunch at a restaurant. There was something amiss with her soup, a foreign body floating in the broth, and Pierce called the waiter over and asked for her soup to be replaced. Pierce says that the waiter then became very tense, asking her to calm down, and everything would be taken care of. Now Pierce doesn’t recall getting loud, being contentious, or doing anything that would have provoked such a defensive response on the part of waiter. In her estimation, the waiter responded to the stereotype of an Angry Black Woman, instead of to the dissatisfied customer who was in front of him, who happened to be a Black woman. I recognized this in my own life; I have been told usually by White women that they find me “intimidating” and even that they were “afraid” of me. Like Pierce, I am pretty sure I’ve never given a public display of rage or even a level of impatience that would justify that kind of reaction. Granted, I don’t mince words often and I enunciate when I speak so that I can be heard and understood clearly; I don’t let my voice rise at the end of a declarative sentence as though I were asking a question and I don’t get easily intimidated by someone cutting me off while I’m speaking. None of this has to do with me being “angry” and I think a lot of it comes from being born and raised in New York City, attending high school at an all-girls school (Convent of the Sacred Heart), and being socialized in Black rhetorical styles on the playground, at church, and foremost in my own house. All of this upbringing has shaped my personality such that I’m usually somewhat stern at first glance and speak clearly, directly, and don’t take anyone’s b.s. Guilty as charged.

However, Pierce’s key point was to assert a certain way of being as a Black woman. As the title indicates, she’s sorry to disappoint those who expect her to become enraged at the slightest provocation, the epitome of what I guess she thinks it means to be an Angry Black Woman. She says, not necessarily incorrectly, that the Angry Black Woman is a myth, a stereotype, and she proactively and assertively disputes the stereotype through deliberately refusing to display anger, especially when White people are present. I heard a mid-level student affairs professional, a Black woman, express a similar sentiment in a training I did last Monday. She confessed that sometimes, many times, she would hide her authentic reaction to a situation fearing that if she were to show up authentic in that moment that she would be seen as the Angry Black Woman and lose her credibility as a professional working with a staff of predominantly White people. Pierce also acknowledges that Black women’s anger is often dismissed, causing real, substantive issues to be ignored while folks focus on the display of anger being performed and judge it to be a farce.

Hmmmm.

Anger does make people awfully uncomfortable, especially when they and their actions are the target of that anger. When marginalized groups get angry about their oppression, dominant groups tend to get jittery. In the same vein, anger is not always the appropriate response to every situation. As Pierce recounts in her article, something floating in her soup that wasn’t on the menu wasn’t much cause for rage. However, there are many issues and situations in life where anger and rage are not only appropriate and justified but are demanded.

I find it interesting that anger has been used to negatively stereotype Black women, “saucy” Latina women, Asian women, indigenous women, lesbian women, PMSing women – do you see a trend here? Yup, they’re all WOMEN who are systematically oppressed because they do not fit into the ideal trope of hegemonic femininity. Women aren’t supposed to be angry apparently and when they are angry, it’s a farce, a ridiculous display of inappropriate emotion. Moreover, women aren’t supposed to clearly and directly express the changes they want to see in their lives and in the lives of those around them (I’d like a new bowl of soup please). Women must control themselves and not be intimidating (read strong) otherwise people (read people with power) won’t take them seriously (read won’t be able to see them as cute anymore).

Oh please.

Several years ago, I read a book by bell hooks* called Killing Rage. When I first saw the title, I thought killing was meant to be a verb and assumed the book was going to be about squelching rage. Consequently I read it with a fair amount of apprehension; this was meant to teach me how not to be angry and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that. But no, killing is being used as an adjective in the title and as a verb. Once I realized that, reading the book became very transformative for me. In her book, hooks justifies the need for what she calls a killing rage – a rage that is inspired by recognition of oppression and a passion for justice. This kind of rage should be stoked, not for the purpose of destructive violence, but rather to maintain one’s fire when you want to give up. But that’s just half the lesson of the book. hooks also documents the ways in which dominant systems try to squelch, or kill, the rage of marginalized groups for the purposes of maintaining the status quo. The first step to maintaining power and control is to diffuse people’s anger.

So, sometimes, when it’s warranted, I am an Angry Black Woman and I am not sorry for it. I am angry in response to systematic oppression and privilege, not because there’s a fly in my soup, Aldo’s doesn’t carry men’s size 6 in stock in Toledo, or even because somebody stepped on my foot in a crowded line outside the World of Coca-Cola. I am reclaiming the Angry Black Woman because her anger is useful and historically and presently justified as a fitting response to the killing and maiming of her sons and fathers, the raping of her daughters and sisters, the drying up of dreams like Langston Hughes’s raisin in the sun, and the constant threat of horror upon horror unleashed by an oppressive state.

I am not giving up my anger. As that participant said by the end of the training, it’s time to stop caring what everybody else thinks and show up authentic. Being angry doesn’t mean that I could be subject to psychotic rage at any given moment – that’s the stereotype, the farce that makes for high ratings on reality TV. Real anger, bell hooks’ killing rage, is fuel for action. Bayard Rustin didn’t school Martin Luther King, Jr. in nonviolent protest tactics because they weren’t angry, but because they knew how to use their anger as fuel, as motivation. Anger isn’t the absence of love, either. Both anger and love are rooted in passion, but moreso, anger is an outgrowth of loving something so much that you can’t stand to see it fail to fulfill its promise. Anger is also a sign of hope and faith that says you have not resigned yourself to the inevitability of the outcome. As Popeye used to say, “I can’t stands it no more!”

I think we all need to get angry so that we can all make change happen on behalf of justice.

Next time on #higheredWed, my response to the Penn State controversy.

*bell hooks intentionally does not capitalize the first letters in her name and so neither am I.

A Selah Moment

I was going to post a very passionate reflection today about being an angry Black woman and the value of anger as a tool of resistance. But I’m going to save all that passion and fervor for Monday. Today, I want to take a selah (I explain more at the end about selah) moment, to just pause and be silent, in a way anyway.

Selah.

In honor of and out of respect for the victims of the terrorist shootings (because terrorists aren’t just Islamic Arabs – there’s a great article by David Sirota on this), I’m choosing to silence the other thoughts and ideas running around in my head and sit in silence. I’m posting so my readers know this is an intentional choice not to add to the noise and the talk – and there is a great deal of talk going on right now. Some of it helpful like Sirota’s piece linked above. Some of it not helpful as it reinforces stereotypes and inflicts pain on marginalized groups.

Selah.

There is value in pausing; value in silence. For me today, it shows my faith that others will speak to this better than I; my hope that we will as a society realize our accountability to each other; and love of peace.

Selah.

Perhaps we can learn from our Muslim brothers and sisters who have begun the fasting period of Ramadan – a month-long pause if you will. As Najeeba Syeed-Miller wrote in her blog post preparing for Ramadan, this holy observance is about practicing a model of conflict resolution and serves as a powerful reminder to produce peace in one’s life.

I think we could all benefit from pausing in silence to practice how to produce peace, instead of producing more and more violence in our world.

Selah.

*Selah is a kind of musical notation used in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly the Psalms, which were meant to be sung, to signal to the musicians and congregation that it was time to pause and reflect on the words that had just been sung. It made the psalm more meditative, more prayerful. Today has been one giant selah moment for me.

Introducing Higher Ed Wedesdays: A Giver-Centered Philanthropy

To help focus my blog and help readers decide what content may be of more interest to them, I’m adding a new feature to my blog beginning this week. My interests in societal issues are broad and varied, including politics, faith and religion, and higher education primarily and my blog reflects that breadth. My social identities as a Black queer masculine-of-center woman with ADHD who practices a progressive Christianity also get reflected in the many kinds of topics and issues that attract my attention and show up in my blog. At the same time, I know that many of you who have heard about my blog and are following me on Twitter and friends with me on Facebook know me through higher education and student affairs circles; I want to acknowledge that audience and develop a way for you to know when topics related to higher education and student affairs will be featured in my blog. So to do that, I’m dedicating the Wednesday post on my blog to higher education and student affairs issues. You can use the hashtag “#higheredWed” on Twitter to comment and pass the word on. Mondays and Fridays will be dedicated to a broader range of topics and issues with a social justice bent and especially dealing with issues of race, gender, sexuality, faith/belief, disability/ability, and social class.

So, let’s kick off this first #higheredWed with a reflection on philanthropy in higher education, particularly alumni giving. An article by Elise Young in Inside Higher Ed yesterday, reviewing the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education’s (CASE) annual meeting, spoke to the need for alumni giving officers to connect with alumni from the Millennial Generation in ways that reflect the trends on that group. In particular, using technology and social media to more effectively connect to alumni and tell the college’s story were more effective than traditional solicitation techniques like cold calls and postal mailings. However, the article also pointed out the need to help Millennials see where their money was going tangibly; comparisons were made to other fundraising campaigns that told donors that a certain amount of money made it possible for this activity to occur, while another amount enabled something else. Millennials want to see where their money is going and connect to a larger story, not just give into a generic annual fund campaign.

I’ve argued a similar point myself in a white paper I wrote in the spring for Kalamazoo College’s alumni and development staff and our Alumni Association Executive Board of which I am a member. Using a generational perspective, informed by the work of Strauss and Howe and others that have characterized trends in approaches to careers and family and views of authority, loyalty, and education, the crux of my argument was that a one-size-fits-all approach to engaging alumni as donors would likely be less effective than tailoring one’s approach to fit the needs and attitudes of smaller groups of alumni. These distinctions may be done according to generational characteristics as argued in Inside Higher Ed and my paper. However, other social identifiers may also be considered as alumni and development officers seek to more effectively engage different groups of alumni.

Marybeth Gasman, alone and in collaboration with including Nelson Bowman most recently, have focused on issues of race in college philanthropy, particularly for Black students at our nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).  From her research on the history of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) to a blog post in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Gasman has noted that the dominant model of philanthropy that is focused on wealth and economic privilege is not relevant or suitable for developing philanthropy among Black college alumni. A review of the research by Pascarella and Terenzini (How College Impacts Students, 2nd ed.) on the conditional effects on quality of life after college demonstrates the lower earnings of Blacks with a college degree relative to Whites. These differences likely reflect the pervasive and intersecting structures of racism and economic inequality. Moreover, in Bowen and Bok’s study of Black and White graduates from highly selective colleges (published in their book The Shape of the River), they found that Black students were also more likely to pursue careers in sectors that didn’t typically have high earning potential (e.g., social work and education) or focus careers in law and medicine on lower-income clientele and economically depressed neighborhoods. Consequently, large amounts of excess disposable income are not available to give to their alma mater, regardless of their satisfaction with their college experience or loyalty to the institution. Gasman argues in her blog post linked above and in her recently published text with Nelson Bowman, Fundraising at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: An All Campus Approach (2011, Routledge) that a broader concept of philanthropy that incorporates “time, talent, and treasure” is necessary to effectively engage Black college alumni in institutional philanthropy. In addition to alumni financial contributions, alumni who devote time volunteering to assist with recruitment and retention efforts and who donate their professional expertise also make valuable philanthropic contributions to their alma maters. As Gasman notes, this is useful and relevant for all alumni, not just Black alumni, and for all institutions, not just Black colleges.

Student status, whether undergraduate or graduate, is also important to consider. Also covered in the Inside Higher Ed piece was the challenge of connecting with graduate alumni versus undergraduate alumni. Advanced degree holders have different needs and interests than undergraduate alumni and their experiences on campus as graduate students were very different from most traditional undergraduate students. These distinctions need to be accounted for as college advancement officers plan their institution’s annual fund drive.

The old marketing principle, know your audience, must be sensibly and intentionally applied to alumni and development activities in higher education. Traditional models of alumni engagement and philanthropy, although perhaps more financially efficient, won’t necessarily work to effectively engage a broad diversity of alumni across generations or social identity groups. After all, I would argue that the goal of alumni engagement is not just to increase financial giving to the institution, but to also build on and sustain the sense of community membership and sense of belonging that (hopefully) was developed during the student’s

Personally, as an alumna of a private high school and two higher education institutions, as well as a faculty member at a higher education institution, I get multiple appeals to give every year. Frankly they’re quite overwhelming. If all you want from me is money, you’re not likely to get a lot and you’re going to force me to make decisions about who’s going to get the little bit of money I have. If you expand my opportunities to give back to include more than just financial contributions, then I’m more likely to want to donate my time or talent in some way – and then also find a way to throw at least a few dollars your way. Just saying. Consider who I am as an alum and engage me appropriately. It’s a giver-centered approach to philanthropy, instead of the institution-centered focus that has seemed to dominate in higher education traditionally.

Thanks for joining me this #higheredWed – hope this helps you get over your hump day!

A Fair Balance

It’s only July, still about four months before the November elections, and I’m already tired of the political ads from both sides. Contrary to much of the current discourse, this isn’t new. Check out this 21st century retooling of the negative campaigning that happened in the 1800s where candidates attacked each other’s physical appearance, sexual appetites, and questioned their biological sex (yes, “hermaphroditical” was used to describe John Adams by Thomas Jefferson): Attack Ads, Circa 1800.

Ugh.

Another thing that isn’t new is the debate over how much tax the wealthy should pay, support for the poor and working classes, and the rights of corporations to pursue unlimited profits – at the same time, the purpose and value of higher education was questioned as proponents of a classical curriculum emphasizing breadth of knowledge meant to “discipline the mind” defended themselves against those advocating for a more utilitarian curriculum that would be directly connected to training for specific trades, particularly mercantilism (aka, business); see the Yale Report of 1828 and this article by Jack C. Lane in 1987. These same debates were also seen in the 1800s as neo-republican ideology swept the country advocating for the freedom to pursue individual success without the constraints of government. Wrapped in what Frey has called a mis-reading of Puritanical ethics, neo-republicanism was as much a religious ideology as it was a political one.

Frey argues for a closer reading of Puritan ethics that would reveal that individual success was always meant to be constrained by investment in the common good. Perhaps, but a close reading of the Bible itself would reveal that the current polarization of the right to pursue wealth against a populist support of poor and working class is far afield from the Christian ethics preached by the religion’s earliest followers.

The Common Lectionary for July 1st used in many liturgical denominations, including Episcopalians and Anglicans worldwide, Lutheran churches, and Catholic parishes used Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Corinth as the epistle reading for the week. Here’s a portion of the passage (if you want to read more – the selection begins at verse 7 – click here):

“For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’” 2 Corinthians 8:12-15, New Revised Standard Version

The passage is about voluntary giving or donations, not taxes imposed by the government in fairness to biblical exegesis, but I think there’s a larger point that is transferable between the two contexts. In Paul’s time, the government couldn’t be counted on to take care of the poor. In fact, poverty often led to enslavement. So the new communities that were forming to follow The Way – that’s what the earliest Christians called themselves as they attempted to practice the way of life that Jesus lived on earth – had to create their own structures of organization and oversight – what some might call government. There were leaders and representatives, folks (like Paul) who traveled to spread news about new policies and practices to be adopted. And during this time, the government – Rome – did impose taxes on its citizens and surrogates and typically the surrogates were under a heavier tax burden than the citizens, even though the citizens were usually far wealthier. So when Paul writes this letter to Corinth, pleading for them to give more because they had more, so that they could help the Christians in Jerusalem, he’s trying to teach them another means of following The Way. Later in this letter, Paul cites the Macedonians’ giving, which was greater than that of the Corinthians even though they were poor themselves. Again, Paul wasn’t asking for the Corinthians to become destitute in order to help some other folks, so that everybody would be poor, nor so that those being helped would end up with more than them. Paul wasn’t even asking for everybody to have the same amount either in a communistic (different from communitarian) economy – a common accusation by those who reject calls for higher taxes on the wealthy. Equal (a = b) and fair are not the same thing. Fairness and justice don’t always call for things being the same (sometimes they do though). Neither hard work nor inherited gain give anyone the right to hoard their wealth. What is the fair balance? I don’t know, but I know we don’t have it when there are people who are going into bankruptcy due to healthcare costs, who don’t have enough food to eat, who are living out of cars or on the street, while others have so much they literally don’t know what to do with it.

For me, it’s just that simple. I’m not asking for our government to be run according to my Christian ethics (we aren’t a theocracy you know), but I do allow my Christian ethics to guide my political stances and how I vote.1 I also want others who claim to be using Christianity to guide their political stances and voting records to think carefully and reasonably about their orthodoxy using the best biblical scholarship and thinking we have access to. I don’t hear that from most of the folks who are howling over how unfair it is to raise taxes on the wealthy and on highly profitable corporations.

This premise that no one has too much or too little isn’t unique to Paul and Christianity; indeed you can find it as a central premise in any communitarian ethic across religious and secular traditions. It’s also an ethic this country has practiced at times throughout its history and during those eras, we were a stronger nation that began to realize some of its greatness (see my thoughts about being a great nation in my earlier blog post from July 5th).

I want the “fair balance” that Paul calls for to become a reality in this country and right now, we don’t have it. We have a lopsided balance that I sincerely believe will threaten the future of this nation if left unchecked. Paying attention to European history (amongst other places around the world) will show that when things get so lopsided, the poor and working classes revolt and some folks in power lose their heads. Just saying – something to think about. I happily pay my taxes (although I don’t happily fill out the forms because those things are a headache) and would happily pay more if I earned more. It’s my responsibility to the common good, to be invested in the success of my whole community, not just myself.

“A rising tide lifts all boats” – at least it should anyway. But more so, when some boats are allowed to run aground while others sail on, safe harbor for anyone becomes hard to find.

A fair balance for our nation and a fair balance for our world. That’s what it means to live in community with one’s neighbors, whether down the street or across the ocean.

Notes:
1 If you think you know what those are based on what you hear in the media, think again. I am comfortable identifying myself as a “progressive Christian.” For a short clip on what that means, check out Fred Plumer’s explanation (7:16 clip) or go to the website for The Center for Progressive Christianity.

References:
Frey, D. E. (1998. Individualist economic values and self-interest: The problem in the Puritan ethic. Journal of Business Ethics, 17(14), 1573-1580.

Lane, J. C. (1987). The Yale report of 1828 and liberal education: A neorepublican manifesto. History of Education Quarterly, 27(3), 325-338.