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Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.
Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. -- Elie Wiesel

The first National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education Summit, held November 2019, built on the academies’ report “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.” My impression of our plenary panel, Attending to How Sexual Harassment Manifests for Individuals With Marginalized Identities, is that we spoke truth to power by centralizing marginalized voices and perspectives while calling out systemic oppression. Other panel participants included moderator Anna Branch and panelists Isabel Dees, Wendy Lu and Larry Martínez.

For the remainder of the summit, I was unable to sit or move without one of the approximately 350 attendees sharing with me how much they appreciated our panel. My Pollyanna self tells me that the decision to include this panel, as well as the resounding positive feedback, is an important indicator that the world is changing for the better.

Yet, some other feedback cycled around to me, which was We need to stop vilifying white women!

So what happened?

During the open Q&A of our panel, someone in the audience asked us, “How do we get white women to acknowledge their privilege and lack of inclusion in this work? Similar to issues in the feminist movement.” After some uncomfortable shifting among the panelists, I was the first to answer: “For white women, if you ever find yourself in a space where you sound like an ignorant white man or you do things that are like ignorant white men, then rethink it. There’s a call now that if you’re coming to serve on an all-white-men panel, don’t go. So stop it with the all-white-women panels and summits around sexual violence and sexual assault.”

Where was the vilification in my comments?

I have witnessed and been harmed by some white women scholars perpetrating discrimination against women of color and other marginalized scholars both directly and through omission in sexual violence research. These omissions in mainstream research include erasure of scholarship from marginalized scholars, as well as exclusion of marginalized people and perspectives. Being silent about this discrimination serves the unequal status quo, not those communities that are targets of oppression.

But white women are by no means the only culprits. I went on to say that we’re all culpable: “This is true not just for white women. It’s true for black men. It’s true for black women. It’s true for all of us … So I’m righteously angry about the things I just said. And that anger is also turned inward because I’m just as guilty in other ways.”

After the panel, I also got feedback that, with my work in cultural betrayal trauma theory, I am incorporating race and gender related to violence in important ways. The implication was that because of this contribution, maybe I should get a pass on the rest. Meaning, because I explicitly center oppression related to race and binary gender, maybe it is acceptable if I am less inclusive of other oppressions based on nonbinary gender identity, religion, class, sexual orientation, ability status and the like.

In response to this feedback, what initially came to my mind was that if I and my scholarship are appraised as especially important, then I have, in fact, failed to give appropriate credit to the influential scholars who have done and/or are currently doing similar work: Thema Bryant-Davis, Laura Brown, NiCole Buchanan, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Cherrié Moraga, Gloría Anzaldúa and many more. It reminds me that we all need to do a better job of amplifying the work of others, particularly of those who are marginalized.

My second thought was none of us is beyond reproach.

On this same summit panel, Larry Martínez highlighted the problems of self-righteous social justice performance, which can communicate that I am above it all. In the university setting, I myself am perceiving more and more similar self-righteous indignation that separates people into the do-gooders and the bigots, the oppressed and the oppressors. I have seen this result in presumptions that there are singular, simplistic ways to promote inclusion that only the good people know. I find this is often accompanied with overlooking individuals engaging in scholarship, activism and advocacy outside of so-called approved channels (e.g., diversity committees).

Evoking such false dichotomies between people takes the focus off how far away we are from actually achieving equality in all its forms. This arrogance also serves to diffuse responsibility: “If I only focus on you, big bad oppressor, I ignore the organizations that reproduce inequality. Most conveniently, I disregard how, with my own behaviors and inactions, I perpetrate -- and benefit from -- oppression every day.”

Does that mean we should not call out bigotry when we experience it? Of course not.

Instead, I argue that, as we call out discriminatory behavior, we can work to call in each other and ourselves. We should demand more from the people with the most power in a given arena -- e.g., white women in sexual violence research -- while also exposing and iteratively correcting our shared, flawed humanity.

What are some ways we can do that?

By calling in others. We all need to speak out when we see discrimination, bigotry and lack of inclusion. In the words of Audre Lorde, “When we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”

By responding thoughtfully when called in by others. When this happens, identify, explore and move through your feelings of defensiveness. Ask yourself:

  • How is that defensiveness serving me (e.g., protecting me from feeling ashamed)?
  • What is that defensiveness costing me (e.g., inhibiting my ability to grow internally and behave differently externally)?
  • How can I become grateful for this opportunity to learn?

By calling in ourselves. Holding ourselves accountable is a proactive way to address oppression.

First, intentionally seek out learning opportunities that are outside your typical milieu and participate in those opportunities with excitement and humility.

Next, audit your own practices, identifying ways in which inequality manifests itself, whether consciously or unconsciously, in your actions and work. To give a hypothetical example, you could think to yourself, in my last scholarly piece, I included only men’s quotes on X topic. Why were those the quotes that came to my mind? Who could I have included instead? What about my writing process made it so easy for me to exclude other voices and perspectives? What can I do differently next time?

Or consider this other hypothetical example. In a faculty meeting, I witnessed a discussion that promoted myths regarding the existence and caliber of marginalized scholars. I didn’t say anything because I was hurt by the comments and scared of my colleagues’ responses if I did speak up -- despite the fact that I am tenured. What are other ways I could have handled it, both during and after the meeting? How can I address the pain I feel of knowing that I am part of a system where such discussions so easily occur unchecked?

By expecting that we will make mistakes. In fact, by expecting our own fallibility as inevitable, we give ourselves permission to keep trying.

And finally, by remembering that perfection is not required, but continuing correction and improvement are possible, expected and necessary.

When we’re called in, perhaps especially in spaces promoting social justice, like the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine summit on sexual harassment in higher ed, I encourage each of us to be less defensive and more grateful that we have been given the opportunity to know more and thus to do better.

For ultimately, if we don’t feel a sense of urgency to not perpetrate oppression as we promote equality, then really, why are we doing this work in the first place?

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