Oberlin Blogs

SJI, part two (and my commentary thereon)

October 24, 2009

Tess Yanisch ’13

Well, after a long and relaxing break from blogging, I am back! There's a lot to talk about, actually, so I'm going to pick up right where I left off in this particular installment, then do some other blogs on different subjects. That way I won't put too much in one uber-mega-ultra Entry of Doom; it's all broken down into little, easily-digestible essay/commentary pieces and you can read them one at a time or all together, however you choose. Or you can skip a few entries . . . I won't be hurt, I promise.

Anyway, the Social Justice Institute.

The first day, as I said, we mostly discussed the basic groundwork of social justice and conflict resolution. There are two ways of looking at cultural differences--as a horizontal continuum of "difference," in which all groups' values, ideals, actions, etc. are equally valid and recognized, and as a vertical scale of "domination," in which some groups are privileged. The different ways of viewing these affects how people go about trying to resolve conflicts.

Some people (often the dominant groups, interestingly enough) focus on the "difference" scale and try to resolve problems by officially honoring and recognizing multiple cultural backgrounds. Their theory is that, once everyone respects everyone else, the domination will gradually fade away. Others argue that domination needs to be addressed first, that legal equality is the first step to gaining widespread respect. (The example we used was Northern Ireland and the Catholic/Protestant debates there. The Catholics wanted equal rights FIRST, before addressing the cultural divide.) Focusing on the "difference" scale is much safer, politically, but it also seems to move more slowly in general.

Then we looked at classism (which I already discussed briefly) and transgender issues. One of the largest problems with oppressed groups is that they often do not have the vocabulary to explain their situations or describe their lives. Having language, the vocabulary to express oneself, obviously boosts visibility and empowerment--but getting that language established and recognized is often difficult.

At the very end of the first day, then, we all received handouts listing gender-neutral personal pronouns. Basically, these exist so that, if someone doesn't identify as male or female, you don't have to call them "it." (I wish I'd had this list on hand before writing one of my short stories...oh well.) Of course, I'm a literature/language geek as well as an activist, so my reaction was "WORDS! Words have power! Description is important! Language shapes reality--this is so cool..." The facilitators told us that, in their experience, Oberlin and Smith seem to be more comfortable with using these pronouns publicly than other colleges, although they added that that's a very unscientific conclusion. I can't say that I've really heard these pronouns used much since I've been here--once or twice--but then again, I think most or all of the people I hang out with use traditional pronouns. I haven't been around the Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgendered People, where I'd assume there'd be more gender fluidity reflected in the language. I would also guess that they'd be in more frequent use in the co-ops....OSCA people seem like they'd be more conscious of gender fluidity too, although that's a huge generalization.

Anyway, the list--which I can only credit to "Jack Skelton, LGBTQ Community Coordinator"; I don't know if that's at Oberlin or elsewhere, but it's the name on the list, and I assume I'm now not violating copyright laws--the list gives spellings and pronunciations for "the most commonly used sets" of gender-neutral pronouns. Those are:

Sie ("see") or zie ("zee") instead of "he" or "she"

hir ("here"), zir ("sir" with a z), or eir ("their" without th) instead of "him" or "her"

hirs, zirs, eirs (pronounced following the above patterns) instead of "his" or "hers"
hirself, zirself, or emselves (pronounced following the above patterns) instead of "himself" or "herself"

This discussion spilled on into the morning of the second day. Once we'd finished with that, we moved on to an exercise on heterosexism and the additional difficulties being gay adds to a person's daily life. I won't go into too much detail because I don't want to spoil anything for people who might take the workshop next year.

Then came sexism. We saw a short documentary on advertising and women's images. Like so many things about the popular idea of a woman, it made me angry. Most of what it said, I already knew, but it brought up some things in a new light:

1. There is a new morality for women--thinness is the new virginity.
2. Paradoxically, bingeing is glorified in ads, particularly with low-fat, "guilt-free" foods. The ads make women desperate for control, tempt them to break that control, then sell diet products back. People know it's bad to be anorexic now, so they bounce back and forth trying to find a healthy way to stay skinny. Magazines will have rich recipes advertised on the cover right next to "Walk off eighty pounds in just six months!" Hmm, a hypocritical cycle of self-perpetuating anxiety and worry? CALLING BETTY FREIDAN!!! It's just that the ads aren't for cleaning products anymore.
3. Eighty percent of ten-year-old girls said they were on a diet. (...EFFING HELL....ten....)
4. Look at recent fashions: baby-doll tops, hair in two ponytails on the runway, "waif-like" supermodels. Women's fashion is a sexualization of children's fashion. This not only means you're sexualizing kids, it means you're infantilizing women.
5. Marilyn Monroe wouldn't be a sex symbol today.
6. So much of what there is in clothing ads is slanted toward attracting men--toward making others happy, not oneself. (You make yourself happy by bingeing on low-fat ice cream, after all.)

Few things make me furious quicker than injustice, willful ignorance, or my own helplessness. This vicious cycle is a combination of all three. As a tomboy, I came into liking-to-look-nice very late (as in, sixteen or seventeen), so I largely missed the big adolescent anxiety stage. I have noticed things starting to affect me now, though, as I get more observant, and that bothers me. The idealized image of women we see in ads--I saw one yesterday for mascara, showing all these models in the background. They all looked the same. Different colors of hair, different styles of hair, different skin tones, but honestly, something was exactly the same about each one--polished, shiny, glossy, and incredibly boring. As one of my male friends asked about eyebrow-plucking and leg-shaving, "Why do you do this to yourself?"

We had a discussion about that--I won't reproduce it, as it'll be different for anyone taking it next year. The exciting part is hearing what other people think, where they agree and disagree with you, and there will be different people next year. A lot of the rest I can't really talk about in detail (partly because I don't want to spoil anyone's experiences for next year, partly because of the differences there will be, and partly because this post is getting too long as it is!).

We then discussed master narratives--the version of historical events that people learn first or that is most dominant in a culture--and alternative versions of events, called counternarratives.

Next we saw another documentary and discussed racism. Again, the themes that came up a lot were inadvertency (is that a word? Well, it is now) and awkwardness. A lot of racism comes out of ignorance--cluelessness, to put it more politely, or inexperience--and people, especially white people, are uncomfortable initiating a dialogue about race, even if they really want to discuss it. They don't want to seem arrogant, patronizing, or intrusive. I totally identify with that. This is true, I think, in a lot of different forms of discrimination as well--the privileged group feels guilty and embarrassed, or is completely unaware about the struggles of the unprivileged group.

That's about as far as I got, because I had to leave early to catch my flight home. It was a rich and thought-provoking experience, and I would encourage everyone to take it next year.

(Next year it will be Labor Day weekend, most likely--that's when they had it before, but this year school started before Labor Day so they pushed it back to let us do our homework and get adjusted. Mystery solved.)

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