The confidence to knock on my door: a note about race, sex, perceived attractiveness, and mentoring

Though I didn’t respond at the time, I’ve been mulling a comment made by Leslee below this post . I had written on Tuesday about daughters and the not-surprising fact that most of my mentees at the college are women (the high school youth groupers are more evenly divided by sex.) Leslee, who worked in my office for a colleague a few years ago, and knows me well, wrote:

I think the issue, Hugo, is that girls are more likely to seek out male mentors than boys are. And having worked in your office for your officemate, I’ve noticed that your mentees are disproportionately white and pretty. That doesn’t mean that you only choose white girls and pretty girls to mentor. But young women who feel confident about their looks, if not much else, are more likely to seek out a male mentor like you because they are more certain of getting some kind of attention.

As discomfiting as it is to read those words, there’s enough truth in them to deserve a response.

I bend over backwards to avoid, as much as is humanly possible, playing favorites. I do everything I can not to let a student’s appearance, or race, or even (as in this 2007 post about mentoring) bad body odor interfere with my attentiveness to him or her. As I’ve written before, when working with young people (or even with colleagues) I remember the prayer I was taught many years ago:

“God, show me this person not as I see them but as you see them. Help me to be for them what I am called by you to be. Remove from me my fears and my selfish desires, and show me how to love them as you love them.”

And that works, and works better and better as I get older and more experienced as a professor, a youth leader, and a mentor to teens and young adults. But that previous post was about the importance of having really excellent boundaries, and it didn’t address Leslee’s point, which was that certain kinds of students, particularly those who perceive themselves as attractive or entitled by class and race, are more likely to be bold about seeking me out as a mentor. Continue reading

Of dreams and fathers: Barack Obama, growing up abroad, baseball, cricket, and daddies

Among the various books I read on our trip to New Zealand was Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. I’d put it off for some time, but started it on the long flight down to Auckland and finished it in a Sydney hotel room. It’s the best book I’ve read by a president (or president-elect), and I’ve at least glanced at most of what our recent office-holders have produced. (I tried to read Bill Clinton’s massive autobiography, but ended up getting overwhelmed by detail, and skipped about.)

It’s not original to note that Barack Obama is an extraordinary figure, absolutely unlike anyone we’ve ever seen in American politics — at least, absolutely unlike anyone who has risen so far, so fast. Dreams from my Father, which is all the more powerful because it seems to be written by a man without any conscious sense that his words might be used against him someday, reveals Obama to be more exceptional than I had previously imagined.

It would be a bit ridiculous to say that I identify with our president-elect. I not only have not achieved what he has achieved, I have not had to overcome the obstacles he has had to overcome. (Though addiction and mental illness posed challenges that my socio-economic and ethnic circumstances did not.) But all good autobiography contains universal themes; we all have parents, after all, about whom we have often mixed feelings. Many of us struggle to discern a purpose and direction for our lives, and go through a quarter-life crisis of confidence. Barack Obama’s journey, in a broad sense, is a common one, though in its specifics it is both unique and jaw-droppingly impressive.

One of the things that I like best about Obama is that he has lived abroad; indeed, more than any other president in recent memory, he spent a significant portion of his childhood outside America (in Indonesia). Obama doesn’t hold dual citizenship as I do, and despite the slurs of a handful of ignoramuses, his devotion to the United States is unquestioned by any serious person. But he has tasted living abroad, and not only doing so, but doing so in comparative poverty. Not all international experience is the same. It’s one thing for the scion of a wealthy family to do a junior year at the Sorbonne, living off parent’s money; it’s another thing altogether to live as Obama did as a child, playing with street children in rural Indonesia. Anyone who is going to make claims for American exceptionalism ought to have had some first-hand experiences of living in — and not just visiting — other parts of the world. Though the child is not always the father of the man, reading Obama’s biography makes me hope that it will be so, particularly in regards to how he thinks about America’s place in the world. Continue reading

Poor white boys: school leaving, male under-performance, and the disaster of masculine anti-intellectualism

Regular reader Frederick often likes to send me “grist for the mill”, as it were, and last week sent me this Telegraph article: White working-class boys becoming an underclass. In one of those periodic reminders that the UK and America are very different indeed, the paper reports:

White teenagers are less likely to go to university than school-leavers from other ethnic groups – even with the same A-level results, according to official figures.

The gap is widest among male teenagers from poor backgrounds, raising fresh fears that working class boys are becoming the education “underclass” in England.

According to a Government report, just over one-in-20 white boys from poor homes goes on to university.

This compares to 66 per cent of Indian girls and 65 per cent of young women from Chinese families.

The full report is here, in a PDF file.

The causes of “male under-achievement” are many and complex, and this study does not concern itself much with them. But it does seem clear that whatever the matrix of influences that lead young men to underperform their female peers, feminism is unlikely to be one of them. The study notes that even among recent immigrant groups in Britain, groups in which it can be safely assumed that the Western model of liberal feminism has not yet been fully accepted, girls outperform boys:

Overall, 58 per cent of men from Indian backgrounds and 66 per cent of women go on to university. Among Chinese families, 60 per cent of boys and 65 per cent of women go to university.

Anti-feminist voices, under the guise of concern about the well-being of young men, suggest that contemporary pedagogy doesn’t meet the needs of boys, who aren’t suited to long periods of concentration. The underlying racism of that charge becomes apparent very quickly when one looks at the much-stronger performance of boys from, say, Indian or Chinese descent. For a very long time, white European men have questioned the masculinity of Asian men, seeing the latter as somehow more effeminate. When we posit the ability to concentrate and “do school well” as essentially a feminine trait, then bigotry and anti-feminism collude to explain why so many East and Southeast Asian lads are doing so much better than their white male counterparts. The implication is that Chinese and Indian males are “more like girls” than “real” (white) boys.

I do think we see a performance gap between boys and girls in many places in the Western world. Much of that gap is attributable, I think, to a kind of masculine anti-intellectualism that has developed in response to the relatively recent success of young women in school. In both British and American society we define masculinity as, first and foremost, the absence of feminine characteristics. “No sissy stuff” is the first rule of Western manhood. As long as girls were systematically excluded from education, boys showed great aptitude for intellectually rigorous activity. Once girls began to be admitted to the same schools as boys, and began to demostrate the same intellectual abilities, the life of the mind lost its exclusive masculine cachet.

Boys can sit still. Look at any group of young Marines on the parade ground; paying attention is something well within the range of masculine capabilities. “Boys can’t concentrate as well as girls” needs to go the way of “girls can’t understand science as well as boys”, discarded as a vile myth that shortchanges the full range of human potential with which each and every one of us is born.

The real problem, as I see it, is a culture of “masculine anti-intellectualism” that seems increasingly rife among certain sub-groups of young men. Young men, particularly in Britain perhaps young working-class white men, are more likely than their sisters to see little practical need for education. Too many of these young men under-estimate the value of education, and over-estimate their ability to “make do” on their own, perhaps by doing “a little of this, a little of that.” Many of these lads are filled with ambition, but with little sense of how vital formal education actually is to realizing that ambition. And too many of these young men are eager for a perverse kind of masculine distinctiveness with which to assuage their own anxieties. Dropping out of school to work gives them that masculine distinctiveness, particularly as school is no longer (as it once was) an exclusively male province.

Does everyone need a formal university education? Perhaps not. But I do lament the unwillingness of many boys to buckle down and work. Knowing that earlier generations of the be-penised and the be-Y-chromosomed were able to master complex material and learn by rote, I don’t accept that men as a rule can’t thrive as well as women in the contemporary educational model. The problem is a lack of strong male role models who value education, the problem is a culture that emphasizes to young men that anything of real importance lies in an arena from which women are largely excluded.

Mildred Loving

Mildred Loving has died. It was Loving — born Mildred Jeter — who with her husband Richard challenged Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law, and eventually won the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia in the year I was born, 1967. She and her husband were lucky in love and lucky in their surname, but not lucky in longevity. Mildred Loving was but 68 when she died, and her beloved Richard died decades ago in a car accident.

I’m keenly aware that there was a time within living memory when my wife and I could not have been married in most U.S. states. Sixty years ago this October, the California Supreme Court struck down the Golden State’s laws against mixed-race marriages, leading to their gradual repeal across the country and the final victory in the Loving case nineteen years later. If my wife and I were the age of my grandparents, our marriage would have been invalid under the laws of this state and most others; if we had been the age of my parents (who married in 1964) and living in Virginia, we might too have faced arrest or “deportation” of the sort the Lovings faced. It’s a queer thought.

So many of my students today happily date across racial lines; so many successful marriages in my family today are between folks of widely disparate backgrounds. I rejoice that this blending of color and culture has become so easy and so natural. I rejoice too in the sacrifice and the courage of couples like Mildred and Richard Loving, and am happy to think of them together again — at last — this day.

I am happy also to note that in her last public statement, as reported by the New York Times, Loving, with her unique moral authority on the subject, called for the right to marry to be extended to gays and lesbians.

Sunday night thoughts on whiteness

I got home from my run in time to catch most of Jeremiah Wright’s speech at the NAACP convention in Detroit. I’d heard him a few times before, but was mesmerized by what he had to say tonight. I can’t find a full transcript online yet; if someone has one available, I’d be grateful for a link in the comments.

The fellow who introduced Dr. Wright used his first name repeatedly, evidently driving home the point that Barack Obama’s pastor speaks as part of a prophetic tradition that goes back as far — or farther — than the first famed Jeremiah. Those who splutter in righteous indignation at the reverend’s now-ubiquitious “God damn America” sermon would do well to reacquaint themselves with the Old Testament biblical tradition. I’m sure that this point has been made by many others, but it deserves repeating: prophetic language has political implications, but is not the same as political discourse. Only someone with a poorly-formed theology could assume that God will not punish America as he punished His beloved Israel. If God could allow the holy city on the hill, His beloved Jerusalem, to be sacked repeatedly; if he could permit and perhaps even will the first and second temples to both be destroyed, if his prophets could suggest that that destruction was earned and deserved, then it is jingoistic hubris to say that God holds the United States in higher esteem.

Watching Dr. Wright early this evening, I thought about the discomfort so many white Americans have with frank expressions of black anger. I thought as well about this comment by Fred, written in response to this post. Fred:

Maybe it is a matter of semantics, but I do not completely understand your comment on whiteness. “I have willfully refused to reject, renounce, or even seriously reflect upon my whiteness.” Skin pigmentation is an immutable trait, so what is there to reject or renounce. Should people also renounce their “blackness”? Or is “whiteness” some kind of euphemism for being a racial bigot?

When I wrote about “whiteness”, I wasn’t writing about my ethnicity or my skin pigmentation — but rather about a specific kind of privilege. One of the best-known short explanations of what white privilege is comes from Peggy McIntosh: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. (A few years ago, Amp at Alas, A Blog posted his marvelous update on male privilege, riffing on McIntosh’s work.) When I write about renouncing whiteness, I am not talking about rejecting my European-American heritage; I’m talking about doing everything I reasonably can to avoid unconsciously benefitting from the system that McIntosh so effectively describes. Continue reading

On Lorna the Jungle Girl and the dark-skinned natives: a reluctant challenge to Amanda Marcotte: UPDATED

UPDATED: Both Amanda and Seal Press have issued clear and heartfelt apologies for the images that appeared in It’s a Jungle Out There. The images will not appear in the second edition of the book. I honor the swift and unequivocal response from both Amanda and her publisher, and in light of this necessary and rapid apology, give the book my continued and wholehearted endorsement. I appreciate in particular that Amanda and Seal both take full responsibility for the very unfortunate decision to allow these images into the book, and am particularly heartened that the publishers acknowledge that Amanda herself was in no way involved in the editorial choice to place these comics in the text.

UPDATE TWO: I was wrong. Again. The endorsement of the text stands, but as long as the words on the page are presented next to racist images, I cannot recommend buying or using this book. I enthusiastically support a new edition of the book. Though the apology by Amanda was eloquent, concise, and sincere, it is only a first step to action. And the immediate action that must be taken, and is being taken, is the production of a new edition without these images. In whatever way my endorsement counts, please understand that it is only for that new edition. I do not suggest buying currently available copies from Amazon or another source until that second printing becomes available.

The original post remains:

I’ve got Lucy Kaplansky playing on my Itunes. She’s one of the artists I play when I need calming down.

This is a hard post to write. I’ve been in the forefront of those defending Amanda Marcotte against charges of appropriation and racial insensitivity. One month ago today, I wrote an enthusiastic review of her new book It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments. I stand by the content of the review, which was based entirely on the words contained within the short, readable, accessible and often captivating text. But what I didn’t review, or even analyze in private, were the illustrations from the book.

It’s a Jungle Out There chooses, not surprisingly, a jungle theme for its imagery. Using pictures from the Marvel Comic series “Lorna the Jungle Girl”, the front cover is complemented by perhaps ten illustrations inside the book. Some of them are reproduced here. Marcotte’s theme is that feminists face a misogynist jungle; her blonde Lorna seems — and I say seems, because I don’t know what Amanda’s exact intent was — to be doing battle against those forces. On the cover, Lorna is about to spear a crocodile. But inside, Lorna does battle with dark-skinned natives. In the worst of these, Lorna delivers a mighty kick to a man with black skin and a traditional mask; she does so to rescue an apparently captive white man. Read Ilyka’s post for more.

When this discussion first came up yesterday at Feministe, my first response was to say that the images were surely intended ironically. But upon reflection, and after reading the many responses in that thread, I reconsidered. I don’t question Amanda’s intentions, or those of Seal Press. I don’t for one second believe that Amanda that anyone involved with producing the book made a consciously racist decision. But racism has damn all to do with intention, and a great deal more to do with perception. And it’s hard, very hard, to see these images as anything other than horribly racist. Given the desire to have this book appeal to the widest possible audience, I can’t for the life of me figure out how the potential interpretation of these comic drawings wasn’t taken into account. Continue reading

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Not just a professor, but a mentor: on hiring a new African-Americanist

As most readers will know, the feminist blogosphere continues to go through an unusually painful period of discussion and debate about race, sex, and intersectionality. And while it really isn’t all about me, I find it, if not ironic, oddly serendipitous that this semester finds me on a hiring committee to select a new African-American specialist for a tenure-track position. The first round of interviews unfold this afternoon and tomorrow.

Confidentiality protocol bars me from disclosing too much about the hiring process, but I can share what has already been made public. After more than two decades, my colleague Pete Mhunzi, who taught both African and African-American history, is retiring. In this depressed budget climate, we had to fight tooth and nail to get a replacement position approved; some in the administration wanted to fill the Africanist position with a series of adjuncts.

At the beginning of the year, we sent out the standard notice for a new tenure-track hire. Because we are a community college, we need someone capable of handling several different intro courses: African-American history; the History of Ancient, Early Modern, and Modern Africa; modern U.S. Survey. We received a number of excellent applications, and starting at noon today, we’ll meet the most promising candidates, the one who survived the “paper screen” process.

When we were first writing the hiring proposal last year, there was some debate amongst the members of the committee about non-academic qualifications. We have only one professor who teaches African and African-American studies; the retiring holder of that position served not only as a classroom professor but also as a mentor to black students on campus, advising the BSA and so forth. Though just three decades ago, the campus was nearly 25% black, today the percentage of African-American students has plummeted to the mid-single digits. Some of that is due to the changing demographic of the San Gabriel Valley and of Southern California in general, some of that is due, frankly, to a decline in the number of African-American high school graduates who are attending any kind of college.

As far as I — and the other members of our committee — were concerned, it’s vital that the new faculty member we choose be committed not only to mentoring all students, but have a particular interest in working with young African-American men and women. Of course, this doesn’t mean we asked for or are demanding that the person we hire be themselves black. (Even with tenure, if I, as a member of a sitting hiring committee, announced on a public blog that race was a qualifying factor, I’d be in a massive heap of trouble. Heck, I might not be allowed to serve on a committtee again. Wait a minute… naw, bad idea.) Continue reading

Avoiding the zero-sum game: on feminist publishing, citing, and using Jessica Valenti and Andrea Smith together

I’m taking a break from packing for our spring break trip to offer a Sunday afternoon post. We’re off tomorrow to the place where ‘Canes roam, where Democratic delegates wait in limbo this spring, and where dear old Gianni Versace breathed his last. It’s a region I love visiting every year, but gosh, I’m always as happy to leave as I am to arrive. It doesn’t help that I love the sun and the sun doesn’t love me. (My friend Joe and I used to run shirtless together; Joe, an ER physician, always called me a “melanoma farm.”) And I’m eager for the warm waters of the Atlantic.

Later today or tonight, I’m going to close comments I have closed comments on this post regarding the Amanda Marcotte, feminists-of-color, plagiarism/appropriation/attribution fight that happened across our corner of the blogosphere this week. I don’t regret having taken the tack I did in the original post, but I do appreciate the many and disparate voices that weighed in here. The general rule that threads rarely stay productive after the 200th comment may not have applied, but better not to push it. Two other threads with good discussions of this issue were at Feministe and Amptoons. I remain convinced of two things: first, that Amanda did nothing to deserve the opprobrium directed her way; two, that the mainstream, predominantly white feminist blogosphere (of which I am most decidedly a part) has more to do in terms of both listening and crediting what we hear.

When we were gathered in Cambridge two weeks ago for the Women, Action, and Media conference, I chose not to go to the panel on women–of-color bloggers. I missed out on the chance to meet the likes of Blackamazon, Brownfemipower, and Sudy. And I’ll be honest: I weighed whether to go up until the last minute. I talked to a few people at WAM whom I trust, and who were familiar with the often bitter and bewildering exchanges I had with many of those same bloggers in last year’s long and exhausting Full Frontal Feminism fiasco. (Do a search in my archives or in the archives of half the feminist blogosphere — first in May, and then around Thanksgiving, things got heated.) These friends told me that while there was some potential for good, it might be best if I didn’t go to the Women of Color panel. That was my gut intuition as well. Perhaps I flatter myself unduly, but I wondered if, in the aftermath of all that had happened, my presence would be a noticeable irritant. It would be hard — given that I was just about the only man over forty at the entire conference, and the only one in a bright pink shirt — for me to be unobtrusive. So I didn’t go. Continue reading

Andrea Smith denied tenure

Brownfemipower has taken the lead on reporting the story of Andrea Smith’s denial of tenure at the University of Michigan. Read here and here, and see the report in the Chronicle of Higher Ed here.

It’s a strange case. Smith had been given a joint appointment in American Studies and Women’s Studies at the Ann Arbor campus; ’twas the latter department that nixed her promotion while the former supported her tenure cause. She’s also the director of the campus Native American Studies Center. Few of us are privy to the details of her file, and the Women’s Studies department at Michigan has not commented on why it has denied Smith tenure. But to those of us familiar with Smith’s published work, the decision is inexplicable. Her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide is a master-work of both advocacy and feminist scholarship, and is used in women’s studies courses across the country. (It’s on the short list of books I’m considering rotating in to my women’s history syllabus).

At research universities, the proven ability to publish is a critical part of getting tenure. So many assistant professors struggle to get anything notable into print; Smith has already done so by producing a text that is not just interesting but fundamentally ground-breaking. She’s got another book coming up: Native Americans and the Christian Right, which is available for pre-order.

Of course, being able to publish is not the only prerequisite for tenure. Teaching counts for something, even at mammoth state institutions. But the statement released by faculty and students at Michigan (available here, in PDF format) makes it clear that Andrea Smith has immense talents as a teacher and mentor. Her students and colleagues are asking that letters in support of her tenure case (which has been appealed) be sent to

* Teresa Sullivan, Provost and Executive VP for Academic Affairs, LSA,
* Lester Monts, Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, LSA,
* Mary Sue Coleman, President,

Anyone who reads the feminist blogosphere is aware that the most painful struggle of the past year, played out in so many places, is over the issue of the intersection of racism and sex. A number of prominent women of color have written, time and again, of feeling marginalized or ignored by white feminists. Whatever your feelings on the issue of race, gender, and intersectionality, it’s disastrous PR to have the Smith denial come at the hands of the Michigan Women’s Studies department. To a community of activist women of color, many of whom are already suspicious of the bona fides of white feminists, the Smith decision can only serve to increase a sense of cynicism about the prospects for real inclusion.

I’ve never met Andrea Smith or heard her lecture. I wouldn’t recognize her on the street. But I’ve read her work and been galvanized by it. I’ve chatted with people who have worked with her and heard her speak at conferences. Anecodotally, everyone I’ve heard from says she’s not merely a competent and inspiring teacher, she’s an extraordinary one. Her more than one-dozen published, peer-reviewed essays, her edited anthologies, and above all, her first masterwork “Conquest“, are building blocks of a tenure file that would put those of virtually any other junior scholar to shame. The Women’s Studies department at Michigan surely has its reasons, but until it makes those reasons clear, the shock and anger and alienation generated by their denial of tenure to Andrea Smith will continue to spread. And that’s bad news for all feminists.

And here’s hoping that if Michigan doesn’t come to its senses, someone else (are you listening, USC?) makes a nice offer. Soon.