Posts in gender

On allying myself with #TeamHarpy and others

I Am #TeamHarpy

I ally myself with Lisa Rabey and nina de jesus. Lisa and nina are friends of mine and colleagues who are facing a SLAPP suit to silence their frank and open discussion of another colleague’s behavior.  While there is a lot to be said about the case and the deep-rooted conditions in our professional culture that are behind it, this post is a personal meditation on what it means to ally with others.

The Ally Label

I don’t like to describe myself as an ally. It feels more like a marketing campaign than a positive action. Still, I don’t have a better term to describe collaborating with the oppressed to work towards justice. With the way the world is organized, I’m much more likely to benefit from injustice than to be a target of it. So, when I read @evilangela’s words about this on Twitter, they resonated.

@evilangela:  “Ally” only has any meaning when used as a verb. As a noun, it’s meaningless, self-congratulatory bullshit.

I’ve also been thinking about nina de jesus’ clear and sharp words about finding herself on the front lines of a fight for justice. She framed her involvement in a way that helps me frame my support.

#TeamHarpy has my support, but I’m not their ideal supporter. I’m biased and I my internal censor is unreliable in its advice on when to speak and when to be silent. I also am more interested in where we disagree than were we safely agree and so I focus on divisive issues. I have to wrestle my stubborn independence in order to be a team player and I’m more concerned with avoiding fundamentalism than I am with enforcing what’s good. I’m also complicit in the problem. I’m trying to be the best colleague I can, but I’m a flawed human and the product of an oppressive culture. I’m trying to be part of a solution but my intentions go astray and I’m not always guided by the better angels of my nature.

Researching the Topic

In the past after I had asked for help sorting through a different situation , I was guided to Community Change Incorporated and their excellent resources on social justice, including insights into how to support justice efforts in productive ways. These, plus voices for social justice on Twitter have guided my thinking. I have been guided by wiser minds and I’m curating what I’ve learned from them in this post. I don’t claim credit for any wisdom, but all of the faults are mine.

 Grounding Thoughts

These are points I’m using to keep me from getting swept away in a movement. While there are other thoughts out there for how to do good work, these are mostly about avoiding common mistakes.

  1. I’m complicit in the problem.
    It’s tempting to hide my guilt behind enthusiasm for the cause, but changing teams doesn’t change who I am.
  2. I don’t just benefit from the problem, I participate in it.
    This is not a confessional (see point 3) but I have behaved badly and will again despite my best efforts to the contrary. So any self-righteousness I feel is going to be a kind of hypocrisy.
  3. The problem is bigger than my feeling bad about something, so its resolution can’t be the first thing that stops me from feeling bad.
    If I stop allying with others at the point I stop feeling bad about the injustice, I’m less useful as an ally than if I simply ignored the injustice in the first place.
  4.  I need to own my risks.
    Sometimes the best action is for me to speak up. Sometimes the best action is for me to shut up and listen. It may be up to others to decide which choice was best, but the choice and the risk are always mine. It takes courage to stand for one’s values, in front of friends as much as in front of foes, but I’m not bringing anything useful to the table if I’m not willing to own my risks.
  5. It’s not about me.
    I’m not responsible for finding the solution, (even though I should participate.) I’m not responsible for the problem, (even though I’m complicit.) If I’m allying myself with others, it’s not about me. If it is about me, I’m not really allying myself with others, am I?

These are the best thoughts I can gather on allying with #TeamHarpy and other movements. I didn’t invent them and I don’t embody them particularly well, but they sum up what I’m trying to do and what I’m trying to avoid doing.

Book Review: The Summer Prince

summerprincecover

I decided to read The Summer Prince based on the recommendation of Ellen Kushner and John Scalzi. I’m glad I did, I’m not a frequent reader of young adult fiction, but now I think that might be a mistake. It took me a little while to get into the swing of this book. Alaya Dawn Johnson is slow in laying down a rhythm and a melody in her pages and I stumbled along for a bit before my feet found the steps. Once I did, I enjoyed the rich and intricate dance she led me along.

The story is structured into four parts, based on the seasons and I didn’t realize I loved the book until the third section. Please don’t let this stop your from reading it;  I don’t think it is a failing of the book. Structurally, the beginning is less interesting than the rest of the novel, but Johnson is slowly setting the stage for a moving piece. Like a musician playing a classic piece, we’ve heard these notes before, but she’s able to give a virtuoso performance by taking the notes to a different place than we’re expecting.

There are two reasons I’d recommend this book to other readers. The first is the setting. It’s fabulous. Alaya Dawn Johnson has captured in her future city-state of Palmares Três a living and evocative mix of Brazilian Carnival, post-apocalyptic matriarchy, and a coming of age story that ignores our taboos. (It doesn’t flaunt contemporary hang-ups, it just refuses to acknowledge their existence, making an honest and innocent coming of age story possible.) The second is the emotional depth of June’s coming of age journey. Through her characters June, Enki, and Gil, Johnson is able to show us a lot about the nature of love that is sweet, tragic, and honest. She shows us a complex perspective on love that is neither cheap nor jealous but is both free and liberating.

The plot is adequate, there are all the expected pieces in their expected places. Nothing is missing, but if all this book were about is what happened in the story, it would not be remarkable. We’ve all read love triangles set in post-apocalyptic societies with bizarre social contests that victimize teenagers. You could draw a lot of crude lines between the structures in The Summer Prince to Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. If you did, you’d be missing the point completely. The value of the story does not lie in its genre conventions. The value of The Summer Prince lies in telling us a familiar tale that takes us to unfamiliar places.

If you read The Summer Prince, and I hope you do, here are a couple of things to think about along the way. There are two prime myths from Western culture lying at the foundations of the story. We have an expulsion from paradise myth and the willing sacrifice myth. As you read about Enki and June finding the key to knowledge of good and evil, think about the role of the serpent. Where would you expect the temptation to come from and where does Alaya Dawn Johnson put it? Second, what is Enki saving people from? What is he saving people for? I don’t think these are idle questions and a lot of people have used the same central myths without the effect that Johnson manages with The Summer Prince.

My Year of Reading Diversely

We’ve Been Talking About Gender:

In the circle of librarian blogs that I sometimes inhabit we are currently talking about gender. More specifically, people have been writing about bad behavior, institutionalized biases, and the caustic results of these things. I’m also working (struggling) to write a post for the ACRL Tech Connect blog about diversity in the technology community. More specifically,I’m trying to acknowledge that the smooth path I followed into tech fields may present barriers to others that I never experienced. How we can open new doors, widen existing ones, or do something that makes more people experience the empowering joy of technology in place of walls, barriers, and exclusion? I’d love to be an unreserved and enthusiastic proponent of self-empowerment through learning technology, but my enthusiasm is tempered by reservations stemming from disempowering experiences with technology reported by others.

So I’ve been reading a little about the experiences and perspectives of a broader range of people in technological fields. I’ve been focusing on blogs and personal accounts in library, technology, and video game circles. These are the circles I inhabit. I’ve been looking at things like Joseph Reagle’s Free as in Sexist: Free Culture and the Gender Gap, at groups like The Ada Initiative, and at Gabriella Coleman’s anthropology of hacker communities. In the midst of this, I stumbled across a Post titled Dear Male Allies: Your sexism looks like my racism at The Geek Feminism Blog, that seemed perfectly framed for my purposes. Yatima, the author of the piece, writes this gem:

It’s relatively easy for me to advocate for feminist change because I can – in Ursula Le Guin’s words – offer up my experience as my wisdom. My testimony is relevant, because I am a woman. It turns out to be much harder for me to advocate for race or ability or class issues, because oftentimes I just don’t know what these issues are. My racism, and my other *isms, are a function of (among other things) my ignorance. Privilege conceals from me the experiences of not-having-privilege.

This perfectly outlines the problem for someone struggling to be a clued-in, white, hetero, educated, middle-class, cisgendered dude. I want to live in a world where we can all experience the unfamiliar without feeling at-risk or threatened by the other. I want to work in places where “fit” is never considered as something to look for in a new hire. I want to hire new colleagues who don’t fit the status quo and can fill in our gaps and weaknesses with previously unconsidered perspectives. But I am unable to “offer up my experiences as wisdom” because I don’t have direct experience of most of these issues. At best I can say that working in organizations with gender balance and working for women running IT departments has been a wonderful experience. Gender diversity in the workplace has made my life better than it otherwise would have been. This is a perhaps a better way of phrasing my previous post. I’d like to make this about something more important than making my already privileged life better, but I can’t find a way to make a grand claim that doesn’t falsely assert control over a situation that is not mine to control. A central problem is people like me trying to control too many things and I don’t want to perpetuate that chain of stupid. There are few things less worthy of respect than a white dude mansplaining to others what it is like to experience oppression. I’m not going to do that, but I do want to do my part to improve things.

The Problems are Acknowledged, What do I do About Them?

So now what? Now that I’ve recognized that there are issues that I’d like to see solved. I’ve acknowledged that I lack perspective and experience to be a leader. There are better equipped, more highly skilled people for the task, so I should listen to them and follow their vision. Does this mean my response to diversity issues should be passive? I don’t think it has to be. I think I can find a middle ground between taking control (the stereotypical role for white, straight, cisgendered males) and passively accepting injustice. It is especially important to find this balance when the entrenched system of  injustice works to my advantage.

For now, I think this middle ground is learning. I want to fill in the gaps I have and gain more understanding. So I’m going to follow Yatima’s advice and read fifty works by people from backgrounds different from my experience. Yatima suggested the 50 works by people of color livejournal group, but I think I need to include gender, ability, and sexual diversity as well as ethnic diversity in my reading project. So, I’m going to tag books with #diversity-50 in my LibraryThing and Goodreads streams and set a goal to read or listen to fifty works by people with perspectives significantly different from my own. I’m a fan of new media, so this isn’t a book-exclusive project. Games, comics, video, and other creative media are all fair game. Recently my pleasure reading has been mostly speculative fiction, but I’m open to other genres.

Will you join me? Will you help me?

A Year of Reading Diversely: #diversity-50

Disclaimer: this is not my idea, it is not a new idea. I take no credit for this idea, but I think it is a good one and I’d like to invite others to join me. In 2013 I’m setting myself the goal of reading 50 works by writers of color and other creators who have a cultural perspective different than my own. I think I have a lot to learn and this is a great way to start to fill in some gaps. I’d love it if other librarians and friends joined in. If you don’t share my need for an influx of new perspectives, will you share reading suggestions from your experience on great work that has been overlooked? Will you share this project with your followers on Twitter, Facebook LibraryThing, or Goodreads? Collective readers’ advisory is a great thing and I’m eager to discover new things to read. I read a lot of fiction, but as a librarian it has never been something I’ve worked with directly. So I’m hoping to get suggestions and opinions from the experts. There is a wealth and a huge body of great material out there already, gathered and curated by librarians who are much better at this sort of thing than I am. As you will note, my pleasure reading is mostly fantasy and science fiction. I’m open to other things, after all that’s one of the points of the whole exercise.

Sacrifice

Since I have limited reading time, this means some things I’ve been looking forward to reading are going to have to wait a bit. So, Douglas Coupland’s J-Pod, Robert Harris’ Conspirata (I’m sad to delay reading his 2nd novel of Cicero and Roman politics), The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi, and Ian MacDonald’s The Dervish House are going to gather a bit of dust before I can get to them. I’m sure the authors will understand. I’m also not going to include my professional and technical reading in the program. I’m still going to read, of course, but I’m not going to count professional reading toward my #diversity-50 list. While I have a lot to learn from women in my field, I would be reading them anyway and it seems a dodge to include them in the project. So while I’ll still be reading Kathleen FitzpatrickSherry TurkleCathy Davidson, and Jane McGonigal, I think I share a disciplinary and academic framework with these thinkers that my #diversity-50 project is attempting to pierce.

Starting Out

The first of my fifty books is going to be The Summer Prince, a new release YA novel by Alaya Dawn Johnson that sounds perfect. It comes recommend by two authors I adore, Ellen Kushner and John Scalzi. After that, I may try to revisit Cities of Salt by Abelrahman Mufif. I started reading this years ago in the middle of  a Paul Bowles phase, but I put it down halfway through. I’m going to read Alice Walker, because she’s amazing and I won’t be ALA to see her in person. I’m going to FINALLY read Octavia Butler I’m ashamed of this gap in my education. Which of her books should I start with? Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is definitely on the list.  If any of my readers are looking for suggestions, ask your public librarian. Really, they will be more widely read than I. My suggestions include two of the absolute best things I read last year: Dr. Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Also, Naghib Mahfouz’ Children of the Alley is the only Arab novel to win a Nobel Prize for literature. It’s worth all the acclaim and more.

I’m not going to include books by white dudes writing about issues of diversity, but I’m open to having my mind changed by compelling arguments. I’ve had a copy of Craig Thompson’s Habibi on my to read pile for a year. It may be an excellent comic, but I’m looking for new perspectives, not familiar perspectives on diverse subject matter. I’m on the fence as to whether Brian Selznik’s Wonderstruck should count. I’m voting no, but I’m open to having my mind changed. My goal here is to open myself to perspectives that are foreign to me, and so worthy books written by people like me don’t seem to count.

If you can think of great material for my #diversity-50, please let me know in the comments. You can connect with me at Librarything and Goodreads.

My Silence on Gender Issues in Libraries and Technology

I started writing this post a while ago and shelved it, waiting for more insight. Gender issues, technology, and librarianship is a huge issue. I didn’t want to get something this important wrong, so I didn’t finish my thought and hit the publish button. While I’m not certain I have more insight today, I do think it has become timely again and I want to air my thoughts this time, warts and all.

Attention Distribution Disorder

This week on the library blog Hi Miss Julie, Julie aired her discontent with the way attention is distributed to librarians. I have some trouble with some of the underlying assumptions behind the post, but it is undeniably honest and timely. It very clearly strikes a nerve and resonates with a lot of my colleagues in a way that is worth paying attention to. Make no mistake, this is an important issue.

The post also offers indirect but clear insults to people I am friendly with. The insulted are adults who can handle criticism or mild Internet bullying. However out of loyalty and fairness I want to be direct and point out what I perceive to be a lapse in manners. ( I hesitate to pick a fight and refuse to choose sides, but I am loyal to my friends and I respect Julie enough to take her own advice on speaking up when we witness a perceived wrong.)

The reason Julie’s recent piece draws my response is that I couldn’t figure out how to respond to it. She clearly has identified something about gender and power in our profession that resonates. I want to understand that better. I also observed that at least three eminent library speakers offered excellent advice on raising one’s profile as a speaker. Their advice is spot-on, practical, and following it will lead to the desired outcome, but I didn’t get the feeling her original post was seeking advice. I don’t share some of the post’s assumptions, but again, I didn’t get the feeling that the appropriate response was to engage it in critical dialog. So I returned to the draft of this post that I had started and abandoned. When I read my earlier thoughts about gender disparity in libraries and technology I found my answer. The appropriate response to Julie’s post on gender and attention was to listen to it.

So I sat down and read it again. I listened. I divorced it from the context of ongoing librarian Internet feuds or disagreements about whether books ARE stories or if they just CONTAIN stories. I tried to listen to the piece and it told me that gender influences attention in our profession in disturbing ways. A significant number of smart and competent librarians don’t feel smart or competent because people like me get more than our fair share of attention. I don’t have a metric for the attention economy, but I believe my work has received its fair share of attention. I believe I’ve done damn fine work and that my awards, attention, and paid speaking gigs are justified by my competence. But I’m not fool enough to believe that there are not smarter, more competent, and more eloquent librarians who toil in relative obscurity. It is unlikely that many of these overlooked librarians are male. That sucks. So this is what I’ve decided my appropriate response to Julie’s post is: first listening carefully to what she has to say and then mourning the fact that many of my smart and competent female colleagues don’t feel as brilliant and accomplished as they deserve to because our culture is diseased. This is a tragedy.

I have ideas on how we can change this on an individual scale and I have some problems with other things she wrote in the post, but since no one asked me, I’m just going to stick to listening and mourning at this time. It is a tragedy that competence and hard work do not always receive their just deserts. It is a crime that our culture allows this to happen to females so much more often than to their male counterparts.

Below is the post stub that generated these thoughts:

Mansplaining, 1reasonwhy, and gender issues in library technology leadership

Society, at least the American, educated, technological society that I inhabit most of the time, has a problem with gender. I’m probably not best placed to identify and describe this problem, so I’ll just point to three examples. The first is explained clearly by Rebecca Solnit in 2008 Men Explain Things to Me. This piece has circumnavigated the Internet several times and each time it comes around again it has been heavily linked, liked, and retweeted. It has become the seminal work on mansplaining. My second example is the twitter hashtag #1reasonwhy. Each #1reasonwhy tweet relates one reason why there aren’t more women in the video game design industry. Third is Roy Tennant’s Library Journal piece : Fostering Female Technology Leadership in Libraries.

Looking at them in reverse order, these examples explain that libraires need more women in positions of technology leadership, that women in technology fields are often treated poorly, and that men (such as myself) may not be best placed to articulate or remedy this problem. It’s the third point that gives me trouble. The first two seem well established. So let’s work backwards through these and see if we can uncover additional insight when we get back to the sticky point.

Is Fostering Female Leadership a man’s role? I don’t know, but I want more of it.

First, Roy Tennant’s piece on fostering female technology leadership in libraries. My response to this is: “Yes, please. Let’s have more.” I’ve been fortunate enough to work for two women who ran both libraries and campus IT. It seems natural to do things that way, but I know my experience isn’t the norm. I’ve also had the very good fortune to be mentored by amazingly brilliant and technologically adapt women. Every job I’ve had in libraries and academe I’ve had the opportunity to be trained and mentored by brilliant women whom I am striving to accomplish enough not to bring shame to their legacies. I bring this up because I’ve been where Roy wants us to go (as a profession) and it is a wonderful place. Why hasn’t it happened yet for more of us?

#1reasonwhy libraries need to do better: the rest of the world sucks.

Second, I want to compare this experience to my experience working in non-libraries IT. It ain’t the same thing. Before library school I worked in a tech support call center where thousands of stereotypical male geeks toiled under the leadership of aging bros and fraternity brothers with MBAs. It. Was. Hell. Oh my gods it was awful. Having gone through that nightmare I believe I can empathize (without fully understanding what they go through daily) with the contributors to the #1reasonwhy hashtag. When the culture is actively hostile yet refuses to acknowledge that any privilege or oppression exists, a reasonable existence is not possible. If my first point was to acknowledge that I have it good because I have the good fortune to work for brilliant women, my second point is to acknowledge that my situation is relatively unusual and not everyone is so fortunate. Technology fields can be actively hostile towards those it needs the most.

Let me ‘mansplain it to you:

Which brings me to my third point: Solnit’s piece and mansplaining in general make me loathe to comment on gender issues. What do I have to contribute? (The fact I don’t ask this more often is perfect evidence of straight-white-male-privilege.) More than that, what happens when I disagree with a woman on a gender-related topic? There does not exist a safe party line I could toe, even if I was inclined toward that kind of intellectual safety, but how can a guy struggling to be cluefull avoid looking like the buffoon in Solnit’s piece? To use a line from Quentin Tarrantino (of all people): “the less a man makes declarative sentences, the less likely he is to look foolish in retrospect.” Sometimes the appropriate answer risking looking like an ass and sometime the appropriate answer is silence.

My Silence

I’m not saying males don’t deserve to speak, our opinions don’t matter, or I need to be silenced. It’s not that our voices doesn’t have a place, but silence itself is a space to be filled. Cluefull men can leave pregnant silences to be filled by others. Others may be waiting for silences to be filled. Others may not be brought up and acculturated to believe that their words are desired and useful in all conversations. As a teacher, I see every week that the voices most comfortable speaking in class are not always the voices with the most to contribute. As a professional, something I would like to become more skilled at is offering my silence to my colleagues, especially in matters such as this. Gender equity is important, but I may not be the right person to talk about it. I may be the perfect person to be silent and listen.

Of course, I’m not silent now, I’m writing and adding my voice. I’m also not promising to submit to ideas that I find unreasonable. It’s just that the more I think about this issue, the more convinced I am that finding ways to indirectly defer to previously silenced voices is the best way forward.