Feminist formations, Part III: Our Friendship Meets the Bechdel Test ALL THE TIME

(What’s the Bechdel Test? Glad you asked.)

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We started the blog because as women, as women of color, we felt like we were constantly being told what to do — this was our way of carving out online space where we could write about what we want, the way we want. In today’s blog post, we write about a couple of examples of how the kinds of constraints we discussed in our posts about our feminist beginnings show up in our workplace now; about times we’ve been asked to accommodate to the existing structures and practices–and have been actively discouraged from being and doing “different.” For both of us, our gendered experiences at Carleton are very much intertwined with our racialized experiences. We were hired at least in part because we are women of color–we bring our “diverse” bodies to the institution so that the institution can be “diverse.” But actually wanting to do things differently based on our experiences, identities, and ideas isn’t always welcome. As Sara Ahmed puts it, “Universities often describe their missions by drawing on the languages of diversity as well as equality. But using the language does not translate into creating diverse or equal commitments” (90).

One place where this kind of reluctance about imagining that things can be done differently is when it comes to “traditions” on campus. When Anita first started working at Carleton, one of her favorite traditions on campus were the weekly convocation talks. Because part of what appealed to her was the idea of all community members sitting and being together, she did not particularly care for the tradition of “opening convocation” where faculty and staff had to wear their robes, line up by status, and sit separately from the rest of the audience. So she did at opening convocation what she did at other weekly convocations–she took a seat in the audience. Everything seemed fine until one year when she ended up sitting in the very front because she wanted to sit with a new faculty member. After that convocation, a senior colleague talked to her about how they, as well as a few other faculty members, saw Anita’s action as “an affront to faculty” and told her that she either needed to show up in robes and sit with the faculty or not show up at all. At the time, as an untenured faculty member, Anita ended up going to the opening convo in robes and sitting with the faculty. She decided to “pass institutionally”–“the work you do to pass through by passing out of an expectation: you try not to be the angry person of color, the troublemaker, that difficult person. You have to demonstrate that you are willing to ease the burden of your own difference” (Ahmed,131). But now that Anita has tenure…

Adriana arrived at Carleton with a lot of ghosts haunting her in the background. This would happen at any institution, and part of what tenure-track faculty struggle to figure out is which ghosts matter and therefore should be listened to carefully. One of Adriana’s specters was a very material, historical queue of those who had taught Latinx studies or been Latinx at Carleton before she got there; stepping into this queue, Adriana understood she had to figure out what the institution had appreciated or what had “worried” it about what each of these very different scholars had brought. What we mean is that people around her told her stories, and she knew she had to listen to these stories to understand what paths ahead were available. One set of circulating stories concerned a Latina faculty member who worked at Carleton in the 70s and 80s. In these stories, she was narrated as always asking the institution to think about race and gender which made her a burr in the side of the college. Adjectives stuck to her in these stories: difficult, angry, demanding, troublesome. While she made it through the tenure process and stayed at Carleton quite a while, this is not the way Adriana heard the stories, which instead always emphasized her leave-taking, in a flurry of disappointment and anger. Adriana was also regaled with tales of a beloved visiting professor; this set of stories emphasized how this professor had students over to their house all the time, creating a welcoming and warm environment for Latinx students. The subtext Adriana heard was that, in being hired to teach Latinx studies, it was also her job to make Carleton a home for Latinxs students. Adriana bristled at the implication that she should be always available to students in a way that felt particularly targeted and, because her son was four years old at the time, she knew that she couldn’t perform the particular kind of labor that these stories seemed to ask of her. With both these stories, Adriana came up against the fact that “an institution willing to appoint someone (to transform the institution) is not the same thing as an institution being willing to be transformed (by someone who is appointed)” (Ahmed, 94). The stories informed her of her place and, while she refused some of these expectations, they weighed on her and worried her until she earned tenure.

It’s exhausting to come up against these kinds of expectations and resistance to change or critique. A university administrator quoted in Ahmed’s book describes doing diversity work as a “banging your head against a brick wall job.” One thing that has been so important to our survival and persistence in academia and at Carleton has been our friendship. We are feminist killjoys together.

Our feminist friendship is based on:

  • Laughing, often loudly and hysterically
  • Critiquing institutions when they uphold racist, sexist, classist dynamics
  • Holding each other up and believing each other when we tell stories about racism, sexism, classism, etc.
  • Our adoration of Shonda Rhimes
  • Butter and brussel sprouts cooked in butter
  • Our complicated brown families
  • Wordsmithing
  • Enthusiastic interruptions and then bashful recognition of the interruptions
  • Love of social theories that help explain structural inequalities
  • Rigorous debates about the role of love in justice
  • Board games
  • Adriana’s son’s love of Anita and her return of that love
  • Going to live performances (concerts, plays, etc.)
  • Negotiating our complicated relationship to Americanness
  • Music that makes us dance in many languages
  • Discussions about pedagogy, student-centered learning, reflective practices
  • The joys and frustrations of working in a HWCU and PWI
  • Gesturing wildly as we speak
  • Holding up a larger mirror for our students of color so that they can see that they are not alone, in which they can see us and them; being “possibility” models as Laverne Cox puts it.
  • Modeling vulnerability for each other and students
  • Being braver together
  • Checking each other
  • Passion for chocolate
  • Our love for Heben & Tracy
  • Being there for each other
  • Making room for our differences
  • Honest conversations about sex and sexuality
  • Non-heteronormative family formations
  • Movie marathons as alternative holiday celebrations
  • Talking about money
  • Idris Elba

Some of these may seem silly or like something superficial, but it is precisely the mix, the combination of the shared “pop” and the shared “serious” that create the strong glue that holds us together in the face of a world and institutions that pull us apart as individuals in order to ensure our institutional conformity.

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[Source: ETSY!]

Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Duke 2017).

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