Skip to main content

What a just response to oppression can look like

Guest post by Sarah Ballard

“What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face?” – Audre Lorde

I’m writing this piece to say things women of color have already said, and better than I could have. Please read their work. 

Our community has suffered a traumatic upheaval this month. I won’t attempt to link to even a representative sample of the articles, think pieces, and anti-harassment policy documents that circulated among astronomers. Trusted colleagues and friends urged folks to care for themselves. The groundswell gave rise to a “widespread ripple of PTSD (or something close to it) through women in the field,” as Lucianne Walkowicz put it. I saw other male astronomers I deeply esteem publicly grappling with feelings of complicity. Every day brought fresh distress as the extent of harassment, and the secrecy and protection of it, became apparent at every level within our academic institutions. 

Colleagues had urged me to prepare, before the publication of the Buzzfeed story (both emotionally and with respect to my internet presence), for a GamerGate-like backlash.  

I am relieved to report that the number of supportive letters, phone calls, and text messages outnumbered the trolls (whom I did not know personally) by between 2 and 3 orders of magnitude. Even the tiny handful of critical messages I received were toothless (my friends roundly and joyfully mocked a letter I received asking me if I’d “even heard of Susan B. Anthony?!”). I was honored with the most gracious language about my “courage” and “leadership,” some of it from leaders within our field themselves. Many astronomers vowed to support me in their notes, and listed the concrete actions they would take to prevent harassment within their own departments. Other messages contained only the two words: “Thank you.” I was so overwhelmed that I responded to only the tiniest handful. Please know that I read them all, and they often brought me to tears of gratitude and relief. 


Yet, I also felt mortification in my heart when I considered my experiences in light of another traumatic upheaval within the field earlier this year. It similarly played out on social media. It brings into stark relief the treatment of sexism (particularly as it pertains to white women) and our treatment of racism. 

I won’t try to rehash here some of the points of deep conflict that arose within astronomy around the TMT, and subsequently around racism generally. I look back on that period of time and see with painful clarity the things I ought to have done differently and better; I’m sure I’m not alone in those feelings. I only want to draw your attention to what became so glaringly obvious to me in the last month, which is: how I was treated as a white woman drawing public attention to the real harm of sexism, versus the responses to some of my colleagues of color drawing attention to the trauma of racism. This is especially dismaying, since women of color experience sexual harassment at higher rates than white women like myself, and with less just outcomes. 

I never once in the past month suffered the indignity of being told that I was imagining my experiences with oppression. No one demanded that I repeatedly define sexism, nor argued that his or her theoretical ideas about sexism/sexual harassment were more important and true than my own lived experience. I never once was accused of “hurting the field” for drawing attention to its shortcomings; rather, I was lauded for my bravery in doing so. I received not a single death threat, and no letter to me contained a slur of any kind (and I dearly hope I can say the same for the coming weeks)—while astronomers drawing attention to racism have indeed received these kinds of threats. 

Message after message inquired with empathy about how I was bearing the stress and offering help, rather than inflicting upon me stresses to compound the existing pain. I never once was accused of alienating others from the cause with my frankness, even though I spoke very plainly indeed. And I have a hard time thinking of a single person who used his or her own hurt feelings, fear, and shame that originated from the news to chasten and silence me. I bore witness to all of these things and more being inflicted on some of my friends and colleagues of color, for the similar offense of pointing out injustice and asking for a just response in return.  

Please reflect now on the “reasons” that are now coming up in your mind for why this case of “oppression in science” was treated so differently from the other. I urge you, as I’ve urged myself, to acknowledge that my whiteness played a role in my treatment within our community within the past month. I was considered worthy of protection and deserving of justice in a way that a non-white person very probably would not have experienced in equal measure. I contend that the incomplete (and even actively harmful) response of our own community to racism, in which I am complicit, is painfully obvious now. This is because we’ve now seen what a just response to oppression can look like.  

The second half of the Audre Lorde quote that begins this essay is:  “What woman’s terms of oppression have become precious and necessary to her as a ticket into the fold of the righteous, away from the cold winds of self-scrutiny?” I have been gifted goodwill and positive attention in abundance, at least within this moment. I want to put it to use, and urge you to consider why I was deserving of it while others were and are not. I’ve suffered and I’m still standing out in the cold wind—please join me. 







Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Height of J.J. Barea

Dallas Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea standing between two very tall people (from: Picassa user photoasisphoto).

Congrats to the Dallas Mavericks, who beat the Miami Heat tonight in game six to win the NBA championship.

Okay, with that out of the way, just how tall is the busy-footed Maverick point guard J.J. Barea? He's listed as 6-foot on NBA.com, but no one, not even the sports casters, believes that he can possibly be that tall. He looks like a super-fast Hobbit out there. But could that just be relative scaling, with him standing next to a bunch of extremely tall people? People on Yahoo! Answers think so---I know because I've been Google searching "J.J. Barea Height" for the past 15 minutes.

So I decided to find a photo and settle the issue once and for all.

I started by downloading a stock photo of J.J. from NBA.com, which I then loaded into OpenOffice Draw:


I then used the basketball as my metric. Wikipedia states that an NBA basketball is 29.5 inches in circumfe…

The Force is strong with this one...

Last night we were reviewing multiplication tables with Owen. The family fired off doublets of numbers and Owen confidently multiplied away. In the middle of the review Owen stopped and said, "I noticed something. 2 times 2 is 4. If you subtract 1 it's 3. That's equal to taking 2 and adding 1, and then taking 2 and subtracting 1, and multiplying. So 1 times 3 is 2 times 2 minus 1."

I have to admit, that I didn't quite get it at first. I asked him to repeat with another number and he did with six: "6 times 6 is 36. 36 minus 1 is 35. That's the same as 6-1 times 6+1, which is 35."

Ummmmm....wait. Huh? Lemme see...oh. OH! WOW! Owen figured out

\begin{equation}
x^2 - 1 = (x - 1) (x +1)
\end{equation}

So $6 \times 8 = 7 \times 7 - 1 = (7-1) (7+1) = 48$. That's actually pretty handy!

You can see it in the image above. Look at the elements perpendicular to the diagonal. There's 48 bracketing 49, 35 bracketing 36, etc... After a bit more thought we…

The Long Con

Hiding in Plain Sight

ESPN has a series of sports documentaries called 30 For 30. One of my favorites is called Broke which is about how professional athletes often make tens of millions of dollars in their careers yet retire with nothing. One of the major "leaks" turns out to be con artists, who lure athletes into elaborate real estate schemes or business ventures. This naturally raises the question: In a tightly-knit social structure that is a sports team, how can con artists operate so effectively and extensively? The answer is quite simple: very few people taken in by con artists ever tell anyone what happened. Thus, con artists can operate out in the open with little fear of consequences because they are shielded by the collective silence of their victims.
I can empathize with this. I've lost money in two different con schemes. One was when I was in college, and I received a phone call that I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas. All I needed to do was p…