In Fact. Dig Deep. Lean In.

Dr. Liz Roosa Millar, Women in Student Affairs KC

February 24, 2014

I am a social justice ally. As you may have guessed, this means I have multiple privileged identities. Too many to claim ally status with a single identity group. I am white, abled, Catholic, straight, and lower-middle class. The “other” most salient identity to me is woman. I am an ally because of my struggles to accept what it means for me as a woman to succeed within a patriarchal system where sexist thinking and actions are pervasive and normalized. This struggle began in college and continues to this day. Today, I will share where I am with my struggle. My struggle to make sense of the tension between my ally identity and my identity as a woman.

This fall I attended a session on “Whiteness” and the importance of developing “Racial Justice Allies” at a regional ACUI conference. I’m very familiar with the subject matter, or so I thought. Because of this session I started to question two things about my way of knowing whiteness: why do white people need to be allies with people of color; and why do I need to be a racial justice ally? Someone in the audience raised the point about our changing demographics in America; that white is no longer the racial norm, in most parts of the country. Geographic regions and people are becoming racially diverse. He posited, and this is how I framed what I heard him say,

Perhaps all this hype around whites exploring their whiteness, revealing to themselves they have unearned privilege i.e., power based on something they cannot control, and developing for them a positive identity as a white ally is a reaction to the internalized fear of losing racial dominance. Subsequently, I tweeted, “Perhaps we are coming together to talk about whiteness out of our fear of losing dominance #ACUIconnect2013.”

This notion rocked my white world. I do believe I need to claim a positive identity as a white person. I need to feel good that I have a role in eradicating an injustice within a system that unfairly privileges one race over another, albeit not my own. And, I believe this need could be connected to an unconscious drive to maintain my racial dominance, while also unconsciously fulfilling my socially-prescribed female role as a nurturer of others, a caregiver and helper of the less fortunate.

Where I struggle the most is with my identity as a woman. This is the identity where I must advocate for myself, develop agency, and face the reality of my own unearned oppression. I find this identity more difficult because as a white ally I can, and do, hide behind my whiteness. I do not have to constantly deal with the hardship, the obstacles, and the incessant fight to be heard, seen, and valued. As a white, middle-class person in a predominantly white, middle-class space, I can comfortably navigate, fit in, and pick my battles. I’m choosing ignorance when I choose this mode of operating within the status quo and waiting patiently for the white male dominated patriarchy to value my contributions as a woman leader, who does Lean In as prescribed by Sheryl Sandberg in her book, which I thoroughly enjoyed by the way.

I know the limitations I face because I’m a woman. I know my race and class privilege me over others. But, for the life of me, I struggle accepting the fact that sexism will and does touch me every day. I’ve chosen to ignore my own reality as a woman stuck to the floor with lips pressed tightly against the glass above me. Instead of getting a hammer and some goo-be-gone, I focus my energies on advocating for and allying with others – both places of privilege –the reality that my patience, perseverance, ambition, earned credentials, capacity, compassion, and passion will not guarantee my success is in fact easier ignored than lived.

So, now, what’s going to happen now? I will continue my struggle with a new commitment. I will develop agency, I will advocate and be a champion for women. I will learn to better recognize and “consider the reality of intersectionality,” as bell hooks states in Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In (a 2013 critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In that I also enjoyed, but for different reasons) “to see the importance of race and class as well as gender as crucial factors shaping female destiny.” I will continue to act as a social justice ally to the best of my abilities, but I will rededicate energy to my identity as a woman, as a feminist; the identity which inspired my development as a social justice ally.

I have found through this most recent discovery, student affairs scholars, psychologists, and sociologists are right; in fact, identity development has no end, no steps nor forward trajectory; it is a lifelong journey, moving through and between learning spaces. However, I’m learning that the movement through and between the spaces must be intentional and self-propelled. If you stop actively learning about yourself, rest on your laurels by thinking you’ve somehow arrived – or falling into the patriarchal trap of thinking that systematic sexism doesn’t apply to you -- you will stall out, burn out, simply fade away, or passively join in the oppression. You may even regress, as I’ve described today. Yes, it’s complicated. Yes, it requires self-focus. And, yes, it could make us all better student affairs educators, parents, partners, role models, and humans.

In conclusion, I would like to acknowledge the following individuals who inspired this rant, intentionally or not, they made me think and rethink my ways of knowing and acting: Eric Alexander, NASPA Region V 2013 Conference Major Speakers Chair and Director for Student Leadership and Involvement, Oregon State University; Dave Villalobos, University of Oregon Erb Memorial Union and Pedal Power Music; Tina Wang, NASPA Region V Communications coordinator and University of Washington Senior Career Center Counselor; Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead and founder of Lean In; and bell hooks, author of Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In and noted cultural critic, commentator, feminist, and Distinguished Professor in Residence at Appalachian Studies at Berea College.

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