Sunday, December 7, 2014

#BlackLivesMatter is a Feminist Issue

The past few weeks have been a very trying time in terms of American race relations.  I find myself, along with others, holding a myriad of emotions (fear, anger, confusion, dismay, apathy), as well as hope and love when seeing the efforts of protesters and minority communities coming together in solidarity to speak out against injustice.  Sadly, I find that as a Black feminist, it is too easy to become disheartened with the current state of racial injustice; too easy to relate current events to historical depictions of the treatment of minorities in America; too easy to just want to ignore or become apathetic about such real and present reminders of privilege, power and inequality.  It’s too easy to pretend that if it doesn’t directly affect you, then it’s not going to affect you at all. 
After reading numerous news articles and Facebook posts about Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a friend of mine stated “Everyone expects me to be sad about this, I don’t understand because it’s not directly affecting me.  I didn’t personally know the Black men involved”.  In that moment, I became well aware of just how easy it is to allow yourself to become so removed from the situation that you believe it doesn’t affect you at all.  No, I did not personally know Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice or Renisha McBride, but I speak their names to affirm and validate their lives and experiences.  I do, however, know my brothers, my father, my uncles, my cousins, and myself.  As much as I imagine that their loved ones worried for their safety, I worry for the safety of my loved ones as well.  I worry for my 3 brothers, because I know that it doesn't matter that they are educated, humble, respectful & caring individuals, having black skin has been/is seen as a crime in and of itself.   I worry for myself, as a perpetual student and resident of the Ivory Tower.  How will my passion and pride in my communities; my outrage with “the system”; and my anger as a Black woman be viewed amongst friends, advisors, colleagues?  I worry for my friends who may not understand fully the historical implications of abuses of power and privilege directed towards racial and ethnic minorities.  I worry about how this will impact views and interactions with and of them.  Most of all I worry that my anger will be invalidated and cast among the innumerable stereotypes attached to a body that identifies as Black, feminist, activist, scholar, PhD student.  I worry the same worries that have stressed those who have paved the way for my existence in this space, place and time in my life.
When talking about race and cultural competence (as I somehow always find myself doing amongst friends), I was once asked “So how is this a feminist issue?”  Shocked, confused, and embarrassed, I found myself struggling to find an answer on the spot.  Sometimes the words that you are looking for have already been spoken and connecting to those words and the lips from which they emerged brings the most meaning to your experience.  So how is #BlackLivesMatter a feminist issue?  I believe that Audre Lorde spoke it best in saying: “I am a Black Feminist. I mean I recognize that my power as well as my primary oppressions comes as a result of my blackness as well as my womaness, and therefore my struggles on both of these fronts are inseparable.” – Audre Lorde

- Written by Tangela Roberts, M.S. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Media Comsumption

     As a consumer of media, I can’t help but notice the appalling rate at which I am inundated with sexualized images on a daily basis. As a female consumer, I find it disheartening to be bombarded with the message on a daily basis that my worth is largely determined by the number inside my blue jeans, my cup size, and how well I’ve managed to mask the effects of that dreaded humidity on my hair. As a human being, I (like so many others) have finally decided to take an active stand against the belief that I somehow need to be tolerant of- or at least pretend I’m blind to- the constant barrage of media messages that I can be reduced to my physical attributes as an estimation of my worth.
     In an attempt to save money while I pursue my doctorate, my husband and I opted to forgo the luxury of cable television in an attempt to save a little extra cash each month. To be honest, I was never much of a TV fanatic anyway, save for my secret obsession with the Food Network. (“Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”, anyone?) Anyway, I also am humbled to admit that I am incredibly technologically challenged. It’s true, my Mac laptop is a portal to merely 3 things: Homework, Email and Facebook. I don’t tweet or blog or read celebrity gossip on Buzzfeed. I’m not a gamer, nor do I even know how to work the control that turns on our X-Box at home. Despite my relatively limited awareness and use of screens compared to others in my generation, I am nonetheless forced to admit that I absorb media’s targeting messages about me and my fellow sisters on a minute-to-minute basis. If I’m not hearing on the radio how I can be more attractive with laser hair removal, then I’m accosted with 100 ways to “rock my man’s world in the bedroom” in the check out line, all the while feeling sized up by men who are complete strangers and hearing their cat-calls because I dared to have a pair of breasts.
     But it isn’t limited to just me and my own experience, and that’s the problem. Although I am mindful about my own media consumption, I’m not exempt from the stories of other women who are constantly evaluating themselves based on the number of “likes” a picture of them received on their social media outlet. As a training clinical psychologist, I hear my female clients’ heartache every time they disclose their unwanted sexual encounters and describe through tears the devaluation they experience every time a new reality TV show makes yet another unrealistic standard of what their ideal body type should be. Many of the college aged women sitting in my office have suffered quietly with disordered eating behaviors for years, silently agonized with self harm tendencies and violated their own moral codes for sexual behavior in their pursuit of hearing just one person tell them that they’re beautiful. We live in an age where the size of our heels and the length of our skirts determine even our pursuit of professionalism and being taken seriously in the work force in which we find ourselves. I once heard a stand up comedian say that we live in a media-world that preys on the insecurities of women, and then we blame them for it. And if you ask my perspective, the very objectification that is sucking the lives out of our female youth is fueled by our fear- the fear of not feeling accepted. We have thus created a system designed to collapse on itself, and every constituent that’s within it.
     That being said, I do have an incredible amount of hope. I have to, or else my pursuit of education in this field would be meaningless and definitely not worth the 8 years of graduate school it will have taken me to understand what our subscription to these beliefs is doing to our psychology. I wholeheartedly believe that slowly but surely, a new trend is beginning among our youth that is a forced to be reckoned with. I see it in the growing number of women choosing to pursue higher education. I see it in the gradual but sure growth of female members of congress in this recent election. I see it every time a female celebrity makes a statement that she’s exploring this word ‘feminism’ for the first time to see how it fits. I am given hope every time a legislation is passed that puts power back in the hands of women over their own right to reproductive and sexual health. In a recent event I held in our department, I was amazed to see the numbers of undergraduate and graduate students wanting to dialogue about all of these issues and more. My hope is that we never stop this conversation; that we never refrain from asking the difficult questions that are required for effecting change. And if all that is accomplished through these conversations is the deepening of our awareness, I am still honored to be a part of them.

-Written by Mae Adams



We live in a society where labels are everything. Some labels are chosen for us and others are chosen by us. Let’s take our names for example. This is something that for the most part is given to us at birth. It is a label that identifies who we are, what family we belong to, and in some cultures – what our role in society is. As a woman and first generation graduate, my first and last names are a big part of my overall identity. It tells people I am Latina and it tells my family that “we” have accomplished things as we see it printed on certificates and diplomas. Being a woman in higher education brings up big questions when it comes to marriage. One of them being – Do I change my last name? How will people remember me? How will I be addressed? What is my overall identity? Personally, I had an “identity crisis” when I got engaged. I was immediately put in several boxes that I wasn’t ready to address. I wasn’t ready to change who I was. I am Yurivia Cervantes-Lopez. That was the label I had embraced, used, and understood my entire life. Changing my last name meant changing my identity, which was scary.  Being able to hold on to my identity while embracing my partner and new chapter in my life was something I needed and so I decided to hyphenate my name. I have the full support of my partner and family, but find it interesting to see others reactions to my decision. Some people look concerned while others seem annoyed by the whole idea. Such reactions by both women and men lead me to wonder: Why is it that in our society women who chose to keep their name or hyphenate after marriage are perceived as pretentious? Why is it that in heterosexual marriages, men don’t contemplate taking on their bride’s last name? Why? I find myself asking questions that many women have asked before. Yet, there is never a direct or satisfying answer.  It is simply driven by gender norms so why not do away with them? Maybe we should follow the steps of Phoebe from the show Friends and change our names to Princess Consuela Bananahammock.  At the end of the day our names are one of the most important labels we have and we should be able to change it, modify it, and do with it as we want because it is what makes us, US.

- Written by Yurivia Cervantes, M.A.

Living in the Liminal: A contemporary feminist’s experience living in the in-between

Street harassment walked into the media spotlight recently after the release of the video 10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman. Street harassment is a primary example of women’s spaces being violated by the male space. The lack of boundaries both physically and philosophically between men and women creates space for intimidation and dominance often exerted as male-on-female. Street harassment has been shrugged off by some as hypersensitivity but it represents the depth and permeation of patriarchy that prevents women from feeling safe and existing in an autonomous space. The tyrannical control over women’s spaces is multifaceted. Women are not reasonably represented in positions of power -100 in Congress, while encouraging, is still not equal- and should not expect the male life experience. The male life experiences postulates that street harassment is a form of flattery. This attitude escalates and perpetuates such myths as ‘politeness from a stranger is consent to have sex’ or that ‘a miniskirt justifies rape.’ The contemporary woman is forced to negotiate between these two mentalities and to repeatedly ask herself: I’m being told to stop complaining because of how good I have it and yet I’m faced with sexism every day that tells me I need to continue to fight for equal treatment. How should I proceed? The female experience can be defined though liminality. Women live in the same physical space as the dominant culture but do not live in the same societal space. Women exist in a liminal space – liminal coming from the word ‘threshold’ in Latin, līmen- meaning they are existent but not present, exposed yet overlooked, neither here nor there. Living in a liminal space leads to isolation. The space becomes smothering and convinces its inhabitant that she alone exists in the invisibility. The dissociation from the dominant culture occurs as a result of being societally degraded. Women are further distanced when repeatedly told that their value lies in the body; our only purpose, we’re told, is to provide sexual pleasure for men. This superficial interpretation of women’s value carries deep and damaging meaning. Extending that interpretation reveals that when women are told to be thinner or smaller they are being told to take up less space, to have quieter voices, to hold less power, and to have less control. This meaning manifests in self-isolation and arguably appears in the form of depression, which women present with a staggeringly higher prevalence than men. This interpretation highlights importance of intersectional feminism. The modern feminist must raise awareness surrounding gender discrimination as well as all other forms of oppression. The layers of privilege between persons put psychological space between them. This allows the dominant culture to dehumanize the Other, which creates acceptance of violence. Each layer of privilege adds another wall and creates additional space between individuals.  The more dehumanized or objectified a population is considered by the dominant culture, the higher the acceptance of violence is toward that population. How else could it be that one in three women on the planet are raped or beaten in their lifetime, but the Earth’s population continues to exist unperturbed? The only established remedy is exposure in the form of knowledge and experience. When a person comes to understand another person’s perspective, the layers of space and privilege between them fall away. They are able to enter the liminal existence of another person. The challenge of the modern-day feminist is to inform the dominant culture about the isolated space in which many women exist, and provide education to help others understand the liminal existence. By removing the layers between the space of the dominant culture and exposing the female experience, global perspectives are formed.  A decrease in violence should follow, but for now a walk to the subway without catcalls would make my day.

- Written by Katrina A. Maurer

The Murder of Mary Spears: When Will a Woman’s “No” Be Enough?

Mary “Unique” Spears, a 27-year-old African American mother of three, was shot and killed on October 5, 2014 after turning down a man’s romantic advances. The shooting happened at Joe Louis Post 375, the Sons of American Legion. Joe Louis Post 375 was a nightclub in Detroit, Michigan where Spears and several of her family members were spending the evening after having attended a family funeral earlier that day. Per family witnesses, Spears was approached by a man who asked for her name and phone number. Spears, who was engaged, reportedly told the male pursuer the following—“I have a man. I can’t talk to you.”

Spears’s family shared that the man continued to harass Spears throughout the night and that this harassment culminated at 2:00am when the man grabbed and hit Spears as she and her fiancée were attempting to leave the nightclub. The man who had been pursuing Spears then retaliated by pulling out a gun, aiming at Spears, and shooting her multiple times in the head. The man also released a spray of bullets into the crowd that injured Spears’s fiancée and several other members of her family.

I was literally left speechless when I first received news of Mary Spears’s death as I perused some of my favorite feminist-oriented websites. Mary was murdered because she declined a man’s romantic advances. Mary was murdered because she exercised her basic human right to say “no” to something that she did not desire.

One of the pieces of Mary’s story that stood out the most to me was Mary reportedly trying to fend off the man that was harassing her by proclaiming that she was already in a relationship with another man. Mary’s statement of “I have a man” was her inherent truth. However, I can think of several times that I have been approached by men either at school, at a nightclub, at a restaurant, or simply walking from store to store in my city’s downtown area, and have tried to decline a man’s advances by simply saying “that’s so kind, but no thanks” only to be met with major dissension in the form of verbal abuse. It has only been after I make a statement such as “oh I’m sorry, but I have a boyfriend” or “I’m taken” that a man has halted his romantic advances and respected my verbalized “no.”

Why is it that the men who have approached me with romantic interests do not respect my personal “no thanks” with regards to sharing my phone number with them or returning their flirtatious invitations? Why is it that these men who approach me will only stop their advances once I make the verbal statement—that is sometimes false, depending on my relationship status at the time—that “I have a man?” Why is it that my own personal and articulate decline of a man’s romantic advances isn’t enough, and it must be accompanied by showing that I am, in some way, shape, or form, already “taken” by another man?

What absolutely scares me the most regarding the death of Mary Spears is that Mary could have easily been ME. I identify as an African American woman. I am just one year older than Mary was at the time of her murder. I too have turned down men’s romantic advances by using the (oftentimes fabricated) statement that “I have a man. I can’t talk to you.”

The only difference between Mary and I is that I have been fortunate enough to not encounter a man who has turned to physical violence in the face of my rejecting his romantic advances. As a woman in our society, I should not have to fear that male privilege and socialized sexual expectations regarding male-female interactions could undermine my autonomy as a woman who has a right to say “no” to situations or people that I do not desire. I should not have to fear that my “no’s” may one day be met with physical violence, and in Mary Spears’s case, murder.

I challenge all of you to commit your professional and personal work as feminists to furthering the development of safe spaces where a woman’s “no” is honored, respected, and upheld without her having to fear retaliation in its most nefarious forms. 

- Written by Ciera V. Scott, MS

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Thoughts on the Election

Ooof Election Day and the emotional rollercoaster than ensues, amirite?  I don't know about you folks, but I have some pretty intense feelings about the impact this election could have on women's rights.  Here in Illinois, I, like many others I associate with, felt pretty darn comfortable with our chances.  Illinois is where Obama is from!  Solid blue state for years!  All of us who know how important so many of these social issues that are up for grabs are going to rally and would never EVER let anyone get in the way of our rights!  Right?!  Not entirely true.  Although the Dems lost the Governorship, it looks like the referendum on women's access to birth control after the "Hobby Lobby" decision will be safe and sound, as Illinois voted in favor of maintaining that access.  This doesn't necessarily ensure we will have access to it by law, but at least our voices have been heard (I hope).  The other good news is that the state overwhelmingly voted to improve funding for mental health services.  It seems like every time election day rolls around, I am still optimistic, particularly with regard to women's rights in our country.  ESPECIALLY after all of the publicity that "feminism" is getting these days (of which the commercialization and comodification is fodder for another post), I had high hopes that women would rally behind each other and our allies to elect politicians that would support us and our right's to our bodies.  How cool would it have been if Wendy Davis (of 11-hour-filibuster-warrior-for-abortion-rights fame) had been elected in Texas?!  Although not surprising, still super disappointing, especially with everything that is going on with abortion access/rights (or lack thereof) in Texas.  But it's not all for nothing.  At least places like New Hampshire, Arizona, and Hawaii are moving and shaking, electing women that have a chance to stand up for women's rights.  
This being said, I know that talking about politics is a touchy subject and the discussion can get heated.  I personally believe it's a bummer in general that we only get two sides to stand on (for the most part), and that the way the system works is inherently flawed.  Whichever side you choose, bottom line is the United States is ranked at 54 out of 142 countries with regard to political empowerment and the gender gap, according to the World Economic Forum's report for this year, which seems to me to be shockingly low considering our technological, educational, and economic resources.  I have a feeling the vast majority of you won't disagree when I say MORE WOMEN SHOULD BE IN POWER.  This invisibility is a shame and a disservice to all genders.  Let's hope that there can be some true bipartisanship with this round of newcomers and we can all work together and support each other.  

- Written by Haran M. King, M.A.

Cat Call: The "Compliment" That Leaves You Feeling Icky

As a clinical psychologist in training I've seen many of my female clients struggle to balance the pressures to represent both innocence and sex.  As a result, these women feel obligated to objectify their bodies but then shamed for doing so. Such a cycle leaves women to vacillate between feelings of guilt and shame, which as we know, is a recipe for depression and anxiety.  Everywhere we look women are bombarded with images boasting what society tells us we should value most, our bodies.  Advertisements break us down to our most valued body parts, or depict us as animals or objects existing solely for a man's pleasure. Internalizing societal views cause many women to sexualize themselves, measuring their worth based on the amount of "attention" aka harassment they experience. Hollaback, a movement to end street harassment powered by a network of local activist around the world, recently released a video of a woman experiencing 100 instances of street harassment in one day. As I watched the video I unfortunately was not surprised.  What was even more disturbing- I feel I have become numb to it.  As a woman I should NOT expect to be harassed when I walk out my front door, but I do.  To understand why we must first reflect on the fact that in our society, it is perfectly acceptable for a man to objectify me, telling me my "ass looks fat." In fact, such a statement may be viewed as a compliment, meant to boost my self-esteem and express my local gas station attendant's approval of my body. (Gee Thanks, consider me fulfilled).  It is beliefs such as these that must be changed.  Men in our culture are not all heartless chauvinists, rather they are our brothers, fathers, and partners who have been conditioned from the time they were born to believe they have the right to a woman's body.  Like myself, many women may also have become numb to our harassment, leading to suffering in silence and accepting this as "just the way it is." Hollaback hopes to change this point of view and invites women around the world to join the conversation.  Just talk about it.  Talk about it with your friends, sisters, and mothers, but more importantly, talk about your experiences with your brothers, fathers, and partners.  

- Written by Samantha Brustad