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Feminism, What is it Good For?

Feminism, What is it Good For?

Prolific writer Roxane Gay, who in 2014 released the novel "An Untamed State" (Grove) and New York Times bestselling essay collection "Bad Feminist" (Harper Per.) is frustrated by not being able to work, rehabilitating from an ankle surgery, and now feeling quite hurt. Yesterday was not an easy day in the life of Roxane Gay. Her twitter feed within the last 24 hours revealed racist ideology from the last people she'd expect to receive it from, feminists.

I have long-held memories of commiseration firing away on all pistons.

Years ago, in my first graduate survey course on women's history, the professor of that course, a Jewish woman, asked me what I thought about her syllabus. She posed this question in the middle of class, during her tenure review with 2 or 3 other colleagues in the room evaluating her teaching.  Uncharacteristically, I tried to deflect the question. But she would not let up until I offered my opinion which was that I felt disappointed by a survey course on American women with every book on the syllabus by or about Jewish women.

I said that such a course was absolutely fine, that I would no doubt be interested but that course should be called "Jewish American Women's History" and not a survey course on U.S. Women's History. Her face reddened and she countered by citing a couple of articles that she had assigned on Latina, Native American and black women. I rebutted with, "We do not devote the same rigor nor length of time on article discussions as we do with the books."

Her face purpled and she asked me, the first-semester graduate student, to recommend books by black women that she should teach. I didn't know anything about black women's history which is why I was in the course. I mentioned one book and was told, "...But [redacted] is a journalist, not a historian... I have not found books written by black women to be researched solidly enough to include on my syllabus."

(One of her colleagues dropped his notepad to the floor.) Now, as someone who has taught yearlong seminars on black women's history, I look back on that year and am all the more appalled by that statement and the professor's willful, or thoughtless, exclusion.

So many aspects were painful about that moment but two stand out: I was the only black student in the class asked to provide a veteran professor with guidance on how to improve her syllabus–on the spot. Only one other student in the class came to my defense with, "... this syllabus is very uneven" (a Haitian-Jewish woman, who was also my house mate and remains a very close friend). I wondered why the other women around the seminar table didn't speak up when they held the same syllabus. In that moment I learned that Privilege is often silent. My saving grace was that I was invited (along with other students from the seminar) to share my experience over wine and cheese with the Dean of the College. I still had to face that professor for the rest of the semester in that class and another class I took with her on Citizenship, Identity and Democracy in America. I was grateful when her tenure was denied the following spring.  I graduated without incident and love this alma mater deeply, and I grieve for the students of color who had similar incidents that didn't turn out well, and who left their chosen degree programs and campuses because they felt alienated or discriminated against.

At another institution, again in a women's history course, the syllabus was egregiously solipsistic. One lecture out of twenty was earmarked for a black woman, journalist and early Civil Rights activist and suffragist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett. On the day of that lecture, students were upset about the religious right's attack on Tinky Winky, the purple teletubby thought to be gay.

I still find this unbelievable–that a lecture on Ida B. Wells was derailed by a train of comments on the teletubbies that the professor could not or would not shut down. When I voiced my concerns to her in private, she told me that one of her challenges with teaching was learning how to negotiate student responses and that she thought it had been a fruitful exchange because students had made good comments about queer identity politics. (The Ida lecture was truncated to 20 minutes and condensed with another lecture at the start of the next class.)