I was a pretty serious tomboy as a kid. I mostly wore oversized t-shirts, jeans from the boy’s section, converse high tops, and most of my friends were boys. I was also a good student, and a well-behaved kid. Unlike many of the boys I considered my closest friends, I never had to sit on the hard polished wooden bench outside of the Principal’s office.
This dynamic apparently did not go unnoticed by my elementary school. In the 4th grade, my teacher paired me in a classroom with a number of these “troubled” boys. When my mother asked about this, she was told by the (female) teacher that it was because I ‘calmed them down’. My mother was furious. Why was it my job to make these boys behave? Why should my educational needs be potentially compromised or not taken into consideration because these boys needed help that the teacher and the school wasn’t prepared to provide? While she was enraged, I felt a different feeling – a strange sensation of pleasure at being “the one” who could solve all of these boys’ problems just by my mere presence.
Some of those boys were truly troubled. One died of a drug overdose in his 20’s. Others went on to college and law school and now have 2.5 kids and a hypoallergenic labradoodle (thanks Facebook!). Regardless of their fates, as a child, I was led to believe that it was somehow my job to moderate and improve the behavior of men. This evolved as I got older into an attraction to men who needed to be “fixed” in some way and the toxic conviction that I, and only I, could save them. Eventually thanks to a few searing heartbreaks and lots of therapy, I grew out of this pattern, and partnered with a man who only needs saving from his compulsion to binge-watch Breaking Bad while eating an entire ‘family sized’ container of hummus and a bag of pita chips.
However, while I have escaped this pattern in my romantic life, I have not escaped it in my professional life. As an adult ‘tomboy’ who has an easy time building relationships with men, I have a wide circle of male colleagues who I consider friends. Over the past decade, as I have become more aware of and educated about critical issues like implicit bias, white privilege, and sexual harassment, I have reached out to these men with the occasional email about topics such as the logistics of menstruation during field work and links to articles about unpacking the ‘invisible backpack’ of white privilege. I’ve talked to them about these issues at meetings, and pushed back on them when they make comments about students that are biased or unfair.
I do this in part because I know that if I don’t do it, no one will. These guys are not on twitter following the #metooPhd movement. They *might* know what intersectionality is but they certainly don’t know what it means to act on it in a way that best serves their students and colleagues. I didn’t see any of them posting Facebook photos of themselves at a #blacklivesmatter protest or the women’s march. Sure, they all voted for Hilary, but they probably hated the sound of her voice.
Last year I was at a workshop with many of these male colleagues, as well as many of the older generation – our own PhD advisors, post doc mentors, and the like. Also present was the only woman faculty member who taught in my graduate program. Before the final workshop dinner, we stood chatting with a beer. While I’d known this professor since I was an undergrad, it was the first time we’d ever talked about being women in our male-dominated discipline. During this incident, we stood in a field with beers in our hands and we looked over the assembled group. Our conversation turned to two of our male colleagues, whom I both considered to be good academic guy friends. These two were in a group of people talking, probably about science, grants, their lab’s latest Nature paper, who knows. Definitely not discussing who the worse poster session drive by harassers were, that’s for sure. The female professor turned to me, knowing I was close with the both of them and said, “it’s going to be your job to make sure they don’t turn into them.”
By ‘them’ she meant the old guard, the white men in their 50’s 60’s and 70’s who have lived their lives blissfully unaware of how sexism, racism, homophobia, and other issues have plagued their students’ lives and how they perpetrate these injustices through their actions and inactions. The men who had made this professor’s pre-tenure life a living hell, who had harassed female graduate students out of our program, who had never stopped to wonder why the vast majority of black women who walked through our building wore janitorial outfits.
I was so struck by her words. At first I felt a wave of pride flush through me. I felt proud that she was handing me this responsibility, proud that she though that I was up to the task, and that I was close enough to these two powerful men to succeed. Suddenly I was back in 4th grade, and it was an honor to be considered “the one” to fix these men.
But then the elastic of time snapped forward again — I wasn’t in 4th grade anymore. Anger set it, and it’s never left. Not at the professor, but at a world where it was my responsibility, and not these men, to be fighting for equality and social justice. A world where it was my job to teach them, to fix them, to make them care. Why is it my job?
I suspect it’s because I’m a white woman, which in my field, makes me an underrepresented group. And, womp womp, underrepresented groups usually have to do all or most of the work to make their professions more equitable for themselves. It’s probably because I’ve got halfway decent social skills. Because I’m trying to pay attention to sexism, racism, transphobia, and other critical issues instead of just thinking about my own research and writing grants. But regardless of the specific reasons, here it is, my job.
This work that I am doing is a tiny drop in the ocean of labor done to right injustices. The work that I am doing is nothing compared to what is being done by others. Yet I’ve decided that it is something, and it is mine. If I stop, no one else will take it up. And so, I cannot. In the past, my role in these situations made me feel special, needed, important. Now, my role makes me feel angry and determined. I do this work because I must, but I’m not going to feel proud of it. I’m going to feel resentful and frustrated and tired.
My respect and admiration for men who are not challenging themselves to grow and learn and be better has plummeted. Being friends with these powerful men used to make me feel a sense of self worth. If they thought I was smart / fun / interesting, then surely it must be true. The internalized misogyny of this reasoning shocks me now, and yet it is only recently that it has revealed itself to me.
I will lose friends over this. I probably already have. A few emails never replied to, a few gentle snubs. This, of course, potentially means that I have lost the ears of these men, that my emails asking them to learn more and be better will be banished into the far reaches of their inboxes. Maybe I’ve also lost out on invited talks and collaborations. I’ll probably never know. But I cannot make them listen, I cannot make them care. I can know, however, that I tried to push my colleagues towards change. In the process, I have learned to never feel proud of being asked to fix someone else’s bad behavior, but instead to take it on as work when I decide it is the right thing for me to do. I have turned to the 4th grader that still lives somewhere inside me and I’ve held her tight and told her that’s she’s special because she loves sea otters and reading books about horses and making spears out of sticks in the back yard. Her self worth, and mine, should never be defined by our power to ‘fix’ boys, or men.