Her rhetoric is aggressive. She champions women for president. Planned Parenthood and the Women’s March Organization can count on her steadfast support. She fixates on the sexual victimization of females and is compared to Rosie the Riveter as an icon. Her presence is boisterous, demanding, and inescapable.
She is Gloria Steinem: a stereotypical feminist.
“Nowadays, they’re just pushy and mean,” says Newton South High School senior Cameron Gilchrist, when asked to describe feminists. For Gilchrist, who is not a feminist, shining a light on their movement reveals little more than a group of angry women. “People don’t want to associate themselves with that type of woman,” he states.
As a man, Gilchrist is not alone in his attitude toward feminists. Fifty-six percent of millenial males in a recent Washington Post poll responded that feminism has a bad reputation (Washington).
“Parts of it are authoritarian,” offers non-feminist Jake Levy, another Newton South senior, in an effort to explain how the women’s movement earned its criticized status. His friend Mathew Huller, who also does not identify as a feminist, agrees: “the feminist movement today is much more radical” than its historical suffrage beginnings. “On some level,” says Levy, “men can be worried that it affects their position in society.”
And yet, these three highschoolers don’t believe that men and women should be unequal. “By the dictionary definition,” which describes the movement’s supporters as advocating equality of the sexes, “yes, I’m a feminist,” says Levy.
The issue for most youth – not only males, but females as well – isn’t that they oppose gender equality. Eighty-five percent of Americans believe in equality for women (Allum). At Newton South, ninety-five percent of students also share that belief – and nearly half of that number are non-feminists (Binns).
The problem lies with the interpretation of feminism’s definition.
“The traditional definition of feminism no longer accurately represents the movement that has assumed the title ‘feminism,’” says Levy. Fellow classmate Stephanie Luiz, a self-described egalitarian, but not feminist, agrees. “I think that feminism has moved in a direction that doesn’t actually promote equality anymore,” she says.
Their claim that the movement has changed is credible; at the core of traditional feminism, also known as first-wave feminism, was the vote. Since suffrage has been tucked safely under the female belt for a century, the question becomes: what does feminism stand for now?
To Huller, the movement has extended past the long-established, equality-of-the-sexes principle. “It means being in favor of abortion. It means believing in the gender wage gap and solutions to try to stop that. It means, in many ways, being in the left-wing politics,” he says.
Levy agrees that there has been a politicization of feminism, noting that “people on the far right have spoken out about it.” More importantly, though, he notes that they “have used outliers like people in the UC Berkley window-smashing to paint everyone with the same brush, while in reality this is a movement with millions of people,” not just the radical few.
This is the crux of the modern tendency to shy away from identifying as feminist: prominent coverage of the “outliers.”
“People get distracted by those few individuals who might be hardcore or militant,” explains Robert Parlin, who has taught a class on gender at Newton South High School for the past twenty years. “They have misinterpreted a few strident voices to represent all feminists,” he says, “and unfortunately, I think that has taken away power from the movement.”
Context is key to understanding the present climate surrounding feminism. Today’s youth spend more time than ever in cyber space. Mobile devices allow ninety-four percent of teenagers easy access to the internet. For those who use social media, seventy-one percent use more than one platform, increasing their chances of viewing articles and videos that pop up in their Facebook and Instagram streams (United).
At their finger tips is a universe of information, with no barrier to separate what is factually true from what is not.
“I’ve seen, like, YouTube videos,” says Gilchrist, referencing what has shaped his perception of feminists as “pushy.” However, he cannot provide details or verify the authenticity of what he has seen on the internet.
Gilchrist’s online experience is not uncommon. With forty-nine percent of social media users reporting fake news sightings at least once per day, any topic – including feminism – can show up, facts unchecked (To).
The same is true of people. Helpful and convenient though the internet may be, it can also be a mask. Online, anyone can classify their words as “feminist”.
For those who use online experiences to defend their views of the women’s movement, Parlin says that the question becomes, “Who are they citing? Who are their referring to?” Although he admits that “there are some voices online” that support the stereotypical feminist image, his rationale remains: “You can find anyone online who’s shrill.”
“Because of that,” says teenage feminist Jessalyn Kaur, “people will say, ‘I’m not a feminist,’ when really, if you want equality, then shouldn’t you be a feminist?”
The issue, it seems, always circles back to feminism’s definition.
With a concept so broad and complex as feminism, finding one phrase capable of encompassing everyone’s sentiments about it proves difficult. “Just because you define a word in a certain way doesn’t mean the whole movement acts in conformity with how it’s been defined,” says Huller.
Professor Robert Selman of the Harvard Graduate School of Education believes in a flexible, individualized interpretation of feminism. “To understand what each person thinks feminism means to them, they ought to debate and discuss concrete topics with others. It’s only then that one would really have an understanding of what each of us believes the concept is,” he says. Selman, who specializes in the psychology and social awareness of adolescents, says it is for this reason that “the dictionary definition [of feminism] is very weak and unimportant.”
Perhaps there is no singular definition, but the traditional dictionary definition can still have a stranglehold on the movement, ultimately excluding those who would rather not identify with it at all than have to conform. For those people, the side effect of shying away from one title is to be marked with another: the anti-feminist. As Levy puts it, it is this “either you’re with them, or you’re against them” characteristic of feminism that is so detrimental to the movement. It is simply inaccurate.
Luiz does not identify as a feminist because of the “negative connotations” associated with the modern movement, but her rejection of the feminist title does not mean that she is anti-female. “I one-hundred percent believe in equality between men and women,” she says. “That’s not even a question.”
Levy, Gilchrist, and Huller have the same opinion. Each has his own critiques of the movement as a whole, but none opposes equal rights and opportunities for women. Says Levy, “I absolutely support gender equality. For me, it’s just a question of the methodology.”
The number of young adults like these, who prefer to refrain from associating with feminism than to claim it and its accompanying negative reputation, is climbing. But members of this group call for feminists to acknowledge the pro-female beliefs shared by both parties rather than ostracize and condemn each other.
“Understanding feminism is a shared burden,” says Huller. “Non-feminists, on one hand, should seek to understand the specific issues and see past the connotations of feminism. Feminists, however, should not be dismissive of opposing views, and shouldn’t silence opposing views based on gender.”
Twenty years ago on New York City’s frenetic streets, urban youth of color created their own environment when they found themselves unwelcome at school. Victimized and obscured by the biases of their white teachers and peers, these students were dispirited. In place of their intelligence, teachers saw blanket stereotypes–violence and danger– and treated urban youth as though these characteristics were the most prominent aspects of their identity (Embdin, 123-124).
This was urban education.
Even in 1990s New York, teachers were often unaware of their discrimination against minority students. Many acted under the influence of flawed, conditioned racial prejudices internalized from their own surroundings and schooling (Burnett). However, schools advertised an entirely different educational culture from the environment that students actually encountered, a practice that remains true today.
Take the publicized vision statement of James Shield Elementary School, which promises that students “in every neighborhood will be engaged in a rigorous, well-rounded instructional program” that “meets the interests and abilities of all learners,” (CPS Vision). This Chicago public school frames itself as an appealing educational environment, with the implication being that this is true despite socioeconomic and racial differences among its students. The Farmingdale School District of New York uses more explicit wording to achieve the same point: their schools “provide a safe, nurturing environment” in which “diversity is respected,” (Mission).
But is this really how public schooling in the United States operates? The answer lies with educators.
Most teachers have bought into some version of the world betterment philosophy, for which “hold[ing] students to high expectations” in the academic environment is key (Kimball). This, of course, is not the central cause of urban youth’s classroom discrimination; “tough love” from a disciplinarian is hardly new. However, when teachers pair it with “car[ing] deeply about how well students learn the material they put forth,” they end up valuing how much is learned over the learning process itself. (Kimball). That’s when they ground they stand on becomes shaky.
The danger of this type of prioritization is that it leaves teachers unguided; unwittingly, they are able to warp the learning process according to their own views of how students should behave to attain success.
This results-driven style of education in the United States dates back to 1879, when the first institution to educate Native Americans was founded in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Students experienced “a militaristic approach” and “authoritarian ‘care’” in an educational environment designed to “make them ‘as close to the White man as possible,’” (Embdin, 4). Teachers, however, “saw themselves as kindhearted people who were doing right by the less fortunate,” (Embdin, 4). The same is true of many teachers today who exhibit an identical “desire to help [urban youth] have more opportunities” as the Carlisle teachers did for their Native American students (Embdin, 6). But their good intentions are lost on their students, who only experience the classroom environment as having “a primary goal of imposing rules” that ultimately “disrespect students and their culture,” (Embdin, 6).
In effect, while educators enter their profession driven by a desire to make the world more just, some in at-risk, urban schools misguidedly perpetuate inequality through their latent prejudices that guide the classroom environment.
The role of educators, then, becomes all the more indispensable. Education’s status as a pillar of American society has given teachers import, but their ability to shape the classroom– either negatively or positively– earns them their own prestige. On the value of their role, Coach author Michael Lewis posits that “there are teachers with a rare ability to enter a child’s mind [where] it’s as if their ability to get there at all gives them the right to stay forever,” (Lewis, 12).
Lewis cites the remarkability of the teacher’s power as an authoritative figure whom every American child will encounter. Teachers, coaches, and tutors can, through instruction, release a gift upon their pupils: belief. They are able to summon students’ dreams of space travel or theater, and make them believe that they “might be some other kind of person” than their surface self; inside they become “a hero,” (Lewis, 32). Lewis reasons that in doing so, teachers create an encouraging environment which their students, in turn, will value and work to better.
The plight of education for urban youth represents what happens when the power teachers wield results in unintended outcomes.
While education systems in affluent neighborhoods represent a pie-sized slice of the American Dream, the state of urban youth’s public schooling in low-income districts has become a microcosm encapsulating their comparably lower socioeconomic status. In these communities, as For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood author Christopher Embdin describes, classrooms cannot and should not work the same way that they do for upper-middle class students. The issue is that teachers do not format the principles that they use to suit the needs of their urban students.
“Considered primitive and inferior” by many educators, the culture of the neoindigenous– Embdin’s term for urban youth– plays a part in students’ treatment by their teachers (Embdin, 4). Because baggy, “unusual” clothing can be mistaken for lack of care, or excitement for noisy distraction, urban youth become targets for behaviors that the predominantly white teaching force perceives to be “inconsistent with traditional school norms,” (Embdin, 9). Even students’ language “represents lowbrow antiacademic culture” to the teachers who unintentionally discard it as different from their own, and therefore without value (Embdin, 11).
Through their teachers, urban youth also feel like “some other kind of person,” but not a “hero:” a degraded, lesser version of themselves (Lewis, 32).
The polarity between urban youth and their teachers stems from the inevitable racial cesspit. Neoindigenous at school face the unsaid expectation of “assimilat[ing] to white norms,” (Embdin, 4). Here the dominant white culture present throughout all strands of the United States has left an ugly mark on what should be one of the nation’s purest, most indispensable establishments. With eighty-two percent of educators identifying as white and promoting an academic experience that diverges from the cultural life and learning styles of urban youth, teachers have created a stifling environment of student devaluation (Department, 6).
The result? Kids grow up “doubting their intelligence” because cultural erasure pervades their classrooms (Embdin, 12). Non-English languages should be saved for home (Dolan). Policies prevent girls from wearing braids (Frazer). This environment, in theory dedicated to the academic progress of all students from all cultures, now fails urban youth “because they do not have the space/opportunity to showcase their worth on their own terms” rather than by the traditional White measuring stick (Embdin, 13).
As Embdin asserts, the educational environment must change to include “a consideration of the culture of the students in determining the ways in which they are taught,” (Embdin, 10). It’s well-intentioned teachers who have inadvertently propagated the obliteration of neoindigenous values in the classroom. What might urban education look like if teachers were to acknowledge their biases and the negative impact those biases have on the learning environment?
Still, the environment created by classroom prejudice is just one example of how powerful interrelationships between people and their surroundings can be. The United States as a nation is another environment meant to be shaped by its people, but which seeps with inequity:
On U.S. soil, a black male points his finger out of his car and gets shot. It looked like a gun. In this free country, Hispanic-Americans on the late-night subway shy away from offering help to a young white lady. What if she were to misinterpret their actions? What if she were to scream?
That America, as author Ta-Nehisi Coates reasons, does not merit the title, “exceptional, greatest and noblest nation ever to exist” that it boasts (Coates, 8). That America has prospered off of perpetual oppression and the blotting out of entire peoples. It had the Three-Fifths Compromise and the Indian Removal Act of 1830. It has racialized police brutality and Islamophobia. Americans built themselves a brutal environment to live in.
It’s this environment that Coates’ Between the World and Me has chosen not to beautify, but to expose. Written as a letter to his black son, the biography describes how we are a “country lost in the dream” of a society in which race is a nonissue (Coates, 83). This is a country with “equality” written into the legislature, and which bands together under one flag. The flip side is that it is also a country in which seventy-five percent of white people don’t have a black friend, and sixty-six percent of black people don’t have a white friend (Stockman, 2).
These two worlds that we have built – a white one, and an “other” one – are so divided that “no machinery could close the gap between” them (Coates, 1). Much of the American populace – by virtue of being “other” – clings to fewer resources and less privilege than are afforded America’s poster child: the “white city of democracy” (Coates, 8). Compared with the median household income for whites, the black equivalent runs around twenty-two thousand dollars fewer (Stockman, 1).
The American Dream is painted white, and to ignore that as we ignore the cultural differences of the neoindigenous student is to lose ourselves in it. We must recognize that we live in a “society that protects some people through a safety net of schools […] but can only protect [black people] with the clubs of criminal justice,” (Coates, 17-18). Coates’ conclusion that “what matters is the system” affirms that surroundings are key; we made the institutions and policies that determine the state in which we live. We must also be able to modify those factors in order to change our environment.
Change isn’t out of grasp, either. Maybe it just seems to be, because for all the effort spent promoting it, change isn’t happening as quickly as we would hope. Why? We have established that we do have power to affect the environment, but this conceptual “we” could be further dissected. Some of us have more power than do others, which means some of us control more of the environment. Our lawmakers, instructors, and leaders have a direct effect on the United States, but who are they? Our teachers are primarily white. Out of our hundred senators, ninety are white. Ninety-eight percent of our presidents have been white (Estrada).
The forefront of the United States is white, which means that white culture and values are disproportionately reflected in society, as they are in school classrooms.
So if we circle back to environment, what does changing ours mean? And by “environment,” which ones are we talking about? I can’t put down my sandwich during lunch and go shake the preconceived, unconscious biases out of the heads of every teacher in America. (To be fair, not all teachers have internalized prejudices that hinder their students’ learning.) The issue of urban youths’ classroom erasure is too big for one person to handle.
Conversely, it is so pointed an issue that you could argue others would have been a better use of this paper. Let’s talk about racism. Let’s point out our country’s flaws. We are. But combating racism, just like derailing sexism or confronting homophobia in our environment, isn’t a one-and-done kind of deal.
So we write papers. We sit down, take out our technology and use it as a megaphone to spread our messages and spark discourse. We do it, full-well knowing that the chances of one passionate blurb in cyberspace changing everything are slim. We do it anyway. You and I know that whatever form of dialogue we choose is a tool to harness our environment. Every word that leaves our heads enters our surroundings – and it’s there that they can be heard.
Say, for a moment, that you can read everyone’s minds. Before we get too excited, let’s disentangle ourselves from the myriad ways this skill might come in handy and instead, zero in on one. We may be the most educated, interconnected band of humans to walk the planet yet, but we are not doing right by each other. To prove it, take your newfound telepathic talent, set off on a stroll down the street, and ask your neighbors what’s most important to them.
Chances are, the word “family” is going to roll off several tongues.
Mind-blowing, isn’t it? Not really. We organize our lives around the grand societal pillar that family has become in so many cultures, so it isn’t news that Mom and Grandpa are important. Rather, it’s how we then go on to treat these relatives after professing them as such.
We are the generation of busy. We are on the go nonstop, tossing sleep and peace of mind out the window without taking stock of what their loss means. “Busy” has become, as Tim Kreider puts it in The “Busy” Trap, the “default response” for your average greeting. But, while busyness may masquerade as a surface issue, or simply a convention of the time, destined to slowly fade from use, like drive-in movie theatres or bell-bottomed jeans, its roots are deep.
After all, what does “busy” mean? Merriam-Webster dictionary calls it “involved in often constant activity,” which we can boil down to “out of time.” Decrypting that code phrase, you understand it to mean that there was time, it just wasn’t spent on you.
There’s where our interpretation of busyness is distorted. It’s this “you,” or really we, that lies at the heart of the busyness crisis, because just as often as someone is too wrapped up in work to deal with us, we too fail to find time for them. No one bullies us into taking the lead in that group project. Earth will not fizzle into nothingness if we don’t sign up for that 5k, or don’t make dinner from scratch. Like Kreider points out, “it’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed,” which begs us to wonder why, if we can take on more work, can’t we also rid ourselves of it?
We have spent too much time toying with this “why” and postulating “hows”. It’s what I’m doing right now, and maybe you are too, and certainly what Kreider’s article has taken a stab at. What we aren’t talking about is what our “busy” means for our loved ones. Look outside yourself, busy person.
The truth is that as much as being swamped is a “copout” for friends, Mekita Rivas notes that it has become equally commonplace “when doling out reasons for […] neglecting loved ones.” The National Council on Aging has placed family members at fault in 60% of elderly neglect incidents, which is not to say that each of us is the agent of our elders’ distress, but it should be a jab into our subconsciouses. As much as we find the busy excuse to be “a direct slap in the face,” it is equally so to those we release it upon – a category which we have lumped our relatives into. Most of us would affirm the statement “family is important.” Most of us, however, would not be able to avow that we had never postponed a dinner with Dad, rushed through a phone call to finish AP Chemistry homework, or canceled a casual family get-together because work came up.
“Life is too short to be busy” may be Tim Kreider’s way of topping an apparently unsolvable social dilemma with rainbow sprinkles and leaving it be. Or, it might have merit – just not the kind you’re expecting. It’s one thing when the life you’re talking about is your own; it’s something else when that ticking clock belongs to another person. I’ll never be too busy to regret what I missed when I’m no longer here to miss it. So this weekend, I’m going to brunch with my grandmother. Everything else will wait.
This is not to say that you did something wrong, but I think you killed my brother. I’m not sure yet, but once I am, and once you are holding this in your hand, it will hopefully read with firmer conviction.
Again, this is still up in the air.
I’m curious about what happened to you. We saw each other on one of June’s stickiest, most unreasonable days to date. I walked into town for ice cream, because to suffer in the heat is more endurable when you shake up what activity you pair it with. You biked across the street in front of me with some purple flowers in your pocket. I was a speck, a little, moist sack of air with a chocolate cone; you did not see me.
In retrospect, that was the last time I saw you.
So when did we last lay eyes on each other? Interact? Note, here, that I mean to emphasize the mutual nature of ‘we’. Could it, perhaps, have been in one of the four classes that we have shared in the past few years of schooling? Well, that would make sense. One room, discussions bouncing off the walls, partnerships…It really does go on.
Or! An even grander possibility: the Science Team. You are a member, or you were, and so am I. What better place to connect to someone on a more personal level than a (sparsely-populated) room of kids who all share your exact same interest. What better environment to engage in the social norm of “making friends”? Think on that, Leana.
Think on it.
Well, actually, I could be wrong. If we had ever interacted, I would cue your intake of air at my admission of mistake now. I’m hoping you might be starting to get the gist of what I’m telling you.
Jonny was a good kid. He took tough classes but still smiled. Sincerity radiated from his palms like a firework spitting lithium salts at the sky.
On a Tuesday last February I was chewing my pencap and reading over the history of Hannibal when Jonny brought you home. You stayed for the afternoon. You didn’t say hello.
Most days afterwards were borishly identical to that Tuesday.
You were the rudest person I had ever met. That, in itself, is a false statement, because never did I have the displeasure of making your acquaintance.
But I don’t blame you for that.
Several months of The Identical Tuesdays blended together before I caught Jonny fumbling with the latch to his bedroom window at two one morning. He never knew, but I caught him. Just like I did with the you-know-whats in an old framed picture from Little League. Just like I did every morning that he slumped over the kitchen table, looking at his cereal as if it were about to fly out of his bowl and bite his nose.
That I blame you for.
So my truth is that I know what you did. But I still want to know where you went after my brother turned up in the street, ribs broken, no more air in his lungs. Had you been in that car?
Did he save you from what happened to him? Tell me.
What I know is that, before you came home that first Tuesday and chatted with my mother and scraped balls of cookie dough out of the tub in the refrigerator, Jonny had nowhere to be at midnight. And after you, he did.
After you, he died.
Did you put those purple flowers on his grave?
I am still at Lernon Street should you decide to let me know.
Don’t you know I’m not moving?
That’s what I want to say, when I’m with you.
When we ride the train into the city while night beats its wings at our backs.
When there’s a lull in the conversation, or when that second passes when I scramble to reach the door you’ve held for me, arms outstretched.
Don’t you know?
When I think about the moment I stopped, the moment I first heard your voices swims up into my consciousness.
You know, that night I woke up because you were screaming again.
It turned out that you weren’t.
(Maybe that was a trick from slumber?)
Or should I really ask you,
“Do you know?”
Because I peel seconds away from myself, whole minutes where I know that we are clear.
Crystal, in fact.
I won’t ask you, I promise. Even though I’m still not moving.
Even though the fingers at the edge of my mouth make it smile.
Even though I woke up that night and heard you screaming when you weren’t.
I love you, but I promise.
I won’t ask you if you know that I’m not moving.