On the University of Chicago…

…after humans I love “like” statuses praising its stance against “so-called ‘trigger warnings,'” the cancellation of polarizing speakers, and “the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” I offer for perspective some experiences I’ve had since entering college:

An introductory literature course I am enrolled in reads, like every introductory course since the dawn of time and literature, Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” (my consistently poor academic performance up to this point has ensured my experience of multiple introductory literature courses). Caught up in describing the physical invasiveness of the medical procedure the story is dancing around (SPOILER ALERT: IT IS AN ABORTION. YOU ARE WELCOME. I HAVE FREED YOU, FUTURE LIT STUDENTS), my professor mimes a reaching in, a scraping, a pulling out. I freeze in my chair, hands shaking. Across the room, a woman younger than me has tears pouring down her face. At our fifteen-minute break halfway through the class period, she leaves and does not come back. 

I attend a rally for racial equality on campus, ending in the UW Law school, which has faced criticism for its treatment of minority students for quite some time. A student in my Language and Law class—a known precursor to law school applications—refers to the disruption this rally caused in an unfavorable light. He has no reflection on the issues being presented. He is white and male, and I sadly do not get a chance to ask him what he thinks of the statistics we learn regarding law school participation. At Harvard, “a male student was 32% more likely than a female to talk during a class meeting, and 50% more likely to talk voluntarily. Finally, men were 63% more likely to speak three or more times in a class meeting and 142% more likely to volunteer three or more times in a class meeting.” In our class the balance seems worse to me. A student group presentation on the linguistic technicalities of the George Zimmerman trial misses the forest—dubiously effective prosecution—for these trees—exploitation of linguistic coding—and it falls to the class’s only black student to ask why the presentation is amplifying, and not critiquing, the defense. It wasn’t their intention, the group says, surprised and on the spot. They’re just relating the case.

My final paper for this class discusses the legal issues of free speech allowances on campuses. What it seems to boil down to is, no one knows, but probably you can say whatever as long as it doesn’t threaten or involve cross-burning or swastikas. Individual colleges have individual codes, which have been subjected to various levels of legal scrutiny over time. Where you are matters. 

I participate in the 48 Hour Film Festival with some friends from school. In our screening group of ten films, I think I am not exaggerating when I say that only two had women in major production roles (by which I mean director or producer and went up to speak about the film after), and that out of the remaining films produced almost entirely by men, only the one I was in did not fridge and/or blatantly objectify and/or stereotype and/or enact violence against its female characters. (There were a couple of Girl Heroes, but also the Problem of Susan: with womanhood, Narnia is lost.) The friend sitting next to me becomes so uncomfortable that she leaves and stands outside for almost twenty minutes as I sit in a packed theatre with an audience consisting of Seattle filmmakers and their friends and family, and listen to them laugh and applaud, and realize suddenly why there aren’t more women present, because who would see what you’re apparently good for and then want to stick around? And sure this is one night of one project in one city, and sure the nature of the 48 Hour Film Festival requires a degree of shorthand to make a movie hang together in that time, and sure stereotypes are easy to use and easy to watch. They engage quickly. We’re all familiar with them, even if we shouldn’t be. But hey, there are great opportunities for women in movies! Not all films! Not all directors! #notallmen

And now, the opinions, which I know the University of Chicago won’t give two fucks about, but maybe the humans I love will:

I could never in good conscience advocate for the cancellation of speakers, for any reason, and this is coming from someone whose university appears to be hosting Milo Yiannopoulos in January (don’t worry, that link isn’t to his page. I wouldn’t do that to you). There is very little solid legal ground for that approach. There is solid legal ground for vocal protests, the invitation of countering viewpoints. There is solid legal ground for the already vulnerable (or the easily flustered, depending on your relative viewpoint/privilege/energy level/number of spoons to once again be called upon to expend energy they should be using to live instead attempting to make the willfully ignorant aware of their plight [or to show up and yell a lot and make it hard to read, depending on above]). 

Is this a perfect system? No. But the perfect system requires the dismantling of years of inequality, and, in the case of Yiannopoulos, the conscious choice to be an ass. And just as I disagreed with student activists contacting the University’s President to request a ban of pro-Trump rallies on campus under the grounds that they constituted hate speech (SPOILER ALERT: they do not), so do I disagree with any attempt to silence the airing of a legally-protected viewpoint, even if it’s by an ass.

You know what isn’t silencing? A content warning. A “safe space.” They’re little tiny markers in the college experience that say, simply, “I’m not an ass.” That content warning next to an assigned reading on the syllabus? It says, “Hey, prepare for this one. You’re still going to be graded on its content and your presence because I consider it important to your education and I am your professor so there is some trust implicit already in our relationship, but I am going to repay that trust by letting you know I really am looking out for you and maybe don’t read this right before a giant party. Maybe take a warm bath afterward. Brace yourself before class, because unlike the offhand comments people make at your job, the terrible jokes you hear simply moving through life, this time I can let you know what’s coming.” That safe space on campus, the one that can be dismantled in a heartbeat by a person in a position of both of privilege and power? It says, “Hey, we as a university want you to be able to think about your work for a bit and not about the ways your identity puts you at risk. We want you to feel surrounded by people who understand the difficulty of navigating a space in which you feel powerless, and we acknowledge that the university body as a whole might not be at that point of understanding yet. We want you to be able to pause your Otherness, which is not of your choosing, and eat your darn lunch.”

None of this has to do with retreat. You still have to do that content-warned reading. You still have to be on campus. It has to do with having the energy not to retreat, the energy to show up and be present and engaged and think critically and well about huge, world-altering issues.

Like, you know, you’re supposed to do in college.


Dear Seattle School Board President Peaslee,

Hi. My name is Caitlin, and we’ve never been introduced. I was at the protest on Tuesday during your Board meeting. But don’t panic! I come in relative peace, meaning in this context that I am actively choosing to assume “rampant misunderstanding” on your part as opposed to “terrible choices.” I am here to give you an out.

Being part of the protest group and hearing your comments on Tuesday, I feel like we’re talking at cross-purposes. Ships in the dialectical night. So I wanted to clarify the position of the protesters for you – OK, not all of the protesters. Me. My position. It’s possibly shared. Could be a good starting point for you.

When you repeatedly return your statements to a place of defending the male student involved in the November 2012 incident, I am sure you are doing so to prevent further harm to the students in your care. Perhaps it seems to you like protesters are present because of this one male student, and we won’t rest until he personally is held accountable. Perhaps you think we are legitimately confused about how laws and language work (don’t worry, we’re not. Glad to clear that up for you). Perhaps our signs look like pitchforks under fluorescent lighting. That would totally be scary. I get you not being down with that.

The thing is, that’s totally not the point. I’m not there to protest the lack of legal conviction, or public punishment, of any student. I’m there to protest what I see as an inadequate response from the school administrators and the Board itself regarding policies that should have prevented this incident in the first place. I am protesting the lack of obvious changes to prevent incidents like it happening again. I am protesting what seems like a lack of internal outrage in the school system when November 2012’s unfortunate incident (can I call it that? legally?) came to light.

What I want you to understand is that for those of us who have been assaulted, or had friends or family members assaulted, or ever empathized with a victim of assault, your statements rub salt in an open wound. It is this wound that prevents women from reporting their rapes by concerning themselves more with the welfare of their assailants than themselves. It is this wound that bled when reporters covering the Steubenville sentencing lamented the loss of bright young futures–those of the male athletes who publicized their victim’s pain, not the traumatized girl’s.

By repeatedly returning the conversation to the legal standing of the male student, you are not only the only voice in the room continuing to address his personal involvement, but actively contributing to a culture that shames victims into silence.

Please rethink your comments of Tuesday afternoon. You have an opportunity–one that your colleagues at the meeting seem to have grasped–to make some incredibly beneficial changes in the way the School Board handles issues of harassment and assault. Keep the narrative focused where it needs to be, on schools and learning and the education of students and staff.

If you have any questions about how to respectfully address this issue, I know a lot of people who would be happy to work with you.

Me, who you will probably see again, holding another sign.

“fantasy” is a relative term

Football is the one sport I ever enjoyed playing. I went through years of girls’ softball, because that is what girls in my neighborhood did, and even a disastrous single season of soccer. My parents’ favorite story about my early sports career involves an assignation at the defensive end of the soccer field and the concentrated scrutiny of a bumblebee. When asked why I wasn’t running after the ball, my response was that it would be coming back down any minute anyway.

You can’t do that in football. You can’t wait in the outfield or by the goal and space out. Football makes you plug in, use your mind, accomplish strategy as well as athleticism. I spent a glorious couple of weeks at a flag football YMCA camp over the summer, and came home and informed my mother that I wanted to try out for the high school junior varsity team.

As you can imagine, she wasn’t thrilled. But I went to the coach (who I knew through the Y) and talked to him about it. I set myself a couple of extra training sessions before the summer training would begin. And then my mother finally came to me, told me how hideously uncomfortable she was with me playing, for reasons of probable on-field murder, and I dropped out.

Fast forward a few years, because San Diego, where I grew up, is not a sports-centric town to the degree that Seattle is. It was relatively easy for me to ignore the Chargers for entire seasons at a time, and the high school that I eventually transferred to didn’t even have sports teams. There are plenty of things you like as a kid that you learn to let go of – Animorphs, Polly Pocket, football. I let them all go.

And then last year I got to Seattle. Holy crap does Seattle love its Seahawks. And for the first time ever, I had friends who loved football too. A whole group of them, actually – my boyfriend’s Fantasy league. I was dubious at first that merely watching the game could be as cool as playing it, but they proved my fears misplaced. I watched games at their houses, screaming with them at the television and making regrettable beverage decisions. I participated in the Playoff Challenge, making some risky lineup choices that actually served me fairly well (at first). I left class to go to the parade downtown when the Seahawks returned from the Super Bowl. I know players’ names and positions. I have Football Opinions. I even wrote a couple of columns for the Central Circuit.

I made it very clear that when next year’s draft rolled around, I wanted in the league.

Next year’s draft is rolling around, but guess what? I’m not in the league. Because I’m a girl.

That’s it. That’s the reason.

Not “I’m inexperienced” or “I’m shitty to hang out with” or “I’m too competitive.”

I’m a girl. And it hurts. Continue reading