When the Question Matters More Than the Answer

Leslie Dorrough Smith

I often ask my students to consider what the world would be like if we asked a different set of questions about it. Usually that results in some puzzled looks, for it’s hard to think of different questions precisely because it’s hard to think about a different sort of world. This is, after all, what Pierre Bourdieu was getting at when he described our social lives as “habitus,” or the series of preferences, dispositions, perceptions, and other taken-for-granteds that we think are relatively unique to and comprise our individuality, but that really describe large swaths of our given culture that, bit by bit, shape us into who we are. Continue reading “When the Question Matters More Than the Answer”

The Unspeakable Profession: Sex Work, Silence, and Social Narratives

A prostitute waiting in an alleyWhen we think of things that we encourage children to be when they grow up, “prostitute” is not typically on the short list, needless to say.  In fact, when I talk with my students about the social stigmas regarding sex, several of them not infrequently remark that telling their parents that they have committed murder would be more desirable than admitting to sex work.

While there are a multitude of different conversations that would be necessary to explore why we are so quick to demonize sex workers but simultaneously worship others who sell their sexuality (supermodels, anyone?), I am interested in thinking through the social story we tell that permits us to so easily separate and compartmentalize people when the topic of sex is at stake. Continue reading “The Unspeakable Profession: Sex Work, Silence, and Social Narratives”

Save the ‘Nads! (And Other Things We Do Not Say)

Save the tatas

As many of us are aware, October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Despite the relative longevity of this particular disease awareness campaign, I remain intrigued by the story behind the origin of the Susan G. Komen foundation, one wherein Komen’s sister, Nancy Brinker, described her desire to start a foundation to raise awareness about breast cancer at a time (the early 1980s) when the diagnosis was still surrounded with secrecy and stigma.

One reason for my ongoing interest is that I wonder if the stigma surrounding breast cancer has been lifted or if it has merely changed. It is true that we are now able to openly discuss breast cancer in a way we never did before, and it is also true that much more money goes to breast cancer research now than in past decades. Yet if stigmas are nothing more than public attitudes that create social liabilities for those who bear them, then perhaps something more is going on. Continue reading “Save the ‘Nads! (And Other Things We Do Not Say)”

Good Guys With Guns

A picture of a gunAs a parent, I feel that I am constantly thinking about what can harm my children. I remind them to make eye contact with stopped cars as they walk across busy intersections, to take small bites and chew their food slowly as they eat, to not tip back in their chairs at the table, and so on. But I must admit that there is something unusually arresting about hearing my children talk about the “code red” drills that occur at their elementary school.  This is the term that the school uses to cue the children and staff to start a series of behaviors that are supposed to provide protection if an “active shooter” ever comes (which boils down to lights out, hide, and lock the doors). Hearing about this is not only terribly frightening, but it is also indicative of a very intriguing sort of way that we present reality to one another. Continue reading “Good Guys With Guns”

That Wasn’t the Statue of Liberty: On Expectations and Labels

The Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline

My family recently traveled to New York City. If you’re familiar with LaGuardia, our destination airport, you know that it is situated in such a way that it often gives airline passengers a nice shot of Manhattan and other noteworthy sights as they descend.

Upon our own descent, an interesting series of utterances escaped from my seven year old son, for whom this was his first visit to the city. Before the trip we had discussed some of the things that we would do while there, and as he looked out the window as the plane grew closer and closer to the earth, in his mind every span of trees became Central Park, every large skyscraper was the Empire State Building, and every island was Ellis Island, with the Statue of Liberty just too small to see because we were so high, he inferenced. Continue reading “That Wasn’t the Statue of Liberty: On Expectations and Labels”

Cecil and Sandra: Emotions, Threat, Names

A lion and a woman

As I was standing in line at a restaurant the other day, I overheard two women discussing how awful that “lion business” was, and how they thought that the man who had shot the lion should himself be shot. Chances are that you know what I’m talking about without me having to recount the story; the subject, of course, was Cecil, the lion from Zimbabwe whose recent illegal death at the hands of a for-profiit hunting enterprise garnered worldwide attention.

In the weeks before Cecil’s death, Sandra Bland died as well. Hopefully, you also know her story: she was the black woman pulled over for a minor traffic violation (failure to use a turn signal) whose subsequent arrest and then death while in police custody continues to be shrouded in controversy. Bland’s name is another unfortunate addition to the #SayHerName campaign, a movement devoted to highlighting how, like their male counterparts, young black women are disproportionately killed by law enforcement and yet their deaths are largely underreported in comparison. Continue reading “Cecil and Sandra: Emotions, Threat, Names”

Whose Pain Wins?: Caitlyn, Courage, and the 2015 ESPY Awards

Caitlyn Jenner at the 2015 Espys

My children, like most, fight constantly.  Among the endless things that they find conflict-worthy, they repeatedly quibble over which one of them has endured the most injustice or physical pain. I am often accused of going easy on one of them for a particular disciplinary transgression, or of not properly acknowledging that one person’s bruise is more painful than another person’s papercut. Despite the normalcy of these behaviors, what is actually important about them is not the injury itself, but the power that each hopes to gain by having their injuries recognized as worse than their sibling’s, for like many people, my kids are keen on the idea that if something bad has happened to them, then they “deserve” something good. Continue reading “Whose Pain Wins?: Caitlyn, Courage, and the 2015 ESPY Awards”

God Hates Procedural Crime Dramas: The Politics of Religion, Denigration, and Humor

God hates procedural crime dramas

As someone who lives only a few hours from their Topeka, Kansas headquarters, I have twice seen Westboro Baptist Church protesters in action. The group is probably best known for their ‘God Hates Fags’ signs posted visibly at public events. Their theology — as one might guess — centers on the idea that America is a cursed nation because it has tolerated homosexuality, a boundary breach that inexplicably spills over into a variety of other social venues that they also criticize. The first time I saw them was four or five years ago when they lined the streets surrounding a large high school near my home; they were there in response to the student body’s election of an openly gay prom king. The second time was just a couple of years later, at a Bon Jovi concert, wherein the throngs of concert go-ers were told in no uncertain terms about what the conditions of their collective afterlife will be like. Continue reading “God Hates Procedural Crime Dramas: The Politics of Religion, Denigration, and Humor”

This Job Would Be Great If It Weren’t For The Students

Two people wearing graduation gowns

As a person who works at a small, Catholic liberal arts university that has a mission to serve underprivileged students, I am often intrigued by the manner in which discussions about the educational rights of the underprivileged weave their way through the academy.  I’m interested precisely because it seems that almost every scholar I know can talk about how enraged they are about the barriers that exist for underprivileged students, but few seem to openly connect this to the fact that the ways we are groomed to think about our own jobs simply reproduce these very same inequities. Continue reading “This Job Would Be Great If It Weren’t For The Students”

Whose Sex Change Was It?: Caitlyn Jenner and the Boundaries of Public Identity

Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair

Lately, there has been no shortage of commentators eager to discuss Caitlyn Jenner’s recent Vanity Fairy cover (featured above). In the public eye, Jenner has been a famous male athlete-turned reality show husband-turned transgender femme fatale, and this series of transformations has inspired plenty of ogling. Conservative outlets seem to decry the former Bruce’s sex change as something bewildering and strange (if not disgusting and unnatural), while more progressive ones praise her as a heroine who has had the courage to publicly reveal her “true self.” Continue reading “Whose Sex Change Was It?: Caitlyn Jenner and the Boundaries of Public Identity”