Sleepwalking Toward Sanitizing

I don’t know if this has attracted much attention outside Massachusetts, but in the news yesterday was the controversy over a statue at Wellesley College that depicts a remarkably lifelike sleepwalking man clad only in his underwear. The painted bronze statue, “Sleepwalker” by Tony Matelli, is part of a solo show at Wellesley’s Davis Gallery. It has been placed outdoors on the Wellesley campus and has moved hundreds of students to sign a petition demanding its removal on the grounds that it is triggering memories of sexual assault for some students.

 

(Photo from the Wellesley Report)

 

It is important to first emphasize that the man is not naked. He is wearing underpants. His genitals are not visible, or even suggested. His eyes are shut, and as the name of the artwork itself suggests, he is unconscious – he is asleep. He is not taking any deliberate action. Matelli stated to the Boston Globe, “Everyone brings to a work of art their own interpretation, their own history and their own baggage.” And that’s precisely what art is meant to do – interact with your unique mind, with all its history and experiences, and make you think, even if it draws you out of your comfort zone. And while nobody will deny that sexual assault is a horrible thing, I strongly believe this call for the removal of the statue on the grounds of what memories it evokes in some viewers is inappropriate.

One complaint I’ve read about the statue’s placement is that it is intrusive. If somebody is walking across part of the Wellesley campus, they see it – they can’t avoid it the way they could if it was inside the gallery. Fair enough, but public art is all over the United States, much of it referencing war, which by its very nature is a traumatic act. Furthermore, the link between the intrusiveness of public placement and the “triggering” of traumatic memory is tenuous at best when you consider that the man depicted by this statue is less blatantly sexually suggestive than, say, a billboard of David Beckham advertising underwear – and advertising is incredibly intrusive. You can’t escape advertising in American society unless you lock yourself inside with no TV, radio, newspapers, or magazines. That doesn’t mean we ban advertising underwear on the grounds that it is by its very nature sexual and in public, and all things sexual could serve as reminders of sexual violence. If an image in the public eye is disturbing, you must avert your eyes, not place curtains over the rest of the world.

David Beckham for H&M: massive advertising image of a fully conscious man in his underpants. More sexual. Not violent.

Let’s be clear, sexual violence is a horrible, life-altering thing. Nobody is denying that. But it is just one of many terrible things that can happen to a person in the course of an average life. Some people survive getting viciously mauled by dangerous dogs. Their experience is undoubtedly traumatic and they may be triggered every time they see a large dog being walked by its owner or running free in a park. Yet, The world does not owe them a dog-free town in which to live. Gun crime is a sad fact of life in America, yet images of guns are pervasive in this culture and are not going anywhere. I have my own disturbing anxieties, and guess what, they’re my problem. Over many years, as I have grown older, I have learned to deal with them. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve learned the world doesn’t owe me a comfortable existence. Why? Because they’re my problems and part of my life story, not other people’s. I don’t expect everybody to read my mind and know exactly what sets me off, because the world doesn’t work like that. It can’t work like that. It’s impossible, unless we all walk around with dry-erase boards around our necks on which we constantly update our feelings, like a real-world Twitter. And even if we were to do something so absurd, what exactly would we be achieving? What actionable course would come out of it?

We all have our traumas, but the world does not revolve around any of us. None of us. The world does not owe you an existence free of offense. The world does not owe you consensus. An environment in which every step is taken to sanitize expression to the level of no possible offensiveness is a world without free expression, a world without art. It is a world suitable only for children, who lack the capacity for critical thinking. Because once you start sanitizing, you can’t stop. Everything is potentially triggering to somebody. But guess what, life is triggering. Life is painful and sad and part of growing up is learning to cope with really, really unpleasant things. People mature with experience and they have to be mentally stimulated to do so. For better and for worse. The truth is that some people in this world are men, and some men sleep in their underwear, and a statue depicting a male sleepwalker in his underwear may offend some people the same way that any other work of art could offend anybody. One form of offense should not be privileged above another when the reason for that offense stems from personal interpretation rather than any blatant characteristic depicted in the artwork itself.

Or, in short: this argument is not about sexual assault.

This argument is not about sexual assault because this is a statue that, at face value, has nothing to do with sexual assault.

All the artist can control is that face value. The rest is up to the viewer.

Of course, because art is open to interpretation, it is perfectly valid if you are reminded of sexual assault while viewing the statue. Everybody is entitled to interpretation. What everybody is NOT entitled to is to force that interpretation upon others, especially when there is no blatant sexuality in the artwork. If the man had a visible penis? Yes, that would change things. But he doesn’t have a visible penis. He’s wearing underwear. Because some people sleep in their underwear. And he’s sleepwalking. We know he’s sleepwalking because the title of the artwork says so. That much, we know. Everything else is personal interpretation – and personal interpretation is just that. Personal. Your own. Thinking back to when I was in college, I’m pretty sure that it was in the Illiad that sleep was said to be the brother of death. I can look at this statue and think about the person being suspended somewhere between life and death. Death is an incredibly unsettling thought. But that doesn’t mean I can make it, or this artwork, go away. If traumatic memories are so pervasive and disturbing in somebody’s life that the sight of this statue will have a severe adverse impact, then that requires a level of professional help that should be made available, affordable, and unstigmatized. The statue isn’t the issue – the trauma is. Removing a work of art doesn’t get rid of PTSD. The statue that triggered you today could be the news story you overhear tomorrow, or the picture in the paper that you couldn’t avoid. We don’t treat diabetes by ridding the world of sugar – we give insulin to people who need it and tell them how to control their diet. Same principle. Treat the root cause of the anxiety and panic rather than bleach the public realm.

Another argument I have heard is that it is particularly distasteful that this artwork depicting a man in his underpants has been installed at a women’s college. I don’t have time for that. Going to a women’s college does not mean you will not be exposed to the sex that comprises roughly half this planet’s population. Higher education exists to expand your experience of the world, not constrain it. (That is precisely the reason I never even entertained the possibility of applying to a women’s college back when I was 17. I wanted a university that reflected the world a bit more accurately than shutting out half the population, and on a more personal level, I got satisfaction from beating the boys on an equal playing field.) If you want to go to Wellesley or Smith or Barnard, that’s fine, that’s up to you. But don’t expect to keep imagery that reflects the rest of society out. If you want to be completely cloistered, you’ll have to become a nun. And even then, you’ll have to interact with men.

If this controversy gets people talking about sexual assault, that is undoubtedly a good thing – there needs to be more action against rape on college campuses and I think we can all agree on that. But that doesn’t mean somebody’s artwork should be a casualty when it does not depict rape. Also, it should be noted that this is not the only sleepwalker statue Tony Matelli has created. He has one of a woman in her underwear. If this had been installed at Wellesley instead of the male version, we would probably be talking about the sexual objectification of women rather than traumatic memories of rape. (Hell, in many parts of American the statue probably couldn’t even be shown in public because REALISTIC FEMALE NIPPLES EQUAL HORRIBLY WORLD-DESTROYING OBSCENITY don’t you know…but that’s another story) And that would be just as good a debate as this one, but it still wouldn’t be grounds for removing the statue.

I anticipate I will be accused of having no sympathy, of victim-blaming. It is not victim blaming to suggest that the world cannot anticipate, and then cater to, your every emotion. It is no more victim-blaming than it would be for me to insist that, say, I have the right to walk down a public street where at one point in time an entirely different young white woman with dark hair committed an act of horrible injustice against somebody living there. Might my action trigger horrible memories for somebody? Sure. Should I be expected to know what goes on in other people’s minds? No. Should I change my life because an innocuous act could offend somebody? Of course not. And neither should Tony Matelli lock up his visual art, which is meant for open-air display, because somebody’s interpretation might trigger unpleasant memories. Nowhere in the history of humankind has a life been free from pain or offense. Societies come to a consensus about what is beyond the pale – those blatant images of abuse, gore, exploitation, what have you. And for those images where there are grey areas, we have debates. Removal of artwork because it could potentially be interpreted a certain way – potentially being the key word, because there is nothing sexually explicit about it – shuts down debate. Nobody is policing your feelings by stating that the world can’t always reflect your feelings and that public art is part of that world. Supporting victims of sexual violence includes believing them when they say they were raped, helping them in whatever way possible when they’re involved with law enforcement, offering support when they need it, being an ear to listen when they want to speak, and teaching young people that no means no. It does not include shutting out the world because something might be interpreted in a certain way. In short, you do not get justice for anybody by getting rid of a statue of a sleepwalking man in his underpants. Sanitize everything for everyone, anticipating every possibility for offense, and you’re left with nothing at all.

Finally, I want to leave you with images of artworks that will live forever in the pantheon of human creativity precisely because the memories they evoke are so painful:

We do not hide Picasso’s “Guernica” or Goya’s “The Third of May” from survivors of war, locked away where they cannot possibly trigger horrible memories. We keep them on public display because we may learn from them and the emotions they evoke. Art, whether creating it or viewing it, can also function to help people come to terms with traumatic pasts, whether individual (as the victims of trauma) or collectively (as a people who have been harmed, harmed others, or had harm done in our name). We do not treat adults as if they are made of glass, terrified they may crumble if exposed to challenge. To borrow from First Amendment law, we do not reduce a population of adults to that which is suitable to children. Those artworks are powerful precisely because they stir up strong emotions, and we would be a lesser species without them. We can use the controversy at Wellesley as an opportunity to discuss the problem of campus rape, but we can do that without removing an artwork that does not even depict rape or any kind of sexual act. We do not reduce culture to what is completely literal because to do so is an insult to our minds, which want to look at the world abstractly and interpret it in different ways. And some of those interpretations are unpleasant. That’s part of life. Life is pain, life is suffering, and yes, life is unfair. But we keep living it for a reason.

UPDATE, MARCH 5th: Jill Filipovic, in the Guardian, has called time on the overuse of “trigger warnings.” I think her piece is brilliant, especially how it highlights the way people shut down reasonable discussion and debate by pointing to potential trauma. What the over-use of trigger warnings mean is that if you proceed with engaging in “triggering” material, such as assigning a great work of literature like “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achibe, you suddenly become an aggressor because you didn’t give into the demand of someone who claimed to be speaking for the oppressed and downtrodden, and thus you make somebody a victim. This becomes a huge slippery slope in academia, where students can complain about unfair treatment by professors. Can you imagine the lawsuits? “Professor X forced me into the psychological trauma of reading this book, or else I would fail the class, even after I pointed out why it is problematic.” It sounds ridiculous, but just wait…

And, y’know what? I’m going to say it: Not everybody is a victim. We don’t need to define ourselves as victims. I read “Things Fall Apart” when I was 15 and so did my entire high school class and somehow we survived without any trauma. As a young woman I’m tired of being treated as if I can’t deal with anything more controversial than a slice of bread or see beyond my own experiences. Trigger warning: I’m asking you to thicken your skin.

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Dumbing Down

I just finished my first semester as a teaching assistant. It’s what I do in exchange for a fee remission and a small salary at the university. Now that final grades are turned in, there’s a little something I need to get off my chest.

Apologies to all those who have heard me rant about this already. Yep, it’s THAT topic.

During a discussion about War and Empire by Paul Atwood, I mentioned to students that I was surprised that the United States’ involvement in the Kosovo conflict was omitted from this book. This course was about research methods and I wanted them to think about how to evaluate books which make very strong arguments but leave out points that could introduce counterfactuals or undermine the author’s position. Atwood, starting with Columbus, goes through the history of what eventually became the United States, and argues that all wars in which it has been involved have been fought over expansion of empire – first territorial expansion, and then market power. He goes up to the invasion of Iraq, so I was surprised there was no mention of Kosovo whatsoever, even though the United States’ involvement was through NATO and not on its own.

Well, in both my classes, I had students who did not know what Kosovo was. Not just that there was a war, but that this was a place on the map.

This terrifies me.

Let me be clear, I am not blaming the students. If they could get into the top public university in their state and never encounter this, then there is something seriously wrong with the education system. These kids are smart, so something has gone wrong. The system has failed them, and inside every system are The Powers That Be, and The Powers That Be are people. A large group of educated, powerful adults has demanded so little out of public school students, that some of the best and brightest are unaware that Kosovo is a place. And obviously this is OK with them, or otherwise something would have been done about it.

We cannot blame all our shortcomings on budget cuts. It is a problem for all of us if American youth can reach 20 years of age and not find out, either through the classroom or newspapers or the simple independent thumbing-through of books that defined my childhood, where their country was involved in war during their lifetime. If this is happening, it is because of long-time, widespread failure of the people who are supposed to be upholding standards – who are supposed to be imparting knowledge to students.

What frightens me most of all are the excuses I hear people making for things like this. My colleagues in sociology say that it’s not a big deal. I think it is a VERY BIG FREAKIN’ DEAL INDEED if the people we are training to be tomorrow’s public leaders do not know these basic facts. “They were very young when it happened,” people tell me. I’m not buying it. Yes, they were young. But they’re not anymore. They should know the history of their own country. By way of comparison – I was in kindergarten when Desert Storm happened. I couldn’t have given you the history of Kuwait or the life story of Saddam Hussein, but I definitely knew at the time that Kuwait was a country, Hussein was a ruler, and a war was happening. And when I was school-age, I knew what it was. You don’t have to know every detail, but to not even know of the war’s existence? That’s inexcusable.

Another person admonished me with, “Julia, you can’t expect everyone to have had the same experiences as you.” Think about that for a second. I’m not supposed to expect students to know about a war their country participated in that happened during their lifetime. To me, this seems like a pretty basic thing. If I can’t expect this, then what CAN I expect them to know?

Then, even worse, I hear people say that we have to be aware that students from working-class backgrounds, of whom there are many in this university, do not read as much as their better-off counterparts and thus are less aware of current events. WHAT? Have a little respect for the fact that these students have brains – brains that got them into this prestigious institution in the first place. Respect their current abilities and their future abilities, and set standards high so that they can achieve. The school system has screwed them over their entire lives, so take a step toward fixing that and demand proficiencies. They can do it, and they’ll feel great about doing it, because they’ve been waiting their entire lives to be challenged. We can acknowledge that not all students are born with silver spoons, that many have had to struggle with difficult personal circumstances, unfair inequalities, and underfunded schools, without insulting them by lowering standards. When students are five or six years old, we believe all of them can achieve the highest success with the right support, encouragement, and challenges. We should not change our opinion when they become undergraduates assigned to our classes.

And don’t make blanket statements about what working-class students are like – they are a huge and diverse group. And there are things called public libraries. Lots of kids find their way into them at a young age, and yes, that includes kids from poorer families. I grew up solidly middle-class, but I was always at the public library devouring books because school didn’t challenge me. Your parent doesn’t have to have a lot of money to bring newspapers into the house or switch on the radio. To assume working-class students, at age 18+, don’t have the capabilities of wealthier students is downright insulting. If they’ve been swimming against the tide all their lives, then by college it’s time to give them some assistance, not accept this inequality as inevitable. Yes, there are structural inequalities that burden America’s poor and make it more difficult for kids to reach academic benchmarks, but that is entirely separate from the personal habits and cognitive skills students can cultivate WITH THE RIGHT TEACHING AND GUIDANCE. They won’t get anywhere if people say it’s OK for them to achieve lower standards. By the college level, the excuses need to end and the concentrated teaching needs to progress. Imagine how insulting it must feel for a college professor to assume you can’t do what the kid sitting next to you from Sherman Oaks or Redwood City can do, even though you both worked your way into one of the nation’s best universities. How insulting. How stigmatizing. How utterly ridiculous.

I read papers from students who are about to be handed their diplomas, and they don’t know the difference between “they’re,” “their,” and “there.” Are we really doing them a favor by letting them graduate without basic competencies? It’s NOT OK to shrug this off. We should feel ashamed of ourselves if a graduating student with English as a first language cannot coherently write an analytic paragraph. Making excuses – and I have heard plenty of them – will not land them the jobs they need to compete on a global scale. For every student with dyslexia, there are dozens who have simply been allowed to coast through their classes, believing that “good enough” writing is, indeed, good enough. No credible university’s teachers should accept “good enough” unless they are willing to state, hand on heart, that they are content with being part of a race to the bottom. If we are to be taken seriously as scientists, then sociologists must demand high standards from both themselves and the next generation of scholars. It may seem like just a small, nit-picky detail that I’m beating half to death, but it’s indicative of a culture that accepts mediocrity as just fine and dandy, and instead of making the effort to help students improve so that they can enter adulthood with the necessary skills, excuses them away and perpetuates the problem. These kids are obviously bright, so why don’t we demand more of them? If we say it’s OK that students don’t know about the war in Kosovo, then what next? It’s OK for them to not know the difference between Iraq and Iran? Or North and South Korea? See where this is going?

I feel like I’m from another planet sometimes. When I was a kid (which wasn’t terribly long ago), I learned lots of things outside the classroom. Truth be told, a lot of my teachers were incompetent dinosaurs who made no secret of the fact that they were unhappy with their careers. I had to do a lot of learning on my own. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten remotely near where I am today. Yes, I was lucky in that my parents had resources. They had money to buy books, but they also took me to the library when I was too young to go there alone. They subscribed to a newspaper. All these things seem pretty basic. Do young people no longer even look at the front page of a newspaper whenever they pass a street-corner box? That costs nothing. Do they not watch the news? That pops up in public everywhere you go. Do they never get curious about the rest of the world and pick up books to learn more? I admit it, I was a weird kid, but I lived on books. I wanted to know everything about everything, and books were the way I could do that. The world outside my immediate surroundings fascinated me and I couldn’t wait to grow up and be part of it. Don’t people just a decade younger than me feel the same way, or was I really that odd?

And regardless of class, every teenager is exposed to loads of media – do news headlines never flicker by? How is it that they can know what Kim Kardashian is wearing, but not know about current events? I don’t understand. I do not understand this at all.

I’m just perplexed. Utterly baffled that I seem to be the only one out of my colleagues who is shocked and disturbed by the dumbing-down of education. And that’s what it is, dumbing down. There’s no better way to describe it. Low standards, low expectations, low demands. It was happening when I was a student (we were reading books that were marked fourth grade level when we were in eighth grade – and this was in what was considered to be a good public school), it’s still happening now, and if nobody gets really, really pissed off about it, then it’s only going to continue. If other PhD students aren’t bothered and I am, then clearly we have different values – and I honestly thought that at this point, all my peers would be as shocked by dumbing-down as I am. I see this process perpetuating itself throughout the next generation. It’s absolutely terrifying. I can’t repeat this enough – what I’ve just described should horrify everybody with the slightest interest in the future of the country. I honestly thought things would be different at the doctoral level. It seems they’re not.

I’m also at the point where I think social scientists are the number one reason why people don’t take social sciences seriously – it’s because we don’t demand enough of ourselves and our students. We’re too busy worrying about hurting people’s feelings to suggest that something might need improvement. We are the problem and we’re largely in denial. Every time we as educators make excuses for mediocrity in the students we are grooming to be tomorrow’s civic leaders, visionary entrepreneurs, and groundbreaking intellectuals, we degrade ourselves. How can sociologists lecture about community if we shirk our responsibility to those we are welcoming to it as independent adults?

And why is it that my colleagues admonished me for stating that addressing a mixed-sex group of students as “you guys” is not a big deal, but none of them agreed with my statement that it’s inexcusable for students to not know what Kosovo is? I seriously can’t be the only person who thinks priorities are a bit skewed. Is this what academia is coming to? How on earth do we expect to be taken seriously? We are the gatekeepers now – don’t we remember what it’s like to be bored and unchallenged and aching to learn more?

Look, nobody rises to low expectations. We have to demand more out of students regardless of their background. If we excuse and shrug off basic deficits of knowledge, then WE IN ACADEMIA ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM. If we have double standards applying to poorer kids, then we are perpetuating the exact things we so self-righteously claim to be working toward eliminating.

Stop making excuses. Start teaching. Get angry. Stop telling people like me that we need to be “more understanding” of mediocrity, and start raising the bar.

For the love of all that is sensible, please vote NO on Proposition 37

Voting NO on Proposition 37 tomorrow and hoping it fails. The proposition is not simply a case of “Shouldn’t you have the right to know what’s in your food?” – it’s scaremongering and anti-science, and the proposition itself is full of exemptions that would make the labels ultimately meaningless, kind of like those Prop 65 warnings you see everywhere (because the trial lawyer behind those is the same one behind this proposition – I’m sure he’s doing this just because he cares about food, no ulterior motive at all!).

The labelling scheme WILL increase food prices, and this WILL have the hardest impact on poor Californians who already pay high food prices. No, Monsanto is not my friend, but neither are the quacks like naturopaths supporting the Yes-on-37 campaign. I’m siding with the seven Nobel Laureates in chemistry or physiology/medicine from California, and dozens of other academics in saying no to 37. I trust them a lot more than a quack like “Dr.” Mercola, the top donor to the yes-on-37 campaign – Mercola is an HIV denialist and anti-vaccine panic-monger, why on earth would anybody trust him when it comes to anything scientific? Trust a man who doesn’t think AIDS is caused by HIV to know what is healthy? No thanks. I’d rather chill with the biologists at UC Berkeley who also believe this proposition needs to fail.

Nor should we pretend that businesses like Whole Foods are in this because they believe in the greater good – they have a profit motive just like every other business. It’s ludicrous for them to point the finger at companies that have a financial stake in GM food when they themselves have a massive financial interest in promoting non-GM food. (As for health arguments, you have a huge risk of food poisoning from “natural” fad foods like raw milk.) Plus I’m disgusted that people are using the “Monsanto gave the world Agent Orange and they’re telling you GM foods are safe” argument. That’s irresponsible scare-mongering of the worst degree.

As for “Frankenfood” arguments – genetic engineering takes place in nature, and always has done. You’ve been eating genetically engineered foods your entire life. An engineer friend schooled me, and it’s really fascinating. Definitely read up on it. I’m disturbed by how many of my colleagues in social science are buying the pro-37 arguments – guys, we’re striving for credibility as scientists, so shouldn’t we be examining the evidence? Shouldn’t we be looking at how there are no studies in proper peer-reviewed journals that find evidence GMOs are harmful to your health?
More is at stake than just California’s reputation – which, believe me, is already firmly cemented in the head-in-the-clouds-hippie category. Science is already under siege from quacks who take advantage of poor science education in this country. I have no business interests in this whatsoever – I’m a PhD student in sociology who hates unnecessary panic, and who hates the idea of the pro-GM backers being viewed as saints just looking out for your health and safety when they’ve got dollar signs in their eyes like everybody else. I’m not bankrolled by any corporation – if I was, then trust me, I wouldn’t be living in the Tenderloin. I’m for facts, not taking advantage of fear – NO ON 37.

An open letter to the Supervisors who voted to reinstate Ross Mirkarimi as Sheriff

Dear Supervisors Avalos, Campos, Kim, and Olague,

I passed Alice B. Toklas Place on my way home from rehearsing with my dance company tonight. I’ve read that she was born one block away from there, on O’Farrell Street, a stone’s throw from where I live as a single woman in the Tenderloin. She had quite a life, didn’t she?

I am mentioning this because a lot has changed since she lived here. A San Francisco LGBT Democratic club bears her name, but I think she would be just as disgusted as I am with the fact that you didn’t have the nerve to definitively fire “Sheriff” Ross Mirkarimi, and that because of your actions and your actions alone, he remains in office.

Yes, Ross Mirkarimi is still sheriff.

Ross Mirkarimi, who beat his wife last December.

Ross Mirkarimi, who pled guilty to false imprisonment in relation to that event, is sheriff.

Ross Mirkarimi, who is ON PROBATION FOR A CRIME RELATED TO DOMESTIC ABUSE, remains in the highest-ranked LAW ENFORCEMENT position we have.

I hate to use such a hackneyed phrase, but this reeks of inmates running the asylum. And it reeks of your cowardice, because you would rather defend a fellow public office-holder of appallingly poor character than to support the women of San Francisco who have been victims of domestic violence.

Thanks for the spit in the eye.

But hey, after all, it’s not like this is one of many ways women are demeaned in America nowadays, is it? We’re not like those backward Republican states, are we? Oh, no no no. We’re more enlightened than that, aren’t we? We’re better than them. We would never share their ignorant ideas and scorn women like that.

Right, and my Muni bus is really the Batmobile.

John Avalos, we almost elected you mayor. You said that you wouldn’t sack Mirkarimi because it would set a “bad precedent.” I also understand you have a daughter. If you want to talk about precedents, of the moral rather than the legal kind, what kind of example do you think this sets for her? That a man can beat her up and terrify her and still hold on to power, so she might as well not even go through the hassle (and public slating) of reporting domestic violence? You have a son, too. How can you not see that this sends him the message that, as a man, he can act like a scumbag and not face consequences? I suppose you don’t care, because your vote shows you support exactly that.

David Campos, shame on you. You are an attorney. You went to Harvard Law, so you’re clearly not stupid. It should go without saying that you should know better. As an openly gay man and former undocumented immigrant, you are probably familiar with the fear that comes from people trying to make your life hell just because of who you are. You would probably agree with me that such behavior is completely unacceptable. Too bad your actions tonight demonstrated a total lack of empathy with other vulnerable people, like women who get beaten senseless by their partners. Why not? Aren’t they just as innocent as anybody else who is the victim of violence? Because by your actions, you seem to be endorsing the idea that domestic violence is no big deal. Hey, it was just a bruise Ross Mirkarimi gave to Eliana Lopez, right? Hey, she regretted it after the case turned into a media circus, so she must have not been that upset, right? It’s not like a man has never gone from inflicting small bruises to breaking bones, right? It’s not like this sends any kind of message to the public that you can be a wife-beating idiot and keep your job in law enforcement and lots of powerful people will rally to your side, right? Rhetorical questions, sir. Surely you’ve encountered these in your legal career.

Jane Kim, I’m most ashamed of you. You represent District 6, which includes the Tenderloin, SoMa, and Mid-Market areas. Ever wonder how some of the women on the streets around here became homeless? Ever wonder what the men in their lives did to them? Maybe you don’t care about them because few of them are registered to vote, but they are woman just like you. I would like to invite you to sit down with me for coffee somewhere on Market Street and explain to me why you sold out women like this, because I sure as hell can’t figure it out myself…and I’m getting a PhD from the state’s premier public university. Actually, no. Don’t waste your time on me. I’m doing fine. I am a lucky woman who thankfully doesn’t have to be afraid of any of the men in her life. Go look a battered woman in the eye and tell her why you did this. You too, Christina Olague. I really and truly hope you never have to deal with the pain and terror victims of domestic abuse have to confront. I would not wish it on my worst enemy. But I doubt you feel likewise, because you just handed Ross Mirkarimi back his power on a plate. Hey, if you can sleep at night, then don’t let me burden you with any guilt. I’m just one woman. I’m just one San Francisco voter who expected a higher standard from the Board of Supervisors. Silly, silly me.

All four of you don’t see what he did as sufficient enough to be called “official misconduct.” Then what the hell is it?

Oh, and shame on former mayor Art Agnos for his truly egregious statement that “Anyone who knows Eliana Lopez knows she is not a woman who could be or has been abused.” Excuse me? Whether a woman gets abused is a matter of HER character? Wow, stupid me. I thought it was a matter of whether a man beat her up. Are all the women who suffer domestic violence simply weak-willed? Are you saying that if they had been the right kind of person, it wouldn’t have happened to them? That Eliana Lopez is somehow different from all those Jane Does, and if they were more like her, they would have control over their men? Wow. Just, wow. Congratulations, Mr. Agnos. You’ve rendered me temporarily speechless. That is not an easy thing to do. Only temporarily, mind you. I might even say that anyone who knows Julia Kite knows she is not a woman who could be shut up for very long…but your utter stupidity comes close.

It is a matter of character. It is a matter of what kind of behavior we think is unacceptable for a city official. You may say that because it happened in between when he was elected and when he was sworn in, it doesn’t count. I think it counted to Eliana Lopez when she was documenting it, and I think it counts to every woman who has been beaten. A punch hurts just as much regardless of the title of the person delivering it. You may say that because the domestic violence charges were eventually dropped, it’s irrelevant. Sorry, you’re flat-out wrong. First of all, we all saw the bruises. Secondly, he pled guilty to false imprisonment in relation to the event, and he is currently on probation. I can’t believe I have to spell this out for elected officials, but YOU DON’T GIVE THE TITLE OF SHERIFF TO A MAN WHO IS ON PROBATION. Every five-year-old knows you don’t give a shoplifter the keys to your store. You don’t give an arsonist a pack of matches. YOU DON’T GIVE A MAN ON PROBATION FOR A DOMESTIC VIOLENCE-RELATED OFFENSE THE OFFICE OF SHERIFF. This is behavior I would expect from the most backward old boy’s club known to man, not from a city that prides itself on being liberal. I have lived in some corrupt places, but my god, this is by far the most disgusting act I’ve witnessed from any city council. Why should women have any faith in you to act in their best interests?

Guess what? It’s not just about Eliana Lopez anymore. It’s about every woman in this city, and our right that basic standards of behavior be required for someone holding an office like Sheriff. If Lopez and her husband want to pose for the cameras as a happy couple, then that’s their business and not mine. What IS my business, as a voter in San Francisco, is that Mirkarimi holds the highest law enforcement position in the city and county.  It became my business the minute he was elected. He has displayed character unbecoming of such an official. You have all displayed character unbecoming of people who are supposed to represent your constituents.

I never really cared much about this city’s politics, but now I will make sure I do everything in my power to convince voters you shouldn’t be reelected. They deserve better.

You had a chance to send a message that domestic violence will not be tolerated. You didn’t. And maybe you can live comfortably with that, but I’m raging and I’m not going to be quiet about it. You are all educated people – surely you’ve heard the old trope about how all evil needs to thrive is for good people to do nothing.

Forgive this PhD student, this uppity pissed-off woman, for occasionally being  ineloquent in my anger, but what you have done is reprehensible. You call yourselves liberal? I call you spineless. I call you cowards, and I’m quite happy to come out and say that, because I’m one of those women who doesn’t shut up. I am appalled by your actions, and so very ashamed to live in San Francisco.

And do you think I’m the only one? Go ask Alice.

Sincerely,

Julia Kite

Get A Life Girl

It’s time for a new superheroine.

When a generally pleasant postgraduate student gets an electric shock re-loading her Clipper card at a BART station, she becomes…GET A LIFE GIRL!

GET A LIFE GIRL is devoted to travelling through the Bay Area, delivering slaps to those who need it most. And trust me, a LOT of people around here need a good slap.

A few days ago I was standing in the McDonald’s outside Montgomery Street station, waiting for my order – Filet-o-Fish and medium fries, if you must know. YUM. I will blog about my disdain for foodies and the Californian obsession with proving your moral superiority through your shopping basket another day. Anyway, I was patiently waiting, and nerdily thinking about Katherine Newman’s book No Shame in My Game and how fast food word is a lot more complex than people think, when a man angrily approached one of the cashiers. He was upset. What had gone wrong? I’ll tell you what had gone wrong:

Pickles.

He had requested that his double cheeseburger not have pickles, and the minimum-wage workers just trying to earn a living and dealing with dozens of customers at once had forgotten to omit them.

Now, if you’re like most rational people in this world, this is not a big deal. It is not even the slightest blip on the Richter Scale of Things About Which to Be Upset. You’re an adult. You lift up the bun, remove the three shreds of pickle (or six, if this is a double cheeseburger), and throw them away. Then you go back to, you know, thinking of the actual problems this world has. But not this guy. This is San Francisco, remember? The vast majority of people have nothing to worry about, but they still want to feel like special snowflakes, so they make up problems.

“I’m really tired of you guys ruining my lunch,” this man told the young woman working behind the counter.

RUINING his lunch.

Ruining his lunch…because…there was some pickle on his burger.

Now, excuse me if this comes across a bit judgmental, but: GET A LIFE, YOU LOUSY WASTE OF AIR.

The next day, I was on my way to Berkeley, running slightly late for my office hours. I had to administer an exam to a student who had been absent, and I was worried about her not having enough time. Then I got caught up in what I was reading, missed my stop, and ended up on the other side of the Oakland Hills. The next train wasn’t coming for 8 minutes, so I jumped into a taxi. Said taxi, like lots of things in the Bay Area, was stuck in the past, so it didn’t accept credit cards. I didn’t have enough cash, so I asked the driver to stop at a Wells Fargo that I knew was along the way. He pulled up in front of the ATM, in the bus lane. I jumped out, and I noticed that there was already one man at the ATM. He was finishing up – I saw him take his money, take his card, take his receipt. But he didn’t move. He just kept standing there, shuffling through his wallet, deciding this was the right place to start organizing it. I figured he hadn’t seen me waiting, so I said in my nicest, sweetest voice:

“Excuse me, sir, I’ve got a taxi waiting, may I please use the machine?”

He looked at me as if I’d suggested his mother was a five-dollar Tenderloin whore.

After standing in place for spite for a while, he moved the necessary two steps to the side, then proceded to holler at me while I got my money. “YOU MUST THINK YOU’RE SO MUCH BETTER THAN EVERYBODY ELSE!” Because…I asked him politely if I could use a cash machine because my taxi driver was waiting right there. Wow. I shudder to think what’s going to happen when the next (overdue) big earthquake hits the Bay Area, because if these special snowflakes are so very, very offended and permanently scarred and wounded to the core of their being because somebody asked them to take two steps, then how the hell are they going to deal with ACTUAL disaster? I will admit I’ve had a very easy life, but these people would not last a day in my shoes. They would have massive breakdowns almost immediately. I never realized I was A Bit Of A Tough Bitch until I moved to California and found out just how soft people are. If I may be so bold, this is especially true for the men – I could go on a huge rant about why I’m single at the moment, and it probably wouldn’t be terribly convincing, but a bit part of it is that I can’t find men roughly my age who aren’t dull and soft. Of course I’m not going for thugs, but I’d like someone who has been around the block at least once, somebody who’s not going to have a conniption because there’s no organic vodka at the bar. I’ve seen men here pester the minimum-wage shelf stackers at the grocery store over the difference in taste between two types of cucumber! Actually pester, not just ask. Pester to the point where this one man asked if he could speak to a manager about sampling said cucumbers. IT’S A BLOODY CUCUMBER. IT DOESN’T TASTE OF ANYTHING. GET A LIFE!!!

 

I’m about to go to the post office, and I’m reminded up the time I was waiting there and some gross man was doing his yoga stretches in line, rubbing his dirty sneakers all over hand railings. I asked him to stop because, you know, there are needles and dog poo (and human poo) all over the streets here, and people have to TOUCH THAT because IT’S A PUBLIC HAND RAILING and NOT A YOGA MAT. He went absolutely ballistic and threw a strop in front of everybody. Another rant for another day is the total lack of basic hygiene people have here, but anyway, GET A LIFE!

 

This would not happen in New York or London. People think New Yorkers are rude, but that’s not true. We are blunt, we are efficient. Not rude. Big difference. We have things to do and places to go and you’re not special so quit whining and get on with life. In London, people don’t talk to strangers, but we don’t have to because people Get It and Move Along in the first place. We have common sense. We know you don’t bother minimum-wage workers about stupid shit because you’re making their lives harder. We know you respond to simple requests without personal attacks. We know to not literally rub shit where you eat. For some reason, this evades people in Northern California, because the attitude here is that you are perfect just the way you are and nobody has the right to criticise you, no matter what.

 

It’s the same attitude which states that you can bring your wild yapping rat-dog into a supermarket or restaurant, and as long as you say, “It’s a service dog,” nobody can ask you to take it out, even if it’s obvious you’re lying.

It’s the same attitude which makes my fellow grad students threaten to go “on strike” even though we’re getting paid by the broke-ass state of California to GET THE WORD “DOCTOR” IN FRONT OF OUR NAMES in exchange for a little bit of teaching. Not only do we not pay fees, WE GET PAID TO DO THIS, but apparently we are the oppressed workers of the world and we need to fight blah blah blah. For the record: I am a Democrat. I believe in the power of unions to advocate for exploited workers’ rights. Over-privileged grad students doing something 99.9% of the population can never dream of doing at a time when the state has no money for education are NOT exploited workers.

 

It’s the same attitude which leads to Ross Mirkarimi still being in his position as SF sheriff ten months after everybody found out he’s a wife-beating idiot because he refuses to take responsibility, do the right thing, and step down. The city council has so far been too spineless to remove him, but that may change today. I wouldn’t get your hopes up, though. Not hurting Ross Mirkarimi’s feelings is more important than the fact that he hurt his wife. Strange priorities around here.

 

It’s called an absolutely massive entitlement complex.

It’s embarrassing.

It’s narcissism, and California is ground zero of an epidemic of it.

So stop it, or GET A LIFE GIRL may appear in your life.

Chicago, Maps, and a Mess

Today I arrived in Denver for the 2012 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. I’m presenting a paper on drivers of neighborhood satisfaction in London regeneration zones this Saturday. It’s my first time in Denver, and so far, this is my impression of the city: take the Chicago Loop, shrink it both in spread and height of buildings, and abandon a chunk of it, and that’s Denver. Disclaimer: I’ve been here six hours, and my taxi took me through one hell of a rough patch. That being said, ranch dressing makes sense here. The amount I put on vegetables for dinner was truly sickening and I am proud.

I’m also finishing up Robert J. Sampson’s fantastic book Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, which is the product of years of meticulous, large-scale research into the persistence of poverty and inequality. This is the kind of book that proves social science is a field as worthy as any other. I won’t summarise it here (GO READ IT), but I want to mention that I hold a special place in my heart for Chicago because it was where I first really became fascinated with cities in and of themselves – the start of an obsession that has led me to become an urban sociologist. I lived there for a good chunk of my childhood. All the neighborhoods Sampson mentioned are familiar, if not from actual memories then at least by name.

Chicago, despite being the third largest city in the United States, has a parochial feel to it. People cling to their neighborhoods. The city has 50 official administrative wards, each represented by an alderman who may or may not be entirely corrupt, but there are 77 “community areas,” and, depending on who you ask, nearly 200 informally designated neighborhoods. Here’s a map of the community areas. Bored in school, I memorized this map and loads of more detailed ones to the point where I was able to write out the names of 308 Chicago streets entirely from memory (and not the numbered ones, those don’t count. I mean the names that sing in your head and which tourists don’t see: Ponchartrain Boulevard. Throop Street. Menomonee, Oleander, Armitage, Seely, Ainslie, Kedvale, Caldwell, Argyle, Lamon, Laramie, Larabee, Montrose, Rosemont, Kinzie, Kedzie, Stony Island, Cottage Grove, Washtenaw, Racine. Commerce Parkway. Solidarity Drive.) Yes, I was a very bored child in school. But the point is, these places in Chicago had an intrinsic meaning in their names. For me, they represented a hell of a lot more than just the boundaries drawn by the street grid. They were each their own self-contained world.

Unfortunately, the downside to this compartmentalization is that, in Chicago, it translates to extreme racial segregation. Sampson repeatedly illustrates this and shows it to be at the heart of why so many Black Chicagoans live in the kind of poverty that barely touches even low-income White people. I lived in a neighborhood that was very White, with a significant Asian minority. My mother, a native New Yorker who never lived outside the five boroughs until she was 30, couldn’t believe how segregated it was. A working-class woman from a Polish family, she had worked as a nurse alongside women from Jamaica and Haiti in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and now she was sending her kids to a primary school that had one Black student among over 300 White and Asian. She never liked Chicago and was glad to leave. As a kid, whenever I spoke with a little too much of the nasal honking the city is known for, she would quickly correct me and make me pronounce the word properly – that is, with anything other than those Midwestern vowels. Chicago would not become my voice. I’d have to get that somewhere else.

Our sister school on the West Side was entirely Black. When the students came to ours for a day, they spoke in awe about how clean our bathrooms were, how we actually had paper towels and working locks on the doors. You know, the basic things American schoolkids should take for granted. We thought it was strange then, but hey, we were kids – we understood that they were poor and we were middle-class, that they lived West and we lived North, they were Black and we weren’t and these things weren’t a coincidence, and even at a young age we could put two and two together. But look at the data – especially Sampson’s data about where people move – and it’s clear it will take a lot more than twinning schools and throwing kids together for a couple of days each year in order to address the fact that Black and White so rarely interact meaningfully in Chicago.

Having been educated in both the US and the UK, it’s amazing how uniquely American this kind of segregation is. In Britain, a lot of people have a hard time believing that so many explanations really do boil down to the implications of race in America. “Why is everything about race?” they ask me, and then Americans ask me, “Why are Brits so obsessed with class?” While racism is of course an issue in the UK, the extent and institutionalized degree of it there was never so vast as in the United States. I truly can’t overstate that.

I’m 27 now and I still love maps. Once upon a time, a big glossy one of Chicago neighborhoods hung on my wall. The colors were arbitrary – pinks, yellows, blues, greens, all the names in the same even hand, not the slightest hint of the implications behind each demarcated place name. There’s a picture of me standing in my bedroom on a council estate in West London, and taped to the wall behind me, blurry but recognizable, is the entire London tangle of Tube and rail. Now in my San Francisco apartment there’s an old style New York subway map tacked on the wall down the little hall from where pre-war North London bus routes hang in a sturdy frame. Crouch End, Wood Green, Finsbury Park, Hornsey, Harringay – all the places you’ll go along those red lines, all the places I’ve been more times than I can remember. The buses will take you there and then who knows what you’ll find, what you’ll get up to by yourself? Then down on the floor are the great big wooden panels where I’ve been painting and sculpting and suspending scraps of maps that I’ve transfered onto sheets of acrylic and cut up with a Stanley knife until they’re just how I want them, trying to make a bit of art out of my life so far. Trying to convince myself I still have a bit of those places in my heart even though I’m not walking those streets and may not be again for a long time.

Having a specific spot in space is important to me, as is knowing exactly where I stand – literally – so that I can never be put in the vulnerable position of not knowing where I’m going. When you name a place and claim it as where you’re from, you pick up more than an address. You get a bit of tangible history, and automatically you’re a player in that story. There are some places where I’ve spent years living but which don’t feel like part of me as well as spots I’ve merely passed through in the grand scheme of things but which somehow have gotten into my bones.

I could never go back to living in Chicago. By that I mean, I’m not willing to do so. When I think of Chicago I recall small-mindedness, corruption, segregation, and really REALLY cold winters with flat grey landscapes that could not have been bleaker if they’d been illustrations from a Victorian novel.I remember how cruelly people treated my mother when she was nothing but kind to everybody. I remember how my family was resented and scorned for no fault of our own. I remember finding out that all those years when I’d been cheering on my older brother from the sidelines when he played soccer, other children’s mothers were laughing at “the Jew.” I remember wanting to get out of there so, so badly, and never looking back. Maybe some people could choose Chicago over New York or London, but I’m not one of them. I don’t want to be the capital of the middle, I don’t want to be the cozy warm heart of things – I want to be in the great big mess teetering on the edge. That being said, Chicago’s lack of pretension was refreshing sometimes. It knew it couldn’t compete with New York or Los Angeles, so it didn’t try. Nelson Algren said there was never a city so real, and I’d have a hard time arguing with that. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may find lovelier lovelies, but never one so real. But it’s not my reality now. Chicago was someplace I had once, and it was useful, but it outlived that role for me personally and so I’ve folded it up and put it away. I have no family there. Almost all my friends are elsewhere. It’s a place I can read about and shake my head and understand, but it’s not me.

Some people have perfect pitch. Others have uncanny photographic memories. I have perfect direction. Wherever I go, I always know which way is north. I always have at least that much of an idea where I am going and where I have been.

Bystanders in Academia

Interesting piece in the Guardian last week about photojournalists who document violence, disasters, and tragedy in general, and do not intervene:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/interactive/2012/jul/28/bystanders-photographers-who-didnt-help?newsfeed=true

This is a huge ethical quandary in sociology, albeit one that I’ve seen shoved under the carpet on many occasions. When I do bring up the moral dilemma, I’m often shot down quickly by people who sound more than the slightest bit defensive about their work and their reasons for doing it.

And they do have a point. When doing ethnography, you’re supposed to try your best to not really be there. You want to be less than a fly on the wall, because flies are pests that people stop doing whatever it is they’re doing to shoo out the window. To intervene in the lives of your subjects is to essentially invalidate the reason you’re there. If your work is to have any kind of impact, it needs to be done properly. In our constant attempts to be taken seriously as a science, we strive for as much objectivity as possible. The only problem is, we’re not dealing with bacteria in petri dishes, we’re dealing with people. People who, more often than not, have been forced to live under appalling circumstances that the majority of academics could never, ever accept as their own lot in life.

We convince ourselves we’re doing it for the greater good, that without our trained academic minds documenting and interpreting all this human misery, nobody else would be aware of what’s going on, and therefore nothing will eventually change without us. While this is certainly true to an extent, it also has more than a faint whiff of narcissism.

And I don’t always buy this argument, because, like so much else in life, it comes down to money.

Social scientists become rich and famous – well, as rich and famous as you can get in academia – by documenting and interpreting human misery. You will eventually leave your ethnography site and go back to your comfortable home and cushy tenured job, whereas your subjects cannot. You are, in essence, selling their life experiences every time you publish a book based on ethnographic research. But those royalties and advances don’t go into their pockets. They go into yours. They fund your lifestyle, pad your CV, win you entry into higher eschelons of prestige. Your subjects give their stories, the raw material you use, away for free when in truth they’re a valuable commodity. You’re going to write a book that will lead to acclaim and economic gain for yourself, and you wouldn’t have been able to do it without, in essence, using people who can’t sell this form of capital.

You’re damned either way. If you pay up you assuage your conscience, but you end up with bad science that you might as well not haved pursued in the first place. If you do nothing, you have to live with that guilt. A lot of people don’t have a problem with that guilt, or they don’t feel guilt at all. After all, it’s not like people are going to heap it upon you in academia when they’re applauding your work (and the finished product is, indeed, YOUR work). We don’t have discussions like this in academia because we’d probably have a collective nervous breakdown when we realise that we, too, can be every bit as exploitative of poor people as the institutions and individuals we make a living out of criticising. Because we have a few crucial letters after our name, somehow we become exceptions to the rules we claim to detest.

Good for those people who can do it without ruffling their conscience. But it leaves a horrible taste in my mouth. I can’t help but think of Kevin Carter, the South African photographer who won the Pulitzer Prize for an image of a starving Sudanese girl being watched by a vulture. People DID raise the question of what, if anything, he did to help, and he got slated quite brutally for it. Earlier in his career, whilst documenting attacks on black people under apartheid, Carter wrote the following regarding his position as the one who documents but doesn’t get involved:

I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures… then I felt that maybe my actions hadn’t been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing to do.

And he does have a point. We all can’t be saints, and sometimes it would be downright stupid to intervene in a situation where you would either put yourself in equal danger or even make things worse. Sometimes the most useful thing you can do is raise awareness of situations that the average person – and the not-so-average powerful person who actually has the ability to enact political or any other kind of change – may not know exists.

But:

Carter killed himself less than a year after receiving the Pulitzer.

This isn’t straightforward, and it shouldn’t be. But we should at least be discussing this frankly in academia, not deluding ourselves into thinking it’s as simple as claiming we’re in it for the greater good.

I will happily raise a stink about the ethics of ethnography no matter how many times people try to dismiss it. This needs to be discussed even if it makes us feel a little less comfortable about our livelihoods. We are not special. We are subject to the same rules as everyone else.

Maybe we don’t think about this as often as we should in sociology because the harm doesn’t seem so obvious. It’s not like it’s Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect all over again, it’s not like the “necklacing” deaths Kevin Carter documented, it’s not like someone is screaming for help in the street and you’re just shrugging and walking by. But maybe there is something to be said for the insidious effects of letting harm happen because you’re too far away to see its gradual but constant effects. As ethnographers, isn’t that exactly what we’re supposed to be drawing attention to – the not-always-blatantly-obvious processes that eat away slowly and fade into the background to the point where the people who have the ability to enact change don’t even notice they exist? (This is a big reason behind why I want to eventually work in policy, but that is another massive essay…) The small, invisible insults can be the most pernicious as well as the hardest to eliminate because people are quite happy not seeing them.

In my opinion, Rebecca Skloot (not a sociologist, but a brilliant researcher and all-around interesting person) did it right. A science journalist, Skloot turned her long-standing curiosity about the person behind the HeLa line of cells into a book that explored not only the life of HeLa herself and her descendents, but also shone a light on the uncomfortable intersection of racism and medicine with consequences that persist today. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks became a bestseller, and a major part of the book’s intrigue was how a woman whose cells became the basis for a multi-billion-dollar biomedical industry had children who couldn’t afford basic health care for diseases strongly linked to the poverty in which they lived.  Skloot set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to provide financial assistance to Lacks’ descendents. A percentage of profits from book sales go directly into the foundation and are used by grant recipients to pay for educational and medical expenses.

As Skloot documents throughout the book, it was a difficult and humbling experience to enter the world of Henrietta Lacks’ family. After a lifetime of being deceived and taken advantage of by white experts who claimed to be working for the greater good (sound familiar?), the black Lackses understandably didn’t want any more exploitation. It took ages for her to gain entry and trust. Skloot dealt with this firsthand, and while I certainly can’t speak for her, I’m sure it influenced her perspective on the role of the documenter vis a vis her raw material. The Henrietta Lacks Foundation is an attempt to right a wrong by ensuring the family gets at least a fraction of the financial benefit they should have reaped a long time ago were it not for the arrogance of experts. Yes, Henrietta Lacks’ cells have led to amazing discoveries and medical treatments which definitely benefit the greater good – but at the same time, a warm and fuzzy feeling doesn’t put food on the table, and a lot of people got VERY rich and famous, however indirectly, off the Lackses. It’s only fair they get some money in return – at least enough money to meet the expenses that people in academia take for granted.

Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken without her consent, without her family’s knowledge. At least ethnographers are bound by institutional review board constraints to make what they’re doing obvious to their subjects. And subjects do always retain the autonomy to tell the ethnographer to get lost. Maybe we need to be told that a bit more often. We are not special, not excepted from any rules, just because we’ve jumped over some academic hurdles in order to get offices, however tiny, somewhere within the ivory tower.