Tag Archives: Frustrations

Smithies Respond to Offensive Letter with Righteous Rage

A few days ago, a fellow alumna of my alma mater sent a rather puzzling letter to the school’s newspaper in which she proclaimed that the increase in diversity at Smith in recent years is sending the college down the tubes and attracting subpar* applicants, and in which she stated, among other things, that “the days of white, wealthy, upper-class students from prep schools in cashmere coats and pearls who marry Amherst men are over. This is unfortunate.”

That excerpt was possibly the least offensive statement in the entire letter. I could comment at length on the classism, racism, and homophobia of the letter as a whole, or the fact that it reflects a mindset that stagnated in the 1950s, but that’s already been done. (You can read the letter in its entirety–plus commentary–on Jezebel.)

The Smith community reacted to this bomb, predictably, with righteous rage.  Tell Smith women that it’s a problem we’re not wearing pearls and sweater sets and dating Amherst men? Tell any Smithie that her background makes her a charity case? You’d better run for cover.

Within a few hours of the letter hitting the Sophian,  some enterprising Smithies started the “Pearls and Cashmere” project, in which Smithies past and present were invited to respond with their stories of where they came from,  how they got to Smith, and what they’ve accomplished since graduating, with photos to illustrate the glorious diversity of the student body. Several ladies posted their best photos of themselves in pearls and cashmere–some including a classy middle-finger salute for the woman who dared to suggest that they didn’t merit their education if they weren’t pursuing their MRS.

My own response and photo (no pearls or cashmere or rude gestures required) is at the end of this post.

Antagonizing Smithies is a bit like antagonizing a pack of hyperintelligent and slightly rabid she-wolves: you will get the most well-articulated smackdown in history. But we’re above bombarding you personally with hate mail–we’ll put our responses online, where they don’t clutter your inbox, and they don’t risk going unseen. We’ll use your intolerance to affirm pride in our own individual identities, and in our collective identity as Smithies.  And we’ll let the world know how wrong you are in judging us based on your own narrow view of what women’s education is supposed to be.

Smith breeds Sisterhood. Siblinghood. We’re-all-in-this-togetherhood. The outpouring has been truly incredible. Reading the entries on Pearls and Cashmere has made me even more amazed at the variety of  people who go to Smith, and the amazing things we do when we go into the world. Seeing the way Smithies rally to affirm the glory of their multi-ethnic, multi-racial, economically diverse, LGBTQ and ally selves, I have never been prouder to have called Smith my home.

 

 

Self-Portrait at Habu Temple in Luxor

 

Laura Carroll, class of 2006. French major, Medieval Studies minor, with an unofficial minor in Philosophy as well. I graduated 5th in my high school class, scored a perfect 800 on the verbal section of my SAT, and received a Smith Book Award, a STRIDE scholarship, and a Blumberg fellowship, all merit-based. I could have gone to college pretty much anywhere I damn well pleased, and I chose Smith solely because I knew that I would get an excellent education. Once there, I discovered that when you put two thousand brilliant women from diverse backgrounds in the same place and encourage them to learn and explore together, you create a phenomenal community that breeds intellectual creativity. At Smith, I was able to take classes in a mind-boggling array of disciplines, study abroad in Paris, sing with the Glee Club, and fence sabre. I made friends that are still with me to this day.
I’m currently working on my MA in Sustainable International Development at Brandeis, and I’m on practicum in Egypt (this photo was taken at Habu Temple in Luxor). I’ve lived in Morocco and Russia. I’m working on a book-length travel narrative and multiple short stories. I practice aerial arts and dance in my free time. I have a fabulous partner, whom I met at Smith. I challenge conventions about the things that are “acceptable” to do with my life—as have generations of Smithies before me.

Attending Smith was one of the best decisions I ever made.

 

 

 

 

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*Subpar, in this instance, meaning anyone who isn’t an upper-class, white, heterosexual, cisgendered female.

 

Expats, Locals, and the Space in Between

In these last few days, I’ve met several expats living and working in Egypt. Some of them, like me, are doing development work, or are trying to give back to the communities in which they live. This, on the face of it, is good. Wanting to give back and help people is an admirable inclination. Not everyone shares it. In general, I very much approve of the impulse to do good.

And yet.

When you go out into the world to “help people,” you need to be careful. If your purpose is simply to pat your own back about how good a person you are, it shows. And if you consider the people that you are helping to be fundamentally different from or inferior to you, that shows also.

Yesterday, I went into a fair trade gallery with an Egyptian colleague. The expat lady who owns the shop immediately, on hearing about my project in Egypt, exclaimed “that’s wonderful!” and proceeded to tell me how nice and rewarding it is to work with Egyptians, and they’re so lovely, and so grateful, and it makes you feel so good to know that you’re doing something good for them…in the tones you might use to talk about working with multiply disabled children. The main difference being that the people I know who actually do work with multiply disabled children don’t talk about them that way. She mostly ignored my colleague, who has a degree in Egyptology and speaks fluent English. Every now and then she would include him in her conversation in the way that one might invite a child to contribute a few words in a group of adults.  And she spoke so much and so fast that I could barely get a word in edgewise to even things out.

My colleague is a quiet man. When I asked later what he thought of this woman, he said only that she had been helpful, which was entirely true. She gave me contact information for several other organizations in the area that might be good for my organization to work with.  And her work in fair trade is truly exemplary. She provides women in inaccessible villages around Egypt with a source of income by helping them design things to be sold in her shop, and her shop has some of the highest quality and most unique souvenirs I have seen. She is helping people, and doing it well. But the way she spoke to my colleague, and to her Egyptian employee, was so paternalistic that it really put me off, and I’m sure that my distaste showed to some degree though I did my best to hide it.

Interactions like this one (sadly, this incident is not isolated) make me incredibly angry. How do you manage to speak condescendingly about intelligent adults, in their own presence, as though they were not there? As if they didn’t understand your words? How do you do it, and how do you think it’s okay?

I have to believe, or at least I choose to believe, that people who speak and act in this manner do so unconsciously. That the bias is subconscious and the paternalism is unwitting. That if they actually realized they were causing offense, that they would behave differently. But it’s hard to speak to people about bias, about the ways in which they’re getting things wrong, particularly when there are a number of things that they’re doing right. No one wants to be told they’re being condescending and possibly racist.  It’s hard to raise the issue without creating offense or alienation.  It’s difficult to know what to do. What to say.

I was raised to believe that every person has inherent worth and dignity. I try to behave towards people in a way that reflects this. I am absolutely certain that I do not always succeed, that there are times and places and people that bring out the worst in my character and bring the biases that I have tried hard to overcome into the foreground. But I try to make these instances few and far between, and I try to be aware of them, at least, when they occur.  I try to treat all people with respect. (Friends who are reading this, please do let me know if and when I fail. I won’t like hearing it, and I’ll probably hate myself a little, but it’s something I need to know).

Expathood is difficult. You’re miles from home and anything familiar, the people have different customs and culture from your own.  You’re bound to notice these differences and form opinions on them. But “different” does not mean “less than.” It does not mean “wrong.” And it’s never alright to treat someone badly, just because they’re not similar to you.

 

 

 

Gulf Oil Spill Revisited

This evening I went to a panel at Busboys and Poets, DC’s trendy, lefty, bar/restaurant/political forum/bookstore. A woman named Antonia Juhasz spoke about her new book Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill. She was joined by panelists from Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity.

It was an interesting talk. The three of them rehashed the details of how much oil had been spilled (that we’re aware of), how many lawsuits are currently being leveled against BP and Transocean (about a thousand), and how contrary to what we’ve all been told, most of the oil is still out there in the Gulf and hasn’t been cleaned. Apparently, the oil companies didn’t bother to do any of the research that they were supposed to have done with regards to how to clean up oil, so they had no techniques but the same ones used to clean up the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989. Which clearly didn’t work all that well.

Being from the Gulf Coast of Florida, the Deepwater Horizon spill touches a nerve for me. Every time I hear about it, and learn more of the details of the gross negligence that contributed to both the occurrence of the disaster and its scale, I see red. I want to single-handedly swim to the bottom of the Gulf and clean up the oil coating the sea floor. I want to single-handedly revive the coastal fishing industry and ensure that all the fish and shrimp are safe to eat. I want to do something.

And this is where events like this fall short. Because they remind me of all my pent-up frustration with the world,and don’t give concrete ways in which I can contribute, other than donating cash that as a grad student I don’t have. There is very little that I personally can do for the Gulf Coast. And that, more than anything, makes me feel frustrated.