"Pearls & Complacency: Tumbling Elitism, Co-Opting Resistance"
November 8, 2012
Raise your hands if you voted in this past election.
Raise your hands if this was the first election you voted in.
Raise your hands if you voted by mail
On the annual occasion of the celebration of Otelia Cromwell-- Smith’s first African-American graduate—who was also the first doctoral earning African American woman at Yale-- this year we ALSO celebrate the SECOND election of our nation’s first African American president. Elizabeth Warren has triumphed to become Massachusetts’ first woman senator; and Tammy Baldwin Class of 1984 is Wisconsin’s first woman senator and America’s first LGBT Senator. Across the country, nearly one hundred and twenty queer-identifying candidates won their local and state races in Tuesday's elections. Twenty women will serve in the Senate and over 80 in the House of Representatives. Maize Hirono-- immigrant from Japan, Buddhist—has become the first Asian American woman in the Senate. And Tulsi Gabbard, Representative-elect from Hawaii will be Congress’ first practicing Hindu. They are joined by two African-American Muslim Congressmen. Homophobes, Islamophobes, Guantanamo apologists, Xenophobes who mask their hatred of immigrants under a thin blanket of patriotism, and those who dared build their campaign platforms AGAINST women—all were dealt an unequivocal message last night—your time is over. There is work to do and we’re not letting you stop us from getting it done.
Most of you who know me in this room know me because I taught as a faculty member in the Department of Sociology last year. Today marks the first time I’ve ever been an invited guest of the college, though I’ve been here in so many other capacities and I think it’s important for me to describe some of these.
As I drove in last night—that familiar drive north on Interstate 91, I was remembering the first time I ever drove that same stretch of highway. It’s a long…impossibly long stretch—and if you travel in from Southward points you know what I’m talking about—those many miles between exit 17B Easthampton and exit 18 “Smith College.” The ones where you feel like “did I miss something?” “Does this college really exist?” And I know you know what exit sign I’m talking about because around 10 am this morning, this message showed up on my Twitter feed:
The first time I drove that stretch was as a passenger, 13 years ago as a prospective student. My mom and I were in a rental car. It would be the first time either of us had ever been to a college campus. For weeks leading up to the trip, I poured over the Princeton Review’s Guide to Colleges, taking pages and pages of notes about schools I had never heard of—their names, the dates they were founded, what was their average financial aid package, and were there students from all 50 states and at least 20 different countries on campus? To my credit for someone who had no idea what they were doing and grew up in Oregon—not the Portlandia version of Oregon but a version from before you all were born—this actually wasn’t a completely terrible way to approach the college process.
Back home from the library, I grabbed my dad’s old Rand McNally Atlas out of his car (because need I remind you, we did not have Google Maps at this cold dark time in history) and I put my pencil down in the center of Massachusetts. I didn’t know at the time that I had pinpointed the Happy Valley, the beautiful Pioneer Valley. I drew a big circle with Northampton in the middle, marking a radius around which I decided would go to college. Somewhere in there, I would find my new school, my home.
The next time I’d travel those excruciatingly long miles between Exits 17 and 18 was in a rattling Valley Transporter van which picked me, my suitcase, and five new classmates up in the Fall of 2000 to start my first year as a real live Smithie. I turned eighteen and within weeks, voted in my first election. In fact, it was at that election in 2000, where I have my clearest memory of my first year at Smith-- one of my professors, in his first year just like me, threw a chair across Davis Center during the Campus Election Party when the electoral map started to change colors before our very eyes. I was thrilled and frightened and therefore totally convinced that I’d picked the right school for me.
The next time I can really remember driving down that stretch between Exit 17 and 18 was in 2004, with tears streaming down my face as I drove away from failure at my first job at a marketing consulting firm in Boston. I returned to Northampton with my tail between my legs, browbeaten, weak from the effort it had taken to get my job, keep my job, and pretend to like my job. It was the scariest decision I had ever made in my life up to that point—to turn away from a salary and benefits with nothing in my bank account except exactly two months rent, enough money for 60 peanut butter sandwiches, and God willing, no accidents or emergencies. But the risk was worth it when one illegal apartment on Crescent Street and three weird part time jobs later, I was hired to work on the Multicultural Recruitment Team in Smith’s Office of Admission. I worked there as a staff member until 2006 and during that time, with the dedication of staff and administration, we had a higher proportion of Pell Grant students than any other liberal arts college in the nation.
And finally, last fall, I had forgotten about that impossibly long stretch of highway, when I showed up two weeks before classes started to cover a faculty member’s upcoming leave in the Dept of Sociology. With a laptop, a half-written dissertation, a husband, and one suitcase of clothes, I glided through those last several miles between Exit 17 and 18. For the first time, those many miles between exits didn’t make me anxious or sad or nervous. The exits were still there. And so was I.
Ten years after I declared my sociology major at Smith, I met the nearly ninety of you who were my students last year and I met many more through your activism, passion, and engagement on campus. And there are others in this room that I know because you actually were my professors, my colleagues on staff, and you were my college president too. I’ve gone through all this to say that though I have been at this school in so many roles—prospie, student, staff, and faculty—I’m here today as an alum. An alum with a fierce conviction that THIS year—one of the few years in which I haven’t been here in some official role—this year is the most exciting time in the college’s recent history. Let me tell you a little more about why.
This past February, the Sophian published an ’84 alum’s letter to the editor in which she lamented the decline of heterosexual, high-income, U.S.-born, white Smithies “in cashmere coats and pearls” among the current student body. As you all know, within hours, a range of students, alums, and even several people who didn’t have official ties to the college, challenged her sentiments by sharing over 500 photos and testimonials on a Tumblr cheekily titled “Pearls and Cashmere.” As you all know, this got picked up by the national media— the original letter itself and Smithies’ immediate, visceral, and often totally entertaining and sometimes even uplifting effort to correct the record. But across these posts on Tumblr, a pattern began to emerge:
“Graduated top 1% of my high school class.”
“Graduated 4th in my High School class. Top SAT scores.”
“Phenomenal SAT and ACT scores, I went to an elite private school. I took a rigorous course-load, was a four year three season varsity athlete… [and] got into every College that I applied to.”
“Daughter of Harvard Graduate. Salutatorian of Public High School Class. STRIDE Scholar.”
“[From a] highly educated family, valedictorian, world citizen.”
These are just a sample of what you’ll find in under five minutes of reading through posts on the P&C Tumblr. A sizeable proportion of the Tumblr is dominated by statements like these.
Let me turn it over to you—now that I’ve grabbed four, decontextualized them from the photos and text they’ve appeared with, and placed them next to each other—how do you read these?
World Citizen? To me these last two words on the Powerpoint slide are the most damning phrase up there. What might we infer about the person who would deign to call herself a World Citizen? It doesn’t sound like she’s having trouble crossing borders. Her passport—her citizenship—make it so. The way she looks, the way she moves through the world—she’s not worrying about the security lines at airports, about getting hemmed up at Customs. What kind of sheer privilege does it take as a “valedictorian from a highly educated family” to claim that you have the same relationship to land, culture, and history as any number of other people around the globe?
These quotes, when you look at them as a whole, look like a stack of modern college student trading cards! Here are our elite statistics! Trade us, collect us, we all fit together as a set!
Who here has heard of the French philosopher and scholar Michel DeCerteau? At the risk of oversimplifying his work, I can give you a little mini-lesson about one of his most famous works called the Practice of Everyday Life. DeCerteau argues that across society—whether in political, social or economic life-- people in positions of power and institutions of power use a variety of strategies to elicit us to act a certain way, think a certain way, right? And these are very powerful strategies. They tend to work. Yet he argues that we, little old you and me, have at hand a variety of different local tactics we can use to wage mini-battles against these strategies.
So let me turn it over to you—if the Letter to the Editor of the Sophian represented any strategy, what was it? What kind of logic does this strategy hinge on?
The letter writer uses the strategy of comparison—of anecdote—of anxiety around “selectivity” to assert that Smith College is less “selective” than it’s been in the past.
Yet what is the tactic used in the quotes I’ve listed here?
The tactic is to repeat the exact same rhetoric that the original letter writer used, right? These are testimonials on the P&C Tumblr that desperately assert and provide detailed evidence that Smith is every bit as selective and elite as it was when the letter writer attended. What is the danger in using this tactic against her strategy?
What might a different tactic look like? What WERE some of the other tactics we saw on the Tumblr page?
Now let me let you in one little secret I uncovered as I read through page after page of these posts on the P&C Tumblr. In the overwhelming amount of cases like the ones I have listed up here—these were ALUMS, mostly new alums, who were utilizing the tactic of asserting elite status. It’s young alums who are attempting to play the “match” game—ooh ooh, Ms. Spurzem, that demographic that you’re totally distraught has exiled themselves from Smith? Well, I’m here! I’m here! I mean, I’m totally annoyed that you have the gall to go looking for me, it suggests that your politics are wack and different than mine, but really I’m HERE! And here are all my details!
There’s a significant way in which the P&C enterprise simply reaffirms the very values that the letter writer feels the college has lost—but if these are young ALUMS coming back at Anne Spurzem with the same kind of talk she propagated—than what does this say about what happens when Smithies graduate and leave this place??? Why are they rattling off their GPAs and majors, the names of the Universities their parents attended, and their globetrotting privilege like the elitists the letter writer actually wants them to be?
In a way, what is even more distressing than the pervasive use of elitist rhetoric and the trotting out of elite identities is the fact that this was a moment where we on campus had the nation’s attention! We had a gregarious global network of alumni’s attention! We had the campus’ attention for weeks if not months and we even took one night out specifically last year to grapple with this over at the Chapel! YET has anything about Smith really changed since the P& C debacle? Do we have any measurable outcomes?
On the one hand you could say to me yes—we have the Weaving Voices Intergeneration Archives Project—and I would say back to you YES. This is an important outcome—it’s one that predated P&C but one whose mandate certainly was made even stronger after P&C. You might say, Professor Neda, since the last time you were here last year, we now have an SGA-led MicroAggressions project. And I would say yes, the SGA’s efforts and the Weaving Voices activism makes students’ voices and faces more legible, tangible, and more clearly etched into the permanent record of this institution. These are all important steps forward. And yet. And yet.
I would argue that if we look at this institution, at Smith as a system, and (since you’re all in a de-facto Sociology class with me right now) we agree that systems are relational and complex and have many moving parts we would see that the important work at Weaving Voices and SGA are especially effective in their lateral reach—these are student-led efforts whose primary constituency is other current students. We could even go so far as to say that they are student-led efforts that reach those students on campus who are already somewhat receptive to such efforts. Do you know what I’m saying here? When seen that way, Pearls & Cashmere did not necessarily lead us to a conversation—much less comprehensive reform—that goes beyond concerned students talking to other concerned students in a kind of feedback loop of critical energy. This is energy and insane amounts of brain power that I think we could actually harness toward even greater ends.
How do we raise everyone up, or propel everyone forward? We missed such an opportunity to have a more wide ranging conversation about something other than ourselves during and after this Tumblr phenomenon.
But even this makes sense, right? I spent the first third of my talk today telling you about my relationship to this college. We spent the first year of Pearls & Cashmere uploading photos and testimonials of our own selves to the Internet. This is the trap sometimes with social media and with organizing in these modern times. We can forget that we can ask one ANOTHER questions without expecting to share in return. We forget to express concern or interest for OTHERS without linking their experiences explicitly back to our own subject position.
Since I last saw you all back in June, even in just the past week, there have been multiple, ongoing examples of people using social media as a tactic—against the strategies of powerholders—to force change from below. Pressure to have the NYC Marathon canceled in the wake of Hurricane Sandy came not just from local elected officials on Staten Island but also from thousands of ordinary people—runners and non runners alike—who advocated on social media, using the same tools we had at our disposal during Pearls & Cashmere. But here on campus, we turned inward and looked to ourselves, for ourselves. In the case of Hurricane Sandy and the Marathon, thousands of people did something different.
In advance of the elections this year, people across the country picked up and moved themselves across state lines to witness and report on the ground about voter intimidation tactics in communities unlike their own. So many shady dealings were reported, addressed, and made examples of that even the difference between what we know about how these elections were conducted in 2012 and what we knew in 2008 is staggering. Just to give you one tiny and personal example, on Tuesday, my neighbor tweeted that though she hadn’t been approached herself outside our polling place, that she saw others being approached and intimidated by members of a campaign team associated with one of our mayoral candidates. She tweeted it, others retweeted it, and within minutes these political cowards were chased off by not just the cops and government officials—who caught word of this through social media but also by folks in the neighborhood who left their houses to come down and make sure the campaigners stopped intimidating our neighbors. In 2008, a large-scale local citizen effort coalescing within minutes to effect change simply did not and could not have happened.
I won’t stand here and tell you social media is the answer. Professor Kevin Rozario is giving an excellent workshop right now on the very question of their corporate, profit-driven limits for transformational potential. Yet I’ve found that in the last year or so, social media has got me thinking big. Big in terms of an audience, or a collective of collaborators, or a network of resources to tap into. So I want to do an activity right now where you’re rewarded for thinking as big as possible.
Imagine that you are a super hero with a super power in which you could change THIS college—the way it runs, the way it looks, the way it talks about itself, the way it exists in the world—you could change anything about this college. But you can’t change it for your own benefit. It has to be a change that would benefit someone other than you yourself. What would you change? In this super hero scenario—you’ve got endless supplies of money, time, anything you need to make the change you want. What would you do?
So we have this list now. This list looks incredibly different than the strategies and tactics we got caught up with in the Pearls & Cashmere moment right? We first looked inward—which we had to do, we must do—but now we must look out. What can each of us do to get us closer to THERE from where we are now HERE?
In a year in which a new college president is being recruited—we can take a good, hard look at this list and direct our efforts towards even just ONE—and we’d be doing something that we hadn’t even dreamt possible back when we were all uploading ourselves to Tumblr. We say to her, if you are hired and you sign the contract to be the president of our school, you are also signing on to THIS initiative too.
This is a critical juncture for the college and for higher education more generally—with 4 more years under an Obama administration we can expect that this is going to be an opportunity unlike ANY we’ve had since I started college under George W. Bush’s to reshape our schools.
I know that the next time I turn off the highway at Exit 18, Smith is going to be different, more perfect, more of the place we want it to be.