Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reform Often Depends on Individual Choice, Not Collective Demand

A friend of mine recently visited, and while she was here, she shared an interesting story. For many years, beginning in childhood, she was sure that her chosen career path was that of an engineer. So, of course, when she started undergrad, she majored in engineering, quickly finding that she was the only female currently enrolled in the department. This reality didn't really surprise her, since she had always felt comfortable in male-dominated spaces and in many ways considered herself one of the boys. Her passions had always been those where female attendance had been sparse, so she'd long ago accepted the reality without complaining, or in honestly feeling as though she had much need or desire to question the status quo as it always had been.

However, with time she recognized that engineering was not for her. This had nothing to do with gender disparities and everything to do with the fact that she found her course of study ponderous and uninspiring. In the meantime, she had taken a few anthropology courses as electives and had fallen in love with the subject. After giving the matter much thought, roughly halfway through attaining her degree, she made plans to switch majors. Even though it delayed her graduation date and required her to take more hours, she was prepared to make a sacrifice. Still, her heart had led her away from what she had assumed would be her life's passion and as a result she was more than willing to do the extra work necessary to move in a vastly different direction.

The decision didn't sit well with one of her engineering professors, who was the sole, if not one of a very few female instructors in the field. My friend was informed that, whether she recognized it or not, the very fact that since she was the only matriculating female enrolled in that course of study, this meant that she was a trail-blazer; if she left, the whole hopes and dreams of those who wished to establish gender equality within the engineering department, to say nothing of the work world, would be utterly dashed. My friend took quite a bit of liberty with this statement and shortly thereafter left for Anthropology, just as she had originally planned. In so doing, she didn't discount what the professor said, but simply stated that she was unwilling to be unhappy in a subject she had come to dislike, especially when she knew inside herself that she might find true success and certainly true contentment elsewhere.

As much as we might like to see complete gender, racial, and sexual orientation parity across the board (and I certainly do, too) I think we have to take into account that our collective dreams sometimes take a secondary role to an individual's desire to pursue his or her own. When we hang the entire hopes of a movement upon the shoulders of one person, no matter how strong and broad we think they might be, for any reason at all, this places an inordinate and disproportionate amount of expectation upon a flawed and very human being. To some extent, every minority in a majority setting lives in a fishbowl and has his or her actions minutely scrutinized. None of this is especially fair, but when so much of our own identity depends on how we define ourselves as unlike others, rather than focusing on similarities between us and others, then it might be understandable, though not necessarily justified, why we fall prey to this kind of thinking.

To expound upon that which I am saying, I am not attempting to let anyone off easy. It is true that for all of the post-racial talk, Barack Obama is the first Black President. We all knew that going in and we always will. In the beginning, which seems like a least a decade or so ago, I was willing to concede to him the benefit of the doubt, but now I like so many have become openly critical and impatient with his leadership abilities. That he continues to poll highly with African-American voters and not necessarily with Caucasian voters is, I think, a very complex dynamic that can't be reduced to merely a matter of race and racial identity. Any minority which historically has had its concerns placed at a lower priority to that of the majority is bound to believe that even a candidate with flaws is at least is testament to the fact that a major hurdle has been crossed; that it finally one of its own reached that which is still the most powerful position on the face of the Earth. I have no doubt that when a female becomes President or an openly gay candidate reaches the highest office in the land, there will be this same unshakable sense of loyalty and devotion among those of a similar persuasion and identity, no matter what the larger political climate either for or against this person may be.

Still, excusing bad policy decision and being a constant apologist for any elective official at any time, for any reason, is not the best of strategies. For the most part, aside from a few true believers, we have not fallen prey to this trap in our age. But what we have done is assumed at times that one African-American lawmaker can wipe away centuries worth of racial strife and tension. The Obama Effect is, to my reckoning, largely minimal and perhaps more a product of wishful thinking than much in the way of substance. Likewise, the first female to be referred to as Ms. President will likely encourage the media and others to ponder whether her election portends greater gender equality or perhaps even leads women to embrace occupations or spaces long designated for and peopled by men. Likewise, the first gay Chief Executive will encourage many to hope that perhaps homophobic attitudes might be finally be waning and will simultaneously foster a thousand human interest stories of LGBT young adults who followed the example of the President and decided to come out and live openly.

In writing this post, I don't seek to tongue-lash or to chastise those who rightly strive for a fairer state of affairs. This is what we are all seeking to one degree or another. Rather, I think perhaps the problem is when we assume that one single woman, man, or minority with a singular talent can by himself or herself crack the glass ceiling, end a history of racial inequality, or sound an end to homophobia. Even when this person, whomever it may be, makes makes significant strides, we become disillusioned when he or she she alone can't quite bust through, failing to recognize that a collective effort is the only means by which any adequate reform movement has ever been accomplished. I firmly believe that the entire process starts with one woman, one man, and/or one minority, bold enough to step into unfamiliar and sometimes unwelcoming spaces. Yet, and this cannot be stressed overmuch, without those courageous enough to both correctly emulate their example and in so doing follow their lead, the ultimate objectives espoused will often remain unrealized.

I recognize that it is easy to become impatient with the slow progress of reform. But we oughtn't let our sense of desperation and desire supersede any individual's freedom of choice. It is a constant temptation to search for ammunition in every corner to hurl at one's enemy, but I believe that this impulse must be kept firmly in check. There may not be any such thing as a fair fight, but alienating allies or potential allies is not the best of strategies. When the world seems full of roadblocks and detours, we all can lose our heads and let hostility and spite guide us in directions we will probably later regret. Anger may have a function, but anger rarely stays on course, instead it gives no quarter to anyone for any reason, and thus it has been the undoing of many a worthy endeavor.

Returning to the anecdote upon which I began this post, perhaps soon the disappointed female professor will find another woman in the department upon which to set precedent and and in so doing encourage others to participate and take a seat at the table. Though my friend might be relatively unusual, she is far from the only woman not intimidated by being outnumbered and not especially uncomfortable in a boy's club or a man's world. And, as I conclude, I have always been able to see far enough into the future to know that lasting gender, racial, and marriage equality is within our grasp, though its progress rarely presses forward at a fast enough clip for our or anyone's satisfaction. In the meantime, we continue to fight the good fight and advocate for that which we know we need. I hope we always do.

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