4 Reasons Why I Might Be a Jerk
Last night I received a comment that critiqued my approach to yesterday’s blog post “Dear Campus Speak & Sara Lowery: Are We on ‘Punk’d’?” I am sure she is not the only one. Likely there are those who think I am a jerk who doesn’t play nice on the SA playground, just like I know there are others who agree with my interpretation of the issue and blog post. And of course, there are many others who don’t care – which makes sense, as this is the Day of Our Lady of Thursday Nights, Shonda Rhimes (#TGIT) and we should save our energy for all that suspense later.
My return comment to Sheila got a bit long because I believe her questions are important to address, so I made it a blog post to share in case anyone else had similar thoughts. Your reward for reading it through includes gifs from each Shonda show + Shonda herself.
Thank you for your comments. I appreciate your engagement in this issue with me, especially since you are the first person to denounce my post/perspective and approach the issue in a different manner (to me personally, that is). I’d like to address your thoughts and questions, because they are certainly good ones to discuss.
1) Was I Inappropriate?
I definitely see where you can think this post is inappropriate. My post is sassy, fueled by passion and (quite frankly) anger. It’s certainly not how folks in student affairs tend to blog, but that’s okay because my discipline/background is from several different areas so my writing style is a blend.
Yet while I do see where you find it could be inappropriate, 24+ hours afterwards and multiple times re-reading it (I don’t post anything like this without discussion and much consideration and review), I do stand by it.
My personal perspective when handling issues where I believe social injustice is occurring and folks are contributing to systemic oppression, is to demonstrate the passion I feel. It’s certainly easy to write a clinical scholarly-type article with graphs and cold observations, but it does not demonstrate the seriousness of the matter. It leaves the reader feeling detached and not particularly committed; and I believe they are rarely taken seriously (we do, after all, live in a world where Very Bad Things happen all the time and we’re all detached in one way or another because it is impossible to feel deeply about everything).
By incorporating my emotions, the reader is able to view the issue through my lens. No longer is this a cold comment, but something that is burning with life. I was and am outraged. Should that be hidden? Should that be silenced? Please trust that I am not the only one who felt those emotions and had those thoughts when reading the Campus Speak email about Sara Lowery’s keynote speech. It is imperative that emotion is conveyed.
While you may believe my “word choice and delivery could have been a little more respectful” I think you are asking me to be nicer and to silence myself so I do not hurt anyone’s feelings. I never attacked Campus Speak or Ms. Lowery on a personal level – no name calling or anything of that nature. Certainly critique is difficult to hear, but what’s also difficult to hear are the word choices and delivery of the presentation at the central of this discussion.
I never lied. I pointed out errors with commentary, provided statistics, demonstrated a cause and effect to having students listen to speeches like these, and provided a set of recommendations that anyone who works in business and deals with customer service is expected to hear.
2) Did I bash Sara Lowery?
Did I bash Sara Lowery? This is the statement I took pause on. I discussed my approach and was very thoughtful in considering how I addressed my blog post. Sara Lowery is a real person. Student affairs is a small field and no doubt we have mutual friends. I could hurt her reputation. Likewise, my reputation could be hurt (because in student affairs there is an unspoken rule that we treat our colleagues with kids’ gloves, and here I am stepping over that invisible line). My goal isn’t to ruin careers. I think we’re about the same age and she’s probably a cool person to work with and spend time with.
My decision to include Ms. Lowery in my critique is because it is a critique of her as a professional speaker who has placed herself in the public forum as a businesswoman who is selling a product – it just happens that the product is herself. I could not critique CAMPUSPEAK without critiquing her. While CAMPUSPEAK delivered the insensitive marketing materials and made the decision to add Ms. Lowery and her speech to their speaker’s bureau, it is still Ms. Lowery’s quotes on homelessness and the manner in which she incorporated the topic and how she spoke about it in her keynote. Both are at fault here.
Sheila, you’re correct with “You have no idea who this individual is or the life that she lives.” I don’t. And frankly, I don’t care. It is not very important to me if the individual volunteers at an organization supporting people experiencing homelessness, is the director of a homeless shelter, or has friends who identify as homeless. Intent ≠ Impact. She can have experiences talking to people experiencing homelessness and still exploit their experiences.
If you’d like to hear a similar message from someone else, there are two items I’d like to share with you on the topic of “why people with disabilities are not your inspirational message” here and here.
You see, at the end of the day, the concept of being a “good person” is irrelevant (not to mention ambiguous). We all live in a society built on systemic oppression. We are inundated with concepts and images that support the privileged groups of society in such an insidious way that we do not even notice it on a daily basis nor do we think twice about contributing to that culture of thought.
For example, I contribute to the systems of white supremacy, the patriarchy, ableism, and homophobia when I buy tickets for movies like Guardians of the Galaxy because I am financially supporting a mostly-white cast (in a movie industry that rarely casts people of color in lead roles or even supporting roles because they believe that white people cannot identify with POC) with a straight able-bodied white male in the savior role (because it benefits the status quo to uphold these identities as superior) and a woman of color still playing out the stereotype of romantic interest (because while the character is strong, her role is still reserved as serving as the interest of the white straight able-bodied man and helping to tell his story, not hers).
It’s subtle, you see – or rather you don’t – with how each of us contribute to systems of oppression. I have no doubt that Ms. Lowery is a good person. However in this case she is using her public platform to replicate problematic and stereotypical ideals of people experiencing homelessness in an effort to promote her own message; with the effect of further reinforcing those concepts in the minds of college students and professionals who listen to her. This is systemic oppression. It is subtle and often unclear, but it is when messages that do not respect a population of minoritized individuals are promoted and reinforced in a circular manner that results in the status quo always being upheld.
At the end of the day, many of us are good people who do problematic things, because we are raised and live in a society that makes problematic behavior normative behavior (this means me, too). Yet that doesn’t mean we can’t work to dismantle oppression. Calling out behavior that will ultimately contribute to misinformation about a minoritized group on a wide scale is necessary. I cannot sit idly while false stereotypes are perpetuated across college campuses. It’s not personal.
3) Did I Misrepresent the Presentation? Was she actually mocking “homeless people”?
“You took the topic and the meaning behind the message and made it completely negative. You took the time to down play every POSITIVE aspect of the speakers message. Not once did she mock homeless people.”
Here’s where we’re going to have some firm disagreement, Sheila.
You see, I can’t illustrate any positive aspect of the speaker’s message when it does not exist.
I read Ms. Lowery’s quotes in the marketing material and watched a video of her speech. I have…no idea where you are finding a positive message. Even if her core message of teaching college student leaders that they need to learn how to ask for what they need is a positive message, it is overridden by her means to tell that story. Describing the one experience she had watching a man experiencing homelessness ask for money and using that experience as the foundation for her speech, does not make a positive message.
That’s like saying I should be happy that white women at least get $0.77 to a man’s dollar. You know, I mean, sure, it’s not a WHOLE DOLLAR like a man, but at least I got 77 cents! Geez, Niki, hush your mouth and look at the positive aspects of getting money in the first place instead of being barefoot and in the kitchen!
Now I’m going to go back to the points addressed in #2 about systemic oppression.
Sheila, when you say that Ms. Lowery was not mocking “the homeless”, I believe your concept of mocking comes from a privileged perspective. We tend to think that people are straight up with their oppression. Like Donald Sterling saying point-blank he didn’t want his girlfriend to associate with black people. Or how domestic violence is actually a thing that happens, but only when Ray Rice is caught on video knocking out his fiancé.
The world is not evenly split between Bad People and Good People. Mocking does not only mean pointing at someone and laughing, like Nelson from the Simpsons.
The speaker’s statement of “They have a need and are often not ashamed to tell you that need, in spite of being hungry or cold” clearly shows she is telling a single story and her privilege of not being homeless likely blinds her; because this statement is a mockery of the actual life experiences of people experiencing homelessness.
Imitation is not a form of flattery, and in the case of Ms. Lowery holding up a cardboard sign with the statement “Will Work 4 Leadership”, it is a poor imitation of someone else’s experiences that do not belong to her. It is a cruel mockery of someone else’s life. Using it to ‘teach leadership’ to students that are mostly going to be privileged enough to have a home makes me literally feel ill.
So yes, she is mocking people. Even though, I am sure, she does not mean to.
…and Sheila, as for your statement of “So it’s not about the check, Niki is it? It’s about making a difference and changing lives” I am sure you are correct about the speaker’s and CAMPUSPEAK’s intentions. But that doesn’t change the fact that the experiences of people experiencing homelessness are stereotyped and thrust into a narrative that does not financially or emotionally support their wellbeing. Instead it only supports the finances and careers of people who are privileged enough to not consider that this approach is harmful in the first place.<—this is one aspect of systemic oppression, y’all. The privileged profit (financially, intellectually, emotionally [i.e. ‘inspirational moment in my life], etc) off of the experiences of those without privilege. Ask yourself: what are those without privilege recieving for their contribution?
4) Would this presentation properly educate myself and others?
“How about you sit in one of the seminars, you could learn a thing or two. I know plenty of young people who have heard the same message, grasped the right things from it and learned.”
I can afford to learn a lot. I love learning the perspectives and experiences of others because it makes the narrow focus of my own life experiences widen to accommodate other realities that exist outside my own. I have no doubt Ms. Lowery could teach me a lot. Unfortunately, as you can probably tell since I’m in the 2000+ word count already, I don’t believe I could with this presentation.
I’m rather appalled you believe you have the authority to state that you know plenty of young people who heard this message and grasped the right things and learned. For one, show me the assessment. And no – don’t just ask questions about the speaker’s learning outcomes. I want to see assessment that says that students have a better understanding of the issue of homelessness after this presentation. I want assessment that analyzes how the presentation contributed to their conscious and unconscious thoughts about people experiencing homelessness, both before and after the presentation.
Frankly, I believe that you think these young people got the right message, but since you do not even believe there is an issue with how the topic of homelessness is incorporated into the message, I doubt you were looking to observe how student perception may/may not have changed.
“Not trying to bash you, and freedom of speech is the American way.”
And your reward for reading this far: