Learning Until You Realize You Know Nothing: My Buyer’s Remorse For That Gender Studies Degree

[Content note: reflections on oppression in higher education, ableism, racism].

My last semester of college, I got drunk with a few of my music major friends and told them that I wish I could start over and major in something real like music because I believed gender, like Santa Claus, was a socially-constructed concept, and I didn’t want to have a degree in Santa Claus Studies. While I once again find value talking about gender and oppression, I can describe more about what I didn’t learn in school than what I did. The feelings of fantasy about my Gender Studies degree are returning.

If you had asked me just a few years ago, I would have said that I totally understood oppression and intersectionality. Allow me to caricature a former version of myself…[problematic thinking over-sampled for emphasis]

I have a degree in Gender Studies and Psychology. This means I literally have a piece of paper somewhere in a box at my parents’ house that says that I know stuff about Gender that I can put on a resume so I can show my authority on the subject. I can also tell you my relevant coursework- Psychology and Women, Human Sexuality, Women in American History, Philosophy of Sex and Love, Literature and Disability…the list goes on! Now…I work at a clinic that specializes in women’s health! That’s like…doing gender stuff for money!  And that’s how we measure worth, right? If someone pays you to do something, AND you have the piece of paper from an ACCREDITED INSTITUTION, it means you really understand it, and my gender is oppressed so I get oppression.” 

I (thank goodness) have grown in my understanding of oppression and intersectionality.

While reading some Peggy McIntosh here or some Frye there at school (in every freaking class) changed the way I think about a lot, I learn new limitations of my degree and why I don’t know things all of the time. All I had to do was read the walls of text between the cute cat gifs and the fandom art on my Tumblr feed to get a good idea of the vast world that my Gender Studies degree completely missed.

It’s not that I went to a bad university- in fact, on the scale of universities in Massachusetts (a state with a diversity problem), I went to a fairly diverse one. But there are certain limitations that any higher education institution will face when talking about oppression. We could not have been taught about a huge subset of people because we did not get access to material outside of our professors’ view. College content is curated by people who often get called “doctor” or “professor”, who not only also went to college but also went to grad school, and then engaged in a super-competitive process to gain a spot as a professor somewhere. Our colleges themselves are “accredited” by systems designed by people in power to make sure that anyone who calls themselves a college is “legitimate”. And in the academic world, we have always been taught to back everything we say up with peer-reviewed sources because the only way to know it was okay to use is if it “checks out” by other academics, while academia is littered with exclusionary behavior and plagiarizing people who are not even invited to the table.

My degree didn’t teach me about oppression really. It taught me a narrow view of oppression, but I was almost trained to oppress people as part of the course of study because so much of academia is a lab of hegemony (don’t believe me? Here’s an academic paper on why academia is hegemonic), and I was so immersed. Gender Studies grads are told that we are now experts on gender-based oppression because we got a piece of paper that says we are, and thus can demand respect on the subject of oppression (and often are taught that we should, because a high percentage of Gender Studies scholars are women, and we all learned all about how women don’t assert themselves in the workforce/academia. Lean in, ladies!).

I don’t mean to discount my Gender Studies professors or people who study gender/oppression in university settings at all. There are so many amazing people who look at the big, intersectional picture and do really great work. But it was very easy for me to come out of school thinking I was an expert on oppression unchecked, because I hadn’t been made aware of my blind spots (we had a whole DAY in Gender Studies 101 dedicated to Women of Color!). But as I listened more, I realized that I haven’t always been the perfect, intersectional, anti-racist feminist I thought. The more I read and heard, the more blindspots I encountered, until I had encountered enough blind spots that I knew there were things that I could never be the expert on because I had not lived them, and even if a system of oppression applied to me, I could be accidentally oppressing others at the table by speaking over them or for them. This is the exact problematic behavior that social justice advocates are talking about when they say “White Feminism”.

If you do think you know everything about all forms of oppression, you need to do a little more listening.

I have spent the last few months listening more to conversations about autism. April has been dubbed “Autism Awareness Month” by several organizations, including the problematic Autism Speaks, which has a long history of doing more hurting than helping people with autism. I used to think their “Light It Up Blue” campaign was really cool because it raised “awareness” of “how bad” autism is, and that’s embarrassing to me now. The message wasn’t “people with autism are cool people!”, it was really about “we need to cure autism! Or at least make those people more ‘normal’ like us!”  Though I am neurodivergent, I was supporting an organization that is oppressive towards people with other types of neurodivergencies.

It’s #LIUB season again for “Autism Awareness Month”, and as autistic people have asked other allistic (not-autistic) people to do is to wear red for Autism Acceptance Month with #WalkInRed2015.

{Photo: the author, a woman with curly hair and a red sweatshirt on symbolizing autism acceptance, in her home)

{Photo: the author, a woman with curly red hair and a red sweatshirt on symbolizing autism acceptance, in her home)

I have listened enough now that I have learned that having autism isn’t at all like having a deadly cancer, so it doesn’t need to be fixed. Unlike the awareness campaigns of some illnesses that teach us of a health behavior that can protect our health (like getting a colon screening or vaccinating your kids), autism doesn’t need preventing.  What needs to be fixed is the problem amongst allistic people systematically not giving space for autistic people to be themselves if they don’t fit between the narrow lines allistic people put forth.

I am grateful that people helped me check my biases about autism. There are great organizations you may want to research that do that work well. Organizations run by people who are in that group should be the authority on their own communities, because they know what their community really needs, not what outsiders think the community needs. Though I know I had the best of intentions as someone who cared when I helped out with #LIUB in college, it took until I really listened to realize that “awareness campaigns” aren’t always inherently about helping. I could make a list of some bad awareness campaigns I helped spread while I was in college. I thought I knew oppression, but I now know I knew nothing at all.

We also may find as we do more listening that we have been oppressors of ourselves. Like my naive caricature of myself above, I also had (and still have!) blind spots about having a disability that doesn’t have much visibility. Around the same era, I could have thought something along the lines of this:

“I have the piece of paper from an accredited academic institution and a full-time job- how can I *really* have a disability? I do okay because look! Job and independent living! My seizures only happen at night now- no biggie! Remember- my piece of paper!!!!

So like. Yeah I shouldn’t put that disability honor society on my resume- it’ll cause more trouble than good. It wasn’t that hard to go to school having a few seizures a day. I mean I don’t need to scare future employers over it. They say it’s in my head anyways so whatever, I’m just being dramatic and being a *slew of ableist slurs*.”

I didn’t always have a disability, but I always “cared about” people with disabilities, so I thought I got it, yet it took me so long to accept that my illness fell in the “disability” category because I had a lot of ableist views that were dissonant with my achievements. Even though I have a neuropsychological disorder that affects the way my brain and my body communicates and is under-recognized and treated poorly by the medical community, I was so ashamed of the disability letters I’d have to give my professors on the first day of class. Years later, I hadn’t haven’t fully accepted that I am a person with a disability because I had internalized some very ableist messages about disabilities (especially the ones you can’t see outwardly) and the “kinds of people” who have them. I am *just* starting to talk about my disability with a wider group of people, despite 6 years of having very disruptive symptoms (and 25 years of having an outgoing, erring-on-the-side-of-TMI personality).

And having a disability doesn’t mean that I now have become an expert on having all disabilities, it means that I know a lot about what my life is like with my disability, and I can reflect on that experience. And when people say “Nothing About Us Without Us Is For Us“, I understand it more than I used to on a personal level because I have felt silenced in so many ways by doctors, but I know that these experiences aren’t enough- I still have listening to do. The difference is I can see that being a person who cares a lot with a baseline knowledge of a disability is not the same as “getting it” now.

I still have this piece of paper that says that I get gender oppression, but I’m not banking my future on it anymore. I have learned enough after my initial period of exploring that I am no expert on oppression and have too much to learn and I have learned that I am not the right voice for every intersection of oppression. I learned enough to finally realize that I know almost nothing at all. 

~AMS

EDIT 12:36 PM EDT: I changed a verb disagreement and added a link to the Autism Acceptance Month hashtag- #WalkInRed2015. 

What A Year For A(nother) New Year…

(Content Note: I mention struggles with PTSD/nonepileptic seizures, controlling messages from a abusive relationship I had in high school, and medical power and control).

Just around New Year’s Eve last year, I wrote the first blog post at this URL.

Ringing in 2014 {Two romantic partners drink beer during a selfie}

Ringing in 2014 {Two romantic partners drink some mead during a selfie. Selfie. 2013 or 2014- right on the line.}

I was so excited to be settling down in a new city with an amazing person, but this year itself started in a painful way. My cousin Craig lost his battle to brain cancer during the first few days of 2014. Right after I returned from his memorial services, I got news that a cousin from the other side, Nate, lost his life in a horrible car accident. Just one of these losses would be almost impossible to bear on its own, but the two together made it very hard for me to enjoy my first few months in DC. The stress of moving and the losses of my cousins caused my seizure disorder to relapse after a year seizure free, causing me to lose my driver’s license.

We lived in a somewhat cramped apartment with some wonderful people. Kelsey worked (and still works) mostly from home, while I sat around the house applying for any job that interested me remotely. When I needed a break, I would go on a “Date With DC“, to try to rekindle the spark that brought me to DC in the first place.

Things started to look up in April. I started a job that I really wanted. Kelsey and I decided to spend forever together, and with our respective parents’ blessings (Note: we didn’t ask the other’s parents, but our own), we got engaged.

{Photo: a man in a suit and top hat, down on one knee, placing a ring on a standing woman's hand. Woman is wearing an orange-pink dress with a matching flower in her hair}

{Photo: a man in a suit and top hat, down on one knee, placing a ring on a standing woman’s hand. Woman is wearing an orange-pink dress with a matching flower in her hair}

This was so, so exciting for us both!

Though I was in good spirits, my health problems caused by PTSD were getting worse and worse.  This summer was one of the roughest times of my life. I no longer found meaning in the work I decided to do when I was 15, so getting out of bed, eating, and all of the necessary “go be a human” tasks like dressing myself and taking a shower felt like asking me to hike Mt. Everest. I started almost every morning with a seizure. I had doctors treat me abusively in ways that my (awesome) primary care doctor would say that would be funny if it weren’t my health on the line.

My “saving grace” (get it?) during this time was getting more involved with church. Teaching youth group, protesting alongside other people of faith for racial justice, and volunteering when I can with the Reeb Project (<-guys I’m on Youtube!), which is working to restore voting rights after Shelby. It’s hard to explain to people outside my faith how one can find more in common with atheists than not and still self-identify as “incredibly religious” sometimes, but being a Unitarian Universalist is great.

Even with the amazing support of my church family, my situation got to the point where I didn’t have a choice- I couldn’t keep running on empty while confronting PTSD concerns that had been on the back-burner for years. Even Kim Kardashian: Hollywood couldn’t help me remember to take care of myself, so I took some time off to focus on mental health and started a day program in Baltimore to get me back on my feet. While I was in this program, I also attended the first ever US conference on Psychogenic Nonepileptic Seizures, and met Dr. Lorna Myers and so many wonderful people who also suffer from these seizures and their caregivers. I learned that this disease is as common as Multiple Sclerosis, yet I regularly have to explain the basic mechanisms to doctors, and they usually don’t believe me until Kelsey (the Man!) gets there with a copy of Dr. Myers’ book. Our community adopted teal and purple as awareness colors, and my almost-mother-in-law knit me teal and purple socks for Christmas.

During this time, I thought a lot about the opportunities that could have been. I wished I had studied harder in math and science growing up. I blamed myself for the fact that the college calculus and A&P classes I took in high school were so daunting to balance while dealing with an abusive relationship with someone who often said I wasn’t smart enough or emotionally mature enough for my med school plans. I felt lazy for dropping chemistry and biology when my seizures were completely out of control in early college. After a few weeks months of self-hatred, I stopped blaming myself and started thinking constructively.

I thought about the things that I type into Google Scholar when I can’t sleep that don’t actually put me to sleep because I want to keep learning. I started de-stressing by running diagnostics on my computer and the WiFi network to make sure we had optimal performance on my aging computer and iffy connection. I signed up for those Girls Who Code MeetUp groups. Maybe in 2015, I’ll go. I decided that Kelsey needed to know more trigonometry and precalculus, so I impulse-purchased my favorite textbook.

{Photo: Textbook. "Who Is Fourier? A Mathematical Adventure" by the Transnational College of LEX. Has some illustrations of some old white dudes, you know, as college textbooks do. But it's really good!!}

{Photo: Textbook. “Who Is Fourier? A Mathematical Adventure” by the Transnational College of LEX. Has some illustrations of some old white dudes, you know, as college textbooks do. But it’s really good!! Oh and there is a woman on there in the corner. Feminism!}

Maybe in 2015, we’ll actually use it.

While this was all going on, we were, as a nation, really trying to process Michael Brown’s murder (this was before the not-indictment), and all of these horrific stories of violence police have shown, especially towards the black community. I thought about who should be the leaders of the feminist movement, and the fact that there’s a lot of white, cis, college-educated women running feminist organizations, and I present able-bodied. I thought that I would affect more positive feminist change as a woman in tech who carries a gender studies lens with her than I would in a so-called feminist job.

I thought about good ways to get my feet wet in tech, and decided to apply for my current job. It was the right call and also came at a time where I could no longer balance my allyship to other oppressed groups and the job I had at the time. So I left that job, had a week off, and started at my new gig, part-time, leaving lots of room for getting back on my feet.

I am much happier learning exciting things and adapting at my new work place. Today marks 2 months since my first day, and I can’t decide if that’s way longer or shorter than it feels. And this workplace seems to treat workers with dignity in ways I never dreamed. All I could hear in my head for weeks was Jerry Garcia’s voice singing, “every once in a while you get shown in the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right,” which was a nice change from the usual, “I was walking round Grosvenor Square” every time a Red Line-Grosvenor train would come. Fun fact: DC says it wrong if you were raised by Deadheads (here’s a nice 25-min, live version of “Scarlet Begonias/Fire on the Mountain” from New Year’s Eve, 1978. Figured it’s nice and festive). Though the holidays were very hectic, once I found a comfortable work place, everything else fell into place and I didn’t really notice that much.

Though I wouldn’t say that I am without medical challenges, my seizures are (finally!) in control again. I found medications that work well for me as I process through the PTSD (and newly diagnosed ADHD) that has reeked havoc on my body for years- but most of the positive change has been environmental.

And I feel like I’ve grown so, so much.

Next year, I want to grow even more. I’ll go to those “learn to code” free/affordable events you see around DC all of the time. I’ll cruise Coursera and local classes to do math for school for the first time in (yikes!) eight years. I got a beautiful sewing machine for Christmas, and after I finish the owl snuggie I promised Kelsey (his idea!), I want to make lots of comfy dresses with pockets. For feminism. Also because they’re cute. I want to keep staying involved in my faith community. While I want to live in the moment, I need to respect that things from my past will find their way out if I don’t address them.

Also I want to marry this guy in 2015. July sounds nice.

{Photo: a couple poses for a selfie with red clown noses on. One is wearing a pin that says Thunder Thighs}

{Photo: a couple poses for a selfie with red clown noses on. One is wearing a pin that says Thunder Thighs. Selfie. 2014.}

Shout out- Kelsey has been the most supportive human in the universe, and I am so, so grateful for every minute I get to spend with him. Which is a lot, because he works at home and I work part time, and we go most places together.

He even takes me along when he goes on international TV.

{Screenshot: Kelsey on the BBC, talking about why he's skeptical of Call of Duty predicting the future of war. Like a boss.}

{Screenshot: Kelsey on the BBC, talking about why he’s skeptical of Call of Duty predicting the future of war. Like a boss.}

Getting out of this year on top was also made possible by support from both of our families and our dear friends far and near. Special shout-out to Liz because she moved here and it was the best thing.

{Photo: A woman dressed as Rosie the Riveter and another dressed as Ms. Frizzle: underwater edition. Selfie, 2014}.

{Photo: A woman dressed as Rosie the Riveter and another dressed as Ms. Frizzle: underwater edition. Selfie, 2014}.

Anyways. Thanks, 2014. You had so many ups and downs, and really made me grow in ways that I hadn’t imagined. Let’s see what 2015 will bring, but I will just focus on today.

Kelsey and I. Today. {A romantic couple poses for a selfie}.

Kelsey and I. Today. {A romantic couple poses for a selfie. Selfie. 2014}.

What a Year for a New Year

I started 2014 in a really big way- I quit grad school and moved from my home in North Central Massachusetts to Washington, DC. I felt like my program wasn’t the right fit and I always loved this area- most of my spring breaks in college were spent on lobbying trips to DC. Plus I had a pretty compelling reason to move sooner rather than later. 

Ringing in 2014.

Ringing in 2014 with my partner.

Though New Orleans put up a good fight to be my next home, DC won in the end. I’ve been here since Sunday.

My biggest next step is finding work here. I was advised by many that the way to do DC is to come down here first and look for jobs on the ground, with a DC address and a WINList membership. I created networking cards so I can find work as a sexual health consultant- available for workshops, writing policies, and other advocacy efforts. I am spending my time learning new media platforms and keeping up to date on news related to my field.

I also need to do things like unpack, find doctors, and get a local bank account, but everything in time.

So what is this blog’s purpose? In part, to share my thoughts and ideas about my biggest passions- social justice, reproductive rights, feminism, combating ableism, sexuality, and environmental health. It’s also in part to keep my friends and family back in Massachusetts in the loop about my adventures. Though New Years Resolutions seem to get a lot of negative attitudes, I didn’t move 400 miles to not make any changes, and it just so happens that my move aligned with this new year. I hope to update this blog regularly, so keep an eye out.

❤ ams