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.