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Mired in contradictions: Social justice institutions and gender work

For the past three years my department at work has benefited from government-subsidized summer student interns. The students continually inject new ‘youthful’ ideas on ways in which to harness the ‘boundless possibilities’ of the internet and new technologies to keep the work vibrant. Their rewards, in addition to a better paying summer job, are lessons on patience, rigour, patience and more patience in carrying out action-oriented research.

This year is no different in one sense. I have just hired my fourth student intern and in orienting her to the tasks with an encouragement to her to infuse her work with creativity, I received many ideas in quick succession: Let’s create a Twitter account! How about using survey monkey instead of email? I’ll borrow books from the library to learn Spanish tomorrow! Clearly, she’s raring to go, just as much as did her predecessors.

This year is different in another sense. It is becoming more clear to me that social justice institutions can remain perpetually trapped in inconsistencies that negate the ideals for which they claim to stand. The patterns explain why my department, nominally the ‘gender department’, has appeared to be an entity independent of the larger institution of which it is a part. Daily conversations as well as analyses from institutional evaluations seem to converge at this conclusion.

I am no longer puzzled by the constant need to underscore the department as a part of the whole. It is concerning that the department needs to seek mediation for the other components of the institution to play their role to support its work. Take for instance the process required to hire the intern. One initial key task is the administrative element of completing government paperwork, carrying out the routine orientation for the intern or simply providing a door pass-key to her. It is not a question of the individual failing of the administrator who chooses not to play his role, rather, the problem lies in the institution’s silent support of his choice not to be accountable. The instances of differential treatment add up and so does the evidence.

The examples are endless and the point is not to list them here. Rather, it is to underscore a pattern of differential treatment. A one-time omission may be attributed to an oversight. Several oversights become a pattern which then constitutes itself into a body of indisputable evidence of, in my case, systematic marginalisation. I begin to wonder whether perhaps the work done in and through the department is considered marginal, trivial and hence unworthy of support. Perhaps because the work asks questions about the margins that the mainstream tends really not to trouble itself with. In stark contrast to the department’s contribution to raising the institution’s profile not only in circles interested in that type of feminist work, but also in the broader academic discipline and field within which the work is situated.

I have seen the patterns repeated in other institutions in which I have worked. Gender departments or in some cases, gender ‘desks’ tend to be marginalized and receive little support from the other constituent departments in organisations. Only in fully feminist or women-focussed organisations does gender work have the space to thrive unfettered by questionable attitudes (of course within the constraints posed by ordinary institutional functioning struggles).

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Dare to object to prejudice

dare to object to prejudice and injustice - Gloria Ray Karlmark

“Dare to object to prejudice and injustice” – Gloria Ray Karlmark.

Feminist standpoint epistemology theory has crystallized for me in a whole new light. I am no longer surprised that individuals, and indeed institutions, can profess to be ‘progressive’ yet remain unable to recognize systemic injustice. Standpoint epistemology explains to me the inability of an individual differently located to recognize identity-based oppression and discrimination occurring in their immediate environment. How does one explain to a different ‘other’ that talking through what the ‘other’ believes to be a ‘personality conflict’ will not lead to real or lasting transformation? Should one even try?

Well, this past week I resolved to follow Gloria Ray Karlmark’s exhortation. I dared to object to prejudice, to call discrimination by name and say yes, it was on the basis of racism, sexism and ageism, at the very least. To my surprise, my objections evoked yet another intersecting explanatory variable – a remnant colonial mentality; in a different era, my ‘oppressor’ (if we were to call him that) and myself would have had a colonizer/colonized, exploiter/exploited relation. A refreshing analysis indeed from a ‘different other’ but with whom I share the female and feminist identities. My proposal for a structural solution – to put in place an explicit institutional anti-discrimination policy – was well received and accepted.

There is hope that those in positions of epistemic privilege can help willing others in different social locations ‘see’ – perhaps not ‘understand’, but nevertheless ‘acknowledge’ – prejudice, oppression, discrimination – in hues they cannot experience.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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