Category Archives: Vassar in the World

The Structural Pitfalls of Consciousness

When we talk about spreading the language of structural “ism-s” as a part of the campus mission to generate a more conscious community, these are important steps, but I think we should be attentive to how far this process can really take us. Part of today’s discussion focused on how the college can institutionalize certain practices and ideas to establish itself as a more progressive space; I remember Maya talking about how discourses surrounding trans-misogyny could be introduced on the house team level and Raquel mentioning the incorporation of a diversity video during orientation week. I believe that both of these advances are necessary, because as I said in class, initiating institutional methods (possibly also a social consciousness requirement) affirm a commitment to doing the work of understanding each other and creating a better community.

But I think it’s also important to think beyond this education and push ourselves to imagine what teaching social consciousness actually looks like in practice, and what its consequences could be (as Maya has done in a great blog post below). Educators—i.e. professors, friends, classmates—can make the effort to inculcate the language of structural racism, for example, but is their work then complete when an unenlightened student can finally say, “the U.S. was founded on the principle of white supremacy,” without blinking? The point I’m trying to make was put really well in this piece on “Fake Male Feminism” I read last month (from a guest post on Prof. Kiese Laymon’s blog):

“…[C]onfusingly, misogynists are sometimes men who speak softly and eat vegan and say ‘a woman’s sexual freedom is an essential component to her liberation.  So come here.’ It’s a tricky world out there.  And while I’d prefer a critical approach to gender from men I elect, read, and even bed, in my experience, the so-called feminist men I’ve met deep down have not been less antagonistic or bigoted toward women.  What I see over and over again is misogyny in sheep’s clothing, and at this point, I would rather see wolves as wolves.”

It’s a scary thought, but it’s true. To say these forces are tricky almost sounds petty, since the magnitude of destruction they have wrought looms large. But we know that racism/sexism/etc. take on more subtle forms than in the past; people can co-opt the language of oppression to present the façade of being on your side and then turn around and become the oppressor. I have seen Vassar classmates inveigh against the patriarchy during the day and promote violence against women by night. At a certain point the language we try to use as an entry point for dialogue can become a tool to masquerade more insidious forms of oppression. Ultimately this teaching process may successfully develop a surface-level ideological assimilation, but we’ll never be able to change individual will.

I think what this speaks to most is that those who are trying to educate are working in opposition to centuries of mis-education in this country. Institutional forces have established and reinforced hierarchies since this nation’s inception, and college only arrives in our lives after nearly two decades of exposure to, and often integration into, these systems.[1] So by the time many students get to Vassar, they have been conditioned by a world that embraces these hierarchies. This may also go back to what Professor Alamo pointed out today about our fear of failure. Failing is particularly stigmatized in the U.S., and I think that students (typically white males) instinctively resist implicating themselves in any critical look at privilege because it has shaped much of their experience in ways they don’t want to confront. I think we may regard the process of reckoning with this privilege as a sign of weakness or failure, when in fact it should be a success for which we strive.

I’m still sorting all of this out as I write so I welcome any comments/critiques to help me think this through. Thanks to the professors and the class for having the conversation today.

[1] Obviously, even colleges/universities have not been exempt from complicity in these oppressive systems for much of US history.