Questions in the Interest of Progress

I have been a university student for seven years now. I pride myself on the fact that I did most of my learning outside the classroom. (If we’re honest with ourselves, I’m sure we would all say the same). A lot of that “informal” education came from the jobs I had in my field. But more than that, I learned through student activism and volunteer work — from my colleagues, really, and our collective efforts. It’s not any course in women’s studies — I didn’t take any! — that brought me to feminism. It was those other wonderful experiences and relationships.

I just finished my first year of law school. Happy to be here, and happy with the decision to go to the school that I did — one that prides itself on its commitment to principles of social justice, even though it sometimes falls short of them.

Confronting privilege is nothing new for me. I’m a racial minority woman going to school in Ottawa, for crying out loud! At the same time, I’m in a position of privilege by virtue of that. Yet, as this year has shown, the extent to which some people have not yet had their privilege challenged never ceases to amaze me.

Yes, it’s law school. It’s disproportionately upper middle-class, and brings in a certain “kind” of individual. Still, it’s unnerving the number of highly-educated, well-traveled, seemingly well-rounded people who fail to think twice before complaining that there are more women than men in law school; that affirmative action is reverse discrimination; that listening to a panel of female professors is alienating; that there is no such thing as a poverty cycle in Canada; that whenever the issue of sexual assault comes up in class they, as men, feel victimized; that they’re sick of looking at courses from an aboriginal law perspective; that they’re unconcerned by racism, unless it’s toward a close personal friend; and that the law cannot and should not be a remedy for racial discrimination, because status quo, yo.

Let me say, I’m an open-minded person. I don’t just mean a “progressive” person. I’m also eager to debate and engage people with differing views. However, the reality is that bringing about the kinder, feminist, collectively-oriented, direct democracy I envision will require changing political culture, changing people’s thinking issue by issue and as a whole.

To the point: How do we get more people (especially young people) on board with progressive social change? If all these well-educated, interesting people, who have had every opportunity to be exposed to progressive ideas in so-called liberal arts programs, can unwittingly believe such problematic things, is there hope in reaching out to them?

I like my classmates. Few are malicious. Many are simply oblivious, but to my mind that’s just as harmful, especially given the authority our society grants those with law degrees, formally or informally.

So how do we effectively reach out to people with these viewpoints? Is there a point at which someone is a lost cause? I hope not!

It can be exhausting, feeling like you’re always on the defensive with a simple ultimate objective of creating a more accepting community. It’s easy to say “well, that’s not my job”, or “why should I have to take on so much when my classmates are blissful ignorant and working towards better grades because of it?” (I know, I’ve said it!)

The simple answer is, because that’s what got you here. Someone at some point took the time to reach out to you. A blogger, an author, a classmate, an activist, a professor – as difficult as it may be, it’s on you (us!) to pay it forward and work on reaching out to our classmates.

Two more years of law friendships certainly will not mean everyone will share my political views (how boring would that be!), but it should mean that they will respect them, and be critical and sensitive in theirs. I’m willing to take on that challenge, because a few uncomfortable conversations are better than biting your tongue and feeling marginalized.

If anyone calls you out on it, just say you’re “networking”. These discussions will surely pay off in your future career – and in theirs.

My hope for this blog space is to write about the best methods for doing outreach on campus. I’m of the “more flies with honey” school, and looking to inspire more genuine dialogue along those lines.

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One thought on “Questions in the Interest of Progress

  1. David says:

    I have a few concerns and questions, if that’s all-right, but first I have to provide some backstory for context.

    I am a heterosexual WASP, with a hard P, university student, and male. It’s out there, please try to avoid demonizing me until you read the rest of the post. By this point in my life I am sick of being called incapable of recognizing privilege, and having people tell me I can’t understand discrimination, or simply cuting off my questions or advice with a “Check your privilege”. Because my race, gender, and culture do not preclude me from being discriminated against.

    As a highschooler I became very active in a summer camp, I loved to volunteer there and teach children, unfortunately getting positions there was very difficult for me because I was male. The camp had a policy that males were not allowed to supervise cabins where female children would be staying, apparently my gender made me some sort of demon that was untrustworthy and unemployable, as a highschool boy, struggles with relationships, university applications and parents were enough stress, being told that I wasn’t allowed to be in the presence of female children because of my gender made me feel deeply unwanted and un-needed in the world. According to the camp I was obviously some kind of pervert and scum because of the way I was born.

    Moving on to become a university student I was/am constantly mocked and criticized for being religious, there are an untold number of jokes and some blatant hatred towards the religious inside of STEM fields, apparently my culture makes me unfit to be learning how to help the injured and the sick.

    Gay-straight alliance groups and LGBT groups in the community and in university constantly talk about the religous, but more importantly shut down any help or feedback from cis-white males, no matter how many homosexual children I worked with at camp, or friends or family who are LGBT, apparently I simply am unable to have empathy or want to help because I am a priveledged heterosexual.

    I am aware that there are other groups that experience more hardship and more severe discrimination, but I am sick and tired of being told that I can’t have empathy, because I have experienced gender, culture and race-based discrimination and I can understand how much it hurts.

    So when I see your paragraph:

    “Yes, it’s law school. It’s disproportionately upper middle-class, and brings in a certain “kind” of individual. Still, it’s unnerving the number of highly-educated, well-traveled, seemingly well-rounded people who fail to think twice before complaining that there are more women than men in law school; that affirmative action is reverse discrimination; that listening to a panel of female professors is alienating; that there is no such thing as a poverty cycle in Canada; that whenever the issue of sexual assault comes up in class they, as men, feel victimized; that they’re sick of looking at courses from an aboriginal law perspective; that they’re unconcerned by racism, unless it’s toward a close personal friend; and that the law cannot and should not be a remedy for racial discrimination, because status quo, yo.”

    I am deeply concerned and even wounded because in my field there are upwards of 80% women, and yet no government jobs or scholarships come to male students, and I *do* feel concern over the gender ratio because I know too many male nursing students who are told to leave rooms where women are having breast exams or OB/GYN procedures simply because the senior nurses assume that the patient will be uncomfortable (without asking the patient).

    Listening to a panel of female professors *is* alienating, it is hard enough being in the health-sciences without having female professors grill you or give you lectures on how females are underrepresented and that they need more females. It makes me feel unwanted and tells me that wanting to help people is not something I should be doing, because 40 years ago to doctors-to-be were mostly male therefore I shouldn’t be in this class because I’m taking up a spot that could go to a girl.

    “That whenever the issue of sexual assault comes up in class they, as men, feel victimized” it is hard to be constantly bombarded by sexual assault posters and propaganda, especially those that imply that all men are rapists, it’s not alright. There are clearly issues here, but maybe the fact that so many men are feeling victimized should tell you that the approach and underlying issues should be looked at, instead of yelling at people who are innocent and feel victimized already.

    “The law cannot and should not be a remedy for racial discrimination” I am no law student, but I am sometimes worried that the stop-gap measures and corrective laws will never leave the books. Government hiring practices mean that landing jobs at health-sciences labs is impossible for my gender and race, what happens in 20 years when 80% of all the healthcare industry is female, that is no better than what was going on 20 years ago.

    It seems to me that you are making many assumptions about your peers, and that you refuse to accept that there are legitimate issues on both sides of the fence here.

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