Deleting Social Media

(To the reader: This is both a blog and a book review)

We at HCG have been considering deleting our social media accounts for quite some time, but were caught in the (erroneous) belief that doing so would be too detrimental to our work (getting our work out and keeping up with the work of others). We had an inkling that these platforms were not on the up and up given Facebook’s value as a multibillion dollar enterprise (roughly $139 billion as of July 2018) while offering a “free” service to 2.3 billion monthly active users. Nothing is really free in the realm of the corporatocracy and thus Facebook’s services, Google’s (3.5 billion searches a day and worth over $239 billion) search engine and gmail, and the like…none of them are really free. Not being very tech savvy, however, we were not able to pinpoint exactly “why” we did not trust these venues and the benevolence of their services and so we stayed.

Adding to our discomfort was the persistence of trolling on these platforms and the ease with which even the most affable of folks turned into truly awful people, saying things they would never dream of saying face to face. Lindy West wrote about her troll (Shrill, 2016) and noted that when she met him, he seemed like a nice enough guy who really had no idea why he chose such a cruel response to her – it just seemed so easy and he kind of went with it. The combination of the shadowy nature with which these platforms operate, the social detritus that they seem to encourage, and the way they influence our society in lowest-common-denominator ways all pointed to “leave social media”. And yet, we still did not. It’s gravitational pull was quite strong, and that coupled with a little FOMO made us stay. Additionally, it did not appear to be a decision anyone else was making and so we were hesitant to do it. Then the switch flipped. A year of problematic headlines for various social media giants, the most visible of which were the revelations regarding the 2016 presidential election and our reading of Jaron Lanier’s book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, 2018, tipped the scales and convinced us to leave all social media. Viewed as one of social media’s / the tech world’s key players, it is all the more poignant that he advocates abandoning the current iteration of social media. Not being a “tech skeptic”, and definitely not a luddite, his insider reasoning is clearly laid out in ten arguments (listed below). Embedded across his “ten reasons” are a few key themes that were compelling to us and perhaps they will be to you as well.

In one theme he underscores how the business model for these platforms pushes them to increasingly mine, store and sell every bit of personal information you share. Some social media users often compare this to TV ads and say they do not mind the data sharing given that services are free. What almost all of us do not understand about this process, however, is that the data then gets utilized by algorithms designed to craft and cater information in line with that personal data. Thus, there is an ever-increasing “bubble” effect. More insidiously, the algorithms use this information to deeply but subtly manipulate the user into increased behavior modification that serves the corporations buying the data – what the platforms call “user engagement” but what Lanier describes as intense and ongoing manipulation. He highlights how social media users may “think” we are exercising free will when expressing interest in a particular product/headline/action, but in fact we are being constantly (and he means constantly) manipulated, herded if you will, in one direction or another. The free business model is not at all free and we are not the users of social media, we are actually the commodity major corporations (the real users) are buying from social media platforms. Our free will within these settings is, in the long run, a myth as the highly sophisticated algorithms continually adapt to our “preferences” and feed us more of what we think our “preferences” are.

The second major theme is what this does to us as people. In short, he says it makes us “assholes” (argument three). The algorithms arc to what sparks strong reactions in us. Citing cognitive psychology sources, Lanier says that tends to be negative emotions, comments, or responses. The loudest jerk, then, gets the most attention leading the algorithms to adapt in that direction. In this light the corresponding erosion of our public discourse on social media makes a lot more sense – if the platform algorithms respond to the most robust responses, and if negative responses are easier to trigger, land more loudly and energetically, and in the end are the more “robust” then the algorithms more consistently adapt in that direction. Social media celebrities who are brazen and off the rails get more hits and likes than do those who make measured critiques, consider multiple views and are grounded in care and respect. The quintessential example he gives is Donald Trump whom he says is by no means an anomaly, but is instead the likely outcome of social media platforms whose core programs favor that tonal narrative. Of course, everyday folks fall into that trend as well. In the end, to get more views, likes and to be validated on social media, you have to be a bit of an asshole.

The third major theme is what social media does to our society. Lanier says it makes us callous, it deeply obscures truth and the need to be truly well informed, and it herds us into what appear to be highly polarized camps, even though US society is actually not as polarized as mainstream media would have us think. As the algorithms continue to show us the bubbles of our “choices” we lose the ability to understand someone else’s point of view. One of the most vital elements of a democracy is the ability to talk across difference and find some measure of common ground. These platforms make that virtually impossible and thereby erode one of the basic needs of a thriving democracy. Place on top of that the ease with which interests outside the US are able to influence our democracy, and we have a toxic combination for a democratic society (which can eventually lead to the loss of that same democracy). Lanier points out the parallel rise of increasingly authoritarian regimes with the rise of social media platforms. He is not at all directly blaming these platforms, but he is noticing that in their current form, they are easy and powerful tools for authoritarianism – an ideology that does not encourage critical thought, lives through curt slogans and xenophobic frameworks, and encourages conformity to the power structure. He does acknowledge that certain social movements of late have benefitted from the wide reach of social media (BLM and #MeToo) but then says the short term benefits of these do not actually outweigh the power of the wizard behind the curtain. And to the extent that these movements are able to gain traction, the algorithmic wizard(s) are more expeditiously working to co-opt, manipulate and redirect the work of those movements. Thus, the net is a loss for our society, a loss that no short term gain can justify.

As a book, Jaron Lanier’s ten reasons are a bit repetitive and their interrelation makes the identification of ten seem a bit inflated. I understand this move in terms of having catchy points as well as the need to repeat points to help the reader “get” what are often abstract and opaque dynamics for the “everyday” person, but it makes for dull reading at times. The lack of literary prowess should not deter one from reading this book and taking on its core points – the major social media platforms are not good for our society, they are not good for our personal growth and well-being, and they are not the “open” platforms we think they are. Rather, they are the tools of mega rich corporations for other mega rich corporations. Social media as an idea is not the problem, but social media that operates as these companies currently do is. Thus, deleting our accounts is the only way to get the attention of these companies and will eventually (hopefully) pave the way to the creation of other, more democratic social media platforms.

But beyond deletion being a strategic approach to forcing complete reform of these systems, there is of course a deep moral imperative here. Lanier references in one of his points the work of Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015) and uses her comments on our connectivity to broach the notion of what it means to be human and how these platforms do not well serve our humanity. AI advocates might suggest that as menial work is taken care of, we are able to actually be more human and explore greater arenas of thought and action than before. Perhaps, but that is not this. What we have here is a deep loss of who we are as humans. The very notion that one can govern via tweets let alone address the complexities of the human experience via Twitter, Facebook, What’s App, or Instagram is absurd, and yet each day we increasingly accept it as the norm. A range of contemporary articles have shared how much better the authors feel about themselves, the world and their relationships after getting off social media. Similar studies have piled up regarding the deleterious impacts on self-esteem, interpersonal communication, and empathy as a result of the ongoing use of social media as a primary source of news, communication and relationships. This clearly does not serve social justice.

A tenet of social justice work is to take action and live as part of the solution. We at HCG do not pretend even for a minute that we “have arrived” with respect to living socially just lives, but we do commit to the interrogation of our choices and an honest appraisal of their support of justice. And for us, social media does not at all support social justice. To organizers – yes, there is great power in social media, but is it possible that we / you are being allowed to organize so the conglomerates can find ever more insidious ways to manipulate us? To those who say it creates access – is it possible that we are being granted access only to then create more avenues for control? I could go on, but it is easier for you to read Lanier’s book. At the deepest level, it is critical to ask if these platforms truly serve justice and our society. Having had a moment to consider it and take in more information we unequivocally say no. Justice is transparent, it is rooted in love, it is connected in ways that are abiding and authentic, and it serves the greater good. Learning what we have about social media, there is no way that it, in its current form, can be framed as serving the social good.

To be sure there are those for whom deleting social media accounts is not possible economically, politically, or socially. But, for those of us where it is possible, it is a critically important move to make. Thus, HCG has deleted all of its social media accounts as of January 31st. If you would like to be in touch with us, please feel free to email us at the link on our website or at the top of our newsletter.

Jaron Lanier’s “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social media Accounts Right Now”:
1. You are losing your free will
2. Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times
3. Social media is making you into an asshole
4. Social media is undermining truth
5. Social media is making what you say meaningless
6. Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy
7. Social media is making you unhappy
8. Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity
9. Social media is making politics impossible
10. Social media hates your soul

Dear Susan

Dear Susan,

How much of your soul was forfeited to Mitch McConnell with your vote today? Your 45-minute “speech” on the senate floor was nothing more than a wealthy white woman rationalizing, normalizing and then erasing the lack of qualification of Brett Kavanaugh. It was infuriating to listen to you equivocate as you laid out your reasoning. “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much” because you had to know in your gut that you were laying out a preposterous argument – supporting him on the grounds that he will protect women’s rights even though he was very credibly accused of attempted rape, defending his character even though he clearly has some issues regarding alcohol use and abuse, and lauding his temperament even though he launched into a very non-judicial tirade just a week before.

The betrayal of all women (and those who care about gender justice) by white, wealthy women is not new. Both the first and second waves of feminism are rife with wealthy, white women first selling out women of color and working-class women of all races, and then queer women and women with disabilities. The very short and self-serving field of view of many white, wealthy women has made solidarity along the lines of gender, and more importantly, a collective movement to end gender oppression nigh impossible. Yes, you said you care about Roe v. Wade, but in the midst of your judicial recitation you failed to mention that states have not had to overturn Roe v Wade in order to severely limit access to abortion. Kentucky has ONE clinic in the ENTIRE STATE that offers abortion services. Laws in states all across the U.S. have found ways to limit women’s access via time limits, parent and spousal signatures, mandatory waiting periods, mandatory counseling, etc. Some have been repealed in court, others have been upheld. The double barrel problem of Trump’s many appointments to federal benches combined with his two SCOTUS picks have all but assured that Roe v. Wade does not need to be touched in order for reproductive rights to all but disappear.

This was not just a referendum on Kav and gender oppression / male privilege, Susan, this decision is a clear representation of the ways that gender works in tandem with race and class to ensure that only a select few women in the U.S. can approximate true freedom while others not so fortunate have to roll the dice. White women have long promised to be loyal to masculine whiteness so long as they are given at least some scraps from the table. That’s what I saw you embody again today.

I often work in Maine and I am told by clients there that it is “the whitest state in the U.S.”. If so, Senator Collins, you did not disappoint. Your defense of Kav is an insurance policy. You sold out all the women who are vulnerable to the back door abortion limitations in various states, you sold out all the women who have had the courage to speak up about the violence they have experienced at the hands of men, you sold out the men who also care about these issues, and you sold out the trans* folks who are never going to be seen in your 1970s white liberal / independent version of feminism. You sold them / us all out for some paper-thin notion that Roe v. Wade will be maintained. Well, I’ve got news for you Susan, you’re too late. As soon as this current administration took office, a bevy of laws went to state legislatures to begin the erosion I described above. You already know this, and thus the bubble that Senators seem to live in clearly does not serve you (nor does your loyalty to the white, male system led by Mitch and Don) in that you seem to have no idea how far down the “goodbye Roe v. Wade” road we already are.

So, what to do. Vote for women (and men) who live in the real world. Did you demonstrate a knowledge of the law? Of course you did. You and your aides crafted a long and detailed list of reasons why you support Kav. Does that mean that you understand the day to day on the ground realities for women in even your own state? No. In fact, none of your colleagues seem to be able to pull themselves out of the reality TV show into which our federal government has devolved. One of the elements of living in an abusive environment is that over time what was once unthinkable slowly, so slowly starts to become “normal”. Lines that one would never cross get rewritten and rewritten again so as to afford the one drawing them continued cover under “if it ever gets ‘___’ bad, I’ll leave”. Our federal government is for sure in an abusive relationship and the lines of what was unthinkable two years ago have been rewritten so many times that we are bereft of any moral compass at all. You cited all of the support Kav received from the legal community, but the hundreds of law professors and one former SCOTUS justice who said he was unfit did not seem to equally weigh on your mind. You cited women’s rights, but Kav’s clear contempt for women did not seem to register for you. And you are not alone, how many women and men voted to confirm him? None of them seem to notice that we have crossed into a place where the moral underpinnings of what it means to serve everyone in a democracy are no longer recognizable.

I’m not naïve here. I knew this administration would nominate a conservative. I also knew this Senate would confirm him (sic). But, I guess I still held out hope that you would not send an attempted rapist to sit on the highest court. To be sure, this is not at all “a bad time to be a man in this country”. They can still get away with almost anything and face no repercussions.

As you can tell, I’m pissed. My friend Karen said “never voting for a man again”, which I get. But you, Susan, are obviously not a man. So, perhaps we should say, “never voting for someone who is not squarely committed to social justice and equity for all people” again. More than that, however, we have landed here because we as a society, and specifically leaders in your caste, have not taken gender justice and its relationship to other forms of oppression seriously. Senators who confirm a misogynist would not be there if we did not put you there. Yes, I know about PAC money, I’m talking about something much deeper, much more movement based.

And so, Susan, in response to your vote and all of its ramifications, I’m going to get local. I’m going to pour money into local movements that not only change policy but change how we are with each other – change our ideas of community, of love, of family, of health and safety, of what it means to be “we” before “I”. My rage will be channeled into something else – engaging everyone in ideas of liberation that in the end are good for all of us. We have got to be better than this or we will all go down. I will commit myself to the creation of a social structure that doesn’t just vote you and those like you out of office, but creates a world where there simply isn’t even a place for the lowest common denominator politics of your kind. This was not a victory, it was an example of governance that was callous, avaricious, mean, and disembodied from the larger social body. You did generations of women, men and trans* people a grave injustice today, Susan, and we will not forget.

“Women for Trump”…?

I saw a headline Tuesday describing Donald Trump’s debasing of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony with a picture of white women, strategically placed behind the podium, cheering him on as he did so. How to explain this? An uninformed position would suggest that “everyone is entitled to their opinions”, but of course it’s not that easy. Scratch beneath the surface and you see the fingerprints of sexism, gender oppression, male dominance, patriarchy and whiteness all over that deeply problematic display.

But, how does this happen? How did we get to a place where (mostly white) women will support an admitted sexual harasser and someone who constantly demeans women? The answer can be found in a deeper question – How does a dominant group who is the numeric minority (men) maintain control over the numeric majority (women and trans* folks)? Two central methods – socialization into an ideology that makes it seem normal, and/or state-sponsored violence. These are not mutually exclusive, of course, but the proportion to which they are used depends on the political reality. Apartheid South Africa used socialization to spread the ideology of the inferiority of POC, but also made much more ready use of state sponsored violence to maintain its power.

Conversely, when it comes to gender oppression in the U.S., socialization seems to be the slightly favored tactic, followed by what is still a substantial amount of violence against women and trans* folks. The purpose of this socialization is to ultimately silence women by making enough women and men think that these dynamics are not “sexism” but simply “the way that it is” or “the way men and women are” thereby eliminating any resistance to the system of oppression. To be sure nowhere near all women (and not all men) think this, but in the U.S. enough women and certainly plenty of men have been convinced of this basic ideology that uniform resistance to gender oppression is difficult at best.

Below is an explication of three pathways that this gender role socialization takes place. All are rooted in the need to control women and maintain the access to resources, power, privilege for men. Any deviation from the script results in the use of violence as is evidenced by the gender violence directed toward Dr. Blasey Ford, the backlash to the #MeToo movement, and the extreme levels of violence experienced by trans* people all over the U.S.. Of course, the system simply frames this backlash as “men defending themselves” and suggests that any erosion of the power held by men makes this “a bad time for men in this country”. Absurd to the extreme given the statistics in every major metric of the U.S., but such is the power of dominant groups – to simply say it means that it must be so.

The first of the three pathways is the placement of everyone into a rigid gender role binary. Thus, while our lived experience is gender fluidity, the system of gender oppression only sees and tolerates ideas of gender that are diametrically opposed and portrayed as essential and thus biologically based via the conflation of gender with biological sex. Examples are men being seen as naturally “tough, in control, strong, emotionless, interested in sports and war, competitive, and in charge with no need of help from anyone” while women are naturally “quiet, not too assertive, not too smart, beautiful (tall, thin, white, rich, sexually submissive), powerless, mothers and caretakers first, and followers”. As you can see, these meta-narratives of gender apply largely for white men and women, but many of their implied characteristics are used in differing ways across race and class lines to reinforce racism and classism as well. Ultimately, the above calcified binary, when conjoined with power, then leads to the “inevitable” differential in societal power between “real men” and “ladies”. Socializing all genders into this binary-based ideology serves to make this power differential and its concomitant gender oppression seem “normal” and “natural” and “inevitable”. The goal of this process is for all men to see themselves as rightfully the ones in power, leading and dominant, while women should see themselves as secondary, silent and powerless.

To be sure, this socialization is pervasive in U.S. society, not incidental or occasional. Every element of U.S. society from education to mainstream media to history to laws to toys to social activities to clothing to…you name it, has evidence of deep socialization into gender role narratives. Meaning, if you socialize an entire society to see gender disparities as natural and inevitable, you will get at least some of the targeted group (in this case cisgender women and trans* folks) and most of the dominant group to go along with it. Once these messages are established in our individual and collective minds, male dominance and gender oppression encounter little true resistance. Thus we see some “Women for Trump” willingly supporting his misogyny.

But the process of getting even some women to go along with this system does not stop with the mere creation and enforcement of gender role narratives. Within this vast process of socialization lies a second pathway that helps explain what I saw – heteronormativity. For those women who identify as heterosexual and who are in / seek relationships with men, challenging men’s dominance, or even just questioning the tired tropes born out of the above gender role socialization, can feel like a precarious proposition given the intimate nature of one’s relationship to men. It’s this dynamic that had Tammy Wynette sing “stand by your (abusive) man” without our entire society reacting with dismay. The absurdity of it can be seen when comparing this to other forms of oppression – e.g. it is quite rare for POC/N folks (save for Kanye West) to write songs, poems, etc. entreating other POC/N to “stand by your (racist) White person” no matter how oppressive they are.

Some authors have called this the challenge of “sleeping with the enemy” and described how complicated it can be to name systemic, institutional, interpersonal and individual gender oppression in our society while being partnered with cisgender men who may or may not have a clue about those very dynamics. Sometimes it just seems “easier” to let it go and put up with the daily slights, insults, demands and mere invisibility in order to keep the peace in the relationship and get through the day. Over time this sexism becomes so normative that it’s no longer seen for what it is. Of course, it is never packaged as heteronormative / sexism and is instead framed as “being a good wife, mother, woman”. Thus, the compounding power of socializing cisgender women into believing the rigid and limiting gender role messages about themselves and the “real men” in their lives (understanding the variations across race and class), combined with the pressures of being in intimate and constant relationship with the very group that is perpetrating your oppression and benefitting from it on a daily basis, can serve to have many cis-women who are heterosexual support those who are standing in front of an audience and degrading their very sovereignty and humanity.

A final socializing pathway is the pressure of Christian hegemony with respect to how women should (and should not) behave and simply “be” in the world. My colleague and friend Erin deeply identifies as Christian and just shared with me today how infuriating it is to have so many Christian leaders in the U.S. lauding Mr. Kavanaugh while heaping horrible accusations on Dr. Blasey Ford. More than just being an opinion proffered by “men”, these comments are offered be faith leaders and said to be “supported by the Bible” and therefore rooted in what it means to be a (white) Christian. Given that perhaps 2/3 of the U.S. population identifies as Christian, the collusion of women in these Trump moments can be understood by examining the additional power “faith” has in suggesting that women should be silent, that “boys will be boys”, that men are sovereign and women are submissive, and that the natural order is patriarchy. I am focusing on Christianity here given its significance in U.S. power structures, but Judaism and Islam also have communities of followers who place women in secondary, subservient positions to men.

To be clear, I am not blaming women for this moment, for Kavanaugh, for Trump, for any of it. In exploring why there were women standing behind Donald Trump on Tuesday I’m trying to shed light on the pernicious ways in which men have been telling a story about gender roles, about power and about our society that has conveniently served their goals around access to power, privilege and resources in the U.S. And, unfortunately, some women have been so inundated by those messages that they, too, believe them. This of course is not limited to “Women for Trump”, but is also applicable to those who claim moderate, liberal and even progressive identities around gender / politics / social issues while repeatedly buying (literally and figuratively) into troubling aspects of misogyny, albeit not as explicit as the Kavanaugh circus.

So, when I see those white, middle-aged, possibly middle-class women standing behind Trump waving signs of support, my primary focus is not on the women themselves but on how they are used as cover by the dominant group for dynamics that are much more specious and harmful to women. Dominant groups have always used some members of the targeted groups as cover like this – Clarence Thomas, Phyllis Schafly, Christopher Reeve, Joe the Plumber, Log Cabin Republicans, and so on.  When it comes to gender, however, the socialization via gender role narratives, heteronormativity, and Christian hegemony has been so deep, pervasive and long-standing that it makes sense that there are likely more “women for Trump” than can typically be found with other targeted groups in other forms of oppression.

Understanding where to place my focus affords me two avenues of action: First, I can keep my eye on the source of the problem (bell hooks’ explication of white supremacist hetero-patriarchy) and not be distracted from it by “Women for Trump” (but definitely eventually get to them). The problem we need to address is the hold that male dominance has on our society and we must never lose sight of that. The more we name it, focus on it, call it out, the more we are able to change systems at their core. So instead of simply telling the Houston school they cannot have that sexist trope above the lockers in their hallways, we can tell our schools to stop perpetuating gender binaries, the subordination of women, and the socialization of men into toxic masculinity. We can demand an end to violence being directed toward our trans* students and instead enact policy change, curricular change, and pedagogical change in our education system that will let our schools be places where gender is a non-issue and all energies can therefore be put into learning and building community.

Second, I can focus my attention on causal factors that lead to “Women for Trump” by assailing our education system, our media, our social spaces, our private sector, our non-profit sector, and other areas of our society with accurate, gender justice content and education. If we want gender liberation, it will require a profoundly intense decolonization process whereby we help everyone who has been exposed to this misinformation uproot it and replace it with liberatory ideologies. This is mind work, this is body work, this is soul work. Across the gender spectrum, our bodies carry the pain of millennia of this garbage. Clearly, we need something better since this Kavanaugh spectacle is tearing at some of the deepest roots in our society. Said differently, if sexism were truly “working” as a social reality for our society we would not be so opposed to what is happening. But it is not working. It never has. Not if what we want is both a healthy and thriving society, and one that is truly a democratic republic (yes, these points will also require deep racial, economic, and other justice work to come to fruition). In fact, gender oppression is profoundly harming our society by the normalization of violence against women, by the loss of whole humanity for men, by the life-threatening realities for trans* folks. We are losing people, we are losing creativity, we are losing great minds, we are losing loved ones…we are losing ourselves. In no way, shape or form can we say we are a civilized society when someone like Brett Kavanaugh can even be considered for the most powerful court in our country. If confirmed he will adjudicate for another 30-40 years and all of our lives will be impacted by the sexism of this man.

“Women for Trump” is a symptom, a symbol of oppressive gender dynamics that run much deeper in the U.S. Dynamics that are bent on holding patriarchal power or die trying. Senator Graham’s directionless outburst alongside Mr. Kavanaugh’s testimony are both “testimony” to the sanctity of patriarchy in our society and the deeply corrosive impact it has. “Women for Trump” is the modern Tammy Wynette and is more indicative of the effects of these pathways of patriarchal socialization than of anything else. Yes, I hold women accountable for their choices, but if all I do is yell at them the real “Wizard behind the curtain” slinks into the night. Thus, while those women are an affront to the liberation of women everywhere, I will never take my eye off the prize – an end to the scourge of patriarchy / gender oppression and the long overdue rise of gender justice.






I fully support academic freedom in higher education. Even with its double-edged-sword quality, I still defend it. I would like, however, for it to be practiced with a little more thoughtful “academic” and a little less unbridled “freedom”. I am not at all suggesting that there be some sort of curtailing of the freedom of speech on our campuses as that would defeat the purpose of open engagement. But, in my 18 years as a faculty member and 13 years of consulting and training in higher education I have noticed a long-standing confusion between freedom of speech as a basic tenet of U.S. society versus the deeper intention of academic freedom in higher education. Basic freedom of speech is the lifeblood of any democracy. And short of speech that endangers others (“fire” in a theater or hate speech that is readily associated with threats of violence), I do not believe it is healthy for a democratic republic to go down the slippery slope of limiting the freedom of speech.

Higher education, however, is different in that while it exists within the confines of a democratic republic, and thus presumably has the same latitude as everyday citizens regarding speech, it also exists within the shared agreement of “higher” and “education”, meaning that the bar for ideas that are exchanged in a college classroom should be higher than that of two people chatting at Starbucks (actually Starbucks could also use a slightly higher bar of conversation within their organization). By “higher” I mean the ideas proffered in the academy should be held to a higher scrutiny, the words shared on our campuses should have a higher level of consideration regarding their import and impact, and the ways we engage with each other on our campuses should represent our collective reaching toward higher levels of knowledge, skill and capacity. Too often, however, I find the threads on faculty list-serves to represent anything but the above, where full professors to adjuncts (more often full professors due to the security of their positions) put forth ideas that are not indicative of this higher ideal (or that they would actually even share if face to face with their colleagues). The one-degree-removed nature of the faculty list-serve creates a space where harsh, sometimes even abusive, commentary is put forth under the guise of “academic freedom”.

Looking first at the “freedom” portion of academic freedom, its emphasis is all too often taken to extremes and is not only harmful to individuals and corrosive to the overall academic environment, but it is an appalling degradation of the “higher” level of engagement we are told to expect from this nation’s colleges and universities. Of particular concern is the conflation of freedom with entitlement born out of long-standing oppressive systems that results in this “freedom” being inaccessible to some while overly accessed by others. In my campus consulting work I find “academic freedom” frequently used as a tool for the maintenance of power, privilege and access to resources held by dominant group members via its use to shut down marginalized voices, disregard calls for equity, and even portray dominant groups as the new “oppressed minority”. This is not new. Unfortunately, higher education has a long history of periodically backing the wrong horse (scientific racism, gender segregation, eugenics, and more) and has not done enough to repair the harm caused by these historic and current examples. The anything-goes tone of the “freedom” element on many of our campuses does nothing to remedy this history or help them be more just and equitable, and instead often fuels injustice and inequity.

While the “freedom” aspect of academic freedom at times misses the mark, the “academic” portion is often neglected, or worse used in a performative way that makes one’s argument seem like it is rooted in the academy when really it is just the academy being used as cover for various problematic ideas. For example, I absolutely have the right to say that the world is flat (literally flat, not flat in the Thomas L. Friedman sense) as per my freedom of speech in the U.S. And, in point of fact there are folks in this country who do posit that the physical world is flat. To this loosely identified group the insistence of a round world was and still is a scientific ploy to undermine the church, dinosaur fossils were placed there by god as a test of their faith, and the 6,000 year age of the earth is dictated by their reading of the Bible. And, while I emphatically disagree with every aspect of these ideas, I support the right of folks to express them; to a point. Where I draw the line is having “flat earth” ideas positioned as legitimate and debatable content in higher education. To use academic freedom as an excuse for the polluting of higher education with “flat earth” concepts and assert that they are equally valid to round earth evidence serves to make the “academic” portion of academic freedom laughable and the “higher” in higher education all but disappear.

And so let us stop conflating the mere right to free speech with the principle of academic freedom. Let’s debate finer points of already well-honed “astronomical” ideas rather than debate whether the earth is flat or (basically) round. I share this because when it comes to issues of equity on our campuses, I have been repeatedly shocked by what faculty feel entitled to say and then embarrassed that this is what we as academics are modeling as the penultimate arena for advanced thought in the U.S. Suggestions like “Students of color achieve at a lower rate than White students in STEM because they lack ‘grit’, have no interest in such challenging subjects, or do not possess the intellectual capacity to do hard science” should be commentary relegated to 18th and 19th century racist tomes, not coming out of the mouths of presumably well educated people in 2018. Or the belief that women cannot advance in schools of business or economics because they are too weak, overly emotional, unintelligent, and lack drive (as evidenced in a 2017 LA Times report on comments from male faculty in one university’s economics department), while common 60 years ago, should be unthinkable in today’s higher education environments for their complete lack of academic evidence.

And yet the double standard prevails – the work of faculty from historically marginalized communities that shows powerful evidence regarding dynamics of racism or sexism in the United States’ systems and structures (including higher education) is roundly rebuked by some faculty as “unacademic”, biased and a personal grudge while the basis of these dismissive faculty’s arguments is exactly that – unacademic, biased, personal and not at all founded in research, data, or fact. For example, campus climate surveys that indicate an unsafe and unsupportive environment for historically marginalized faculty are often dismissed by faculty from historically dominant social groups with little or no “evidence”. To reiterate, I am not suggesting that we limit the speech of cisgender men, White people, etc. In fact the accusation that I am is such a tired old trope that I’m always embarrassed for those who drag it out for one more go. Instead, I want higher education to be what it claims to be by modeling exchanges of “academic freedom” that are rooted in critical thought, self-reflection, a commitment to learn what we do not know, and a recognition that there is nothing noble in the practice of abusing colleagues that you disagree with or who are challenging your long-held pet ideas. That is not the art of debate and intellectual sparring, it is just bully behavior and should have no place in higher education.

Almost all of this planet let go of the idea that the world is flat centuries ago, perhaps it is time for faculty to let go of the notion that academic freedom means you can say anything you like and that all ideas are equally valid. In this current national climate, it is particularly important for higher education to set an example of thoughtful, analytical and civilized discourse based on fact and meaningful interrogation. What an embarrassing waste of time and energy to debate whether the world is flat. In its place, we should commit to learning, growth, and change in the same ways we ask our students to each day they are with us.

A Tale of Two Conferences

Written by Dr. Heather Hackman

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending two equity / social justice conferences back to back – the 19th annual “White Privilege Conference” (WPC) and Policy Link’s (PL) semi-annual “Equity Summit 2018”. What was striking to me about the second was the absence of what was central to the first. The work that Equity Summit folks were doing was impressive, especially from the vantage point of the majority People of Color / Native speakers in the plenary sessions. Glaringly missing, however, was any substantive attention to Whiteness. Conversely, the White Privilege Conference by its very nature centers the conversation on Whiteness as a means to attend to the core driving dynamic of racial oppression in the U.S. When the Equity Summit did name “white” it was often in the context of individual White people and not the ways that White privilege and White supremacy serve as the continual catalyst for this system, altogether. Said differently, White people would not work so hard to maintain racist housing segregation, despite red-lining being illegal, if they did not get something out of it – namely better housing, better schools, better transportation options, more access to multi-generational wealth brought about by property value increase, and the like. For the Equity Summit to discuss issues such as housing, education, criminal justice, etc. without naming this driving force is at best unfortunate and at worst deeply problematic. WPC knows this and chooses to go right to the heart of the matter as is evidenced by the extraordinary level of focus and organization of the conference on all that is necessary to bring about abiding and permanent racial justice for the U.S.

To elaborate, it is one thing for the Summit to call out racism in the prison industrial complex and emphasize the deeply urgent need to revamp the current prison system (or perhaps eliminate it altogether and replace it with something dramatically different). But, it is short-sighted to proffer that position without identifying that White folks from the private / economic sector, the political sector, and the social sector garner extraordinary power from the way the criminal justice system is currently operating and therefore will not simply yield that power because there is a louder call for us to change that system. For me, this omission left the conversation about criminal justice reform incomplete.

Even worse was a White, cis-male speaker on a panel about the role of philanthropy in racial equity work who continually suggested that cities “are just not educated enough” about how to use data and that their organization’s work is designed to “teach cities how to read and use data”. Aside from the deeply condescending tone this man had toward all cities, who are apparently too ignorant to know how to use data (rather than city workers often being overworked and underpaid, or unable to afford the software or time to do such sweeping data analysis), he had no idea whatsoever that his entire transactional, data-driven approach was steeped in Whiteness and racially dominant ways of perceiving government, social change, and the function of cities altogether. I was appalled that he was presenting this type of perspective at a conference on “equity” (primarily racial equity, it seems) and thankfully, two of the People of Color on the panel shut him down a bit – not so that he would notice it because I think he completely missed it, but certainly so the audience would notice it.

To be fair, one Equity Summit panel did talk about Whiteness (more than the entire rest of the conference combined) through its focus on gender justice as articulated by some very fierce POC/N speakers making the deep and critical connections between the system of patriarchy and gender oppression to that of racial oppression and Whiteness. The fact that this perspective stood out, however, speaks volumes about the lack of attention paid to Whiteness in the overall conference. Policy Link (PL) would do well to pay attention to the work of the White Privilege Conference (WPC) and take the very courageous step into a comprehensive racial justice approach in the way WPC does. In asking folks at the Summit about this, their response was that PL has never really paid attention to Whiteness largely because it is trying to work with majority, historically White leaders whom they did not want to alienate by naming Whiteness that explicitly. I have heard similar rumblings about the work of GARE and that it has no problem naming racism, but continually comes up short with respect to addressing the White privilege and White supremacy at the heart of so many government practices, policies procedures and programs that continually target POC/N folks and benefit and advantage White folks.

As is evidenced by the laser-like approach of the White Privilege Conference, we will never see an end to the system of racial oppression if we do not clearly and consistently call attention to the Whiteness driving it. As I left WPC fired up for more of the deep and hard work, but then went to PL’s Equity Summit, I was reminded yet again that even in spaces where racism is named there is still often a lack of willingness to call attention to Whiteness. Perhaps PL’s new leadership will use this transition as an opportunity to usher in a more comprehensive analysis (racism and Whiteness) of U.S. racial realities for all of the systems and structures they are trying to change. If that is too risky of a move for the POC/N leadership in terms of their safety and well-being, as is often the case when POC/N folks have spoken truth to power, then White people involved in Policy Link need to step up and speak up about Whiteness.

I look forward to the next Policy Link conference and hope that it has a chance to lean even harder into its work around racial justice and decolonization. This cannot be done without dismantling structures of Whiteness and I hope they make that move for the betterment of everyone who is trying to do this work. The time is surely now to do so.

Starbucks – Missing It By A Latte

Written by Dr. Heather Hackman

There has been quite a kafuffle about Starbucks closing for a whole day to do implicit bias training in response to the racial incident in Philly last week. To be clear, I do not doubt the intent and level of concern expressed by their CEO, Kevin Johnson. Nor am I questioning the knowledge, both professional and through personal experience, of the “consultants” they brought in to lead the day-long discussion. What I take issue with are three critical things: leadership, training, and time.

As a consulting group, we do not train front line staff unless the leadership of an organization has a) gone through extensive training itself, and b) done this training before the front line staff. The former is critical in that you simply cannot lead around issues you do not know, and the more power one has, the more in-depth the training and application needs to be. We meet many CEOs and organizational leaders who have read one piece of information or had one emotionally moving experience and are suddenly “motivated” to “go do something”, but in actuality are nowhere near being able to lead from an equity and social justice frame. Connected to this is the need for the leadership to be out in front of staff so that they can actually lead around these issues. It is often quite difficult to have the leader(s) of an organization going through their own “ah-ha’s” simultaneous to those that they supervise. The nature of training around race or gender or class or other social justice issues is such that there must be time to internally process, to lean into one’s edges, and to do the personal work necessary to change behaviors and apply a more socially just lens to their vision for the organization. This is almost impossible to do if the staff is having the same sets of experiences as leadership at the same time; the logical question from staff, “what are you going to do about it right now!?” cannot be answered if both are going through it together, and this can lead staff to doubt leadership’s ability to really do anything about racial issues within the organization.

Starbucks’ choice to send everyone through a training is good optics and will provide an opportunity for everyone to have together. But, with respect to a system of racial oppression that has been in place for 400 years, there is absolutely no way that one day of “implicit bias” training will do much of anything in terms of deep and substantive organizational change for Starbucks. This brings me to my second critique of this “day of training” – it’s not really training. I meet thousands of folks a year (mostly white, but also some people of color and Native peoples) who are badly educated about issues of race, racism and whiteness (RRW) in the U.S. It’s not surprising. I have spent enough years in teacher education and training P-12 folks to know that what we are taught in mainstream education (both public and independent) in terms of race, racism and whiteness is not just bad, it is explicitly false with the intention to avert our nation’s gaze from the racial tragedy of its past and present. Thus, the Starbucks employees for whom the U.S. is their first nation have been exposed to years and years of explicit and intentional lies about RRW and no one-day training en masse is going to make even a tiny dent in the deep and calcified socialization folks have received about RRW.

So why train like this? Because it “looks” like the organization is doing something. Most private sector organizational leaders have become profitable by learning how to maximize their performance in transactional spaces where solving problems and addressing issues is about decisiveness, taking charge and “doing something about it now”. That works well with phenomena that are themselves transactional. But, RRW are sociological phenomena and absolutely cannot be addressed in quick, transactional, check-list ways. This does not stop leaders form choosing this approach because the illusion of quick and strong action = effective solutions is a powerful one in the private sector. In white dominant spaces, this “rugged individual” and transactional manner actually serves to reinforce the dynamics of whiteness and in the end leaves the influence of the Racial Narratives, the systemic targeting of people of color and Native peoples, and the systemic advantaging of white people firmly in place because it has actually never been addressed.

Additionally, Starbucks did not choose actual racial equity trainers to lead this training. Rather they chose big names to match their desire to look like they’re doing big things about race. I’m not dismissing the incredible knowledge and life experience of former Attorney General Holder, for example, I’m simply suggesting that while brilliant, he is not best qualified to train on racial justice issues. Why? Because to be an effective trainer on this content one needs to know something about the art and science of teaching. Moreover, they need to be exceptional at training (not quite the same as teaching) – meaning they need to know exactly how to lead a racially complex group of people through the process of identifying RRW and uprooting it at its core. While the trainers chosen for this day-long are all knowledgeable with respect to their various sectors, none of them have the extensive experience training necessary to make real change at Starbucks. To the lay person who might also not have experience teaching and training on this content, however, the big names will likely be equated with “big action” and Starbucks will be let off the hook.

Connected to the above need to have long-standing experienced trainers do this work, is the fact that one day is absolutely not enough time to cover anything of substance. The mainstream corporate media has reported on the financial losses for Starbucks (roughly $12 million) taking this “bold” move of closing their stores. In so doing, the media reinforces the erroneous notion that one day is really going to change racial dynamics in Starbucks. I often encounter folks who say that HCG’s three-day training is simply too much time. I then suggest, however, that 400 years of racism compared to 24 hours of training time is really not much of a comparison. In addition to being steeped in that long national legacy, however, I remind participants that they have individually been miseducated (to varying degrees, depending on their identities) about these issues and therefore, again, 24 hours is actually nowhere near enough to counter that.

Ignorance about what is really at the heart of this nation’s racial reality leads companies like Starbucks to make misguided, and in the end unhelpful, choices about how to address RRW issues internally. But, if this is not the answer, what is an appropriate response? Here is a general outline of the approach we suggest for large organizations: 1) make sure leadership understands what RRW issues actually are and be sure that they are on board with the level of organizational change necessary to more fully address them, 2) work with an internal team to identify a strategic approach for training layer after layer of the organization beginning with the top levels of leadership and working down to the ground, 3) implement various forms of firm-wide assessment to know where participants are starting, and 4) once a critical mass has been trained, support them to apply that lens to organizational changes that will support the front line folks in also being able to be trained and rewarded for engaging with customers differently. Of course, there is much more to all of this than what is mentioned here, but the general outline of work stands – be sure the organization is ready to commit to this work, assess them, train them as extensively as possible, begin the organizational change process, and then do that work for the next layer down and so on. If Starbucks had chosen the path of real organizational change, they would still be taking immediate action, but it would have a very different look and feel, and would be over the long haul. Most importantly, perhaps, they would spend a little less time in the headlines and more time committing to the actual work of racial equity within their organization.

Dr. Heather Hackman Speaks at the AASHE 2017 Closing Ceremony

(c) Hackman Consulting Group, 2017

Produced by AASHE

2017 YWCA Racial Justice Summit – Keynote Presentations


(c) Hackman Consulting Group, 2017

Produced by YWCA

Equity in Action: Heather Hackman’s BigBANG! 2016 Keynote


(c) Hackman Consulting Group, 2016

Produced by Social Venture Partners Dallas

Radio Interview: LGBT Health Care

On March 11, 2016, Dr. Stephen Nelson joined Ben Kieffer of Iowa Public Radio’s River to River for a 45-minute program on equity in health care, with a specific focus on LGBT healthcare. Click here for more information about the show.