The Privilege of Protection

This whole debacle at Duke Divinity has me spinning like a friggen lazy susan. I’m in this weird middle ground between being the typical white, evangelical, cis-male with some experience of academia and yet also being someone who has experienced oppression and the unjust exercise of social and institutional power.

You read that right, I’m a white man claiming to have been oppressed.

I’m a dude, the broest of brosephs; just ask Laura – she’s met my high school bros. I’ve had all the benefits of white male privilege, I even deleted and then retyped “lazy susan” because I can. That’s how bro-fident I am (like what I did there? bro+confident?).

Yep, I know I have privilege. I used to think that I didn’t get any more hand-me-outs than anyone of any race or sex could; after all, anyone could sign up for the Army and get the GI Bill and earn three degrees on the government’s dime if they got it into their head to do it. But somewhere in there, I started to unlearn what I thought I knew. I began realizing my blindspots, like my story about enlisting in the Army.

When I was 14, I started shoplifting after my parents split up. I’m a white guy – I need me my attention, my life is about ME, goddamnit! The cop who came to the convenience store when I got caught was also white. Even though he made me wear handcuffs and sat me in the back of the squad car (“that’s where the bad guys sit”), I remember that he was white because he sat me in his office for two hours after I had my mug shots taken. Something tells me a black kid wouldn’t have had that same privilege.

womenscenterlogoI also worked in the Divinity Women’s Center as co-coordinator for a year and earned a certificate in Gender, Theology, and Ministry. These experiences were both intellectually formative and deeply inspiring (and I encourage, nay, DARE other brosephs to sack up [*and shut up long enough to learn something] by taking a Debates in Women’s Studies course). Portier-Young was my prof (that’s like “bro” in academic syntax) for the Old Testament core course my first year, when she exempted me from an assignment due date because things said in precept triggered elements of my PTS, so this is also personal for me.

Reading Griffiths’ statements, which he supposedly made public of his own volition, I sympathized with his frustration. I remember feeling the same kind of indignation when more recent Women’s Center co-coordinators made the space off limits for anyone who was not “woman-identifying.” This was the same space where I worked for a year as co-coordinator and, more importantly, where I poured my soul out to other (gasp!) men during my first year, under another male co-coordinator and predecessor (as best we could tell from names listed in an old folder we found, he was the second, in 2010-2011, and I was the third, in 2012-2013).

In a 2015 public meeting overseen by a lawyer named Gary or something, I objected to an unannounced change of the Women’s Center by-laws by the incoming co-coordinators (which was overreach at best and exposed the University to Title IX complaints at worst because some benefits, i.e. “healing,” were provided to women but denied to men). I was rebuffed without any meaningful engagement with my objections. My concerns were brushed aside as cavalierly as the legal definition and function of the Women’s Center was changed (which was done behind closed doors and without the input of any of the other former co-coordinators I spoke with). Identity politics had literally trumped genuine dialogue – womanhood was equated with being victims of sexual assault in order to obtain the benefit of exclusive space on campus and male-identifying people were all judged guilty by association, and expected to kindly rubber stamp that bullshit by their cooperation therewith.

The closing of the Women’s Center reminded me that, in the eyes of many of my peers (regardless of race, sex, or gender), I was still just a white bro. So yeah, I can sympathize with Griffiths when he feels like so much of this ‘diversity’ stuff can become an end in and of itself, that “toleration” is anything but tolerant. I’ve heard from a decent number of other white guys in the last several days who also feel caught in the middle, between political correctness and authentic mutual edification across cultural distinctions. Sensitivity concerns can be weaponized, and victimhood is a card that I’ve watched played even if nondiscrimination protection is something from which I have benefitted.

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This girl goes through diapers like it’s nobody’s business!

I discovered the limits of my privilege when I met repeated exclusion, obstruction, exploitation, and outright intimidation when I tried to “speak my truth” as a veteran. In the summer of 2016, I filed a complaint with OIE because I learned the hard way what constituted “protected activity” and why it is important for some questions and reports to remain anonymous. This is something to which Griffiths is totally oblivious, refusing to be interviewed by OIE unless he got what he demanded. In my case, a dean unlawfully shared information within the Divinity School which exposed me to retaliation and endangered my very meager income right as my family was expanding. So I know why some activity is meant to be protected.

Despite any assumptions about social prestige that I had as a combat veteran, they dissolved when I stood up and started insisting on an end to lip service, when I began rightfully leveraging civil rights language and laws to improve the experience of all veterans on campus, regardless of socio-economic or ideological persuasion. Not only did university officials ignore and denigrate my work, other veterans tragically allowed fear get in the way of raising the tide for all veterans at Duke. They didn’t want the boat rocked because they knew how precarious their seats were.

You gotta click to see what I’m talking about. I have perfect vision, so I know you can’t be seeing that tiny blue highlight up there on the right

Within weeks of filing with OIE, I discovered that the university grievance procedure did not protect veterans (contrary to federal law). Apparently protection is a privilege I didn’t have… Before classes started in Fall 2016, the ranking OIE administrator unlawfully disclosed my protected activity to an even wider audience, this time before about 50 peers as well as two respondents to my complaint. After the inquiry was complete, I was not given a summary until I asked for one, and the one I was provided displayed a near-total lack of impartiality and even contained evidence of further discrimination against me of which I had been unaware. The wording of several sections was gaslighting as fuck; subtly suggesting I was making it about me, like I was just being your average run of the mill broseph (*did you know that term was actually coined by The Jamie Foxx Show? Now I don’t even know if I’m appropriating it, or WTF).

So yeah, I can understand Griffiths’ suspicion of the bureaucratic insularity and “totalitarian tendencies” of the diversity clique.

But here’s the thing; I cherish my time in the Women’s Center and the training I received in pursuit of my certificate. I (think I) am a better person for having my worldview expanded by credible scholarship, intellectual work that happened to have been produced by women and minorities. I eschew academics who only begrudgingly engage in scholarly material because of token wives, children, black or gay “friends,” or the myriad other ways academic discourse is stymied. This is a failure of the vocation of an academic because they don’t actually do their intellectual job, they just unquestionably (or lazily) ‘tolerate’ the abstract idea of particular justice for the same self-centrism that privilege preserves – it’s always about them and the skin they have in the game once they realize their lives are implicated in social injustice. Even worse, this intellectual sloth actually just instrumentalizes the people lucky enough to be in their social or familial orbit! Fuck that lazy ass shit.

Where Griffiths went wrong is exactly where white dudes frequently go wrong. Contrary to our usually inflated egos, we do not have to be the center of the story, and unsolicited opinionating is the mark of the truly privileged. What the fuck, may I ask, was keeping him from just hitting the Delete button and returning immediately to his precious “task at hand”? Not only could he not resist the temptation to parade his own “ideological commitments” before his peers, he took it a step further and blamed the victim. There’s no reason to believe, in the documents available to the public, that Portier-Young was acting in anything but an official capacity in alerting colleagues to a free, non-required training event funded by the university provost. Hell, there’s no shortage of Duke Divinity events that fit the bill of “intellectually flaccid” talking heads filling the air with “bromides, clichés, and amen-corner rah-rahs.” Why lash out at this one and not others?

The deep irony is that we’ve largely only selectively applied nondiscrimination protection. When HB2 was just breaking, startlingly few voices or outlets highlighted the fact that, as a “public accommodation” issue, it affected disabled people as well as the LGBTQ community. A lot of veterans are disabled, like me, but few of the leading voices on HB2 maximized the rhetorical advantage that might be gained by highlighting how “our heroes” have been disadvantaged by conservatives. I brought this up repeatedly to the NC Council of Churches and influential community organizers until I got tired of being looked at as just another shrill attention monger. I was denied the privilege of equal protection, which I guess makes sense if my being a disabled veteran is trumped by my dude-bro gender expression, as though I can only be one or the other.

I sat down to write this because enough people have read my recent blogs about Duke to know that I’m in a real weird spot. On the one hand, I’ve seen the intolerance of tolerance-talk but, on the other, I need what social justice work offers because I’ve come to see how thinly veiled vet-veneration just disguises bias and dehumanization. The situation with Griffiths and Portier-Young has exposed deep wounds at an institution that wants to look like it has everything together, but the wounds go even deeper than they appear and there’s a lot more work to be done than most of us have bargained for. I didn’t ask to be a disabled veteran, and frankly I don’t want to be – I want to skate without my back slowing me down, I want to hold my a-fucking-mazing eight month old without being interrupted by muscle spasms, and I don’t want to have to sleep with a fucking mask on my face like Kane from the first Alien movie! This whole affair is the epitome of privilege; everybody is talking about a few tenured professors, a minority of minorities with all but surefire job security, but nobody gave a rat’s ass when worse shit was being said and done against protected veterans just a few months prior in the same institution.

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Laura sneaks pictures of me with my CPAP all the time. Sleeping on a surgical table is great for back pain, right?

When I appealed to Heath last November to intervene and protect a junior employee in a fucked up situation involving a (female) tenured professor, she demurred, passing the buck to the university general counsel rather than living into our shared commitments at a so-called “Christian institution.” Heath intervened for Portier-Young, a woman protected under Title IX, but not for veterans protected by VEVRAA and/or ADA. In the time since making that appeal, I too, like Griffiths, have stepped out from behind the veil of professional decorum seeking the same “responsibility” he believes publicity secures. If Christian people and institutions really cared about “the least of these,” then why is it the minority with job security we focus one and not the minority with a suicide epidemic?

I hope the publicity will lead to greater transparency and humility rather than entrenchment, but my experience is that the opposite usually occurs. When I appealed to fellow Christians involved in my mistreatment that we reconcile short of a federal investigation, not a single soul accepted the “thorny task of reconciliation.” Griffiths has voluntarily resigned despite tenure protection, but what security do veterans enjoy if protections are not applied equitably amongst populations in need? That is the privilege of protection, a privilege earned but rarely extended. 

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