The Price of Speaking Up Against Inequality

Claiming there is no price to pay for speaking up against inequality is akin to colorblindness. It may be well intentioned, but it is a dangerous lie. When a kid says that they "don't see race" they may have the best of intentions.
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Claiming there is no price to pay for speaking up against inequality is akin to colorblindness. It may be well intentioned, but it is a dangerous lie. When a kid says that they "don't see race" they may have the best of intentions. They may intend to say, "I don't judge people based on their race" or "I respect people of all races." However, saying they do not see race is untrue. They do in fact see race. Even if well-intentioned, this untruth can do far more harm than good. The same is true when those of us who speak up on behalf of justice issues claim there is no price to pay or the price is irrelevant. It's a beautiful but dangerous lie.

Oprah Winfrey interviewed Gloria Steinem a few years ago on OWN. I remember cringing when Steinem responded to a question by saying that she doesn't remember the price she paid for speaking out. Winfrey thought that was beautiful and I have no doubt the intent was. I assume Steinem meant that the good outweighed the bad. I also assume that she in fact does remember the price. For those few who become famous and wealthy in their fields perhaps acknowledging the costs for taking a stand doesn't seem important. But most folks who do justice work don't become icons, they're just doing work that needs to be done. It's important to speak truthfully about it, especially if we have any sort of public platform. Instead of fearing that we will discourage others from engaging in this work, we can stand in solidarity with those who may be suffering in silence as they pay the price. As a friend and diversity expert recently said on my Facebook page, "there are always professional and personal risks in speaking up." As a self-labeled feminist scholar I have experienced this numerous times in my career and will share a recent example in the hopes it will embolden others to do the same.

Recently I lodged a formal complaint with a national professional association. The association has numerous smaller sections based on areas of specialization. My complaint was that one of the sections, in my main area of specialization, was blatantly sexist and racist (and biased in other related "academic" ways). It was not easy to make this complaint as I knew I would make enemies within my own field, something no professional wants. As a full-time author, I earn my living based solely on my writing and invited lectures. There was a lot at stake potentially enraging a core group of powerful people in my field. However, after assessing the situation in the organization as well as the personal and professional risks I was taking on, I decided I had no choice. The violations to the association's own diversity statement were so blatant that I had to speak out. I did so with conviction, but also concern. I carried on with these activities in private, to give the association a chance to do the right thing and "save face."

Ultimately the executive officer investigating the complaint agreed that there were great disparities in the group in all of the areas I pointed to. For example, despite that more than a third of the membership in that section is female only 2 out of 39 awards given by the section have been awarded to women. The stats on race are just as abysmal. Sadly, despite their own findings the association did nothing to rectify the problem. This is often the case with structural inequality in large organizations so I was very disappointed but not surprised. Once the investigation concluded I did make my complaint public with a post on my Facebook page as I told them I would. Others in my field deserve to know, particularly since many pay membership dues to this particular organization.

I will say off the bat that the good I have received has far outweighed the bad and I needn't get into the countless emails and comments of support. But as expected, there was a price to pay as well, in addition to my time spent worrying about it all. For the record, I have no issue with varying points of view about the actual issues at hand. For example, a member of the committee in question posted several comments on my FB page that I disagree with; however, I responded to them and did not delete them. His comments were about the issues at hand, were respectfully presented and he is well within his right to disagree. Further, he put his name on his comments. He was willing to stand behind them. People should have spaces available to disagree and debate these issues. However, what I do have a serious problem with and would like to shine a spotlight on are the silencing tactics used by others out of the public eye. Bullying.

For instance, during the investigation of my complaint three members of the section governance in question contacted one of my colleagues to talk about me (a colleague who has nothing to do with the organization or issue but does have a hand in my ability to earn a living). After my FB post a lecherous website re-posted my entire post without copyright permission and then engaged in a libelous conversation slandering my character and my entire body of work. Some participants in the conversation even pointed out that they could be sued for what they were posting. They went on to say how they were all protected by anonymity and their IP addresses could not be traced (as a tip, I consulted with two attorneys and in fact we can get IP addresses for everyone who participated in the slanderous conversation-- people are not as anonymous as they think). Ironically, they were worried about "trolls" on their thread, but aren't they the biggest trolls of all? The website removed the entire thread when I emailed them, apologizing.

Damage was already done. In addition to the many people who saw this character assassination, I had to waste a day of my life dealing with this, not to mention the personal toll. As a person who believes there is nothing more precious than time, I really resent having to waste my time dealing with that junk for people who won't even attach their names to their comments (an ugly side of Internet culture). And while I was able to get them to remove the material on my own, I did consult with two lawyers, and had one ready to go (with a cease and desist letter already drafted). More wasted resources. These are just examples of the costs of speaking out. In truth, I wasn't a very good mother, wife or friend that day either. My energies were misdirected elsewhere.

There is no doubt that you make yourself a potential target when you speak out. I get that. People who challenge systemic and cultural injustices are well-aware of the potential fallout. This does not in any way mean the repercussions are deserved or fair nor should we be silent about them. The practical price people pay for speaking out may include: fearing losing one's opportunity to get an academic job, being fired from your academic job (both before and after tenure), being denied grants or awards in your field, have your books and articles attacked or disregarded. There are other possible costs as well including: time and energy, personal and degrading attacks on your personhood, threats to your physical safety and expenses associated with hiring lawyers if needed. Let's be clear, you remember when these things happen.

Notwithstanding the cost, if you silence yourself out of fear there is no end to that dark road. That cost may be even greater. Bullies, like all cowards, thrive in the darkness of others' fear. The best weapons to thwart cowards are our own voices and integrity. Using these weapons doesn't require fearlessness, just honesty. There is nothing that diffuses their tactics as much as the bright lights of integrity.
I remember all-too-well the price I have paid for speaking up about inequality. For me, it's worth it and I'm not discouraged. I can sleep at night because I'm engaged in work that matters to me and I'm proud to put my name on my comments and critique, even those I would later revise. As often happens when we attach our work to a set of values, I have found a community of social justice scholars, artists and activists who openly put themselves out there. People I admire. So even if you feel like you may be a lone voice, once you speak up, you're often surrounded by others willing to make personal and professional sacrifices for the greater good. While that sense of community doesn't erase the price you pay, it eases the way and is a gift in its own right. At the end of the day, I rather expose an ugly truth than tell a beautiful lie.

Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is the recipient of the American Creativity Association Special Achievement Award (2014) and the youngest recipient of the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry Special Career Award (2015). Her best-selling novels Low-Fat Love: Expanded Anniversary Edition and American Circumstance are available widely.

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