Allegations of Racial Discrimination at a Rural Sheriff’s Department

BCSO

Something worth sharing has cropped up in our neck of the woods (Butte County). A deputy for the Butte County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) has sued his employer citing “racial harassment, discrimination and retaliation when he reported the incidents.” The local paper reported that Michael Sears is a mixed race man who experienced a series of incidents and actions on the part of his co-workers and bosses that sounds a whole lot like a hostile work environment and workplace bullying. The local Chico Enterprise-Record goes into detail of Mr. Sears allegations and my sense of it is that after eight years with the BCSO, he couldn’t stay silent about his experiences. Usually a complaint only gets this far when there is clear, undeniable evidence. But as my journalist friends might remind me, these are only allegations. Right? Right.

The reason it interests me is because this is the same sheriff’s department that since September has been investigating the murder of my friend Marc Thompson. I’ve written about Marc on this blog and at the Synthesis, which you can read about by clicking this link and this link. It’s concerning because the BCSO is a rural department and if you’re someone like me, you worry about racism among the ranks; it is what it is. There were many questions around the investigation and there still are. Some of us have even alleged institutional racism and bias in how the investigation into Marc’s murder has been and continues to be conducted. For instance, the county has yet to release an official cause of death and I still don’t know the how and the why behind some bullets that were sent to the DOJ.

So, I wonder about the investigative interest among members of a sheriff’s department who would use the “N-Word” in the presence of their African-American mixed race co-worker (and expect him to keep quiet about it). I wonder about his superiors and their alleged retaliation, and how in rural places like Butte County, this kind of racism is accepted and laughed off, from the bottom of the rung to the top of it.

Going  by the comments on social media, it seems like Mr. Sears is a well-respected officer and several community members commented on various sources that they are “rooting for him.” I’m rooting for him too. In one comment on a local source’s webpage, a reader says, “I am a ex-Butte Co. employee and I was amazed at the “good old boy” ethics I experienced. Some departments are run by people who seem to be protected from employee rights and labor law prosecutions.” Another reader said, “The workplace deserves a high degree of professional conduct. If the good old boys are willing to behave like this in the office, what the hell is going on in the streets.”

This is the worry I have and is the reason many officers don’t blow the whistle. The Blue Wall of Silence is hard to penetrate and retaliation for speaking up is swift and career-ending. I’ll keep you posted on what happens with Mr. Sears case but for now, let’s get his story in the running conversation.

Classism in Academia

Next week, I’ll be posting part three of my blog on corporatocracy and the McDonaldization of work in higher education. In part 3 I’ll be talking about what happens among academic workers when their work becomes corporatized and dehumanized. My focus will be on workplace bullying and hostile academic work environments.

Before I do that however, it seems only fair that in this second installment, I share my experience with academic bullying and classism/sexism. I wrote this piece a couple of months after quitting academia, when I was working through feelings and coming to grips with what I thought academia was and what it actually is. This was originally published by my friends at Class Action in September 2012.

Classism in Academia

A little over two years ago, a student called me a ‘cunt’ in front of 38 other students. My academic employer did little to protect me and allowed a local, “progressive” paper to attack me in a newspaper/Internet article. I believe this had everything to do with my being a popular but adjunct, community college teacher (earning about $18,000 per year). I didn’t know it at the time, but the clock was ticking on my professional career.

The article from the newspaper has haunted my professional life. Last year, a potential client backed out of hiring me for a professional development training, citing a comment at the end of the article that he’d read after Googling me, a threatening comment (written by a tenured colleague) about my credibility as a professional. He said he could not take the risk with me. And, because of how academia works, with its rigid hierarchies and polite wars, I quit after six years and am likely not to teach again. In academia, classism works like this–once tainted, always fouled.

I made a choice; I quit adjuncting because I was experiencing class-based bullying. My life on campus post-newspaper article was awful, every semester a copy of the article found its way to the desk of my shared office and on two occasions, my campus mailbox, and once last spring, placed under the windshield wiper of my Subaru. Every semester after, students wondered why in the hell I hadn’t responded and told “my side of the story,” not understanding the gag the college put over my mouth. I also couldn’t get outside work anymore, which was how I paid for the extra costs of teaching and advising a student club. The comments in the article made me look “unprofessional,” which is a middle class euphemism for “you have no class.” A whopping dose of personal trauma enabled me to see academia for what it is–a bad fit for a working class woman like me.

I need to be honest though, I miss teaching. That’s the complication working class people like me often face, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” The semester started up again August 20and I fell into two weeks of deep depression that I’m barely recovered from, except to say that thinking my life is over professionally has waned into an understanding of the pain. The pain I went through in academia, (first as a working class student and later, adjunct working class faculty) and the pain I denied to myself to the point of exhaustion. This summer was a reprieve but school starting took me all the way back to the beginning six years before I started teaching, when I was a 33 year old college junior, first-generation failures lined up like notches on a belt but earnest as fuck and ready to prove myself.

The blows came early in my student career, a feminist, working class prof praising me for returning to school because it was a good place for working class women escaping an abusive marriage. Of course, I fit her class stereotype, a fat re-entry student, a grown woman afflicted with the use of slang and cuss words, and so wanting to please and be respectful, using “Dr.” even when they said to call them by their first names. Later, my MA thesis chair would fill me in on how my marriage was doomed to fail with each passing year of educational attainment because working class men like my husband, “can’t handle it when their wives get an education.” It happened to her.

After I got the job, I got shit from men teachers too, but it was shit that was familiar, me being a working class woman. It was also less indirect shit, more outright challenges to my knowledge (to the fellas I was “opinionated”) and in regards to my teaching, (I was “easy” because students liked me, I was trying to be their “friend”). In professional settings however, sexism and classism often become intertwined and I became a target for a tenured, male teacher in my area, once popular but now in competition with me a woman, and adjunct faculty. My work life became a special kind of hell when he became my department chair in 2010. To my misfortune, he met with the student who called me a “cunt,” revealing to me in a campus email the next day that the student “seemed reasonable to him,” case closed. It was humiliating.

A year ago, I thought that I had proof of the bullying at last; a friend alerted me that there was a new and threatening personal comment following the newspaper article on the Internet. I was thinking of quitting at that time but worried about my future in academia (and future employment) and brought the comment to the attention of human resources (H.R.). Yes, H.R. said, it was definitely written by a colleague “from within” (validation at last!); but no, there isn’t anything we can do about it and that I “shouldn’t take it personally.” If you are working class, you might understand the deep sense of betrayal I felt, work is never just a job to me, and it is personal.

Teaching was good for a long time and I was a good teacher, I had the stuff and got recognition for it.  Nonetheless, power is central in academic culture, and in a community college where the stakes are small, power is the result of position and status with others, especially amongst faculty. I became a target for being outspoken about social inequality but mostly because I was an adjunct faculty who didn’t know her place and had the gall to allow students to call her “professor.” In spite of doing my best to make a good case with H.R., class-based discrimination isn’t recognized and in my situation, questioned and then demonized; I was sensitive and paranoid, not bullied.

The upside is the lessons I learned and that I’m feeling better with time and perspective. I believed academia to be a little too perfect; an intellectual utopia of egalitarianism and that was my bad. Academia with its hierarchies and rampant personality politics are a bizarro, grown-up version of high school where all the smart, wealthy kids are in charge. I loved teaching, but I’d been bullied and wrung out like a dirty wash cloth; call me chickenshit ‘cause I’ll tell you, the job nearly killed me and quitting was tough but it saved my life.

BSU-Shades of Success Conference
The author and the students she advised and worked with in the Black Student Union at Butte Community College

How Class Differences Shape Love and Marriage

I just ordered and am very excited to soon be reading, The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages by Jessi Streib. Books about marriage are plentiful but an ethnographic account of cross-class marriages is something new. If you click this link, it will direct you to a Washington Post article written by Streib that gives you a taste of what the book is about.

Couples argue about money, sex, and housework most frequently but class differences are sure to affect those variables. Indeed, Streib describes that in the case of her couples, class was about money but so much more about class culture, how to spend leisure time, manage home maintenance, and “even how to talk about their feelings.”

I grew up working class and so did my husband. This June we’ll be married 21 years, we met each other in our mutually impoverished early 20’s. We have some class differences—his family is conservative, religious and more settled, mine more hard-living democrats, I have three other siblings and we each have different fathers. So, we’ve had a few conflicts around risk taking but for the most part, I think it’s been easier for us because we both grew up working class and were better able to climb the ladder together (and that includes two sets of student loans). We are economically middle class but in sync about how we like to spend leisure time (outdoors), manage home maintenance (do-it-yourself), and talk about our feelings (express freely, brutal honesty). Before hearing about Streib’s book, I hadn’t thought past the money part of cross-class relationships.

I’m curious what Streib’s overall point will be. In the opinion piece she wrote she mentions that “the opportunity to marry — or even meet — someone of a different class is disappearing” and that inter-class marriages will become less likely. It’s the way economic conditions can shrink our world’s and give us less opportunity to encounter difference, and maybe find love.

June 24 1994
Author and her husband Larry waiting for the Justice of the Peace on their wedding day in Redding, CA in 1994.

The Best Carnitas Ever

The Best Carnitas Ever was originally published at www.norcalblogs.com. 

We are in search of authentic? Mexican cuisine without the upset digestive track that we have been warned of multiple times before arriving in Cabo. The last few evenings, we grilled steak and giant red and yellow bell peppers on the oversized grill by the pool; the Costco down the road makes it relatively inexpensive to cook for ourselves. But we have heard of a local eatery that specializes in carnitas and have been assured by Miguel that the food is safe to eat, despite being outside of the tourist zone. A tiny advertisement stuck in between the pages of a photo album in our condo proclaims Los Michoacanos 2-for-1 Tacos Wednesday!? and the handwritten note that accompanies it says, Best Carnitas EVER!!!?

We drive north out of Cabo San Lucas on the road to Todos Santos, just past the new CCC supermarket and Soriana the Cabo San Lucas equivalent to Kmart – and hang a sharp u-turn in front of the American-sized shopping center. Matt guns our little rental car and amid angry horns honking, crosses two rows of oncoming traffic, and veers into a dusty parking lot filled with old Toyota pickup trucks, American made minivans, and micro-cars not so different than our rental cookie-sheet on wheels. There are no lines on the postage-stamp sized dirt parking lot, but Matt notices a car leaving what appears to be a parking space, and guns the engine again to grab the lone spot before another car claims it.

It is Wednesday at Los Michoacanos, and even though the lunch hour is over, all but a few of the tables in the open-air restaurant are full and a line of people 6 or 8 deep waits in the To Go? line for tacos. We stand at the entrance and watch as half a dozen wait staff, dressed in jeans and bright red t-shirts emblazoned with cartoon pigs gathered around a large cooking pot, run from table to table, to the open kitchen, to a work station where a woman stands and cooks tortillas, back to the customer. They run the maze of tables over and over again, bringing soda in a can, bottles of Mexican beer, steaming plates of carnitas filled tacos, to the families and locals who sit at the plastic covered tables in white plastic chairs.

We find an empty table near the front of the restaurant and almost immediately, a waiter somewhere in his mid-20s, brings a carousel of traditional salsa, avocado salsa (not guacamole, but a thinner, pale green, almost milky sauce), and chunky pickled peppers and carrots. He takes our drink order and returns a few minutes later with a cold can of soda for me and a slushy bottle of beer for Matt.

We give our order of carnitas tacos to the waiter, and from our vantage point in the center of the restaurant, watch as he takes our order to the man behind the long counter who yields a cleaver as effortlessly as an executive does a pen.

The man behind the counter stands while he works, fetching large chunks of fried pork from a glass display-warming case that holds freshly cooked meat. He drops the ham-sized pieces on a well-worn hard plastic cutting board and with blurring speed, chops the pork into bite-sized carnitas. He picks up a handful of the shredded meat and drops it into a metal scale, sometimes adding a few more pieces to the scale, other times, taking back a few shreds before scooping the meat onto a plastic-lined piece of parchment and wrapping the package expertly. Every few minutes, the cashier handling the To-Go? orders walks to the man, retrieves a package of carnitas, and exchanges it for a few hundred pesos with a waiting customer.

But we have decided to eat at the restaurant and after bringing bowls of bean soup to our table, the young waiter returns to a table a few feet from our table and waits while a woman kneads a large round of dough across a concave stone. She pulls golf-ball sized pieces of the white cornmeal into her greased hands, smooths and rounds it until it is nearly a perfect sphere, then drops it onto the base of a metal press and brings the top of the press down quickly, flattening the ball into a 6-inch round disk no more than an eighth of an inch high. She tosses cooked tortillas into small cloth-lined baskets and returns to rolling the dough over and over.

The waiter picks up a basket full of tortillas, places three or four on each plate, and takes the plates to the man behind the counter, who drops a few ounces of shredded carnita meat on each tortilla. The waiter sprinkles the tacos with chopped onions and cilantro and within 3 or 4 minutes of placing our order, our steaming plates of carnitas tacos arrive.

Los Michoacanos serves nothing but carnitas tacos and bean soup; no rice, beef, chicken, fish or shrimp. No enchiladas, taco salads, burritos, or dessert. No chips. Nothing I am used to in California except for the carnitas. Even the beans are different.

They put a lot of faith in these carnitas,? I tell my husband. He shrugs his shoulders as he scoops four different types of salsa on his tacos. I dont understand how he can taste the food under all that salsa.

I inspect my taco before taking the first bite, looking carefully for anything that shouldn’t be in the meat, but find nothing suspicious. I drizzle a spoonful of avocado salsa over the meat and lean in to take a bite.

I realize, almost instantly, that there is no need to serve anything at Los Michoacanos but carnitas.

We return to Los Michoacanos the following Sunday and are treated to live music three men dressed in matching jeans, long sleeved shirts and cowboy hats who sing and dance in choreographed unison. We arrive just before 3 pm to mostly empty tables but less than 30 minutes later, every table in the restaurant is filled with families in Sunday-clothes, just in time for the rich-Spanish music to fill the open-air restaurant. We eat several tacos each and then order one or two more and extra tortillas. The woman making the tortillas smiles when we watch her fill our order.

We make one last trek north out of town, just past the Soriana, loop a quick turn against traffic, on the Wednesday before we go home. It is late in the afternoon, early in the evening just after the sun goes down, and as we pull into the little parking lot, we realize we have made an error arriving so late on 2-for-1 Wednesday at Los Michoacanos.

Although the restaurant has no doors or windows, its lights are dimmed and the kitchen is empty and we realize it is closed, sold out of food for the day. We have been told there is no need to lock doors here even though it is in the barrio, but we have not witnessed the trust that exists, the unwritten respect here for local people and businesses, until now. It is something that cannot be legislated. We stay in the car and watch as a potential customer walks through the darkened dining room and checks behind the counter for an employee, then heads back to her car.

We could stop at Hard Rock Cafe on the way back to the condo, or pick up food to go at McDonald’s or Dominos Pizza, but we decide to make no stops at all. There are still a few tortillas left over from our excursion on Sunday and since its our last night, we decide to clean out the refrigerator. Maybe we’ll use the tortillas and cook some quesadillas on the grill.

Maybe we’ll just heat the tortillas and dip them good salsa.

I stand at the outdoor kitchen by the pool and heat the tortillas until they soften and darken against the heated bars of the grill. I slide a tortilla off the grill and feel the heat of the fire on my palms, feel the womans hands, the ridges of the press embedded on the dough. I place sliced pieces of soft Mexican cheese on half of each tortilla and remember the woman who kneaded the dough against the dark stone, rolled the ball of dough in her palms, flattened each into a disk and cooked it just before it came to my plate.

I imagine the people she must have fed, standing behind a table in the middle of a restaurant in the middle of the barrio in Cabo San Lucas.

The Ultimate Privilege

My mother would have called me a picky eater, if the term had been popular when I was a kid in the early 1980s; instead, people often said I was spoiled. I turned my nose up to onions, didn’t care for orange juice, and had a physical aversion to ground meat (that was my mother’s fault, though; she brainwashed me to believe, from a very young age, that ground meat was dirty). Many years later, and after a couple of near death experiences, I realized that my aversion to onions was actually an allergy and oranges cause anaphylactic response in me. It only takes a few times of not being able to breathe after inhaling orange vapor that the light bulb clicks on and you realize maybe you shouldn’t eat oranges. Or be near them. Or be in the same room when someone is peeling one.

Even my three children, as young as 4 years old, notify servers at restaurants, “no onions or oranges on my mom’s plate, please. She’s ‘lergic.”

Food allergy is real and deadly; don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

When I was a kid, food allergies were often seen as children being “spoiled” and ungrateful. They were terms I didn’t understand. I had violent physical reactions to certain foods; why would anyone think that I was “spoiled” if I didn’t like oranges because they made me vomit?

I know food allergies. Let me make this clear: the following is NOT about people with food allergies.

We’ve largely lost the term “spoiled” when describing a child who refuses to eat certain foods, mostly due to a better understanding of food allergies, and I would argue that that is a positive step forward for kids everywhere. But I’ve noticed a trend since my daughter was born almost 7 years ago that has made me rethink the phenomena of picky eaters. I used to think that picky eaters were like me: they didn’t like a certain food because they probably had an allergy or sensitivity to the food. But more recently, “picky eaters” seem to be everywhere, and at a much higher rate than what is statistically possible to account for food allergy. An estimated 1 in every 13 children in the U.S. has a mild to severe food allergy; in the real world, I see a much higher rate than that of children who refuse to eat certain, common foods in America. My theory about picky eaters having undiagnosed food allergies just doesn’t fit.

I’ve spent the last quarter century raising and feeding children. No, I am not a nutritionist, but I am a sociologist who studies the Sociology of Agriculture and Food; I watch for patterns in food consumption both at the macro and micro level. I’ve watched my kids and other children’s food habits long enough to notice different patterns.

My kids have fairly broad palates, despite my own issues with certain foods, and in fact, they’ll actually tease me about how tasty burgers are and laugh when I say, “no thanks!” They’ll eat everything from Octopus to hot dogs at the ball park, Brussels sprouts to beets and everything in between. I’m grateful that my kids have broad palates.

But in other kids, I see, what I would identify, as narrow eating patterns.

As example, my husband and I visited family members a few years ago and the only thing their 5 and 8 year old children would eat were things that were orange. And protein shakes. Grilled cheese sandwich? It’s orange: yes. Quesadilla? It’s orange: yes. Mac and cheese? Yep. Chicken nuggets? Of course, they’re orange, but only the ones that come frozen in bags. So while the parents and my family (except me, I just ate salad) ate amazing homemade meat loaf, the mom made grilled cheese sandwiches for the kids.

I thought this family was an anomaly, and then I started hearing stories and complaints from other families. Many of my friends with children report feeling like short order cooks, because they make different meals for each family member, every night, because no one will eat the same thing as another family member. Child only likes chicken nuggets and carrot sticks? That’s what he or she has every night. For a year. Narrow eating. 

Look at a child’s menu in most American restaurants and you’ll see the same, unhealthy items repeatedly, despite going to restaurants of varying national or ethnic origin. What are the most common menu items at major chain restaurants in the U.S.? Hamburgers, cheeseburgers, pizza, chicken tenders, french fries, and macaroni and cheese. Narrow eating.

But guess what? At home, children eat largely those same foods: pizza, chicken nuggets, and pasta (macaroni and cheese) are among the top ten most common foods children eat in America.

We’ve created a generation, or maybe two generations, of narrow palates where children and adults prefer to eat only a narrow scope of food, and because we live in the land of plenty, we have the ability to turn our noses up to other food.

A few years ago, I started feeling weird about this trend, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt so uncomfortable with children refusing to eat food that was offered to them in the course of a regular meal if they didn’t have allergies to that food. For what it’s worth, I do make accommodations for my kids, as long as they still eat what I serve at dinner. You don’t like ranch dressing on your salad? Fine, you get to choose your own dressing. But you’ll still eat the salad. And no, there is no other food option in the house.

A few nights ago, I served my family beef stew with cooked carrots, potatoes, and celery. As I set a plate of food in front of my nearly 7 year old daughter, a very interesting thing happened.

“Do I have to eat the carrots?” she asked me, her arm draped across her forehead in despair. I stopped serving the other plates, and had an epiphany moment and realized, ‘ah, this is why I am uncomfortable with children refusing food. This child is ungrateful. She is privileged, and is ungrateful.’ The thought occurred to me, ‘this is what it means to be spoiled. This is what everyone was talking about when I was a child. They didn’t realize certain food made me sick; they thought I was ungrateful for what was offered to me.”

That epiphany moment began several months ago, when I happened on a book I was reviewing for one of the classes I teach. I am interested in Southeast Asia, and so when looking for new books on the topic, found a memoir titled, When Broken Glass Floats. The book begins in Cambodia just prior to the Khmer Rouge occupation in the mid 1970s. For 5 years, the book follows a pre-teen girl as she is forced from her comfortable city life, into the work camps under the Khmer Rouge, and finally, to freedom. I thought I would learn about the politics of the Khmer Rouge, but instead, I learned about real privilege, or the lack thereof. The book is a testament to the will to survive, and a stark glimpse into the tactics of starvation and work used by the Khmer Rouge to control the people of Cambodia. It is a heartbreaking account of children stealing away from their huts in the middle of the night to hunt for food, of pilfering more broth to curb their growling stomachs, of praying for death to end the suffering. It is here, in these pages, that I cried at the thought of my own three children being worked and starved to death, separated from their family.

Slowly, we wade in, with both hands stretching the mosquito net open. The pan floats in front of the net, guided by the arching top of it. Our plan is to scoop the net up beneath the branches. The fish are usually there during the day when it’s hot. Under her breath, Ra whispers urgently to me to hand over the pan. After pushing the pan to Ra, I reach out to touch the dark shadow in the center of the net, wondering what we’ve caught.

 

“Prawns, lots of prawns!” Ra’s excited.

 

The thought of prawns lifts up my spirit. I can’t wait until we finish fishing. Hungry, Ra and I eat some. I grab a few from the pan and shove them in my mouth. They struggle, their tails flick against my tongue. Some are the size of my little finger. Others are bigger.

But it is also here that I saw how privileged we are, that we have a safe home, and abundant food. And that is a privilege.

My children will often try to bargain with me to not eat certain foods, and eat other food instead (“no carrots, but I’ll eat the potatoes, Mom”), and even decline healthy meals at home if they know they are headed to school, where they will be offered more palatable food. They know there will always be enough food, and so they decline food; that is privilege.

As my daughter stared disdainfully at the plate of food I had prepared for her, a plate that will likely never be empty, I contemplated how to respond to her.

I wanted to tell her, “Evelyn, darling, you are privileged. You are so privileged that your belly has never felt the real pangs of hunger, that you’ve never had to go without a meal, that you’ve never had to beg for food, that you have the choice of a hundred different items of food in our home. You are so privileged to live in a home where your parents have been privileged with the opportunities presented to them, so they could provide for you. You are so privileged, that you turn your nose up to food when millions of others would grovel for a bite, just one bite, of what you have.”

As I suppressed my urge to tell my daughter of her privilege, I realized that “picky” eating, narrow eating, is not picky at all: it is privileged. My children, and I, have the luxury of choosing not to eat, if the smell is off or the texture is wrong or the temperature is slightly too cold. There will always be more food to choose from either now or in the very near future. We are privileged.

“Evelyn, be grateful for what you have,” I tell my daughter, “others don’t have even this.” She stares at me uncertainly, picks at her food with her fork, and finally eats her carrots.

It is a privilege to reject that which would sustain life for others, and to look disdainfully on it, and be ungrateful in the face of it. That is the ultimate privilege.

Ethnography, Stigma, and Protecting a Potentially Spoiled Identity

Originally published here at e.com in April 2007. It’s one of my favorites and still makes me laugh out loud, I hope you enjoy it too. -Julie

This blog is about why ethnographer Erving Goffman’s observation of stigma are important not just to ex-cons, but also to professors like me on foreign exchange programs. Goffman, as many sociologists and anthropologists know, observed the maneuvers of the marginalized and stigmatized in society, and then wrote about how they thought about their disability. He saw that the marginalized were constantly managed their spoiled social identities because they feared public exposure of their disability. To make his point he wrote about ex-cons, ex-mental patients, prostitutes and others. Such stigmatized people, he wrote, are acutely conscious that at any moment any pretense they maintain of being a “normal person” can be unceremoniously disclosed. Mental patients, ex-cons, and prostitutes always wonder if a passing person knows them from their “other” life, simply recognizes the habits and tics they carry with them from that life. What this creates is a “hyper-vigilance” on the part of the stigmatized as they move through their daily routines. They watch everything, and are always wary. To control the stress, the stigmatized avoid situations where they are easily exposed—they fear being the fool, humiliated, or even attacked. Their greatest desire is to be socially invisible, even as they move through the necessary routines of daily life.

In fact, I was mulling over Goffman’s wisdom when walking to the bus stop on my way home two weeks ago. My mind though switched off when I realized that once again, as it is with many new American residents of Germany, I needed to manage my identity with respect to my highly imperfect, ungrammatical, and accented German. I can of course manage this by remaining mute in many social situations. This is surprisingly easy in places like supermarket checkout lines where the numbers on the cash register, hand gestures, and smiles help me pass without disclosing my stigmatized status. But finding the right bus home creates higher risks of disclosure than the supermarket checkout line.

Because I have yet to master bus schedules, I arrived thirty minutes early at my stop that day. Not wanting to stay on my feet, I spied an almost empty bench—only one fellow there to ask “permission” to share. I did this with hand motions, eye contact, a nod, the universal “ok,” and then scrunched into the furthest corner possible from my fellow bench warmer. Terrified at the thought that my bench mate would initiate a conversation, I took the only English language book in my backpack out (Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, no less) and buried my nose into it. This was effective, and the man sharing my bench ignored me. But five minutes later we were approached by an older man who politely asked if the spot between us was “free.” I nodded, smiled, motioned, and grunted, protected once again from having to say anything. But the situation was now more hazardous. There were now three of us on the bench sitting uncomfortably close, and the potential for being unmasked as a linguistic incompetent had uncomfortably increased.

Anyway, I soon decided I wasn’t that tired anyway, and got up and wandered back to the bus stop, even though I was still 15 minutes early. There I leaned against a post, and again tried to bury my nose back in my book. Soon though, I was distracted by what happened next at the bus bench. A woman with dogs on leashes came up. One of the dogs started to sniff at the older man’s bag. There was a brief exchange, and then the woman with the dogs went on. The older man then stood up, picked up his bag, and walked over to where I was standing and then, horror of horrors, he began talking to me. I more or less understood what he said, but could only muster the barest of responses:

Man: Did you see those dogs? They sniffed through my bags!
Me: Grunt.
Man: People should control their dogs, shouldn’t they!
Me: Grunt.
Man: Don’t you think it is an invasion of privacy that dogs will sniff through my bags?
Me: Certainly.

Thankfully, the bus then arrived, resulting in a change of subject. We got on the bus, and then further horrors, he sat near me! What would I do? Too nervous for Max Weber, my hyper-vigilance sensors went up, and I studiously avoided his occasionally friendly gaze, fearing that my incompetence could be further revealed. In this context, I bolted for the door when five minutes later we arrived at the place where I needed to transfer buses. I rushed off the bus, eager to re-embrace the anonymity that would be available on the next bus. But then things became worse. The man was following me onto the bus—he was going in the same direction I was!

With relief, I saw him settled with his bag into a seat far from mine. But still my anxiety did not dissipate until I reached my final stop ten minutes later. Off I stepped, and finally regained my anonymity as just another normal person, anonymous and obscure on a busy German street.

Such hyper-vigilance is exhausting, but also routine when you are a discreditable minority of any kind. Goffman’s mental patients, ex cons, prostitutes, and others were always aware that someone from their former life will strip away the sense of normalcy they desired . But the same principles applies to foreigners in all places, linguistic minorities, ethnic minorities, racial minorities and others who fear a part of their identity will unceremoniously at any time subject them to ridicule, or a loss of honor.

Like the ex-con and mental patients, I seek the comfort of blending and belonging while here in Germany, something I take for granted at Chico State. The sad thing for me was that as a result, I passed up language learning opportunities on my bus ride. In retrospect, I know that I should have bravely plowed ahead, and attempted a conversation with both my fellow bench warmers. After all, intellectually I know that Germans are almost always unfailingly kind to foreigners attempting to learn their language. I know too that it is educationally correct to have a conversation with the two men at the bench, rather than avoiding them. It would also have been enriching to engage the man the one who “followed” me on my two bus rides in small talk about the weather, dogs, his bag, or anything else. I didn’t of course because I value the anonymity of being normal more. As a result, I hid my stigma behind props like Max Weber’s book, and avoid the random encounters of social life which in English, I often delight in.

Both sociologists and anthropologists glamorize the intellectual stimulation of the cross-cultural experience I am having. I still believe it is glamorous, and I will continue to encourage students to go abroad and study languages. But there is another value to study abroad experiences, particularly for students who are from the default normative category of their own country. At Chico State, this includes me, as well as the many middle class suburban white students in my undergraduate classes. But studying abroad is also about becoming an outsider who will evaluate every potential social encounter for its capacity to strip away the comfortable anonymity we gain when we hang with people like us. My chance to be an exchange scholar in Germany is of course partly glamorous. But my story is also the one that Goffman wrote about. I am sure that in one year, I will speak better German, and the memories of my constant hyper-vigilance dissipate. But in the meantime, I look forward to the mental exhaustion of both language learning, and stigma management.

For what it is worth, I sleep more here in Germany despite the pleasant Fall weather. Hyper-vigilance is mentally exhausting!

Reference

Goffman, Erving. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.

Why I Chose Not to Get a PhD

This was originally published here on ethnography.com in April, 2012. Why did you choose to get a PhD (or not)?

I got to spend some time with a friend recently that decided some time ago to restart her PhD work.  She is already ABD, but is starting the dissertation over from scratch.  My question was “Why?” She is a well-respected professional, and within the her field a PhD will likely be of limited benefit professionally compared to the mountain of work ahead of her, not to mention the expense involved.

In the course of the conversation I was reflecting on my own choice to not get a PhD and thinking that it might provide food for thought for a larger audience. Not to mention the pitfalls of getting to attached to getting one.

When I started my graduate work in anthropology, I had the same expectations as most people: I thought I would wind up teaching at a university or maybe in some kind of think tank. Rather than going directly into a PhD program (I already had a B.A and MS.Ed in other areas), I chose what was then a terminal master’s program at the University of South Carolina. I thought at the time, doing a MA first would enable me to get into a better PhD program, in reality I don’t think it makes a difference either way. Future graduate students should also take note USC now has a full-fledged PhD program that started several years after I finished my M.A.  Well, as time went by, my interests and goals evolved.  Not an unexpected thing to happen as you spend a couple of years learning about the in’s and out’s of a discipline. Looking back, I believe that one of the most significant course changes was when I decided that I was more interested in applied work rather than working in academia. I won’t mince words, once it got around the department that I was not planning on pursuing an academic path, it felt like I was pretty much dropped like a hot rock as far as most of the professors were concerned.  One professor [to remain nameless] didn’t mince words either, she told me flatly that any student that was not planning on a professional academic career as an anthropologist should not expect any interest on the part of the instructors. My thesis advisers promptly dropped any interest in my thesis work as well, and it shows. Before you think it was awful, I am talking about significant small moments in time that occurred during my grad work, not the entire school experience. I got an excellent education, I had some great instructors and I would go back to South Carolina again.  At that time, quite simply, applied anthropology as looked down on as well as only getting an MA. Things have become considerably more enlightened in the discipline overall since then.

Compounding the issue of being primarily interested in applied work, my research interests in two divergent areas were not seen as worthy of anthropology: One was the area of intentional violence. My graduate thesis was based on intensive research with a prison population, and that evolved into interest in two areas: terrorism on the one hand and serial homicide on that other. Both of which I was curious to see if they could be studied almost as a cultural language or the semiology of the acts. The second was in a totally different area; due to my long-standing technology interests (I had always put myself through school as a computer jock) I was becoming much more interested in the intersection of culture and technology. It turns out that the latter interest would serve me very well later in ways I never imagined.

But given all that, I STILL wanted that PhD.  Why?Well, as it has and had for so many others it became for me the difference between success and failure.  I was $150,000 in debt and looking at more, I had years of education behind me and more to go.  To me, getting those three little letters was the difference between being a legitimate scholarly person and a nobody.  I got so nutty about it that I wouldn’t even date someone that was not getting some advanced degree (That stupid arrogance likely cost me some excellent relationships.). A PhD was a ticket too studying the topics I wanted, a life of scholarship and (the applied part) once I got the ticket, I would be able to pursue applied endeavors at will.  Yes, I was indeed blind to how the life of a university professor really looks.

So what happened? Shatteringly, but in reality lucky for me in the long run, I did not get into my first two choices for a PhD program, but was accepted to the applied PhD program at the University of South Florida. Given my interests were then more fringe topics, there was no one there that was doing work even remotely related and I was concerned I would be suffering from a real lack of mentor-ship.  Also, the connections you make in your PhD program can be very important when job hunting, having dissertation advisers that can make introductions later was a concern.

Then, the proverbial last straws. I went to a AAA meeting and on the job board were four or five lonely looking position announcements for very low paying positions (as they usually are), seeking scholars of a few countries in Africa. The next factor was watching from a distance as the USC anthropology department was fielding applications for a new position. There were not dozens of applications – there were hundreds, and from people with long publishing histories, all from the top tier programs at the time.

I realized quickly after that I could not justify continuing on with more graduate school. The math was fairly stark: Endure additional crushing debt load, to take that fairly small chance that I might get the job I want, at a salary that would barely cover my debt, rent and food, in an environment that I really didn’t like all that much.

Understand, I was never much for the publish or perish game, or the nasty politics that can emerge in academic departments, so I was ill suited to the profession anyway.  But that is not the reality I was thinking about at the time. I remember the moment I knew I was going to quit pursuing the quest for a PhD.  It was devastating.  I called up a friend of mine that had made the same choice after going ABD and bawled my eyes out.  “It has all been a complete waste,” I told her, “All the years, all the work, all the money has all been flushed down a toilet and I have nothing to show for it.” I don’t remember what she said to be honest.  I am sure it was supportive and reassuring and none of what I was thinking was true.

I can tell you this much: all of the thoughts I had about not getting my PhD equaling failure were and are utter bullshit. Why do I say that? Here is what happened once my head cleared, I got the emotional cobwebs out and started to assess what I wanted to do.

I wanted to keep studying culture, I wanted to be involved in technology and I wanted to get my hands dirty using anthropology to actually do something. First I got a job working full-time at the university as a computer jock, and I started by regaining my life: I got involved in the local old-time and Irish music scene in the area, I made friends that had nothing to do with anthropology, I worked with a friend leading canoe trips on the local river and started rock climbing and generally having a pretty happy life.

And I also did research, lots of research into the life I wanted. I scanned journals and periodicals, professional trade journals looking for any connections of people working in anthropology or social science and technical fields.  Design Anthropology was in its infancy then, and I was lucky enough to find an article about some anthropologists combining anthropology and technology skills to help companies develop new products. Then by coincidence, another graduate student appeared in my office and showed me an article about the very same company and said “I think I found your job.” She was right of course, after that it was just about the job hunt (another long post). Was all my education and training a waste? Hardly. I was a trained anthropologist, with extensive technical expertise, had years of experience watching how people interact with technology, and had a couple of years’ experience in a consulting environment from my previous graduate degree. Those were all qualifications people were looking for. Once I cracked the code of what I wanted to do, and where it was valued, I was fielding multiple offers precisely due to all the effort I initially thought I had wasted by not getting the PhD.

For me, it was far and away the best choice then and is now. I have had a great career, multiple actually, and for all of them that MA in anthropology has been a major factor in my getting those positions. At this point, I really don’t have a personal or professional need for a PhD, and a vanity PhD seems like a waste of everyone’s time on already strained university budgets.

So, that’s why I didn’t get a PhD.