#3 If You Choose Silence, You’re Choosing the Side of the Oppressor

The woman stumbles up to the counter, her hunched body draped in layers of clothes that look as if they haven’t been removed in days. Her eyes, sunk deep in her wrinkled, hollowed face, rest on the tubs of spaghetti and meatballs behind me.

“Can I have three meals to go?” Her raspy voice quivers, and her eyes never meet mine.

One of my fellow volunteers rests a hand on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, “don’t give her any more. She already has four, and she does this every week.”

As I forced a smile and quietly turned the woman away, my heart sunk. Every week, she collects as many meals as she can from the community dinner, because it’s the only way she can feed herself. Without us, she would starve to death. And you say, “I think the state of poverty is alright.”

Many misconceptions exist about poverty in Vermont. As my sister said, “I think there are a lot more homeless people in Vermont than we think.” However, we live in a very privileged community, and we tend to ignore these kind of problems, because it doesn’t apply to us, so we don’t think anyone else is struggling with it. We push the idea out of our minds, so we can continue to live in our ignorant bliss, but “especially in Middlebury, the town is filled with privileged college kids and families who should be using their privilege to help people who don’t have the same resources as they do.” We can put band-aid after band-aid on the community, by volunteering at dinners, maintaining homeless shelters, and holding food and clothing drives, but that won’t fix the problem. To solve this issue that currently affects 74,058 people in the state of Vermont, and is rapidly increasing, we must focus on the root of the problem. According to my mother, “I think we have poverty in Vermont because there’s too much disparity between incomes and not enough sharing of resources.” Ending poverty in Vermont is a huge task that no one person can even begin to accomplish, but if we get information out to people, we have a chance to make a difference.

“I honestly don’t know a lot about it.” This was the sentence I heard most often throughout the interview process, and it’s a pretty discouraging one. How can we expect to change an issue that most people have little to no knowledge about? Once we educate Vermonters about problems such as this one, we can take action as a community, and make our state a better place

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What do you know about the LGBT community? You probably know that gay marriage is legal in every state, and that there’s a rainbow pride flag. Maybe your school has a gay-straight alliance. Once a year, you have the option to not speak for a day, to “recognize and relate to the oppression they face.” You might remember the Orlando shooting, and the 49 people that died that night. What you may not know is that this kind of homophobic violence occurs every day in this country. And it’s more than homicide, more than domestic abuse, more than attacks on the street. It’s using the word “gay” to insult your friend. It’s purposely using incorrect pronouns. It’s casually dropping homophobic or transphobic slurs. Vermonters assume that homophobia doesn’t exist in our state, because we don’t see the physical abuse to the extent that it exists in other places in the country. However, the microaggressions appear every single day, in our schools and workplaces, and they can’t be ignored, because they breed the serious acts of violence.

“The closest I’ve come to seeing LGBT education in school is when Willow from WomenSafe brought pamphlets to my 8th grade health class about relationship abuse and all the names of the couples were names that could be for either gender.” While this seems like an exaggeration, this is the reality of public schools. We spent a day in health class reviewing a presentation on different sexual orientation and gender identities. One day. We spent a solid month learning how to make decisions. And quite honestly, the various sexual orientations aren’t what’s important. We can find that information online and understand it in about five minutes. The “LGBT education” is for straight people. You know what we need? We need sex education to be expanded so we’re not just learning about how to safely have heterosexual sex. We need to integrate same-sex relationships into all aspects of education, to erase the heteronormativity of our culture. We need to question why “the movies we watch in science class are all heteronormative and really gender binary-ed.” Because according to the Williams Institute at UCLA, around 8 million adults in the United States are part of the LGBT community. That’s 8 million people who’s identities are often erased in the school system. And that needs to change.

First, we need to speak up. It’s not enough for teachers to “have Safe Space stickers up on their doors.” We need to talk about it, erase the misconceptions, and outline the role of an ally for straight people. Allies aren’t just people who don’t use the word “gay” with negative connotations. Allies have to get information, stand up for the LGBT community, and take an active role in reversing the oppression. “If you choose silence, you’re choosing the side of the oppressor. And having a Safe Space sticker on your door is a great step, but it doesn’t negate that.”

As Vermonters, and Americans in general, we tend to assume that the LGBT community is totally fine and empowered, because we’ve made progress. We forget that there are people who can’t use the bathroom in public because they’ll be harassed, if not physically harmed, regardless of which bathroom they choose. We forget that there are couples terrified of simply holding hands as they walk down the street, because they’ll have insults and slurs hurled at them, at the very least. We forget because we don’t face that fear, that danger.

We don’t need to know about every sexual orientation. We need to know about the violence and oppression directed toward the LGBT community and we need to know how to stop it. We need to learn how to protect those who are disempowered.

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Dress codes. A subsection of the category titled Respect in the school handbook. A vague paragraph describing how students should dress. What if I told you that this paragraph destroys self-esteem, promotes sexism, and contributes to rape culture? I know, it seems crazy that such a small part of the Code of Conduct could have such a giant influence on society. All the explanation in the world isn’t going to prove this loaded statement, so I’m going to present the experience of a friend of mine, and let it speak for itself.

“At the middle school, I was once sent home for wearing leggings that were striped in two different shades of purple… at age 13. I was sent home because I couldn’t change. That’s insanity. The fact that they gathered all the GIRLS together to have MULTIPLE discussions about the dress code and how ‘nobody wants to see all that – would you want to see (male teacher) wearing short shorts? Remember the fingertip rule! If this was an ALL GIRLS school things might be different, but as it is, hormones are changing and the boys are seeing you differently! Let’s dress work appropriate – like you might for a company meeting!’ and they NEVER had similar meetings with the boys is A. sexist, B. heteronormative, and C. makes girls as young as 12 and 13 self conscious about their bodies that they haven’t even grown into yet.”

There are many more accounts similar to this one, and it’s so destructive to girls as they develop a sense of self. Additionally, and just as importantly, it affects boys. One guy I talked to stated that he thought “(the dress code) should be stricter for girls than for boys,” because he doesn’t “like it when (girls) wear less to impress a guy.” First of all, he assumes that girls dress to get male attention, which, besides being very heteronormative, is completely false. Some girls dress to impress boys, of course, but most of us wear the clothes we wear because we like them. When it’s over 90 degrees outside, I’m going to wear a tank top. Sorry if my shoulders offend you, but this is what’s comfortable. If I want to wear a pencil skirt because it gives me confidence, why should men have the right to tell me I can’t? Telling me that “no one wants to see that” is incredibly detrimental to my self-esteem and body image. Maybe it took a lot of courage to wear that skirt, and now I’m going to be even more self conscious next time I wear one, or I may not wear one at all.

My mother’s opinion is that “if you’re going to have (a dress code), enforce it. If not, don’t have it.” This is possibly the biggest issue at my school, as “there are situations where they dress code is randomly enforced but shouldn’t have been, or it wasn’t enforced but it should have been.” Unfortunately, a pattern emerges within these “random” executions of dress code protocol. The thin, athletic girls frequently wear shirts that show the entirety of their sports bra, or short shorts, and never get so much as a second glance. However, those of us who are bigger can’t wear crop tops or the same length shorts without getting a teacher’s warning, or worse, critical comments from other (hypocritical) students in the hallway. This indirectly promotes a fat-shaming society, which leads to severe body image issues in a culture where over 20 million women in the United States have already suffered from an eating disorder, or currently struggle with one.

Possibly most serious is the effect that dress codes have on rape culture. “(Dress codes) put too much responsibility on the girl to hide her body and not enough responsibility on the boys to deal with their distraction.” This is essentially the same thing as giving girls detailed instructions on how to avoid being raped, while we never say to boys, “hey, here’s an idea. Don’t have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you.” In other words, we’re putting the responsibility on the victim to protect herself – victim blaming.  By installing strict dress codes for girls, with hardly any restrictions for boys, we’re saying that it’s up to the girl to wear clothes that will protect her from getting raped. And by sending girls home for wearing revealing clothing, because “it will distract the boys from getting an education,” we’re prioritizing boys’ education over girls’.

And I’m writing in first person plural because, although I’m not actively prohibiting girls from wearing what they want, I’m not doing anything to change it. When we don’t speak up, we’re just as responsible as the school administration. When I apologize to the school nurse for wearing “inappropriately short shorts,” I’m just as guilty of promoting this institution as she is. We must take an active role in opposing this sexist, heteronormative, body-shaming practice. Nothing will change if we sit back and hope other people fix it. We have to change things. I have to change things.

Note: Sorry this is so long. Thank you to anyone who actually reads the whole thing. I just have a lot of opinions (if you couldn’t tell).

Stanley, William. “Poverty Interview.” Online interview. 23 Sept. 2016.

Buteau, Kelsey Fenn. “Poverty Interview.” Personal interview. 24 Sept. 2016.

Browdy, Anna Elizabeth. “Poverty Interview.” Online interview. 24 Sept. 2016.

Borden, Sally Eleanor. “Poverty Interview.” Personal interview. 24 Sept. 2016.

Browdy, Anna Elizabeth. “LGBT Education Interview.” Online interview. 24 Sept. 2016.

Browdy, Anna Elizabeth. “Dress Code Interview.” Online interview. 24 Sept. 2016.

Anonymous. “Dress Code Interview.” Online interview. 23 Sept. 2016

Borden, Sally Eleanor. “Dress Code Interview.” Personal interview. 24 Sept. 2016.

 

Anna Buteau

16 Responses to “#3 If You Choose Silence, You’re Choosing the Side of the Oppressor

  • Hey Anna,
    I’m Bryce, and I’m in your reading group. I hope your doing OK. First, I wanted to say, I love the fact that you do have a lot of opinions and you let the world know. I like how you started this post with that story, and then got into your ideas, interviews, and opinions. I think these are really strong subjects that you will most likely get traction with. Second, I also like this piece because you have multiple subjects. I’m very impressed that you actually wrote that much. Personally, I would’ve tried to get the point across much faster to keep the reader hooked as they read. But what kept me going is the moments when you voiced your direct opinion. Example, “When it’s over 90 degrees outside, I’m going to wear a tank top. Sorry if my shoulders offend you, but this is what’s comfortable. If I want to wear a pencil skirt because it gives me confidence, why should men have the right to tell me I can’t?”

    Anyway, I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    • Thanks for your commentary! Getting a point across in a smaller amount of words is definitely something I struggle with, but I’m glad you were able to stay focused through my rambling… 🙂

  • Yeah, no problem!

  • Hi Anna,

    I loved this post. It had so many great topics, details, and opinions. I don’t really know where to start.

    Poverty: As you said I think poverty is an issue that is not at all discussed, and it needs to have a light shown onto it. Like what you heard, many people just don’t know because Middlebury is such a, as you said, privileged area.

    LGBT: So many people talk about how everyone should be comfortable with their gender or sexuality, but not many people are telling them how, or giving them the back up that they need to do so. It takes a lot of courage to tell you’re parents you’re actually a girl or a boy or fluid, etc. and it takes way more courage than it should for a non-heterosexual couple to hold hands in public. You can’t just tell someone to be brave and don’t be oppressed without guiding them along the way, and I think you expressed that really well.

    Dress Codes: This is not an “unknown” topic, it is being discussed. But, you’ll notice that it’s only being discussed, nothing’s actually happening. Middlebury itself has a pretty laid-back dress code, but that doesn’t mean it’s not violating. There are so many ways to even slightly improve sexism in schools, and I know you’re capable are helping with at least one.

    All of your topics are great, and I know it’s going to be hard to pick just one, because they’re all equally important.

    Good luck!
    -Emily

  • Andrea Lunsford
    4 years ago

    Dear Anna:

    Andrea Lunsford here, a long-time Bread Loaf faculty member and someone who is very interested in high school students and their opinions. I’ve read almost all of your posts, I think, and am very impressed at how thoughtful you are, how respectful you are of others, and how careful your thinking toward change it. Very impressive.

    I have been thinking quite a lot lately about pronoun use and have written a blog post about it myself. In my own teaching, I’ve used “they” for a long time, though I also ask students their preferred pronouns. I’ve found that in the last decade students are more and more willing to have serious and open conversations about sexual identities and about how they are building their own identities, often a day at a time. High school and college years are a time when these subjects should be addressed directly and forthrightly and honestly, as you recommend. I hope that you and students at your school are making good progress on creating an environment that is not just safe but welcoming to all.

    I also loved what you wrote about silence taking the side of the oppressor. That opening vignette is haunting and drew me right in and held me there, with you. Last night as I watched the presidential debate, I wondered why neither candidate talked substantively about poverty, and I was offended deeply with Donald Trump’s millions (he says billions) that he has not used to help anyone but himself and his family. I live in the Bay area in California, a very affluent place and home of Silicon Valley: many people here who are in the middle class cannot afford homes; poverty is severe. Last week I heard a program being proposed by some of the CEOs in Silicon Valley and being debated around the country: since technology and automation are taking so many jobs (you can go to a restaurant here and be served by a robot, for example, and since this trend looks like it will only increase, we need to prepare for a day when there will not be enough work for everyone. Indeed, the CEOs say that day is already here. So what they are proposing is that the government provide funds for housing and food to everyone. As I understand it, they have a plan to raise the money that would be needed for such a project. Of course, other countries already do something similar, especially, I think, in Scandinavia. I’m wondering what you and your classmates think about such an idea for addressing poverty?

    I look forward to more correspondence! In the meantime, I’m sending best wishes.
    Andrea

    • Hi Andrea, thank you so much for reading, and for your thoughts! I think that the proposed idea is really good in theory, but would be extremely difficult in execution. So much money would be necessary to provide for the large number of people living in poverty, a figure that will only continue to grow, that it doesn’t seem sustainable. I think the ultimate goal should be to create more jobs/opportunities so that a greater percentage of the lower class will eventually be self-reliant. However, this could certainly take a while, so government support would be very beneficial in the meantime. Do you know how the government plans to raise these funds, and what their long term plan is?

      Again, thank you for taking interest in my topics!

  • Andrea Lunsford
    4 years ago

    Dear Anna: I am going to do more research on this idea and hope to find out more about concrete plans for funding it. I do know that a lot of people in the tech industry are very worried about losing many,many jobs due to automation and forsee a time when there just won’t be enough traditional work for everyone. If this happens, we will need to shift our idea of what work is–jobs like helping elders, taking care of children, and providing “food for the soul” through music, dance, etc. may be much more important than they seem to be now. The last really great shift in work patterns happened during the industrial revolution, when the “machine age” made many workers redundant, put millions out of work, and completely transformed the world’ economy. Something like that is going on again today: it’s up to us to figure out how to respond to it and plan so that the suffering caused by the industrial revolution doesn’t happen again. We have a lot of work to do!

    All best, Andrea

    • That’s very interesting, and I agree completely. I wonder if this could produce a shift in the economical focus? As in, maybe our society would become more of a socialist culture, with certain individuals managing the machines and the remainder of the population working in non-traditional roles and receiving limited income from the government. It will certainly be interesting to see how society changes, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that there’s sufficient support for the members of the community that can’t be self-sufficient.

      I also really like how you mentioned the Industrial Revolution, because I think that the only way we can prepare for the action we’ll have to take is to predict what will happen. By analyzing history, we’ll have a more accurate idea of what to expect, and therefore be able to deal with it more effectively.

  • Hi Anna,

    Yesterday, I was particularly engaged in the following VPR Commentary because I had just read your articulate and layered thoughts on the MUHS dress code and its larger implications.

    http://digital.vpr.net/post/greene-harassment

    • Thank you for sharing this commentary! I found it interesting and applicable to my topic. It also raised the issue of “where is the line between harassment and free speech?” The commentary said that physical action or repetition of the verbal assault constitutes harassment, but a single instance of yelling doesn’t qualify. However, while people may not be punished for the latter, I still think its an occurrence in society that must change. I know firsthand how threatening even an “innocent” comment can be, especially if you’re alone, or you’re outside at night. Although street harassment isn’t exactly what I’m researching, I think it would be a really interesting topic that lends itself to great change.

      Additionally, the commentary included a line about possibly restricting dress codes, in order to decrease street harassment, among other forms of sexual assault. She brought up the point that there’s no clear place to draw the line, because people have a vast variety of ideas of what they consider offensive. Some Muslim women consider it scandalous to be in public without their hair covered, while other women take no issue with walking down the street in a bralette and cutoff shorts.

      This doesn’t warrant a response, necessarily; I’m just getting my thoughts out. Thank you for the link, it really got me thinking!! 🙂

  • Anna,

    Thank you for taking the time to write in-depth about each of your topics of interest. After reading through your post, I am wondering if you are more interested in looking at one of these issues inside of school or if you are more interested in examining an issue as it pertains to society at large. Your discussion of poverty focused on the issue in general, while the other two were centered around school. There is no rush to decide, but as you continue to explore the issues, it is something to ponder.

    Erik

    • I think poverty is an issue that should be studied on at a statewide level, as it’s a much more large-scale issue than the other two. I think I would focus on LGBT education and the dress code, first at my school, and possibly expand to other schools in the state as well. The more I think about these issues, the more I think I should choose a topic where I can really make a difference, instead of simply trying to make a dent. As such, I’m leaning more towards the issue of the dress code, as it’s a ~small~ issue, so it’s manageable, but it’s indicative of a variety of larger problems in society that need to be addressed. I would love to expand the influence of my project (if this is what I choose to research) to various schools in the state, in addition to my own.

  • Anna—

    I would like to applaud so much of what you have written, but I would like to especially applaud your stance that students don’t have to learn about various sexual orientations, as much as to learn about hateful reactions to sexual orientations that do not fit into heteronormative expectations. I mean, so some male, for example, is affectionately attracted to another male. What’s so hard about figuring that out? But to understand why that is so threatening and to seek ways to get over this hang-up? Now, that’s a challenge, and that’s what, in my view, we need to work on.

  • Andrea Lunsford
    4 years ago

    Just a note to say that I’m impressed with the quality of the responses to Anna’s post: they are highly detailed and astute — very good analysis and very good questions/suggestions. A fine conversation going here.

  • Anna,
    I read your 4th post. Great work! I like the quotes you used from Sinek. They really fit with what you were saying. I did notice something though. You said how we would change the dress code, by spreading the word, but I was wondering, do you have an idea of how you’re going to spread the word? Videos, pictures, text, or through this blog?

    Something completely off topic from the blog, but how old are you? Your posts seem so sophisticated, and well worded with a lot of vocabulary. It’s definitely not middle-school level posts (as mine are). I think it would be good to get to know one another as we continue to read each others’ posts. I think it would help to see more in-depth in each others’ posts. Of course, if you want to.

    Anyway, keep up the hard work! Your topic is really strong, and with development, I think it can be even stronger. I look forward to seeing how your topic and posts evolve through the year!

    • Hey Bryce! I haven’t thought about it much yet, but I think the best way to spread the word is generally through the internet. Videos, presentations, and essays could all work. Getting on the local news is optimal, because it gets information out to the whole community without them necessarily having to go in search of it. I think it would also be helpful to reach out to principals of various schools in the state to coordinate and get information to students, whether by showing a video, discussing it in clubs/classes or even having an assembly. I know these are all really far fetched ideas but in a perfect world, this is how I would spread the word.

      Also, thank you for that observation! I try to put as much effort into these posts as possible, so it means a lot. I’m 16 and a junior, so I definitely have more experience with analytical/research writing than some people in the class. And I agree, the more you know about someone, the more you can understand where they’re coming from, so you can identify with their work better.

      Thank you for your comments!

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