Feminist Friday: “My kingdom for a gluten free beer” by Stephen K. Harrison

My kingdom for a gluten free beer. It was TPE March 2012. My friend and colleague needed a gluten free beer. After a long day of placement exchanging and conferencing, we were among friends. We were blowing off steam, commiserating about common frustration, enjoying common experience, and there was a great cover band. Most importantly a dear friend and I were failing miserably in our attempt to procure refreshing libations.

I am, as all who know me would attest, an attention junkie and the circumstances were right for me to grab the moment. I bellowed in vain, “For love of all things holy can I get a drink over here?” Having talked about my many privileges earlier in the evening, I decided that since we were having no luck just asking perhaps the barkeep would respond favorably to my identities – mostly all agent or dominant identities — and bring us that gluten free beer. Bring it to us by the barrel full. In the context the group took the conversation lightly, but what it meant for me use my identities to ask for a drink has stayed with me for over a year. It has caused me to think even more deeply about the responsibilities my identities give me.

My thirsty friend is a dedicated, and wildly talented, student affairs professional and a woman of color. While never having worked together, the branches of the student affairs family tree intertwine for us at several places. We see each other at conferences and we have deep and always hilarious conversations about the differences in our experience and our identities. This exchange started a few of years ago by comparing our dominant and non-dominant identities (it’s an allusion to a chart I was asked to produce during a diversity exercise at one of our common institutions). When I plot my dominant and non-dominant identifies they are – every one of them – on the chart’s left-most column and therefore on the dominant side of the many societal constructs. In almost every case I did nothing to achieve these identities except successfully be born. Those I did work for were developed after a healthy head start. While there has never been a silver spoon anywhere near my anatomy, I’ve had a hell of a hand to play and so will my sons. Not being able to get the attention of a bartender to purchase a drink in a loud, crowded bar is typically on the negative end of my spectrum. My life is – for lack of a better word — peachy.

In the direction of an overwhelmed drink distribution specialist and in no particular order – complete with dramatic pauses and parenthetical commentary for those around me – I offered a handful of examples of my identities, because surely after our earlier conversation, if anyone could get us a drink, it would be me. I shouted, “I was raised with a socioeconomic status of ‘enough’.” I proffered, “I have a postgraduate degree.” I zestfully submitted, “I sat at the ‘cool kids’ table in middle school.” No gluten free beer appeared. Not even a glance in our direction.

As student affairs professionals are wont to do I’ve marinated on that evening many times since. I’ve come to realize that my sons will likely be able to say these same things in 25 years – but hopefully not to at the top of their lungs. I’m a father who is also a feminist. My extremely simplified version of what this means is simply that I want for women start with an even playing field. I want for women to make one dollar to each dollar I make. I want for female promotions to be based upon skill and potential – same as it happens for men. I want my sons to grow up in a world where this equal opportunity is more likely because the laws in place are in line with the hearts and minds of women and men who believe it is right and necessary. I want my sons to be leaders of a generation of men who understand what their female family members, friends and counterparts are up against so they too can stand up for what is right.  I want my sons to not be failed by institutions of higher education that write, implement and defend policies that make the culture and the practice of sexual violence more possible than less.

I once told a colleague, “I don’t know what I can contribute to the diversity and social justice committee…I’m just a white guy.” I was reminded then and remind myself frequently that I should not be ashamed of my identity. I should be proud of my identity. Not because it says anything about my aptitude or my achievement, but because it bespeaks from whom and from where I’ve come. Guilt over my privileges takes me nowhere. I now know, as a person with many privileges it is my responsibility to stand up for needed change and I can do more to be a feminist father trying to raise feminist sons. I can do more to mentor male and female employees to be feminists on our campus and in our profession. I can do more to remind everyone from my staff to the guys in the locker room that our laws empower us by ensuring greater opportunity rather than limiting it. I can speak up for policy and action that adds value to our shared experience in the workplace, in the public square and in my own home. I can remind others, and myself, that the absence of such practical expressions of high ideals is disempowering. Raising my sons as feminists means they will work for equal opportunity for all and that this in no way belittles them or other men. I trust that one day they will have wonderful friends and colleagues with whom they can share a laugh, make a memory, challenge old thinking, and, since all fathers wish more success for their daughters and sons than they themselves have had…I wish they get a gluten free beer.

Stephen K. Harrison

Director of University Housing

Coastal Carolina University

Twitter.com/harrisonsteve

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