The Politics of Inclusion
At the beginning of every semester, I start classes by asking my students to introduce themselves. I ask them to answer several questions which vary by semester. What does not change is a practice I began in my first semester teaching undergraduate students at Occidental College. I ask my students to give me their preferred name along with their preferred gender pronouns. I learned to start doing this practice from my colleague in the Religious Studies Department, Kristi Upson-Saia. And it is a practice I have not deviated from since.
I don’t think that what I am doing is bold, novel, or virtuous in anyway. I am simply setting the tone for my classroom with the intent to invite students into their learning processes by making space for each of them. When my colleague introduced this idea to me, it clicked in a way that surprized me and made me wonder why I had not already thought of it. It was so simple and its implications powerful. Asking this question allows each student to speak their own personhood on their own terms. But what surprises me even more, is any push-back to this sincere, thoughtful practice of inclusivity.
Recently the University of Tennessee (UT) system has come under fire because their Knoxville Campus’s Pride Center (formerly known as the Office for Diversity and Inclusion) suggested that faculty and students ask each other what their preferred pronouns are and to consider using non-binary pronouns such as “ze” and “xyr” instead of automatically defaulting to gendered pronouns for everyone. The suggestion was made through the Director of Pride Center, Donna Braquet—not as an official change in policy, but rather, in a post on the school’s website.
UT is not alone in its attempts to create change toward more inclusive language. Recently Ohio University adopted a policy that would enable students to enter their preferred names and personal pronouns into the university’s system so that faculty members would have this information on their official rosters before students even register for their classes. At UT, however, the post calling for a shift in practice was later removed by UT system President Joe DiPietro in September, citing unprecedented public pressure.
Perhaps more troubling then a pushback against inclusivity and diversity has been the reactions of political and religious leaders in the state. Tennessee’s Lt. Governor, Ron Ramsey referred to the post as “political correctness run amok.” Worse even, the state’s Senate Higher Education Subcommittee has hosted a special hearing in order to look into “issues” that were “brought to light,” according to the subcommittee chair, Sen. Joey Hensley. The so-called issues are predicated on how much money is allocated for the concerns of creating a more diverse and inclusive campus.
The collusion of politics and capital gain at the expense and exclusion of and detriment to, all those outside the spectrum of white, cisgendered, heteropatriarchy, is not new. Empires have been built on top of this partnership for centuries, after all. And certainly the role of religion in these discourses of power and exclusion is not new either. So it was not surprising that when this controversy began to boil over, religious conservatives also weighed in.
David Fowler, former state senator and current president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, has jumped on the opportunity to make a religious case for upholding the gender binary. How does he do it?—by attacking actress Kim Cattrall of Sex and the City fame. Recently Cattrall has talked about her decision to not have children and the ways in which North American culture attaches what it means to be a woman to the act of child bearing. “Child-less. It sounds like you’re less, because you haven’t had a child.”
Cattrall’s point is important. The term implies that that there is a lack—something missing. And she uses this to think about how women continue to be given value dependent on their abilities or desires for motherhood. Cattrall suggests that people consider thinking more expansively about what mothering means. For her the term includes mentorship and guidance—something she herself has done. More importantly, she argues that people should stop valuing women based on their abilities and desires for motherhood as well as by what is culturally determined as “good mothering” over anything not defined as such.
Fowler however, sees Cattrall as reinventing language. “For reasons she didn’t explain, Ms. Cattrall doesn’t like the real-world definition of child and that not having had a child of her own makes her ‘childless.’ So she makes up a world in which, if you have maternal feelings toward someone, then you have a ‘child’ and, presumably, magically become a ‘parent,’ too.”
Fowler then urged religious conservatives (his audience) to speak out against the UT system president and to call on government officials to intervene. He then goes on to suggest that the UT system is attempting to create a make belief world “in which gender is not the binary man-woman distinction we all know exists.” Dismantling Fowler’s argument is, to be quite frank, too easy. And for readers of this blog, it is also a bit like “preaching to the choir.” He clearly over essentializes gender and underestimates the limits of language.
But more importantly he makes a clear connection between upholding these exclusive understandings of human identity with what he perceives is clearly understood by all people and supported by Christian theology. He never makes the explicit connection to Christianity, but his group and blog is centered on the belief that “healthy families and communities come about when basic values from the Bible are embraced and upheld.”
Fowler upholds a gender binary that is oppressive to some and makes his argument by upholding an oppressive understanding of women’s obligations to be mothers and an oppressive use of language. And he couches all of this in terms of “healthy families and communities” rooted in his biblical interpretation. It is not surprising—to me at least—that these all work in tandem for Fowler and his ilk.
Still, the move by lawmakers to “look into” the financial support for a university’s initiatives aimed at creating more diverse and inclusive campuses is disheartening. This is especially true when it is done as an explicit reaction to movements toward just language. In talking about the inquisition into diversity initiatives within the UT system, and the cost of employing people to carry them out, Sen. Joey Hensley stated, “We may find that a lot of these people may not be needed.” I wonder if he or anyone has thought about whose needs he is speaking of.