BY SUMANA PALLE
Published October 8, 2014
Part 1: Context
The It’s On Us campaign is a response to a national swell of activism and protests in recent months about universities’ failures to address sexual assault. The White House created this campaign as a response and has allowed universities to implement the campaign as they see fit on their campus. At U-M, it has meant that a small group of elite white men with no clue what sexual assault is, led by Central Student Government President Bobby Dishell, have tasked themselves with single handedly stopping rape on campus from happening, seemingly under the illusion that they are the hallowed chosen ones that will lead us all out of the darkness.
Part 2: The Meeting
Despite previous disastrous dabbling in social justice on campus where Dishell was allegedly exposed as slanderous, grossly racist, and anti-Arab, he took it upon himself to arrange for all the logistics for the first meeting, which was to gather major student leaders on campus in one room.
I had the misfortune of participating in this first meeting. Despite my past work on the issue of sexual assault, I knew of it only because a close friend had been invited and extended an invitation to me. And as soon as I walked into the room, I realized what a glitch my invitation had been; I felt the all-too-familiar sickening sensation of being one of the very few people of color in the room. In a room of about 40, I was one of two students of color and the only woman of color.
It was painfully clear that only people close to Bobby had been invited and that there had been absolutely no effort to include anyone else on an issue that pervades all areas of campus. There had been no outreach done to activist and advocacy groups that could have knowledgably discussed how these issues were impacting communities of color and queer people on campus; the real travesty is that it obviously had not even occurred to Dishell to reach out.
Where was the representation from Coalition of Queer People of Color? The Black Student Union? Anyone from the historically Black, Latin@, Asian and South Asian fraternities and sororities? Did CSG not realize that sexual assault happens to people who are not white and straight? To men?
The revolting amount of obliviousness and aloofness was a cruel irony. Despite all the movements and campaigns that had occurred in the past few years to combat that constant exclusion of minorities and all the promises of inclusion that had followed, there was still no inclusion. Our fearless leader Dishell, and therefore Central Student Government, missed, once again, that people are sick and tired of being excluded from and forgotten about in policy discussions that impact their living spaces, learning conditions and general safety.
To say that the meeting was disheartening is a gross understatement. Bobby’s first order of business was to get people talking. Which meant get the straight, white, cisgender men in the room with no ostensible direct connection to the issue talking, throwing around “solutions,” and making assumptions without proper education about the issue. Sexual assault was confused with sexual harassment and some people did not even know what consent really meant, despite using the word profusely.
There was an excruciatingly painful lack of understanding and no substantial amount of research (if any) had been done into the root cause of the issue. In an attempt to depoliticize and de-emotionalize sexual assault, which by its very nature cannot be depoliticized and de-emotionalized, none of the balloon-headed, moronic men overly enthusiastic about “ending rape on campus” had assessed their role and space in a sexual assault awareness campaign. There was no self-awareness, no thought of assessing their own privilege, and no intention of criticizing their own role in rape culture. And there was especially no mention of ideas that helped other communities decrease violence.
Buzzwords such as “Twitter campaigns,” “campus culture,” etc., were thrown around at a dizzying pace with no real substance attached. Representatives from the Athletic Department made sure they ate up half the time by talking about all the great initiatives they were taking to combat sexual assault in, I think, a desperate attempt to stop anyone from bringing up former Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons.
People were throwing around ideas for petitions (you heard right: petitions to end sexual assault on campus). Bobby jumped on this train of thought and threw out the idea for having a set goal of the amount of signatures and perhaps have a contest with Ohio State University to see who reaches the goal the fastest. People apparently missed the obvious irony of using the very spirit of competitive football culture that enabled the mishandling of the Brendan Gibbons case to combat sexual assault. Even now, the goal of the It’s On Us campaign at U-M is to get 10,000 signatures committing a stance against sexual assault.
That’s right, everyone! We can just throw out our pepper sprays and start carrying around copies of this commitment/petition/statement and stick it in the face of our assailant next time we are under threat of sexual assault!
The focal point of this campaign is supposed to be an event (yes, a singular event that will thwart all rapists in town) that is titled (“tentatively,” as Bobby assured those of us who were concerned) “Social Entrepreneurial Event with Focus on Sexual Assault.”
Yes. Think about that. Let that truly sink in for a second. An alternative title that was thrown around: “Entrepreneurial Solutions to Sexual Assault.”
I have no idea what kind of drug-induced psychedelic dream leads someone to think that entrepreneurship is the answer to sexual assault. What would that even mean? A group discount on rape nail polish? Free tampon daggers on the Diag? University-sponsored start-ups for other things that women can buy in order to protect themselves from rapists who have not yet read the petition?
At this point in the meeting, despite the sinking feeling that all hope was lost, I raised my hand to ask that everyone truly reflect on their reasons for being at the meeting and to center the voices of survivors and experts. I mentioned that to truly create change, we needed to separate our long-term goals from the trendy aspects of the campaign. Bobby jumped in as soon as I finished speaking to say that we didn’t have time for it and we needed to move on, making it clear that the people in the room do not have desire to understand the problem and think about what is at stake. This petition battle with Ohio State was so urgent that no one had time to think twice about the bodies and voices at the center of this discussion.
As a survivor of rape on campus, I was thoroughly disgusted as I left the meeting that day.
In the weeks following the meeting, lots of heterosexual, white, cisgender men changed their Facebook profile pictures to include the It’s On Us logo; released videos on how sexual assault on campus should totally be stopped, complete with compelling background music and random zoom-ins; and aggressively shared blog posts (written by themselves obviously). Apparently, the karmic laws of social media and the Internet state that publicizing how in support you are of a movement is exactly the same as challenging your own privilege and status as an oppressor in order to affect real change. So, instead of doing proper research, self-educating, and assessing space and power dynamics, these men were on a social media self-promotion campaign, intent on boosting their own image (for future POTUS races, I’m sure).
A dinner with Mark Schlissel was announced a few weeks after the meeting and I had the misfortune of attending that event too.
Part 3: Dinner With Mark Schlissel
The dinner took place this Saturday and had "leaders on campus" to kick off the It's On Us awareness campaign at U-M. In keeping with the absolute shitshow leading up to the event, the dinner with Schlissel itself was absolutely horrific.
Dinner consisted of President Schlissel making a feeble attempt to give a fuck about the issue. In between munching on his chicken, he asked vague questions and then changed the topic every few minutes. For example, he asked about the ties between mental illness, sexual assault, and how the university was addressing all of this. The room of 50 people had 10 minutes to quickly state their opinions to him, classroom style where those who wished to speak raised their hand and spoke.
It was a joke. Most of the people there talked just to hear themselves talk and curry favor with Schlissel; it was a sickeningly masturbatory contest that I had apparently missed the memo on. Even at this point, at an event with the president of the University about sexual assault, most people had clearly not done any research.
In fact, the president himself had not done any homework. Schlissel, I kid you not, started the dinner out with a question about what the university does well to address sexual assault. The room was filled with a heavy and awkward silence as headlines from the mishandling of the Gibbons case rolled through everyone’s mind. Here's the real kicker of the night: when the Gibbons case actually was brought up, Schlissel stated that he had not really looked into it.
Right. The president of our esteemed university, which is under federal investigation for gross violation and has been the fodder of national media for a few months, said, during a dinner about sexual assault awareness, that he hasn’t really looked into its most infamous incident of sexual assault yet. Not a diplomatic “No comment.” Just a shameless confession.
How is this acceptable? How is he competent to lead our university? When will sexual assault become something that he takes seriously?
And then, in celebration of our apparent efforts, we went to a play about rape at a high school that was one of worst-written, misogynistic, heteronormative, atrocious plays I've seen. There was absolutely no trigger warning yet the naked body of a rape survivor was shown. There was complete disregard for any type of intersectionality; it excluded male survivors, homosexual instances of assault, and had no acknowledgement of racial dynamics. It neatly categorized high school students into the category of jocks (the rapists), the cheerleaders (the stereotypically “catty” girls who bully the survivor), the survivor and her friend, and the punk emo goth (the outcast voice of reason during the play). The incompetent playwright did not lend the play the gravity, nuance or emotion it required. Despite being based on the Steubenville rape case, there was absolutely no consideration given to the privacy, dignity and humanity of the Steubenville rape survivor. This disgusting play was proof of how much damage is done when people take on serious issues without bothering to educate themselves and do not take into consideration the emotional and social needs of the people who are being impacted.
Part 4: Painful Realizations
This campaign so far is painfully indicative of our leaders’ cluelessness and recklessness regarding addressing sensitive and dire issues. Our leaders do not care about truly addressing the issue at hand or centering the voices of survivors and experts. Social justice has become a trend on this campus (and this nation) and sexual assault awareness is only the latest avatar of this trend. Absolutely no one is concerned with centering the voices and experiences of those affected by this issue. The ultimate purpose of those seeking to get involved is not to enact real change, but the appearance of change, the appearance of effort, because this is the only way to assuage the campus just enough so nothing drastic happens. Dishell, Schlissel, and most others in those events are not concerned with learning the mechanics of social justice as much as they are attending glamorized events and appearing in videos with their names in huge letters that give them the credit of caring without doing any of the work.
For those of you who think that this article is a piece of vitriol: you’re right. I am a queer brown woman and this campus has shown me no mercy; now, I run out of mercy for it. I previously clung onto wisps of optimism when a leader promised some kind of change, half-heartedly nodded when friends assured me that the treatment of this campus’s minorities stemmed from ignorance and not cruelty, dismissed men’s obvious displays of sexism. Now, I’m out of justifications for this institution’s structural animosity and its hegemony’s lack of concern for others. Professors have looked at me in the eye as they insisted that the colonization, enslavement and genocides that occurred in the Indian subcontinent were for the greater good; administrators have told me as I teared up after blatant displays of sexism that I was at fault for speaking up; I was raped numerous times on this campus and had absolutely nowhere to go to.
These are not isolated events; this university is intricately woven together and so are these issues. And the tragic truth is that this university does not give a shit about anyone except its powerful. It does not care for its womyn, its minorities, its queer, its anything-but-cisgender-white-men. Our leaders’ grand speeches about the importance of diversity and promises to take action are all just that: hollow sounds that vanish into thin air. The leadership at the University of Michigan is plagued with the very systems that are the root cause of the problems it faces. By constantly giving white, hetero, cisgender men power, it is actively stifling the lived experience of and continuing to take voice away from everyone else.
I’m tired of having my voice repeatedly stolen by rich, white, heterosexual, cisgender men like Dishell and Schlissel who claim they care for political reasons but have made it very evident that they do not. I am out of tears, out of cookies to give to privileged folk who sometimes behave like decent human beings, and generally just out of fucks to give.
Schlissel, Dishell, and other “leaders and the best” who have proven themselves to be incompetent, get your shit together. Or get out.
Sumana Palle is a Business senior, founder of Shakti, leader of the Michigan Women of Color Collective, and e-board member of What The F magazine.