It is a generally accepted fact that sexual assault is a problem on college campuses across the nation. It is also a generally accepted fact that most victims don’t speak up and that if they do, the accused often get off without facing any sort of disciplinary action. Such facts effectively silence and pathologize victims who are afraid to to speak out for obvious reasons. The decision serves as further evidence of this nation’s problem with patriarchy and has major implications for the internalized oppression of Betsy DeVos and other White women in power.
However, what perhaps gives me the most pause about all of this is that none of us saw it coming.
Don’t get me wrong. All of the tomfoolery 45 and the rest of his oompa loompa crew have been up to is horrifying, but it’s not shocking. He is predictable. He says whatever vitriolic, hateful thing comes to his mind, and in some ways his verbal vomit allows us to anticipate what will come next. And while this doesn’t soften the blow, I am at least sure of what to expect from him. DeVos on the other hand, moves in silence. She did not say a word about this decision until it had already been made, at which point it was too late for us to protest. Too late for us to organize. Too late for us to mobilize. By the time the announcement was made the ink had dried and were left wondering how exactly this happened. And while I don’t agree at all with Betsy’s decision, I think that maybe there is something to be learned from her strategy.
I remember having a talk with my dad about a year ago when he said something that I found to be particularly profound. He asked me what my plan was for my doctoral program and I told him all about my plan for all of my brilliant Black girlfriends and I to change the face of institutionalized education and work to liberate all of the Black and Brown kids in America by changing curriculum forever. It was nothing he hadn’t heard from me before (after 26 years, he’s used to my grandiose dreams). As always, he was patient and kind and was sure to let me express my thoughts completely before he chimed in. When I had finished what was probably my fifteenth rant of the week, he said, “your goals are admirable, but you can’t just go in there telling everyone your plans. You’ve got to figure out a way to go in through the undercurrents.”
Betsy DeVos’s decision to roll back President Obama’s plans on sexual assault reminded of my dad’s comments. There’s something to be said about how patience and discipline make all the difference between immediate and ineffective change and long-lasting generational change. Although terrifying, DeVos’s stealth will have implications for generations to come. All too often, we parade our plans in the street for everyone to see. The game is for everyone to know how hard we’re grindin’, get people on board with whatever plan we’ve devised, or even sometimes to organize publicly. And that can be great. I can’t pretend it’s not nice to be recognized for your work or that outlets like social media don’t serve a meaningful function, however, I think there’s danger in putting too much information into the public sphere too soon. There’s power in privacy. There’s power in silence. For just a moment consider the fact that everything we do ends up on a stage for White consumption. Showing folks your cards too soon is foolish; all it does is allow them to think of a counter strategy before you’re ever able to take action.
As one of my faves, Gloria Ladson-Billings, would say, perhaps the only way to dismantle the master’s house is with his tools. People like Betsy DeVos continue to use tools like silence to maintain and marshall power. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the tools themselves, but rather whose hands they are in. Anything can be co-opted for good or evil.