Sunday, August 21, 2016

Joint Reflections on Whiteness in Research: Missy Bird’s work on Contraceptive Access

Missy Bird, doctoral student in Social Work, reached out to me last week to share her crowd-funding campaign for her dissertation research – and a book she plans to write! – examining access to pregnancy prevention in rural Southern California, in a community that includes White people and People of Color, specifically many Latinx families facing language and documentation barriers. In order to start a conversation with Missy about her work, I drew upon the researcher reflection questions from the SRA #BlackLivesMatter syllabus developed by Elise Harris, Lisette DeSouza, and myself.

Mimi: Why this community?

Missy: I chose this community because of high rates of unintended pregnancy, its status as a rural community, high rates of poverty, proximity to my house (it is only a three hour drive), proximity to the border of Mexico, lack of research in that county, and the fact that a reproductive health clinic was built there recently to HUGE uproar.

Mimi: What’s motivating you?

Missy: I want policymakers to understand the steps to get contraception, from deciding whether or not to tell partner/s, figuring out child care, transportation, what type, what provider, safety, cost, I could go on and on. I want women to discuss their use of contraception, their experiences living in rural America, and how poverty and religion impact their ability to talk about sexuality (and thus reproduction).

Mimi: I want to name that you are talking about cisgender women.

Mimi: Not all women have the same needs regarding reproduction. And there are people who are transgender or genderqueer who can and do use contraception, seek pregnancy prevention, and get pregnant. It sounds like your interviews will be specific to people assigned female at birth who currently identify as women. Have you thought about whether you will include queer women?

Missy: The inclusion criteria for the research is women 18-44 who are accessing one of two specific clinics for reproductive health care.

Mimi: So, you are not seeking out people of queer or trans experience. But. When we talk about reproductive justice, that must include trans justice and queer justice. And racial justice.

I want to talk to Missy, and to other fellow White researchers, about how we can examine ourselves and our behavior at every step of the research process in order to more authentically and more effectively show up for the Movement for Black Lives. I ask myself continuously: What am I doing? What is the impact? What am I ready to risk? Through several phone conversations and email exchanges, Missy let me ask her some hard but necessary questions about our role as White researchers in addressing health, justice, and structural racism within White systems of power.

Mimi: In March, at the SRA #BlackLivesMatter preconference conducted in collaboration with Black activists in Baltimore, activists warned us of the harm that can be done when (particularly white) researchers create our own research projects without directly collaborating with community organizers. How are you grappling with this message, as you move forward with your research plans?

Missy: I’ve interviewed 17 community leaders -- high level decision makers, health center administrators and staff, and thought leaders shaping moral, ethical, and legal arguments about women’s reproductive healthcare in the targeted area.

Mimi: Did you ask them what they want or need, or action steps they want other people to take?

Missy: I did not ask for action steps, but I did ask what the community needed. Their answers varied but the bottom line was: they want their population to be healthy and strong so that they can have healthy families that contribute to the larger society as a whole. 

Mimi: Beautiful words, right? One of the core tenets of the reproductive justice movement is that reproductive justice will require racial justice. What does it mean for us as White people to be repeating high hopes for “healthy families” when there are Latinx families getting separated by deportation, Black children and parents being killed by the police. Frameworks such as “health” and “contribution” are so often coded terms that perpetuate racist narratives such as “individual responsibility.” And then we locate “unhealthy” as if it is within marginalized communities -- but really the root cause is in the White systems, in structural racism. What does this mean for my role as a White person in the field of sexual and reproductive “health”? What was that like for you, to connect with community leaders and stakeholders as a White researcher? What questions did it raise?

Missy: One of the things I have really been reflecting on is whether or not I am clear on the difference between reproductive access and reproductive justice. Every step of the way in developing my project I have been questioning myself about whether what I am talking about addresses the complexity and entirety of women's reproductive lives. I am really aware of my Whiteness. My original assumption of course was, well if there were more resources (e.g., clinics/physicians) then more people would be able to access health care. But to consider racism, hostile immigration policies, and extreme poverty, issues of justice are about more than sexuality. For myself and other White women, even poor White women, access becomes much less of an issue. I have had to expand how I look at access, making sure that I am talking about justice, not just access.

Mimi: I’m trying to get at a personal, emotional process here too. Something we can’t just be alone checking our own thoughts. I definitely can’t. That’s why I seek out conversations – to trouble the assumptions that I’ve internalized deeply. For example, you said in an email, "my purpose on earth is to tell people's stories." I want to trouble that with you a little. What are your intentions? What are the risks? How might your impact be different from your intentions?

Missy: I will interview 50-60 women and then write a book. I have been telling peoples stories for years. I genuinely and authentically want to tell these stories because I believe there is a story to tell. Maybe I am wrong and I will find out I am wrong. I appreciate where you are coming from with this, but I don't know what more to say. I have really thought about this a lot over the last two years. Maybe the risk is that this isn't important enough, that no one really cares about women because they are just vessels to be used for a purpose and if they don't serve the purpose then whatever they have to say doesn't matter. But that isn't right. Women’s experiences are important, and I want to talk about them because it brings me joy to do so. 

Melissa Bird speaking at the 2010 Utah Pride FestivalMimi: You name a number of goals – personal joy, policy change… and also this will be your dissertation work to earn a Ph.D.

Missy: I am pursuing my PhD. I do want to write a book about women’s lived experiences. And I want my research to mean something.

Mimi: What your research will mean is dependent on who you are and how you go about it. In qualitative research we talk about reflexivity – considering how your "findings" will be constructed through you – who you are, what your participants will tell you, what you are attending to as you speak to them and write about them.

Missy: Yep, this is qualitative research, and I don't know yet how the interviews will be constructed through me. I don't have any idea what this is going to look like because I haven't collected the data. I can't say how I will write the book. It will be a very typical research book, much like the kinds we read in our coursework. With quotes and analysis and such but not direct transcripts. It will focus on themes, but I can't decide the themes before I get into the data. What is their agenda? What do they want? Maybe all of the 17 stakeholders I talked to are wrong. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe none of us have ANY earthly idea what women really want or need. Until I have completed this next phase of my project neither I nor my committee nor the stakeholders that I interviewed can tell me for sure.

Mimi: There is so much more I want to ask you about how your relationship with your own Whiteness will shape what you do and how you do it. So let’s keep talking about that as you move forward. But now, tell me: What scholars of color have influenced your thinking about reproductive justice, and what pieces will you be sure to credit and cite?

Missy: Dorothy Roberts, Zakiya Luna, and Kristin Luker are three scholars I credit and cite in any of my work that references reproductive justice. These are the two articles I cite in my proposal:

Mimi: You ask for $28,000 to fund this research project. At the same time, there are many scholars and activists of color seeking funding for their reproductive justice work. Tell me about some individuals and organizations who are also in need of financial support.

Missy: I don't even know how to answer this, but would love some suggestions.

Mimi: I’ll start with these three organizations – there are so many more.
Strong Families – by Forward Together, in Oakland – check out their Mama’s Day work, too!
Sister Song: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective – debuted the term “reproductive justice” in 2003 – see writing by Loretta Ross

Mimi: Now I’ll come back to what I said at the beginning about framing and language that is queer and trans inclusive. Try to tell me about your work without equating the category of “women” with the category of “people who can get pregnant.” 

Missy: My interviews are with women who are specifically seeking contraception and abortion services with the express purpose of not wanting children. I am not sure how to elaborate on this as a queer and trans issue. It is not my area of expertise nor is it the focus of my research.

Mimi: I’m not trying to say that your project needs to include queer and trans people if you’re not prepared to do that or if that’s not part of your research question. But whenever we talk about women we need to make clear, within ourselves and through our language, that not all women have bodies that can become pregnant, and not all people seeking contraception and abortion services are women. And trans justice and reproductive justice are inherently linked. Here are some people who say it way better than I do: VerĂ³nica, Jack Qu’emi, KaeLyn, and Jos Truitt. Read what they write!

See Missy’s crowdfunding campaign to learn more about her research. Also, I’m looking for more researchers who want to continue having these conversations – either confidentially or for another blog post. Volunteer yourself or nominate a friend! I am specifically seeking to engage with other White researchers, and I would also be thrilled to personally connect with and/or publicly feature any People of Color who have feedback, push-back, or other thoughts and feelings to share.

Sunday, August 14, 2016


CW: sexual assault, silence

I spent this morning working on a paper about training undergrads in bystander intervention to stop sexual assault. One thing about bystander intervention is though, it absolutely wouldn’t have helped me.

There were no warning signs – definitely not in public, anyway. And there was no one else around when it happened. I willingly went to his house. Eagerly, even. He was a dear friend, and I was so touched when he asked me to come over. Sure we had a history, and I’d loved him in some way, and we made out once, years before.

I went over as friends. Not that I wouldn’t have considered it in general but… there was just too much else going on. And I told him as much that night, too. He kissed me and I pulled back: “I can’t. There’s just too much else going on.”

Please don’t tell me what I should have said next. That was a no. And I figured no was enough. I thought no was enough. I thought no was enough.

He kissed me again, moving in, and I froze. I dissociated. As I said previously, I had so much else going on. I was so traumatized in so many ways already and had spent much of the previous six months pretty dissociated already so, I dissociated. So, that’s what happened.


When I told my closest guy friend a week later, he asked why I didn’t call him to pick me up. How do you figure out, at 19 years old, amidst so many other crises, that this particular crisis is worth calling a friend in the middle of the night to drive an hour to come pick you up? And if he does wake up and answer your call, and if he does come pick you up, then would he also return with you the next morning to get your parents’ car back? Because I drove myself to that place to begin with. Willingly. Eagerly. Having planned to sleep over, I was in no state to change those plans and drive myself home. I hate driving on a good day, but also like, being even a little intoxicated, and being in a lot of shock, no way.

I slept over, woke him up in the morning to get directions to the highway, and never spoke to him again.


He didn’t go to my college. He went to a college, and I went to a college, but it wasn’t the same college, and we weren’t on campus when it happened, and honestly I don’t even know if I would have thought to report it. I told my two best friends from my dorm because we talked about consent and sexual assault all the time anyway. I told that one guy friend who then asked me why I hadn’t called him for help. And there were a few other people I tried to tell but I couldn’t, or didn’t, or something. I didn’t tell my parents for many, many years.


Today I was working on a paper about bystander intervention programs and I was struggling, because it’s hot and I was working late last night and I’m tired. I was really struggling, and then I took a break and realized, I need to write this first. When I tell myself this story I tend to think of it as relatively mild, but I would never call sexual assault mild if anyone else were talking about it. I guess for me it’s as I said, there was so much going on in my life right then, so even at the time, it felt mild compared to the other things. But it had a serious impact on me, then and, in some predictable and some surprising ways, continuing to now.


About a year and a half after it happened, I was lying on the table in one of many physical therapy appointments, as the physical therapist was trying to decipher the odd patterns of tension, inflammation, and pain in my body. He asked me, carefully, if I’d ever been sexually assaulted. I said no. I had spend so much effort keeping this secret that I just said no instinctually. I went numb; I knew I was lying. To this day I wonder what I might have learned about my body, and what health care I might have received, if I were able to answer truthfully sooner, or if he were able to stay with the question long enough to hear the real answer.

I do believe he saw something real. The place he was looking, the injury he was examining, that was a real injury. That was a real thing that happened. And it hurt.

So are you.


There’s no particular institution I can ask to #JustSaySorry. But Wagatwe Wanjuki and Kamilah Willingham are doing exactly that, addressing Tufts and Harvard, respectively. Follow what they’re doing over the next few weeks and send some cash to their org, Survivors Eradicating Rape Culture, to support them in this exhausting work of action and healing, healing and action.

Addendum: I am now involved in fundraising for this organization -- please do contribute! Feel free to reach out to me with any questions.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Including – but not limited to – sexual and romantic relationships

Dear University of Virginia,
Read my blog, and then you'll see why I want to join your Center to study youth relationships with peers and adults. Relationships matter. A lot. To me. And yeah, I do all this sex ed stuff, but really that's all about relationships, too. Seriously. You can check out my bad-ass academic articles and all but still, read the blog. Connection, empathy, #feelings, love, community. I'm in.
With hope and an open heart,
Miriam R. Arbeit, PhD

I emailed the above letter to my best friend, and went back to writing a formal academic cover letter. My formal writing often flows better if I simultaneously have a document open in which I can say exactly what I need to say, on my own terms. Eventually, I crafted this:

My work thus far has illustrated the barriers to connection that adolescents face at multiple levels of the developmental system, including in their self-conceptions, in their sexual or romantic relationships, in their family and peer relationships, in the ways in which they are treated within youth-serving institutions (e.g., schools, health care), and in the messages they receive from their cultural context. My next steps involve deepening my study of empathy and diversity within youth-adult and peer relationships and across in-school and out-of-school-time settings. For example, I want to examine how the developmental process involved in building empathy may or may not be related to other aspects of emotional and relational skill-building. I also want to examine how youth and adults can form authentic and respectful connections across social and structural differences, such as gender, race, and language. I believe that these steps will support my future plans to do curriculum and program development with school-based and out-of-school time programs to promote youth thriving and facilitate safe, supportive, and fulfilling relationships including but not limited to sexual and romantic relationships.

Huge shout-out to my amazing colleague-friends who gave me job app edits. It still takes a village, even – or especially – at age 30.

And now I get to study that village!

I will be a postdoctoral research fellow at Youth-Nex, the UVa Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, directed by Patrick Tolan. I’m working with Nancy Deutsch and Amanda Kibler on the study of youth development through interpersonal relationships (hence the above rant). There are two main projects, and a bonus pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Amanda Kibler’s project that I’ll be working on is Languages Across Borders: Building Positive Cross-Linguistic and Cross-Cultural Networks in High School. It is aimed at promoting positive development for youth who are English Language Learners through strengthening their school-based relationships with peers. Nancy Deutsch’s project that I’ll be working on is the Study of Important Youth-Adult Relationships. It examines youth experiences within relationships with important non-parental adults. Obviously if you want to talk more about either of these projects, just let me know!

And oh, the pot of gold at the end of this already gorgeous academic rainbow. Nancy Deutsch is collaborating with Futures without Violence and the Harvard Law School Gender Violence Program on a comprehensive training curriculum for institutions of higher education to reduce and address sexual violence on campus. So like, yes. That’s what I’m trying to do. This is the work I want to be doing in the world. Dare I repeat: Connection, empathy, #feelings, love, community. I'm in. My heart is exploding with hope.

I now have a job and an apartment in a place I’ve never actually been. But I hear it’s beautiful.

I’m moving next month. On my own… don’t worry, I’ll be asking for lots of help. It’s taken several villages to get me this far, and I may be physically leaving those particular villages for the time being, but I’m a big fan of Facetime, and I’ve got lots of plans for finding new villages down in Virginia. Did I mention that I’m already on an email chain with the other postdocs at UVa’s Curry School of Education? A warm, welcoming email chain. I’m so excited. I’m going to miss New York, for real, and also I’m so excited.

Charlottesville, Virginia. Come visit!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Patriarchy in progressive Judaism/ In the middle of a shame experience

As they sign their Jewish marriage covenant, I feel the various threads of emotion start to twist and tangle again.

You’re in the middle of a shame experience, I gently remind myself.

I breathe deeply and feel the knot unfurl. It is a subtle shame – not enough to impede my enjoyment of the wedding, but just enough to seep into my thoughts. Thoughts telling me I’m tainted, that I shouldn’t get too close to the happy couple, that they don’t want to be associated with me. Telling me to make myself smaller.

You’re in the middle of a shame experience, I repeat. This may be harder than expected.


I had expected to be completely divorced by now. Done. Finished with the entire process. It’s been over two years since our court date in Cambridge, which was super sad and also relatively smooth and followed by getting food together at the Cambridgeside Galleria. When the civil divorce was finalized four months later, we started seeking a ghet, a Jewish divorce document.

They feel sorta parallel – the civil process and the ghet. You submit your paperwork, then you go in front of a court, then you get some letter confirming that the divorce has occurred and you are now considered independent entities. Except in Judaism, it’s super gendered.


I want to talk about patriarchy, and I want to talk about shame. I want to explore these topics to better understand the psychological experience caused by systems of oppression in general, and to illustrate the specifics of how patriarchal oppression continues to impact me as a so-called “progressive” Jew today. I believe that as a Jewish community, we need to do better to address and eradicate patriarchy from our systems and rituals. This belief comes from my principles as a queer feminist Jew. And it also comes from my own need, out of the depth of my own experience… as a response to my own shame.

Charlie Glickman talks about shame as an experience of disconnection that tells us how we’re doing by our community’s standards of behavior. Sometimes shame can be really helpful, when we’ve done something that betrays our values and we need to work to reconnect. But when something’s off in the social system, shame is often part of the problem.

I experienced a lot of shame throughout the divorce process. I felt shame as I watched myself hurt someone I love. I felt shame about having made a personal and public commitment that I did not keep. I pulled back from the Jewish community that we had been involved in together – I didn’t know how to show my face.

I had also faced a lot of patriarchy throughout the wedding process. I felt it when I went dress shopping, I felt it when I tried to talk through the details with my partner, and I felt it especially in the Jewish ritual we were working to reimagine.


I’m no Jewish legal scholar, but let me explain what I think happened:

I walk in with the person who had been my husband. A kind rabbi smiles and shakes our hands. We meet the two men asked to serve as witnesses for us. Very generous of them. They shake our hands with reserve and sympathy. We sit down in an overheated room, and I’m uncomfortable and thirsty.

This will only take twenty minutes, I assure myself. Then it will be over, I’ll drink water, and we’ll get lunch. I’m excited to see if Inna’s Kitchen is open, and to get time to catch up with Matt, my ex.

The rabbi gives us an outline of the ritual. Matt had made the official request for the ghet (the divorce document) to be drafted and delivered to me. The witnesses were there to confirm the delivery. Matt was there because, no matter the legal meaning of the ritual, this was really about both of us. And like, for “closure,” maybe?

Maybe, but it doesn’t work. There is an error in the paperwork. Someone confused something about our Hebrew names and the ghet in the rabbi’s hands is not valid. It will not do the trick. This is not done.

That’s when I start to really feel it… if we’d moved through the ritual smoothly, would I have felt it in the same way? I’m not sure. But there I was, sitting in a room with four men: a rabbi, two witness, and the person who had been my husband. And they were frustrated. But I was the one most impacted.


I don’t feel ashamed of the tears. I don’t feel ashamed of needing a few minutes to take off my sweater and get water and use the restroom. I don’t feel ashamed of asking questions.

I feel ashamed because I feel subordinate, dependent, and powerless. I feel ashamed because at the most fundamental level, my status in the community is on the line. Because of the patriarchy. Because the function of the ghet is for a man to release a woman from marriage, as delivered by a rabbi, with two men witnessing. Back to the days of gender binary hetero patriarchy power system. (Back to the days of Pooh?)

We were both raised in affiliation with the Conservative Jewish movement, we got married within that movement, and we were trying to divorce accordingly. And the patriarchy only got thicker as we went along. Something about wanting to make sure the ghet would have as good a chance as possible of being honored by Orthodox communities should anyone ever care. The rabbi starts saying that we do it that way so that if I have a child and my child wants to be Orthodox then an Orthodox rabbi would respect the ghet as somehow a legitimate divorce that then allowed me to be legitimately remarried and have so-called “legitimate” children. It’s a long hypothetical dystopian fantasy in which this divorce remains a shadow that can call into question everything yet to happen in my life. I will continue to be suspect and this ghet will be the thing that will satisfy people that I am okay, that my actions are okay, that I can love again and build a family in acceptable, “legitimate,” ways.

Shame. Tangled, twisted knots of shame.

And this was very clearly directed towards me, not towards Matt.

Because patriarchy.


It was a female rabbi who had prepared the document actually – but she lives elsewhere, and the rabbi trying to deliver it is male. So that’s a quirk in the ever-quirky system of Conservative Judaism. The witnesses were to be men, but the rabbi could be any Conservative rabbi? The (male) rabbi explains it as a sort of wink to the Orthodox movement, just in case, to try to make the document as “acceptable” as possible. I keep asking questions until the rabbi stops and says: I think this is interesting, but you probably want to get on with your day. 

To him it's interesting. How to be a progressive rabbi in a patriarchal religion. An intellectually and probably morally satisfying mission. But see, it’s not just intellectual for me. Shame is social feeling. I want to be a “legitimate” community member. I want all my functioning and rights – I shouldn’t have to give that up just to avoid this experience of patriarchy.

It’s not only about injustice – that makes it into something that is intellectual, theoretical, something we can all be “against” together. We are all against disempowering women. Especially the “we” of progressive Jewish community. We’re committed, in concept.

It’s not only about microaggressions – the men were sweet to me even though they didn't know what to do with my tears. They expressed a mix of “pleasure to meet you” and “sorry we meet on this occasion,” and then, after it didn’t work, they uttered hope for something to come of the process. They were trying, in concept.

What it was really about for me, that day, was the psychological experience of being in that room and being subordinate, dependent, and powerless. My status in the community was in question, and – and this centuries old system of power persisted through these men in the room who considered themselves my equals in every other way and yet were participating in, defending, upholding, honoring that system of power. As was I, in my own way.


Shame is a social emotion about not feeling part of a community. Not because I’m being shunned or feel disliked – but because I can tell that I’m not being cared for. My needs aren’t being met. I feel ashamed that my community would desert me so – leave me so subordinate and alone. Even when I actually get the ghet, that's a psychological experience that I will hold with me. It’s the psychological toll of systems of power and oppression that we know we are “against” but – but are still here. I can't reject it on my own; I would be even more isolated. I can only ask questions and accept the tears and seek help. And that is all compounded when the room is full of men, and the men respond to me with intellectual attention, as I keep hearing the rabbi say: I think this is interesting, but you probably want to get on with your day. 

No, rabbi. I want to get on with my life.