“We deserve a rape free campus.” — Dickinson College

#FireMarcy, #AstroSA & #BlackLivesMatter

Trying to Sanctify Humanity As a Black Woman Survivor

Traditionally, the first thing a Jewish person is supposed to say or do when they wake up in the morning is the prayer מודה אני‎ — “modah ani” or “I give thanks.” It is the beginning of a longer prayer, but those two words alone are really about setting the tone for the day. We are to begin the day giving thanks for being alive. Traditionally, Jews have thanked God. In more recent times, Humanistic Jews have let go of the God part while Reconstructionist Jews like me have come to interpret God more broadly.

For me, the seminal teaching of Mordecai Kaplan’s re-envisioning of Torah, Talmud and Mishnah for me has been that we humans, as a global community of communities, as a species, enact holiness or desecrate holiness with our choices. We collectively determine so much about our individual and communal fates, and this is increasingly true as the threat of Global Warming grows and grows.

For me this has daily implications as I sing מודה אני‎ during my sojourn through the Shacharit, the daily morning prayer service. When I offer thanks and praise, this means I am thanking and praising my fellow human community for existing and being present.

This is actually really hard for me.

The fact that offering thanks and praise to the human race is difficult for me is exactly why I think my daily engagement with the Shacharit is necessary. Ultimately, the entire practice is about hope and faith, not in something supernatural but rather in us.

But it’s also understandable why this is hard. Let’s take the last week for example. On Friday, Buzzfeed Science Writer Azeen Ghorayshi broke the story that academically distinguished U.C. Berkeley Professor of Astronomy Geoff Marcy had been found guilty of committing sexual harassment and sexual assault crimes against students at Berkeley and other schools over the course of a decade. Marcy, who has often been talked about as a potential Nobel Laureate for his contributions to the discovery of planets outside of our solar system, posted a half-assed apology on his website where he refused to admit to some of the crimes. Meanwhile, the Berkeley administration has chosen (now in opposition to the demands of astronomy faculty, postdocs and grad students) to allow him to stay on the faculty with the “promise” that he’ll never do it again.

The situation is absurd, offensive, infuriating, fucked up, gross, dehumanizing, hateful, marginalizing, and harmful.

It’s also not surprising. As has become clear by the number of universities under investigation for Title IX violations, the Title IX system doesn’t really work very well for victims. In addition to all of the individual people who have protected Marcy, there’s a delicious irony in the Title IX office finding Marcy guilty and then not being able to do much with their finding except secretly share it with the victims and the administration, who decided he was worth too much prestige and money to chuck his sorry ass out onto the street.

I am not grateful or thankful for this story. I am not thankful that I have known since 2004 that he was an apparent sexual harasser but had no recourse to do anything about it. I am not thankful that before he was a professor at Berkeley, Marcy had complaints filed against him at San Francisco State, complaints which apparently didn’t follow him on the job market and absolutely should have. I am not thankful that so many women suffered literally at his hands. I am not thankful that so many of us felt powerless to stop such monstrous behavior.

It’s hard to be thankful.

It’s especially hard when I have my own stories of sexual assault and harassment and like many of Marcy’s victims, will likely never feel safe saying anything more than that, except this: they have significantly impacted my career. In some ways they still do. They have impacted my relationship with the physics community. They taught me that patriarchy and violence don’t have a color line.

Being a victim of sexual assault changes your life and everything in it. It changes how you relate to your friends, your family, your romantic and sexual partners and most importantly, yourself. Forever. It is not a small thing.

I can’t understand why U.C. Berkeley’s administration would risk another person feeling that way about her life. Forever. When they have the power to stop it.

I am not thankful for them. I am not thankful for how their actions made old wounds feel fresh again. I am not thankful that I am not the only person who spent the weekend struggling with these feelings.

Here’s something I could be thankful for: a Title IX office that could investigate existed. Every campus is required to have one. At least on paper, Americans take sexual assault and harassment on campus somewhat seriously.

But, where is the Title VI office for redressing racist violations? There are none. Universities aren’t required to have one. There is no consistent mechanism for redressing racism on campus, whether it be in the classroom or the research environment.

I am not thankful for people who don’t notice or don’t care about this disparity.

I am not thankful for the way the astronomy community makes excuses for racism and regularly forces people of color to have long dialogues about “whether [whatever racist thing it was] was really racist.”

I have been a victim of multiple forms of sexual misconduct, and I think in many ways, the racism I have experienced has been more scarring.

And that says a lot.

In context, it’s hard to be thankful to people responding to sexual harassment with such verve when they don’t respond to racism with the same passion.

So I say the Shacharit to try to keep some semblance of balance. To remember that there is more to the world than these devastating things. And I think it works. I have been deeply challenged to look for people and communities I am thankful for. To remember them, daily.

I am thankful for the women of the Black Lives Matter movement, who have taken seriously that none of us should be left behind, whether we are trans, people with disabilities, women, men or all of those things put together.

I am grateful that those in the Black Lives Matter movement have taken seriously that we are holistic individuals with more than one axis of existence.

I hope the Astronomy community will follow suit.

I want to see images like the one above, of white people carrying signs, demanding of each other:

“I want a racism free campus. I want a racism free society. Our friends, colleagues and fellow citizens of color deserve it.”
“Protect Black bodies and minds. Don’t permit their assassination!”

I would be very thankful for that. I would be thankful to be able to take seriously that it’s not just white ciswomen that matter to the anti-sexual assault movement in the STEM community.

That would mean they finally understood that I matter too.

I don’t mean I’d be handing out ally cookies. Just that I could feel more at ease thanking humans for sanctifying humanity. And that would be nice. It would probably make me feel more at ease and less anxious around people too. I could pay that ease and appreciation forward.

For now, I will continue to do the hard work of trying to have faith in people who have not necessarily earned it, because my traditions teach me that it is part of the path to salvation for all of us.

I will also continue to support Black Lives Matter as it steps over and around those who refuse to lead or follow on matters of race justice — gendered or otherwise — in a country where Blackness is the fulcrum. For that movement, for the many women especially who helped produce and lead it, I am most thankful.

#astroSA=astro sexual assault