The Cognitive Dissonance That Is Our Lives

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On Sat, Oct 28, 2017 at 6:52 PM, Johanna Gusman <> wrote:

So, I had to write you because I just experienced my first ‘High Table’ event at Oxford last night. It was an experience unlike any other and I am having serious mixed feelings about it all. If you aren’t familiar with it (I was not whatsoever), re-watch any of the Great Hall sequences from Harry Potter because it’s pretty spot on: we dined in academic gowns, we were announced, and upon walking into the dining hall, all the students (likewise gowned) stood until we filed around the white-clothed high table. A gavel was pounded, Latin was spoken, everyone was seated and the wine was served.

After dinner, we retired upstairs to the Senior Common Room where more alcohol and desert awaited us. I looked around the table and realized I was the only not fully white person at the table. By this time in the night, the alcohol had loosened my tongue enough to engage in conversation without hesitation, particularly on the topic of the inclusion of women and people of color into these elite spaces.

The whole night served to reinforce what a friend described in a femail so eloquently:

Our institutions were not built for or to ever include people of color, and particularly the less than full-human black person. They were all built to continue to invalidate our humanity, and silence and displace us, and the fact that we’re still fighting to get a foot into the door of most of our institutions continues to stress those certainties. People of color were not to ever thrive in this place.

Yet, I felt so ‘special’ for being there. To somehow belong in that space. For literally having a seat at that table and with my name on a tiny, emblemed place card to boot. Perhaps this is emanating a form of Stockholm syndrome or falling in love with one’s oppressor. Or maybe it goes even deeper, like how you out for gold star syndrome and not being able to separate myself from these institutions of power as so much of my identity, stability and confidence is wrapped up in them. But the most difficult part of the night for me was recognizing that a part of me loved being there; craved it in fact.

Ostensibly, it represents (to a certain degree) all things that I detest: exclusion, inequality, self-righteousness, self-importance, piety, pompousness, greed even. It was comically traditional and tragically attractive. It also represented some of the most intellectually engaging conversations of my life, possibly because so many of the old white men around to table had to actually listen to little ole me preach about the experiences of others that do not fit that description. You would have been proud because ‘patriarchy’, ‘heteronormativity’ and ‘neocolonialism’ were dropped several times throughout these discussions.

And interestingly enough, it was the white women at the table that grimaced, not the men. Heartbreaking, really. I was diplomatic, but I pushed why this one woman in particular (a physician’s wife) as to why she had such trouble encouraging women to enter fields like engineering and law (in 2017 no less). She replied, as people so often do to these discussions, that women should really focus on the family, to which many of the men agreed. And again, my heart broke. Then the conversation devolved into American traditions around family like baby and bridal showers. I had to look around the room for signs that I had not somehow traveled back in time to the 1950s.


Overall, I walked away happy because intellectually stimulating experiences always make me happy. But I also recognize that I was torn the entire night because I was walking a very thin line between disgust and delight. I wonder what it says about me and the person I purport to be. And I hope that it does not mean I have drank too much of the kook-aid, or wine as it were…

Here’s to the cognitive dissonance that is our lives 😜


Sent from my iPhone

Hello Jo,

Wow, what a surreal and jarring and motivating night! I can imagine the scene and the dynamics perfectly… and I love that you were there to challenge and complicate the conversation.  I can also hear how much you’re grappling with the internal tensions around a night like that…I have a series of half-thought through ideas in response:

I wonder if it’s good/important for us to become proficient at being in those spaces – if only so these lose their power to reinforce privilege as much.

I wonder if, though, we also need to strive to be free from how seductive they can be – they offer a reassurance that is predicated on the system we want to change, so there seems something dangerous about accepting any self worth derived from these places.

I’m sure you’ve seen this Guardian article already, but just sharing in case –

I think that the work of developing one’s own confidence is the best form of protection against both the alluring validating Oxbridge offers, and the normalized elitism that (I don’t think) we’re at risk of developing but others (probably younger) are.

Anyway, thanks for sharing and bringing me in on your evening…

Much love/have a good start to the week!


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