One Friday, a couple of weeks ago, I woke up tired and a bit grouchy. I cannot explain how, but I had a feeling the day was destined to be rough. Now teaching everyday except for Friday — three classes, including two on Tuesdays and Thursdays — I am typically extremely exhausted by Friday. But, I have yet to reach a week’s end where I could take Friday off from work, or even do light, mindless work. With a new course prep, if I do not get a decent amount of work done on Friday, I am setting the stage for a panic-filled Monday followed by more days of stress, and another exhausted Friday. Did I mention this semester is
kicking my ass challenging?
But, I digress. I logged into Facebook one last time before leaving for work finally. There I saw a picture of a Black History Month themed display at my university’s dining hall:
The cotton and bale of hay… What about this display is a celebration of Black history? What about this features the accomplishments of Black Americans, or aspects of Black culture? What
the fuck about this is a celebratory moment for Black people in the US? Yes, cotton — makes me think of the most oppressive and violent period in American history for Black people: slavery.
I saw that a colleague had posted the picture, taken from a student who posted it on Twitter earlier in the week. But, I decided to ignore it. I had not seen it for myself nor was I willing to make a special trip to see it. And, let’s be honest, I immediately felt this was not a matter I could fight as a pre-tenure professor. But, the major reason was I simply did not have the emotional and spiritual capacity because I was already bogged down fighting other demons. I had to muster up enough energy just to go to work.
Choosing Your Battles; Or, Racial Battle Fatigue
As the day went on, the bizarrely racist dining hall display increasingly bothered me, like a slow-release pill. I braved a smile as I chit-chatted with my colleagues about usual department matters. I spoke with one about being productive and politically “safe” as I progress toward tenure. Something about that colleague’s advice — that everyone’s tenure decision is political and uncertain, so you really cannot help but to be stressed for seven years — yanked the last shred of hope I had for the day. I almost walked away upon hearing it, but forced myself to carry out the conversation. When I returned to my office, it took every ounce of my energy to stay seated and keep working rather than collapsing into a ball on the floor to cry. I should have taken Tyra Banks’s advice: just let the cry out and get back to work.
But, what was there to cry about? Oh, that I cannot shake the feeling that I am slowly sabotaging my own career with every provocative tweet and blog post. That, maybe even at the end of this first year, I will receive a letter instructing me to clear out my office and seek new employment. For all of the positive feedback I have received on my blogging, I still hear a voice that says something bad will happen if I insist on publicly, vocally criticizing academia. Another way to put it is that I do not have a clear, external gauge for my standing at the university, and I will have to wait until my third year review to find one, though annual reviews may help, too.
By late afternoon, I returned to the dining hall display of nostalgia for the “good ol’ days.” Still, I did not feel comfortable voicing my concern without having seen it, and did not want to make the trip to see it. So, I asked my tenured colleague to voice a complaint, and made clear my hesitation as a tenure-track faculty member and, frankly, that I already felt depleted from other battles. Fortunately, a number of people had already spoken up and the display was removed.
My Survival Or My Survival? (But, not both…)
This incident highlighted a tension that I had not named for myself until now. On the one hand, I could speak up, emphasize the hostility to Black students, staff, faculty, and visitors that is conveyed by a display reminiscent of enslavement. That is, I could take an action to fight for the survival of my racial community. On the other hand, I could keep my mouth shut and “play it safe” as a junior professor, opting to avoid making enemies across campus. That is, I could chose inaction for the sake of keeping my job — my survival as an individual. Choosing to speak up (anti-racism) or shut up (job security) were my two opposing options. Do I focus on my survival (as a Black person) or my survival (as a professor)?
And, there it is. Yet another painful reminder of how marginalized scholars are, at best, conditionally accepted in academia. Everyday, I am faced with the decision: group survival vs. individual survival. Since these are opposing decisions, I rarely, if ever, experience both. Ultimately, I chose silence about the dining hall display; I picked “safely” keeping my job over the safety of Black people on campus. By creating this blog, I am “taking one for the team,” enduring known and unknown professional risks in order to improve the lives of marginalized scholars. Everyday that I wear a man’s suit, I am choosing professional safety (as well as safety from violence) over greater visibility of genderqueer people on campus. Every interaction with a student or colleague — do I choose authenticity and social justice or safety and job security — carries the decision between my survival or my survival. And, major decisions like making my research more “mainstream” to increase my professional status comes at the expense of my own authenticity and perspective. The very things I should and should not do as a tenure-track professor seem at odds with the very things I should not and should do as a Black queer person.
Unfortunately, my actions have consequences for my partner and family, as well. That means there is an additional layer — feeling selfish or reckless — each time I put my job on the line for the good of my communities. I would say once per month, I ask my partner, in essence, for permission to be myself. In that I fear professional consequences for blogging about academia, as well as other forms of advocacy on and off campus, I convey to him my worry that my actions could ultimately hurt him, as well. If I were fired before even going up for tenure for seen and unseen political reasons, we would both suffer (e.g., loss of income and benefits).
Every once in a while, the thought crosses my mind to eliminate the blog and start all over as a “safe,” silent, apolitical tenure-track professor. To just teach my classes and churn out publications. And, wait until tenure is awarded to become vocal and critical and involved in social justice work. Yes, then I would be safe. Right? Because all scholars have a fair chance at tenure, right?
I would not be safe. Every tenure decision is political. So, I have two choices: play it as safe as possible, all at the expense of fighting for my communities’ survival; or, speak up and out against injustice, potentially being labeled radical, “activist,” uppity, militant, or even a liability. I am doing my damnedest to balance the two paths.