This summer, I caused quite a stir on my university’s faculty listserv on the matter of institutionalized racism in higher education. My esteemed colleague, Dr. Bedelia Richards, wrote a terrific essay on the matter: “Is Your University Racist? Five Questions Every Institution Should Ask Itself.”
I subsequently caused another stir on the UR faculty listserv by criticizing my university’s inaction in the face of an law student group’s invitation for Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation to speak on campus for the fourth time in recent years — this time, to peddle scientific transphobia thinly disguised as legitimate legal and scientific analysis. (See my blog post on the matter here.)
Several colleagues — mostly white, heterosexual, cisgender women and men — have reached out to commend my bravery, invite me to lunch or coffee, and/or to tell me how they could never speak out so publicly and brazenly. I am grateful, but admittedly annoyed, for a few reasons.
First, I’ve come to recognize that what seems like bravery on my part is actually just efforts to do the work that my university has failed to do. Calling out institutionalized racism and cissexism falls to individual students, staff, and faculty when the university neglects to do so; and, such work looks (and is) brave.
Second, I don’t want to keep having lunches and coffees. These invitations are kind gestures, but they require more and more time and emotional labor, including the back-and-forth of multiple emails just to find a time that works for our schedules. I’m not speaking out to be praised or validated; I’m speaking out because my safety and livelihood depend upon real efforts to challenge racism (mine, as well as yours). Rarely have these one-off meetings turned into long-term friendship or even sustained support/mentorship/sponsorship/advocacy on my behalf.
And, finally, these interactions demand of me that I absolve white, heterosexual, cis people of failing to speak up in the face of injustice. I resent when privileged people confide in me about why they refuse to fight against the systems of oppression that constrain my life chances and quality of life, systems from which they benefit. What’s uncomfortable or inconvenient to you is literally oppressive and violent for me.
So, I took to Twitter once again to speak to white people on challenges (yet importance) of talking about race and racism. You can see the rant in its original Twitter form here. (Also check out my last one, “White People: You’re Racist, But This Isn’t About You.”)
What follows is a slightly revised version in essay form, reorganized to improve clarity and flow.
You Are Afraid To Talk About Race & Racism
White folks: so, you don’t know how to talk about race – but you want to. You feel paralyzed by fear or ignorance, and might decide to defer to someone who is “well-versed” on the subject matter. But, you feel guilty, and you want people of color to whom you are an ally to know that you aren’t racist (just scared).
Whatever the reason for your silence, you’ve made a conscious decision to remain silent about race, perhaps even in the face of racist injustice. White privilege allows you to feel like an individual who made a difficult decision. But, in reality, most white people choose silence. And, those individual decisions to remain silent add up to collective white silence, to white complicity in racist oppression, or even white consent to racist violence.
And, that’s exactly how white silence feels. As a person of color, I cannot discern between your fear-stricken silence and the silence of white people who don’t think that racism exists, who think that race only emerges as a topic or factor when people of color bring it up (i.e., “playing the race card), or who simply do not value the lives of people of color. The impact of your silence is literally the same as that of Klansmen, Nazis, most white Republicans, and other garden-variety racists.
You Lack The Language To Talk About Race & Racism
White folks: of course you feel that you do not know what to say on racial matters, or how to intervene in racist incidents. Very few of us are well-versed on the topics of race and racism. Even as a race scholar (academic expertise) and person of color (personal experience), I struggle to communicate the complex, structural, pervasive nature of racism to other people — even other academics. It may seem like people of color can talk readily, freely, and endlessly about race, but we just have lots of practice given our everyday lived experiences in a racist nation.
Of course you don’t know how to constructively talk about race. You don’t have to (thanks to white privilege). And, you’ve gotten little to no practice with it (thanks to white privilege and racism). It has never been a skill that white families desired to or felt it necessary to teach their children. There is no widely accessible script afforded to white people for talking about race or fighting racism. It’s like learning a new language or skill.
But, worse, racism makes it so that there are risks inherent to white people talking constructively about racism. In the past, anti-racist whites have been called “race traitors” and “nigger-lovers,” etc. The system is designed to protect itself from white individuals attempting to undermine it. So, of course you are clueless about how to talk about racism. And, of course, you are nervous to “go off script.”
Because you feel you lack the “right” language, you may be tempted to defer to someone who is seemingly better equipped to talk about and address racism. In doing so, the responsibility typically falls to whichever people of color are present for that conversation or incident. As usual, it’s those victimized by the system who are burdened with the responsibility of trying to get those who benefit from racism to give a damn, to listen, to learn, to act.
Too often, I see white people defer to others (people of color) to talk about race and act in the face of racial injustice — and, then never make an effort to educate themselves about race and racism. If we think of such knowledge as “racial literacy,” then an equivalent inaction would be realizing you don’t know how to properly use the reply-all feature on a listserv or group email but never bothering learn how. But, while unnecessary replies-to-all are annoying and inconvenient, collective white ignorance about racist oppression literally has dire and deathly consequences for people of color.
You Lack The Right Knowledge About Race & Racism
White folks: if you actually go on to educate yourself when you have been forced to acknowledge ignorance about racism, then please do not hit up the lone person of color you know to educate you. We do not get paid for this labor — and it is labor that is requested often.
Speaking from experience, I can tell you that most white folks (even the most liberal, well-intentioned ones) are not 100% open as students. So, with the labor of educating you about how you benefit from our domination, we risk your anger, frustration, cluelessness, dismissal, co-opting, resentment, etc.
Understand that you are not the only, nor the first or last, white person to ask questions of, to play devil’s advocate with, to process your feelings about racism with a given person of color. That time and energy adds up and, honestly, for too little payoff. You need to note that these conversations may be taxing, upsetting, or even triggering for us because it can feel like our safety and livelihood depend upon the outcome.
There are countless books written, documentaries and films and TV shows produced, and courses offered on race and racism, many by people of color. The widespread existence of academic programs in Racial and Ethnic Studies, Black Studies, Asian American Studies, American Indian Studies, Latina/o/x Studies, etc. tells you that there are a great deal of scholarly and creative works on our lives, and on race and racism. I recommend becoming a student of these fields to minimize the labor tasked to individual people of color to respond to the infinite questions asked by white strangers, friends, relatives, neighbors, students and teachers, medical professionals, law enforcement officers, etc.
You Feel Uncomfortable Talking About Race & Racism
White folks: please stop waiting for talking about race to be comfortable. Racism is a system of oppression. It’s never going to feel like a topic that’s lighthearted enough to absentmindedly bring up at Thanksgiving dinner. (You’ve seen the hilarious Saturday Night Live skit, “A Thanksgiving Miracle,” right?)
As such, I encourage you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Your comfort in the face of the inhumane system of racism is an example of white privilege. Being comfortable with racism (or ignoring it) is not a luxury people of color enjoy. Personally, I don’t need you to tell me how brave I am for speaking up. In reality, I’m petrified every time I speak up! You can bravely speak up in the face of racial injustice and still be afraid or anxious or nervous. It’s not an easy thing to do — for anyone.
Your discomfort is a reasonable feeling. But, I want to caution you against confiding that fear in the few people of color in your life. You will certainly not be the first white person to say “I care, but I am too afraid to speak up.” Please, stop coming to us to absolve you of your fear-induced silence in the face of racism.
People of color have to be brave in the face of racism because our survival literally depends upon it. We don’t have a choice in the matter. But, when you let fear silence you, you’re enjoying the luxury of choosing to speak up (or not) about racism afforded to you by white privilege. The consequence of your silence and inaction is not death; in reality, the main consequence is maintaining your white privilege.
Strategies For Addressing Racism
White folks, if I may offer some strategies to those who genuinely want to challenge racism:
1) Take the time to get educated, for knowledge is power.
2) Build an anti-racist arm. Have a relative or coworker or friend who can echo your concerns when you speak up to minimize the risk of being the lone voice of dissent or concern.
3) Be proactive about developing some relatively easy way of saying “hey, wait! that’s problematic/racist/offensive!” Racism is a given, a daily reality. So, please act accordingly. Stop being surprised when it rears its ugly head — because it will, over and over again.
4) Take some time to find one good, accessible resource to share for further information, especially if you don’t feel equipped to say anything more than “hey, that’s racist!”
5) Wherever you have power, make space for people of color so that you don’t have to speak on our behalf (especially if you’re too afraid to speak about race and racism). Don’t leave it to us to do the work, but I’m noting here that there are infinite spaces in which we aren’t even allowed.
6) Don’t be so concerned with what other white people think of you. To the extent that you are trying to get the approval of other whites, you are only maintaining your white privilege. The beauty of white privilege is that you can piss off other white people by constantly talking about racism, calling other whites on their blindspots and biases, and not lose out or be harmed in the huge ways that we do (violence, termination, exclusion, dismissal, etc.). Remember, white privilege is like a boomerang. You can attempt to relinquish it – for example, by confronting a racist uncle – but, it will always come back to you. You don’t stop being white (and privileged accordingly).
7) If you speak up against racism, then don’t expect people of color to thank you and pat you on the head for being a “good white.” Our validation shouldn’t be your desired goal for fighting racism. In fact, I encourage you to learn to be OK with being called racist by people of color. Besides, “you’re racist” is a pinch compared to being oppressed by racism. So, thicken up that skin, please.
8) Recognize that fighting racism isn’t about you. Take your ego out of it. Do it because it is right.
9) Be patient with yourself (and others). Race relations are inherently tense and fraught — that’s by design. But, that can’t be an excuse to give up, to stop speaking up, to stop learning, to stop asking for assistance and co-conspirators. At the same time, please appreciate that people of color won’t necessarily be patient with you, and probably shouldn’t even grant you patience while you slowly begin addressing racism. Again, don’t get hung up on how we feel about you. We lack enough power for our feelings to be of much consequence for you — but, your silence and inaction makes you complicit in the system that devastates our lives.
10) Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. One big challenge is that you cannot try to retain the comforts of white middle-class life and challenge racism. The former exists because of white privilege.
11) Get comfortable with feeling ignorant, and owning that ignorance in front of others. Remember that your supposed ignorance about racism is yet another manifestation of white privilege — you don’t HAVE to be versed in racism. That is by design. Our social institutions reinforce that luxury: K-12 and college curricula overwhelmingly feature the lives and contributions and histories of white people; mainstream TV, film, pop culture are so, so, so white; and, businesses cater to upper- and middle-class whites tastes.
12) Start talking to other white people about racism. You have access to spaces and relationships to which we are denied full access. Even if you still lack the language and courage to readily engage in, for example, a discussion of mass incarceration as a modern day form of Jim Crow racism, you can at least invite other white people to talk about race, or even call bigoted whites on their racist comments and behaviors. At the very minimum, you can pose seemingly innocent questions in response to problematic comments or behaviors that demand other whites to explain themselves (possibly revealing initially veiled racial biases) or rethink their comments/actions.
White people: confronting racism is hard and scary. I hear you! It entails getting your hands dirty, getting your feelings hurt, maybe alienating your racist uncle, and losing friends who voted for Obama (twice) but keep saying “all lives matter.”
A bit of tough love here — you are naive to assume it would ever be comfortable and easy. (Don’t you think we would have eliminated it by now if that were the case?) I recommend thinking about fighting racism as akin to going to war. Just as you wouldn’t expect to maintain your usual comfortable lifestyle during wartime, you cannot expect it when fighting racism. In fact, if you are comfortable while you are fighting racism, then I suspect you’re doing it wrong.
But, ya gotta do it. Ending racism necessitates real effort by white people to bring the system down. It’s not about you, but we need you.
Last week, I served as a panelist on a townhall on diversity, inclusion, and equity in the discipline of sociology at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in Philadelphia, PA. I was kindly invited to participate in this important conversation by organizers Dr. Victor Ray (@victorerikray) and David G. Embrick (@dgembrick), and ASA president Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Presided by Dr. Austin W. Ashe, the townhall also featured fellow panelists Drs. Antonia M. Randolph (@baldwinvidal), Salvador Vidal-Ortiz (@svidalortiz), Ted Thornhill (@profthornhill), and Natasha Kumar Warikoo (@nkwarikoo). As part of my commitment to breakdown the paywalls of academic journals, classrooms, and conferences, I share my remarks from the townhall below.
The failure of sociology to become a truly diverse and inclusive discipline is partly due to its aversion to scholar-activism. Thus, the disciplinary project to diversify sociology requires us to embrace activism. This is a simple point, but it remains a controversial one in sociology, especially within ASA.
Unfortunately, I know well the antipathy that many sociologists harbor toward scholar-activism. Early in my graduate training in sociology at Indiana University (IU), I was explicitly told that the goal of the program was to “beat the activist out” of me — some sort of bizarre twist on exorcism or conversion therapy. In my last year at IU, Professor Fabio Rojas wrote a blog post to me on OrgTheory.net, entitled “Why Activism and Academia Don’t Mix.” While his intentions were well-meaning, I found it unsettling to have a professor in my department publicly put me on blast just months before I finished my PhD and started a tenure-track job.
When I pitched a joint ASA session between the Sexualities and Social Psychology sections, my main advisor snidely responded, “OK, Mr. Activist.” Somehow even putting academic subfields into conversation with one another constituted activism; the bar for what was subjected to the slur of “activist” seemed to fall lower and lower. It took me years post-PhD to acknowledge how frequently my grad school professors used shame as part of their effort to train me. Perhaps its even fair to use the term gaslighting to describe this professional socialization. No matter the term used to describe this intellectual violence, or their intentions, the impact was severe: I continue to work through complex trauma even five years since I graduated.
Throughout my career, I have repeatedly been told that my research on LGBTQ communities and communities of color is nothing more than “me-search” – work that is suspect because it is on communities to which I belong. Once I was told my interests are “too narrow” by a white person who now has even narrower research interests than me. Apparently sociology only values work that is exclusively or at least partially related to privileged people.
Let me fast-forward a couple of years past my 2013 graduation from IU. At the 2016 annual ASA meeting in Seattle, WA, panelists Charlene Carruthers (@CharleneCac), Mariame Kaba (@prisonculture), and Kimberlé W. Crenshaw (@sandylocks) delivered profound, soul-shaking remarks on the presidential plenary on Protesting Racism. (See a video recording of the panel here.)
Presider Aldon Morris then opened the floor for Q&A, around 01:26:00. With just 10 minutes remaining in the plenary, Dr. Morris took four questions and then asked the panelists to respond to them collectively. The first question came from fellow IU alum Dr. Abigail A. Sewell (@aasewell). Dr. Sewell remarked that they were an activist long before becoming a sociologist, though they came to sociology under the assumption that it would be a transformative discipline. Their expectations were not met; but, it was through Black Lives Matter protests that Dr. Sewell remembered that the Black radical tradition persists – but, apparently this lesson was learned “on the streets” (through protests), not “in the books” (through their sociological training).
What stood out even more than Dr. Sewell’s comments were those of another audience member – a European scholar whose name I cannot remember nor make out from the videorecording. So, I’ll just call her “Positivist Paula.” Positivist Paula accused Carruthers, Kaba, and Crenshaw of blurring politics and academic research, and questioned whether the panelists’ remarks could even be considered scholarly. Positive Paula declared, “Sociology is not an activist activity; sociology is an academic discipline.”
Mariame Kaba responded to Positive Paula, “[s]ome in the discipline [sociology] want to enforce and discipline others into not being [organizers]. And, I think you lose a lot of people that you could have in the discipline by those kind of rigid differentiations that are really only true in a few people’s heads.” To junior scholars, Kaba advised, “Don’t let them make you into something you are not, if you are already somebody who organizes. You are allowed to be both.”
The following year (2017), the discipline’s double standard for public sociology versus scholar-activism became more apparent to me. For example, last year, Professor Joshua T. McCabe (@JoshuaTMcCabe) tweeted, “Dear fellow sociologists: Please stop doing this. I just want a professional organization focused on scholarship.” The “this” to which he was referring was then-ASA presidential candidate Dr. Mary Romero’s personal statement, which promised a commitment to scholar-activism. Surprisingly, McCabe engages in public sociology, prominently displayed on his personal website, including essays he has written for National Review. (I and several others shared his tweet, and many responded to him. A year later, he accused me of leading Twitter mob violence against him.) For years, ASA has furthered its commitment to public sociology, even calling upon sociology departments and universities to consider this work as part of considerations for tenure, promotion, and merit review. To my surprise, the words “activist” and “activism” never appear in this report.
Public sociology, but not scholar-activism? This is not a simple matter of semantics. As part of Contexts magazine’s August 2017 symposium on the Charlottesville white supremacist riots, Dr. Kimberly Kay Hoang (@kimberlykhoang) wrote an essay entitled, “Are Public Sociology and Scholar-Activism Really At Odds?” Dr. Hoang argued that there is a long history of white men sociologists who worry that scholar-activists undermine the credibility of the discipline. She wrote, “[t]here is a contradiction in our discipline. Public sociology proponents are supporting a particular market-structure of scholar activism that separates the ‘resident expert’ from the ‘scholar activist.’ This form of public sociology favors research examining those struggling under and against the effects of power relations while marginalizing researchers scrutinizing how institutions of power operate to maintain relations of domination’.”
(Side note: Interesting, white men sociologists’ fear that scholar-activists [of color] will jeopardize their standing in society persists today; some have even talked of forming an Association of White Sociologists as they grow increasingly frustrated that more scholar-activists of color are shaping the trajectory of ASA and the discipline. You know, Make Sociology Great Again — #MSGA.)
Said another way, “public sociology is for white people” (to quote sociologist Rahsaan Mahadeo, a PhD student at University of Minnesota currently on the sociology job market — in a working paper entitled, “Marinating over the Anti-Ebony Tower.”) It assumes a detachment from “the public,” as though a scholar is shouting down from his ivory tower to the masses. But, one should never get their hands dirty with the messy affair of activism. Similarly, Dr. Hoang’s aforementioned essay asked, “who can legitimately do public sociology without diminishing the discipline’s ‘credibility as a science’?”
At the root of the activism-versus-academia debate in sociology is the discipline’s refusal to embrace the work of marginalized scholars as legitimate sociological work. Sociologists who are white, men, cis, heterosexual, wealthy, and currently without disabilities – and especially those who hold multiple or all of these identities – act as gatekeepers who wield power to determine what counts as legitimate sociology and what doesn’t, who is a legitimate sociologist and who isn’t. The dominant way of being a sociologist – seemingly detached, objective, apolitical – has long kept out critical scholars and scholar-activists, folks who are disproportionately of color, cis women, queer and trans people, first-gen, working-class, and people with disabilities.
This ideology was used to justify excluding Dr. W. E. B. DuBois from the discipline, and subsequently erasing his contributions as part of the “classics” in sociology. Dr. Aldon Morris notes in his book, The Scholar Denied, “Many contemporary scholars claimed that by educating the public in the Crisis [magazine], Du Bois was no longer acting as a scholar but had turned propagandist.” Former ASA President Joe Feagin’s (@JoeFeagin) 2000 presidential address turned 2001 ASR article, “Social Justice and Sociology in the 21st Century,” recounts the discipline’s move toward positivism, which was also a time when white men solidified their dominance in sociology departments. Excluding activism is antithetical to diversifying sociology.
Today, the discipline’s aversion to activism runs counter to the reasons why most Black and Latinx folks pursue PhDs in sociology. As Dr. Denise A. Sagura found in a 2009 study of 700 PhD students (see Powerpoint presentation here), the top reason African Americans report for attending graduate school is to contribute to the advancement of minorities in the US, and the second and third most important reasons cited by Latinx students is to contribute to their community and contribute to the advancement of minorities in the US, respectively. The top three reasons cited by non-Hispanic whites were: 1) to grow intellectually, 2) to improve their personal occupational mobility, and 3) to make a contribution to the field – in other words, motivations not driven by a concern for making a difference in society.
To ignore what motivates people of color to become sociologists means that the discipline continues to center the interests of non-Hispanic whites. It means people of color – as well as other marginalized groups – find success in sociology by mainstream standards on the condition that they downplay their commitment to activism. Perhaps it means that those who refuse to conform drop out of grad school, leave faculty positions, leave the discipline, or leave academia.
To reverse this potential “brain-drain,” to cease forcing scholar-activists to conform or hide their activism, to end the practice of privileged scholars serving as gatekeepers who dismiss marginalized scholar-activists’ work as “me-search,” we are long overdue for embracing scholar-activism as a legitimate type of sociology. We are overdue for recognizing the contributions of DuBois, Anna Julia Cooper, Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Joyce Ladner, and other marginalized scholar-activists to the discipline.
In this increasingly post-truth, anti-science, anti-union, xenophobic, white supremacist, misogynistic, cis- and heterosexist climate – failing to embrace activism may be at our own peril.
Earlier this week, I took to Twitter while on the train returning from the 2018 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in Philadelphia, PA. I was exhausted and frustrated after the conference, but suffer from just enough anxiety to prevent me from sleeping in public. So, I decided to address one irony of the conference.
The ASA conference theme was Feeling Race, yet many white sociologists in attendance were surprisingly unreflective about their white privilege, complicity in racism, and negative emotional reactions to people of color who called them on their privilege/prejudice/stereotypes. I even witnessed some paint a person of color, who vocalized offense at the way in which another person of color was snubbed, as a villain who berated well-meaning white people.
Below, I have turned the rather long Twitterstorm into an essay. Thanks to the MANY kind people who asked whether they could share this, nudging me to turn it into a blog post to more easily share. And, special thanks to @DamienMcKenna, who kindly put my tweets into one document, sparing me a lot of copying and pasting! Please read on…
Envision this perhaps all-too-familiar scenario.
and, a person of color — let’s call her Denise — has directly or indirectly suggested that something you have done toward or said about race, people of color, or whites is problematic. Or, Denise noted that something seemingly race-neutral or otherwise unrelated to race was inherently about race. She might even have said, “you(r comments) are racist.”
Next, you feel a wave of emotions: surprise, anger, resentment, sadness, embarrassment. Denise, a Black woman, has questioned your racial politics, your allyship to people of color, your commitment to liberalism, equality, and social justice. You are hurt!
You want to do many things, but do not want to provide more fodder for the accusation that you(r comments) are racist. Maybe you to clarify for Denise, “I’m not racist,” or “you’re reading into things,” or “you’re being overly sensitive,” or “it’s not always about race,” or “you’re playing the race card.” You certainly didn’t intend to be insensitive. Doesn’t that count for something? So, you might try to further explain yourself. Maybe Denise just didn’t have enough information before she vocalized her conclusion that your comments were offensive.
Or, Denise doesn’t know enough about you — YOU! She don’t know that you voted for Barack Obama (twice!) and certainly voted against Donald J. Trump (and will do so again in two years). That you have friendly relationships with people of color, who have never said otherwise. Maybe you’ve even donated money to NAACP, marched alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s, or acknowledge the existence of your Latina housekeeper.
You’re upset because the explicit or implied accusation that you are racist lumps you in the same category with Trump, neo-nazis, and your Archie-Bunker-like grandfather who insists on referring to Black people as “niggers” or “Negroes” or “coloreds.” You know, those white people who intentionally discriminate, actively hate people of color, and feel superior as a member of the white race.
Now, you are probably so in your head. Race relations are so fraught! Why can’t we ever talk about race without someone being accused of racism? It seems to you that some people of color already come to the conversation closed, angry, reading to call out “whitey” for racism. Why did Denise have to go there?
Now that you, white person, are currently under an informal investigation for racism, let me tell you about what may be happening for the person of color who has accused you of being offensive toward people of color (perhaps even racist).
Some of us folks of color never bothered, or have stopped bothering, to figure out which white people are racist and which ones aren’t. Accusing any white person of racism often results in the aforementioned emotional response(s). White people rarely respond in productive ways. (Since posting this Twitterstorm on Tuesday, I’ve been responding to a number of whites who demand room for caveats and exceptions, who want acknowledgement of the ways in which they are victimized in an unequal society, or who really just want to put me in my “place” and shut me up.)
Instead, we pay attention to racism as a system of oppression that shapes institutional practices, policies, and cultures, constrains interpersonal interactions, and manifests on the individual level as white privilege, individual-level discrimination, microaggressions, and prejudice. It’s never been a matter of a few racist “bad apples,” a simple fix of changing hearts and minds.
We won’t waste time calling a singular white person “racist”; it’s too much of a given to waste the time that will ultimately be spent on the white person’s negative reaction, possibly even having to comfort them so that they can restore their fragile identity as a white liberal. Honestly, some of us just assume that every white person is racist because each one benefits from an inhumane, oppressive system that robs people of color of our livelihoods, our health and well-being, and our lives.
So, in this hypothetical situation — Denise, a person of color, has accused you of being racist (again, either explicitly or implicitly). It took her incredible patience and courage to do so. We know, most of the time, we will be punished for doing so, at a minimum through the exhaustion of explaining ourselves and defending our right to feel pain under the oppressive system that is racism.
This is one of those (possibly rare) moments when we feel the stakes are too high to remain silent, or when we might actually reach you. Honestly, there are infinite ways in which we let problematic shit from white people slide; it’s not worth the energy to constantly fight. I’d venture to say that we let half or more of what we endure and witness slide because of the risks of calling it out or the energy it will take to explain ourselves.
And, now, we’ve reentered an era when calling out racism and white supremacy (or not) is realistically a matter of life or death. We have to weigh the costs. And, let it be known that pointing out that something is offensive will always come with costs, none of them negligible. Denise has drawn from an already depleted reserve of energy to “deal with” your problematic view or comments. Depleted because that isn’t even her first exposure to racial insensitivity today!
Before that meeting, a white woman moved away from her on the elevator. An older white man stared at her. A white cashier wasn’t as friendly with Denise as the white customer ahead of usher A white colleague just called her Angela — the name of the only other Black woman in the office who is several shades lighter, has short hair (unlike Denise’s locks), wears glasses, and is easily 5 inches shorter than Denise.
Unlike you, for many people of color (especially those in the middle-class), our interactions outside of the house are overwhelmingly with white people who come from a range of political backgrounds and levels of ceaselessness and insensitivity about race and racism.
You just said something was “ghetto” in reference to a Black middle-class person who grew up in and currently lives in the suburbs. (Please never refer to our bodies with the reference “ghetto booty.”) And, we don’t have enough energy to clock you on the problems with conflating Blackness with poverty and “low-class” lifestyles.
You think you’ve just complimented Denise’s new hairstyle and touched it while doing so. But, she simply doesn’t have the time to educate you on the history of whites’ possession and inspection and exploitation of Black bodies, especially Black women’s.
Denise is already exhausted because her white supervisor wanted to play “devil’s advocate” — what if we focused on class instead of race in diversifying the staff because “it’s really about class” — like it’s a game for whites while it’s our livelihoods.
That discomfort you felt in being called out for a single racist comment is a pinch compared to a lifetime of beatings by whiteness and racism that people of color face. In your efforts to defend your good white liberal identity, you will inevitably enact further violence against the person of color you have offended. Telling Denise that her experience in that conversation, in life, is a form of gaslighting — and we face it 24/7.
Falling into the predictable trap of “but, I’m not racist” is an attempt to separate yourself from every other white person’s racist behaviors — for example, this morning Trump and friends called us criminals, rapists, animals, put our kids in cages, forced us out of the country. You want to be seen as an individual white person. You don’t want to be stereotyped, you don’t want assumptions made about you because of your race. Yes, the exact thing that is systematically denied to people of color — you know, because of racism.
People of color do not receive the privilege of individuality. Assumptions are made about who we are, what we do, what we want and value, how we talk, who we love and make love with, etc. all the damn time. We are a color first and, sometimes, an individual. Even as an individual, white people in our lives come to us to work through their feelings and opinions about race (while not talking to other white people). This is a form of labor which goes unpaid, on top of already receiving a fraction of wages for the same work whites do.
Whites often come to us to be absolved for slavery, internment camps, Latinx kids in cages, the Trump regime, their racist uncle, the theft, removal, forced assimilation, and genocide of First Nation people, for white guilt, for white privilege, for even being white. Somehow, whites view us as the ones who bring race into the room or conversation. Part of the package of white privilege is being able to think of yourself in spite of your race (while reducing people of color to their race).
You’re able to think of yourself as raceless. You’re able to ignore that all of your friends, family, coworkers, fellow congregants, neighbors, elected officials, teachers, etc. are also white. But, then, see people of color as “playing the race” card. You’re totally oblivious to how you refer to individuals as “diverse,” which is logically incorrect because diversity implies difference among people not within an individual person.
White person, when Denise has called you out for saying or doing something problematic, I implore you to do anything but become defensive or angry. Do not proceed with restoring your “good white liberal” identity because that makes the situation about you. Yes, that person of color is calling you out specifically, but she is also speaking to the broader system of racism. So, please don’t make it just about you. (Most situations are about white people. Take a breath. Take a seat — take several seats.)
You should relinquish the assumption that you will never do or say anything offensive toward people of color. Odds are, you will, and you will do so frequently. You won’t be able to help yourself. You studied in schools that pushed curriculum that spoke of your superiority and, if it ever reflected people of color, framed these communities as marginal, barbaric, extinct, exotic, criminal, and to be feared. The media, politics, medicine, science, religion, and various other institutions have only echoed the centrality of whiteness and the marginal, devalued status of people of color. So, let’s get past that so we can actually address racism rather than your sense of self.
It might be fair to say that the more you make what follows about you — how right you are, how non-racist you are, how wrong they are to accuse you of being offensive — the more you undermine Denise’s sense of self, perspective of the world, and sense of safety.
I’m going to ask you to do something radical: start viewing instances in which people of color call you out for being offensive (or even racist) as gifts. Denise has taken the time to let you know how she feels and she has invited you to consider rectifying the situation, to do better, to learn and grow.
What may feel like an attack from a person of color is actually a form of “tough love” in what should be a collective project to fight racism. She likely assumes you are receptive enough to hear her and do better — or at least hopes so.
What you’ll have to do is assume you already complicit in racism by virtue of benefiting from the racist system. Work on taking the sting out of the label “racist.” It’s so counterproductive to get hung up on who’s racist and who isn’t while we leave intact the system of racism.
White person, I ask that you recognize being able to feel something about racism that then is recognized and dealt with by others (especially people of color) is a form of white privilege. How people of color feel about race and racism is too often dismissed, questioned, ignored. Hell, even the research that scholars of color do on race is labeled “me-search” and suspected of being personal opinion rather than empirical research. (It seems only whites are able to maintain “objectivity.”)
Remember when Black folks felt so enraged and sad that the deaths of innocent Black children and adults went unpunished? When we eeked out “Black Lives Matter” through voices hoarse from crying? A lot of white people got mad and said, “no, all lives matter.” You made it about you. Your cries of “All Lives Matter” was you making our grief and rage about you. And, then, you made a joke of it (e.g., Black Labs Matter). Honestly, I can’t find another way to describe this than violence. Co-opting and mocking our feelings following white violence against Black bodies… sick.
I implore you to not weaponize the anger people color feel in the face of racism. People of color are standing in a pool of white tears as it is. Please resist the effort to villainize us as the “Angry Black/Latinx/First Nation/Asian American” person because we called you out (or called you in). Again, that is a form of racial gaslighting.
Now, to be clear, I am not saying do not emote. I am not ignoring the inevitable discomfort you feel after someone has accused you of being a bad (white) person. Whites’ collective identity as non-racist is powerful; being a proud racist fell out of fashion (though it seems to be making a return).
What I am taking issue with is how you then respond. I can’t stress this enough: do not get defensive; do not demand an apology or to be consoled; do not do anything that either makes it about you or that undermines the accusation you(r comments) are racist or offensive. An implied or explicit accusation that you(r comments) are racist is an opportunity for you to learn and grow. This means that you will have to listen, open your mind and heart, even beyond limits that feel uncomfortable. (Recall that it is hella uncomfortable for Denise to call you out.)
If you do not immediately understand the accusation, resist the urge to dismiss it. Rather, you should ask to hear more (if they are willing to educate you, especially if requested without compensation and in the face of personal and professional risks of calling out racism). But, you should also make a commitment to learn on your own. It is not the responsibility of people of color to educate you about racism, for you to unlearn years of racist indoctrination. Here’s a hard truth — white people invented racism to justify the enslavement of Africans, justify stealing land from First Nation people, and to limit US citizenship and other privileges of whiteness to European Americans. (Here’s a great 5-minute video made by sociologist Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza on the invention of race.)
“Please teach me” sounds innocent enough, but it misses that whites perceive themselves to be uneducated about race and the lives and histories of people of color. But, that ignorance is by design. Our stories are not included in mainstream education, history, nor portrayed in the media. You probably don’t know much about race and the lives and histories of people of color because you never had to. When people of color demand it, we lack the power to do anything more than ask you to care. Meanwhile, racist propaganda disguised as education, religion, and popular culture are shoved down our throats from childhood.
We know so much more about race, even more than white people 1) because racism is set up to ensure we are all indoctrinated into whiteness and 2) because we have to understand our “predator” as a matter of survival in a society designed to exploit and destroy us. (Check out Dr. W. E. B. Dubois’s work, especially his concept of “double consciousness.”)
Many of us deal with white people all day long, while the reverse is hardly ever true. And, most whites who do encounter people of color do so in fleeting, rare, and power-imbalanced interactions — you the manager, them your employee, you the teacher, them the janitor, etc. So, we’ve had to learn a lot about you. But, white privilege allows you to remain ignorant about us, to maintain whatever stories you already hold about us while saying to the token person of color in your life, “you’re not like other Asian/Latinx/First Nation/Black” people.
Should emotions arise after you’ve been accused of being offensive by a person of color, I’m going to ask that you place the burden of consoling you on fellow white people. You’ve got white privilege; please don’t ask anything more from us. But, to be frank here, white folks: get your people. Dole out some tough love when your fellow white folks are sobbing because they were called out for being racist. Do not feed into the white-victims-of-angry-people-of-color narrative. Do what is necessary so that they can move past the negative emotional reaction, to then focus on processing the situation effectively enough to grow from it and right whatever wrongs they’ve done if possible.
Something is wrong if you only talk about race and racism with people of color, especially if you privately express support or sympathy to us but are publicly tight-lipped about race. I’m tired of whispers of support from whites who have so much more power and privilege than I will ever have, yet sit in their cowardice as they try to maintain that power and privilege.
White people, most of your conversations should probably be with other white people. And, I’m not talking about politely enduring your Aunt Patty’s tirade about “too many Mexicans” taking up all the (supposedly non-Hispanic white) jobs. White people, you need to get comfortable with making yourself and other white people uncomfortable with the racist status quo. Watch, and rewatch, and bookmark Luvvie Ajayi’s TEDWomen 2017 talk, “Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable“; become the brave domino who pushes others to stand up against injustice.
Please do not wait until after the encounter to privately commiserate with us about how racist that was. You have far less to lose in calling bullshit out as soon as it happens, and publicly for all to hear. Please do not wait on us to speak up when something racist occurs. That is everyone’s job, especially whites who benefit from racism and want to dismantle it.
If you are familiar with the bystander approach for intervening in the face of sexual violence (including rape jokes and other more “minor” instances of rape culture), many have applied it to fighting racism: https://egrollman.com/2013/02/27/bystander-intervention-racism/ Like we do in this racist society, you should already assume your relatives, friends, neighbors, coworkers, fellow congregants, elected officials, etc. are already racist. No need to dwell on “what did he mean by that? I can’t believe she said that!” Take the shock out of it. Racism is pervasive, period.
You need to take it upon yourself to call out racism no matter how minor. Mirror good anti-racist behavior for other whites. Yes, it is scary and always will be; but, someone else may be thinking “this is messed up,” but are far less brave and/or have more to lose if speaking up.
And, in those moments that you, white person, do call out racism, you do not get a prize. A lifetime of white privilege and a history of white supremacy is more than enough of a reward. You need to give some back. Consider supporting efforts to pay out reparations.
Getting a cookie everytime you “aren’t racist” defeats the purpose. Do it because the alternative is complicity in an inhumane system of domination. Resist the urge to say “it’s not my problem/my place/responsibility.” Everyone is impacted by racism, and therefore we are all responsible for its dismantling.
Resist the urge to cave to feeling too ignorant on race issues to speak up. There is power just in saying “I find that problematic,” or asking a question that forces fellow white people to reveal what may be underlying racial bias. You don’t have to have all of the answers to have an impact in fighting racism. Even the slightest articulation of concern could force others to rethink their behavior or words.
And, don’t expect that you will have an impact. Calling out other whites’ racism may not have a positive impact right away. And, it will likely take many people in their lives calling them out to not simply dismiss these accusations. Maybe take the time to find one good educational resource on racism to recommend. This means doing a little bit of homework, but trust that many people of color and anti-racist whites spend a great deal of time, energy, and money on creating and publicizing these resources.
From my own experience with speaking up, I’ve found that being the first to do so often doesn’t mean I’m the only voice. You very well may make space for other whites to challenge racism when it occurs. But, even if you are the only one to speak up, you have to be okay feeling afraid and awkward. Racism is structured in a way that rewards you for your complicity in it.
To your credit, white-dominated institutions are designed to fail people of color. So, the burden you feel as an individual to fight racism is the product of that institutional failure. It sucks and its unfair and its very hard. I wish I could offer more than acknowledgement here.
But again, the second you think “this is hard/uncomfortable,” I want you to remember the pinch you feel is a plane crash for people of color. I want you to proactively push through the discomfort of addressing racism to lighten the heavy burden people of color feel at every turn.
Get creative about it, use the resources that are already at your fingertips. Maybe partner with a fellow white person to hold you accountable for being anti-racist; maybe to tag-team in calling out other whites’ racism. Find a way to take joy in making other white people squirm in their white privilege. (Seriously, y’all take yourselves too seriously.)
When you’re invited into a space and see few or no people of color, immediately raise that point. If you’re invited to speak, consider declining and, in your place, recommending a person of color. Examine every seemingly race-neutral context in your life for the ways in which white people are actually privileged.
The reality is, most middle- and upper-class white folks’ lives are so busy because you are committed to living the lives to which you’ve been told you are entitled. “I just don’t have the time!” means it’s more important for you to invest in your white kids’ futures and your all-white community than uplifting communities of color and promoting racial equality.
Sure, you never actively, intentionally exclude people of color. But, you are complicit when you take part in systems and organizations that are not inclusive of people of color. There is no such thing as “not racist” or “non-racist.” You cannot be neutral within a racist system.
To be at the mercy of cultures, traditions, communities, organizations, and institutions that privilege white people makes you complicit. If not a part of the solution, you are part of the problem.
Of course, totally rejecting white privilege and exiting white supremacy is impossible. And, that’s not necessarily the goal here. Rather, I want you, white person, to feel empowered to leverage your white privilege in service of racial justice.
Know that the fear you feel about speaking up is the way in which white privilege (and white supremacy) protects itself. (Most) white people no longer use terms like “race traitor” or “nigger-lover” but the sentiment remains. This is the way white people keep one another in check in the white supremacist project.
The parallel from my own life is feeling cisgender men attempt to police my commitment to feminism as part of the patriarchal project. My loyalties have been questioned and, of course, I am usually assumed to be queer (because to be straight means to hate women). (For the record, I am queer AF.)
You have to let go of the need to be liked by other white people. It’s pretty messed up if you have to comply with racism in order to be liked. You’d be the person who pushed a stranger in front of a moving train to be accepted into a fraternity or sorority.
White privilege is like a boomerang. Even if you throw it away, it will come back right to you. So, fear not. Pissing off a few fellow white people who are racist won’t ruin your life and, again, the costs pale in comparison to what it costs people of color.
In summary: white folks, being called on your racism can be upsetting — but, it’s not about you; it’s part of the larger effort to dismantle white supremacy. Calling out racism may seem hard to you, but being oppressed under racism is unimaginable to you. So, when (not if) Denise calls you out/in, apologize for the impact (and don’t bother explaining your intent — it only stings more), listen listen listen, note that it won’t happen again because you will genuinely make a point to grow from this exchange and learn more about racism. Being called out is a gift — you are welcome.
Academics, can we talk seriously about social media for a moment? Like much of the rest of the world, we use various social media platforms. Some of us use it strictly for personal reasons, some exclusively to share our scholarly work and perspective, and others for a mixture of these reasons. I have witnessed enough attacks on scholars by conservatives, bigots, trolls, and even other academics to conclude that no one is shielded from backlash. While our academic freedom is generally protected (though, that statement is debatable), we can no longer expect our colleagues, departments, universities, disciplines, and professional organizations to stand up for us when we come under attack.
The Times (And Attacks) Have Changed
The rules of engagement have changed. We now live in a time when a 20-year-old college sophomore, who writes for a student newspaper to expose “liberal bias and abuses at Texas colleges” (see bio at end), can spark a national conservative assault on a tenure-track professor at a different university over a few tweets critiquing racism. (They believe, however, that they are somehow protecting innocent, uneducated laypeople from the evils of brainy, radical professors in the liberal ivory tower.)
Indeed, this conservative student reporter did make Dr. Zandria F. Robinson “a thing” — both in the sense of a trend of attacking her, her appearance, her politics, her identity, and her research, and by making her an object of a larger, calculated conservative attack on critical and public scholars. With a mere tweet to the president of University of Memphis, this student reporter influenced an internal investigation on Dr. Robinson. Though unsuccessful with the first assault, the site along with another conservative college student site launched a second attack that caught the attention of national conservative media.
In essence, conservatives found success in launching a national assault on the scholarship and character of Dr. Saida Grundy, and were using the formula a second time on Dr. Robinson. They got their first taste of blood in not only dragging Dr. Grundy’s name and reputation through the mud, but also in influencing her university’s president to issue a statement essentially calling her a racist for critiquing racism. U Memphis never formally sanctioned or criticized Dr. Robinson, but their vague tweet disclosing her departure from the university is suspect — perhaps a passive way of quieting the conservatives who demanded her termination. (Fortunately, Dr. Robison had the last word.)
I was pleasantly surprised to see Dr. Robinson’s new academic home, Rhodes College, issued a statement to the press that not only sung her praises but affirmed her expertise and scholarship.
Dr. Robinson was hired for a faculty position in the Rhodes Anthropology & Sociology Department that calls for expertise in particular areas, specifically gender studies and social movements. Her expertise in these areas, her extensive understanding of the complex problems of race in American society, her deep roots in the Memphis area, and many years of successful teaching experience, made her an attractive candidate for the position…Dr. Robinson has an extensive and impressive body of scholarship that provides clarity and context to the sound bite world of social media. This situation ultimately shines a light on Rhodes as a place where intellectual engagement and the exchange of ideas are among our highest priorities.
For once, this wasn’t a passive commitment to tolerate a controversial scholar’s academic freedom; this was a proactive statement to say, “she knows what she’s talking about, so please take several seats.”
But, I worry Rhodes may be an outlier here. And, I am not entirely optimistic Rhodes would defend every scholar who comes under attack. Though I have been informally supported at my own institution, I’m not confident that I would be defended if donors threatened to withhold their financial support if I weren’t fired. Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, an expert on academic institutions, penned an excellent essay that substantiates my doubt:
What I really wanted to point out is how yet again we have an example of how woefully underprepared universities are to deal with the reality of public scholarship, public intellectuals, or public engagement. In this age of affective economies of attention, weak ties can turn a mild grievance into something that feels like political action. In this moment we should call for institutions to state explicitly what they owe those who venture into public waters… Basically, the scale of current media is so beyond anything academia can grasp that those with agendas get a leg up on pulling the levers of universities’ inherent conservativism.
Simply put, academia is behind the times. And, there’s far too much academic cowardice, rather than academic bravery, to entrust our protection to our universities. Controversy — the very thing that academic freedom is designed to protect us against (professionally) — is feared rather than embraced. What’s worse is that these attacks coincide with, or have even been made possible by, the decline of labor rights and protections for academics. Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield argued this in an insightful essay, “Canaries in the Coal Mine? Saida Grundy, Zandria F. Robinson, and Why Calls for their Firing are a Problem for Everyone”:
As more institutions adopt a market-based model where students are consumers, teaching is pushed off onto poorly paid adjunct professors, and administrative bloat runs rampant, the conditions that tenure track faculty have enjoyed—and that have allowed us to do our best work—are becoming increasingly weaker. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has moved to weaken tenure at state colleges and universities (with predictably bad results as noted faculty leave the flagship University of Wisconsin-Madison campus for less hostile climates). In this type of environment, it’s not really a wonder that faculty are at risk not for their scholarship, or their teaching, but because they made public statements that generated outcry and controversy.
Like other employees in an increasingly neoliberal environment, academics are facing growing job insecurity and precariousness that stands to weaken and minimize the ways our jobs should allow us to contribute to understanding a changing society. If, as I suspect, Grundy and Robinson are just early indicators of what’s to come for all of us, then we should all be very concerned.
In this context, besides the real professional risks, we are also largely on our own to weather trolls, harassment, rape threats, death threats, and hate mail. And, that goes for those who are relatively uncensored and those who think they maintain their public presence the “right” way. Indeed, you don’t even have to engage the public outside of your classroom to find yourself under attack.
But, let’s be clear: the pattern of attacks on scholars appears to suggest that people of color, women, and other scholars of marginalized backgrounds are most vulnerable to these attacks. Women of color who publicly write about racism and white privilege seem to be overrepresented among the targets of these witch hunts for critical and public scholars. Academia continues to change around us. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand, telling ourselves our only goal is to “publish or perish.” There may not be a decent job left within which we can publish on the topics of our own interests and passions.
Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack
I have come across a fair amount of advice for targets of online (and off-line) harassment, and even offered my own. See Dr. Rebecca Schuman’s reflections on dealing with trolls, “Me & My Trolls: A Love Story” and “The Thickness of My Skin.” And, Joshunda Sanders’s, “Up to here with trolls? Tips for navigating online drama.” Also, see the science about online trolls [video], and a cute musical response to trolls [video].
But, I have not seen any advice for others to support scholars who come under attack. So, with what little experience I have, I’m proposing my own approach. In my proposed strategy, I draw from bystander intervention work, primarily used to prevent sexual violence and support victims of such violence. In the recent past, I created a report for a local rape crisis center/domestic violence shelter on existing bystander intervention curricula [PDF]. I wrote about bystander intervention for sexual violence when I blogged for the Kinsey Institute. And, I have written about using bystander intervention to fight racism and support victims of racism — a blog post that has been used as a major theme for an anti-racist group in Tennessee. I hesitate to claim expertise here, but I have referenced or heavily used the bystander intervention model enough to feel comfortable using it here.
Briefly, the bystander intervention model calls for others who are present for some problem or emergency situation to intervene in some way. The language of “bystanders” comes from the concept of the bystander effect, wherein witnesses to some crisis are less and less likely to intervene with more and more witnesses present. If you are the only bystander present, you are quite likely to help if possible; if you are one of one hundred people, the odds are extremely slim that you’ll do anything besides mind your business. Bystander intervention explicitly counters this tendency, instead demanding that bystanders intervene in whatever way possible. And, for social problems like sexual violence and racism, this approach conceptualizes of the problem as a community’s responsibility. To eliminate sexual violence, we are all responsible for fighting rape culture: challenging sexist jokes and comments; challenging victim-blaming; teaching and practicing sexual consent; intervening when we see sexual violence occurring; demanding justice for victims of sexual violence; and, so forth.
I want to apply bystander intervention, then, to supporting scholars who are targeted by bigots, trolls, conservatives, and hostile colleagues. First, we must conceptualize such attacks as a larger problem, one which affects all of us in some way, and which we are all responsible for addressing. A culmination of factors — the absence of academic freedom policies that reflect the existence and scholars’ use of social media, the decline of labor rights and protections in academia, ongoing conservative attacks on higher education (even tenure) — have produced an increasingly easy route to target and then take down public and critical scholars. And, these forces exist within the larger intersections of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression, thus making marginalized scholars the most vulnerable to attack and the subsequent inaction of academic institutions and organizations.
As a social problem (at least among academics), it is thus our responsibility as a broad academic community to counter these attacks and support the victims of these attacks. This community responsibility exists at multiple levels, ranging from small acts to large policy changes.
A Bystander Intervention Approach To Support Attacked Scholars
We could adapt the above social-ecological model to fit academia, which should include the following levels: individual; department; university; discipline; and, the profession. Below, I offer specific ways to support scholars who are attacked, drawing from my own experiences and suggestions offered by colleagues on Twitter and Facebook (including those who have been subjected to attacks themselves). Please, offer additional suggestions in the comments section.
- Assume that the targeted scholar is already aware of the attack against them. While well-intentioned, “hey did you see this awful thing about you!” can do more harm than good, potentially re-triggering their negative response to the attack. I also recommend not tagging the targeted scholar on social media if and when you share links from the attack or stories about the attack. Unlike social media platforms such as Twitter, we have a choice over who we connect with on Facebook; don’t threaten one’s safe space/chosen community by bringing in the external attacks.
- Offer to take over keeping up with what is written about the targeted scholar so that they do not have to. Only inform them of positive responses and anything else that seems important; don’t let them know about the negative responses.
- Make an informed decision about whether to point out the attack to others. On the one hand, raising awareness and calling others to arms is useful to prevent a situation in which the attacked scholars is on her own to defend and support herself. We certainly can stand to be more aware of these attacks, to whom they are happening, and why they occur. But, on the other hand, you might empower the attackers more by giving their attack more attention and readership. In some cases, simply not feeding a troll could be effective in containing the situation.
- If you decide to raise awareness about an attack, be mindful that some colleagues (especially department colleagues and administrators at the targeted scholar’s institution) may be prompted to act in a way that harms the targeted scholar. You don’t want to be responsible for initiating professional consequences against the targeted scholar in your effort to support them.
- If you see that a colleague has come under attack, simply ask what they need and extend an offer of support. At a minimum, this is a reminder to the attacked scholar that they are not alone. I can say, from personal experience, sitting alone with only nasty and bigoted comments from strangers can feel very isolating; if the attacks are persistent, one might even begin to question whether their attackers’ claims are true.
- Say something more helpful or useful than “you must be doing something right!” Weathering an attack is already psychologically taxing enough; asking the targeted scholar to trick their mind into seeing the attacks and threats as a compliment isn’t helpful in the moment. It’s hard to appreciate the supposed badge of honor that is digging deep into your skin and drawing blood.
- Don’t say “just ignore it” or “just turn off the computer.” We live in an age where our online interactions are a real part of our lives. It’s not as simple as pretending the attack doesn’t exist when you turn the computer off. And, the professional consequences are real.
- Counter the attack with supportive notes and messages. Express your appreciation of the scholars’ efforts and their bravery for being a public voice. Start a campaign to encourage other friends and colleagues to send the targeted scholar kind notes and thanks. Or, take a moment to thank them using the #ThankAPublicScholar hashtag on Twitter.
- If you have been subjected to an attack in the past, reach out to an attacked scholar to let them know you have gone through it and that they are not alone. Offer advice for the best ways to weather the attack.
- Defend the attacked scholar. This can be as small as reporting offensive content from their attackers on social media or as big as writing your own blog post or op-ed to affirm the targeted scholar. Take screen shots of offensive comments as evidence. Fight the attackers’ ignorance with research if they get the targeted scholars’ words/scholarship twisted. If you can stomach it, contribute to the comments section to say you agree with, or at least appreciate, the scholars’ writing. (Note: These efforts may open you up to being attacked, too. I’m still blocking trolls who are giving me grief on Twitter for defending Dr. Zandria F. Robinson. And, there’s foolishness.)
- If an attacked scholar is harmed professionally — whether as minor as public sanctioning or as severe as termination — hold the institution accountable for protecting academic freedom. Start a petition. Employ the advice and services of AAUP and other professional organizations. Perhaps suggest that the targeted scholar seek legal counsel, and help them raise money if they cannot afford to.
- Challenge colleagues’ comments that blame attacked scholars for their own attacks. I have seen and heard scholars rationalize recent attacks, attributing blame to the targets because they used social media in a certain way, spoke/wrote in a certain tone, failed to give broader context and offer citations within the limits of a 140-character tweet, and so on. “They knew the risks!” I’ve even seen discussions that offer no sympathy for targets because they weren’t really engaging in public scholarship — just “popping off.” These sentiments suggest that there is a right way and a wrong way to engage the public. Even scholars who write more extensive op-eds, explicitly backed by research, have come under attack. As I argued in the previous section, these attacks reflect calculated assaults on higher education, liberalism, people of color, and women; and, we are all increasingly vulnerable as higher education becomes more corporatized and relies heavily on a poorly paid pool of adjunct laborers. If we conclude that the only safe way to avoid being targeted is to stop engaging the public and delete our social media accounts, we are deluding ourselves into thinking that silence will protect us. We do too little to make academia accessible, anyhow; we would only be making matters worse if we self-silence.
Department and University Level Strategies
- If the targeted scholar is receiving death threats, threats of sexual violence, and/or hate mail, contact campus (and perhaps local) police to investigate and offer a police escort. You or the police should take over checking your colleagues’ mail and answering their phone. Even if you don’t agree with their actions or comments, there is no excuse for leaving them vulnerable to physical, mental, or sexual violence.
- When a colleague has come under attack, fight fire with fire — pressure your department and/or university to issue a public statement defending your colleague and affirming their expertise and value. Do not take Boston University’s approach, which suggested they tolerate Dr. Saida Grundy’s academic freedom, and also called her a racist and a bigot — in a statement that “denounces” her “racially charged tweets.” It would have been better for BU to say nothing at all because it only fueled her attackers’ taste for blood. DO take Rhodes College’s approach, which clarified Dr. Zandria F. Robinson’s expertise, affirmed that her tweets and blog posts are backed by her expertise, and explicitly stated her value to the institution.
- When people from outside of the university target a professor and demand their termination (or worse), do not readily accept their claims at face value. Use your critical skills as a scholar to assess the significance, source, and validity of these claims. I recommend being particularly suspicious of claims that a (minority) professor has somehow harmed a privileged group (e.g., whites, men, heterosexuals, middle-class and wealthy people). Stand firm in the distinction between public statements backed by research, especially that are critical of the status quo and inequality, and proclamations based solely on personal opinion. Remember that the public isn’t necessarily ready to hear what scholars have to say — and that’s no reason to panic. (How often do we encounter our own students’ [and even colleagues’] discomfort when we challenge their worldviews?)
- Demand that your university and, if relevant, your department, establish guidelines for academic freedom that reflect today’s forms of public scholarship and means of communicating with the public. Drawn on existing AAUP materials on academic freedom and social media. To be clear, I am suggesting that academic freedom policies include explicit protections for scholars’ use of social media, among other forms of engaging the public — not setting limits on what is considered “responsible” social media use like University of Kansas’s controversial policy. The major problem with KU’s policy is a stipulation that social media use that “is contrary to the best interests of the employer” may be grounds for termination. As universities have come more corporatized, it seems the quickest way to have a professor sanctioned or fired is to threaten the university’s bank account (i.e., donors’ financial contributions). In this vein, think about who has the most means to donate to a university; people of color (among other marginalized groups) will never have the same level of power to pressure a university to sanction/fire a controversial white professor. So, the power of the purse in academia will always loom larger for marginalized scholars.
- Related to the point above, demand that the university institute a formal means of lodging complains of inappropriate or offensive use of social media or other engagements with the public. (There is no reason why a university president should be taking requests from students, with a known agenda to target presumably liberal professors, to investigate one of their faculty — especially via Twitter.) Just as any internal offense (such as sexual harassment, academic dishonesty) must be officially reported before any action is taken, external charges, if investigated and acted upon, should first be formally reported with proper evidence.
- Pressure your university to employ lawyers who will aggressively fight on behalf of scholars’ academic freedom. (Several academics have speculated that BU’s public
statement aboutsanction of Dr. Grundy was written by cowardly lawyers who looked to protect the university, not her.)
- Demand that your department and/or university value community service (not just academic service) and public scholarship. Here, I explicitly mean that these efforts count in hiring, tenure, promotion, and pay raises. When university administrators praise or even demand public service, hold them accountable for actually counting and rewarding these efforts — and matching these rewards with professional protections against any backlash.
- Challenge the academic culture that demands that you “keep your head down” and “keep your mouth shut.” Question the implicit assumption underlying this advice that scholars, particularly at the junior level, will be reckless and irresponsible with regard to department and university politics, and engaging with the public. In light of the few rewards and great risks entailed in serving the community and engaging the public, these efforts should be rewarded, not punished or kept quiet.
- If you work in a graduate department, advocate for explicitly discussing academic freedom and public scholarship with graduate students — perhaps make these discussions a regular part of a professional seminar, preparing future faculty programs, or some other form of mandatory professional socialization. Also, discuss the changing nature of higher education: the decline of tenure-track positions, the increase in student debt, the decline in state funding, and the corporatization of universities.
- Train your graduate students how to effectively and safely use social media and work with the media.
- Rather than attempt to “beat the activist” out of your graduate students, recognize that activism or, at least a desire to make a difference, is what drives many people into graduate school and academia (especially those from marginalized backgrounds). Find ways to harness this passion in your graduate students’ careers.
Discipline And Profession Level Strategies
- Demand that your professional organizations, especially those to which you pay dues, actively defend scholars who come under attack. This can entail issuing public statements and press releases in their defense, offering financial support and help finding new employment for those who are unexpectedly fired, and offering access to legal counsel if necessary. (Sociologists, as far as I know, ASA only intervenes when scholars have been fired by their universities — and, even then, it may not be to defend them. The rest of us are on our own.)
- Create resources to support and build community among public scholars.
- Host conferences on academic freedom, public scholarship, and intellectual activism, with at least some focus on the inherent risks of engaging the public.
- Host conference workshops on using social media and working with the media.
- Work to reverse the adjunctification of higher education.
- Demand that your local and state politicians stop making efforts to undermine academic freedom (including tenure), and start making more efforts to protect it.
UPDATE [7-9-2015, 4:27pm EST]: I have been informed of two additional resources that are relevant to this post. One is a map of threats to academic freedom and other barriers in academia in the US: “Scholars Under Attack.” Another is a well-written essay by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, “‘Who Do You Think You Are?’: When Marginality Meets Academic Microcelebrity.”
A couple of weeks ago, I participated on a panel at the American Sociological Association annual meeting titled, “Navigating Queer Identities in the Department and Classroom.” I decided to reflect on what I feel is the “conditional acceptance” of LGBTQ scholars in sociology. I have provided my notes from that panel below.
I have faced surprisingly little homophobic discrimination in my academic career. There have been occasional stings of homophobic microaggressions: “you’re gay, do you like my shoes?”; “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about AIDS”; “did you want life insurance for your wife?”; “we’re so gay-friendly – there are lots of theatres and museums nearby.” But, I am not aware of instances of outright discrimination, harassment, or exclusion.
I do not take from my experiences the assumption that I am one of the lucky few, and certainty not the conclusion that homophobia is a thing of the past (even in academia). Rather, I am keenly aware of the choices – or, rather, compromises – that I have made that have shielded me from more severe discrimination and marginalization in academia. To some degree, at least compared to even a few years ago, lesbian, gay, and bisexual have achieved acceptance in sociology. The American Sociological Association’s (ASA) advocacy for marriage equality is nothing short of historical. (The field lags in recognizing, addressing, and eliminating transphobia.)
As a queer cisgender man, I have certainly felt welcome, if not accepted, in sociology. But, this acceptance has felt anything but unconditional. Throughout my career, I have felt conditionally accepted as an out queer man in sociology. I borrow this term – conditionally accepted – from the experience of coming out to my parents around age 18. In the years that followed, their initial denial and disappointment gave way to acceptance because I was doing well in school. They admitted that it became easier to accept my sexuality because I was successful. Translation: my parents would have continued to struggle if I were HIV-positive, suffering from drug addition, or another casualty of suicide or hate crimes.
“I Don’t Mind Gay People”
In my academic career, I have faced two manifestations of this conditional acceptance as a queer scholar studying queer communities. The first is akin to the supposedly welcoming phrase, “I don’t mind gay people as long as they don’t come up on me.” You can be queer in sociology – just do not demand the majority to change. Do not ask sociology to start recognizing sexualities and trans studies as legitimate areas of study.
Even before I even began my PhD program, I was discouraged from pursuing gender studies training. My dreams of a joint PhD in sociology and gender studies were quickly dismissed with the warning that I would never get a job. But, I was also discouraged from pursuing a graduate minor in gender studies; instead, my minor became research methods (i.e., statistics). By the midpoint of my training, I had picked up the habit of choosing more mainstream subfields and topics on my own. I focused on social psychology instead of gender or sexualities for my qualifying exam. My dissertation was primarily a medical sociology project, though it includes some attention to sexuality and intersectionality.
On the surface, the pressure to become a mainstream sociologist was a practical matter. I would, and did, get job offers as a quantitative medical sociologist who has published in mainstream journals. Maybe the interests I came to grad school with – wanting to study racism within queer communities using qualitative methods – would have led to a very different academic trajectory. But, the implicit message was that studying sexualities – or more specifically, studying queer people – was not important to sociology. To be successful, one does not become a sociologist of sexualities, and certainly not a sociologist of queer communities nor a queer sociologist. Rather, one becomes a medical sociologist, a criminologist, a cultural sociologist or some other reputable subfield, who happens to study LGBTQ people.
When I became a medical sociologist who happens to study queer people, and other oppressed groups, I stopped hearing that my research interests were “too narrow.” I stopped hearing, “you’ll never get a job with a dissertation on trans people.” Conforming paid off – at least professionally.
“Don’t Flaunt It”
The second manifestation of conditional acceptance for queer scholars in sociology is parallel to the expression, “I don’t care if you’re queer as long as you don’t flaunt it.” For lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, your sexual identity is not an issue so long as you do not make it an issue – at least in the eyes of our heterosexist colleagues. Besides advice on how to frame my work, I also occasionally received advice on how to present myself as a scholar. For conference presentations, I was warned against “shy guy stuff.” Translation: “man up.” To be successful, a scholar must present herself in a masculinist way. From the awful stories that I heard from trans and gender non-conforming peers, I understood that to mean my ticket to success on the job market was wearing suits and speaking with unwavering authority and expertise. Due to my fear of professional harm, I wear suits in almost every academic setting, including the classroom.
In my pursuit to conform to the heterosexist and cissexist standards in sociology and academe in general, I have been rewarded. But, that has come at great personal costs. What began as a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder stemming from the intense, urgent demands of grad school morphed into anxiety about interacting with other people in general – even students. I find only slight comfort in my suits from the fear of being dismissed, disrespected, or even fired. I struggle to find a home within sociology. My work falls primarily in medical sociology, yet I remain unknown in that subfield of the ASA. I find a sense of community in the sexualities section, but my limited research feels insignificant to the study of sexuality. Finding the proper home for awards and sessions is a challenge each year, as well.
More generally, I feel my professional identity has almost completely dissociated from my sexual, gender, and racial identities, as well as my activism. Though I am undeniably out via my blogging and other public writing, my scholarship, and the picture of my partner on my office desk, my queer identity is disconnected from my professional presentation of self. In the classroom, I only explicitly out myself after students have completed course evaluations because I fear that I will be deemed biased or “too activist.” I suppose I am somewhat in the closet intellectually and pedagogically. I do not feel authentically queer as a scholar and teacher.
I probably should not be surprised by my experiences. I first read Patricia Hill Collins’s essay, “Learning from the Outsider Within,” in my first semester of graduate school. Through that 1986 piece, Collins warned me that scholars of oppressed communities face the pressure to “assimilate a standpoint that is quite different from their own” in order to become sociological insiders. The outsider within status is one filled with tension between one’s experiences and worldview and the false ideology of objectivity in mainstream sociology. Collins noted that some sociological outsiders resolve this tension by leaving the discipline, while others suppress their difference to become sociological insiders. Apparently, I have pursued the latter path.
Some Advice For LGBTQ Sociologists (And Scholars in General)
I do not share these experiences to criticize my graduate program, or as an excuse to vent about that chapter of my life. I also refrain from casting blame, as I am partly responsible. Knowing the norms and values of academia, I have made various compromises in order to get ahead. Fortunately, there are improvements, albeit reflecting slow change. For example, just 3 years after the 2012 sexualities ASA pre-conference in Denver, CO, sexuality will be the 2015 theme for the main ASA meeting in Chicago. And, I do not want to characterize the academic career options for queer people as bleak, facing either conformity and selling out or perpetually being on the margins of sociology.
I do believe there is hope for an authentic, happy, and healthy career for queer sociologists, including those who study gender and sexualities. I suspect we must all make some sort of concessions in order to success in academia, though this burden falls more on marginalized scholars. It may be useful, then, to determine how far one is willing to concede. At what point does advancing in one’s career outweigh the costs to oneself, one’s identity and values, one’s family, and one’s community? I recommend reflecting on this at multiple times in one’s career, particularly with upcoming milestones, new jobs, and other transitions. Essentially, can you live with the tough decisions you must make?
- If you are forced to make concessions, or even sell out in some way, then make sure there are other sources of community, authenticity, happiness, or validation in place in your life. Find or create a queer community, maybe specifically of other academics. Have one fun, critical, or super queer project for every few projects that are more mainstream; maybe use these projects as opportunities to collaborate with other queer scholars. If your research is pretty devoid of queer issues, find ways to cover them in your classes, or vice versa, or focus your service and advocacy on queer initiatives.
- Look for queer role models among your professors or senior colleagues. Look outside of your own department or university if necessary. And, in turn, consider being a role model for your students and junior colleagues – that means being out if it is safe to do so. Incorporate sexualities and trans studies into your syllabi to demonstrate the relevance and importance of these subjects in sociology. At the start of the semester, ask students for their preferred name and pronoun, and mention yours.
- Before enrolling into a program or accepting a job, do your homework. How safe will you be as an out LGBTQ person? In the campus and local newspaper, can you find evidence of anti-LGBTQ violence, discrimination, and prejudice? Are queer scholars, especially those who do queer research, supported and included? Email queer and queer-friendly students or faculty. I have heard some suggest being out on interviews and campus visits, which seems counterintuitive; but, if you face discomfort or hostility, you would know what to except upon going there.
- Let’s be honest about what we are talking about here: figuring out how to survive as queer people within heterosexist and cissexist academic institutions. In order to be included, in order to create queer communities, in order to see our own lives reflected in scholarship and curriculum, we must fight. Like it or not, we must be activists to ensure our survival and inclusion within academia and other social institutions.
- Let’s keep having these conversations. It is crucial that we know that we are not alone, and that we have a supportive community in sociology.