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Note: this blog post was originally published on the “Conditionally Accepted” career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.
Amplifying the Voices of Survivors
The photo above was taken during a Take Back the Night march at my alma mater, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, in March 2005. It was taken by student, Matt Stockslager, and appeared in the university’s student newspaper, The Retriever Weekly. You can see me on the left, sporting a funky blue button-down Southpole shirt, dark blue jeans and Timberland boots, holding a sign that is hard to read and that my memory fails to recall.
In those days, I double majored in sociology and psychology while pursuing a certificate in women’s studies (now gender studies). My feminist and queer consciousness were just beginning to grow inside the classroom as I was exposed to critical writings on gender, sexuality, feminism, queer theory, race and intersectionality. And my critical consciousness was budding outside the classroom in this and other forms of feminist activism on campus, as evidenced by organizing for the creation of an LGBTQ campus resource center and hosting events to foster dialogue about diversity and inclusion.
I fondly remember marching alongside other students, faculty and staff to demand the end of sexual violence on our campus and in the local community. With slight embarrassment, I also recall being asked to share the megaphone that I must have been hogging during the march. Selfishly, I felt good about knowing that a booming, somewhat masculine voice shouting to end rape was significant and would capture others’ attention. Then, as now, I felt that white heterosexual cis women’s faces were those that typically represented anti-rape advocacy, perhaps to the detriment of the broader movement — women of color, trans women and queer women may hesitate to get involved where they do not see themselves reflected, and cis and trans men may struggle to find a place in the movement. So I shouted with pride, “Two, four, six, eight!” — or something along those lines — until I was politely asked to hand the megaphone off to someone else.
I was a bit annoyed at the time, but I understood. And in hindsight, I realize how problematic my behavior was. Sure, I could make a stink about what seemed to be the silencing of my voice — a voice that very well could be one of a survivor. (And it may be? I am not entirely sure.) Or I could emphasize the points that I just made above, about the power of representing cis and trans men in sexual violence advocacy, about ensuring that the cause is not seen simply as one for white heterosexual cisgender women.
But I believe it was just as important, if not more so, that I not steal an opportunity to hear the voices of actual survivors, especially those of women survivors. While I was proud of my participation, and recall it fondly today, that march was never meant to be about me (no matter my identities) — it was about a movement to end a crisis that affects too many people.
Amplify Their Voices
Over the past year, the informal mission and potential power for change of this blog, “Conditionally Accepted,” has become clearer to me. I have not yet said this publicly, and this is currently not much more than a half-baked idea, so please don’t quote me on this. But I see this blog’s mission as the following:
- advocate for justice in academe,
- amplify the voices of marginalized scholars and
- aggravate the status quo in the academy.
The appealing alliteration aside, I think these three A’s — advocate, amplify and aggravate — effectively encompass what we have been doing on this blog since its inception in 2013 (even before it became an Inside Higher Ed career advice column in 2016), as well as where we will likely go in the future.
Over a decade after the embarrassing megaphone incident in 2005, I now value the opportunity (and, I would even say responsibility) to amplify others’ voices. In gaining access to the megaphone, I had an opportunity to amplify that I did not take. Rather than selfishly projecting my own voice, I could have used it to tell the stories of those who could not speak or, more importantly, handed the megaphone off to survivors who could speak. I could have used my voice (without the megaphone) to echo what a survivor said with the megaphone.
Today, I have successfully established an online platform that features marginalized scholars’ voices and stories. Here, each of us can write in the first person, claiming our truth and our identities, our value and our experiences. I have occasionally opened up about my own experiences with sexual violence, particularly the difficulties inherent in teaching on the subject, I have written about my observations of academic organizations and institutions’ mishandling of sexual violence cases, and I have attempted to draw attention to other activists’ fights against sexual violence. But all of what I do as a well-intentioned advocate is secondary in importance to giving space to survivors to tell their own story, to use their own voices to speak for themselves.
It is more important than ever that we work to make space for survivors to tell their stories. In general, a silence surrounds the subject, with ignorance and complicity keeping bystanders quiet, and victim blaming and slut shaming keeping survivors’ mouths closed.
And even where there is dialogue is typically part of the problem, as well. Conversations about sexual violence — a hate crime, a tool of oppression, a social problem — are too often reduced to speculations about responsibility, intent and the veracity of survivors’ reports. The media qualify reports of sexual violence with the word “allegedly,” which veils the undermining of survivors’ voices with concerns about legal considerations. In some places, “devil’s advocates” — clueless, conservative, white, heterosexual cis men — are given more room to weigh in on something they have probably never experienced and on which they lack expertise.
Apparently, we do not want to hear survivors, we do not want to believe them, we do not want to recognize them as credible sources on their own experiences. So they have to find their own spaces to share their stories. (See also this Washington Post series.)
So in the spirit of amplifying the voices of the marginalized, “Conditionally Accepted” will feature guest blog posts about sexual violence over the next six months. Yes, we are devoting half the year to this oh-so-important topic, though we know six months is hardly enough. Several guest bloggers from different career stages and academic and social backgrounds contributed to our call for blog posts on rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking and intimate partner violence in higher education. Some people reflect on a personal experience, some offer teaching and research tips, and others offer advice for effectively supporting survivors and ending campus sexual violence.
This series of blog posts will certainly not solve all the issues, but it is at least one way to amplify the voices of survivors — and, to be certain, that is an important first step.
Note: this blog post was also featured on Diverse Issues.
On Earth Day – April 22nd – droves of scientists are scheduled to march in Washington, DC, with satellite marches scheduled around the world. Many organizers and possible attendees have clearly stated that there is nothing political or partisan about the march. (They are just scientists after all!) Rather, they are taking to the streets to challenge the current presidential regime’s threat to scientific advancements, funding, and academic freedom.
Figuring out whether the very act of a political march is… well… political is perhaps a secondary concern to the longstanding debate over whether science itself is political. If science supposedly stays out of politics, and vice versa, why go political now?
Another tweep of mine, Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos (@OtherSociology), pulled back an important layer to these debates. “Why are they marching? Oh ‘Science is under attack.’ Read: now White male scientists affected, let’s march.” (Dr. Zevallos has continued to offer important critiques online.) Now the scientific profession is taking to political action – namely, against political interference – because the most privileged scientists (i.e., white men) are affected for the first time.
I should be clear that the concerns to be addressed by the upcoming March for Science are important, urgent, and noble. From the march’s main website: “Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”
Scientists are unifying to emphasize the benefits of scientific advancement to all of society, of science education, of accessible scientific research, of public policy informed by science. The future of our nation – particularly in these tense and uncertain times – rests upon inclusive, accessible, and well-funded scientific research and teaching.
“The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue,” that same website continues, “which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter.” They are neither politicians nor activists. Heck, they don’t even bring their values, ideologies, identities, or subjective experiences into their labs. They are objective!
And, that is where many academics of marginalized backgrounds roll their eyes. Being able to see science as an apolitical enterprise is either the product of social privilege or naiveté (or both). To its core, science is an inherently political affair. The systemic exclusion and marginalization of women, people of color, queer and trans people, and working-class and poor people from the profession is a prime example of the political workings of science. Let me cite just a few examples.
Let’s reflect on who gets to become a scientist in the first place. Of course, we must note active, intentional efforts to keep marginalized students out, namely interpersonal discrimination and sexual violence. But, we must also note other factors that contribute to what is known as a “leaky pipeline” – the systemic “leaking out,” particularly of women and racial and ethnic minorities, at each stage in the scientific career pipeline. They are not equally encouraged to take the harder classes, to pursue lab assistantships and internships, to apply for graduate schools (especially the most prestigious programs), to apply for postdocs or present at conferences or any other opportunity that will advance their career.
Even outside of withheld support, marginalized students and scholars face the burdens of lack of role models like themselves, of stereotype threat, which undermines their confidence and, ultimately, their performance. Later, women who have children will be undermined by the “motherhood penalty” – being viewed as less competent and committed than women without children and men without or even with children. I would be remiss to gloss over the rampant sexual harassment that occurs in the sciences and other academic disciplines, with serial predators getting a free pass from universities and academic societies.
Besides getting in the door in the first place, politics are at play in awarding grant funding and citations. Researchers have documented racist and sexist biases in both domains, with women scholars and scholars of color being penalized compared to white men scholars. Women scientists are also penalized in co-authorships, which further hinders their careers. You can’t dismiss these facts as anything other than the curse of not being a white man in a racist and sexist profession.
So, suffice to say, my fellow feminist, queer, trans, and Black and brown scholars in the sciences were well aware of the politics at play within science well before Trump. I cannot help but see the parallels with the recent women’s march, widely attended by white heterosexual cis women who were surprised by the harsh reality of oppression as indicated by this new regime. Women of color, queer and trans women, and poor and working-class women already knew what was up in Amerikkka. Trump has picked a fight with the scientific community, and suddenly white heterosexual cis men scientists know what censuring is, what fear is, what suppression is.
I’m sorry to say that your march is too little and too late. But, if you’re going to march, be sure to bring a mirror. I implore you to take a hard look at the politics within your supposedly apolitical, objective science. These barriers to scientific advancement existed well before the Trump era.
I will close with a few items desperately needed for the March for Science agenda:
- Address bias in hiring, tenure, promotion, course evaluations, funding, citation rates, and other formal evaluations and opportunities for advancement.
- Eliminate sexual violence in the classroom, lab, department, and at conferences.
- Actively promote marginalized students and scholars in the sciences. Yes, that means diversity (numbers), and yes that means inclusion (climate); but, it also means real structural and cultural change.
- Stand up against political and public interference in the work of your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Perhaps Trump’s threat to the natural sciences is new, but, as a sociologist, I’ve long known threats to eliminate government funding.
- Commit to reversing the adjunctification of academia and ending the exploitation of contingent faculty.
- Actively resist new and ongoing threats to academic freedom, including the Right’s new war against tenure. Even if you do not teach seemingly controversial subjects, your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences are all too familiar with political and public interference in their curricula and scholarship.
- Make peace with the death of the myths of meritocracy and objectivity in academia. Y’all are scientists; if you are too grown to believe in Santa Clause, then you are certainly too grown to believe that you leave your biases at home and that every scientist has a fair shot at succeeding.
- Even though you just teach science (not sociology), take note that the majority of white college educated voters cast their votes for Trump – the very threat against which you are now marching. These were students you educated, trained, and mentored and who, in turn, basically voted against science, truth, and critical thinking. Maybe you could take a little more responsibility in preparing the next generation for living in a diverse, increasingly global society?
- Next time you march, march for all academics – not just your damn selves.
Note: this blog post was originally published on the “Conditionally Accepted” career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.
In the spring, my campus hosted Alicia Garza, who gave a talk on her work as a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although her talk — including the content and her energy — was affirming, I left campus that night feeling underwhelmed. Had we invited another high-profile activist to the campus for a one-time talk only to pat ourselves on the backs and then return to business as usual?
I left wondering, do Black lives actually matter at my university, or in the academy in general? Do they hold the same value as the lives of white people on campus? Is Blackness as central to campus culture and history, social life, and university policies as whiteness is? As you can imagine, I would not be writing an essay with such a provocative title if I could answer any of these questions affirmatively.
I had hoped that we would have been mobilized, if not at least inspired, to ensure that Black lives matter on my campus, rather than giving in to the temptation of self-congratulation. There is much that my campus, as with any, could do to achieve a racially just university. A crucial starting point is to take Garza’s advice to envision what it would mean for Black life truly to matter on campuses. Many students of color can easily identify evidence of the devaluing of Black lives on campus — I know I could, too. But the more challenging, and likely more important, task is to articulate what, in fact, valuing Black life would entail. And then to make that happen.
Below, I offer a few recommendations for making Black life matter on campus, without relying solely on high-profile speakers of color.
Racial Diversity Beyond the Numbers
The value of Black life at a particular college or university should not be reduced to the “diversity statistics.” At my own institution, the University of Richmond, we tout that 25 percent of the student body is of color — indeed, commendable progress in the past few years. Yet the numbers of Black, Latinx and Asian-American students are far smaller. To be exact, one in every four students may be of color, but only one in every 16 students is Black. A Black student, then, has a one in 16 chance of seeing a face like their own as they move from place to place around campus.
We cannot assume that a diverse student body produces diverse friend groups, organizations or even classrooms. We cannot assume that it eliminates racial segregation, prejudice and stereotypes. We cannot assume that having one student of color for every three white students is enough to build supportive communities for students of color, particularly when you consider the distinct histories, needs and interests of each racial and ethnic minority group. We must ask ourselves what we assume a modestly diverse student body will bring about on the campus; it may be necessary that we intentionally support or facilitate those changes through new policies and programs — rather than hoping that merely a few more students of color than the previous year will create a racially just campus.
Race in the Classroom
We should also assess how to ensure that Black life matters in a classroom context. How does it feel to be a student of color on college campuses where there is a low level of racial and ethnic diversity among the faculty? What if students never have a professor who looks like them in all their years in college? And if they are repeatedly in classes where they are the only minority, or at least one of a small few?
Representation aside, I worry about potential challenges that arise in the classroom for students of color. Could the academic performance of students of color be hindered by stereotype threat — the fear that one is negatively stereotyped because they are a racial or ethnic minority, which becomes a cognitive barrier to one’s schoolwork? Are Black students less likely to seek out help from white professors, fearing conscious or unconscious bias or that the professor will be less helpful than they are for white students? How often do faculty members call upon Black students to give the “Black perspective” on some issue covered in class? How many Black students are assumed to be student-athletes, automatically asked for their team schedule at the beginning of the semester?
I can tell you, as a professor of color, the other side is not without its challenges. I regularly teach on racism, among other systems of oppression, in my sociology courses. Given the risk (and reality) of being labeled “biased” by (white) students — a common criticism professors of color face, while white professors teaching on race are seen as “objective” and even an authority on the subject — I am sensitive to the racial and ethnic diversity, or lack thereof, of my classes. I must emotionally prepare for days when a discussion of racism will feel more like standing trial before a jury of 20 white young adults to defend my life as a Black person. It would be unfair to rely on the sprinkle of students of color to speak up, challenge the white majority in the class or even defend me when I am challenged.
Institutionalized Racial Justice
To borrow from the Virginia Anti-Violence Project, we should regularly ask ourselves the following question: How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate and intentionally include people and communities of color?
For every decision that we make at the department, college or university level, or for our classes or student organizations, we should ask ourselves what, if anything, it does for Black lives (good or bad). We must stop relying on seemingly random, meritocratic, race-neutral and “colorblind” ideologies and practices to produce equal outcomes. To overcome white privilege and white supremacy — which are always already at play (some of it even by design) — we must intentionally and systematically prioritize racial and ethnic minorities and communities of color.
A college or university’s strategic plan is a good place to center Black lives — not just with one obligatory statement about diversity and inclusion, but instead in every statement of our goals for the next decade. We can ask ourselves how we make sure that alumni and other donors’ contributions to campus, and the way that we honor them (e.g., named buildings, statues), do not simply reproduce white supremacy and Black invisibility. As we propose curricular changes and new programs, we must take a moment to intentionally assess how the changes impact people of color.
Colleges and universities can also do much more to celebrate Black life that exists on (and around) the campus and to ensure that students of color feel valued, seen, heard, included — that they matter today, that their predecessors matter(ed), and that new cohorts of students of color will matter in the future. We need to do more to guarantee that Black staff members are not mere ghosts who clean our buildings, bodiless arms that serve us food at the dining hall or administrative assistants who simply greet us before we meet with some (white) person seen as having actual importance to our lives. We need to eradicate the sense of isolation, powerlessness, censorship and constraint that faculty of color regularly experience, particularly as we are overrepresented at lower levels (i.e., pretenure and recently tenured) and among contingent faculty. We need to better incorporate Black alumni into campus events and initiatives — especially those who felt excluded during their time at the institution.
To ensure that Black lives matter on your college campus, you must do more than bring in a speaker from the movement, only momentarily suspending the whiteness that pervades everyday life and operations. Many colleges and universities have had the audacity to envision Alicia Garza and other amazing antiracist activists at a campus podium. But, the day after the talk, do these institutions dare to start a campus movement for genuine racial justice? I hope so.
I use and consume water every day, multiple times each day. But, I would never call myself a water scientist. (My ignorance shows in even having to look up the term, the profession of researchers who study water.)
I watch television daily, and frequently watch movies either at home or, less often, at the movie theatre. My strong opinions and preferences aside, I would never call myself a TV or film critic.
I drive almost daily, and have been driving regularly for 17 years now. But, I don’t know the first thing about cars, and certainly wouldn’t call myself a mechanic.
I was assigned a racial identity at birth — two actually, Black and white — and have lived as a raced person in a racist society for 32 years. I tentatively call myself an expert on race and racism because I study and teach about them, though they are not my primary area of research or teaching. But, if these topics never appeared in my work as a scholar, I wouldn’t call myself an expert.
“Opinions Are Like Assholes…”
I am certain that most academics and laypeople share my hesitancy to claim expertise on water, the arts, and automobiles if they lack formal training or long-term experience (research, teaching, or performance) in these areas. Though we may self-diagnose illness and injuries with WebMD, we still end up in a doctor’s office for a “real” diagnosis and treatment. How did we ever survive before there was quick and easy access to internet search engines? Google is a verb, and Let Me Google That For You exists as a snarky response to idiotic questions that can be answered with a quick Google search.
But, race and racism seem to be the exception. Everyone, regardless of education level, seems to be an expert on race. Collectively, white Americans presumed to understand racism well enough to conclude that it no longer existed upon the election of a half-white, half-Black person to US President who likely only had a shot at the office because he was raised by his white mother. I know from my slowly evolving awareness of the ways in which white privilege — specifically, the white privilege passed on to me by my white heterosexual middle-class cis man currently without disabilities father — that has benefited my own life that Obama’s upbringing is not typical for Black Americans today. But, that nuance never appeared in mainstream discourse about the election of “the first Black president.” And, I ask of those quick to declare we live in a post-racial (or even post-racist) society — yes, even some academics… who study race (please, excuse my shade…) — how the hell did we end up here with a known racist as Obama’s successor?
I certainly understand why race and racism are hard to understand for those who do not empirically analyze them for a living. There is a nifty analogy for gender, that it is like the water that surrounds us as fish. We take it for granted; it is there from birth — assigned to us, thrust upon us, taught to us, and then policed when we deviate — and thus we come to think of it as natural. In other words, it is incredibly difficult to step outside of gender to understand it, especially gender as a social structure — a system that organizes the social world from gendered identities and expressions to sexist laws and policies. Gender seems so everyday, so familiar, and so mundane that it is easy to only see it as something individuals have, thereby missing it as a system of oppression that shapes and constrains our lives and livelihood, interests, interactions with others, and even our organizations and institutions. Gender is complex and ever-changing; we need women’s and gender studies programs to even begin to grapple with this complicated social system.
Race and racism share the mundaneness that we sense of gender. We take for granted that race exists, naively assuming that it has always existed, and, by extension, is a universal and essential artifact. Though the social construction of race has caught on as a more adequate way of conceptualizing of race, there are still spoken and unspoken glimmers of the assumption that race is biological. There is also the stubborn mentality that racism is solely the explicit expression of prejudice toward others of a different race, which leaves anti-racist activists and scholars stuck with the perpetual burden of having to prove that racism manifests structurally and unconsciously, as well. That’s why whites’ resentment about “PC culture” — modern social etiquette that demands you simply not say something deemed racist — is misplaced; yes, please stop referring to Black people as monkeys, but, you should also stop killing us, denying us jobs and promotions, withholding affordable loans and excluding us from predominantly white neighborhoods, expelling us from school or even sending us to prison over minor disciplinary problems, and so forth.
Race and racism are complex systems. That is why there are scholars who devote their careers to their study. That is why there are academic programs in racial and ethnic studies, Black studies, Africana and African American studies, Latina/o/x studies, Indigenous studies, American Indian and Native American studies, Asian and Asian American studies, Black women’s studies, Muslim and Islamic studies, Judaic studies, cultural studies, American studies, etc. The study of race, racism, and racialized communities also appears in more traditional academic programs like sociology, psychology, English, social psychology, music, theatre, art, and political science.
Race and racism warrant academic inquiry because they are important, but also because they are incredibly complicated and ever-changing. I’m afraid your uncle Joe’s assessment of who is ISIS and who isn’t fails to constitute expertise. I’m disinclined to consider your mom as a race scholar just because she (thinks she) has one American Indian friend. I’d be wary of your boss’s conclusion that “Hispanics will take over America” because he gets nervous around the office’s janitorial staff when they “refuse” to speak in English in his presence. And, I’m rolling my eyes at your friend’s story that she experienced “reverse racism” because the Black Starbucks barista was “mean” to her (read: didn’t roll out the red carpet to celebrate her existence because she’s white). Yes, I am intentionally drawing upon examples of racial prejudice here because many everyday whites draw upon their bias and stereotypes as expertise on race and racism.
I Blame Academia (Or, What’s New?)
More frustrating is that whites’ arrogance about their expertise on race and racism exist alongside their dismissal of academic study of these topics. And even more frustrating is that I have witnessed this not among laypeople — those whom we might dismiss as ignorant or uneducated if we are disinclined to be sympathetic, or inclined to be elitist — but from fellow academics. Many white PhD educated people, whom I would assume to have an appreciation of other disciplines and be self-reflective about the limits of their own expertise, are quick to devalue research and teaching on race and racism. Even in my own discipline (sociology), race and ethnicity scholars — specifically those who are scholars of color — are faced with accusations of conducting “me-search“; by virtue of their inability to be “objective” (a privilege reserved for whites, no matter their research area), their work is dismissed. More generally, the study of communities of color is dismissed (yes, even in sociology).
I suppose we cannot be too hard on uncle Joe, your mom, your boss, and your friend for believing they are experts on race and ethnicity. The academy itself is complicit in devaluing formal academic study of race and racism. Though racial and ethnic studies and similar programs exist, they are woefully underfunded, underresourced, understaffed, and are increasingly under threat. These topics have never been seriously championed in academia, and support for these programs may even be waning (at least in some places). You can get a PhD in Black studies, but I’m not so sure you can expect to get a tenure-track faculty position (if that is your goal). You can specialize in race and ethnicity as a sociologist, but publishing in top mainstream sociology journals will be a challenge, as will securing grant funding. Oh, and get ready to be challenged by your students who think they know as much about race as you do (if not more if you are an instructor of color). Why should we expect everyday white folks to take seriously “the leading expert on racism” when such scholars are not celebrated and respected as would be “the leading heart surgeon” or, hell, even the worst physician alive who, nonetheless, has the respect afforded to doctors?
The academy’s devaluation of academic study of race and racism makes it complicit in the rampant ignorance about race and ethnicity in the US. It is partially responsible for the inevitable rise of Trump and fellow white supremacists. It is responsible for the success of the narrative of angry poor whites who put Trump in office, despite empirical evidence that it was racism and sexism that gave him the election. It is responsible for the dumb notion that whites can be victims of racism or the more perverse “reverse racism”, that calling attention to racism is “playing the race card” or wallowing in victimhood. Academia is responsible for the disgusting reality that Black women scholars’ teaching and public writing about racism can successfully be demeaned as racism — this is reflected best by the fact that these scholars actually get in trouble for doing the work they were trained and hired to do!
The supposed post-racist era is dead, which actually serves as more proof that it never existed to begin with. We cannot even optimistically say we’ve entered a new era of racism because many of the features of old-school racism have reemerged (including Nazism and a bit of anti-Semitism).
But, racism today is undeniably more complex than ever before. As such, this moment is a crucial one to turn to experts on race and racism to understand how we got here and how to move closer to the death of racism. And, by experts, I mean people who have extensive academic training and who study race and ethnicity for a living. Now is the time to seriously support academic programs devoted to the study of race and racism. It is the time to hire race and ethnicity scholars to aid in developing new laws, policies, and programs. It is the time to listen to the experts of race and racism like we would to those who study climate change, or medicine, or biology, or space. Maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess right now if we had already been seriously listening to the experts.
Note: This blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts.
“I came to academe by way of activism,” I announced as part of an “elevator speech” exercise to introduce myself in one of my graduate courses back in 2010.
This story is hardly novel, especially among scholars of marginalized backgrounds. With its reputation for enlightenment and social justice, academic careers call the names of many folks who want to make a difference in their communities. Our shared story also reflects an apparent shared naiveté about the academy.
“Oh, we didn’t beat the activist out of you yet?” the professor interrupted. Her tone suggested humor, but the content of her interruption signaled the true purpose of graduate education: to make an apolitical, detached, and “objective” scholar out of me, to de-radicalize me, to make me an expert on my communities but no longer a member of them.
No, I was not reading too much into her supposed joke. Other professors in the program were equally explicit in telling me that activism had no place in academe. I will give two brief examples.
Example 1: Late in graduate school, I excitedly shared the possibility of a joint conference session between the sexualities and social psychology sections of the American Sociological Association with a trusted professor. The latter has been crucial in the study of identity, which I felt would be useful for the study of sexual identity in the former. But, given the marginal status of sexualities research in sociology, and the dominance of white cis heterosexuals in social psychology, there was not much social psychological work on sexuality within social psychology. Quite passive aggressively, the trusted professor responded, “ok ‘Mr. Activist’.” I was confused what was so radical, so “activist,” about proposing a conference session on an empirical matter. And, I was hurt that even my toned down approach to activism was still too much. So, I dropped it.
Example 2: It seemed that no matter how hard I tried to succeed by the mainstream standards of my department and discipline, I would never fit in. So, the growing cognitive dissonance between my goals, values, and experiences and the department expectations pushed me to become more critical of my graduate department and sociology in general. I became more outspoken in my blogging, often writing posts about racism and activism in academia. For example, I wrote a piece about “Blogging For (A) Change,” singing the praises of blogging as a platform for intellectual activism. A professor in my department who maintains a popular blog devoted a blog post just to me entitled, “Why Activism And Academia Don’t Mix.”
My graduate department paid a fair amount of lip service to public sociology — any kind of work to make one’s scholarship accessible, typically speaking as an expert to lay audiences. Basically, public sociology is an unpaid and undervalued extension of our teaching, which we do out of the kindness of our hearts. Public sociology is for liberal white people whose survival does not depend on their “service.”
Activism, however, was a dirty word. Anything too radical (and, wow, the bar for “radical” is set low) was deemed activist, and thus inferior. Activism is conceived of as a threat to one’s scholarship. Supposedly, it undermines one’s ability to remain “objective.” As such, those who are openly activist may lose credibility as researchers. I have heard stories of scholar-activists being denied tenure or promotion, or some with tenure who have been fired. Of course, we know that activism cannot be a substitute for scholarship, but it has the unintended consequence of leading to the devaluation of your scholarship, as well.
Now that I have gotten that critique off of my chest, I can now make a new point: activism is expertise, or at least has the potential to become a form of scholarly expertise. Here, I dare to argue not only is activism not a contradiction to academic pursuits, but it can actually enhance one’s scholarly perspective. And, academia loses out by creating and policing artificial boundaries between activism and scholarship. What is particularly lost is the creativity and insights of marginalized scholars who are turned off by or actively pushed out of the academy, who are burdened by the pressure to conform, and who are disproportionately affected by the low bar for defining what is activist and what is not (think “me-search,” for example.)
I will use myself as an example. My peer-reviewed research generally focuses on the impact of discrimination on the health and world-views of marginalized groups. In one line of work, I examine the mental, physical, sexual health consequences of discrimination — particularly for multiply disadvantaged individuals who are at great risk for facing more than one form of discrimination (e.g., women of color who face racist and sexist discrimination). In the other line of work, I assess how such experiences produce a unique consciousness — at least as reflected in social and political attitudes that are distinct from those of the dominant group. The intersections among sexuality, gender, and race (and, to a lesser extent social class and weight) are a prominent focal point in my empirical work.
As an intellectual activist, I have gradually moved further into academic justice work. That includes the creation and steady growth of Conditionally Accepted, from a blog to a weekly career advice column for marginalized scholars. That also includes more recent work on protecting and defending fellow intellectual activists from professional harm and public backlash.
For example, in February, I organized and participated on a panel about this very topic at the Sociologists for Women in Society winter meeting. Since the intended focus was primarily about women of color intellectual activists (as Black women scholar-activists have been targeted the most in recent years), I planned to invite women of color panelists, and had no intention of being on the panel myself. But, I struggled to find more than the one who agreed to participate, Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield. Dr. Rashawn Ray and I joined the panel, as well, to offer other perspectives. In the process of preparing for the panel, I contacted the American Association for University Professors (AAUP) for concrete advice on protecting intellectual activists, and compiled a list of advice from other intellectual activists. What initially was a well-crafted blog post, backed by a lot of homework, became a panel, and the proposal for a similar panel at next year’s American Sociological Association annual meeting. My blog post, “Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack,” is now a chapter in ASA’s social media toolkit.
As my blogging and intellectual activism has become more visible, I have been invited to give more and more talks and to participate on panels about academic blogging, public sociology, intellectual activism, and academic (in)justice. Though I am making the case for activism as expertise at this stage in my career, I initially felt a sense of impostor syndrome. I am not an education scholar, so I felt I had no business giving talks about matters related to higher education.
What has helped me to recover from the traumatizing experience of grad school, and to reclaim my voice as a scholar-activist, is to find role models and surround myself with like-minded people. On the most memorable panel I have done yet, I had the incredible pleasure of finally meeting Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy. Dr. Lewis-McCoy, as a fellow panelist, casually introduced his research on racial inequality and education and his activism on racism and the criminal justice system. These dual forms of expertise are best reflected in his book, Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling, and his blog, Uptown Notes.
The expertise of activism comes from experience, from doing one’s homework about the issues, and from raising one’s consciousness about the social problem at hand and developing skills to solve the problem. That expertise comes from engaging with people from outside of one’s field, or even outside of the academy, and thus being exposed to new ways of thinking.
Activism and academe do mix. They are complementary ways of thinking, being, and making a difference in the world. One is not superior to the other. In fact, given the history of exclusion and discrimination, many of us have the work of activists to thank for even making our academic career possible. And, with the rise of the adjunctification of the academy and the exploitation of contingent faculty, the fate of academe relies on labor activists working to reverse these trends.
I’m not saying we should all run out to the nearest Black Lives Matter protest. (No, actually, I will say that.) But, I am at least demanding that we acknowledge the intellectual potential of activism.