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Black Feminism Will Save My Life

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Note: this blog post was originally published on The Feminist Wire (TFW).

Like most Black folks, I have a Black woman to thank for my existence (my mother) who, in turn, has another Black woman to thank for her existence (my grandmother), and so on. I have them, and my aunts and older cousins to thank for my survival in this oftentimes-hostile world. Black women babysitters, neighbors, friends, teachers, mentors, and colleagues have educated me, protected me, supported me, advised me, and loved me in childhood, adolescence, and now adulthood. Now, as I fumble through my academic career, simultaneously trying to recover from the trauma of grad school, survive the tenure-track, and thrive as a scholar-activist, I have Black women researchers, theorists, and writers to lean on during my journey. Indeed, Black feminism will save my life.

The Gifts of Black Feminism

I was introduced to the framework of intersectionality and Black feminist theory more generally, as an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). In one assignment from my upper-level Women and the Media course, taught by Elizabeth Salisbury (a white anti-racist feminist instructor), I reflected on my intersecting sex, gender, sexual, and racial identities. I still remember being blown away by all that I learned in my Women’s History and Black Women’s History courses, taught by Dr. Michelle Scott (a Black woman history professor); I was shocked by how little I knew about Black women’s involvement in the abolition, suffrage, feminist, Civil Rights, and Black Power movements. Although Black feminism was not treated as a central theoretical framework in most of my graduate school courses, it has remained a focal point in my own research, teaching, and service.

Graduate school – MA and PhD in sociology from Indiana University – is where I first discovered the toxic, soul-crushing nature of academe. This training was not a period of self-discovery and consciousness-raising; if anything, grad school was set to “beat the activist” out of me, to de-radicalize me as a scholar-activist and to sever my ties with my communities. With only one Black woman professor on faculty and very little support of critical intersectional work, my graduate department was not a place that was a welcome home for Black feminists and womanists. These years were soul-crushing – even traumatizing; now three years later, I am seeing a trauma-certified therapist and taking Lexapro for the ongoing generalized anxiety disorder. I was knocked out of my metaphorical Black feminism life raft and nearly drowned as a result.

The Gift of Self-Definition

Late in my last year of graduate school, and subsequently in my tenure-track position at the University of Richmond, I rediscovered the life-giving force of Black feminism. In a blog post, I wrote about Dr. Patricia Hill Collins’s 2012 book, On Intellectual Activism; I devoured every word of her book as it named the kind of work I aspired to do (intellectual activism) and made such work seem like a natural extension of the career of Black feminist scholars. Her book reintroduced me to the core components of Black feminist theory, which she articulated in her book, Black Feminist Thought – in particular, the intersections among systems of oppression and the importance of self-definition for Black women. I took up her notion of self-definition in declaring that I am pursuing my career in sociology on my own terms – inherently activist, or nothing at all.

Unfortunately, self-definition has not been a smooth process. I regularly burn the candle at both ends trying to exceed the expectations of mainstream academe (to keep my job) and subverting the academic status quo. At any given moment, I waver between fear of my grad school advisors’ warning that I will be irrelevant (to mainstream sociology) and smugness as I intentionally buck the system. It is an unfair burden to have to weigh between keeping my job and liberating my communities.

The Gift of Liberation from Oppressive Institutions

But, Black feminism has somewhat eased this ambivalence. The good Lorde – Audre Lorde – once wrote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Though telling myself that I am simply working within the system to enact change has helped me to sleep at night, I realize that playing by the rules of the Ivory Tower serves to perpetuate the status quo in academe and society more generally. How can I expect to challenge academic injustice by reinforcing unjust practices? Lorde once said that “your silence will not protect you” – a powerful phrase prominently displayed on a bumper sticker on the very laptop I am using now to write this essay. Lorde has shattered any naïve notion that playing it “safe” in academe will ever ensure my safety, livelihood, and status. To be a good little mainstream sociologist is to be complicit in the discipline’s racism.

Yet, contemporary Black feminists have been incredible role models for avoiding the seduction of letting the academy validate my existence. Oh, and have I been seduced, even to the point of internalizing the view that I am only valuable as a member of society so long as I publish and that leisure and relaxation are tools of the devil. I am thankful that a friend, Dr. Abigail A. Sewell, introduced me to The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure – Without Losing Your Soul as we were finishing up our respective dissertations. A couple of years later, I found myself having a phone conversation with the book’s lead author, Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, to ask for advice about moving my blog, ConditionallyAcepted.com, to InsideHigherEd.com, which also features her biweekly academic advice column, “Dear Kerry Ann.” Through a series of conversations with her, as well as various resources produced by her organization (National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity),I have been inspired to let my big dreams and goals guide me, rather than being driven (or coerced) by external validation like tenure and promotion.

Similarly, I was inspired by Dr. Zandria F. Robinson who, when under a national conservative media attack on her online writing (and character, politics, appearance, and menstrual cycle), had the last laugh as she maintained her value and integrity no matter the institution that employed her. Academic institutions, as with any social institution, were overwhelmingly built by and for wealthy white cishet men without disabilities, and they continue to systematically exclude and exploit everyone else. I will never be free if I live my life defined by institutions that hate me and people like me. Perhaps because of the simultaneity of and intersections among racism, sexism, and classism, many Black women have never been under the illusion that an institution will value, liberate, and uplift them; instead, some have taken to carving out safe spaces in these hostile institutions or creating their own institutions and organizations outside of them.

The Gift of Positionality

Black feminists’ emphasis on positionality – that is, recognizing how one’s intersectional social position shapes one’s view of the world – has allowed me to embrace the influence of my personal biography on my scholarship. Through my graduate training, I was taught that legitimate sociological scholarship focuses on social institutions (e.g., medicine), not social groups – especially not marginalized groups. I was encouraged to embrace a professional identity as a medical sociologist who just happens to study Black and Latinx people, LGBTQ people, and women; I was discouraged from being a sociologist of sexualities, of gender, or of race. The greatest suspicion of all was of sociologists who were not simply experts on some group, but were a member of the group: Black sociologists, queer sociologists, feminist sociologists, disabled sociologists, fat sociologists. Having expertise “of” some sociological topic creates enough distance between the presumably objective sociologist and her research. But, to be your topic threatens the appearance of objectivity.

It has taken me a few years to actually embrace my positionality in my scholarship. Yes, I am Black, and queer, and non-binary, and fat, and a feminist. And, my work as an activist – to advance these causes and liberate these communities – is the primary motivation behind my research on sexualities, gender, race and ethnicity, and weight. I have Black feminists to thank for taking objectivity to task and for celebrating positionality rather than pretending to be objective. My work has become easier now that I allow myself to say I am a Black queer sociologist (who happens to study health), rather than forcing the label “medical sociologist” (who happens to study race, ethnicity, gender, and sexualities).

The Gift of Self-Care as a Political Act

Black feminist writing about self-care will save my life. This self care is different from the neoliberal “life hack” and yoga-and-mindfulness-fad stuff that fills my Facebook feed. As Lorde argued, self-care is a political act; the audacity of self-preservation within institutions and a national context that is set on eliminating Black women is a far cry from white middle-class folks’ efforts to make their privileged lives just a little bit calmer. When racial organizations slant toward the plight of Black cishet men, when feminist organizations champion the causes of middle-class white cishet women, when the rest of the country doesn’t give a damn either way – Black women are left on their own to simply survive from day to day. Self-care as a counter to others’ efforts to eliminate you is nothing short of an act of warfare.

Black feminism’s emphasis on self-care has forced me to rethink how own efforts to survive and thrive – how I approach and conceptualize them. It convinced me to critically analyze the features of graduate school and the academy more generally that left me with a PhD, generalized anxiety disorder, and complex trauma at the end of my graduate training. Had I been aware of the oppressive structure and culture of mainstream academe from the start – the pervasive micro-aggressions, the devaluing of scholarship on my own communities, the elitist emphasis on Research I careers, and the efforts to “beat the activist” out of me – I may have been better prepared with ways to preserve myself. Hindsight is 20-20; now, I am better armed as I take on the rough road of the tenure-track. I have sought out mental health care, I have looked for supportive critical communities, I have taken on new ways to embrace authenticity in my scholarship, and so forth. Thanks to Black feminists, I am aware that my survival falls in my hands alone; I could find myself dead or near-death on the other side of tenure if I continue to naively assume my department and university cares about my well-being beyond my CV.

The Gift of Entrepreneurship

Beyond simply surviving, I am grateful to Black feminist friends and colleagues who have modeled for me bravery in the face of vulnerability, invisibility, exploitation, and extinction. Since starting Conditionally Accepted, I have become connected with a wide network of smart, critical, and creative people. And, I have noticed an interesting pattern: most of the scholars who are successful public intellectuals and academic entrepreneurs are Black women. Dr. Manya Whitaker started her own educational consulting business, Blueprint Educational Strategies. Dr. Fatimah Williams Castro runs her own business to help academics develop alternative careers (“alt-ac”) – Beyond the Tenure Track. Dr. Michelle Boyd started and runs Inkwell Academic Writing Retreats. Dr. Chavella Pittman runs workshops on bias and incivility in the classroom through her business, Effective & Efficient Faculty. Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming is just beginning to offer professional development workshops. And, of course, there is the Oprah of professional development, Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, founder and CEO of NCFDD.

Giving Back

I would be remiss to devote this essay solely to the gifts I have received from Black feminist scholarship and activism. To me, Black feminism is not simply an ideology and movement from which others (including me) passively benefit. To be a Black feminist is to be committed to advancing intersectionality, positionality, and self-definition and to liberating all Black women. And, to be an ally to Black feminists, I feel a sense of obligation to use my generally privileged status as an individual often perceived as a cisgender man to live into this commitment.

I am still figuring out what that means for the long-haul and on a day-to-day basis. At the baseline, I regularly draw upon a principle of the Virginia Anti-Violence Project (for which I sometimes volunteer) to ask, “How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate, and intentionally include people and communities of color?” – tailored to ask specifically about Black women.

How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate, and intentionally include Black girls, women, and femmes?

Failing to regularly prioritize the inclusion, support, and advancement of Black women means that white cishet masculinity pervades as a norm, as the default; attention to Black women comes up only when they demand it or when the dominant group bothers to attend to diversity (which usually fails to consider intersectionality). When I plan events on campus, I aim to center the voices of women of color, especially when the topic at hand disproportionately affects them and/or affects them in unique ways. For example, I have begun organizing workshops at academic conferences on supporting intellectual activists and protecting them from professional harm and public backlash; since women of color have been the most vulnerable to these attacks, I have centered their experiences. When Black women panelists are available, I center their voices; when they are not, I cite their work and refer to their writing for further information.

Perhaps my biggest commitment to Black feminism to date, at least as a scholar, is the co-editing of an anthology that will celebrate academic bravery among women of color scholars. With my colleague and friend, Dr. Manya Whitaker, I am currently collecting narratives and creative works from women of color academics that reflect upon times that they spoke up, took risks, reconceptualized what it means to be a scholar, advocated for change, overcame adversity, etc. The inspiration from this work came from a comment that Dr. Brittney Cooper casually made as a fellow panelist at the Parren-Mitchell Symposium on Intellectual Activism at the University of Maryland in April 2015. She remarked that there was too much cowardice in academy, and that what we need to best support intellectual activists is more academic bravery. As far as I have seen, no one else is talking about this, despite the widespread culture of fear and risk-aversion in academia. But, from my observations, some of the most innovative, entrepreneurial, creative, and all-around badass scholars today are women of color. I am incredibly moved by their individual and collective bravery and want to document and celebrate it; I want to put it into a single book (for now) so future women of color scholars will already have a manual for being brave, hopefully forgoing years of floundering, fear, isolation, self-doubt.

This is just the beginning. I owe my life to Black women and Black feminism. They gave me life. They have sustained my life. They inspire me. They care for me and love me. Black women rule the world – I’m just doing my part to see that the rest of the world wakes up to that reality!

Sexual Violence At The Sociology Conference

"Don't Rape" by Richard Potts

“Don’t Rape” by Richard Potts

At last week’s American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting in Seattle, WA, two women of color graduate students separately disclosed to me that they had been sexually assaulted or harassed at the conference. Beyond courageously sharing their experiences with me, they do not feel brave or protected enough to report their experiences to the ASA. For, their vulnerable positions in the profession (graduate students) and in society (young women of color) present the very real concern of professional or personal backlash if they were to report the sexual violence. We live in a rape culture that denies the prevalence and impact of sexual violence; that does not believe victims, but rather blames them for their own victimization; that celebrates predators and excuses their violation of others’ bodies and space. ASA and the discipline of sociology exist within that culture. Why should we expect different results from them?

The perpetrators of the sexual violence in both instances are senior men faculty members – but, from different institutions. As such, the responsibility to pursue these cases – were they to be reported – falls outside of a particular institution. These incidents occurred at an ASA meeting, and thus are the organization’s responsibility to pursue.  As one of the two women pointed out to me, had she reported the assault to local police, she would be offered no support by local police at the next ASA conference as the location changes every year.

I took to social media to ask my fellow sociologists what resources existed to prevent sexual violence at ASA meetings and to support survivors of violence at future meetings. Few colleagues responded, all to say they wanted to know the answer, too. I did receive a response from ASA’s twitter account (@ASAnews) to look to page 2 of this year’s annual meeting program guide:

Ethical Conduct during the Annual Meeting:

It is unethical in any professional setting, including the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, for sociologists to use inequalities of power which characterize many professional relationships to obtain personal, sexual, economic or professional advantages.

Sexual, sexual identity or racial/ethnic harassment is also unethical behavior under the American Sociological Association Code of Ethics.

Attendees are encouraged to immediately report instances of harassment during the Annual Meeting to the ASA Executive Officer at Hillsman@asanet.org or through the ASA Annual Meeting Office.

To read the American Sociological Association Code of Ethics in its entirety, visit www.ASAnet.org and follow the link to “Ethics.”

I should note that I never read the front matter of the annual meeting program guide, and I imagine few other attendees do.  It is a thick book!  I only use it to find out when and where my sessions are.  Some attendees exclusively use the phone app, which won’t force them to flip through the front matter.  More importantly, it seems naive to assume that the above statement would stop a predator from assaulting or harassing others at the conference.  (Sexual violence is already illegal, yet the law doesn’t seem to stop it from occurring at alarming rates.)

I responded, pressing ASA about what is actually done to prevent sexual violence at these meetings, and to support survivors of sexual violence that has occurred at past meetings. I was informed that the Committee on Professional Ethics deals with reported instances of sexual violence on a case-by-case basis.

I felt underwhelmed by this response. When I returned home, I sent an email to the Sociologists for Women and Society (SWS) listserv to ask what feminist sociologists knew of existing resources and strategies for preventing sexual violence at academic conferences. I also contacted the ASA Committee on the Status of Women in Sociology and the ASA Committee on the Status of Racial and Ethnic Minorities in Sociology to ask that they take on this issue.

I had not anticipated Sally Hillsman, Executive Officer of ASA, to catch wind of my emails; she chimed in on the SWS listserv to emphasize that victims of sexual violence could confidentially report these events to her, and that this approach to handling such reports was voted on by ASA members. I pressed still to highlight the enormous fear that victims experience that prevents most of them to report sexual violence, and that these reporting mechanisms still do not address my concerns about sexual violence prevention and supporting survivors. Sally responded again to offer the following:

For the women who experienced sexual harassment at the Seattle, Chicago or recent meetings:

Please call me WITHOUT REVEALING YOUR NAME IF YOU CHOOSE at my office. I will return to my office this Wednesday August 31 to discuss your experience ANONYMOUSLY. If I am away from my desk, leave a message when you will call again and I will be there.

202-383-9005×316 goes right to my desk; no one else will pick up.

This is standard operating procedure. If you didn’t know about how ASA handles these situations it is good–insofar as confidentiality has been maintained–but bad that we have not been as available to sociologists as we could be.

The ASA has a Code of Ethics that everyone who is a member of the Association FORMALLY AGREED to abide by, and ASA has investigation and sanctioning ability within the scope of the Association.  These include confidential (non-public) and public sanctions for those found by COPE to have violated the Code.  Council is not involved.

Sally

I appreciate that ASA has allowed (which seems like a problematic verb here…) victims to report sexual violence without revealing their names. However, as others pointed out in the SWS discussion, eventually anonymity would become confidentiality, which eventually be disclosed to perpetrators if ASA pursued the reported case. This system does little to protect victims of sexual violence from being further victimized. And, given the horrendous reputation of other institutions, there is little reason for the discipline’s most vulnerable members to expect they won’t be victimized by ASA itself.

Rethinking Sexual Violence In Academia

I bring these events and conversations to the public stage not to criticize ASA, though I am clearly underwhelmed by its handling of sexual violence. Rather, I want to further contribute to the conversation about sexual violence in academia. There is fear that prevents many of us from talking about it, reporting it, criticizing it. Hell, even some sexual violence prevention activists have been censured or worse by academic institutions. Indeed, they are complicit in the production of rape culture within the profession.

There are many points that I wish to make – others have already said this, but it bears repeating. Sexual violence is an expression of power. Academia is obsessed with power and hierarchies. The profession enables predators to prey upon vulnerable members with little recourse. Those same power-dynamics leave victims and witnesses with few options to seek justice and prevent future instances of sexual violence. Professional hierarchies are laid upon social hierarchies; it is no coincidence that women and people of color are overrepresented among contingent faculty who – perhaps – have the fewest resources and least amount of support to avoid being victimized.

Just as academic institutions facilitate sexual violence among undergraduate students, it does so among graduate students, staff, faculty, and administrators, as well. There exists a rape culture on many campuses, and within disciplines and professional organizations. Victims are either blamed for their own victimization or not believed. Predators go unpunished, and are often times rewarded; their behavior is excused because of their professional status (which is likely enhanced by the privileged statuses of whiteness, masculinity, heterosexuality, wealth, older age, etc.). I once sat in a conference meeting that seriously considered naming an award after an older white man professor from my graduate program who has a long, loooong history of sexually harassing women students and colleagues; with great trepidation, I spoke up to oppose such an honor, but I believe he will still be honored in some other way. Others in that meeting were hesitant to entertain “hearsay,” but conceded when I stressed that I was privy to more than mere gossip about him.

Sexual violence exists at the intersections among racism, sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, classism, fatphobia, ableism, religious intolerance, ageism, and xenophobia. White heterosexual cisgender women are not the sole victims of sexual violence; sexual violence is not merely a “white woman’s issue” or a feminist issue (with the necessary critique of the white, cishet, and middle-class biases of each wave of feminism). We fail many, many victims of sexual violence when we rely on ways of addressing it that are typical among white middle-class women; for example, there are racial differences in even naming one’s experiences of sexual harassment as such, and in reporting these incidents. A focus on sexual violence against white cishet women (presumably by white cishet men) ignores the gross unwanted sexual attention I (a Black queer non-binary grad student at the time) received from two white gay cis men professors at a Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) conference years ago. Such a focus ignores nuances of sexual violence in queer spaces and in communities of color, to name a few – especially across racial, gender, and class lines within those spaces communities.

We need to take seriously the bystander intervention approach to prevent sexual violence in academia.  That means it is not merely the responsibility of potential and actual victims of sexual assault and harassment to seek justice and support survivors.  It is everyone’s responsibility.  Yes, everyone.  Sexual violence is a systemic issue.  It is an expression of systems of oppression.  It operates within the very social institutions each of us inhabits everyday.  We must each challenge victim-blaming, rape-myths, and institutional practices that either ignore sexual violence or that even facilitate it.  We must intentionally support all survivors of sexual violence, even those who do not come forward.  Predators must be banned from our academic spaces so that they do not perpetrate violence again (because there is a good chance that they will).

I could go on. And, all of this is coming from someone with limited scholarly expertise on sexual violence and minimal personal experience with it. There is a great deal we can learn from the experts and survivors to actually prevent sexual violence in the academy. Right now, it is a crisis. In these first few weeks of the semester, countless undergraduate students are joining the statistics of victims of sexual violence; universities are continuing to be complicit in the predatory practices of perpetrators of such violence. And, graduate students, staff, and faculty are returning for another year – some to continue to be harassed as they suffer in silence. Who are we to offer guidance to the rest of society on ending sexual violence when hundreds of schools are currently under federal investigation for the mishandling of reported sexual assaults?

Further reading and resources:

Gender Policing In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on the “Conditionally Accepted” career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.

DeniseNow 31 years old, I am still struggling to figure out my gender identity. I knew by age 5 that I was unlike other boys, even declaring to my mother that I should have been born a girl. I came out as bisexual as a senior in high school, then gay in my freshman year of college. With exposure to feminist and queer theories and activism in college, I found a more fitting identity — queer — to reflect my own sense of gender and attraction to masculinity broadly defined (no matter others’ bodies or sex).

But I have graduate school to thank for my stepping back into the closet, at least in terms of my gender identity and expression — and for nine years of wrestling with the tension between my queer gender identity and the masculinist norms and expectations of academe.

Sociology became a woman-dominated discipline — at least in terms of degrees awarded — before I ever became a sociology major in college. In 2012, women were close to half or more of the faculty in two-thirds of sociology graduate programs in America, representing huge growth over the previous decade. (I imagine this number is much lower for women sociologists at the associate and full professor levels. And gender equity may have stalled, or even reversed, with the overrepresentation of women among adjunct professors.) But in 2012, only 22 percent of graduate departments had more than one-quarter of their faculty specializing in the sociology of gender — and the same number making a genuine commitment to women scholars and the sociological study of gender.

In my own graduate training, I found even some of the faculty members who specialized in gender did not encourage research in this area. The discouragement seemed strongest for those planning to use qualitative methods (too “touchy-feely”), feminist and queer lenses (too “activisty”), and feminist or gender studies approaches (too interdisciplinary). Despite commendable representation of (cis)women in my department and the discipline more generally, I learned that many (men) sociologists appear to hate women and see masculinity as central to good scholarship.

In reading A. W. Strouse’s essay criticizing the inherent heterosexism and queerphobia of American graduate education, I finally realized that I am not alone in struggling with the white heteromasculinist under- and overtones of my graduate training. As Strouse aptly points out, professional (re)socialization of graduate school is centrally a task of eliminating passion, love, creativity and originality from would-be scholars’ lives — or at least presenting ourselves as detached, subdued, conforming — that is, “professional.”

In our writing, we were discouraged from “flowery,” verbose and creative prose, instead getting to the point concisely and speaking with unwavering authority. In fact, it is best to avoid writing in the first person at all costs so as to present arguments as taken-for-granted truths, rather than offered by an individual scholar. There is a reason why the feminist scholarly practice of being transparent about one’s social location never caught on in mainstream sociology; seemingly objective research is the highest form of inquiry, and everything else is suspect.

Masculinist authority was equally valued in how one presents one’s research in workshops, talks and conferences. As one grad school professor warned me, “none of this ‘shy guy’ stuff” — scholarly presentations were not actually spaces to present incomplete projects or uncertainty. (And don’t even think about attempting to shirk male privilege by rejecting an authoritative tone and presence!) Whatever it means to be a “shy guy” was seen as distracting at best, or antithetical to my scholarship at worse. I could not help but assume that this professor’s comment was a more polite way of telling me to “man up.” And, upon comparing notes with a cis gay man in the program, I learned that the professor had, indeed, a reputation for telling queer men students to “man up.” Perhaps I had been pegged as too sensitive for the harsher, more offensive version of this advice.

I have wrestled, more generally, with the demand to strip away all emotion. Well-meaning friends and colleagues have criticized me for becoming increasingly more angry as I present at conferences, that my own rage about oppression and the detriment it has on the health of oppressed individuals is inappropriate for an academic setting. I learned to stop pounding my fist on the podium, but I have not quite mastered the stiff upper lip. Showing emotion is weak; a true scholar would never be so personally invested in the plight of marginalized communities.

To my surprise, the devaluation of femininity is not limited to the erasure of feminine expressions in academics who were assigned male at birth. I have witnessed the policing of femininity in cisgender women academics, even those who are femme presenting.

For example, two weeks in a row in my Preparing Future Faculty course, the cis woman professor chastised cis women students for their “feminine” and “girly” behavior. I agree that beginning a presentation or conversation by apologizing in advance for subpar quality or ideas only serves to undermine what one has to say. But I found it quite troubling that a woman professor so openly, publicly and forcefully berated these women students for their feminine presentation of self, especially in a mixed-gender class. Perhaps a private conversation, wherein the professor could talk more at length about her concerns about the sexist ways in which women scholars are received in the academy, would have been better and less offensive. But, then again, this is the same professor who interrupted my own presentation to ask, “Oh, we haven’t beaten the activist out of you yet?” Clearly, academic training is about beating graduate students into submission and conformity.

I have heard women friends and colleagues note the related practice of rewarding masculinity in women in academe. Short hairstyles and masculine attire appeared to be much more common among my grad department’s most successful women faculty. The more assertive you could be, the better. The more you could do to reject your femaleness and femininity, the more successful you could be in the academy. Women who insisted on having children should calculate pregnancy just right so that they could “pop one out” during a break in the school year. I am often shocked by how openly academics and academic institutions attempt to regulate women scholars’ reproductive choices and sex lives. Some women academics are complicit, unapologetically giving advice to “keep your legs closed,” delay motherhood as long as possible or forgo it all together.

It has taken me three years post-Ph.D. to recognize the role my graduate education has played in stalling my gender journey. I entered the program beginning to embrace a genderqueer identity and reject the restrictive category of “man.” In a different life, I might be well on my way to rocking stylish, colorful outfits, being as fab as I want to be, or at least much more comfortable in my unique skin. But, in this life, I have to first recover from the damage of my graduate training to my sense of self.

I have only recently reclaimed a genderqueer identity, now finding “nonbinary” to better describe who I am as a gendered being. I have slowly dropped the suit and tie as a protective shield and begun to slowly come out publicly as kind of, sort of trans. Another path to my own liberation sadly entails rejecting the femmephobia, queerphobia and transphobia of the academy. Embracing an authentic gender identity and expression entails reconceptualizing what it means to be a scholar. (Why are the two intertwined in the first place!)

No advice to offer to others just yet — my apologies for that. But I hope that more of us will acknowledge, critique and resist the ways in which academe polices the gender presentation of scholars.

 

A Love Letter To Students Of Color

Note: this essay was originally published in my university’s student newspaper, The Collegian.

Me - Ford“Dr. Grollman, this is the worst chapter of my life,” a Black woman student revealed to me in my office two years ago. Her comment was heartbreaking, especially coming from an individual who has lived but two decades and was on her way to finishing her degree at this world-class university. I refrained from trivializing her comments, avoiding some flippant response like college supposedly being a time of fun and self-exploration as though she had chosen, instead, to be miserable. Rather, I told her that I believed her, as I would when anyone has revealed that they have suffered from violence (in her case, the intersections among racism, sexism and classism). I pointed out resources that were available to her to help her survive and, ideally, thrive on campus. And, I asked that she consider finding ways to leave the campus in better shape than when she arrived, for I do not want to hear cohort after cohort of Black University of Richmond students reveal their misery to me.

That student’s misery was not unique to her experiences at UR. Although other students have not quite gone as far as to declare that their four to five years at Richmond are the worst chapter of their lives, they have expressed their misery in similar terms. I have lost count of the number of students of color who have revealed their intentions to transfer, or that transferring is not possible given the generous scholarship and/or financial aid they are receiving. Better yet, I do not know how many are not miserable, looking to leave or counting the days until their graduation – it does not seem like many.

Students of color, I see you come into my class with a dark cloud over your head. I know you use your hoodie, blaring music on your headphones and a facial expression that says, “Don’t f*** with me!” as a shield to your racist and classist surroundings. Maybe you have checked out of the campus social scene all together, or you begrudgingly go to lodge parties because there is nothing else to do. Or, you go to events by groups of color though they always seem to have a heavier police presence. Some of you desperately try to find community, only to be disappointed that social class, or gender, or sexuality, or religion, or ethnicity, or nationality, or even racial politics create divisions that make community for people of color nearly impossible. Many of you want to change things, to make Richmond more diverse and inclusive, but are so disenchanted by the lack of a political culture on campus – why even bother if only 20 people show up, or if white students will dismiss your efforts because we live in a supposedly post-racial society now?

You are all young, gifted and Black. But, I know that more often than not, you feel nothing more than Black on this campus. I believe you. And, I believe that if I were a student here today, I, too, would be miserable. I cannot imagine being able to breathe in what appears to be a suffocating environment for many students of color.

But, as a professor, I am able to breathe. And, with more and more support from my department colleagues, Dean Kathleen Skerrett, Provost Jacquelyn Fetrow, Associate Provost Lázaro Lima and President Ronald Crutcher, I have been able to breathe more deeply. I know that with that privilege, I am also charged with the responsibility of helping others who cannot breathe as deeply – and, that largely means you, students of color. Despite the lack of exposure to critical race, feminist and queer perspectives in my academic training, I am pushing myself to bring these perspectives to my classes in sociology, even those cross-listed with WGSS and Healthcare Studies. Despite the pervasive myth of objectivity in academia, I push myself to not only “show up” as a professor of color, but also to be authentic, for having brown and black faces is meaningless if they do not bring diverse perspectives and experiences. Despite fearing for my job security and physical safety, I push myself to be brave on campus to model for you that you can be a critical, academic and Black.

Students of color, you are not alone, despite the small numbers of Black, Latino/a, Asian and American Indian students (when you calculate by each specific race and ethnicity). You are not alone in feeling miserable, in wanting to leave, in wanting to demand change. You are not alone in experiencing racial discrimination, racial battle fatigue, racist microaggressions and being subject to racist stereotypes. You are not alone in wanting to just get that degree, cross that stage so you can make your mother proud, and get a good job afterward – but wondering if it is all worth it considering the obstacles that lie ahead and those you have already overcome. You are young, gifted and Black – and you are many.

Let’s be real for a moment. Richmond, like most universities, was neither created for nor by people of color. We had to push our way in through court cases and protests. Still today, “diversity” rhetoric in academia rings hallow in the face of segregation and strained race relations on campuses, while racist white conservatives are still challenging Affirmative Action. Meritocracy in society, including higher education, is a myth. It is dangerous to assume that this university will be here for us, will look out for us, will treat us equally, will affirm our existence. We are, by and large, on our own.

So, I ask, then, that you find others around you to build community. Get out of your dorm rooms, and stop hanging exclusively with your roommates and floormates. If existing groups are exclusive, demand that they become more inclusive, or start your own group. I want you to think creatively about how to make your voice heard. Alumna Dana MacLaughlin, WC ’14, conducted a wonderful historical analysis of LGBTQ life at Richmond over time, which you can see online at the Office of Common Ground’s website – I recommend a similar project, or at least using The Collegian to document your life, your existence, your amazing work. Every event that you plan related to race and ethnicity, be sure that a Collegian reporter is there with a camera; if they do not show up, write your own op-ed about why you planned it or what happened. Think about what you need to survive and thrive while you are a student here, and also think ahead to how you can improve the campus for future classes of students of color. Reach out to faculty and staff of color to ask how they might support you, too; sometimes we simply do not know what is going on, and get consumed with our own survival. But, we likely had support to get here, too.

If you are miserable right now, that is fine. Please do not pretend otherwise. But, you deserve better. The reality is, “better” has never been handed to us, and probably never will be. With President Crutcher at the helm, now is definitely the time to make your voices heard, to demand that the university genuinely live up to its promises of diversity and inclusion, and to leave your mark on this fine university of ours. Trust me, you will sleep better at night in 10 years knowing that you might have been miserable, but were active in working to improve the campus.

My Gender Is A Journey

Denise

This essay was originally posted on my personal site, egrollman.com.

Over a year ago, I wrote a short essay to reflect on the dynamic and fluid (rather than fixed and static) nature of my gender identity.  Similar to Dr. Betsy Lucal’s essay, “What it Means to be Gendered Me” in Gender & Society, I drew on personal experiences to demonstrate academic conceptualizations of gender and, in turn, used these conceptualizations to make sense of my own gender identity.  But, the essay lacked one critical thing: the bravery to share it publicly, as I had initially intended.

Recently, an opinion piece in Out magazine, “Snoopy and Me” by Michael Narkunski, caught my eye.  Narkunski reflects on being distressed by feeling that his sense of gender does not fit with the narrow (heterosexist and cissexist) definition of a “man.”  He sought the care of a therapist, whom he assumed would finally “diagnose” him as transgender.  Instead, she offered him this:

“Being gay is hard,” my therapist said. “You have a dearth of role models, and you’re constantly subjected to gender norms that don’t apply. You have to work more on learning to be happy and creating an identity to be pleased with, not transferring yourself over to a whole new one.”

I see myself in Narkunski’s essay.  And, I admire his bravery for sharing such a painful and personal story.  In fact, his bravery has inspired me to finally share my own below.

My Gender Is A Journey

I do not see gender as destiny anymore than I see sex-assigned-at-birth as destiny. These are crude categories and identities to distinguish one set of characteristics, experiences, expectations, and opportunities from others. While they do include predictions about what one’s life will be like, they are not sophisticated enough to determine how one’s life will transpire. Gender norms change, both because of changing expressions of one’s gender identity and changing how one can express one’s gender identity. And, gender norms, identities, and expressions are deeply tied to other axes of oppression: racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, fatphobia, and xenophobia. So, in addition to changing gender norms over time, there is variation in who we are as gendered people by virtue of our other identities and statuses – and these, too, change over time.

For me, my gender identity and how I express it are both cause and consequence of my body, my experiences in this world, my ideology and values, and my relationships with other people. Let me describe each in greater detail.

Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Body

I became a fat child around age 8. Since then, my body has never been one that reflects hegemonic masculinity. Even after losing an extreme amount of weight before my senior year of high school, I was still flabby and unmasculine in the normative sense. The greatest struggle of all regarding my body has been my breasts. I rarely go swimming and, when I do, I tend to wear a black t-shirt. (There is a reason wet t-shirt contests feature white shirts. I learned that lesson first-hand, unfortunately.) I was teased as a child because I had breasts as large as, if not larger, than girls my age. Though I have a hairy chest, I still have a part of my body that is a visible betrayal of my maleness.

Me - GI Beyonce

Halloween 2009

At one point, I seriously considered surgery to have my breasts removed. Throughout my adolescence, my primary physician repeatedly offered to have “those” removed – never explicitly naming that I had breasts. The first time I visited Richmond, VA was to meet with a cosmetic surgeon. The cost was prohibitive, and there was no guarantee that I would keep fat off of that part of my body, or that the scars would not prevent me from going shirtless in public. So, I decided against it. Funny, before my then-HMO agreed to pay for some of the mastectomy, they had to verify that I did not develop breasts due to intersexuality (or Disorders of Sex Development [DSD]). They provided an ultrasound examination on my testicles, and a hormone test to assess levels of estrogen and testosterone via my urine. Thankfully (by their standards), I was not intersex – just fat. Looking back, it was an interesting moment: fatness or intersexuality were two possible causes of my non-normative male body.

Ironically, having breasts as a male-bodied individual is a benefit when I wear drag. I do not need to stuff a bra, nor don a breast plate, because I am naturally endowed in that area. Still, my body image issues as a fat person limit how far I go with my drag. Too fat to fit the ideal image of a man translates into way too fat for the woman I would like to portray in drag. So, I do not shave. I have embraced my genderfuck self – high heel boots, a revealing top, and a blonde bombshell wig.

Clothes, too, have a way of reminding me that my body does not fit (sometimes literally) into society’s ideal image of a man. The most common gripe I have when clothing shopping is the unflattering fit on my chest. Men’s shirts and dress clothes are not designed with breasts in mind. The clothing-related body image issues have been heightened lately because dress clothes demand a tighter fit. You will never, ever, ever find me in a dress shirt without a suit jacket or a vest (or both).  The breasts must be hidden, and a necktie will not cut it. In casual clothes, loose button down shirts are a staple in my wardrobe. If men were socially “allowed” to have breasts, maybe I would be showing them off with pride, rather than hiding them in shame.

Rockstar

Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Experiences

From age 5, I knew I was not like other boys. Girls and their worlds always seemed more fun, interesting, and evolved. The only close male friend whom I had only wanted to wrestle. I did occasionally, but it seemed boring to me. How were we to discuss current events (albeit through a child’s eyes) and get to know one another at a deep level if every time we played I ended up in a headlock? In elementary school, I hung with the less popular girls at recess. We discussed plans for a play with an anti-violence message, but the plans never came to fruition. Boys remained of little interest to me (not even romantically) because they seemed incapable of meaningful interpersonal relationships.

I should not have been surprised that my parents kept pushing sports, especially football. I attended basketball camp a few summers, just until I complained enough to get them to let me attend the regular day camp. Yes, I chose arts and crafts over yet another game of “shirts and skins.” In their final ultimatum, while I was in high school – football or JROTC – I chose the latter. Interestingly, I loved it. There was an academic component with emphasis on citizenship and character-building. And, I loved having the opportunity to take on leadership positions. I even served as president of the Kitty Hawk JROTC Honor Society. (No, I did not name it that. I would have been subtler than “kitty.”)

But, at a younger age, they bought me gender-neutral toys, and even a dollhouse. My action figures, including X-men and Power Rangers, would go on dangerous missions, but not without steamy romances and personal struggles. While there were elements of boy, girl, and gender-neutrality, they all blended together in ways that made sense to me – an emphasis on people and relationships. I suppose that is the ticket to raising a sociologist.

Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Values

My gender identity has evolved alongside my gender ideology. In college, exposed to new ideas about gender, sexuality, feminism, and queer politics, my understanding of my own gender and sexuality changed. I began to accept that “man” reflects too little of my own experiences, interests, and values. So, I adopted a genderqueer identity. And, I better understood my attraction to masculinity as an expression, rather than male bodies. So, identifying as gay no longer made sense because I do not see myself as a man who desires other men; “man” and “men” are deceptively simplistic. Queer as an identity better reflects my own gender identity and the gender expression of those whom I find attractive. Also, queer reflects my intersectional, radical politics about gender and sexuality in ways that “gay” does not.

However, I have wavered somewhat from my queer and genderqueer identities in recent years. I have become more aware of the infinite ways in which I am privileged as a (presumably) cisgender man. So long as I dress, act, and relate to others as a man, I am privileged as a man by society. So, it has felt disingenuous to identify as genderqueer in absence of a genderqueer expression.

Admittedly, I desperately cling to what little masculinity I wield for safety reasons. In everyday interactions, I would fear the violence, harassment, and discrimination that would come if I were more visibly queer. I fear that I would take a major hit to my status at work. Being a man feels like the only resource that I have available to overcome the oppressed statuses of being queer and Black. The other challenge is not knowing what expressing a genderqueer identity would entail. I am balding, so I cannot adopt a queer hairstyle short of wearing a wig. I have moved away from piercings and tattoos to keep my professional (i.e., middle-class) credibility. Frankly, many things that come to mind simply express femininity atop masculinity (e.g., earrings, nail polish, women’s clothing).

The Journey Continues

To be completely honest, I have wondered whether I am trans. The question has been raised in my mind, but then dismissed because I realize I have no interest in changing my body. My issue is with how I adorn and use it. Once, riding a train home from a night out with friends, my brain screamed, “shit I’m transgender!” I woke up the next day hung-over, laughing at the idea. But, I really cannot say with confidence that being trans is outside of the realm of possibility. I do not say this to make a mockery of trans people’s experiences, identities, and struggles. Nor do I mean to suggest that my dilemma is anything like that of a trans person. I just cannot say for certain who I will be in the future, especially in feeling disconnected from the rigid categories of man and woman.

Maybe the time has come when I should begin playing with gender with more bravery and intentionality. Rather than going along for the ride and trying to make sense of who I am, I should start defining and expressing my gender for myself.  I imagine that will be the only way to carve out a space for me to exist outside of the rigid gender binary.