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For over a year now, I have been seeing a therapist to work through the trauma that was my graduate training. I have a knack for discussing personal troubles publicly, so I have been writing about the recovery process over the past year, as well. I figure, since the structure and culture of the academy is complicit in the trauma, why should I continue to suffer silently? Others like me (Black, queer, non-binary, fat, activist) and not like me have probably been traumatized, too.
Since going public about my story – grad school as “little T” trauma (not as bad as “big T” traumas like rape, child abuse, or war) – I have been privy to other marginalized academics’ trauma narratives. Most of these folks have not said a word, but their reactions to my story say a great deal. I have become more adept at recognizing trauma in other academics: retelling the same painful stories of oppression and injustice over and over; consciously or unconsciously seeking validation from others – “please believe how awful this was”; continuing to give power to those who traumatized them, at least as “air time” in their thoughts, nightmares, and stories. I recognize it because I was doing it and still do at times, albeit to a lesser extent with the help of therapy.
As others have actually named their own trauma and shared those stories with me, I have not only found confirmation that 1) I am not alone in being traumatized by my graduate school experiences and 2) the forces that lead to trauma for marginalized students and scholars is likely far worse than I imagined. Academe and its graduate education is not merely out of touch with the needs of the world beyond the ivory tower. It is not simply a matter of academics having their heads up their butts while job security remains a luxury for the few and exploitative labor conditions in academe have become the new normal for PhDs.
There is a longstanding, widespread phenomenon that I fear too few of us recognize, and even fewer of us are willing to name: intellectual violence. In the name of job prospects, tenurability, professional status, grant funding options, journal homes, citation rates, impact factors, and so forth, many (privileged) academics promote the erasure, stereotyping, disempowerment, objectification, exotification, and silencing of oppressed communities. The status quo of the larger racist, sexist, cissexist, heterosexist, classist, xenophobic, ableist, and fatphobic society is upheld by the academy; worse, academe maintains a reputation for social justice, diversity and inclusion, and critical investigation of the status quo.
I suspect many academics are aware of the ways in which science has been used to advance oppressive causes. We must credit early white men scientists, many of whom were obsessed with creating a taxonomy of humans especially on the basis of race and sexuality, for their influence in oppressive ideologies and policies. (But, let’s not be too optimistic in thinking scientific racism or scientific homophobia are historical artifacts. Think Jason Richwine and Mark Regnerus, among others.)
But, far fewer academics seem to be openly acknowledging the ways in which academic research and teaching (unintentionally) enact violence against oppressed communities through academic norms and values. Where money and resources go says a great deal about an institution’s priorities. So, we can infer from the relatively small number of gender and/or women’s studies, racial and/or ethnic studies, Black and African American studies, Latinx studies, LGBT and queer studies, Asian and Asian American studies, Native American/American Indian/Indigenous studies, and disability studies programs that these areas of academic study, curricula, and, arguably, communities of study, are unimportant in the academy. Where these programs exist, they are underfunded, underresourced, and understaffed.
Most insulting is making marginalized scholars complicit in this violence by making their own job security and professional success dependent upon it. Though naïve about the academy as I graduated college and headed to grad school, I was at least aware that a PhD in sociology would open far greater doors than one in gender or sexuality studies. But, I had no idea that trading off the joy I felt in my gender and sexuality studies courses in college for job prospects in academe was the first of a series of compromises and concessions. I regularly conformed, repeatedly passing up opportunities to pursue gender and sexuality studies for a more mainstream path. This explains why my most recent work falls in the realm of medical sociology, despite being recognized as a sexuality researcher on all counts but my actual training.
On some level, perhaps mostly unconscious, six years of training that implied to me that queer and trans people, women, people of color – and especially people at the intersections of these identities – are unimportant led me to agree with the devaluing of research and teaching on and advocacy with oppressed communities. It led me to agree that these communities themselves hold little value relative to cis hetero middle-class white America. No one held a gun to my head to force me to make the decisions that I made. However, I actually think the intellectual nature of this kind of violence was actually far more damaging than physical violence would ever be. The intentional resocialization of grad school changed how I view the world, how I think of myself as a scholar and an activist, and altered how I relate to my own communities.
Like many victims of oppression, I have also internalized the voice that leads me to doubt the severity of my own marginalization. As I write this, I want to concede that I am being a bit dramatic by using the word violence to describe my training, that I am insulting real victims of trauma (“big T” trauma). But, I keep coming back to the word violence when I think about what I have had to do to recover. On the health front, I have been spending a great deal of time and money on acupuncture, massages, fitness training, and therapy, plus taking a yoga class and Lexapro for the anxiety, to deal with the psychological, emotional, and physical symptoms of the trauma. I have given up a decent chuck of my research leave trying to get healthy – all the while feeling guilty for prioritizing self-care and resentful that privileged colleagues on leave can churn out books because there is little to no trauma from which to recover.
Professionally, I have had to unlearn much of my graduate training in order to heal, to move forward with my research trajectory, to sustain myself, and to feel that my work is aligned with my values as an activist. I have to relearn how to love my communities and myself, and to trust that my gut and spirit are leading me in the right direction, even if that means straying from mainstream academic norms. I will never be free if I let institutional and professional norms define me as a person, if I take my value and worth as a person and scholar from any institution.
Defining what it means to be a scholar on my own terms is scary because I lack role models, and I lack a path-well-taken that assures me that I am headed in the right direction. And, such self-definition is not without its risks. But, for the sake of my health, longevity, and well-being, I can no longer be complicit in the intellectual violence against my communities and me. I will never be free by appeasing institutions that are set on maintaining the status quo.
Objectivity — a scholar’s supposed ability to remain impartial about the subjects she studies — is a myth. Like the myths of meritocracy and color-blindness, objectivity sounds good in theory, but it is impossible to use it in practice. Simply put, researchers are not immune to bias. While in many instances such bias can be dangerous, bias is not bad, per se.
Objectivity Precludes Certain Areas Of Inquiry
I am a sociologist in training, perspective, and practice. (Un)fortunately, in the process of recovering from the trauma of my graduate training, my consciousness about my discipline has grown, as well. It recently hit me that it would be more accurate to say that my degree is in “white sociology” or “Eurocentric sociology,” not sociology. The training I received pushed objective research as the only true form of research. But, being detached was not enough; it was not enough to naively attempt to leave my anti-racist politics and Black racial identity at home when I left for school.
Rather, objectivity also implied that research on race — more specifically, research that made central the lives of Black people — was inferior to more mainstream areas. I was told that a true sociologist takes on a subfield — typically a social institution like education or medicine — and, in the process, she might just happen to focus on a particular (marginalized) population. But, no one should be a sociologist of race, and certainly not an anti-racist sociologist. Sadly, for me, “just happens to study [X population]” did not extend to LGBTQ people. In my case, to be objective meant to move away from studying the very community I went to grad school to study. It has taken a couple of years post-grad school to finally return to topics I wanted to pursue back in 2007.
As a powerful and seductive ideology, objectivity serves as a tool for (privileged) gatekeepers of the discipline to devalue research on oppression and oppressed communities. To be objective, one cannot be too eager to study trans people, or Latino fathers, or women with disabilities. To study these populations whom the academy finds suspect or, at worse, unimportant, is to compromise one’s credibility as a true researcher.
Objectivity Is A Privilege
Early in grad school, a fellow student criticized my interest in the intersections among racism, heterosexism, sexism, and classism as “narrow.” In the years since, others have implied or explicitly said that my research constitutes “me-search.” That is, my scholarship is suspect because I am a fat Black queer non-binary sociologist who does research on multiply disadvantaged individuals (e.g., queer people of color), trans people, queer people, people of color, and fat people. In my case, this suspicion is heightened because my anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-cissexist, and anti-heterosexist activism is visible and publicly accessible. Mind you, my research is quantitative, rarely includes “I” or other first person references, speaks to mainstream sociology audiences, is published in mainstream sociology journals, and probably appeases the demand of objective research. My sins, however, are being fat Black queer and non-binary, and caring about the communities that I study.
My white cisgender heterosexual “normal weight” men colleagues are not suspected of bias. They are seen as the gold standard of objectivity. Their interest in topics that seem most interesting to other white dudes is somehow devoid of the influence of their social location. Their uncritical or, on rare occasion, critical perspective on a topic is seen as expertise, not bias. Even when these privileged scholars study marginal topics and/or marginalized communities, their work is taken seriously and remains unquestioned. I have yet to see a privileged scholar accused of having “narrow” interests or doing “me-search.” That is because objectivity serves as a device to police, devalue, and exclude the research of marginalized scholars.
I believe that the privilege of objectivity also includes the freedom from any sense of obligation to do work that matters, to do work that will liberate one’s people. “One could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved,” DuBois remarked in his 1940 autobiography, Dusk of Dawn. Like DuBois, I wrestle so frequently with feeling that my publications that lie behind paywalls, only to be read by a handful of people in my subfield, are a complete waste of time while Black trans and cis people are being murdered by the dozens. Our privileged colleagues are not faced with the urgency of death, oppression, violence, invisibility, illness, and poverty of their people, so I can only imagine how much easier it is for them to (pretend to?) be objective, detached, and removed – experts on problems of the world, not of or in them.
Objectivity Perpetuates The Erasure Of Marginalized Scholars
Though my grad school coursework included 3 semesters of professional seminars, I have subsequently found it is neither enough professional development nor relevant to the primary concerns of many marginalized scholars. Instead of talking about how to select a qualifying exam area, I would have benefited from a reflexive discussion about the myth of objectivity in our discipline. Perhaps a less critical, and thus more palpable, topic would be “debates in the profession.” Indeed, whether objectivity exists and — to the extent that it exists — whether it is a good thing has been debated from the very start of the discipline of sociology. So, too, is whether sociologists should concern themselves exclusively with empiricism or also with making a difference in the world, or at least one’s communities.
To further raise my consciousness about my profession, I have started reading pieces by respected sociologists that have long been raising the concerns I have been struggling with privately. For example, Dr. Joe Feagin devoted his American Sociological Association presidential address (2001) to “Social Justice and Sociology.” Feagin raised a point that floored me. The rise of objective research by white men sociologists coincided with the erasure of the work and contributions of sociologists like Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. DuBois, Jane Addams — women and people of color in the discipline. Due to racist and sexist discrimination, these scholars’ work was already devalued; but, the shift toward “value-free” sociology further undermined their contributions in the discipline. Recovering their work, which in objective terms is simply a matter of good science, is an inherently anti-racist and feminist act.
Each instance of embracing objectivity, then, reinforces the erasure of women scholars and scholars of color. Each time I have taught the obligatory theory section in my introductory sociology courses, focusing on “the big three” — Weber, Marx, and Durkheim — I have been complicit in the erasure of W.E.B. DuBois, Harriet Martineau, and Patricia Hill Collins, and others who are not dead white men. The professor of my grad school theory course is complicit, too, by excluding any discussion of critical race theory, Black feminist theory, or queer theory; we focused, instead, on “classical” sociological theory. Each time I unquestioningly cited the (W. I.) Thomas theorem — what people perceive to be real is real in its consequences — I was complicit in the erasure of Dorothy Swaine Thomas, who was a co-author on the text from which this theorem comes.
To question whose perspective and scholarship is respected as central to the discipline would be suspected as activism; and, it requires additional work to learn and advance the perspectives and scholarship of marginalized scholars that one was denied in one’s own training. But, to consume and teach classical and mainstream sociological material without question is to reinforce the racist and sexist status quo.
I conclude by asking that scholars be brave enough to reject the myth of objectivity, and be willing to own subjective and scholar-activist work. But, a revolution of sorts in academe is necessary for this to happen. We must stop celebrating and so fiercely defending “objectivity” in graduate training, in publications, in grants, and in tenure and promotion. We do society and ourselves a disservice by standing on the political sidelines, complicit in our own irrelevance.
The best piece of advice I received as a grad student was to think of my graduate school professors and advisors as nothing more than gatekeepers. These were people who had been given power by my department, university, and the profession to train me and award me with a PhD. On the surface, it is well known that I, as the student, had to demonstrate sufficient competency in order to advance: master’s thesis, graduate minor, qualifying exam, proposal defense, and then dissertation defense. And, I did so, hence the three letters behind my name since July 2013. They made the boxes that I successfully checked in a six-year period.
Such a utilitarian approach doesn’t sound so bad. Graduate school was simply a means to an end. All I needed to do was appease my grad school advisors’ conditions for advancing toward the PhD — nothing more, nothing less.
But, graduate training tends to be much more complex than that. The dropout rate would not be 50 percent, mental illness would not run so rampant, and there would probably be a lot fewer folks stuck in lifelong ABD purgatory. But, the utilitarian model, while helpful, has the unintended consequence of serving to blame those very students who do not advance in their training.
Admittedly, I can only speak from my own perspective as a Black queer non-binary scholar-activist. So, I need to narrow my concerns to the experiences of marginalized graduate students, perhaps especially my fellow unicorns at the lovely, yet sometimes dreadful, intersections of more than one oppressed status. The utilitarian model — “just play the game” — is naively simplistic when one’s training exists in the context of cissexist, classist, sexist, heterosexist, racist, ableist, and xenophobic oppression. We do not start at the same (privileged) starting point, we are not given the same quality training and resources to excel, our take on the game is seen as inferior, and we are less likely to enjoy the spoils of successfully winning the game.
Ironically, I actually intended to write this essay to promote the aforementioned utilitarian approach. But, as I reflect on how I played the game — but still feel as though I did not win in some important ways — I have grown wary of that advice.
First, I should highlight that the actual game of succeeding in graduate school demanded so much more than checking the boxes that my grad school advisors demanded. There seemed to be an infinite number of implied and sometimes explicitly stated expectations that were either 1) required to actually earn the PhD, 2) highly recommended in order to get a (tenure-track) job (at a Research I university), or 3) deemed central to what it means to be a (mainstream) sociologist. I cannot say that it was ever entirely clear which end a particular means achieved. Was the explicit effort to steer me away from gender and sexuality studies — the areas I expressed interest in in my grad school application — actually a matter of getting the PhD? Probably not. Was the explicit effort to “beat the activist” out of me a formal part of PhD training? Doubtful.
This lack of clarity about the motivations behind particular aspects of my graduate training proved to be more troublesome than a problem of uncertainty. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, it allowed for my graduate advisors to use their superordinate status to push me into a certain direction professionally. I hope most professors could not be described as manipulative, but I have heard stories that echo my own experiences. I had to concern myself with my status in the department, as greater visibility and status as a student meant more opportunities to advance my training. The students on the periphery of the program were tale-tell signs of what could happen if I ignored too many of the informal and implied expectations.
A second, related concern is the strong seductive power of being in the “in” crowd. I was drawn to the game-playing approach, especially as it became a matter of survival. I did what I had to do to get the degree, but also pursued other things (usually secretly) that fed my spirit. But, I saw that others, usually privileged students, were invited into relationships with professors in ways that were not impersonal exchanges. Some were invited to babysit, catsit, and housesit for professors — I never was. Some remain lifelong friends and/or collaborators with their former advisors; some honor their former advisors by making them their children’s godparents. Across the board, many at least stay in touch with their advisors, occasionally leaning on them for professional advice (and sometimes personal support), drawing on their networks, and writing recommendation letters.
I (mostly) played the game, and what did I get? Strained professional and personal ties with my grad school advisors, generalized anxiety disorder, and an unhealthy dose of complex trauma to work through still years later from the awful experience of grad school. No, I do not actually want those kinds of relationships with my advisors; it seems unethical to ask students (who would fear saying no) to watch your children, pets, or house. But, that kind of intimacy was partially denied to me and resisted as a matter of my own survival.
I would be lying if I said I did not want some kind of personal relationship with my grad school advisors. These were people I saw on a weekly, if not daily basis, who were invested in my training and success, who observed the highs and lows of the roller coaster known as grad school. I never wanted to treat grad school as a game, for I never knew education to be a cold business transaction.
Perhaps that is where my naiveté shows. My professors — trained sociologists — were not my friends, or therapists, or confidants, and — as I learned the hard way — they were not to be collaborators or colleagues of equal status. A power-imbalanced relationship, in which my advancement and career depended upon them, is inherently fraught. My vulnerable position in these student-professor relationships was heightened by the inequality in our social locations — them white, cisgender, middle-class, (mostly) heterosexual, and me Black, genderqueer, a broke grad student, and queer. I was perhaps too open about suffering from generalized anxiety disorder and about being an activist (which they saw as a professional liability).
The funny thing is, as I became more jaded, distant, guarded, and utilitarian as a means of survival, one advisor criticized me for holding back and for not seeming to trust them. Despite having my anxiety dismissed and their efforts to beat the activist out of me, I was expected to still bare my soul to them — the very soul they intended to crush, or at least co-opt.
I suspect that the privileged way of relating to others in the academy is to be unquestioningly open and trusting of one’s peers and superordinates; indeed, grad school was not the last time I was accused of not trusting a (white) colleague. But, for marginalized folks, that kind of openness and trust can open us up for others’ critique, judgment, dismissal, or other violence. Yet, you get dismissed as uppity, guarded, mean, cold, or standoffish if you don’t open up for privileged colleagues’ entertainment/inspection/surveillance. A double-standard for marginalized scholars and students about ways of interacting with (privileged) others in the academy, which, in the end, actually has nothing to do with the quality of our research or teaching.
Frankly, I never found one good strategy to excel in grad school. Just being good at what I do wasn’t enough because what I really wanted to do — study the intersection of race and sexuality — was dismissed. And, being “likeable” wasn’t enough or, to be really real, even possible for the long-term. I fumbled my way through grad school, achieving what I now see as inevitable: I would earn that damn PhD and never look back. I just wish I was in a position to advise future PhDs how to do so without the scars I endured in the process.
“I always feel like somebody’s watching me //
and I have no privacy.”
~Rockwell, “Somebody’s Watching Me“
Thanks to the growth and increased visibility of this blog, we simply have too many posts in line to be published to devote any time to fleeting current events. That’s why you haven’t seen any posts about reactions to the election of a known sexual predator, misogynist, racist, xenophobic bigot. And, for the same reason, I held off writing about that damn Professor Watchlist. But, then I read George Yancy’s New York Times op-ed, “I Am A Dangerous Professor,” and another NYT article on how this list threatens academic freedom. As many scholars – particularly scholars of marginalized backgrounds – know, this list is nothing new; or, maybe it’s just a new, more organized way of continuing to watch us.
That’s right – we were already being watched, damn it.
In case you’ve missed news of this new surveillance effort, let me provide a brief overview. The new Turning Point USA project aims to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” The organization claims to “fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish.” But, they continue, “students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” These individuals are invited to submit a tip (as though reporting a crime), but the site appears to be revised to focus just on “incidents” of anti-conservative bias and radicalism that make it to news headlines.
I have so many thoughts. Where to begin? Perhaps something more articulate than, “the fuck?”
First, let me continue my point that this isn’t new. Organizations like Turning Point USA and sites like Professor Watchlist are becoming a dime a dozen these days. Two conservative student news sites, SoCawlege.com and CampusReform.com, have been attempting to expose the supposed liberal bias across US college campuses for some time. The latter is a project of the Leadership Institute – another organization that sets out to train the next crop of conservative activists; it has ties with the Heritage Foundation – a hate group disguised as a conservative think tank. I’m sure if I had more time, I would find other troubling links, and probably other well-funded and well-organized conservative organizations set on infiltrating politics and higher education.
On the surface, what seems like concerned students and concern for students is actually a front for a calculated effort to silence, threaten, terrorize, and eliminate seemingly liberal academics. I’ve written about this formula before. Take one conservative white man student reporter who aims to expose “liberal bias and abuses at Texas colleges.” Have him write an article criticizing a Black woman pre-tenure professor at a different university, located in a different state. Then, he can take to Twitter to try to make her “a thing,” stirring up conservative (read: racist and sexist) rage with an appropriate Twitter hashtag thread. If successful, he will have initiated a conservative media assault on the professor, her reputation, her scholarship, her politics, her identities, and her menstrual cycle. And, he will have kick-started an internal process at her university that could ultimately lead to her termination – yes, simply by tweeting the president of her university.
Zandria F. Robinson. Saida Grundy. Steven Salaita. Shannon Gibney. Larycia Hawkins. Anthea Butler. Brittney Cooper. Perhaps others whose names I don’t know because the conservative assault launched against them did not reach national news. But, that’s why we have the watchlist now, right?
A second point that I want to make is that this attack on presumably liberal and radical professors is particularly targeted at those who speak and teach about and do research on Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism, and perhaps other systems of oppression. By extension, that means that scholars of color, women scholars, Muslim scholars, and immigrant scholars are particularly vulnerable to this surveillance. Of course, there is the issue of numbers; marginalized scholars are overrepresented in fields that study oppression and marginalization. But, conservative scrutiny appears to be heightened when you have, for example, a Black woman scholar speaking openly about racism and sexism relative to what her white man colleague would experience.
The external “watching” by conservative activists, working through conservative students, is actually secondary to surveillance that occurs within the academy. Every instructor does their work in public, so to speak, under the gaze of their students, their colleagues, and their administrators. We (including our presumed political leanings) are regularly evaluated by students through course evaluations. Students also take to sites like RateMyProfessor.com, which already offered a form of “watch list” for instructors of color, women instructors, Muslim instructors, LGBTQ instructors, and others assumed to be promoting a radical agenda. Our departmental colleagues and university administration evaluate our teaching, scholarship, grant activity, and service, in turn making decisions about pay-raises, tenure, and promotion. These supposedly meritocratic forms of evaluation severely disadvantage marginalized scholars, especially those who do critical or radical work on oppression. Implicitly, they serve as a way of watching us to ensure that we are conforming to standards that arguably reinforce the status quo in academe and beyond.
The site’s implied goal – I assume to be to create McCarthy-era fear among academics – will likely be achieved for many in the profession. But, a substantial number of us were already living in fear. We have had little reason to assume these racist, sexist, heterosexist, Islamophobic, cissexist, and xenophobic sentiments disguised as anti-intellectualism disguised as anti-liberalism do not exist inside of the Ivory Tower, too. So, they have created another website. Am I in any less danger than I was a month ago? It’s not a new problem, just a new manifestation of the ongoing problem.
Finally, in case it isn’t obvious, what these conservative activists are framing as bias against conservative students is the cry of the dominant group as its privilege is threatened. For example, I can count on a reliable one-third of my introductory sociology students to accuse me of being biased or at least spending too much time on sex and gender, sexuality, and race. These classes of students who are overwhelmingly wealthy, white, cisgender, and heterosexual are not used to critical discussions of racism, heterosexism, cissexism, classism, and sexism. The students complain of feeling uncomfortable. They feel a pinch of discomfort – a mere 75 minutes of not hearing about themselves for a change – and complain of a calculated assault against them and their interests. Conservative activists have successfully advanced a zero-sum game framework for conceiving of diversity and inclusion in higher education; any minor advancement for oppressed students is described as a full-out assault on privileged students. The dismantling of oppressive ideologies in the classroom is deemed discrimination against individual conservative students.
Similarly, there is a not-so-subtle anti-science rhetoric underneath the accusations of the advancement of a radical agenda. Teaching, for example, on race as a social (rather than biological) fact and racism as a fundamental organizing principle of society is characterized as an anti-white agenda. The decades, if not centuries, of critical race scholarship upon which these ideas are founded are dismissed as nothing more than an ideological, or perhaps political, agenda. With this, the battle has moved into an arena wherein laypeople are deciding what constitutes knowledge and what doesn’t. This would explain why every one of my lectures on race feels like a defense, often spilling into a plea for my own life. (Black Lives Matter, please believe me my precious 18-year-old white students!)
I have made this point before, but I’ll conclude with it here again: academic institutions are complicit in this surveillance and assaults on individual (marginalized) professors. We have armed students with evaluation instruments in order to participate in our surveillance. But, that’s not enough, so they’ve created websites and rely on word-of-mouth to discredit certain professors deemed too radical. We buckle to alumni and donors’ threats to withhold money if a certain undesirable (read: radical scholar of color) is not terminated immediately. We treat academic freedom policies as a pesky obligation to tolerate what our colleagues do and say, yet still don’t go far enough to protect them from public backlash. We delude ourselves into believing meritocracy is law despite consistent evidence of disparities in tenure, promotion, pay, grants, publications, student evaluations, and admissions. We worship objectivity as the ultimate scientific paradigm, which simply treats privileged scholars’ work as truth and marginalized scholars’ work as “me-search,” opinion, or political agenda.
Yes, I am arguing that we have allowed conservatives to feel empowered enough to up their surveillance efforts. Every time a university took seriously a challenge to one of its faculty members’ work, we gave more and more power to outsiders to dictate what we can do as scholars. And now that the country has elected a racist rapist who leads like a petty toddler with no self-control, I imagine we will only continue to lose the battle against outside surveillance.
Fuck you, and fuck your stupid watch list.
I am keenly aware of the ways in which I am “conditionally accepted” in academia as a fat Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual-activist. Conformity — intellectually, politically, and physically — is rewarded; non-conformity is punished. As an eager, yet naïve college senior, I was already aware of some of the more obvious hierarchies in the academy. I knew well enough to apply to PhD programs in sociology because that degree would allow me to later join the ranks of gender studies scholars, but the reverse was not possible. What seemed a mere matter of practicality proved to be the first of a series of decisions to “soul out” in academe. But, at what cost?
In their preface of their foundational book, All the Women are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, Akasha (Gloria T.) Hull and Barbara Smith wrote the following:
Our credibility as autonomous beings and thinkers in the white-male-run intellectual establishment is constantly in question and rises and falls in direct proportion to the degree to which we continue to act and think like our Black female selves, rejecting the modes of bankrupt white-male Western thought. Intellectual ‘passing’ is a dangerously limiting solution for Black women, a non-solution that makes us invisible women. It will also not give us the emotional and psychological clarity we need to do the feminist research in Black women’s studies that will transform our own and our sisters’ lives [emphasis added] (p. xxiv).
They go on to call for creating spaces and networks for Black women in the academy, and to reject “objective” scholarship as “an example of the reification of white-male thought” (p. xxv).
“Intellectual ‘passing’?” When I read this passage, I felt Hull and Smith had called me out directly. Though they wrote this preface in 1979 for the book, which was published in 1982, they named a trap that I (and other marginalized scholars) still fall into in 2016. I know that I am “conditionally accepted” at best, so to minimize the disadvantages I face, I have often made decisions to downplay what makes me differ from my politically-moderate, “objective,” middle-class, white, heterosexual, cisgender, men colleagues.
The most obvious is my decision to wear ill-fitting men’s suits to work, though I have publicly griped about it and am out as a fat queer non-binary person. I reasoned that I could at least get into the door if I looked the part (of a professor), and then would challenge the hell out of my colleagues and students. Less obvious is the way in which I frame my scholarship to be more palpable to the mainstream of my discipline, relying on quantitative methods and fairly uncritical theoretical perspectives.
Damn, if Hull and Smith aren’t right! The decision to act and look like the dominant group, with the conscious and sometimes unconscious attempt to avoid discrimination and violence, is the very definition of passing. The qualifier of “intellectual” is necessary here to highlight that I am not attempting to be perceived as a white heterosexual cis man; rather, I have been attempting to pass as one intellectually. My actions and appearance have served to make it difficult for colleagues and students to discern how I differ from the dominant group as a scholar and teacher. That is, as a matter of earning tenure and keeping my job, and thus my survival and livelihood more generally, but also — at least I told myself — “so they never see you coming,” as my mother would say.
I am confident that this strategy works for some marginalized scholars. Respectability politics would have fallen out of favor if they did not at least offer the promise of acceptance by dominant or mainstream society. But, I have countered my efforts to pass intellectually by speaking so openly about intending to do so, and being out and open as unapologetically different from the mainstream. You cannot start a blog that is critical of mainstream academe and expect to convince others that you are “Good As You” or even just like you. The joke has been on me since all in the Land of Oz can easily see the drag queen behind the curtain.
I am inclined to I agree with Hull and Smith that “intellectual ‘passing’ is a dangerously limiting solution” for any marginalized scholar. For me, traumatized by my graduate training, I found that there was no limit to the pressure to conform. Where and on what to publish became where to work, which entailed “advice” about how seriously to prioritize my relationship and to remind search committees that I am Black (yet downplay how I differ from whites). I conceded in forgoing the joint PhD in gender studies, then the graduate minor in gender or sexuality studies, then the qualifying exam on gender, sexuality, or race/class/gender, then the dissertation on transgender health. Now in my fourth year on the tenure-track, I am finally returning to sexualities research that I was steered away from in my first two years of graduate school. But, I still frequently have days where I no longer recognize the scholar and activist I have become.
In my classes, I have increasingly felt that I am failing my marginalized students — especially the queer people of color and women of color — in standing before the classroom behind the mask of conformity. I have been sending them the message that I am only allowed to teach at this wealthy HWCU (historically white college or university) because I look, act, and think very much like their other, privileged professors. I am able to keep this job to the extent that I continue to conform, year after year. What good is my presence if I contribute only to cosmetic diversity, while leaving intact moderate-to-conservative ideology and curricula that uphold the status quo?
Collectively, we marginalized scholars who pass intellectually do nothing to disrupt the academic structures and cultures that marginalize us. We continue to get jobs on their terms, earn tenure on their terms, get promoted on their terms, publish in their journals, apply for their grants, and so forth. We are complicit in our own marginalization, signaling to our privileged colleagues that their way is, indeed, the superior way to be a scholar — in fact, it is the only way to be a scholar. We are complicit in the practices in higher education that reinforce the status quo.
I cannot afford to pass any longer. I tried, and still ended up traumatized, medicated, and dissatisfied with my scholarship. I passed so long I no longer recognize who I am. I know the risks are real — you do not have to remind me that people have to eat! But, we cannot afford to have another generation of conforming marginalized scholars, so that future embattled intellectual-activists read things we write today in 40 years wondering why nothing has changed.