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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!

Authentic And Unapologetic: On Being A Unicorn In Academia

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

DeniseI am the only black LGBTQ professor on my campus (as far as I know). I am black, yet multiracial and multiethnic (black, white and Jewish). I am a queer man, yet genderqueer and nonbinary. I am an activist, yet working with and in the system of higher education to make a difference in society. And, I am pretenure … with no additional caveats.

I have taken up the identity of a unicorn because my existence, both on the campus and in society in general, is nearly mythical. And I regularly live with the fear that it is easier for the institution to crush me, eliminate me or force me to assimilate than it is for me to actually change the institution to include me, respect me and value me. I have exhausted a great deal of energy navigating the tension between efforts to ensure my survival as a person and those to ensure my job security; what constitutes excellence in teaching and research tends to prioritize the very things that exclude me, erase me or silence me.

But now I am in therapy, working through the traumatizing experience of graduate school. I am properly medicated to minimize the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, from which I have suffered since my third year of grad school. I have found friends and colleagues who support me in pursuing my self-defined career as an intellectual activist. And, most importantly, I have ensured that those things that will most certainly grant me tenure — publications and good student evaluations — are taken care of before anything else, while also prioritizing self-care and personal fulfillment.

My own well-being and livelihood aside, the importance of being authentic and visible for others, especially my students, was the strongest impetus to take back control of my life and my career. Early on, despite hiding in fear behind suits and a guarded demeanor, I had students who sensed that a more radical, social justice-oriented and vulnerable person was lurking behind the mask — and that they sorely needed that unicorn to come out of from hiding.

As I have taken better care of myself, and, as such, found room to take more chances in being public, I have found even more students expressing their appreciation for my visibility. In two recent examples, I wrote opinion pieces for my university’s newspaper, The Collegian: one was a “love letter” to students of color who frequently feel miserable on our predominantly white campus, and the other was a coming out of sorts as a nonbinary-identified professor. I have attended more events related to social justice, often sharing my own experiences and viewpoint, rather than hiding behind the myth of objective scientific expertise. I am often rewarded with what feels like reciprocated love from many students of color, LGBTQ students and women students — especially those who belong to more than one of these groups.

My activism on the campus, thus far, has not felt incredibly radical. I have made myself visible as a fat black queer nonbinary feminist intellectual activist. With time, therapy, medication and support, I am now less afraid to be visible as a unicorn at this institution. I no longer hide behind a mask that unintentionally sent the message that success for marginalized people requires extensive compromise, hiding and/or “souling” out. The students’ reactions — ranging from a passing thank-you to heartfelt emails and Facebook friend requests (which are declined until they graduate) — demonstrate to me that there is something inherently radical about my visibility on campus. And that the campus is so lacking in diversity — particularly at the intersections among minority identities — that it seems the students are hungry to see something different, or even something like them in the case of marginalized students (fellow unicorns).

I have already griped about the additional labor I feel as a diversity token. Where the university is ill equipped to adequately support students of color, LGBTQ students and first-generation and working-class students, the slack is picked up by faculty and staff members (often of those very backgrounds). Or these students simply fall through the cracks. Sometimes both.

But I also appreciate the importance of my presence, my visibility, my authenticity and my advocacy. Without ever agreeing to serve on a committee related to diversity, I can be a face and a voice that contributes to the sense of diversity and inclusion on the campus. Without taking on honors thesis and internship students, and the more informal advising that is common in supporting marginalized students, I can be a source of support by addressing diversity and social justice in my classes. I sometimes have to turn away a marginalized student; this is incredibly heartbreaking, but I know that such additional emotional labor is not valued and might even take away from the tasks that actually “count” professionally — the very things that will help me keep this job for the long haul.

Lately, I have been thinking of the “visibility of one” that I offer to my campus as something akin to the personal hot spot feature of cellphones. This feature essentially allows your phone to provide internet access to multiple devices. It is great technology, though I have never actually used it myself. But it makes for an interesting analogy to the kind of energy I feel I send to others on campus.

From my own visibility as a unicorn, it seems that I am able to allow others to feel seen, to feel they are not alone, to feel their struggles and experiences are valid and recognized, and to feel loved and in community. I would like to think that my writing, my approach to teaching and, at a basic level, my presence at the university is helping to boost others like me. While students — especially those who are of color and/or LGBTQ — lack support from the institution, they can find some virtual support from me.

But like cellphone hot spots, this kind of visibility of one has a huge drawback: it is draining work. My battery life depletes much more quickly. So I must also be intentional about equipping students to find support from multiple places, to advocate for themselves, to prioritize their own self-care and perhaps to become their own personal hot spot of visibility to help others. I have gotten better about leaving work behind every weekday at 5 p.m. and giving myself a true break over the weekends. I have had to turn down service requests that do not yield long-term opportunities (especially potential leadership roles).

In the long term, I want to push the institution to further diversify its faculty, focusing on both recruitment and retention, and to put resources in place that prioritize marginalized students’ success and well-being. Since I am more emotionally healthy today, I can afford to be a visibility hot spot for fellow unicorns on the campus. But it cannot be an alternative to real institutional change. Ideally, the university will provide “visibility Wi-Fi” throughout the campus (e.g., diversity in every office and department, diversity-promoting policies) so that individuals no longer need to serve as visibility hot spots.

On The Importance Of Authenticity In Academia

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

Considering how much I have “souled” out to get ahead in my academic career, I fear that I am the last person who should be giving advice on authenticity in academe. Since graduate school, I have struggled to navigate the tension between, on one hand, my black, queer, intellectual activist identities and politics and, on the other, the supposedly objective and meritocratic norms and expectations of mainstream academe. Then again, given that, perhaps I should actually be one of the first to discuss authenticity in the academy. At any rate, I will continue to discuss authenticity in academe in my blog posts on this column, for it may help others like me to survive and thrive.

Like many marginalized students, staff and faculty, I have become disenchanted by diversity rhetoric in higher education. Most colleges and universities in the United States are anything but diverse, yet the institutions appear to be obsessed with the concept — at least in publicly stating a commitment to it. But what is diversity in the absence of real inclusion, social justice and the eradication of oppression? Diversity is a hollow concept when it is limited to numbers on paper or token black and brown faces on a brochure of an otherwise white campus.

Last semester, an uprising among college students, particularly students of color, spread across America. Students spoke up to call attention to the lack of diversity, to racial hostility and administrators’ inattention to structural and everyday racism on many college campuses. Many of those student demonstrators issued lists of demands to eradicate racism at their institutions and improve conditions for students of color. It should come as little surprise that one common demand, even among student-activists on my own campus, was for more racial and ethnic diversity among the faculty.

Unfortunately, recruiting more tenure-track and tenured faculty of color is a relatively quick and easy solution, but it holds little promise for real change in higher education. And I worry administrators will latch on to that while feeling stumped about student demonstrators’ other demands, for those reasons. Underlying all of the talk of diversity appears to be the assumption that the problems of racism and racial inequality in higher education is simply having too few faculty of color. There is a stubborn blindness to the way racism and whiteness, among other systems of oppression and forms of privilege, are embedded in institutional practices and policies, campus culture and climate, and even academic curricula.

Here is what I know about diversity via my experiences as a black, queer, pretenure professor. Being recruited into a space that is dominated, both in terms of numbers and power, by white heterosexual cisgender middle-class men sets the stage for an incredibly frustrating experience, if not one filled with hostility. Since graduate school, I have felt pressure to gain acceptance into the status quo in academe on the condition that I downplay the very things that I contribute to diversity: my identities, my politics, my activism. I have been professionally successful to the extent that I distance myself from my black and queer communities, avoid marginalized research topics like sexualities and trans studies, and forgo any sort of activism.

Since I began my tenure-track position at the University of Richmond, I have wavered between being comfortable and being afraid. I deeply internalized the professional norms of my graduate training — to be “objective,” detached and apolitical — but I also resisted those norms because they were literally making me sick. Each time I put on a suit and tie, I realize I am wearing a mask of “boy drag” to protect myself from accusations of not being professional, or a serious scholar, or being too radical; from students’ challenges to my authority; and from homophobic and transphobic discrimination and violence more generally.

But, I also realize that I have been sending a dangerous message to my students: conform. In order to get ahead in life, you must be like everyone else. You can be an original … until you graduate.

What good is racial and ethnic diversity if faculty of color are silenced? Or live in daily fear? Cannot pursue research on their own communities? Have trouble publishing and obtaining grants if they do critical race research? Forgo teaching on race and racism, or teach these subjects in a detached and “objective” way? Quietly accept the racist status quo in academe? What good does seeing a black or brown face at the front of the classroom do if that face is wearing a mask?

I have been working on being more authentic as a scholar. The benefits for me are obvious, particularly alleviating the stress of hiding, holding back and self-censoring. In just the past few months, I have also realized how being authentic as a black, queer, intellectual activist impacts my students. To my surprise, many of them actually care about who I am as a person outside of class, a few even regularly reading this blog. (But about a third have criticized me as “biased” on my course evaluations.)

When I allow myself to be present, the students (at least those who want to) actually see me. And for many marginalized students, they see themselves in me and other authentic professors. It is a heavy burden to bear, particularly when we may be subject to disrespect in the classroom, poor course evaluations, denial of tenure or promotion and perhaps even violence. But to the extent that we feel safe, we can serve our students in a big way by being not just another face but actually a presence.

On Finally Finding My Feminist Academic Community In Sociology

Note: this was originally published on Feminist Reflections blog.

About a month ago, I found myself embarrassed to sit as the sole faculty member at a table of new members of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) – that is, aside from Dr. Mary Bernstein, outgoing SWS president, who led the new member orientation. I was excited to attend my first SWS winter meeting (really, first of anything hosted by SWS), but also embarrassed that I was new already half way to tenure and still “new.” No disrespect meant to the graduate students in that room, but I felt as though I was sitting at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving dinner. And, when it came my turn to introduce myself, I felt as though I was at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: “Hi, my name is Eric Grollman, and this is my first SWS meeting.” “Hi Eric,” my fellow newbies didn’t actually say, but I could hear in my imaginative and anxious mind.

No Support To Attend SWS Meetings

I went through all six years of graduate school, and then two years in my current position, without ever attending an SWS function. Some years I was a dues-paying member, and some years not. I justified the distance from SWS by identifying as more of a health scholar, and secondly a sexualities scholar – that gender was only tangentially related to my research. It took an encouraging email from SWS Executive Officer, Dr. Joey Sprague, to finally get serious about becoming involved in SWS. Recently, my work as an intellectual activist – particularly on my blog, Conditionally Accepted – has focused on protecting fellow intellectual activists from public backlash and professional harm. As many of those who have been attacked are women of color, it was clear that my efforts were in line with SWS’s mission and many of its initiatives. You-should-get-involved became you-should-attend-the-winter-meeting, which became you-should-organize-a-session-on-this-topic. This was quite a break from what feels like eagerly awaiting opportunities for leadership in other academic organizations!

I’ve studied sexuality and gender, as well as their intersections with race, since I officially declared my major in sociology and minor in gender studies in college. And, I’ve been an activist of sorts since kindergarten, focusing heavily on LGBTQ and gender issues beginning in college. Why did it take me so long to get involved with SWS – a feminist sociologist organization?

Elizabeth Salisbury, Drs. Jodi Kelber-Kaye, Ilsa Lottes, Fred Pincus, Michelle Scott, Carole McCann, and Susan McCully, among others. These aren’t names that are known nationwide (not yet, at least), but they are forever a part of my life. These are professors who were fundamental in the raising of my feminist consciousness, and in feeding my budding activist spirit. They introduced me to Black feminist theory (among other theoretical perspectives), feminist and queer critiques of the media, womanist accounts of herstory, and social justice-oriented research methods. Clearly, I still feel nostalgia for those days of self-exploration, advocacy, and community-building.

Graduate school, unfortunately, was a hard right-turn from my undergraduate training. I chose to pursue a PhD in sociology, assuming it would be easier to get into the fields of gender studies, sexuality studies, or even student affairs with that degree than the other way around. I won’t waste my energy on regretting the decision, but I recognize that it was the first of many compromises I would make to advance my career. Dreams of a joint PhD with gender studies were dashed due to “advice” that I would not be employable. I was discouraged from my fallback plan of a graduate minor in gender studies or sexuality studies because, I was told, one can “read a book” to learn everything there is to know about gender. By the time I selected the topic for my qualifying exam, I knew to select the more mainstream area of social psychology rather than the more desirable areas of sexualities, gender, or race/class/gender/sexualities. Still, I was reminded again that my interests in gender, sexualities, and race were not “marketable” when I proposed a dissertation on trans health. I was mostly obedient as a student. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised by my friends’ surprise that I had been offered a tenure-track position in sociology with a focus on gender and health. I entered grad school open to interdisciplinary study on queer, feminist, and anti-racist issues, utilizing qualitative methods, and tying my research to my advocacy; I left a mainstream quantitative medical sociologist who viewed writing blog posts as a “radical” forms of advocacy.

Would it surprise you that I wasn’t encouraged to attend an SWS meeting in graduate school? Those who were actually involved in SWS did so on their own volition. We were otherwise expected and encouraged to attend the mainstream organization – the American Sociological Association – and perhaps the regional sociology conference as a starting point to “nationals.” It wasn’t encouraged, it wasn’t the norm; and, on the limited funds of a graduate student, I had to be pragmatic about which conferences I attended. ASA won out all through grad school and beyond.

Finally Finding My Feminist Sociology Community

Tressie Me Perry DawnSo, back to my first SWS winter meeting. It was amazing, of course. I felt like an academic celebrity, having many people – some whom I knew, many whom I did not – express their appreciation for my blog, Conditionally Accepted. Admittedly, with such visibility as an intellectual activist, there is a lingering twinge of the mentality I was forced to adopt in grad school: “what about my research?” I thought privately. Obviously, these colleagues care about my research, as well. But, I found that the meeting, unlike other conferences I’ve attended, was just as much about research as it was about feminism, activism, and building a community. At what other conference would I feel torn between attending a session on feminist public sociology (hosted by the fine folks at Feminist Reflections) and another on campus anti-racist activism? Certainly not the conferences I’ve been attending over the years.

In hindsight, I realize how easy the meeting was emotionally, socially, and professionally. I saw an occasional glance at my nametag, but never followed by averted eyes. I sensed genuine curiosity in meeting others, not the elitist-driven networking to which I’ve grown accustomed at academic conferences. There was even a banquet, featuring a silent auction, a dance party, and delicious food, on the final night of the meeting. Feminist sociologists know how to party after a busy day of talking research and advocacy!

Needless to say, SWS meetings will be one of the regulars on my yearly conference circuit. I am left wondering how different my career and life would be thus far had I attended SWS from the start. Would I have had an easier time finding support for my research and advocacy knowing that I would at least have a network of social justice-minded colleagues in SWS? Would I be in some sort of leadership position within SWS by now? I even saw half a dozen current grad students from my graduate program at the meeting. What do they know that I didn’t?

I can’t speak to paths I did not take, and why others do what they do (or don’t do). I made the decision to focus on becoming involved in mainstream sociology spaces to increase my visibility, widen my professional networks, and enhance my job prospects. SWS did not seem like a feasible opportunity for me because it was not seen as a central in my graduate program. I suffered to a great extent in attempting to navigate the powerful mainstream expectations of my graduate training and my own goals to make a difference in the world. I don’t know that I could have handled being marginal anymore than I already was as a Black queer intellectual activist who studies race, sexualities, and gender.

Find Your Own Feminist Academic Community

Adia Ray MeWhat I take from life’s lessons is that one can really benefit from looking just a little bit further to find what one needs. My program devalued research on my communities – Black and LGBTQ. But, had I attended just one SWS conference, I would have found that there exists an academic space where that work is valued without question. My program sought to “beat the activist” out of me; but, in SWS, I would have found regular, open discussions about feminism, activism, and social justice. I know now that if I cannot find support for my goals, my identities, my politics in my immediate context, I am certain I can find support elsewhere. And, if not, there are likely a few others who are willing to join together to build a community that would offer such support. “If you build it, they will come,” or something along those lines. So, no matter how alone we might feel in a specific program, department, university, field, organization, etc., we have to remember that the universe is vast – there is someone or some group out there in which we can find home.

I don’t want to end by beating myself up, though. I’ve done too much of that in trying to make sense of the traumatic experience of grad school. Rather, I want to end by encouraging those who are in supportive networks to reach out to fellow colleagues and students who you know will benefit from access to such networks. I want to encourage those with power, money, and other resources to share them with someone who may not be able to afford attending a conference that might be transformative for them – but their department won’t support or encourage. I encourage faculty to emphasize to their students how amazing SWS is, or at least having other options besides ASA. Departments and universities can also consider setting aside money and resources to help students attend SWS, the Association of Black Sociologists, Humanist Sociologists, Society for the Study of Social Problems, regional sociology meetings, and those outside of sociology (e.g., National Women’s Studies Association). We do not advance our field by reproducing mainstream and traditional work; we do it by taking risks and thinking outside of the box. We do not benefit from young, aspiring feminist sociologists trudging through their careers thinking that their feminist politics are at odds with success in sociology, nor having them drop out of their programs or leave sociology for more supportive fields. We benefit from supporting the creativity and bravery of the next generation of scholars.

So, I hope to see you at the next SWS meeting. I’ll be the one attendee with the big grin on my face – well, at least one of the many.

On Being A (Sorta Closeted) Non-Binary Professor

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

“On Being Trans And Non-Binary At UR: One (Sort Of Closeted) Professor’s Perspective”

Unfortunately, I cannot bring myself to write a love letter to transgender and non-binary identified students at UR, as I recently did for students of color.

DeniseDon’t get me wrong – I would much rather write that op-ed than this one. The difference here is not that I don’t care about the success, well-being, visibility, and future of trans and non-binary students – because I certainly do. Rather, I cannot speak with the same kind of experience and wisdom about being trans/non-binary as I can about race and racism. I can’t effectively love the beauty, creativity, brilliance, kindness, and bravery of you – my fellow trans and non-binary folk – because I’m still wrestling with loving myself.

I am in the closet as a non-binary identified person. A glass closet. With the door wide open. On paper and especially online, I am unapologetically genderqueer. I left my college years (2003-2007) beginning to tell others I identified as such, and first noted it in a blog post in 2009. I participated in two national surveys for transgender and gender non-conforming people in the US. I’ve even begun toying with the idea of exclusively using the pronouns they/them/theirs, for he/him/his reflect my identity and experiences as little as do she/her/hers.

But, in person, particularly at work here at Richmond, I hide behind suits. I note my pronouns at the beginning of the year (though it still has been “he or they”), but would never gently remind others to use “they,” especially given my masculine presentation. In fact, I was so fearful of upsetting potentially transphobic cisgender (i.e., non-transgender) students in asking them which pronouns they use as a standard introduction for my classes. I’m already so far “out there” as a Black queer tenure-track professor, who does research on and teaches about controversial subjects (e.g., intersectionality, feminisms, queer theory, discrimination), and who is public in being an intellectual activist. So, I fear my little unicorn self cannot handle the backlash of yet another marginalized status – in this case, being non-binary.

To be fair to Richmond, the fear I carry is compounded by the fear of discrimination, violence, and exclusion in society generally. I hesitate to more intentionally play with my gender expression because we still live in a time where Black and Latina trans women are murdered at alarming rates. I know from my own research that the more visible one is as a trans or gender non-conforming person, the more discrimination one faces – and, in turn, the more likely one is to develop the health consequences of discriminatory treatment. Ironically, trans people experience discrimination and cultural incompetence in health care, as well. We are victimized at high rates, but are disproportionately incarcerated – not to mention frequently ignored or even harassed by law enforcement. Somehow, I’ve gotten comfortable with being out “in theory,” but, I tend to hide my non-binaryness in everyday interactions.

Beyond the fear of transphobic discrimination and violence, and perhaps the biggest challenge of all, I simply don’t know who I am in terms of gender. I announced at the age of 5 to my mother that I should have been born a girl. At 30, I’m still wrestling with a sense of being born in the wrong body. So, I’ve seriously questioned whether I am transgender. The problem is, the issues I have with my body do not pertain to the sex I was assigned at birth (i.e., male). In fact, my body isn’t the problem; rather, it is with those stubborn gendered meanings that are associated with my sex. I typically feel as though I have little in common with other men; in masculine spaces, I feel like an outsider. But, I also don’t feel at home in spaces for women, either. Still yet, I feel like an outsider in the few spaces carved out for transgender people. Despite the growing visibility of trans people, I still see few people like myself in the world. (Miley Cyrus might be the only non-binary celebrity I can think of… for better or for worse.)

I’ve considered saying “fuck it,” and letting my spirit and heart, rather than society and my fears of being denied tenure, dictate how I present myself to the world. As a good sociologist, I know that man, woman, transgender, and cisgender are all socially constructed categories; but that kind of gender-agnosticism (or atheism, if you prefer) doesn’t help me to navigate the real consequences of presenting myself in the world in certain gendered ways. I’d love to occasionally present myself as what some call “genderfuck,” wherein you intentionally defy rigid gendered norms, almost as parody – something along the lines of Jacob Tobia’s look. But, that critical, perhaps internalized-transphobic voice in my head says don’t do it because it may be seen as a “distraction” from my classes and my research. I fear showing up in my sassy red wig, sleek red dress, and masculine combat boots might be considered making a mockery of the classroom – or, worse, distracting from the “real” experiences of trans students (and staff and faculty). I want to be seen as a serious academic, so I’ve decided that now isn’t a good time to “play dress up.”

Oops… I did it again. Once again, I am talking openly about being non-binary – hiding in plain sight, really. Why take the time to ponder about these matters – and so publicly? I’m doing so because I know that I am not alone. I am a close friend of two staff members who are trans/non-binary. (Sadly, I don’t know of any other out trans or non-binary faculty). I know of a handful of students who are trans or non-binary. And, there are likely others who are struggling to navigate the rigid gender binary, the sex-assigned-at-birth-as-gender-destiny force, and the assumptions others make and the values they hold about specific gender categories. I know that realizing that one is not alone – particularly when oppressed students see themselves reflected at the front of the classroom – can be incredibly affirming. So, I’m sharing myself, with all of my hang-ups and confusions, with you in hopes of being a little trans island on a cisgender-dominant campus.

It’s not easy for any of us – students, staff, faculty, or administrators – to be authentic and visible in categories that are not reflected in the majority or in the institution’s policies, practices, and mission. We are increasingly recognizing that trans and non-binary students exist at UR, but treat them as special cases, while we leave in place the sex-segregation of the coordinate college system. We defend that system because of the benefits for women students (e.g., resources and support for leadership among women), but offer no parallel program that would benefit trans and non-binary students. Only in LGBTQ spaces have I heard introductions request to know one’s pronouns; otherwise, we typically make assumptions based on one’s perceived sex assigned at birth. The university prides itself on racial and ethnic diversity, but LGBTQ inclusion rarely comes up in conversations about diversifying the faculty and student body. Gender-inclusive bathrooms remain few and far between (literally). I could go on… I’ve seen real progress on this campus toward LGBTQ inclusion, so I’m aware some of these very issues are discussed and real change is coming.

To clarify, I raise the above points not to label the university transphobic (though, by design, almost every social institution is), but rather to highlight the structural and cultural barriers to being out and authentic as a non-binary or transgender person on this campus. It is hard to love yourself when you don’t see yourself, when you aren’t encouraged to be your true self, and, at times, when you experience actual hostility because of who you are. I dream of a future in which I, and other trans and non-binary folk on this campus, am braver in being visible, being vocal, and being authentic. I see you, fellow unicorns; I hope you see me, too, even when I hide in plain sight.