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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 have been quite open about the traumatizing impact of my graduate training. Here I am, on research leave during my fourth year on the tenure-track, still griping about this soul-crushing chapter in my life. In working through the trauma, and attempting to answer questions that haunt me — Why me? Why is this still affecting me years later? — I have uncovered many layers to the trauma that was grad school. Most recently, I have identified one of the most impactful factors of graduate school that explains its lasting impact: the use of shame to train me.
From my own experience, I would define shame as an intense, prolonged feeling of anguish or angsts over who I am (or who I was or who I fear I may become). I will quote Brené Brown here to state more articulately, “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love belonging” (p. 69 of Daring Greatly). It is crucial to distinguish the shame that we feel over who we are from the guilt we feel because of what we have done. You can apologize and, hopefully, be forgiven for doing something wrong, but it feels as though you can never apologize enough or be forgiven for being something wrong.
Graduate training is just as much about teaching graduate students what to do (research and, if you’re lucky, teaching) and even how to think as it is about who to be. My graduate program required a three-semester sequence of “pro sem” (professional seminars) in which we learned about navigating graduate school and academe more generally. Though this is the only explicit training centered heavily or exclusively around professional (rather than intellectual, scholarly, or pedagogical) training, so much of graduate school is professional socialization. Professors are in the business of resocializing their students to become scholars, not simply to do scholarship. Unlike undergraduate education, grad students aren’t simply learning from their professors; they are learning to become (like) their professors.
The attempt to actually socialize grad students is where the problems begin, particularly for students who are radical and/or marginalized. With little training for advising graduate students, many graduate professors default to what their professors taught them; thus, they continue the legacy of creating clones of themselves rather than independent and autonomous scholars. For some, this is intentional, owing to their intellectual arrogance; for others, they don’t know of any other models and do not have the time or interest in finding or devising them. Interestingly, this sounds a lot like parenting; you either do what your parents did or you don’t because you hated the way your parents raised you. Indeed, my main advisor’s approach was to be invasive and overly hands-on in my training (sometimes spilling into unsolicited personal advice) to compensate for the neglectful training he received from his own grad school professors.
Like parents, I found that some grad school professors resorted to attempts to shame me for my decisions, my career goals, my priorities, my health status, my politics, and (at least implicitly) my identities. At the time, I simply assumed my professors just had a bad habit of making passive aggressive comments.
One professor, in an effort to make me feel bad (or shame me) for prioritizing activism, remarked — “what… too much service?” — when I revealed to her that I had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I did not bother to justify that service was one of the few outlets I had to keep going in grad school. Rather, I simply said that the pressure to publish (which I started feeling as early as my first semester) was beginning to take a toll.
Another professor snidely responded, “OK, ‘Mister Activism’,” when I proposed a collaborative conference session on the social psychology of sexuality between the sexualities and social psychology sections of the American Sociological Association. You would think I proposed a queer kiss-in at the conference to protest the discipline’s legacy of devaluing research on sexuality and LGBTQ communities.
A third interrupted my practice “elevator speech,” to ask — “we didn’t beat the activist out of you yet?” — after only one sentence of my introduction, that I came to academe by way of activism. Her humor did not indicate exaggeration or fiction; another professor’s public message to me confirmed her assessment of the goal of graduate school: deradicalization.
Short of concerns about limited time, I still do not understand these professors’ deep commitment to eliminating activism from my career as a scholar. I have them to thank for my record of “objective” publications. Activism has never posed a problem to my work as an academic; if anything, it has enhanced it, steering me into research that I actually care about and see myself in.
I suppose their concern is purely philosophical or epistemological (or, really, political). Unlike learning my subfields via classical theoretical pieces, debates in the field, and classical and contemporary empirical pieces, they did not offer evidence of the evils of activism. They took the approach of “trust me on this” or “don’t do activism because I said so.” They did not use the tools of scholarship to train the activism out of me, or to convince me to compartmentalize it. Rather, they resorted, from the start, to the use of shame. And, to a fair degree, they were successful in forcing me to learn to hate, be suspicious of, and feel bad about my activist spirit – the consequences of a fragmented, traumatized self. I am still struggling today to see myself as a legitimate scholar because I cannot help but be a scholar-activist. Shame on me!
I am not alone in being the subject of shame-based “training” in graduate school. For example, I know of others who were, like me, shamed for taking a tenure-track position at a liberal arts school, thereby “wasting” their advisors’ investment in their careers. Professors aren’t relying on scholarly theorizing or findings to convince their students that jobs at Research I universities are the superior career path; rather, Father (or Mother) Knows Best, and you should feel bad for not wanting that life.
I have directly observed or heard about fellow graduate students being shamed for prioritizing their health, family, or personal life in general over their training. I have noticed an awful trend in the academy broadly to shame women who desire to or actually have children. Despite the possibility of balancing school with family life, some professors (or colleagues and administrators) resort to questioning mothers’ commitment to their academic careers. Mothers are left to feel ashamed if, in the end, they are not able to succeed in the academy; of course, they are discouraged from interrogating the motherhood penalty, sexism, lack of family-friendly policies, and excessive demands to publish as barriers to their ability to succeed.
Graduate programs, I believe, are using the unspoken tool of shame to force graduate students to conform to the ideal academic career. It is an incredibly effective strategy, for grad students will adopt the tendency to self-police for years after they earn their PhDs. But, this shame reflects conformity into a certain way to be a scholar — essentially, the detached and unattached (read: “objective”) middle-class white heterosexual cis man without disabilities who can put his career above all else. Shame on you if you dare to be someone else.
I am embarrassed to state this… again.
My graduate training traumatized me. Yes, let me give the obligatory qualifier: I mean “little t” trauma, not “big T” trauma like sexual violence, natural disasters, or war. I continue to work through that special kind of trauma that is not even listed in the DSM — complex trauma. No one has accused me of being overly dramatic, or playing the victim, or being unfairly critical of my grad program — at least not to my face. But, I feel self-conscious about it — not enough to keep it between my therapist and me, obviously, but just enough to downplay something that has plagued my heart, spirit, mind, identity, and career for a few years now.
But, enough about that. I am tired of telling that story, even though I feel compelled to do so again as though I need to convince others how bad grad school was for me. I am tired of hearing myself tell that story. I am sure at least a few others who have heard me talk about it are tired of hearing it, too, though no one has ever said so. But, that’s trauma for you. I have gotten better about recognizing trauma’s impact on others’ lives; they tell the same story, less for informing others, and more for validating their own hurt (though it’s never enough to heal deep wounds).
Though I no longer have meaningful ties to my graduate program or any of my graduate school professors, their influence has lingered in my life. The little voice that tells me what I should be doing with my career was deeply implanted into my head. Even as I intentionally and actively pursue opportunities that defy the expectations of a normative career typical of professors at Research I universities, my efforts often involve negotiation with the should voice. I have found myself justifying why doing something other than should makes sense for me and/or my career. I sometimes compromise with should by doing what it demands to compensate for doing things it cautions against. (“Yes, I’m running this blog, but I’ve got two papers under review!”) On occasion, I have apologized for doing things that should says I shouldn’t be doing. Half-joking, yet half-serious, I have complained to my partner, “why couldn’t I just be a normative, elitist, apolitical and ‘objective’ status-obsessed researcher?”
I don’t know that I believe in destiny or fate, for I have never given it much thought. But, working through the trauma of grad school has helped me to see the inevitability of some events in my life. I gave grad school a good try. But, structurally and culturally, it was bound to traumatize me, even if I totally caved to the pressures to forgo research on my own communities and advocacy with those communities. I knew too little as an undergraduate student to be able to assess the extent to which a given graduate program would support me in developing a career as a scholar-activist. I can no longer blame myself for the choices and compromises that I made, the parts of my soul I sold for job prospects, or for the things I did or didn’t say. This Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual activist could never come out of a program like the one I attended with both a job and full sanity — I had to pick one or the other.
But, I graduated three years ago. I am now halfway to tenure at the University of Richmond, and many (all?) of the signs point to a smooth, favorable tenure decision. I have found in UR a place that supports my career as a scholar-activist. I no longer have contact with my grad school. I am long overdue for cutting grad school’s influence in my career and my life.
The primary reason for moving on — forgiving them and forgiving myself — is that I landed exactly where I said that I would. I intended to end up at a liberal arts college so that I could teach and do research, but leave myself ample time for advocacy and community service. Though with a regrettable detour (i.e., grad school’s push away from marginal research), I am doing research on my communities. Grad school was nothing more than the means to this desired end. That’s all getting the degree should be for anyone, no matter their background or career goals.
And, though I was naïve about what graduate training in mainstream sociology entailed, I was completely honest about who I was when I entered the program. In my personal statement, I noted my experience with activism as an undergrad, and that this work influenced my scholarship. And, I even stated a desire to make the academy more inclusive and hospitable for marginalized folks like myself. To quote the phenomenal Maya Angelou, “[w]hen someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” I showed the program who I was and who I wanted to become — it was their opportunity to embrace or waste to support me in developing that self-defined career.
I am done apologizing for who I am and the career that I have designed for myself. I will never be a traditional academic, no matter how hard I try. It was never in the cards for me. I am sure I am not alone in being seduced into the highly-valued Research I career path, but it just doesn’t suit me. That is fine for those who are genuinely interested in such a career — no shade to those people.
There is more than one way to be a successful academic. I have finally found mine.
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.
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.
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!