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“Facts about the Black vagina — the hardest working vagina in America.”
A few days ago, I watched in awe as activist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw read her poem, “The Black Vagina,” at a production of The Vagina Monologues in Harlem, NY. Unfortunately, I did not actually observe from the audience in the infamous Apollo Theatre. Rather, it was featured on V-Day: Until The Violence Stops – a documentary about productions of The Vagina Monologues and other activism to end violence against women around the world (see the trailer here).
Eve Ensler’s play-turned-global-movement impressed me. But, observing Crenshaw – looking fierce in a beautiful red gown ready for some glamorous Hollywood awards show – speak truths to what so many Black women in America know, I went back to my usual place of self-doubt: what am I doing with my life? Here was the scholar who developed the theoretical framework of intersectionality and, today, a scholar-activist at the forefront of #SayHerName movement to end violence against Black women. And, without a hint of doubt, without a word of apology for her presence or explanation for why she wasn’t doing research instead of working in the community, there she was on that Apollo stage singing the praises of the Black vagina.
I spent the rest of the day deep in reflection. “I’m not doing enough as an activist. Why do I even call myself an activist, a scholar-activist, an intellectual activist?” Unfortunately, the question — am I enough — is a commonly occurring one for me. And, I realize not feeling [X] enough — skinny enough, pretty enough, smart enough, rich enough, popular enough, Black enough, gay enough, feminine enough — is not unique to me. But, there is something unique about my sense of being inadequate as an activist — and it’s not just that I simultaneously worry that I’m too much of an activist, that the work that won’t count toward tenure may actually cost me tenure.
The work to which I am referring is this — this blog, the column on Inside Higher Ed, the talks I’ve given, panels I’ve served on and organized, the long-term effort to call attention to and eliminate injustice in academia. Even as I write what sounds impressive, I feel as though I padded the previous sentence to silence the voice that once asked, “so, all you do is blog?” My critics, largely contained in an anonymous wiki for cowardly trolls, accuse me of being overly dramatic, preachy, self-righteous, and whiny; worse, they suggest that my sense of injustice in academia is really just the product of mental illness or even mental disabilities (putting it politely relative to the more offensive language they use). This is a form of gaslighting, and it has proven somewhat successful. But, the trolls aren’t alone in leading me to question my academic justice work. It doesn’t count for tenure (and, realistically, is potentially a liability); and, my graduate training served to “beat the activist out” of me because activism and academia supposedly don’t mix.
In other words, there are two powerful messages that come from my training, the expectations of me for tenure, and my critics. The most obvious is that this work is risky. And, the other is that there really isn’t a problem to address. Academics ask, what injustice? What discrimination? What sexual harassment? What motherhood penalty? What exploitation of grad students and contingent faculty? The latter message has successfully led me to doubt myself. What’s that expression — that if you repeat something enough others will believe it’s true, especially if you talk loudly enough. (It worked for a certain elected official with no political experience and ample experience as a bigot and rapist…)
This work, however, is too important to second-guess myself. So, I’m planting my flag into the ground to declare that I am here to unapologetically fight for justice in the academy. Below, I offer a few reasons why this work is important.
Why Working For Academic Justice Is Important
Because Academic Injustice Exists
Perhaps the most important reason to fight for justice in academia is, well, because there is pervasive injustice in academia. Yes, to my surprise as a first-year graduate student, academia is not immune to systems of oppression. Classism, ableism, fatphobia, xenophobia, racism, cissexism, sexism, heterosexism, and ageism — systems of oppression that are embedded in every social institution — have been at home in every college and university from their creation. These manifest as everyday microaggressions, subtle and overt discrimination, disparities and leaky pipelines, rampant sexual violence, interpersonal and institutional barriers to accessibility for all people, prioritizing profit over justice, prioritizing academic freedom over academic justice, curricula that erase or tokenize or exotify oppressed communities, and so forth. That oppression exists in academia should suffice as enough reason to fight it.
Because Academia Reproduces Social Inequality
Unfortunately, the academy does not merely reflect the aforementioned systems of oppression; it also reproduces them in the larger society. There is ample evidence that education, the supposed “greater equalizer,” actually exacerbates inequality. Think about who goes to college: who performed well enough to get in, who attended a high enough quality school to get in, who can afford to go, who has the cultural capital to know how to apply. Among those who attend college, there are disparities between those who to go community colleges and four-year colleges, between those who go to state schools and those who go to private schools, between those who graduate and those who never do. Even with a degree in hand, there are disparities by academic major, quality in the training received, and additional opportunities like studying abroad and internships. There are some statistics that leave one to wonder what higher education is doing for oppressed groups, if anything positive.
And, it isn’t just at the undergraduate level. It is also in graduate education, and among staff and faculty. Let me highlight a few examples for faculty. Take the gender and race wage gaps. There are several manifestations of oppression in academia that contribute to these disparities: discrimination against people of color and women (especially those with kids) in hiring, tenure, promotion, and raises; harassment, which undermines a scholars’ productivity and well-being; disproportionate levels of undervalued (and usually unpaid) service, especially “diversity work“; the devaluing of gender studies, women’s studies, racial and ethnic studies, and cultural studies; racial and gender bias in publishing; racial and gender bias in course evaluations; the exclusion of women and people of color from high-status professional networks; the overrepresentation of women and people of color in poorly-paid, overburdened, temporary contingent faculty positions. You know, just to name a few things that exacerbate the broader patterns of wage disadvantages for oppressed folks.
Because Inequality In Academia Compounds Social Inequality
Since scholars from marginalized backgrounds were already oppressed before pursuing an academic career, injustice in academia further compounds the oppression we experience, thereby making the problem worse. Black academics, for example, cannot separate the racism they experience after they leave work from the racism they experienced at work. It doesn’t matter the source, shit is shit, and it stinks all the same.
I study discrimination and health, so the compounding affect on a scholar’s health comes to mind first. Discrimination is a stressful experience. Even just agonizing over whether the negative outcome one has just experienced was the product of discrimination is stressful. In giving privileged others the benefit of the doubt (because, counter to accusations of “crying wolf” or “playing the [fill in the blank marginalized identity] card”, no one wants to acknowledge that they were discriminated against), we only continue to stress over the event in question. This kind of stress raises your blood pressure and heart rate, it impedes your immune system, and it hinders your ability to make healthy choices regarding food, alcohol, drugs, and sexual activity — basically, discrimination kills. The stress of “teaching while Black” compounds the stress of “driving while Black,” and the worry for the safety of one’s Black teen-aged children innocently hanging out with their friends, and the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream or booze one uses to forget the day’s troubles, and the racial bias in the health care one receives, and the worry about what is to come of this country now that a known racist is running it, and on and on.
Together, this means that our oppressed scholars cannot do their best work, and it hurts them in getting hired and tenured and promoted. It means we may be more likely to have to take medical leaves, or retire early, or find a new job, or leave academia all together, or even die earlier. Besides illness and death, the consequences of discrimination and inequality in academia compound other outcomes of social inequality (e.g., wage disparities, discrimination in real estate and mortgage lending, the burden of caregiving and financially supporting relatives also impacted by discrimination, etc.)
Because Academic Injustice Hurts Science And Higher Learning
Addressing injustice in academia is important because, on the whole, we are not doing our best work. Academic injustice is a threat to science and higher learning. Certain voices and perspectives are excluded from conference panels, works cited, journals, and course syllabi due to rampant bias. Entire fields like queer/LGBT/sexuality studies, gender studies, women’s studies, Black studies, Latinx studies, Indigenous studies, fat studies, and disability studies are underresourced, underfunded, and understaffed on college campuses because they make central oppressed communities. As noted above, discrimination and harassment undermine oppressed scholars’ ability to do their best work, to put their work to use, to be taken seriously by their colleagues.
I imagine we routinely experience a brain drain in academia owing to the 50 percent drop-out rate among grad students, and perhaps many oppressed scholars with PhDs who eventually leave academia for the sake of their well-being or because of shitty wages as an adjunct. Diversity in academia is not merely some liberal political project; it is how science advances. Actively excluding oppressed scholars, or failing to prevent such exclusion, is a political project — it’s called white supremacy, misogyny, queerphobia, class oppression, fatphobia, ableism, and ageism.
Because Academic Injustice Undermines Our Ability To Fight For Broader Social Justice
A related reason is that leaving injustice in our ranks unaddressed undermines our ability to address injustice beyond the ivory tower. First of all, we’re hypocrites to pursue research that is critical of the rest of society, including other social institutions like law, the government, medicine, military, the labor market, religion, the and family, while oppression manifests in academic institutions. Yet, somehow, we have the rest of society convinced we’re all a bunch of liberals promoting various social justice agendas; we successfully convince prospective grad students who want to make a difference in the world that academia is the right profession for them.
We are not doing our best work as teachers, mentors, artists, scientists, advocates, and analysts. We uphold tenure-track jobs at Research I universities as the ideal path for every PhD despite the adjunctification of higher education, riding that sinking ship on its way to the bottom of the ocean. We could work in and with the community and partner with organizations outside of the ivory tower to reestablish our importance to society as a whole. Acknowledging my optimism here, I wonder whether that would help to reverse the pattern of drying up government funding for higher education and, in turn, the trend of replacing tenure-track positions with temporary adjunct positions.
Because — Oh, Fuck! — Trump Was Elected President (Fuck!)
Finally, now more than ever before, there is an urgent need for the academy to stand up to bigotry, violence, xenophobia, bullying, surveillance, and other social problems that threaten to get worse under the incoming presidential regime. Academic isolationism is a foolish strategy — just look where it has gotten us thus far (read: declining state and federal funding, adjunctification, exploding student debt, irrelevance to the rest of society). We are perhaps complicit in political rise of a racist rapist with no political experience.
But, it is not too late. We can stop clinging to the myths of meritocracy and objectivity that only serve to distract us to the rampant inequality within our ranks. We can stop prioritizing academic freedom, which merely tolerates academics’ controversial work while also enabling bigoted scholars oppressive antics; instead, we can bravely prioritize academic justice — an intentional effort to use academic work to promote justice.
I hope that I have convinced some readers why we can no longer delude ourselves into thinking inequality in academia isn’t that bad, or perhaps that addressing it is no better than “navel-gazing.” Even if not, I find myself more firm in my commitment to fight academic injustice and to promote academic justice. We’re wasting our time here if we continue to allow oppression to manifest in our profession.
The racism that ran rampant through my graduate program was like a swift, hard punch to the gut for me as a naïve, first-year graduate student. I had not even attended my first official graduate course before a cohortmate had marked by body as “ghetto,” despite growing up in the suburbs. I was devastated to find a self-proclaimed scholar of immigration saw no issue with her research assistant’s instruction to fellow students to avoid “talking Black” while conducting interviews. I was annoyed, but no longer surprised, that the faculty failed to see the problems with the ethnic theme of the annual department party.
My college days reside in my memory as a generally wonderful time of self-discovery, activism, and a willingness to have difficult conversations. My alma matter, University of Maryland Baltimore County, is where the seeds of my intellectual activism began to blossom. Undergrad did not, however, prepare me for the reality of oppression in higher education. The funny thing is, when I contacted my two main undergrad advisors halfway through my first-year of grad school, neither professor was surprised that I had been smacked in the face by racism in academe; in fact, they kind of alluded that I was naive to expect otherwise.
Whatever the reason for being surprised by the racism that I experienced and observed in my graduate program, I say with some reticence that my time in grad school has provided me with some insights that may be useful to others.
For Black prospective graduate students, I recommend, as a starting point, to be aware that racism is the norm in academe. Even if you are generally shielded from microaggressions, racism is deeply entrenched in the operation of graduate departments, universities, disciplines, and professional organizations. It affects who and what gets funded, who and what gets published where, who gets hired and tenured, who gets admitted, who graduates, and so forth.
As you select a graduate department, I’m afraid it is simply a matter of how much racism you will experience, not whether you will experience it. Weigh your options carefully. The supportive bubble of a program at an HBCU may come at the expense of your job prospects, yet the prestige of a top-ranked historically white college or university may come at the cost of your mental health and happiness. Don’t assume the presence of a few token Black faculty members or race scholars will be enough to overcome an otherwise racist department. And, given the devaluing of interdisciplinarity in the academy, don’t assume the presence of other, critical programs (e.g., African American Studies) will compensate for lack of diversity or race consciousness in your own (more traditional) PhD program (e.g., sociology).
Do your homework on each program you are considering. Contact multiple current students to ask about their personal and professional experiences — with coursework, support from and availability of faculty, with the university, with funding opportunities, with publishing, with teaching, with the surrounding city, etc. If you are interested in studying race, ethnicity, or immigration, ask whether that kind of work is supported by the faculty, reflected in the course work, and funded. You might do well with a few concrete questions that you email, and offer to talk to them by phone if they are available. Contact faculty to ask similar questions. Take note not only of the number of Black faculty, but also whether any are tenured associate or full professors; if you actually visit the department, use your budding ethnographer skills to observe how central Black faculty and students are in the department’s functions.
As you prepare to begin your graduate program, I recommend setting up your support network ahead of time. Your grad program is not in the business of looking after your personal well-being, so do not rely on it to feel your personal, social, spiritual, and sexual/romantic needs. I highly, highly recommend that you have a community outside of your program; I’d even recommend avoiding dating a fellow student (and professors are off limits). Get involved with a graduate student group, set up a Meetup account and your choice of dating app (if you’re looking), find a church, and look for an off-campus gym, doctor, and therapist if your finances allow them. My point is, do not center your entire life around your graduate program. When school gets tough, it’s nice to have other places to go to unwind without fear of your actions or words getting back to your colleagues.
I wish I could say this concretely — but navigating racism in a supposedly anti-racist or at least race-neutral environment is a messy affair. Find a balance between “playing the game” to succeed in graduate school (by mainstream standards) and authenticity. I made the mistake of “souling out” to such a high level that my mental health suffered. But, I saw others in my program who embraced authenticity so strongly that some faculty did not want to work with them or did not take them seriously, who struggled to advance through departmental milestones, and/or struggled to do the things that made them a strong candidate for the academic job market.
It is an awful catch-22 that Black scholars must choose between advancing their careers or advancing their communities. I am not sure that a happy medium exists, but I believe you can be successful on your terms and be able to sleep at night while making as few concessions as possible. It’s never too early to read The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure — Without Losing Your Soul.
The faculty advisors whom you select can either help or hinder your success and well-being. Before you jump to making a list of names, I recommend that you identify your needs, as there are many. In the words of Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, avoid the pitfall of attempting to find a mentor guru who will serve all of your needs; not only does such a person not exist, but it is perhaps unhealthy to rely on a single person for everything. You will likely have a main mentor who serves as your primary guide through department milestones and helps you to get a job. But, I strongly encourage a second mentor who perhaps isn’t as accessible, but whose insight is just as important as your main mentor. You can have mentors who are more of a sounding board for professional and/or personal matters, but may have little say over your progress in the department.
Your own preferences and actual availability will determine whether these mentors are Black or some other race. A Black professor may be more supportive by virtue of their shared experiences with racism in the academy. But, there is evidence that white men professors may lead to better job prospects in academe, perhaps owing to their wider, higher status professional networks, cultural capital, and other resources that are unequally distributed in the academy. Keep in mind that being Black doesn’t necessarily make one a good, reliable, or trustworthy professor; unfortunately, you cannot assume a shared Black identity is an automatic sign of solidarity. And, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the white faculty as potential resources; maybe they won’t be sounding boards for the racist crap you’ve dealt with (and might even contribute to it), but they may have other means to help you excel in your career.
Whatever you do, remember that graduate school is a means to an end. This is not the rest of your life. There will be times you simply have to suck it up and do something that feels crappy, or feels irrelevant to your goals to survive and thrive as a Black intellectual. But, you’ve just got to do it to get that PhD and then do whatever you want. These professors are mere gatekeepers. They can grant you a PhD, but they can never validate your worth or value.
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.