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I was awarded a Ford Predoctoral Fellowship at the beginning of my fourth year in graduate school. This three-year fellowship freed me from teaching, allowed me to focus on publishing my research, and ultimately became my ticket to graduating early. Ford, in many ways, is the supportive community of scholars of color that is typically lacking in my department, university, and discipline. The annual conference, either in Washington, DC or Irvine, CA in alternating years, is always a rejuvenating treat for me.
At this year’s Conference of Ford Fellows (see the storified version of the conference, #Ford2015), I had the honor of participating on the closing panel alongside Dr. Brittney Cooper and Dr. Fox Harrell: “Thinking Forward: Empowerment Through Intellectual Activism and Social Justice.” My talk, which I share below, details my journey to becoming an intellectual activist — including the intentional, coordinated efforts of my graduate training to “beat the activist out” of me. I conclude by “thinking forward” about this line of work in light of the attacks on public scholars in recent months. (Can you imagine it? I stood on the stage of the National Academies of Sciences in DC, speaking to an audience of brilliant scholars of color about intellectual activism!)
“Conditionally Accepted” In Academia
Activism In Childhood And College
My journey to becoming an intellectual activist, and the raising of my consciousness as a scholar-activist, reflect a great deal of my personal biography. I came to academia by way of activism – an “activist gone academic,” I often say. Growing up, I wanted to be the Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, or Thurgood Marshall of my generation. In fact, I had my first taste of Civil Rights activism at the age of 8. My mother and I marched in the 30th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. My grandmother, who had passed just 3 years earlier, marched in 1963 along side MLK. My mother and I were interviewed by a local CBS news reporter about the legacy of Civil Rights activism in our family; you can see that interview online [4:48].
I continued with activism in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). There, I devoted most of my advocacy to demanding that the college create more campus resources and services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students. I co-led a team of students, staff, faculty, and administrators who pressured the university to create a campus resource center for LGBTQ students – what we would call the “Rainbow Center”. Our efforts eventually caught the attention of the university president, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, who tasked his Vice President of Student Affairs to work with our team. This led to the creation of a needs assessment team – which, I learned, is higher education-speak for creating a committee to talk about a problem, but probably not do anything about it. Below are some of the headlines of the UMBC student newspaper, the Retriever Weekly, which highlight the buzz – and sadly, the backlash – created by our efforts:
As a student activist, I was deterred by the slow, bureaucratic response, especially after receiving support from so many people on campus – including a petition to start the Rainbow Center that was signed by over 400 people. So, I turned my attention to applying for graduate schools, including taking on an honors thesis to make me a stronger candidate in the eyes of admissions committees. My honors thesis advisors, Dr. Ilsa Lottes and Dr. Fred Pincus, encouraged me to use my research to advance my LGBTQ activism. I decided to study attitudes toward lesbians and gay men on campus, offering further evidence of the need for the campus resource center. Ideally, this would contribute to the needs assessment that was being carried out. And, I would later be able to publish from the survey data, including a co-authored peer-reviewed article, to advance LGBTQ research. This was my first exposure to intellectual activism, though I didn’t yet know the name for what I was doing. At the time, it seemed quite natural to me that research would speak to activism, and vice versa.
Graduate School As Trauma
Unfortunately, graduate school showed me that my safe bubble of undergrad was a fantasy – perhaps an anomaly. In fact, grad school was traumatizing for me. Let me say that again: graduate school was traumatizing for me. I entered grad school at Indiana University as a Black queer activist with plans to study, and ultimately end, racism in queer communities. I wanted to use qualitative methods to make visible the invisible, and give voice to the voiceless. I wanted only to teach and do research, leaving me time for advocacy and community service. As such, I was content with working at a liberal arts college. I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond – an experience that I passed up for college because liberal arts schools were too expensive and offered too little in scholarships and financial aid.
Instead, I left grad school with a PhD, a job at a small liberal arts college not far from home, and enough emotional baggage to land me in therapy. I am now a quantitative medical sociologist who is desperately trying to get back to my research interests of the naïve age of 22. I simply did not get the qualitative and critical training that I wanted because I bought into the ideology that those interests and methods would never land me a job.
When my therapist first told me I had experienced a trauma – a six-year-long traumatic episode – I scoffed. Sexual violence, armed robbery, hate crimes, child abuse – those are traumas. Who gets traumatized by furthering their education? Apparently, I did. I have wondered, “why me? What’s wrong with me?” How did others enjoy an experience that left me traumatized? As the recovery process has begun, I have been able to think like a critical sociologist to identify the structural and cultural factors of graduate education and academia in general that contributed to the trauma:
- First, there was the regular experience and witnessing of racist, sexist, classist, and heterosexist microaggressions: warnings to not “talk Black” during interviews; praise from a fellow student for having ghetto booties; seeing Black women students hair petted by white faculty like zoo animals; the annual ethnic-themed department holiday party; etc. These conditions create a hostile environment for marginalized students.
- Second, scholarship on my own communities – Black and LGBTQ – was explicitly devalued. The message was that we are not important to mainstream sociology. Apparently, most white sociologists, like George W. Bush, don’t care about Black people; and, everyone knows studying queer people won’t land you a decent job in sociology.
- The third factor was the undermining of my career choices, including the intense pressure to take a job at a research I university – even if it meant living in the most racist and homophobic parts of the country. Now that I’m at a liberal arts college of which few have heard, it seems as though I’m no longer on my grad department’s radar – and the feeling is mutual.
- The final factor was the effort to “beat the activist out” of me – a direct quote from one of my professors in grad school. I had already developed a triple consciousness as a Black queer man in America. The message that “activism and academia don’t mix” demanded that I develop a fourth consciousness. Apparently, at four, one is ripped apart. You can no longer be a whole person.
Conditionally Accepted in Academia
I share this very personal narrative as a lead up to the start of my recent work as an intellectual activist – or, really, the reemergence of my intellectual activism. After grad school, I created Conditionally Accepted – an online space for scholars on the margins of academia. The name came from my coming out experience, particularly with my parents’ newfound acceptance of my queer sexuality because I was doing well in school. An HIV-positive, drug-abusing, suicidal gay son wouldn’t get their acceptance (at least not right away). But, a healthy and academically successful gay son – a “normal” son – did. Similar conditions apply in the academy. One of these conditions is to be an objective, detached, apolitical scholar – not an activist. Academics will slowly allow Black people in as long as we don’t make too much noise about race or challenge the racist status quo. Pursue critical work and activism at your own risk.
Conditionally Accepted reflects the raising of my consciousness about injustice in academia. So much of what happened to me is the product of the structure and culture of grad school and academia. I struggled through without access to the stories and wisdom of others like me who had already been through it. Now, I share my story in hopes that current and future students of marginalized backgrounds will not feel alone, and not struggle as I did. Essentially, I’ve turned my critical lens on oppression back onto academia itself.
Admittedly, a part of me worries that this is a bit navel-gazey. I’m writing about academia to academics, rather than being an advocate for communities beyond the ivory tower. (But, I am doing that, too!) But, the ivory tower is not immune to the realities of oppression of our society. In her book, On Intellectual Activism, Dr. Patricia Hill Collins defines it as “the myriad of ways that people place the power of their ideas in the service to social justice.” Her conceptualization of intellectual activism includes speaking truth to power (in our case, the academy) and speaking truth to the people (or, the communities beyond the ivory tower. These efforts are interdependent and equally important. So, my form of intellectual activism is actually not navel-gazing at all. Though Conditionally Accepted is simply a blog (for now), I am working to make academia a more equitable and humane place. Specifically, I aim to support marginalized scholars so that we can better do our jobs and, ideally, give us more space to serve our communities and speak truth to the people.
Indeed, I believe blogging and social media in general can serve as tools for intellectual activism. Conditionally Accepted offers narratives about scholars’ challenges with oppression, wrestling with the incongruence between personal and professional values, and some advice for survival in academia. My broader goals are to foster community among marginalized scholars, and to advocate for change in academia. I write frequently for the blog, but it also features the voices of others from different social locations, disciplines, and career stages. There are many voices and many perspectives, which is likely why the blog gets a fair amount of readership. Indeed, we are approaching half a million visits since I created the blog two years ago.
The Risks And Rewards of Intellectual Activism
I should note that there are negative sides of this work. Because of the trauma of grad school, I have lived in fear since I created Conditionally Accepted. I fear that some student, colleague, administrator, trustee, alum, or member of the community will take issue with something that I have written. That trauma has prevented me from seeing that my current institution actually hired me because of my critical perspective and advocacy, not despite them. You can’t have an active online presence in this era and expect no search committee to find it. Fortunately, the messages that I have gotten are that this work is an important service to the profession, and perhaps counts toward tenure. I have received positive feedback from senior colleagues, my dean, and recently found out that the new president of my university, Dr. Ronald Crutcher, actually reads my blog.
Unfortunately, some of my Black women colleagues in sociology (e.g., Dr. Zandria F. Robison, Dr. Saida Grundy) have found themselves under attack by the public, only to find that their institutions will not protect them. Scholars, particularly women of color who are race and/or gender scholars, who dare to challenge the status quo publicly, are seen as a threat that must be neutralized. And, institutions that value dollars more than Black women’s scholarship are quick to oblige. We wouldn’t be having this conversation today if it weren’t for these risks.
So, more recently, I have been thinking about how to best support intellectual activists since it seems we’re on our own. Given the support of my own institution, I feel as though I’m in a relatively privileged position, and can use that privilege to support the most vulnerable scholars in the academy. Specifically, I briefly advanced a #ThankAPublicScholar campaign in light of the risks of intellectual activism, on top of it being a thankless labor. And, later, I wrote a blog post advocating for a bystander intervention approach to supporting intellectual activists; we are all responsible for protecting them from public backlash and threats to academic freedom.
But, for now, we’re truly on our own to navigate this work. I hope this conversation, and future conversations, plants seeds for the necessary changes to support intellectual activism.
I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first time I have publicly written about the (recent media attention to the) crisis of police violence against Black men and boys in the United States. Why have I remained silent for months? From August onward, different reasons have come to mind to explain (or justify?) my self-imposed silence:
- I was a nervous wreck the days leading up to the American Sociological Association annual meeting in San Francisco, held just a few days after police officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. And, while at the conference, there was little discussion of Brown’s death — at least that I encountered. It seemed, as a discipline and academic organization, sociologists were surprisingly silent about the murder and subsequent riots. Fortunately, some sociologists were talking about Ferguson, and some were even making a plan to act as sociologists. Still, our collective action pales in comparison to other discipline’s efforts.
- My father is a white police officer. I have struggled to reconcile what I know about the sometimes scary realities of his work life with the everyday lived realities of communities that have been anything but protected and served by police. I have struggled to separate individual (white) police officers from widespread racist bias and violence in US law enforcement.
- As protests spread across the US, and hostility toward a legacy of racist police violence reached a boiling point, I continued to remain silent and, admittedly, out of touch. Teaching three classes, including one new course, while attempting to stay productive in my research, felt too overwhelming to sacrifice my precious personal time. Maintaining work-life balance is hard enough without national crises.
- As the body count increased, and the murders of Black men by police officers
becameremained legal and state-sanctioned, it became difficult to remain focused on my usual professional responsibilities. How could I carry on teaching about the medical institution (in one class) and research methods (in two other classes) when my mind was clouded with a sense of total vulnerability as a Black gay man in a racist and homophobic society? When white students challenged me about a few points they had lost on assignments, I thought, “you privileged asses don’t know — they’re killing us! Fuck your 2 points.”
I excused my silence and, frankly, my self-imposed ignorance about the national crisis. Anxiety about conference presentations. Mixed boy problems. Raw pain. I had reason after reason, excuse after excuse. Eventually, I was forced to name the root issue: fear. (Ah, and as the tears instantly began forming after typing those four letters, my suspicion is confirmed.)
I make a point of talking about current events and new published studies at the beginning of my classes — well, at least those that are undeniably related to the course, and usually only in my substantive courses (e.g., Medical Sociology, Gender and Sexuality). In teaching Medical Sociology and Sociological Research Methods this semester, I never felt comfortable bringing up the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, and … (too many). These tragedies did not seem relevant to lectures on sexual health, or multivariate analysis, or the decline of medicine, or qualitative data analysis; so, I never brought them up.
I suspect, at some level, I feared that a student would even ask, “how is this related to our class?” Or, that some would later criticize me on course evaluations for focusing too much on racism (when the course has nothing to do with it). I have been challenged by students enough for this fear to feel at least somewhat rational. And, as my own pain and outrage grew, I worried that I was not “removed” enough from the tragedies to have a “neutral” conversation with my students about them. I knew well enough that the pain was too raw to risk having a (white) student demand to know, “why are we talking about that issue here?”
Eventually, I was presented an “excuse” to even utter the word Ferguson in my Medical Sociology class. At my university, a forum was held to discuss the Grand Jury’s decision regarding Darren Wilson and, by the time of the forum, that regarding the murder of Eric Garner, as well. I mentioned the event to my class, strongly encouraging my students to attend, but made it clear that I did not want to have a discussion in class about it.
At the forum, I admitted my embarrassment for going almost the full semester without ever discussing the national crisis. And, I pushed back on the few other staff and faculty who attended to stop implicitly asking why the students were so quiet on the issue and, instead, ask ourselves why we had not provided students the space and resources to discuss it and (if appropriate) to act. I know I am not alone in failing to discuss these important, urgent events in my classes — not in being afraid to do so (as a pre-tenure young Black gay man) and not in feeling it was “irrelevant” to my courses.
Do #BlackLivesMatter In The Academy?
Do Black lives actually matter in academia? No and no. On the one hand, Black students, staff, and faculty are woefully underrepresented in higher education. Nominal diversity aside, there are too many academic institutions that fail to fully include Black people, to offer equal resources and opportunities, to protect Black people from harm. On the other hand, Black communities and their contributions to society and history are rarely presented as legitimate, primary areas of inquiry in higher education. Sure, there are a few courses in the social sciences and humanities that focus on race and racism; but, too few schools even offer degrees in Black, racial and ethnic, or cultural studies (sadly, my own university doesn’t, either). At many schools, students are simply not afforded academic spaces to frankly discuss race, racism, ethnicity, and xenophobia.
The absence of Black people in academic institutions and in academic curricula are compounded for Black scholars. Some of us are accepted on the condition that our Blackness is downplayed, contained, silenced, or erased. We run the risk of losing our jobs or being sued if we dare to discuss racism as a legitimate area of academic study. We risk being dismissed as researchers for studying our own communities, our work mocked as “me-search” while our white colleagues’ research on their own communities is seen as legitimate, mainstream scholarship. And, despite our credentials and prestigious position in institutions of higher learning, we would be naive to expect to be treated better than a common nigger once we leave our campus offices.
Since Black lives seem to matter little in academia, I should not be surprised by my own silence about the ongoing national crisis of police violence against Black communities. The culture of academia fails to prioritize and celebrate Black lives. So, I regularly feel as though I am defending my right to exist before a jury each time I teach about race and racism. But, I am further exhausted by attempting to toe the line of neutrality, for fear of retaliation from racist- and even “post-racist”-minded students. My mainstream academic training, which prioritized prestige (i.e., journal rank), theory, and method over activism, social justice, and marginalized communities, did not include critical race theory or much of anything that made race central, nor skills for discussing current events like Ferguson in my classes. And, my current institution did not make explicit support for me if I decided to discuss the national crisis in my classes. (As a matter of survival, I do not assume the absence of explicit hostility or opposition necessarily implies the presence of acceptance or support.) Academia, in general, is not designed in a way that would make such discussions obvious material for one’s courses, whether or not they are explicitly focused on racism.
Can you blame me for being afraid to speak? Without appropriate training and support to speak up, I knew that doing so would be at my own risk. And, the question is, do I risk my job by speaking up or do I risk my life by remaining silent? Whether you sympathize with me, or pity me, or even think I am full of shit, I have blamed myself — and, still do somewhat. I let pain, fear, and uncertainty prevent me from providing my students one of probably few possible spaces to speak about the national crisis. I contributed to reinforcing the message that race and racism are not worthwhile topics in the classroom, particularly if “race” or some similar term is not in the course’s title.
We Must Make #BlackLivesMatter In Academia
I suspect some may wonder why instructors should talk about Brown, Garner, Rice, and Brisbon in the classroom. I respect others’ academic freedom and, thus, am hesitant to claim that others should or should not discuss this crisis with their students. But, there are a few reasons that I think others should consider.
First, we should resist the temptation to see this as a recent, temporary, and isolated series of murders. Police violence, particularly against Black and brown bodies, is not new, and certainly not limited to these four murders (nor to men of color). I imagine that there is a sizable body of research on race, racism, and law enforcement that should appease educators who are skeptical to engage current events. Second, by bringing these conversations into our classes, we may equip our students to be able to connect those events with their own lives and communities. Perhaps we can further chip away at the myth of racial equality and meritocracy in higher education. Third, we would be contributing to students’ awareness of events and phenomena outside of our classes, even outside of the ivory tower.
But, facilitating a discussion about Ferguson, for example, is radical. It is radical to the extent that one is pushing back against the hegemonic academic culture of racelessness or “post-raciality” (which, in reality, is simply white supremacy). So, doing so likely requires some amount of strategizing beyond, “hey, I should probably mention this really quickly in my class.” Below I list some ideas, mainly from the efforts of others who were brave enough to act and speak up, as well as some that would, in hindsight, have helped me to feel empowered to speak up:
- Before you talk about the murder of Michael Brown, talk with other instructors first (or at least friends or family), and do your homework about the facts and timeline. One danger of talking about Ferguson for the first time in one’s classes is not having thought through one’s own perspective and emotions, and not being prepared to hear possible counterperspectives and inaccuracies that students may offer. Talking with others at your institution first could help to glean the degree to which you are supported and, implicitly, to garner support in case things do not go well in your class discussion. Speaking for myself, the regular sense of isolation in academia exacerbates my fear and self-doubt in front of the classroom; I imagine I would have felt more empowered if I had already spoken with colleagues about the events that unfolded in Ferguson.
- But, do not assume that students are not paying attention; yet, do not assume that they have received accurate facts about the murders, either.
- See what other academics have done. Read everything on the #FergusonSyllabus. And, everything that Sarah Kendzoir has written about Ferguson, MO.
- Use peer-reviewed literature and books about racial violence in your classes. But, also consider using readings that feature personal accounts and the voices of Black people, either in anthologies or even blog posts and news articles. We must go beyond the recent murders that garnered national media and social media attention.
- When discussing the crisis, make clear that it cannot be thought of in either exclusively academic or exclusively personal (i.e., non-academic) terms. Our conversations should not become so focused on the aggregate patterns and problems that we forget about the particular victims of racist police violence; but, we also do students a disservice by discussing these individual murders as isolated events, or purely in terms of our emotions about them. It is crucial to give social and historical context for these events to prevent our conversations from dissolving into simply interrogating victims’ and perpetrators’ backgrounds, biases, and emotional states.
- Set an appropriate and safe tone in the classroom for any discussion. Make sure that you feel prepared to address problematic, offensive, or triggering comments that may be made during class discussion. Upon reflecting on your class’s dynamics, if it does not seem the conversation will be unproductive or unsafe, consider eliminating discussion to either simply lecture or allow students to privately reflect in writing. Or, simply forgo any discussion at all if you do not feel it will go well or that you are not adequately prepared.
- Besides classroom dialogue, consider other ways on and off campus, and on and offline, to act and speak up. But, also prioritize self-care so that your professional livelihood is not jeopardized by the psychological toll of yet another racial crisis or scandal.
- Help students to connect the the racist police violence that has recently captured media attention to their own lives, including racial disparities in policing and disciplinary actions in schools. You can also draw on stories of racist police violence in your own city or state that have likely been overlooked by mainstream media (but, perhaps has been covered on social media).
In some ways, I feel this post is “too little, too late.” What does writing about my five months of silence add to conversations that have ensued since (and long before) the murder of Michael Brown? At a minimum, I wish to name the professional, social, and emotional constraints I regularly face as an academic. I am confident that I am not alone in feeling that my supposed academic freedom is undermined by racist academic norms and practices, isolation, lack of support, as well as the resultant fear and self-doubt. To others who remain too afraid to speak up, you are not alone.
Ideally, I hope to also make clear how academia is complicit in the silence and ignorance that surrounds racist police violence, and racism in general, in the US. We fail to provide our students with the critical lens necessary to connect what they learn in the classroom with what is featured (or ignored) by the media. We fail to demonstrate the relevance of academic scholarship to the “real” world, and to take serious topics such as race and racism in the academy. White students are not challenged to see their own racial privilege, and how their actions and inactions contribute to the perpetuation of racism. Many Black students do not see themselves on campus or in their textbooks. This is in the midst of academia’s role in perpetuating racial inequality, while producing a generation of “post-racials.”
Finally, this post serves to break my silence. I have once again learned the hard way that my silence does not protect me.