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To Diversify Sociology, We Need To Embrace Scholar-Activism As Legitimate Sociological Work

Image: Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman at a March 24, 2012 protest in Bloomington, Indiana after George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin. Sign reads: “Trayvon Martin. His crime – being born Black. The punishment — execution. This must stop.”

Last week, I served as a panelist on a townhall on diversity, inclusion, and equity in the discipline of sociology at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in Philadelphia, PA. I was kindly invited to participate in this important conversation by organizers Dr. Victor Ray (@victorerikray) and David G. Embrick (@dgembrick), and ASA president Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Presided by Dr. Austin W. Ashe, the townhall also featured fellow panelists Drs. Antonia M. Randolph (@baldwinvidal), Salvador Vidal-Ortiz (@svidalortiz), Ted Thornhill (@profthornhill), and Natasha Kumar Warikoo (@nkwarikoo). As part of my commitment to breakdown the paywalls of academic journals, classrooms, and conferences, I share my remarks from the townhall below.

Image: Drs. Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, Natasha Kumar Warikoo, Ted Thornhill, Antonia Randolph, and Eric Anthony Grollman, panelists on the 2018 ASA townhall entitled, “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Sociology”

The failure of sociology to become a truly diverse and inclusive discipline is partly due to its aversion to scholar-activism. Thus, the disciplinary project to diversify sociology requires us to embrace activism. This is a simple point, but it remains a controversial one in sociology, especially within ASA.

Unfortunately, I know well the antipathy that many sociologists harbor toward scholar-activism. Early in my graduate training in sociology at Indiana University (IU), I was explicitly told that the goal of the program was to “beat the activist out” of me — some sort of bizarre twist on exorcism or conversion therapy. In my last year at IU, Professor Fabio Rojas wrote a blog post to me on OrgTheory.net, entitled “Why Activism and Academia Don’t Mix.” While his intentions were well-meaning, I found it unsettling to have a professor in my department publicly put me on blast just months before I finished my PhD and started a tenure-track job.

When I pitched a joint ASA session between the Sexualities and Social Psychology sections, my main advisor snidely responded, “OK, Mr. Activist.” Somehow even putting academic subfields into conversation with one another constituted activism; the bar for what was subjected to the slur of “activist” seemed to fall lower and lower. It took me years post-PhD to acknowledge how frequently my grad school professors used shame as part of their effort to train me. Perhaps its even fair to use the term gaslighting to describe this professional socialization. No matter the term used to describe this intellectual violence, or their intentions, the impact was severe: I continue to work through complex trauma even five years since I graduated.

Throughout my career, I have repeatedly been told that my research on LGBTQ communities and communities of color is nothing more than “me-search” – work that is suspect because it is on communities to which I belong. Once I was told my interests are “too narrow” by a white person who now has even narrower research interests than me. Apparently sociology only values work that is exclusively or at least partially related to privileged people.

Let me fast-forward a couple of years past my 2013 graduation from IU. At the 2016 annual ASA meeting in Seattle, WA, panelists Charlene Carruthers (@CharleneCac), Mariame Kaba (@prisonculture), and Kimberlé W. Crenshaw (@sandylocks) delivered profound, soul-shaking remarks on the presidential plenary on Protesting Racism. (See a video recording of the panel here.)

Image: Charlene Carruthers, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Mariame Kaba, panelists on the 2016 ASA Presidential Plenary, Protesting Racism.

Presider Aldon Morris then opened the floor for Q&A, around 01:26:00. With just 10 minutes remaining in the plenary, Dr. Morris took four questions and then asked the panelists to respond to them collectively. The first question came from fellow IU alum Dr. Abigail A. Sewell (@aasewell). Dr. Sewell remarked that they were an activist long before becoming a sociologist, though they came to sociology under the assumption that it would be a transformative discipline. Their expectations were not met; but, it was through Black Lives Matter protests that Dr. Sewell remembered that the Black radical tradition persists – but, apparently this lesson was learned “on the streets” (through protests), not “in the books” (through their sociological training).

What stood out even more than Dr. Sewell’s comments were those of another audience member – a European scholar whose name I cannot remember nor make out from the videorecording. So, I’ll just call her “Positivist Paula.” Positivist Paula accused Carruthers, Kaba, and Crenshaw of blurring politics and academic research, and questioned whether the panelists’ remarks could even be considered scholarly. Positive Paula declared, “Sociology is not an activist activity; sociology is an academic discipline.”

Mariame Kaba responded to Positive Paula, “[s]ome in the discipline [sociology] want to enforce and discipline others into not being [organizers]. And, I think you lose a lot of people that you could have in the discipline by those kind of rigid differentiations that are really only true in a few people’s heads.” To junior scholars, Kaba advised, “Don’t let them make you into something you are not, if you are already somebody who organizes. You are allowed to be both.”

Image: A June 2, 2017 tweet by Professor Joshua T. McCabe (@JoshuaTMcCabe) that reads “Dear fellow sociologists: Please stop doing this. I just want a professional organization focused on scholarship” in response to ASA Presidential Candidate, Dr. Mary Romero’s personal statement calling for scholar-activism.

The following year (2017), the discipline’s double standard for public sociology versus scholar-activism became more apparent to me. For example, last year, Professor Joshua T. McCabe (@JoshuaTMcCabe) tweeted, “Dear fellow sociologists: Please stop doing this. I just want a professional organization focused on scholarship.” The “this” to which he was referring was then-ASA presidential candidate Dr. Mary Romero’s personal statement, which promised a commitment to scholar-activism. Surprisingly, McCabe engages in public sociology, prominently displayed on his personal website, including essays he has written for National Review. (I and several others shared his tweet, and many responded to him. A year later, he accused me of leading Twitter mob violence against him.) For years, ASA has furthered its commitment to public sociology, even calling upon sociology departments and universities to consider this work as part of considerations for tenure, promotion, and merit review. To my surprise, the words “activist” and “activism” never appear in this report.

Public sociology, but not scholar-activism? This is not a simple matter of semantics. As part of Contexts magazine’s August 2017 symposium on the Charlottesville white supremacist riots, Dr. Kimberly Kay Hoang (@kimberlykhoang) wrote an essay entitled, “Are Public Sociology and Scholar-Activism Really At Odds?” Dr. Hoang argued that there is a long history of white men sociologists who worry that scholar-activists undermine the credibility of the discipline. She wrote, “[t]here is a contradiction in our discipline. Public sociology proponents are supporting a particular market-structure of scholar activism that separates the ‘resident expert’ from the ‘scholar activist.’ This form of public sociology favors research examining those struggling under and against the effects of power relations while marginalizing researchers scrutinizing how institutions of power operate to maintain relations of domination’.”

(Side note: Interesting, white men sociologists’ fear that scholar-activists [of color] will jeopardize their standing in society persists today; some have even talked of forming an Association of White Sociologists as they grow increasingly frustrated that more scholar-activists of color are shaping the trajectory of ASA and the discipline. You know, Make Sociology Great Again — #MSGA.)

Said another way, “public sociology is for white people” (to quote sociologist Rahsaan Mahadeo, a PhD student at University of Minnesota currently on the sociology job market — in a working paper entitled, “Marinating over the Anti-Ebony Tower.”) It assumes a detachment from “the public,” as though a scholar is shouting down from his ivory tower to the masses. But, one should never get their hands dirty with the messy affair of activism. Similarly, Dr. Hoang’s aforementioned essay asked, “who can legitimately do public sociology without diminishing the discipline’s ‘credibility as a science’?”

At the root of the activism-versus-academia debate in sociology is the discipline’s refusal to embrace the work of marginalized scholars as legitimate sociological work. Sociologists who are white, men, cis, heterosexual, wealthy, and currently without disabilities – and especially those who hold multiple or all of these identities – act as gatekeepers who wield power to determine what counts as legitimate sociology and what doesn’t, who is a legitimate sociologist and who isn’t. The dominant way of being a sociologist – seemingly detached, objective, apolitical – has long kept out critical scholars and scholar-activists, folks who are disproportionately of color, cis women, queer and trans people, first-gen, working-class, and people with disabilities.

This ideology was used to justify excluding Dr. W. E. B. DuBois from the discipline, and subsequently erasing his contributions as part of the “classics” in sociology. Dr. Aldon Morris notes in his book, The Scholar Denied, “Many contemporary scholars claimed that by educating the public in the Crisis [magazine], Du Bois was no longer acting as a scholar but had turned propagandist.” Former ASA President Joe Feagin’s (@JoeFeagin) 2000 presidential address turned 2001 ASR article, “Social Justice and Sociology in the 21st Century,” recounts the discipline’s move toward positivism, which was also a time when white men solidified their dominance in sociology departments. Excluding activism is antithetical to diversifying sociology.

Image: Top three reasons students go to graduate school for African American, Latinx, and non-Hispanic white students.

Today, the discipline’s aversion to activism runs counter to the reasons why most Black and Latinx folks pursue PhDs in sociology. As Dr. Denise A. Sagura found in a 2009 study of 700 PhD students (see Powerpoint presentation here), the top reason African Americans report for attending graduate school is to contribute to the advancement of minorities in the US, and the second and third most important reasons cited by Latinx students is to contribute to their community and contribute to the advancement of minorities in the US, respectively. The top three reasons cited by non-Hispanic whites were: 1) to grow intellectually, 2) to improve their personal occupational mobility, and 3) to make a contribution to the field – in other words, motivations not driven by a concern for making a difference in society.

To ignore what motivates people of color to become sociologists means that the discipline continues to center the interests of non-Hispanic whites. It means people of color – as well as other marginalized groups – find success in sociology by mainstream standards on the condition that they downplay their commitment to activism. Perhaps it means that those who refuse to conform drop out of grad school, leave faculty positions, leave the discipline, or leave academia.

To reverse this potential “brain-drain,” to cease forcing scholar-activists to conform or hide their activism, to end the practice of privileged scholars serving as gatekeepers who dismiss marginalized scholar-activists’ work as “me-search,” we are long overdue for embracing scholar-activism as a legitimate type of sociology. We are overdue for recognizing the contributions of DuBois, Anna Julia Cooper, Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Joyce Ladner, and other marginalized scholar-activists to the discipline.

In this increasingly post-truth, anti-science, anti-union, xenophobic, white supremacist, misogynistic, cis- and heterosexist climate – failing to embrace activism may be at our own peril.

A Gay Guy’s Guide To Feminism – A Brief Introduction

With the start of Women’s, Womyn‘s, and Womanist Herstory Month this past Friday, I have been wondering what more I can do to challenge sexism — including my own.  As I have noted in previous posts, I have an evolving awareness that my own disadvantaged social location as a brown queer man does not make me immune to sexism, nor any other system of oppression.

One important task of my anti-sexist advocacy is to become aware of the ways in which I am privileged as a man.  I know this to be a particular challenge for queer men because of our awareness that we are disadvantaged among men.  So, I was disappointed to find little beyond a few personal reflections from feminist-identified gay men to guide me and other queer men to understand and appropriately fight sexism.  The Guy’s Guide to Feminism seems like a good start, but I find it useful to engage gay men from their unique relationships with sexism, women, and male privilege.

Feminism For Gay Men 101

Though I am just at the beginning of a lifelong journey to understanding sexism and my own male privilege, here are a few lessons I would like to impart to my fellow gay men:

  1. We are men.  We hold male privilegePeriod.
  2. Yes, number 1 is true despite our sexual orientation and despite our gender expression (no matter how feminine, androgynous, or queer).  Though gay masculinity is devalued relative to hegemonic masculinity (i.e., white heterosexual middle-class able-bodied young/middle-age masculinity), it is still privileged over all femininities.
  3. Systems of oppression are linked including — particularly relevant to this discussion — sexism, heterosexism, and cissexism.  As such, our liberation is tied to the liberation of ciswomen and trans* people.
  4. While number 3 is true, we are not immune to sexist attitudes and behaviors.  And, most importantly, being gay does not make us anti-sexist.  Our marginalized status among men may make it easier to understand sexist oppression, but it does does not preclude us from it.  Just like heterosexual cisgender men who engage in anti-sexist activism, we must be active in challenging the prejudice, discrimination, and violence against women, and to keep our male privilege in check (i.e., give it up or use it for good).
  5. Though we generally are not sexually attracted to women, we are just as capable of sexually harassing or assaulting women.  The root of sexual violence is power, not sexual attraction.  I must point out here that too many of us have sexually harassed or assaulted women and naively excused the behavior as innocent because we are gay.  Sexual violence by any perpetrator is wrong.  But, that of gay men has the added element of placing our women friends and allies in the difficult position of questioning whether to feel violated or upset.
  6. Related to number 5, we must stop treating the women in our lives as objects or accessories.  Yes, many heterosexual women are guilty of doing this to us — the gay BFF, every girl’s must have! — which is also wrong.  Friendships that exist because of her gender or your sexual orientation are forms of exotification.
  7. Attraction to male-bodied individuals, men, and masculinity must be stripped of the presumed aversion to female-bodied individuals, women, and femininity.  We need not be repulsed by female bodies just because we are not sexually attracted to (cis)women.  Even when joking, this is no less problematic than (cisgender) heterosexuals who proclaim to be repulsed by people of their same sex.
  8. Certain aspects of gay men’s culture that promote pride and empowerment among us come at the expense of women’s empowerment.  To call a fellow gay man “bitch,” “cunt,” and, more commonly in the drag scene, “fish,” is to use a term that derogates women.  Though they may be positive in intent and meaning, these are not instances of reclaiming pejorative terms used against us: self-identifying as queer is; “servin’ up fish!” isn’t.  Just think how outraged we would be if women decided to adopt “faggot” as a term of endearment among themselves.
  9. Our queer, bisexual, and lesbian sisters are oppressed by heterosexism and sexism.  We, as LGBT and queer people, will not be fully liberated by addressing homophobia and heterosexism alone.
  10. Related to number 9, we must recognize that LBQ women are often subject to our sexist prejudice and behavior, ranging from anti-lesbian jokes to outright exclusion (often disguised as innocently bonding with other gay men or even the product of our exclusive attraction to men).
  11. The way that we devalue femininity among ourselves is another arm of sexism.  The “no femmes” sentiment, aptly called femmephobia, is nothing more than the hatred of femininity, which is associated with women.  Beyond eliminating this silly prejudice in our anti-sexist efforts, we do ourselves the favor of freeing the constraints on how we can behave and express our gender.
  12. We owe it — yes, we owe it — to the ciswomen and trans* people who have fought against the injustices we face to fight against those they face.  Even when kept at the periphery or outright excluded, transpeople have fought for equal rights and status for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Many lesbian and bisexual women served as caregivers to gay and bisexual men with HIV/AIDS during the 1980s and 1990s, while also fighting along side those who worked for better HIV/AIDS health care.  Feminists of all walks of life have advocated for our protection from prejudice, discrimination, and violence, seeing it as important in (and linked to) activism against sexist discrimination and violence against women.

We owe it to our ciswomen and trans* friends and allies — and ourselves — to be better feminists.

A Call For Bystander Intervention To End Racism

In the recent sociological blog debate on racism versus the supposed dawn of “post-racism” in America, we often touched on problems that make talking about racism difficult, if not entirely impossible.  In addition to institutional constraints, there are interpersonal factors that can derail meaningful conversations about race and racism.  In addition to calling attention to these barriers, it is important to make explicit that too few people take on this difficult task.

Responsibility For (Anti-)Racism

In general, too few people consistently assume responsibility for talking about race and racism, and fighting racism more broadly.  That kind of work is presumed to be taken on by activists and leaders of social movements.  But, in particular, the responsibility generally falls in the laps of those victimized by it — in this case, people of color.  As Jason noted in his contribution to the “post-racism” blog debate, racial and ethnic minorities generally face this burden alone.

But, people of color are neither alone in this racist society nor the creators of this system of oppression.  Whites are implicated by virtue of the benefits they receive (i.e., white privilege) from the historical legacy of racism, as well as today.  Eliminating racism, then, is just as much their responsibility, if not more, as it is for people of color.

As I re-watched a few of ABC’s “What Would You Do” social experiments regarding race and racism, I was reminded just how problematic America’s sense of responsibility for racism and anti-racism are.  While too few whites intervene when they witness racist discrimination in stores against (innocent) people of color, many seem quick to intervene to sanction Black people’s criminal behavior but not that of whites (see part 1 and part 2).  (Three young Black men sleeping in their own car got more calls to 911 than did three young white men vandalizing and breaking into someone else’s car.)

A Personal Anecdote

Racist events are plentiful, from small slights to extreme forms of violence.  So, there are too many missed opportunities to confront racism, or at least learn from these events to do things differently in the future.  One such event stands out in my own life.

At the start of my second semester of graduate school, my cohort and I sat through the beginning of our training and preparation to carry out a telephone survey on social attitudes that summer.  In talking through concerns for the project, whether we as  interviewers “talk black” was posed as a potential bias in our interviews.  It felt as though as though a grenade had gone off right in the middle of class, but we continued on ignoring it.  I thought, “was I the only one who heard that?”

This event only became an issue when my colleagues of color and I were overheard joking about the racist comment the following week.  That was brought to the attention of the professor who, out of concern, asked us whether and how to “handle” this.  Three weeks later, we finally devoted an entire two-hour class to discussing the comment about “talking black” — a phrase the professor wrote explicitly on the board to facilitate our conversation.

Of course, five minutes that felt like an eternity passed before anyone broke the thick silence that suffocated the room — it was me, naturally, in which I called attention to that deafening silence.  As the tense conversation carried on, my cohort was divided, with the students of color and anti-racist white students taking issue with the concern about “talking black,” and the rest remaining silent, or speaking up to say they did not see a problem or even recast the comment in their head so that it was not problematic.

The conversation boiled down to whether the commenter said “talking black” or talking black, where the quotation marks became the symbolic boundary between belief that there is a(n inferior) style of English unique to Black Americans and the knowledge that others believe that (but not believing it oneself).  Only a racist person would forgo the quotation marks, for this would reflect their own beliefs.

With the conversation ending with a half-ass apology from the commenter, that one’s upbringing in the Midwest should suffice as an excuse for one’s racist prejudice, we left the room more divided than ever before.  The rest of our department remained curious bystanders, but nothing more came of these events outside of the efforts of students of color to challenge racism in the department and university.

To add insult to injury, later in the semester, my colleagues of color and I overheard some of our classmates complain about the ongoing divisiveness, placing blame on us for not having gotten “over it” yet.  Their simultaneous lack of understanding and lack of sympathy only further fueled the division.  I am happy to say that a great deal has been forgiven, but one can never forget such events.  But, sadly, because little came of it, we saw yet another racist event occur years later.

A Call For Bystander Intervention

I, as others before me, call for a bystander intervention approach to ending racism.  Too often, individuals not directly involved in a dangerous or difficult scenario — or bystanders — simply stand-by and watch without intervening to provide help.  As such, in the case of the prevention of sexual violence (since this “bystander effect” was coined after no one intervened in the brutal rape and murder of Kitty Genovese), advocates have strongly emphasized the need to turn bystanders into potential interveners – “bystander intervention.”  Applied to racism, this means that individuals are called to action to intervene if they witness racist discrimination, bullying, or violence.

However, I push this anti-racist bystander intervention one step further beyond intervening in difficult situations.  Similar to my calls for bystander intervention to prevent sexual violence (i.e., rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment), I stress that our anti-racist work must include a sense that racism is a community issue and, as such, anti-racism is a community responsibility.

Ways To Intervene

A related aspect is noting that racism exists at multiple levels and, as such, there are an infinite number of ways in which we can fight it:

  1. One can intervene when they witness racist discrimination or harassment.  Of course, this depends upon a number of factors that make this easier said than done.  And, no one should intervene in ways that place them at risk for getting hurt.  If it is a scenario of extreme violence, like a racially-motivated hate crime, a safe means of intervening may be to call the police.  If it is an instance of the unfair firing of a Latina coworker, you could approach your supervisor to note that you feel your coworker deserves a second chance.
  2. Challenge racist prejudice.  This can entail calling people out who appear to harbor prejudice toward people of color, or hold misguided stereotypes.  It also means calling out offensive comments that others’ may make about racial and ethnic minorities.
  3. Challenge yourself.  No matter one’s racial or ethnic background, and one’s racial ideology, no one is immune to the pervasive poison of racism.  It is important to also check your own biases and actions.  Do you seek out friends of the same race?  Do you avoid “that part of town”?  Do you do certain things, at least in part, to avoid appearing racist?
  4. Educate yourself.  Unfortunately, most Americans leave formal education knowing little about racism and the history and experiences of people of color beyond obligatory coverage during Black History Month.  To push beyond this, one can take the time to learn more (even from March to January).  Read books about and by people of color.  Go see films on historical and contemporary accounts of the lives of racial and ethnic minorities.  Visit museums that feature exhibits on race and ethnicity.  Become comfortable talking about race and racism with the people around you, no matter their race and ethnicity.
  5. Support victims of racist prejudice, discrimination, and violence.  As I wrote the first suggestion, I realized that there are so many concerns that one may have in directly challenging racist actions.  But, there are fewer concerns regarding harm in supporting victims of these actions.  Though your supervisor who unfairly fired your Latina coworker very well could threaten you, as well, you are freer to reach out to your coworker.  See if she wants to talk, needs help finding a new job, or even filing a discrimination or EEO complaint.  Even outside of severe instances of racist acts, you can be a supportive ally by really hearing people out when they reveal their experiences to you (rather than blaming them or encouraging them to think of alternative reasons for those acts).
  6. Challenge racist practices of organizations and institutions.  Though the days of overt racist laws and policies are mostly gone, there are still many — albeit neutral in intention and language — that disproportionately harm people of color.  It is important to challenge these, just as it is to challenge racism at the individual-level.  Maybe you can speak up if your workplace implements a dress-code policy that unfairly targets racial and ethnic minorities.  Take action to prevent the efforts to repeal Affirmative Action and other policies that aim to redress racial inequality.  Educate yourself and others about how new policies or policy change can contribute to racial equality, even if they are not targeted solely toward people of color (e.g., Affordable Care Act).

Concluding Thoughts

Obviously, everyone cannot become leaders of social movements like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or lead deadly anti-racist efforts like abolitionist John Brown or the slain Mississippi civil rights workers.  Most of us are not lifelong activists.

But, there are many opportunities throughout a given day to make a difference, no matter how small.  For, even small acts add up to a big contribution to challenge prejudice and stereotypes, educate oneself and others, end racist discrimination and violence, and promote racial diversity and equality.  Just as we are all implicated in racism, it will take all of us to end it.