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Open Scholarship As Intellectual Activism

In March, I participated on a panel on open scholarship at Virginia Commonwealth University.  I was invited because of my use of blogging to make academic knowledge more accessible, and being fairly visible as a scholar on social media in general.  In my presentation, I introduced the concept of intellectual activism and spoke about the risks associated with such work, particularly for marginalized scholars.  You can see the text from my talk below.

Open Scholarship as Intellectual Activism

Progress has been made toward making academic research, knowledge, and resources accessible to the broader public.  This is a great cause. It is certainly a matter of justice and equality.  Ironically, a number of scholars – particularly those from marginalized communities themselves (women, people of color, LGBT people) – cannot or are hesitant to participate in the move toward open access.  However, many scholars, particularly marginalized scholars, participate in a different form of open scholarship: intellectual activism.  My primary aim is to introduce what intellectual activism is, what it looks like, and some of the benefits and risks of this kind of open scholarship.

“Professors, We Need You!”

I want to start by sharing an op-ed by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, entitled “Professors, We Need You!”   Kristof argues that scholars are irrelevant, or at least not as relevant as we should be, to important national debates, policy-making, etc.  Academic disciplines have become too specialized.  Some are too left-leaning.

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.  This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process.  Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

I think that he raises an important concern, albeit supported by some problematic claims.  But, his characterization of scholars’ efforts to engage the broader public fails to give us enough credit.

 “Open” Research

There is evidence of open scholarship on each of the three major tasks of every academic’s career: research, teaching, service.  The primary meaning of open access is to making published articles freely accessible to the general public, most likely online.  Some progress has been made on this front.  There have recent developments in my own discipline, Sociology, including the creation of Sociological Science, an independent open-access journal, and a new open access journal that the American Sociological Association will soon launch.

One weakness of this approach is that open access does not necessarily translate into accessibility.  As Kristof pointed out, there is a great deal of academic writing that cannot be understood by most people outside of academia, possibly scholars’ own discipline, or even their subdiscipline. I share each new publication with my parents – keeping up the practice since I was finger-painting in kindergarten.  Some articles they understand, and can either comment or ask questions, and to others they just smile and say “good job.”  In the latter case, I am sure they haven’t a clue what the article is about.  My point here is that even passing out free copies of the latest issue of American Sociological Review, the top journal in my field, would do little to advance open access.

“Open” Teaching

On the teaching side of open access, there are a number of scholars who advance open scholarship as a means of educating the broader public.  This may be actually explaining one’s research in understandable language, rather than simply making one’s publications available.  Others, for example, maintain blogs through which they explain difficult academic concepts and theories in accessible terminology.

I blogged for the Kinsey Institute for five years, as a graduate student at Indiana University.  The site offers short, accessible posts on sexual health and the latest research on sex and sexuality.  There are other scholars who maintain blogs that serve almost as an introductory course, in the form of blogs.   But, often connect to current events to keep the content relevant.

In addition to blogging, a number of scholars use Twitter, sometimes using a hashtag (e.g., #SaturdaySchool) to advance accessible teaching.  Using #SaturdaySchool, several scholars will decide on a topic to discuss, and, essentially as a conversation, you have multiple perspectives on one issue.  Again, the issue remains regarding who can afford to pursue these efforts.  Many of these sites are maintained either by tenured professors, or professors at liberal arts institutions where such work may hold greater value – maybe as teaching, but most likely as a form of service.

Intellectual Activism

Finally, one can be “open” as a scholar as a component of academic service.  But, my own personal interest here is in using it for community service and advocacy.  There are debates about public scholarship within sociology that come and go.  In late 1990s, a push for public sociology was revived by Dr. Michael Buroway, which he advanced during his tenure as president of American Sociological Association.  More recently, Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, a sociology professor at University of Maryland and former president of ASA, published a book on intellectual activism.  Collins defines intellectual activism as “the myriad of ways that people place the power of their ideas in the service to social justice.”  At the heart of this is the inseparable connection between activism and scholarship.

There are two components of intellectual activism.  First, one may speak truth to power: “this form of truth telling uses the power of ideas to confront existing power relations.”  This is done by developing alternative frameworks for investigating social inequality – challenging dominant and mainstream approaches that overlook certain aspects of social inequality and certain oppressed communities.  Collins’s own scholarship has advanced a perspective to interrogate the intersections among systems of oppression like racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism, rather than viewing each axis in isolation from the others.  And, such intellectual activism is done within academia.  The second component of intellectual activism is to speak truth to the people – speaking truth directly to the people.  Collins notes, “such truth-telling requires talking, reason, honesty, love, courage, and care.”  This is real engagement, be it virtual or face-to-face, with members of the community.

There are various ways in which scholars may engage in or pursue intellectual activism, some of which blur into a broader online presence; some blur both components of intellectual activism.  As I have already noted, some scholars work to make research findings accessible.  But, not simply to make publications available; rather, they actually make the content understandable in terms of language, and made relevant to the lives of laypeople.  Beyond one’s publications, intellectual activism can entail making academic knowledge in general accessible and understandable.  It can also serve as a vehicle for social justice advocacy, to empower disadvantaged communities, criticize injustice and oppressive practices, and provide commentary on current events.

Intellectual Activism To Change Academia

Beyond serving the general public, or specific communities outside of academia, scholars’ openness – namely use of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media – can serve as a form of advocacy within academia.  There are many examples of online sources of advice and resources for scholars.   For some, social media can be used to foster scholarly communities; for example, the #ScholarSunday hastag on Twitter, created by Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega.  Or, it can be used to advocate for change to academic cultures, practices, and norms.

Last summer, I created this blog, specifically for marginalized scholars, where I and guest bloggers write about experiences of discrimination, isolation, and harassment, and offer critique of policies and practices within academia that hinder the careers of marginalized academics. A number of similar sites exist. Some bloggers criticize the adjunctification and corporatization of academia.

Other bloggers aim to increase transparency about experiences and injustices in academia. For example, in October, two women scholars wrote publicly about being sexually harassed by editorial staff at Scientific American.  Dr. Danielle Lee, a Black woman biologist, wrote about an exchange in which she turned down an invitation to be a guest blogger because she would not be compensated.  The editor responded: “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?” She wrote about it on her blog, Urban Biologist. And, Monica Bryne, a writer and playwright, wrote on her blog about being sexually harassed by the editor of Scientific American, Bora Zivckovic.  Other women subsequently came forward about being harassed by him.  This brought about a bigger online conversation about sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the sciences.

Risks Of Intellectual Activism

Collins notes that demands placed on academics have made this kind of open scholarship a luxury in light of the professional risk – a concern that other scholar have raised, as well.  Unfortunately, some of these risks are either heightened for or unique to marginalized scholars.

First, open access publishing may not “count” professionally as much as publishing in traditional journals.  At best, this is seen as form of academic service, or a personal hobby.  Too much of it, particularly if one does not have the research or teaching record to “compensate” for it, may cost you.  For marginalized scholars, as well as those doing research that remains at the margins of their discipline, open access publishing is an opportunity they cannot afford to pursue.  Let me make explicit here that inequality exists in academia – too often, in the form of discrimination.  So, these scholars often have to work much harder than their privileged colleagues to receive the same rewards like tenure.

This is captured in a blog post, published in August, by Dr. Isis (a pseudonym), a Latina woman tenure-track professor of biology, on her blog – Isis the Scientist.  She pushes back against the increasing pressure to publish in open access journals because such publications may not count as much toward tenure.

Larger than the open access warz, I feel I have a moral responsibility to increase the access to science careers for women and minorities.  I can’t hold the door open for those folks unless I am standing on the other side of it.  That means getting tenure and if someone tells me that I can get closer to those goals by forgoing Open Access for a round or two, I’m going to do it.

She concludes:

To paint Open Access as the greatest moral imperative facing science today condescendingly dismisses the experiences many of the rest of us are having.

This links to my opening comments, that the very initiative to address inequality through open scholarship may actually be having the opposite effect in the absence of institutional rewards and support for open access publishing.  It is too risky for some of us.

Second, there is little institutional reward and support, and it varies by school and department.  There are some instances of blocking scholars’ social media use, or sanctioning it.Earlier this year, the International Studies Association considered a proposal to bar members of editorial boards for ISA journals from blogging, unless it was for the journal.  But, ultimately the organization tabled this proposal.  In addition, Kansas University has adopted a policy regarding social media use in which faculty, including tenured faculty, may be terminated for “improper use” of social media.  This includes any use deemed contrary to the best interest of the university, or that impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers.  This was passed by the KU board of regents in December without faculty input, eliciting intense criticism that this reflects a threat to academic freedom.

Third, online presence opens scholars up to criticism, hostility, even harassment and threats.  Unfortunately, this is particularly true for scholars of color and women scholars.  Given the professional and personal risks, many scholars use pseudonyms online.  But, even then, they run the risk of being “outed.”  Dr. Isis, whom I mentioned earlier, was outed by Henry Gee, an editor at Nature magazine, with whom Dr. Isis has had a long feud.

Concluding Thoughts

Scholars’ online presence is quite common.  But, academic institutions lag in rewarding and supporting online scholarship.  Open access is a great direction, but at the moment it is not a one-size-fits-all opportunity for scholars; and, there are multiple ways to be “open.”  The reality is, a scholar can still remain “traditional,” staying behind paywalls and be successful professionally.

I encourage those advancing open access scholarship to be critical of the uneven and, in some cases, unequal, advancement of such initiatives.  But, I am a bit pessimistic that, even as institutions begin to value and support open scholarship, intellectual activism will remain seen as something outside of traditional academic work, and thus unsupported and stigmatized.

Transgender People And The Criminal Justice System

Source: GayRVA.com

Source: GayRVA.com

Last week, I participated on a panel, Transgender People in Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Settings: Recent Research, hosted by the Virginia Anti-Violence Project (VAVP) at University of Richmond’s downtown campus.  Dr. Eugene F. Simopoulos, a forensic psychiatrist, presented a thorough review of gender identity and expression, and the treatment of trans people in the criminal justice system and medical institution.  Responses were offered by Edward Strickler (secretary of the Board of Directors of VAVP), Rebecca Glenberg (Legal Director, ACLU of VA), and me (in my capacity as a sociologist).  Our collective goal was to educate local law enforcement about trans people, particularly their treatment within the criminal justice system, and hopefully offer recommendations for improvements.  Below, I offer the notes from my response to Dr. Simopoulos.  You can see media coverage of the event at GayRVA.

___

As a sociologist, I study discrimination, and its consequences for marginalized groups’ health and well-being. There are two features of my scholarship that I believe will be useful for today’s conversation about trans people generally and in the criminal justice system specifically.  The first is to offer a critical sociological perspective for understanding discrimination.  The way that most people understand discrimination in an everyday sense is fairly narrow.  In particular, discrimination is thought to include specific, rare, and identifiable events of unfair treatment that are committed by specific, identifiable perpetrators who harbor prejudice toward a particular disadvantaged social group.  Thus, the intent of one’s actions are crucial here, regardless of the impact on the victim.

However, as a sociologist, I recognize that discriminatory treatment is much more complex than this, and often occurs in the absence of explicit, conscious bias.  The discriminatory acts perpetrated by a member of a dominant group against a member of a stigmatized group are merely the behavioral component of a system of oppression.  And, these acts are justified by the ideological component of this system of oppression, or what we typically call prejudice.  I suggest, then, that we think about transphobia as a system of oppression.  The discrimination and harassment that transgender people face is neither rare nor random; rather, trans people repeatedly face discrimination, harassment, and violence across multiple contexts, and throughout their lives.

Transphobia Is A System Of Oppression

Transphobia, as a social system, includes the discriminatory acts perpetrated by cisgender (i.e., non-transgender) people against transgender people.  It also operates through important institutions in society – the medical institution, the criminal justice system, education, the military, and so forth.  It shapes the policies and practices of these institutions in ways that disadvantage, harm, and/or exclude transgender people.  Finally, transphobia manifests as laws and policies, particularly at the federal and state levels, that disadvantage, harm, and/or exclude transgender people.  This includes seemingly-neutral laws and policies that are harmful, nonetheless.  One example would be the push for voter identification laws, which places additional burdens on trans people, particularly those whose legal documents do not reflect their current gender identity.

I offer this perspective of transphobia as a system for two reasons.  First, I wish to highlight that the challenges to improve the treatment of transgender people are by no means unique to the criminal justice system.  Second, I want to push our conversation about trans people’s interaction with and experiences in the criminal justice system into the broader context of transphobia.  The challenges that transgender people face in the criminal justice system are both cause and consequence of the challenges they face in other domains of society.  The National Transgender Discrimination Survey notes that trans people are more likely to interact with law enforcement and/or enter the criminal justice system because: 1) they are more likely than cisgender people to be a victim of a crime, particularly anti-trans hate crimes; 2) they are more likely to be homeless, kicked out of their homes by family or due to extreme poverty; and, 3) because of employment discrimination, many transgender people turn to sex work, selling as well as using drugs, or other parts of the underground economy.

Intersections With Racism And Classism

The second feature of my scholarship that I wish to share today is a framework that considers how other systems of oppression intersect with transphobia. Black feminist scholars have developed a concept called intersectionality to understand the interlocking and mutually reinforcing relationships among racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism. We can add to this list transphobia. Relatedly, they argue that you cannot attend to one of an individual’s multiple social identities to fully capture that individual’s experiences, well-being, and status in society.

In today’s conversation, by thinking of trans people solely in terms of their gender identity and expression, we miss important ways in which transgender people’s experiences are shaped by their race and ethnicity, immigrant status, social class, and other identities. More specifically, we miss that certain segments of transgender communities – namely poor trans people, trans women, trans people of color, and especially trans women of color – are particularly vulnerable to violence, discrimination, harassment, sexual violence, poverty, homelessness, and poor health.

Findings from a few recent reports, including the NTDS Survey, and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report for 2013, suggest that these groups bear the greatest burden of the challenges that trans people face in the criminal justice system. And, these disparities exist in every context in the system, from interactions with police, to arrest, to treatment in prisons.

  • While 60% of the transgender people in the NTDS survey report any interaction with law enforcement, the number jumps to 80% for Black and Latina trans women.
  • Trans women of color are more likely to report being targeted, disrespected, and harassed, and assaulted by police than other trans people, and LGBT people in general. For example, under New York City’s practice of “stop-and-frisk,” wherein 90% of individuals who were stopped were Black or Latina/o, LGBT people, especially trans women, were disproportionately represented.
  • Trans women, particularly trans women of color, are often stopped by police because they are assumed to be sex workers – a pattern that the ACLU and other groups has now referred to as “walking while trans,” akin to racial profiling or “driving while Black.”
  • While only 3% of the general population has ever been incarcerated, 16% of trans people have ever been sent to jail or prison. And, that figure is 41% for Black and Latina trans women; almost all report that they were incarcerated due to transphobic bias.
  • Among trans people who have been incarcerated, trans women of color serve longer sentences, and are more likely to be harassed, and physically and sexually assaulted by both fellow inmates and prison staff than other trans people.
  • And, a greater percentage of trans women of color report that either other inmates or prison staff block their access to hormones or regular medical care.

To conclude, I want to reiterate the importance of recognizing the roles that race, ethnicity, immigrant status, and social class play – or, more specifically, how racism and classism intersect with transphobia. We must avoid thinking of and treating trans communities as a monolithic group, as there is a great deal of diversity within these communities.

References And Additional Information

  • Simopoulos, Eugene F. and Khin Khin.  2014.  “Fundamental principles inherent in the comprehensive care of transgender inmates.”  Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 42: 26-36.
  • Summary of findings [pdf] and full report [pdf] of National Transgender Discrimination Survey.  (And, see my summary here.)
  • Supplementary report [pdf] of Black respondents in the NTDS survey.  (And, see my summary here.)
  • Supplementary report Hispanic and Latina/o respondents [pdf] and Asian and Asian American respondents [pdf] in the NTDS survey.
  • Summary of findings [pdf] and full report [pdf] of the 2013 National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report.
  • It’s A War In Here: A Report on Transgender People in Men’s Prisons [pdf] by Sylvia Rivera Law Project.
  • The Williams Institute report on Latina trans women’s experiences with law enforcement [pdf].
  • The Unfair Criminalization of Gay and Transgender Youth,” Center for American Progress, June 29, 2012.
  • A Roadmap for Change: Federal Policy Recommendations for Addressing the Criminalization of LGBT People and People with HIV [pdf].
  • Queer (In)Justice book
  • Dealing with Transgender Subjects,Police Magazine, January 4, 2013.
  • Resources from the Transgender Law Center

The Myth Of Meritocracy In Academia

Many sociologists, as well as scholars in other disciplines, talk about the “myth of meritocracy” in their classes.  They inform their students that many in the US believe good ol’ hard work is the primary determinant of one’s successes, opportunities, and wealth — BUT nothing could be further from the truth to explain pervasive inequality.  Not only is this an inaccurate explanation, hence referring to it as a myth, it is also dangerous because it masks all of the other factors beyond one’s control that produce and maintain disparities.  Hopefully, we push our students one more step to see inequality as the product of individual and structural factors, not merely a few bad apples who lie, cheat, and steal, or discriminate and hinder others’ success.

Ironically, academics — including many sociologists — fail to apply this perspective to assess how status, wealth, resources, and opportunities are distributed within academia.  I will admit my own naivete, that I was shocked to experience racist and homophobic microaggressions from the beginning of graduate school (I mean, classes had not even started yet!).  And, once again shocked at the start of my new job, I decided it was foolish to assume the absence of prejudice and discrimination anywhere (including academia).

Ah, the myth of meritocracy in academia.  But, I am not referring here to those who do not yet know the realities of inequality, discrimination, microaggressions, and harassment in academia.  I am referring to those who willfully do not see them.  Let me give a few examples, big and small:

  • Many graduate programs continue to give false hope to their students that there will be enough tenure-track jobs to go around.  Just work hard, publish, and don’t teach too much.  Remarking that, “oh, this is just a bad year,” erases that there haven’t been “good years” in some fields in a while — and there may never be another “good year.”
  • Related to the above point, assuming that professors at certain highly-ranked institutions must be strong, highly qualified, scholarly superstars is a fuzzy proxy at best; but, it also ignores that there are similarly qualified scholars who ended up at lower-ranked schools because of the competitive job market.  And, it seems professors at liberal arts institutions, regardless of their institution’s ranking and reputation, do not even factor into these calculations.  Further, this erases that there are biases that keep some (marginalized) scholars out of the most prestigious jobs.
  • Since starting my new job, I have two colleagues (not in my own department) give me puzzled looks when I expressed concern about bias in students’ evaluations.  “Students will give you worse ratings because of race?”  Both times, I had to look away and count to ten.  Fortunately, I had another colleague who is well aware of these issues quickly and politely explain that, yes, students are not immune to the prejudiced values that surround them on and off campus.
  • Being told, “don’t worry, you’ll get a job — you’re Black,” as I expressed concern about the job market suggested a warped sense of how Affirmative Action and, specifically in academia, “diversity hires” work.  In my short time in academia, I have not witnessed one’s racial/ethnic minority status work in their favor as a job candidate (but certainly the opposite effect!).  I have not seen offers for a “diversity hire” used in a way that was sincerely in an effort to diversify a department.  Interestingly, we can quickly find evidence of racial discrimination in the workforce, but we think of academia as an exception to the rule.
  • Creating a job ad that is open in terms of research specializations, methods, and teaching areas offers a false sense that the best candidate for the job has the best chances of getting it.  What is ignored is that candidates did not start on a level playing field at the beginning of their training and careers.  Also, regardless of the quantity of candidates’ work, this approach also ignores how scholarship is differentially valued.  I still experience some resentment today that I have figured it would have taken me another 2-3 years of grad school to achieve what my department considered “best candidate” status — a solo-authored article in the top journal in my discipline.  For the most part, white heterosexual cisgender men from middle-class families were the student rockstars who were able to achieve that feat; they likely did not lose two to three years on anger, disillusion, and constantly questioning whether to drop out of graduate school.  Further, their more mainstream research interests have better odds of being published in mainstream journals.  But, then again, “you’re Black — you’ll get a job!” did not specify that I would get a highly prized job.
  • Even who students select as their advisors has impact on their careers [download PDF of presentation].  Want the most career options?  Select a white man as your dissertation chair.  Want someone who you would feel comfortable confiding in about your experiences in academia?  Hmm, that probably is not a white man.  So, what do you value more — your success or your survival?  Sure, you have 3-4 other slots on your committee.  Hopefully your department actually has faculty of color, women faculty, LGBT faculty, disabled faculty — and, for many of us, women of color faculty, LGBT faculty of color, disabled women faculty, etc.  But, departments fail to see 1) that faculty mentors are not interchangeable and 2) that the absence of marginalized faculty is related to many of the problems above and 3) the extra mentoring and service (especially things related to diversity) that marginalized faculty do because they are one of few (or the only one).
  • In academia, as with the world outside, there is a tendency to overlook that discrimination, harassment, and violence occurs and, further, to minimize it when it is acknowledged.  At the first step, we pretend these acts of hostility and hatred never occur — not in the enlightened world of academia!  Second, we trivialize these acts when they do occur.  “I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way.”  “Are you sure you’re not overreacting?”  “How could she be racist?”  Third, when these acts cannot be erased, we dismiss them as isolated incidents — one bad apple, nothing more!  Fourth, when evidence suggests these practices are widespread, we go to undermining the data collection — reliability!  non-generalizable!  selection effect!  At what point do we finally admit academia, in general, is not an exemplar space for inclusion and understanding?

Begrudgingly, I buy ignorance as an excuse.  We cannot expect incoming graduate students to know that inequality exists in academia, especially when we are complicit in painting a picture of higher education as egalitarian spaces.  And, unfortunately, we cannot expect our privileged colleagues to know about discrimination, harassment, and other manifestations of oppression within academia — that ignorance is one blissful aspect of being privileged.  Some things, though — like the growing adjunctification of academia — are hard to miss even to those who do not personally experience discrimination and harassment.

This is why I advocate for telling one’s stories, even when teased about being a “Negative Ned” or “Dennis Downer”  Inequality within academia, and academia’s role in perpetuating social inequality, do not go away by ignoring it or keeping silent about it.  At a minimum, talking openly — ranging from correcting others’ belief in meritocracy in academia to blogging or publishing — about one’s experiences of discrimination and harassment raises awareness.  In some cases, it can also lead to change or improvement.  We must encourage our colleagues to turn their critical lenses back onto academia, for it is not immune to the problems of the world.

Coming Out (Or Not) Is A Selfish Act?

This Friday, October 11th, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* (LGBT) communities will be celebrating National Coming Out Day.  Beginning in 1988, one year after the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, LGBT people have recognized this day as an important moment to publicly come out or celebrate those who are already out.  The social climate around sexual identity, gender identity and expression, and same-gender relationships has quickly shifted toward tolerance, especially in the last few years.  So, coming out (as LGBT) has become easier, with LGBT and queer youth coming out earlier and earlier in adolescence.

Coming Out (Or Not) As A Selfish Act

Considering the growing acceptance for LGBT people, does it seem silly to stay “in the closet” (i.e., hide one’s sexual and/or gender identities)?  Last week, I attended a talk by LGBT rights activists Judy Shepard; since her son, Matthew, was murdered in 1997 because of his sexual orientation, Judy has done speaking engagements all over the world to promote understanding and acceptance for LGBT people.

I was surprised, though, that she characterized staying in the closet — at least in one’s own family — as selfish.  She argued that, by hiding who one’s “true” self (in this case, one’s LGB sexual identity), you are robbing family members of getting to know you completely.  To be fair, she started her talk by noting some things she would say would not resonate with everyone.  But, she emphasized her argument about selfishness for about ten minutes.  (Other than that, I loved her talk!)

Funny, because as my mother first struggled with my (then) bisexual identity when I came out in 2003, she told me coming out was selfish.  She suggested that it forced her and my father to adjust to this new me.  Since this was fundamentally about sex in her mind, there was no need for me to share such personal details with my parents.   (Now, over a decade later, my parents accepts me as a whole human being, and have apologized for the understandable rough time they had to go through after I came out.)  Earlier this year, a football player (selfishly) argued that coming out in the NFL is selfish because it takes attention away from the entire (otherwise heterosexual) team.

So, a queer person is selfish if they never come out to their families.  And, a queer person is selfish if they come out.  I guess.  Maybe, at the core, being queer is selfish?

Heterosexuals And Cisgender People Are Selfish

I am flipping this “selfish” accusation to highlight the selfishness of heterosexuals and cisgender people who 1) automatically assume every person is heterosexual (i.e., heterocentricism) and cisgender (i.e., ciscentricism), and 2) actively pressure LGBT individuals to become heterosexual/cisgender.

That one has to come out as LGBT in the first place is the product of the assumption that, from birth, everyone is heterosexual and that their gender identity is aligned with their sex-assigned-at birth.  A common parenting strategy is to assume one’s child is heterosexual (and cisgender) until proven otherwise; and, for parents, that includes actively demonizing queer people, communities, and relationships.

When LGBT people decide to come out (or are forced out), our heterosexist and cissexist society does not throw up its hands and say, “well, I tried.”  At the level of microaggressions, we are asked whether we think our sexuality or gender is a “phase,” or are interrogated about the traumatic events that led up to a deviant sexual/gender identity.  We are encouraged to “try a little harder” — maybe you have not found the “right” girl, or should consider joining the military to “toughen up.”

Though veiled as innocent suggestions from a place of concern, we receive comments that suggest we should give being “normal” a second chance.  Of course, this ignores the long internal process one goes through, first wrestling with one’s identity and then weighing the potential costs of coming out.  It ignores that we already have “tried” heterosexuality and/or being cisgender many, many times for many, many years — that is why we have finally decided to come out as LGBT.

More severe manifestations of heterosexist and cissexist selfishness are punishing LGBT people for being different.  The soft approach of re-recruitment did not work.  So, the big guns have to come out.  We are subject to discrimination in schools, the workplace, public accommodations, healthcare, the criminal justice system, the government, religion, etc…  Countless queer people have been verbally, physically, and/or sexually harassed or assaulted.  Countless queer people have been killed because of their sexual and/or gender identity.  Heterosexism and cissexism are not secure enough to co-exist alongside a small minority who are not heterosexual and/or cisgender; so, queer people must be eliminated, erased from the past, present, and future, and forced to assimilate.

Shaming queer people — yes, I am calling this a form of shaming — for coming out, or not coming out, ignores the consequences of these actions.  The true selfishness is demanding that an oppressed minority disclose everything to you when you want it, and hide everything when you don’t want it, while you ignore the oppressive forces that shape and constrain their reality.

Thinking Critically

As a sociologist, I must emphasize that individuals’ actions exist within a larger social context.  In this case, LGBT people’s decision to come out (or not) must be viewed as an individual act within a larger heterosexist and cissexist society.  Our agency or “free will” to act (or not) is shaped by opportunities and obstacles posed by interactions with others, institutions, and larger social systems (e.g., cissexism).

As a Black queer feminist sociologist, I must emphasize that the pressure to come out — whether from LGBT community leaders or heterosexual and cisgender family members — ignores the unique pressures and consequences for doing so among queer people of color, working-class queer people, queer immigrants, disabled queers/queers with disabilities, and queer religious minorities.  For LGBT people who are disadvantaged in other ways, the stakes may be higher for coming out.  For example, LGBT people of color risk being kicked out of their families, and lose larger ties to their racial/ethnic community; the former may be less damaging in the long-run for white LGBT people, and the latter is a non-issue for whites.

So, not only is demanding that queer people (don’t) come out selfish, it is arguably racist, sexist, classist, ableist, and xenophobic because it presumes a common set of experiences for all LGBT people.

Concluding Thoughts

My intention is not to demonize particular cisgender and heterosexual people.  But, I do take issue with shaming queer people for either coming out or not coming out.  Simply existing in this transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic society of ours is a brave act that constantly requires deciding how to navigate survive in this world.  There is no one good path because every decision we make comes with costs and consequences.  Sometimes, for the sake of survival or protecting our livelihood, we cannot afford to be out.  Sometimes, we consider the risks, but decide it is still more beneficial (for ourselves and others) to be out than not.  And, in general, the decision to come out (or not) is not always ours to make.

Without having first-hand knowledge of the reality of being queer (i.e., that is, being queer yourself), it is unfair to question the decisions that queer people make.  If you — talking to cis and hetero people here — feel the need to be critical, set your sights on the systems of oppression that shape and constrain every aspect of the lives of trans*, bi, lesbian, gay, and queer people.  We could use more of that kind of critique, anyhow!

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.