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This Blog Is Trauma On Display

Eric - Red Scream

This is the most significant public essay that I have ever written. And, it is the most difficult for me write. I imagine by the essay’s end, some readers will feel a greater sense of sympathy for me – and, Goddess help you if you can empathize. Others may find confirmation in their assessment that I am crazy, never to return again to this site. Still others may be unmoved because what I share here is unsurprising based on my earlier writing. Let’s get on with it then.

I was traumatized by my graduate training. My six years in grad school – the journey to a PhD and the tenure-track position that I currently hold – also landed me in therapy two years after graduation. I began seeing a therapist over the summer because I have not been fully enjoying the job for which I fought so hard. For two years, I have lived in fear that I will be fired or denied tenure because of my politics, my activism, my identities, my research, my teaching – all of the very qualities that got me the job in the first place. I have experienced anxiety about how I dress, how I interact with students and colleagues, what I write on this blog, and what advocacy I pursue on and off campus. I haven’t enjoyed my job, and have rarely felt fully present at work; admittedly, I feel a creeping suspicion that I would quit before tenure if I were to continue this way.

I (re)created Conditionally Accepted right after I graduated from Indiana University in 2013. I was fed up with challenges that I had experienced, finding out later how common these barriers were. I had been through things I now know others had, as well, but without the benefit of access to others’ stories and wisdom. There is no reason why any grad student should feel as though they are alone in instances of patterned inequalities and problems in the academy.

On this blog, I have been quite vocal about these challenges. At one point, I even reflected on experiencing “grad school garbage,” alluding to trauma and PTSD. In private journaling, I noticed that I have casually used the term trauma. And, I mentioned the term in sessions with my therapist. But, it took hearing him say it for me to realize how fitting the term is for my experiences and their lasting impact.

“Eric, you experienced a trauma,” my therapist said. I rejected his preliminary diagnosis. I responded that trauma is rape, combat, or having your house burn down. Who gets traumatized in pursuit of an academic degree? Apparently, I did. Eventually, I accepted his assessment. I felt a sense of relief to have a label for my awful experiences, for an outsider to validate just how bad it was. But, it also felt (and still feels) embarrassing. Some peers loved grad school. I was traumatized by it. What’s different about me? What’s wrong with me? Why me? Was it really that bad?

In a later session, my therapist asked about the content of Conditionally Accepted, at least my blog posts. I already knew where the conversation was headed. This blog is trauma on display. Each post that I wrote, including some that never got published on the blog, risked becoming a rant about grad school. I have been stuck in the hurt for two years. My therapist suggested a trauma narrative – the telling of my traumatic experience, which I would work through with his help. This is much more productive than telling and retelling horror stories to anyone who will listen. And, it was. I filled a 70-page spiral notebook with the handwritten telling of every horrific experience, instance of discrimination, and microaggression. When I flipped through the 70 pages, I thought, “who wouldn’t be traumatized by all of this?”

What was so traumatic about my graduate training? I identified four factors that were beyond my control: repeated microaggressions; the devaluing of research on my communities (Black and queer people) as legitimate areas of study; the efforts to “beat the activist out” of me; and, the intense pressure to pursue a career that was not right for me. These factors reflect the structure and culture of graduate training. PhD or not, job or not, any time in that program would inevitably traumatize me. There is no use feeling sorry for myself and wondering what I could have done differently.

How do Black queer activists and other marginalized and radical students avoid such trauma? Maybe I will have an answer upon successfully recovering from my own trauma. I suspect having a community, supportive family and friends, and a strong sense of my values helped to prevent worse trauma. But, these clearly were not enough to prevent the trauma in the first place.

Ultimately, academia would have to change drastically. Diversity as a value would have to mean active recruitment and retention of significant numbers of people of color, LGBTQ people, women, working class people, people with disabilities, fat people, and religious and nonreligious minorities. That, and the valuing of research on and by these populations. And, doing away with the mythology of objectivity and its privileging of scholarship on and by white heterosexual middle-class cisgender men without disabilities. Activism, which has a long history in academia, can no longer be seen as antithetical to academic pursuits. In the 21st century, grad programs must prepare students for the realities of the profession and world. Too few PhDs land tenure-track jobs, and even fewer in reputable research I universities. We should be training the next generation of intellectuals for all possible academic and non-academic jobs, and to be able to respond to the problems of their day.

I am certain that I may continue to process the trauma out loud. But, as my therapist encouraged me, I no longer want to dwell on it. Rather, I want to continue to use this blog as a space to offer resources for current and future scholars of marginalized backgrounds. Maybe, just maybe, I will help one person avoid the traumatic experiences that I endured. At least let me dream of an academia that is safe, equitable, diverse, accessible, and active in the promotion of social justice.

On The Conditional Acceptance Of LGBTQ Scholars In Sociology

A couple of weeks ago, I participated on a panel at the American Sociological Association annual meeting titled, “Navigating Queer Identities in the Department and Classroom.”  I decided to reflect on what I feel is the “conditional acceptance” of LGBTQ scholars in sociology.  I have provided my notes from that panel below.

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I have faced surprisingly little homophobic discrimination in my academic career. There have been occasional stings of homophobic microaggressions: “you’re gay, do you like my shoes?”; “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about AIDS”; “did you want life insurance for your wife?”; “we’re so gay-friendly – there are lots of theatres and museums nearby.” But, I am not aware of instances of outright discrimination, harassment, or exclusion.

I do not take from my experiences the assumption that I am one of the lucky few, and certainty not the conclusion that homophobia is a thing of the past (even in academia). Rather, I am keenly aware of the choices – or, rather, compromises – that I have made that have shielded me from more severe discrimination and marginalization in academia. To some degree, at least compared to even a few years ago, lesbian, gay, and bisexual have achieved acceptance in sociology. The American Sociological Association’s (ASA) advocacy for marriage equality is nothing short of historical. (The field lags in recognizing, addressing, and eliminating transphobia.)

As a queer cisgender man, I have certainly felt welcome, if not accepted, in sociology. But, this acceptance has felt anything but unconditional. Throughout my career, I have felt conditionally accepted as an out queer man in sociology. I borrow this term – conditionally accepted – from the experience of coming out to my parents around age 18. In the years that followed, their initial denial and disappointment gave way to acceptance because I was doing well in school. They admitted that it became easier to accept my sexuality because I was successful. Translation: my parents would have continued to struggle if I were HIV-positive, suffering from drug addition, or another casualty of suicide or hate crimes.

“I Don’t Mind Gay People”

In my academic career, I have faced two manifestations of this conditional acceptance as a queer scholar studying queer communities. The first is akin to the supposedly welcoming phrase, “I don’t mind gay people as long as they don’t come up on me.” You can be queer in sociology – just do not demand the majority to change. Do not ask sociology to start recognizing sexualities and trans studies as legitimate areas of study.

Even before I even began my PhD program, I was discouraged from pursuing gender studies training. My dreams of a joint PhD in sociology and gender studies were quickly dismissed with the warning that I would never get a job. But, I was also discouraged from pursuing a graduate minor in gender studies; instead, my minor became research methods (i.e., statistics). By the midpoint of my training, I had picked up the habit of choosing more mainstream subfields and topics on my own. I focused on social psychology instead of gender or sexualities for my qualifying exam. My dissertation was primarily a medical sociology project, though it includes some attention to sexuality and intersectionality.

On the surface, the pressure to become a mainstream sociologist was a practical matter. I would, and did, get job offers as a quantitative medical sociologist who has published in mainstream journals. Maybe the interests I came to grad school with – wanting to study racism within queer communities using qualitative methods – would have led to a very different academic trajectory. But, the implicit message was that studying sexualities – or more specifically, studying queer people – was not important to sociology. To be successful, one does not become a sociologist of sexualities, and certainly not a sociologist of queer communities nor a queer sociologist. Rather, one becomes a medical sociologist, a criminologist, a cultural sociologist or some other reputable subfield, who happens to study LGBTQ people.

When I became a medical sociologist who happens to study queer people, and other oppressed groups, I stopped hearing that my research interests were “too narrow.” I stopped hearing, “you’ll never get a job with a dissertation on trans people.” Conforming paid off – at least professionally.

“Don’t Flaunt It”

ScholarThe second manifestation of conditional acceptance for queer scholars in sociology is parallel to the expression, “I don’t care if you’re queer as long as you don’t flaunt it.”  For lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, your sexual identity is not an issue so long as you do not make it an issue – at least in the eyes of our heterosexist colleagues. Besides advice on how to frame my work, I also occasionally received advice on how to present myself as a scholar.  For conference presentations, I was warned against “shy guy stuff.” Translation: “man up.” To be successful, a scholar must present herself in a masculinist way. From the awful stories that I heard from trans and gender non-conforming peers, I understood that to mean my ticket to success on the job market was wearing suits and speaking with unwavering authority and expertise. Due to my fear of professional harm, I wear suits in almost every academic setting, including the classroom.

In my pursuit to conform to the heterosexist and cissexist standards in sociology and academe in general, I have been rewarded. But, that has come at great personal costs. What began as a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder stemming from the intense, urgent demands of grad school morphed into anxiety about interacting with other people in general – even students. I find only slight comfort in my suits from the fear of being dismissed, disrespected, or even fired. I struggle to find a home within sociology. My work falls primarily in medical sociology, yet I remain unknown in that subfield of the ASA. I find a sense of community in the sexualities section, but my limited research feels insignificant to the study of sexuality. Finding the proper home for awards and sessions is a challenge each year, as well.

More generally, I feel my professional identity has almost completely dissociated from my sexual, gender, and racial identities, as well as my activism. Though I am undeniably out via my blogging and other public writing, my scholarship, and the picture of my partner on my office desk, my queer identity is disconnected from my professional presentation of self. In the classroom, I only explicitly out myself after students have completed course evaluations because I fear that I will be deemed biased or “too activist.” I suppose I am somewhat in the closet intellectually and pedagogically. I do not feel authentically queer as a scholar and teacher.

I probably should not be surprised by my experiences. I first read Patricia Hill Collins’s essay, “Learning from the Outsider Within,” in my first semester of graduate school. Through that 1986 piece, Collins warned me that scholars of oppressed communities face the pressure to “assimilate a standpoint that is quite different from their own” in order to become sociological insiders. The outsider within status is one filled with tension between one’s experiences and worldview and the false ideology of objectivity in mainstream sociology. Collins noted that some sociological outsiders resolve this tension by leaving the discipline, while others suppress their difference to become sociological insiders. Apparently, I have pursued the latter path.

Some Advice For LGBTQ Sociologists (And Scholars in General)

I do not share these experiences to criticize my graduate program, or as an excuse to vent about that chapter of my life. I also refrain from casting blame, as I am partly responsible. Knowing the norms and values of academia, I have made various compromises in order to get ahead. Fortunately, there are improvements, albeit reflecting slow change. For example, just 3 years after the 2012 sexualities ASA pre-conference in Denver, CO, sexuality will be the 2015 theme for the main ASA meeting in Chicago. And, I do not want to characterize the academic career options for queer people as bleak, facing either conformity and selling out or perpetually being on the margins of sociology.

I do believe there is hope for an authentic, happy, and healthy career for queer sociologists, including those who study gender and sexualities. I suspect we must all make some sort of concessions in order to success in academia, though this burden falls more on marginalized scholars. It may be useful, then, to determine how far one is willing to concede. At what point does advancing in one’s career outweigh the costs to oneself, one’s identity and values, one’s family, and one’s community? I recommend reflecting on this at multiple times in one’s career, particularly with upcoming milestones, new jobs, and other transitions. Essentially, can you live with the tough decisions you must make?

  • If you are forced to make concessions, or even sell out in some way, then make sure there are other sources of community, authenticity, happiness, or validation in place in your life. Find or create a queer community, maybe specifically of other academics. Have one fun, critical, or super queer project for every few projects that are more mainstream; maybe use these projects as opportunities to collaborate with other queer scholars. If your research is pretty devoid of queer issues, find ways to cover them in your classes, or vice versa, or focus your service and advocacy on queer initiatives.
  • Look for queer role models among your professors or senior colleagues. Look outside of your own department or university if necessary. And, in turn, consider being a role model for your students and junior colleagues – that means being out if it is safe to do so. Incorporate sexualities and trans studies into your syllabi to demonstrate the relevance and importance of these subjects in sociology. At the start of the semester, ask students for their preferred name and pronoun, and mention yours.
  • Before enrolling into a program or accepting a job, do your homework. How safe will you be as an out LGBTQ person? In the campus and local newspaper, can you find evidence of anti-LGBTQ violence, discrimination, and prejudice? Are queer scholars, especially those who do queer research, supported and included? Email queer and queer-friendly students or faculty. I have heard some suggest being out on interviews and campus visits, which seems counterintuitive; but, if you face discomfort or hostility, you would know what to except upon going there.
  • Let’s be honest about what we are talking about here: figuring out how to survive as queer people within heterosexist and cissexist academic institutions. In order to be included, in order to create queer communities, in order to see our own lives reflected in scholarship and curriculum, we must fight. Like it or not, we must be activists to ensure our survival and inclusion within academia and other social institutions.
  • Let’s keep having these conversations. It is crucial that we know that we are not alone, and that we have a supportive community in sociology.

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.

My Survival Vs. My Job

One Friday, a couple of weeks ago, I woke up tired and a bit grouchy.  I cannot explain how, but I had a feeling the day was destined to be rough.  Now teaching everyday except for Friday — three classes, including two on Tuesdays and Thursdays — I am typically extremely exhausted by Friday.  But, I have yet to reach a week’s end where I could take Friday off from work, or even do light, mindless work.  With a new course prep, if I do not get a decent amount of work done on Friday, I am setting the stage for a panic-filled Monday followed by more days of stress, and another exhausted Friday.  Did I mention this semester is kicking my ass challenging?

But, I digress.  I logged into Facebook one last time before leaving for work finally.  There I saw a picture of a Black History Month themed display at my university’s dining hall:

Dining Hall Display

The cotton and bale of hay…  What about this display is a celebration of Black history?  What about this features the accomplishments of Black Americans, or aspects of Black culture?  What the fuck about this is a celebratory moment for Black people in the US?  Yes, cotton — makes me think of the most oppressive and violent period in American history for Black people: slavery.

I saw that a colleague had posted the picture, taken from a student who posted it on Twitter earlier in the week.  But, I decided to ignore it.  I had not seen it for myself nor was I willing to make a special trip to see it.  And, let’s be honest, I immediately felt this was not a matter I could fight as a pre-tenure professor.  But, the major reason was I simply did not have the emotional and spiritual capacity because I was already bogged down fighting other demons.  I had to muster up enough energy just to go to work.

Choosing Your Battles; Or, Racial Battle Fatigue

As the day went on, the bizarrely racist dining hall display increasingly bothered me, like a slow-release pill.  I braved a smile as I chit-chatted with my colleagues about usual department matters.  I spoke with one about being productive and politically “safe” as I progress toward tenure.  Something about that colleague’s advice — that everyone’s tenure decision is political and uncertain, so you really cannot help but to be stressed for seven years — yanked the last shred of hope I had for the day.  I almost walked away upon hearing it, but forced myself to carry out the conversation.  When I returned to my office, it took every ounce of my energy to stay seated and keep working rather than collapsing into a ball on the floor to cry.  I should have taken Tyra Banks’s advice: just let the cry out and get back to work.

But, what was there to cry about?  Oh, that I cannot shake the feeling that I am slowly sabotaging my own career with every provocative tweet and blog post.  That, maybe even at the end of this first year, I will receive a letter instructing me to clear out my office and seek new employment.  For all of the positive feedback I have received on my blogging, I still hear a voice that says something bad will happen if I insist on publicly, vocally criticizing academia.  Another way to put it is that I do not have a clear, external gauge for my standing at the university, and I will have to wait until my third year review to find one, though annual reviews may help, too.

By late afternoon, I returned to the dining hall display of nostalgia for the “good ol’ days.”  Still, I did not feel comfortable voicing my concern without having seen it, and did not want to make the trip to see it.  So, I asked my tenured colleague to voice a complaint, and made clear my hesitation as a tenure-track faculty member and, frankly, that I already felt depleted from other battles.  Fortunately, a number of people had already spoken up and the display was removed.

My Survival Or My Survival?  (But, not both…)

This incident highlighted a tension that I had not named for myself until now.  On the one hand, I could speak up, emphasize the hostility to Black students, staff, faculty, and visitors that is conveyed by a display reminiscent of enslavement.  That is, I could take an action to fight for the survival of my racial community.  On the other hand, I could keep my mouth shut and “play it safe” as a junior professor, opting to avoid making enemies across campus.  That is, I could chose inaction for the sake of keeping my job — my survival as an individual.  Choosing to speak up (anti-racism) or shut up (job security) were my two opposing options.  Do I focus on my survival (as a Black person) or my survival (as a professor)?

And, there it is.  Yet another painful reminder of how marginalized scholars are, at best, conditionally accepted in academia.  Everyday, I am faced with the decision: group survival vs. individual survival.  Since these are opposing decisions, I rarely, if ever, experience both. Ultimately, I chose silence about the dining hall display; I picked “safely” keeping my job over the safety of Black people on campus.  By creating this blog, I am “taking one for the team,” enduring known and unknown professional risks in order to improve the lives of marginalized scholars.  Everyday that I wear a man’s suit, I am choosing professional safety (as well as safety from violence) over greater visibility of genderqueer people on campus.  Every interaction with a student or colleague — do I choose authenticity and social justice or safety and job security — carries the decision between my survival or my survival.  And, major decisions like making my research more “mainstream” to increase my professional status comes at the expense of my own authenticity and perspective. The very things I should and should not do as a tenure-track professor seem at odds with the very things I should not and should do as a Black queer person.

Unfortunately, my actions have consequences for my partner and family, as well.  That means there is an additional layer — feeling selfish or reckless — each time I put my job on the line for the good of my communities.  I would say once per month, I ask my partner, in essence, for permission to be myself.  In that I fear professional consequences for blogging about academia, as well as other forms of advocacy on and off campus, I convey to him my worry that my actions could ultimately hurt him, as well.  If I were fired before even going up for tenure for seen and unseen political reasons, we would both suffer (e.g., loss of income and benefits).

Every once in a while, the thought crosses my mind to eliminate the blog and start all over as a “safe,” silent, apolitical tenure-track professor.  To just teach my classes and churn out publications.  And, wait until tenure is awarded to become vocal and critical and involved in social justice work.  Yes, then I would be safe.  Right?  Because all scholars have a fair chance at tenure, right?

I would not be safe.  Every tenure decision is political.  So, I have two choices: play it as safe as possible, all at the expense of fighting for my communities’ survival; or, speak up and out against injustice, potentially being labeled radical, “activist,” uppity, militant, or even a liability.  I am doing my damnedest to balance the two paths.

“Maybe You’re Overreacting…?” — On Emotional Control

Let me start with the premise that I, as a sociological social psychologist, recognize emotions as socially constructed non-verbal ways of communicating a feeling or thought.  Sure, I know there are biological and physiological explanations.  Blah blah blah — as a social scientists, I am always asked to concede room for the “real” science fields to explain the social world.  (Can we start asking chemist, “have you considered that this may be socially constructed?”)  However, I stand by my point because emotions are 1) regulated by social norms and 2) used in the context of labor or work.  For example, we have tacit rules about the emotions one should convey at a funeral or wedding.  And, some jobs demand specific emotional expressions as a part of one’s labor (e.g., flight attendants).

It seems, like everything else we study in sociology, there is an aspect of emotions and how they are regulated and used that reflect inequality.  I became interested in the sociology of emotions through my introduction to Arlie Hochschild‘s book, The Managed Heart – a study of the emotional labor of (women) flight attendants and the wear it has on their health and well-being.  In particular, when forcing a positive, nurturing emotion for so long, the flight attendants in her study noted feeling disconnected from their authentic emotions.  I can also relate to the idea of emotion work as a means of navigating oppression (i.e., avoiding discrimination and violence) in Doug Schrock‘s research on transwomen.

Controlling Emotions

I am also interested in, and particularly sensitive to, the seemingly innocent ways in which we attempt to control others’ emotions.  “Boys don’t cry.”  “Stop your whining.”  “Must be PMS.  Amiright?!”  “Calm down.”  “He’s an angry Black man.”  Some of these requests reflect good intentions.  Some are simply demands to stop emoting in a certain way.  Whatever the intention, these are attempts to control another person.  But, I worry that the burden of emotional control — or being emotionally controlled, I should say — falls too often on marginalized people.  In fact, certain emotions are seen as particularly threatening or inappropriate because of one’s social location.

It almost seems “angry Black” is redundant based on the way that Black people are criticized for presumably publicly expressing anger — anger that would be seen as understandable in a white person.  It also seems that anger is read no matter one’s actual internal emotional state and one’s behavior or outward expression of emotion.  So, to avoid the penalties of being read as angry and Black, some have to work even harder to seem deferential friendly.

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I would argue that at the heart of this desire to control marginalized individuals’ emotions is an unwillingness to acknowledge and appreciate their experiences.  The best example of this is the seemingly concerned and innocent question, “are you sure you’re not overreacting?”  This question suggests that your way of responding to an event or condition exceeds what is seen as appropriate.  The flaw, however, is typically in the inquirer’s underestimation of how intense the situation is — and how frequently it occurs.

Let me give a specific example.  Well, none come to mind because it has happened repeatedly in my life.  In relaying that I feel upset after I have heard something so offensive, or even been victimized by discrimination, to a trusted friend or colleague, I have been asked, “are you sure you’re not overreacting?”  Now that I reflect on the question, it is unclear whether the inquirer is suggesting my perception of the event is inaccurate or my emotional response is inappropriate — it is probably both.  The question sets me off because I do not feel the inquirer believes my perception of my own experiences, and has attempted to control my emotional responses to them.

It is insult to injury.

The most frustrating piece is that the question of overreacting presumes that the reaction is to an isolated incident.  “So, he accidentally alluded that whites are American and people of color are not.  I am sure he…” blah blah blah, benefit of the doubt.  Because, you know, we are uncomfortable assuming someone is a bigot or fails to acknowledge their privilege, even when their behavior says otherwise.  In reality for the oppressed person, these seemingly minor expressions of prejudice or discriminatory acts open up the wound from a lifetime of exposure to this kind of crap.  It is not just that one racist asshole — it is yet another reminder that I will forever encounter racist assholes, who are then given the benefit of the doubt, while I am told an appropriate way to emote (if I am allowed to at all).

As these events add up, and the efforts to control your response add up, the larger picture becomes one of an oppressed life with nothing less than a smile on your face.  You do not have the right to be upset about your oppressed status.  If you are angry that you are oppressed, and that anger is understood by the oppressor, that oppression is no longer justifiable.  We can longer reference happy Black slaves, and then miserable freed Blacks.  We would not be able to justify the racism-motivated opposition President Obama has faced since the beginning of his presidency if we understood and appreciated his anger; so, we must undercut him by alluding to angry Black men.

Concluding Thoughts

Do me a favor.  Strike “are you sure you’re not overreacting?” from your vocabulary.  Never string those words together when someone has confided in you about their experiences — even beyond the examples above related to discrimination and prejudice.  Particularly for marginalized people, we have already replayed the event in our heads a few times before naming it as unfair, discrimination, or at least worth of an upset response.  We already have weighed the possibility of being dismissed or told that we are overreacting or simply hypersensitive before telling another soul.

Try, instead, telling someone you believe them (if you do).  And, even if you do not, affirm their right to emote however feels right to their experiences.  If you cannot muster that, just listen.  Be just that one person who does not demand that an upset person justify to you that they experienced what they experienced and are properly responding to those experiences.