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Microaggression Of The Week: Heterosexism FTW

“Did you want [life insurance] for your wife?”

That comes from my HR office… in an email response to a form I filled out to apply for life insurance on behalf of my partner and myself.  So, you know, his traditionally-masculine name (Eric… yes, we have the same first name), and checking ‘M’ for his sex, and checking “I currently have an eligible Domestic Partner” rather than providing the date of our (heterosexual) marriage — all of that failed to correct the automatic assumption that I, as a man, am 1) married 2) to a woman.

I fumed for a bit, and then responded politely to correct the heterosexist assumption.  When I received a call instead of an email reply, “partner” was used, but no apology was given for the mistake.  Insult, meet injury.

From there, I had to compartmentalize my hurt long enough to meet with a student who dropped by unannounced, and then teach my gender and sexuality course.  It is no wonder that I left campus that night exhausted, grouchy, and a little queasy.  Sadly, that is only one of many days that have either been completely derailed by a microaggression, or that I have had to conjure great emotional strength to box it up until I get home.

Yeah, so being a marginalized faculty member is probably a health hazard.  No, really.

“I’m Sure He’s Not Racist” — Why Not?

not racist

I swore I would stay politically neutral and as as silent as possible during the first year (maybe longer) on the tenure-track.  (Well, kinda.)  I am brazen enough to come to the job with specific plans for change, but wise enough to know that I need to learn the political climate first.  But, damn if it doesn’t seem impossible to avoid political battles despite your best efforts.

With one political landmine that I accidentally stepped on, I alluded that it was not clear that an invited speaker holds favorable views about one of several marginalized communities about which she spoke.  The only defense against that allegation I heard was 1) her work was not really about those communities (which made it worse, in my opinion) and 2) “I’m sure she’s not intolerant.”

There… that right there!  I have heard on many occasions the hopeful assertion that “I’m sure she isn’t racist” or “he probably didn’t mean it that way (i.e., sexist).  It seems our default assumption is that people are good at heart and don’t have a “racist/sexist/homophobic/etc. bone in their body.”  Someone has to be undeniably prejudiced and frequently practice discrimination in order to be beyond our threshold of acceptable bigotry.

Well, as a marginalized person, I have to say that assuming every new person I meet is not — specifically, in my case — racist and/or homophobic is dangerous.  I have been assuming the best in others all of my life, only to find I am punched in the gut by subtle bigotry because my defenses are down.  I went to graduate school unprepared for the microaggressions, assumptions, and discrimination I faced there (on and off campus).  Even with repeat offenders, I still did not (and, to some extent could not) eliminate them from my life entirely in order to protect myself.  Here I am now, starting a new job, and I am making the same mistake.

Beyond failing to protect myself, assuming others are prejudice-free and practice equality is naive in the face of empirical evidence — both published research and personal experience — that most people are bigoted to some degree.  I have few genuine, problem-free connections with other humans for that reason.  Oh, she seems pretty open on race issues, but trivializes my experiences with homophobia.  He and I feel a strong solidarity around queer issues, but bringing up male privilege is the best way to end that conversation.  Telling myself that most people aren’t bigots is lying to myself when I know in the back of my head the reality; I am naively falling for the “a few bad apples” mentality.

Focusing on who is racist and who isn’t, for example, misplaces attention to individuals within the larger social system of racism.  I call it the “racist hot potato” game, where we make futile efforts to discern who is a racist and why.  All while we leave in place the systemic marginalization of people of color and privileging of white people, and ignoring the daily microaggressions and threats of violence against racial and ethnic minorities.  “I’m sure he meant no harm” let’s both an individual who benefits from that system of oppression, and oppression itself, off of the hook.  You are then left with your doubt and now dismissed accusations — maybe even the counter-accusation that you are hypersensitive, petty, or even a bigot yourself.

So, in thinking about oppression in systemic terms, I should be less focused on individual oppressors.  People are a large part of the problem, but it is futile to focus just on individuals.  And, it is dangerous.  So, for my survival, I am no longer assuming people are not bigots.  Ideally, I will take one of the best pieces of advice I have received lately: have no expectations.  (You won’t be disappointed!)  At my most pessimistic, I can take the “prejudiced until proven innocent” approach with each new person I meet.  I just wish it had not taken nearly three decades and lots of disappointment with humanity to get to this point.

When White Men Stare

Stare One

A couple of weeks before the semester started, I was introduced to a colleague in another department — an older white man.  He shook my hand, but did not speak right away.  He looked in my face, puzzled.  Initially, I registered his stare as one of familiarity, a face he could not place.  As this was the first time we were meeting, I was ready for the stare and the silence to break — there was no memory to jog.  But, he kept staring, though he finally said hello.  The “you look familiar” stare and furrowed brow that I initially read began to look more like confusion or anger.

Was he confused by something on my face?  By me?  Or, that they hired me for this tenure-track position in sociology?  Classes had yet to start, so I was not “dressed to the nines” at that point; maybe the image of a young brown man in casual attire did not fit his mental image of a professor.  I figured once I did start wearing the costume suit, attention would shift away from my age, my newness, and any assumptions about my credentials or experience.

Wrong.

Stare Two

A few weeks into the semester, I attended a workshop on facilitating discussion in the classroom.  I had recently introduced true discussion in my upper-level gender and sexualities course, so the timing of this training was great.  Some seasoned faculty recognized my face as unfamiliar and asked if I was new, and then welcomed me and asked how my first month had been.  When the session began, I saw a middle-aged white man staring at me.  I expected the stare to break because he had been caught staring (custom holds that you look away when caught), or to realize he was staring out of the window behind me.  Neither was he case.  He continued to stare, his unwelcoming eyes beamed a hole into my forehead.

I decided to ignore him and listen to the panelists. Ignoring ignorance is only partially effective, if at all.  His unwelcoming stare made me self-conscious.  I looked at how I was dressed; were jeans, a sports coat, and tie too casual for a Friday?

Then, I looked around the room.  White, white, white, white, white…  Somehow, I had not noticed I was the lone brown face in the room.  His unwelcoming stare had effectively pointed out that I was a true outsider.  Things went downhill from there for other reasons.  Though I appreciate some of the panelists, I was distracted by the burning desire to scream to one panelist, “you can get away with that as an old white straight man!”

An Unwelcoming Environment

In my mind, the confused or even hostile stare of older white straight men at me — a young queer brown tenure-track man professor — is a microaggression.  It sends the message that I am an outsider and, frankly, unwelcome.  These stares are just one message in a chorus of messages that I do not belong, be it internal (imposter syndrome) or external (e.g., recently, the dining hall cashier asking, “are you a visitor?”).  These colleagues likely represent what I have heard described as the “old guard” — a generation of faculty who have a different set of expectations for the professoriate than the generation that has taken the reins in leadership.  So, they are few in number (on the campus at least).  But, I still face the occasional possibility of interacting with them.

Want To Be Successful? Just Publish, “Dude”!

A study about the predictors of a successful research career (i.e., more publications) has been making the rounds in the media — at least those outlets that publish press releases of new and provocative research.  In “Predicting Publication Success for Biologists [download],” William Laurance, Carolina Useche, Susan Laurance, and Corey Bradshow found that biologists who published earlier in their careers have a (minor) advantage in their publication success over time.  Interestingly, the prestige of one’s university had no effect.  Women faced a disadvantage, as did scholars whose first language is not English.

So, the take away point is: “dude, seriously, publish.”

Reproducing Inequality By Ignoring It

Um, hello?  “[L]anguage and gender appear to contribute to one’s research success, with male academics and native English speakers having a modest advantage” (p. 821).

“For women scientists, it’s just not a level playing field, and we need to find ways to help them advance professionally,” Professor Bradshaw said [source].

If we continue to advise graduate students in this way, telling them “dude, seriously, publish,” women, on average, will always come up short compared to men.  This is for two reasons.  First, this ignores the consistent evidence that women face barriers in productivity and publishing.  An analogy would be having two runners compete in a race: a woman wearing a blindfold with her legs tied together, and a man without those constraints — and, the woman starts out 20 feet behind the man.  This is while their shared coach is shouting, “run faster!  pick up your feet and run!”  So, every time what men can and do accomplish is held as the standard of success, women are less likely to be seen as qualified, successful, or productive.

Second, “dude, seriously, publish,” is a great example of the supposed gender-neutral (read: masculinist) style of mentorship that many professors take.  Oh, I have lost count the number of times I have witnessed mentors give advice in the form of policing their students’ gender expression.  “Don’t do that — that’s girly!”  “Man up.”  “No more of this ‘shy guy’ stuff.”  Sometimes, that spills over into attempts to control the reproductive choices of one’s students and colleagues: “don’t have a baby until after tenure”; “if you must, pop one out during winter break so you can get back to research.”  I have seen gender-policing cost candidates a job: “she looks too much like a party girl.”  So, the advice is more than “seriously, publish”; it is also to be a “dude.”  Then, you will really be successful.

The Quantitative Claws Are Coming Out

Is that a read?

And, another thing!  This study’s findings are based on this sample: “established academics includ[ing] 113 male and 69 female subjects. Over 60% of those in our sample (116) were native English speakers” (p. 819).  That is 182 biologists around the world.  Yes, that is a small sample.

Let me dig in a little more.  These were scholars who “(1) had completed their PhD before 2000 (giving us a 10-year window after the PhD to assess publication success) and (2) had an updated copy of their curriculum vitae (CV) available online (i.e., with information on their publication record, as well as data on gender, the year of PhD completion, and the university from which the PhD was granted)” (p. 818).  Their analyses considered gender, language, year of first publication relative to the conferral of their PhD, and the prestige of their current university.  So, other axes of inequality were not considered (e.g., race and ethnicity, parental and marital status).  Tenure status was not considered.  The country or continent scholars are in was not considered.

Oh, and their outcome “included only peer-reviewed papers in journals listed in the Web of Science, regardless of whether the researcher was the lead author. Of course, our response variable does not include other measures of scientific success, such as the number of citations a researcher receives” (p. 818).  Order of authorship was ignored.  Number of co-authors, if any, was ignored.  Other journals were ignored.

To Be Fair

Let me stop there.  My intention is not to trash the authors’ work.  They are honest about the limitations of their data and analyses.  What does concern me is the uncritical uptake of their findings by blogs and science news outlets.  In general, there is not enough caution expressed, given the limited sample.  Statements like those below feel a bit overblown in the absence of a large, representative, diverse sample:

It doesn’t matter whether you got your PhD at glittering Harvard University or a humble regional institution like the University of Ballarat. The supposed prestige of the academic institution has almost no bearing on your long-term success, once other key variables are accounted for.

By far the best predictor of long-term publication success is your early publication record – in other words, the number of papers you’ve published by the time you receive your PhD. It really is first in, best dressed: those students who start publishing sooner usually have more papers by the time they finish their PhD than do those who start publishing later.

The take-home message: publish early, publish often.

To be fair, that means the findings regarding gender (and language) may be overblown as well, though there is prior research pointing to gender inequality in research.  However, the “minor disadvantage” they found for women and scholars whose first language is not English may appear smaller because of the small number of those scholars in the sample.

A Personal Rant

The presupposition of a good, one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring graduate students is so problematic.  That is simply bad for students of marginalized backgrounds — the assumption that they can be mentored as though they are no different from white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities.  The challenges are not the same, nor are the reasons for pursuing higher education in the first place.  This also overlooks that those challenges then translate into indirect disadvantages for one’s students; apparently, the way to go for students of color is to find a white man professor as their primary advisor [download report on this here].

This universal approach to mentoring (read: mentoring white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities) also reinforces what is expected of newly minted PhDs.  Each time my graduate department hired, I attended the job talks and paid attention to how candidates were treated and talked about thereafter.  I even served on my department’s executive committee one year that we hired a few people.  The message I learned was open searches were for the best candidate out there — that is, a sole-authored publication in the #1 or #2 journal of our discipline.  Ironically, the students who typically accomplished that as a student of our program were heterosexual white cis men.  Yes, it left me a little bitter that I was leaving with a PhD from an institution that would never see me as qualified enough for a faculty position.  But, of course, there was the “target of opportunity,” the option of coming through the side door (in my humble opinion) for candidates of color.

But, I did start publishing “early.”  I had a co-authored publication by my third year, and a solo-authored piece by my fifth.  Realistically, to have any chance of publishing in the top three journals of my discipline, I would have had to stay in graduate school two, maybe even three, additional years.  That is, I could have a shot of achieving the records of past (white heterosexual cisgender men) superstars if only I stayed another 2-3 years.

What really, really pisses me off is that marginalized students end up disadvantaged as they progress through their graduate training, but had to start off exceptionally to be admitted in the first place.  Top-tier programs are not accepting “average” women, students of color, and other marginalized students.  One must overcome the “black tax” and the “female tax” and other barriers to have an equal shot at being accepted into a graduate program.  That means, on average, we are already starting off stronger, more exceptional than our privileged peers.

If you take away the obstacles we then face during grad school, we should be outperforming our privileged colleagues.  But, because of those obstacles, we do not even end up on equal footing — we still come up short, and have to consider setting our sights lower or even taking a “diversity hire” position to get into top-ranked places.  For myself, finishing “early” (6 years relative to the typical of 7-9 years) means I could have finished even earlier, or had a publication in the top journal within the same six-year time frame, if I did not have to trudge trough the homophobic and racist crap built into academia.  Yeah, I’m not bitter at all.

Take-Away Point

The implication for graduate training is obvious. If you aren’t actively cultivating scholars who are trying to publish, you’re screwing over your PhD students [source].

Yeah, that is only the tip of the iceberg of problems with graduate mentoring.  Our approach to mentoring graduate students cannot ignore who they are, their interests and plans, and their background.  This does them a disservice, treating them as interchangeable with any other student (though professors hardly see themselves as interchangeable).  And, it likely plays some role in reproducing inequality.  For those who successfully pursue academic careers, marginalized students, on average, will always come up short, thus facing a disadvantage on the job market.  (Since there is inequality in pay by university prestige, once again, academia is reproducing racial and gender inequality.)

But, we must also worry about those who pursue “alternative” careers or drop out all together.  Seeing and finding mentors who “look like us” is still a challenge because they are few and far between, especially further up the university rankings.  We must weigh between a white heterosexual cisgender man professor as our mentor for success reasons, and a mentor who comes from the same marginalized background for understanding and support on our terms.  It is important to “go rogue” and pave your own career path, but too many marginalized students end up going it alone because they cannot find suitable mentors.  And, telling them, “dude, seriously, publish,” is not helpful, or may even exacerbate their problems.

Shit Academics Say.

In the spirit of releasing the toxins of my graduate school days, I wish to do one more detox as I wade into the next chapter of my life as a professor.  I have already noted that time and distance have tremendously helped to heal some old wounds.  So, too, has moving out of the days of having to answer to and be molded by someone else (and now, refusing to do so on the tenure-track) and defining my own path here forward.

But, throughout, just disposing of some of that emotional and mental garbage is all it takes to feel free.  It’s just a shame that so many concerns about jobs, tenure, promotion, etc. rob us of outlets to really vent without repercussion.  So, I had taken to sprinkling vague references to offensive and unjust incidents throughout my blogs.  I’m just going to do it, once and for all, to get it out of my system.  But, I will still keep identities and contexts masked, unless it was shared in a public (and easily found) venue.

Sh*t Academics Have Said

Yes, I know the “sh*t [x group]” says is old, and became tired and repetitive rather quickly.  But, I still like the framing because there were some good and/or funny versions (e.g., “white girls to black girls“; “cis people to trans* people“; “everybody to rape survivors“; “black gays“; “white people to Asians“; “[straight] girls to gay guys“). I just found this one actually about academics and accessibility.  So, here it goes…

    • “You’re gay – do you like my shoes?”
    • “You all have ghetto booties!”
    • “What’s a Black Panther?”
    • “All Black guys have six-packs.”
    • “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about AIDS!”
    • “Can I touch your hair?  Omigod, please stop me.  I shouldn’t be touching your hair!”
    • “Aren’t fellowships for minorities a form of reverse racism?”
    • “Man up!”
    • “Don’t do that — that’s girly.”
    • “I don’t think homophobia is a problem anymore.”
    • “You don’t have to get uppity!”
    • “A little anxiety is good for you.”
    • “I mean, is it possible that these students came to graduate school with mental health problems?”
    • “You’ll have to remind them that you’re Black.”
    • “Don’t worry — you’re Black.  You’ll get a job.”
    • “You’re not going to get a job.”
    • “So, lesbian and gay falls under the umbrella of transgender, right?”
    • “I think you’re overreacting [about racism].”
    • “You know, as a woman of color, you really shouldn’t show up late.”
    • “Where is the hotel lobby?  Oh, you don’t work here?”
    • “The students here are kind of stupid.”
    • “Community service?!  Not before tenure.”
    • “You have anxiety?  What — too much service?”
    • We live in a “post-racist” society
    • Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation.
    • “She didn’t get the job because she’s a party girl.”
    • “You’re not going to get a job by studying trans* people.”
    • “She teaches an immigration course.  Can’t she teach race, too?”
    • “Do not have a baby before tenure!”
    • “You’re not really Hispanic.  You don’t even speak Spanish!”
    • “Why would you tell anyone that you’re Black when you can pass [as white]?”
    • “You’re not like other Black people.”
    • “Can’t you just breastfeed in the bathroom?”
    • “I don’t know who the new secretary is, but, I’m sure she can help you.”
    • “Oh, we haven’t beaten the activist out of you yet?”
    • Activism and academe don’t mix
    • “But, you’re research interests [on race and sexuality] are so narrow.”
    • “So, what are you?”

On A Serious Note

There is an element of fun and humor to naming these rather hurtful comments.  These are, by definition, various instances of microaggressions — or “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative” slights and insults toward people of color, women, queer people, fat people, and other marginalized groups.  These seemingly innocuous comments and actions are compounded by more obvious, major expressions of prejudice and discriminatory acts, and symbols in the environment that devalue marginalized people and/or elevate the values of privilege people.

So, in my experience, these verbal and interactional slights are just one (albeit common) manifestation of racism, heterosexism, and fatphobia in academia.  I also saw few faculty like me — scholars of color and LGBT scholars, in particular; my graduate department regularly struggled to recruit students of color.  My classes were held in a classroom named for a revered old white man scholar (whose picture watched over us), within a building named for another revered old white man scholar — all of this, at a school that continues to struggle to diversify its student body and faculty.  Within class, curricula regularly featured the work, perspectives, and voices of heterosexuals, cisgender people, whites, and men (especially white heterosexual cismen), and studying particular marginalized populations was not seen as rigorous as taking on a mainstream concept or theory.

What’s worse is that the pressures of the job market, tenure, promotion, and general status-mobility in academia force us to be silent about these realities.  If I played it completely safe, I would wait until tenure to finally open up about these experiences.  That would mean 13 years of silently dealing with microaggressions, discrimination and harassment, double-standards in evaluation, and tokenism — and, the real consequences for my livelihood and well-being.  But, guess what?  I could do everything the white right way and still find myself without tenure and a job in seven years.

Academics, we have a problem.  There is major need for change.

Further Reading And Resources (Again)