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Who Let An Activist In Here?!

(Source: UMBC’s The Retriever Weekly, 2005)

I have made compromises along the way — bit my tongue here, chosen success over authenticity there — in order to advance my training and career in academia.  With few people who look like me as mentors and professors, I suppose it seemed foolish to completely forgo any kind of caution and compromise.  Yeah, let’s go with that excuse.

But, the joke is often on me as my disguise as an apolitical mainstream scholar is recognized by colleagues and students as just that — a disguise.  I could not totally hide my activist self even if I tried; and, admittedly, I have never made the full effort to do so.

Who Let An Activist In Here?

Look at where I am in my career.  There is no need to brag here, but my accomplishments should not be overlooked.  In an era of second, third, fourth… rounds in the job market, with the majority of instructors holding contingent positions — unfortunately, disproportionately Black and women scholars — I am in a tenure-track position, fresh out of graduate school (which I finished “early”).  Add to that my marginalized social location, and my research interests in discrimination, sexuality, and the intersections among race, gender, social class, weight, and sexual orientation.  That is along with a list of service experience on my CV that clearly reflects community service — lots of it.  And, with a very public and provocative reputation on social media.  And, to my relief, securing this job has not turned out to be an error on the university’s part; they knew what they were getting and actually wanted someone like me.

I am here — a 28-year-old fat Black queer intellectual activist sociologist, in a tenure-track faculty position at the #25 liberal arts university in the US — after a series of compromises peppered with activism, advocacy, and authenticity.  It is not the path I intended, and I carry scars and regrets from it; but, I did the best that I could through the hazing process of graduate training.  I am keenly aware of the demands to conform, shut up, disappear, stress, jump and ask, “how high?”.  But, it has taken some time to recognize how professors, mentors, friends, and family supported and encouraged me to subvert, resist, demand change, speak up, and pave my own trail.

Activist Gone Academic

In the era of social media, regularly presenting and describing one’s self is now a regular task.  Since I joined Facebook in 2003, I have often described myself as an “activist gone academic.”  Now, a decade later, I am surprised I even had a sense of what these distinct identities mean, and a fuzzy sense of the loose relationship between them.  To give myself a little more credit, one of the major reasons for deciding on sociology as my major was to become a better, more informed activist.  That later served as one of the major reasons for pursuing a PhD.

Along the way, I had faculty and student affairs staff who supported my advocacy efforts and, more importantly, supported my effort to bridge academia and activism.  As a member of the campus activities organization, I created the “Cinema Series” — a monthly film series on social justice-oriented films (e.g., Crash, Brokeback Mountain, North Country) followed by Q&A facilitated by a professor.  As I co-led a campus group to advocate for greater services and resources for LGBT students (particularly the creation of an LGBT campus resource center), I had the support of a number of faculty.  Beyond those directly involved, I had a couple of professors who allowed me to use this initiative as a part of the major paper for their class.

The critical point where I was encouraged to bring activism and academia together was my sociology honors thesis.  As the initiative to create the “Rainbow Center” (LGBT campus resource center) stalled, I turned my attention to completing an honors thesis to increase my appeal to graduate programs.  Initially, I proposed studying LGBT activism on campus.  My advisor, Dr. Fred Pincus, encouraged me to focus instead on a topic that would 1) provide further evidence for the need of an LGBT campus resource center and 2) advance my academic career.  So, I decided on the most obvious: attitudes toward lesbian and gay people among students.  With the mentorship of my other advisor, Dr. Ilsa Lottes, I published my thesis in the university’s journal for undergraduate research, presented it at the undergraduate research fair, and then she and I published another paper in the International Journal of Sexual Health.  These mentors demonstrated that academia could, indeed, serve as a vehicle to create social change.

And, Then Grad School…

A former professor of mine from my graduate program wrote a blog response to me about activist efforts in academia: “Why activism and academia don’t mix.”  I would say this sentiment generally reflects the department’s views on activism.  Oddly enough, there is (limited) support for public sociology.  However, the message that was sent to me was to limit how much service you do, keep it a secret, and producing knowledge (not producing change) was our top priority as researchers.  So, I followed suit — I kept my (community) service private and learned how to “mainstream” my research.  After all, graduate training is part training and part professional socialization.  We are resocialized to become scholars, not just to do scholarship.

I am not certain whether my grad school advisors would want me saying this publicly.  But, what the hell.  They deserve credit.  For all of my selling out, frustration, struggles, etc., I had support, even in graduate school, in developing an activist-academic career.  It all started with admitting me into the program!

An excerpt from the personal statement I sent along with my grad school applications:

My goal for pursuing Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Sociology is not only motivated by my desire to further my research experience and my ability to contribute to existing research, but is also motivated by my desire to become a knowledgeable, effective educator and mentor for future students and scholars. Having realized my passion for working with students outside of the classroom, eventually I hope to serve as a director of an on-campus resource center, such as the Women’s or LGBT Centers. More broadly, I hope to become an experienced scholar within the study of sexuality and related issues, and of Sociology, to increase the number of such scholars, thereby providing future students with a larger pool of potential advisors, hopefully preventing the feeling of “few and far between” that exists now.

Maybe the program saw me as “moldable.”  It is not as though I said I wanted to run a not-for-profit or become the next Dr. Martin Luther King.  And, to be fair, I do not know what my undergraduate advisors said in their recommendation letters.  And, the admissions committee waded through hundreds of applications, possibly not fully grasping what my personal statement is really saying.  But, they had some indication from the start of who I am and what my passions are.

It seems the support I received to develop a career as an activist-academic did not exist during the early years of graduate school — the nadir of my training.  But, that time was mostly spent in classes and serving as a teaching assistant.  I was merely a student — angry and a potential drop-out — in those days.

The support emerged in the latter half as I began doing my own research.  It was subtle, only visible to me after some time.  For one of my advisors, “my #2” in my mind, it crystalized for me as we were talking through what would become my first solo-authored publication.  “Wait… so this paper is pretty much about intersectionality!?”  Without skipping a beat, and without a hint of surprise, my advisor said, “yeah!  because that’s what you’re interested in.”  My surprise that I was being encouraged to so directly tie my passion to the research I was doing reflects a number of years of feeling the two could never co-exist.  Sure, intersectionality is a theoretical framework, not an activist initiative, per se.  But, in this conversation, it became apparent that this advisor’s approach to mentoring me intentionally drew in what I was passionate about (both as a scholar and activist).  And, the surprise to my surprise said so much — what other way is there to mentor a student?!

It took all six years, literally until the day I graduated, to see it with my main advisor.  It was never explicitly acknowledged, and it never took the form I would expect.  But, that is exactly why I did not see it.  Yes, for all of my critiques of the pressure I felt to “mainstream” my research, I can actually see the positive intentions behind it.  There was a great deal of “tough love” that aimed to push my efforts to make change via research on the biggest scale possible.  There was sort of an unspoken “go big or go home” — that being cutting-edge and critical are meaningless if it stays on the margins.

In a way, this reflected what I would call “slow-boil activism.”  I have certainly encountered a number of academics who push gently, evenly, and slowly so that they may advance to a more powerful position.  My own critique of this is how much one must bite their tongue and compromise to stay on this path, and that waiting to make a big difference in 5, 10, or 20 years is a gamble on time not promised to you.  But, I would be a hypocrite to disparage this approach because, in many ways, I am enacting this strategy on my own career.  My point, here, is that my chair, in his own way, was also supporting me in my development of an activist-academic career.

Concluding Thoughts

And, now, I am a professor at an institution that wanted someone who would bring about change.  I am not expected to hide my blogging and community service, as these are actually embraced; these were the strengths that were appealing when I interviewed.  Of course, I am certain the other appeal is that I have a strong research record.  (As I said, my career is one as an activist-academic.)  Now, I am in yet another chapter of my academic career in which the activist is supported.

I have already made the point that academia and activism do mix.  What I wish to emphasize here is that, though not always made explicit, I have benefited from the support of mentors and advisors who think so, too.  These were people who knew from the start who I am and what I am passionate about.  There may have been some potential advisors and mentors who avoided me because they took the position that activism and academia don’t mix; but, I had plenty who encouraged me to make the two mix in my career.  Contrary to the anti-activism norms that exist in many places in academia, there appear to be a few who, to some degree, are willing to support the bridging between the two.

Reflections On Self-Doubt In Academia

I wrote the following post the day before I defended my dissertation in mid-May.  Though some of the self-doubt has declined since finishing the PhD and starting my new job, I will probably have to continue working at undoing the damage of the “beating” that we call graduate training.

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Reflections On Self-Doubt In Academia

In her latest blog post, “On Racism, Inferiority, and the Self,” sociologist Crystal Fleming reflected on the sense of inferiority that too many members of oppressed groups feel.  She notes:

What I have learned is that racism, homophobia, sexism and all other ‘isms’ only sting when we buy into the fiction that our worth is determined by what other people think of us.  When we feel pain from being stereotyped or negatively viewed, it’s because we needlessly give our power away. And at any moment, we can choose to stop doing that.

Unfortunately, even with a sense of pride in our identity and community, and the related rejection of the prejudices toward our group(s), we still experience the “sting” of such hostility:

But all it takes is exposure to a sexist or racist comment to remind us that some people think very poorly of us. And when that happens, the anger we feel might eclipse a pain we may have never acknowledged–the pain of fearing that the bigot, the chauvinist or the homophobe might be right. Maybe there is something wrong with me. Maybe I am inferior. And even if we reject the idea that we are less than, we may nonetheless feel wounded by another human being’s searing rejection.

To get past this, she argues for further rejection of the dominant society’s stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and hostility:

The point is to realize that this wounded ego–this lie of inferiority–does not define you. Could never define you. You are the Witness. You are Presence. You are beyond any idea, thought or construct. And the tragicomic, hilarious truth is that you have always been this whole, perfect Being. The beautiful thing is that the truth of who You really are doesn’t depend on your state of mind, your thoughts or your level of awareness.

The Case Of Graduate School

I have made a life-long promise to myself to focus my energy as a scholar on advocating for social justice, liberating oppressed communities, and making academic knowledge and research accessible beyond the ivory tower.  In other words, I do not want to waste my energy on navel-gazing, doing research on academia, engaging in initiatives that promote academia for its own benefit.  Lately, I let myself get caught up in debates with some of my colleagues about research, but primarily from a concern of the impact research has beyond academe.  I will give myself a pass, but I do wish to return to scholarship (including blogging) that serves those outside of the academy.

In another way, I find myself reneging on this promise: reflecting on my time in graduate school.  This chapter of my life is coming to a close, and I will soon embark on the next as a professor at the University of Richmond.  So, in that regard, it makes sense that I would reflect on these past six years.  But, I also find myself reflecting, not just to myself but publicly as well, in a way that feels as though pent up thoughts are now gushing out.  Yep, it is as though I remained silent for six years, and now am releasing my tell-all book, albeit in snippets as blog posts, tweets, and Facebook posts.  Again, I do not wish to write a book on graduate school — it’s been done, and can be useful, but I prefer to devote my energy as a scholar on work that serves others more directly.

BA Graduation ('07)

Where does this silence come from?  I recently reread a letter I wrote to myself, “A Letter to an Activist,” in which I reflected on my life and upbringing, my values, and my social justice-informed agenda as a scholar.  In it, I noted that I have been outspoken, challenging stereotypes, exclusion, and silences since the age of 5.  My first attempt at activism was demanding that my kindergarten teacher explain why I could only select one racial identity on a form for school.  That multiracial activism flourished, including challenging fellow students who insisted on using the term “mulatto” (possibly a derivative of mule, implying that interracial marriage is equivalent to cross-species breeding), and participating on forums for multiracial and multiethnic people.  Not even three months after coming out of the closet, I was organizing my high school’s National Day of Silence, which also flourished into bigger activism during my time in college.

With the support and encouragement of my parents to be proud of who I am, and to speak up, particularly to challenge injustice, I rarely knew silence and doubt (aside from the doubt many queer people must reject through coming out and rebuilding one’s sense of self).  I came to graduate school just as outspoken.

MA Graduation, IU ('09)

On one of the first days, a faculty member asked what we would do if the US reinstated the draft for military service.  (Six years later, the question still seems odd, its purpose and his agenda unclear.)  My cohort-mates, one by one, gave uncertain answers.  (Really, as a PhD student who would probably be excused, who has thought about what they would do?)  When my turn came, I offered, “even if they don’t ask, I would tell!”  My cohort-mates released a collective, unexpected laugh — as did I, feeling quite proud of myself for responding to a silly question with a silly answer (while simultaneously pointing out that I could not serve [pre-Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal] as a queer person).  These days, that bravery looks much different, less humorous, and comes after a great deal more introspection and weighing the risks of speaking up.

Yep, just days from having a doctorate in hand, I actually feel less brave, more hesitant to speak up, than when I merely had a Bachelor’s degree.  I already knew that self-doubt set in, that my voice wavers when I speak, even in casual conversations with faculty.  It became painfully obvious when, during a visit to U Richmond, my partner pointed out that I seemed strangely unsure of myself when speaking with my future colleagues.  Almost daily, he is the sole audience member to my fiery rants about various current events and controversies in academia; he sees me singing at the top of my lungs and dancing around our apartment when I’m feeling good or sassy.  So, why the heck was I talking to my future colleagues as though I was a nervous, awkward undergraduate student?  (I wasn’t even like that when I actually was an undergrad!)

PhD Graduation, IU ('13)

Unfortunately, the very training that is designed to empower me intellectually has also disempowered me in other ways.  The academy’s emphasis on status, expertise, and evidence (i.e. data) has humbled me — no, it has made be carry an overwhelming sense of doubt.  Besides these emphasized values, the professional socialization of graduate training has included a repeated wearing of my sense of self as a person of color, as a queer person, as an activist.  My introduction to “the classics” of sociology included token coverage of “people like me” — one week on feminist theory (including black feminist theory and standpoint theory) in my social theory course.  New projects were often criticized for lacking a “big question” because, as I was told, merely studying the lives of queer people, or Black people, or women is not interesting to the mainstream of the discipline; there must be some broader question in order for it to be broadly relevant.  There is a deradicalization that seems inherent to this professional socialization, as well, which, at times, were made explicit — the promise to “beat the activist” out of me.

So, I hear where Crystal is coming from.  I appreciate her insight and advice.  But, I must say, we face a nearly-impossible challenge of remaining whole as scholars from marginalized backgrounds when we are systematically bombarded with messages that say we are not good enough, that we are not smart enough, that are communities are not interesting, and so on.  Arguably, all educational training is like this, though I suspect things were a bit better for me because I consistently attended diverse (particularly in terms of race, ethnicity, and nationality) schools that intentionally celebrated such diversity.  Graduate school has proved to be a different beast for me — at a Historically White College or University (HWCU), in a predominantly-white town, in a conservative state in the Midwest.

This self-doubt, a poison of which I am now painfully aware, is slowly draining out.  At the cusp of “Doctorhood,” I feel myself regaining some of the lost sense of empowerment.  I feel smarter.  I feel a bit braver.  But, it is not merely having the PhD that is returning me to my pre-graduate school sense of self.  Despite the promise to break you down to rebuild you, there is some extra beating-down that seems to occur for scholars from marginalized backgrounds, particularly if they come with activist-leanings.  So, some of this revival has been my own rejection of some of this professional socialization.  For my own survival, I have had to contextualize, distance myself from, or completely reject some of the values of (dominant, i.e., R1) academia.  It seems even Crystal has had to do some similar self-reflection to get to a better, healthier place in her career.

Concluding Thoughts

My take-away point is not to counter Crystal’s message, but rather to give a bit more context.  The dominant socialization processes, which contain values that are not completely relevant to or inclusive of members of marginalized groups, and that even devalue those groups, are enforced and reinforced systematically and through institutions.  We are bombarded with our simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility as caricatures and stereotypes in media, in schools, in politics.  Even in academia — where “average” students of marginalized backgrounds are not being let in — our competence is questioned.  We must do the work to constantly reject these indignities, stereotypes, and hostilities; but, we (all of us) must change institutions that transmit these values and ideas, as well.  It may be time that we stop “beating” students, switching instead to a model of empowerment.  Just a thought.