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I use and consume water every day, multiple times each day. But, I would never call myself a water scientist. (My ignorance shows in even having to look up the term, the profession of researchers who study water.)
I watch television daily, and frequently watch movies either at home or, less often, at the movie theatre. My strong opinions and preferences aside, I would never call myself a TV or film critic.
I drive almost daily, and have been driving regularly for 17 years now. But, I don’t know the first thing about cars, and certainly wouldn’t call myself a mechanic.
I was assigned a racial identity at birth — two actually, Black and white — and have lived as a raced person in a racist society for 32 years. I tentatively call myself an expert on race and racism because I study and teach about them, though they are not my primary area of research or teaching. But, if these topics never appeared in my work as a scholar, I wouldn’t call myself an expert.
“Opinions Are Like Assholes…”
I am certain that most academics and laypeople share my hesitancy to claim expertise on water, the arts, and automobiles if they lack formal training or long-term experience (research, teaching, or performance) in these areas. Though we may self-diagnose illness and injuries with WebMD, we still end up in a doctor’s office for a “real” diagnosis and treatment. How did we ever survive before there was quick and easy access to internet search engines? Google is a verb, and Let Me Google That For You exists as a snarky response to idiotic questions that can be answered with a quick Google search.
But, race and racism seem to be the exception. Everyone, regardless of education level, seems to be an expert on race. Collectively, white Americans presumed to understand racism well enough to conclude that it no longer existed upon the election of a half-white, half-Black person to US President who likely only had a shot at the office because he was raised by his white mother. I know from my slowly evolving awareness of the ways in which white privilege — specifically, the white privilege passed on to me by my white heterosexual middle-class cis man currently without disabilities father — that has benefited my own life that Obama’s upbringing is not typical for Black Americans today. But, that nuance never appeared in mainstream discourse about the election of “the first Black president.” And, I ask of those quick to declare we live in a post-racial (or even post-racist) society — yes, even some academics… who study race (please, excuse my shade…) — how the hell did we end up here with a known racist as Obama’s successor?
I certainly understand why race and racism are hard to understand for those who do not empirically analyze them for a living. There is a nifty analogy for gender, that it is like the water that surrounds us as fish. We take it for granted; it is there from birth — assigned to us, thrust upon us, taught to us, and then policed when we deviate — and thus we come to think of it as natural. In other words, it is incredibly difficult to step outside of gender to understand it, especially gender as a social structure — a system that organizes the social world from gendered identities and expressions to sexist laws and policies. Gender seems so everyday, so familiar, and so mundane that it is easy to only see it as something individuals have, thereby missing it as a system of oppression that shapes and constrains our lives and livelihood, interests, interactions with others, and even our organizations and institutions. Gender is complex and ever-changing; we need women’s and gender studies programs to even begin to grapple with this complicated social system.
Race and racism share the mundaneness that we sense of gender. We take for granted that race exists, naively assuming that it has always existed, and, by extension, is a universal and essential artifact. Though the social construction of race has caught on as a more adequate way of conceptualizing of race, there are still spoken and unspoken glimmers of the assumption that race is biological. There is also the stubborn mentality that racism is solely the explicit expression of prejudice toward others of a different race, which leaves anti-racist activists and scholars stuck with the perpetual burden of having to prove that racism manifests structurally and unconsciously, as well. That’s why whites’ resentment about “PC culture” — modern social etiquette that demands you simply not say something deemed racist — is misplaced; yes, please stop referring to Black people as monkeys, but, you should also stop killing us, denying us jobs and promotions, withholding affordable loans and excluding us from predominantly white neighborhoods, expelling us from school or even sending us to prison over minor disciplinary problems, and so forth.
Race and racism are complex systems. That is why there are scholars who devote their careers to their study. That is why there are academic programs in racial and ethnic studies, Black studies, Africana and African American studies, Latina/o/x studies, Indigenous studies, American Indian and Native American studies, Asian and Asian American studies, Black women’s studies, Muslim and Islamic studies, Judaic studies, cultural studies, American studies, etc. The study of race, racism, and racialized communities also appears in more traditional academic programs like sociology, psychology, English, social psychology, music, theatre, art, and political science.
Race and racism warrant academic inquiry because they are important, but also because they are incredibly complicated and ever-changing. I’m afraid your uncle Joe’s assessment of who is ISIS and who isn’t fails to constitute expertise. I’m disinclined to consider your mom as a race scholar just because she (thinks she) has one American Indian friend. I’d be wary of your boss’s conclusion that “Hispanics will take over America” because he gets nervous around the office’s janitorial staff when they “refuse” to speak in English in his presence. And, I’m rolling my eyes at your friend’s story that she experienced “reverse racism” because the Black Starbucks barista was “mean” to her (read: didn’t roll out the red carpet to celebrate her existence because she’s white). Yes, I am intentionally drawing upon examples of racial prejudice here because many everyday whites draw upon their bias and stereotypes as expertise on race and racism.
I Blame Academia (Or, What’s New?)
More frustrating is that whites’ arrogance about their expertise on race and racism exist alongside their dismissal of academic study of these topics. And even more frustrating is that I have witnessed this not among laypeople — those whom we might dismiss as ignorant or uneducated if we are disinclined to be sympathetic, or inclined to be elitist — but from fellow academics. Many white PhD educated people, whom I would assume to have an appreciation of other disciplines and be self-reflective about the limits of their own expertise, are quick to devalue research and teaching on race and racism. Even in my own discipline (sociology), race and ethnicity scholars — specifically those who are scholars of color — are faced with accusations of conducting “me-search“; by virtue of their inability to be “objective” (a privilege reserved for whites, no matter their research area), their work is dismissed. More generally, the study of communities of color is dismissed (yes, even in sociology).
I suppose we cannot be too hard on uncle Joe, your mom, your boss, and your friend for believing they are experts on race and ethnicity. The academy itself is complicit in devaluing formal academic study of race and racism. Though racial and ethnic studies and similar programs exist, they are woefully underfunded, underresourced, understaffed, and are increasingly under threat. These topics have never been seriously championed in academia, and support for these programs may even be waning (at least in some places). You can get a PhD in Black studies, but I’m not so sure you can expect to get a tenure-track faculty position (if that is your goal). You can specialize in race and ethnicity as a sociologist, but publishing in top mainstream sociology journals will be a challenge, as will securing grant funding. Oh, and get ready to be challenged by your students who think they know as much about race as you do (if not more if you are an instructor of color). Why should we expect everyday white folks to take seriously “the leading expert on racism” when such scholars are not celebrated and respected as would be “the leading heart surgeon” or, hell, even the worst physician alive who, nonetheless, has the respect afforded to doctors?
The academy’s devaluation of academic study of race and racism makes it complicit in the rampant ignorance about race and ethnicity in the US. It is partially responsible for the inevitable rise of Trump and fellow white supremacists. It is responsible for the success of the narrative of angry poor whites who put Trump in office, despite empirical evidence that it was racism and sexism that gave him the election. It is responsible for the dumb notion that whites can be victims of racism or the more perverse “reverse racism”, that calling attention to racism is “playing the race card” or wallowing in victimhood. Academia is responsible for the disgusting reality that Black women scholars’ teaching and public writing about racism can successfully be demeaned as racism — this is reflected best by the fact that these scholars actually get in trouble for doing the work they were trained and hired to do!
The supposed post-racist era is dead, which actually serves as more proof that it never existed to begin with. We cannot even optimistically say we’ve entered a new era of racism because many of the features of old-school racism have reemerged (including Nazism and a bit of anti-Semitism).
But, racism today is undeniably more complex than ever before. As such, this moment is a crucial one to turn to experts on race and racism to understand how we got here and how to move closer to the death of racism. And, by experts, I mean people who have extensive academic training and who study race and ethnicity for a living. Now is the time to seriously support academic programs devoted to the study of race and racism. It is the time to hire race and ethnicity scholars to aid in developing new laws, policies, and programs. It is the time to listen to the experts of race and racism like we would to those who study climate change, or medicine, or biology, or space. Maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess right now if we had already been seriously listening to the experts.
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
I promised myself a little time to vent about the nigger “joke” I heard on Christmas, and then I would forgive and move on. At the close of the sentence, “bigger than a nigger’s lips,” my mind went spiraling. I was shocked that I heard what I heard. Five feet away from me? In mixed company on many accounts? How was the joke even relevant to the conversation? How, in 2013, do whites still make nigger “jokes”? I felt eyes dart in my direction. Oh, Eric — the Black guy — the professor — the one who does research on racism — the one who speaks openly about racism — oh, gosh.
I tried to play it cool. But, that all dissolved in a matter of minutes. Sitting in the car for the remainder of our time at the party was the only thing keeping me from vomiting. Or at least it felt as though I would, as nausea built from feeling trapped between politeness and my burning, screaming mind. I promised I would get over it by the next day, continuing to focus on racism as a system of oppression — not individual acts and attitudes.
But, in just seeing @StandForOurFlag, a defender of the Confederate flag, notify me that many in the US South continue to feel nostalgia for the confederacy (which lasted for four years) 150 years later because of something about liberty (give me a break), I cannot quickly get over the Christmas event. Two days later, I saw a Confederate flag waving proudly on my way to the mall. I tweeted about it, which is why I received the aforementioned response about liberty for (whites in) the South. Liberty?
In the spirit of one of my my 2013 resolutions (now one for 2014 because it is still a work in progress) — forgiveness — I had hoped to move on from the nigger “joke.” Black people, from capture, forced removal, enslavement, to Jim Crow, lynching, rape, to a continuing, yet subtler practice of racism today have been forgiving whites for a lot. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights movement leaders advocated for forgiveness even in the face of vehement racist hatred. It takes a huge, committed, faith-filled heart to forgive that. But, I have been trying. Something akin to “forgive the sinner, but not the sin” because racist individuals are simply a product of their racist society. It takes an evolved mind and spirit to be better than your upbringing, in my opinion. People can change — I have, and I have seen others become better, more compassionate, more open-minded, more understanding, and more critical of inequality and injustice.
I can think of something bigger than a nigger’s lips: a nigger’s heart. Still today, Black people and other people of color fight to make the US a better, more equal place — even with a continued willingness to work with white people where they are. Despite accusations of “playing the race card” and being hypersensitive, there is a great deal of patience afforded to whites without laying blame for this country’s racist past. We ask only to address today’s racism, which is a product of past racism. You cannot eradicate racial inequalities today without addressing the impact of centuries of enslavement, disenfranchisement, violence, and barriers to advancing and succeeding in life. You cannot tell a group of people who have never experienced full, equal citizenship in this nation to “get over” the very events and treatment that continues to constrain their lives.
So, I admit that alongside my forgiveness is a twinge of resentment. I have been asked again and again to forgive, even to forget, even to forgo recognizing bigotry when it occurs. But, I am sometimes automatically damned, accused, found guilty, punished simply because of my racial identity. I am asked to forgive those who refuse to forgive me for not being like them. How small is your heart (and your mind) if you automatically punish someone for being something you have decided is inferior or undesirable? So, we’ve got you beat there, racist white people! In this vein, we have the more open minds, we have the bigger, more forgiving hearts. We are able to simultaneously love this country and hate its ugliness in order to make it a better place.
I will keep forging ahead in my work to fight racism as a system, including racist treatment and attitudes. But, I think I have reached my capacity for forgiveness. Now approaching 30 years, I am beginning to feel heartache. I cannot forgive the murder of Trayvon Martin, nor that the State, which unfairly punishes those it should be protecting, that let his murderer free. I cannot forgive “oh, I didn’t know anyone would be offended,” and then be told celebrating the racist legacy of the South is a matter of liberty. I do not know that I can forgive the political sabotage driven by racism that has severely hindered President Obama’s important legacy in this nation.
My heart is big, but it would burst if I forgave any more without forgiveness in return.