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White People: Yes, It is Difficult For You To Talk About Race — That’s Part Of Racism’s Design

Source: Victoria Pickering, https://www.flickr.com/photos/vpickering/

Preface

This summer, I caused quite a stir on my university’s faculty listserv on the matter of institutionalized racism in higher education. My esteemed colleague, Dr. Bedelia Richards, wrote a terrific essay on the matter: “Is Your University Racist? Five Questions Every Institution Should Ask Itself.”

I subsequently caused another stir on the UR faculty listserv by criticizing my university’s inaction in the face of an law student group’s invitation for Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation to speak on campus for the fourth time in recent years — this time, to peddle scientific transphobia thinly disguised as legitimate legal and scientific analysis. (See my blog post on the matter here.)

Several colleagues — mostly white, heterosexual, cisgender women and men — have reached out to commend my bravery, invite me to lunch or coffee, and/or to tell me how they could never speak out so publicly and brazenly. I am grateful, but admittedly annoyed, for a few reasons.

First, I’ve come to recognize that what seems like bravery on my part is actually just efforts to do the work that my university has failed to do. Calling out institutionalized racism and cissexism falls to individual students, staff, and faculty when the university neglects to do so; and, such work looks (and is) brave.

Second, I don’t want to keep having lunches and coffees. These invitations are kind gestures, but they require more and more time and emotional labor, including the back-and-forth of multiple emails just to find a time that works for our schedules. I’m not speaking out to be praised or validated; I’m speaking out because my safety and livelihood depend upon real efforts to challenge racism (mine, as well as yours). Rarely have these one-off meetings turned into long-term friendship or even sustained support/mentorship/sponsorship/advocacy on my behalf.

And, finally, these interactions demand of me that I absolve white, heterosexual, cis people of failing to speak up in the face of injustice. I resent when privileged people confide in me about why they refuse to fight against the systems of oppression that constrain my life chances and quality of life, systems from which they benefit. What’s uncomfortable or inconvenient to you is literally oppressive and violent for me.

So, I took to Twitter once again to speak to white people on challenges (yet importance) of talking about race and racism. You can see the rant in its original Twitter form here. (Also check out my last one, “White People: You’re Racist, But This Isn’t About You.”)

What follows is a slightly revised version in essay form, reorganized to improve clarity and flow.

You Are Afraid To Talk About Race & Racism

White folks: so, you don’t know how to talk about race – but you want to. You feel paralyzed by fear or ignorance, and might decide to defer to someone who is “well-versed” on the subject matter. But, you feel guilty, and you want people of color to whom you are an ally to know that you aren’t racist (just scared).

Whatever the reason for your silence, you’ve made a conscious decision to remain silent about race, perhaps even in the face of racist injustice. White privilege allows you to feel like an individual who made a difficult decision. But, in reality, most white people choose silence. And, those individual decisions to remain silent add up to collective white silence, to white complicity in racist oppression, or even white consent to racist violence.

And, that’s exactly how white silence feels. As a person of color, I cannot discern between your fear-stricken silence and the silence of white people who don’t think that racism exists, who think that race only emerges as a topic or factor when people of color bring it up (i.e., “playing the race card), or who simply do not value the lives of people of color. The impact of your silence is literally the same as that of Klansmen, Nazis, most white Republicans, and other garden-variety racists.

You Lack The Language To Talk About Race & Racism

White folks: of course you feel that you do not know what to say on racial matters, or how to intervene in racist incidents. Very few of us are well-versed on the topics of race and racism. Even as a race scholar (academic expertise) and person of color (personal experience), I struggle to communicate the complex, structural, pervasive nature of racism to other people — even other academics. It may seem like people of color can talk readily, freely, and endlessly about race, but we just have lots of practice given our everyday lived experiences in a racist nation.

Of course you don’t know how to constructively talk about race. You don’t have to (thanks to white privilege). And, you’ve gotten little to no practice with it (thanks to white privilege and racism). It has never been a skill that white families desired to or felt it necessary to teach their children. There is no widely accessible script afforded to white people for talking about race or fighting racism. It’s like learning a new language or skill.

But, worse, racism makes it so that there are risks inherent to white people talking constructively about racism. In the past, anti-racist whites have been called “race traitors” and “nigger-lovers,” etc. The system is designed to protect itself from white individuals attempting to undermine it. So, of course you are clueless about how to talk about racism. And, of course, you are nervous to “go off script.”

Because you feel you lack the “right” language, you may be tempted to defer to someone who is seemingly better equipped to talk about and address racism. In doing so, the responsibility typically falls to whichever people of color are present for that conversation or incident. As usual, it’s those victimized by the system who are burdened with the responsibility of trying to get those who benefit from racism to give a damn, to listen, to learn, to act.

Too often, I see white people defer to others (people of color) to talk about race and act in the face of racial injustice — and, then never make an effort to educate themselves about race and racism. If we think of such knowledge as “racial literacy,” then an equivalent inaction would be realizing you don’t know how to properly use the reply-all feature on a listserv or group email but never bothering learn how. But, while unnecessary replies-to-all are annoying and inconvenient, collective white ignorance about racist oppression literally has dire and deathly consequences for people of color.

You Lack The Right Knowledge About Race & Racism

White folks: if you actually go on to educate yourself when you have been forced to acknowledge ignorance about racism, then please do not hit up the lone person of color you know to educate you. We do not get paid for this labor — and it is labor that is requested often.

Speaking from experience, I can tell you that most white folks (even the most liberal, well-intentioned ones) are not 100% open as students. So, with the labor of educating you about how you benefit from our domination, we risk your anger, frustration, cluelessness, dismissal, co-opting, resentment, etc.

Understand that you are not the only, nor the first or last, white person to ask questions of, to play devil’s advocate with, to process your feelings about racism with a given person of color. That time and energy adds up and, honestly, for too little payoff. You need to note that these conversations may be taxing, upsetting, or even triggering for us because it can feel like our safety and livelihood depend upon the outcome.

There are countless books written, documentaries and films and TV shows produced, and courses offered on race and racism, many by people of color. The widespread existence of academic programs in Racial and Ethnic Studies, Black Studies, Asian American Studies, American Indian Studies, Latina/o/x Studies, etc. tells you that there are a great deal of scholarly and creative works on our lives, and on race and racism. I recommend becoming a student of these fields to minimize the labor tasked to individual people of color to respond to the infinite questions asked by white strangers, friends, relatives, neighbors, students and teachers, medical professionals, law enforcement officers, etc.

You Feel Uncomfortable Talking About Race & Racism

White folks: please stop waiting for talking about race to be comfortable. Racism is a system of oppression. It’s never going to feel like a topic that’s lighthearted enough to absentmindedly bring up at Thanksgiving dinner.  (You’ve seen the hilarious Saturday Night Live skit, “A Thanksgiving Miracle,” right?)

As such, I encourage you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Your comfort in the face of the inhumane system of racism is an example of white privilege. Being comfortable with racism (or ignoring it) is not a luxury people of color enjoy. Personally, I don’t need you to tell me how brave I am for speaking up. In reality, I’m petrified every time I speak up! You can bravely speak up in the face of racial injustice and still be afraid or anxious or nervous. It’s not an easy thing to do — for anyone.

Your discomfort is a reasonable feeling. But, I want to caution you against confiding that fear in the few people of color in your life. You will certainly not be the first white person to say “I care, but I am too afraid to speak up.” Please, stop coming to us to absolve you of your fear-induced silence in the face of racism.

People of color have to be brave in the face of racism because our survival literally depends upon it. We don’t have a choice in the matter. But, when you let fear silence you, you’re enjoying the luxury of choosing to speak up (or not) about racism afforded to you by white privilege. The consequence of your silence and inaction is not death; in reality, the main consequence is maintaining your white privilege.

Strategies For Addressing Racism

White folks, if I may offer some strategies to those who genuinely want to challenge racism:

1) Take the time to get educated, for knowledge is power.

2) Build an anti-racist arm. Have a relative or coworker or friend who can echo your concerns when you speak up to minimize the risk of being the lone voice of dissent or concern.

3) Be proactive about developing some relatively easy way of saying “hey, wait! that’s problematic/racist/offensive!” Racism is a given, a daily reality. So, please act accordingly. Stop being surprised when it rears its ugly head — because it will, over and over again.

4) Take some time to find one good, accessible resource to share for further information, especially if you don’t feel equipped to say anything more than “hey, that’s racist!”

5) Wherever you have power, make space for people of color so that you don’t have to speak on our behalf (especially if you’re too afraid to speak about race and racism). Don’t leave it to us to do the work, but I’m noting here that there are infinite spaces in which we aren’t even allowed.

6) Don’t be so concerned with what other white people think of you. To the extent that you are trying to get the approval of other whites, you are only maintaining your white privilege. The beauty of white privilege is that you can piss off other white people by constantly talking about racism, calling other whites on their blindspots and biases, and not lose out or be harmed in the huge ways that we do (violence, termination, exclusion, dismissal, etc.). Remember, white privilege is like a boomerang. You can attempt to relinquish it – for example, by confronting a racist uncle – but, it will always come back to you. You don’t stop being white (and privileged accordingly).

7) If you speak up against racism, then don’t expect people of color to thank you and pat you on the head for being a “good white.” Our validation shouldn’t be your desired goal for fighting racism. In fact, I encourage you to learn to be OK with being called racist by people of color. Besides, “you’re racist” is a pinch compared to being oppressed by racism. So, thicken up that skin, please.

8) Recognize that fighting racism isn’t about you. Take your ego out of it. Do it because it is right.

9) Be patient with yourself (and others). Race relations are inherently tense and fraught — that’s by design. But, that can’t be an excuse to give up, to stop speaking up, to stop learning, to stop asking for assistance and co-conspirators. At the same time, please appreciate that people of color won’t necessarily be patient with you, and probably shouldn’t even grant you patience while you slowly begin addressing racism. Again, don’t get hung up on how we feel about you. We lack enough power for our feelings to be of much consequence for you — but, your silence and inaction makes you complicit in the system that devastates our lives.

10) Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. One big challenge is that you cannot try to retain the comforts of white middle-class life and challenge racism. The former exists because of white privilege.

11) Get comfortable with feeling ignorant, and owning that ignorance in front of others. Remember that your supposed ignorance about racism is yet another manifestation of white privilege — you don’t HAVE to be versed in racism. That is by design. Our social institutions reinforce that luxury: K-12 and college curricula overwhelmingly feature the lives and contributions and histories of white people; mainstream TV, film, pop culture are so, so, so white; and, businesses cater to upper- and middle-class whites tastes.

12) Start talking to other white people about racism. You have access to spaces and relationships to which we are denied full access. Even if you still lack the language and courage to readily engage in, for example, a discussion of mass incarceration as a modern day form of Jim Crow racism, you can at least invite other white people to talk about race, or even call bigoted whites on their racist comments and behaviors. At the very minimum, you can pose seemingly innocent questions in response to problematic comments or behaviors that demand other whites to explain themselves (possibly revealing initially veiled racial biases) or rethink their comments/actions.

Closing Thoughts

White people: confronting racism is hard and scary. I hear you! It entails getting your hands dirty, getting your feelings hurt, maybe alienating your racist uncle, and losing friends who voted for Obama (twice) but keep saying “all lives matter.”

A bit of tough love here — you are naive to assume it would ever be comfortable and easy. (Don’t you think we would have eliminated it by now if that were the case?) I recommend thinking about fighting racism as akin to going to war. Just as you wouldn’t expect to maintain your usual comfortable lifestyle during wartime, you cannot expect it when fighting racism. In fact, if you are comfortable while you are fighting racism, then I suspect you’re doing it wrong.

But, ya gotta do it. Ending racism necessitates real effort by white people to bring the system down. It’s not about you, but we need you.

For Us, Self-Promotion Is Community Promotion

Photo source: Aaron Gilson (https://flic.kr/p/cPbD2C)

Photo source: Aaron Gilson (https://flic.kr/p/cPbD2C)

This post is not about “leaning in.”  Or, maybe it is.  I haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s book yet.  But, I have skimmed some critiques of her work, namely that asking women to “lean in” more to advance within sexist institutions does too little to change those institutions.  And, when women lean in, they may be smacked in the face (literally and/or figuratively).  But, this post isn’t about “leaning in,” I think.

Self-promotion is on my mind again.  A year ago or so, to my surprise today, I shared the following wisdom on Twitter:

Self-promotion is just as much promotion of my communities as promotion of myself.

Unfortunately, this gem along with other possible gems I’ve shared on Twitter were lost to subsequent self-doubt.  I buckled under the nasty criticism of anonymous trolls who, at the time, seemed to read and critique my every tweet and blog post.  I let cowardly colleagues bully me into silence, temporarily at least.  In the process of recovering my voice, I have had to face the reality that speaking out (or not) is just as much about me as it is the communities to which I belong.

Impostor Syndrome: A Symptom Of Oppression

I will grant that self-doubt is not unique to scholars from oppressed communities.  But, that is where the commonalities with our privileged colleagues end.  For working-class scholars, scholars of color, women scholars, LGBTQ scholars, scholars with disabilities, immigrant and international scholars, and fat scholars, our personal bouts with impostor syndrome — feeling as though we do not belong and/or are not as good as our privileged colleagues — are a symptom of systems of oppression that operate through academia, just as they do through every other important social institution.  We cannot help but feel as though we do not belong because academia was not built by us or for us.  We had to fight to be let in the front door (and still do), and continue to fight to be included fully; when we do get in, subtle and explicit efforts are made to undermine us at every corner.

I encourage my fellow marginalized scholars to make this realization a crucial part of their professional consciousnesses.  I imagine that there are countless scholars who suffer(ed) from impostor syndrome all throughout their careers because more and more experience is not enough, more publications are not enough, tenure and promotion are not enough, and so on… to eradicate institutionalized bias against marginalized people.  It is not that we are more likely to experience self-doubt than our privileged counterparts because we are not as experienced or productive as they are.  We doubt ourselves because academia, and society in general, doubts us.  Effective treatments for impostor syndrome, then, must entail raising one’s consciousness and, ideally, changing institutional norms and policies.

I cannot speak to any overlap with Sandberg’s “lean in” philosophy.  But, I know for certain that my new found consciousness, including linking the promotion of my own work with the promotion of my communities, has been inspired by the good Lorde — Audre Lorde, that is.  Nearly on a daily basis, I am reminded of the undeniable truth that silence has never, and will never, protect me. Further, “[w]hen we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”  And, “[w]hen I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”  By self-promoting and speaking out, I am advancing my communities; thus, with so much more at stake than my personal well-being, my temporary discomfort is unimportant.  (This is a point I attempted to make on U Maryland’s Parren Mitchell Symposium panel on intellectual activism [see 00:56:30].)

Self-Promotion And Community-Promotion

Beyond recognizing self-doubt, I sometimes force myself to accept invitations (if my schedule allows) as a harsh means to overcome it.  For example, in March, I served on a public sociology panel at the Southern Sociological Society annual meeting alongside Drs. Barbara Risman (current SSS president), Philip Cohen, and Neal Caren.  I was the lone tenure-track professor, liberal arts faculty member, and the only queer person and person of color.  The sole reason I accepted the invitation was that I forced myself to do it, ignoring the internal voice that pointed out that these are successful and visible experts while I just finished Year 2 on the tenure-track.

Why push myself even in the face of intense self-doubt?  There are several reasons.  I push myself because the impostor syndrome that I experience is the same symptom of oppression that my fellow marginalized scholars experience.  I push myself because every time I decline an invitation, there is a good chance another person like me may not be invited in my place or also will not accept the invitation; when this occurs repeatedly, we are complicit in the systematic exclusion of the voices of marginalized scholars.  I push myself because I cannot afford to turn down the few opportunities that come my way in light of the infinite opportunities that are denied to me because of my identities and politics.  I push myself because this job will never be easy; academia is a difficult profession by design, and can be deadly for marginalized scholars.

When marginalized scholars self-promote and speak out, we make space for other marginalized scholars, or at least inspire bravery in others.  I simply cannot imagine where I would be if W. E. B. Du Bois, Audre Lorde, Patricia Hill Collins, and the editors of Presumed Incompetent had not dared to speak out and promote their own work and perspectives!  I doubt sexualities would be the theme of the upcoming annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) if sexuality scholars (including ASA President Paula England) were too afraid to promote their work as a legitimate and important area of study.  Each time I promote my work and voice, I hope that I, too, am having the same positive influence on others.

Allowing forcing ourselves to be heard and visible in academic spaces benefits our privileged colleagues, as well.  By daring to promote our work and to speak up, we contribute to disrupting our own systemic exclusion.  We challenge the perspective and scholarship of white heterosexual middle-class “normal weight” cis men without disabilities as the default or standard.  We force our colleagues to take us seriously and see the importance of our work and our perspectives.  Hopefully, we also influence our privileged colleagues to prioritize our voices when citing scholarship, choosing panels and committees, and assigning readings in their courses.  To put it bluntly, the exclusion and invisibility of unique perspectives is bad for science and bad for higher education; in this way, we all benefit from diversity and full inclusion.

Concluding Thoughts

Tasking individual marginalized scholars with self-promoting to help advance their own communities is burdensome, I realize.  If you’re already feeling self-doubt, and the twinge of guilt for turning requests down, and the stress of being overburdened with service demands, knowing that you are either advancing your communities or letting them down is simply more pressure.  But, thinking of the positive flip side — that the promotion of your scholarship and perspective helps to promote your communities — may help to alleviate the self-doubt.

The reality is, it often is so much more than you.  When you are excluded, it is because most or all of the members of your communities are excluded.  When scholars who dare to speak up are attacked, they are simply targets for a larger assault on liberalism, higher education, anti-racism, feminism, and other causes that promote equal rights and/or social justice.   The self-doubt is, at least in part, an internalization of the bias against marginalized scholars in academia and society generally.  We ease the work of defenders of the status quo in academia when we are complicit in our own silence, invisibility, and exclusion.

We owe it to ourselves and our communities to be heard, and seen, and cited, and promoted, and included, and engaged.

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.

Make 2014 The Year Of Self-Promotion!

Sonya’s latest blog post on self-censorship has stuck with me since.  Specifically, she pondered why she fails to include her own published research as assigned readings in her classes — classes that overlap with her research!  I already know why I do not include my (admittedly) few articles.  I do not want to appear arrogant before my students.  And, I would like to think that the readings, which often reflect others’ voices in the form of narrative or autobiography, provide other perspectives that complement that which I provide in lecture.

But, Sonya’s post also forced me to acknowledge that I fail to include my own expertise because I do not feel like an expert.  Sure, exclusively assigning your book as the class’s text might seem suspect.  But, as Sonya pointed out, our students may be wondering what kind of research we do.  And, more importantly, besides preparing lectures, what do we really know and think about the topic?  (I can vouch for students wanting to know — but what do you think?)

On Self-Promotion For Marginalized Scholars

I will let you in on a little secret.  Self-promotion is a required skill in academia — and, other professions, too!  One’s status and individual success serve as two primary measure of one’s professional worth.  If, like me, you have made peace with not participating in the status game, you should probably also make peace with being dismissed by those who do.  Unfortunately, it seems impossible to actually survive professionally, let alone excel, without the occasional self-promotion.  And, a scholar’s own efforts to promote her work (and herself) influence the efforts of her network to promote her.  (Are we ready to stop pretending academia is a meritocratic profession?)

What is more unfortunate, though, is that many marginalized scholars struggle to self-promote.  At the starting point, many of us are simply trying to overcome impostor syndrome — the sense that we are not good enough, that we do not belong, that we will be discovered as frauds and forced to leave.  So, a rather low-level of self-promotion would just get us to the point of feeling like we even belong in the first place.  The other constraint, in my mind, is a fear of being dismissed as arrogant.  Women, for example, face gendered expectations regarding professional (and really any) interactions that place a low threshold for too much self-promotion — we all know what women are called when they “forget their place.”

Since I cannot escape my mathematic roots (science and technology high school program to almost majoring in math in college), something like the following hypothetical graph comes to mind:

Self-Promotion

Above, I have envisioned a range of visibility in academia — one’s department, university, subfield, and/or discipline — from “who the hell is that?” to “everyone knows that pompous asshole.”  (Note, again, these are make-believe data!)  Accounting for internal factors (self-doubt, impostor syndrome, alienation) and external factors (prejudice and discrimination), I have placed marginalized scholars at a negligible level of self-promotion in the negative.  You know — feeling and actually being invisible.  Even at low, medium, and high levels of self-promotion, I suggest that these factors still create a disparity between privileged and marginalized scholars.  And, you can probably switch out visibility for any other valued attribute or desired outcome in academia (e.g., authority, respect, status).

My point here is to emphasize that we (marginalized scholars) cannot afford not to self-promote.  But, many of us experience fear in doing so because we worry about being labeled arrogant — maybe even “uppity.”  So, we uncomfortably bob between invisibility and just enough visibility to survive in our profession.  We fear just being present in academia is already asking a lot, so we avoid rocking the boat politically or through critical scholarship.  Maybe we will feel safer and more confident once we get that job, tenure, that promotion, that publication, that… whatever validation from our profession.  But, the thing is, it takes self-promotion to achieve them!

In 2014, Promote Yourself

Sure, as I write this, I feel the self-doubt creeping in.  I want to preface this by noting my lack of experience, my young age, maybe even my naivete.  No.  If this is a crock of shit, it is a crock you sought out on this blog, having read all the way to this point in the post.  I am not going to apologize for encouraging my colleagues to be better in their jobs, to feel better in their jobs.  You’re welcome.  But, I digress.

I like to set resolutions for the new year.  And, every three years, I set 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year goals, to which I return to see what I have accomplished.  One of them for 2014 (and beyond) will be to become more comfortable with self-promotion.

Here are the specifics I have in mind:

  • Set as a rule the inclusion of one of my publications as an assigned reading in my courses — if it is relevant, if it is an exemplar article or at least a useful example on a topic.  I set as my arrogance threshold any effort to alter the overall course organization or content just to include my own research.  That is, I refuse to start with my research as the foundation of a course, and then build around it.  Rather, if there is space, I will own that my expertise is relevant.  Letting self-doubt and impostor syndrome win is both bad science and bad pedagogy!
  • Stop second-guessing why I receive invitations to speak at conferences, on panels, to give talks, to submit articles, etc.  As status-driven as our profession is, I am lucky to receive these acknowledgements of my good work.  I should think about the number of invitations I don’t receive because others have dismissed me because of my personal identities, or presumed inexperience, or outspokenness, or the subject of my research, or my job at a liberal arts university.
  • Stop living in fear for the work that I do (including this blog!).  Clearly, I am doing something right (i.e., I still have a job!).  And, I pride myself on being just as safe, reflective, and cautious as I am provocative and outspoken.  I am hardly reckless (here, rejecting conformity, silence, and assimilation as “safe” approaches).  So, it is time to live up to my declaration to work toward tenure without losing my soul.
  • Continue to promote the excellent work of my colleagues and fellow marginalized scholars.  Sure, a part of me does this because I hope for that favor in kind.  Selfishness aside, I advocate for making academia a supportive community; in my mind, this includes regularly supporting and promoting others.  While individualism and competition may effectively motivate scholars, it also seems to hinder knowledge production because scholars are not building together.  So, specifically, I will continue to cite and promote the great work of people in my network — publications, pedagogical tools, blog posts, and other intellectual efforts.
  • Celebrate my accomplishments, big and small.  As I noted in an earlier blog post, one factor that has been driving my impostor syndrome in 2013 is failing to properly celebrate all that I had accomplished.  I finished my dissertation, earned my PhD, started my tenure-track job, and sent out a few articles for review (including one which was conditionally accepted).  Besides a dinner with my family after graduation in May, I never took the time to celebrate.  How can you feel accomplished, successful, efficacious, and powerful if you fail to reflect on what you have achieved?  So, no more of that.  I allowed the taken-for-grantedness of academic milestones push me past celebrating every little victory, like surviving the semester, submitting a paper for review, receiving an invitation to speak.  I can scale back on the celebrations when they become too frequent!

So, who’s with me for a little self-promotion in 2014?

An Update On My 7-Year Experiment

As my tenure-track job officially started in August, I publicly declared that I refused to stop living a full, meaningful, fun, and healthy life just for the hope of job security in seven years.  Following Dr. Radhika Nagpal‘s essay, “The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life,” I decided to experiment with a worry-free pursuit of tenure — but, without waiting until I have secured tenure to speak about it publicly:

So, here it goes.  For the next seven years, I will continue to publish research, teach courses, mentor students, blog, and work with community organizations.  I have chosen to stop biting my tongue because I am tired of tasting blood.  I will be a whole person to my colleagues, students, friends, and family — and myself.

I just finished my first semester last week.  So, how is it going thus far?  Well — I am alive, still employed, and have no desire to look for a new job or move to a new place or leave academia.  But, you know me — I have to reflect more extensively to paint an accurate picture.

Teaching

I taught two classes this semester: one brand new prep (research methods) and a semi-new prep (adding more gender to my sexual diversity prep for gender and sexualities).  Moving from one class, three years ago as a graduate student instructor, to two classes was a bit of an adjustment.  Methods seemed to be first thing in the morning, with prep, grading, emails, and students dropping by office hours throughout the rest of the week.  The course is not the most intellectually challenging, but demands a lot of work on the students’ part (and, as a result, on mine) to effectively teach methods.  At times, my once per week, night-time, semi-prepped gender and sexualities class felt like an afterthought.  With a class full of seniors, with few but big assignments, it did not require as much of my attention as the methods course.  In the spring, I will have one new prep — social inequalities — and will teach two sections of methods.  I am sure going from two to three courses will be another bumpy adjustment.

I am still trying to figure the students out intellectually, politically, and in terms of demographics.  Just as I feel I have the student body figured out, my suspicion is disproved or complicated.  The biggest adjustment is to how stretched thin many of the students appear — suffering from a second or third cold, sleep deprivation, and constant worry and anxiety.  On occasion, I have mistaken exhaustion for laziness.

I have received my students’ evaluations.  Overall, I get the impression I am “ok” in most of their eyes (especially in research methods), though some seemed to think very highly of me as an instructor.  So, I have wrapped up the semester feeling good about a generally successful “Round 1,” particularly for my methods course.  I struggled somewhat with this new prep, trying to find the right balance of tradition (i.e, how it was taught it in the past) and my own spin.  Eventually, I realized my appreciation of tradition was actually fear driven by “impostor syndrome.”  What do I know about teaching research methods?  Ironically, I dreaded teaching quantitative methods and statistics for much of the semester (the methods I use in my own research!)  What should I teach?  What aspects am I supposed to teach that I barely understand myself?  Impostor syndrome was turning into feeling genuinely unqualified for the job.  That was the absolute worse feeling in my career thus far.

To my pleasant surprise, these aspects of the course went swimmingly — well enough that my qualifications became undeniably clear to me.  I take from this a reminder to trust my gut (stop beginning with what others have done) and to proudly think outside of the box.  I was explicitly hired for my unique scholarly approach; I just have to remind myself of that on the not-so-perfect teaching days.

Research

I was warned that few professors actually make progress on their research in their first year on the tenure-track.  You are adjusting to so many things at once.  In the words of Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, the one thing that counts the most toward tenure (particularly at research universities) is the one thing with the least external accountability: research.  Teaching will take up every free minute if you let it.  Email and meetings take up the rest.  So, I went into this semester frightened but motivated.

For better and not-so-better, I sent out all three of the empirical chapters of my dissertation, and began extending a smaller review chapter, which I eventually sent out.  By the beginning of the semester, I already had one revise and resubmit (R&R) — a chapter about which my committee felt the most apprehensive in terms of publishing.  Soon after, I had a rejection for my strongest paper from my discipline’s top journal.  I quickly revised it and sent it to the top journal in my subfield.  That paper came back with a very promising R&R, which I turned to to get away from the other, daunting R&R.  Now, it is forthcoming at that journal, scheduled for its next issue!  The third paper was rejected, returned with pages and pages of nit-picky, soul-crushing feedback.  I sent the review paper to a journal outside of my discipline, only to have it handed back with no reviews.  One on-going co-authored paper has finally been sent out for attempt number three, and I hope to submit another soon.

So, here is the tally: 1) one rejection-turned-accepted (in print by March); 2) one daunting R&R, possibly turned co-authored to complement me where I am a bit lacking in expertise; 3) one painful rejection that I have not fully digested; 4) one quick and surprising desk-reject that I need to start from scratch empirically; 5) one co-authored paper under review; 6) one co-authored paper soon to be under review at a top journal.  My goal is to wrap up all of the projects that do not “count” as much toward tenure because they were not started at my current institution.  I hope to have evidence of progress on new projects by my mid-term review (in 2.5 years).

Yes, I sleep.  No, I am not neglecting my teaching.  No, I am not doing shoddy work, or aiming for “easy” journals.  What has helped is sitting my butt down each morning to write for at least 1 hour.  And, obviously, that is not enough to actually do the research, so I often left Thursday and part of Friday to run analyses and create tables.  Soon into the semester, I connected with four other junior faculty — from various disciplines — to create a bi-weekly writing group.  We talk through the challenges we face in our research — empirical, political, disciplinary, interpersonal, and emotional.  We are able to ask the tough questions that we are not as comfortable asking those who decide our fate (i.e., senior colleagues).  Sometimes, others say what you already know, but need someone else to validate you.

Realistically, the kind of productivity that seems feasible during the semester is editing existing papers.  I do not feel I have the time and energy to explore new data or literature.  I did run models — even redid one paper’s results section — but there were no stretches of hours of looking up literature to review.  I suspect the heavy initial lifting for projects will be limited to the summer and other long-ish breaks.  So, I am planning ahead to get moving, particularly on 1-2 new projects, over the summer so that I can shift to writing and revising during the fall and spring.

Service

Well, I am in a fortunate position, for service is not yet expected.  No advising, no committee work, and too new for independent studies and student research.  But, I hear it coming.  Advising starts, for certain, in the next fall semester.  And, I know my name is crossing colleagues’ minds for certain committees.  So, thus far, I have worked on expanding this blog, and attending committee meetings of my choice.  I talked a bit game in August about working with community groups.  But, then the semester started.  When I get home from work on weekdays, and wake up late on the weekends, the extent of the energy I have for service is blogging.  I am embarrassed to admit that.  But, this is one exhausted professor!

Politics

Oh, but do not think for a moment limited service means I am not stirring up some kind of trouble (in a good way!).  Politically speaking, my 7-year experiment has been, well, interesting and eventful.  I certainly made known that I refused to be a scared, silent, invisible, stressed out pre-tenure professor.  But, there were political landmines that I stepped on that I had not anticipated nor intentionally sought out.  I promise you — I did not actively seek out ways to “rock the boat,” though I did not make secret my long-term plan to make a difference on campus and beyond.

Well, there was the negative comment about me on a white supremacists’ blog site.  Then, the religious literature left in my apartment, probably by a maintenance or construction crew member who did not approve of same-gender relationships (i.e., my partner and me).  Then, another unnecessarily mean comment online questioning my credentials and political agenda.  Oh, and the threat to sue me over a blog post unless I edited it.  Sheesh.

For reasons that probably seem obvious to other academics — or, really anyone who has to navigate workplace politics, I did not publicly mention other landmines that went off.  Maybe I alluded to them — I cannot remember at this point.  One was challenging the message that an invited speaker’s talk seemed to send about marginalized groups, and later questioning the funding source.  Whoops!  I found out I was not alone in my concern, but I was the dummy who opened his mouth about it.  That blew over, but now some people’s first impression of me may be the uppity new junior professor.  (Funny, I was asked directly after the talk, “nothing?  you didn’t ask a single question!”  Nope — because you wanted me to.)

But, there have been positive outcomes, as well.  Sonya and I have gotten praise for starting and expanding this blog.  I have heard comments here and there with words like “inspiring.”  (Loving it!)  I have been credited by friends for encouraging them to be braver or more outspoken.  I have not been at my new institution long enough to be a part of big change, but I believe my arrival has been noticed by students, staff, and faculty.  I am brown where there are not a ton of faculty of color.  Queer where few are visibly and vocally out.  Young, outspoken, and accessible.  I suspect word will soon travel — hopefully in a positive way!

Health And Well-Being

But, how am I really doing?  I started off eager but nervous and still recovering from the self-esteem-crushing effect of graduate school.  I finish on a wonderful high note: a forthcoming article in the top journal in my subfield.  And, yes, I am taking on R&R with great intensity — that is, rest and relaxation for you scholars who are not as familiar with the acronym.  I feel a twinge of guilt for taking time off.  But, the guilt is far outweighed by the exhaustion I felt throughout the semester.  In order to stay productive, with now three classes (including one new prep), I cannot return for the spring semester anything short of recovered.

It was a doozy of a semester.  By the close of the first month, the social isolation took its toll.  A new pattern of weeping in my office either Wednesday or Thursday morning emerged.  And, the next day, I would return as my fierce drag queen alter ego Denise (in attitude only, not attire).  But, that stopped being enough.  Already exhausted and weary, I hit little bumps or stepped on landmines that felt like all-out assaults.  And, when a friend passed mid-semester, I was completely worn down.  That period, and the day of the shooting on my mother’s job, were nearly impossible to carry on with “business as usual.”  It has taken a great deal of discipline, resilience, and optimism to push through the exhaustion, disappointment, worry, heartache, and loneliness.

To be fair, I should be giving myself permission to just survive.  No one expects more of a new professor.  But, I expected to do more than survive, which, to be fair, I have!  I started out setting up meetings with colleagues in and outside of my department, my dean and associate dean, and associate provost.  My goal was to make a connection, ask for advice on adjusting and being productive, and share my five-year plan toward tenure.  The first couple of meetings were ok, but more time was spent on the “how to adjust” part than on the “let me show you my plan!” part.  Once the semester really kicked-in, these meetings dissolved into “will you be my friend?”  I resented appearing like the weepy and exhausted new professor — but that’s exactly who I was.  Who can talk about a five-year plan when weeping cut into the time you set aside for writing?  Fortunately, I have connected with supportive and understanding people around campus this way.

Looking Ahead

Semester One, done.  And, I would say I am in pretty good shape for the conclusion of my first semester and start of my second.  I go into Semester Two continuing to do what worked: take evenings and weekends off; do yoga in the morning; write at least 60 minutes first thing in the morning at work; keep meeting with my writing group; take regular lunch breaks; and, accept that the first year is primarily about adjusting surviving.  I return knowing to make more of an effort to connect with my colleagues (just being visible is not enough), and that there is no such thing as being apolitical.  I suppose the biggest lesson of all is that I am still learning and growing as a scholar (and that is a good, and expected, thing).

So, where does the 7-year experiment stand?  I am certainly aware that my refusal to be quiet and politically inert comes at a time where job security is threatened, political action is punished, radical ideas and people are attacked, and free speech is undermined.  It almost feels as though I am finding solid ground just as chaos ensues around me.

To my pleasant surprise, I have taken a position at an institution that celebrates — not merely tolerates — my outspokenness, my emphasis on collegiality and inclusivity, and even my blogging.  Silly me, I chose this job knowing I would be comfortable to engage in this kind of advocacy.  But, it took explicit affirmation from my colleagues, chair, and dean to fully acknowledge and appreciate it.  It seems I am appreciated because of, not despite, my emphasis on intellectual activism and accessibility.  So, until I begin seeing indications to the contrary, I am going to keep being myself.  I feel even more compelled to do this kind of work, and take this kind of approach, because of the number of scholars who can’t.