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The activists are coming! And, so they should. A supposedly “debunked” study by Mark Regnerus that does not employ valid measures of lesbian couples worked its way right into a US Supreme Court case on marriage equality.
We, as sociologists, did all that we could: 1) petitioned the journal in which it was published, Social Science Research, 2) published critiques of his and Loren Marks‘s studies in the journal, 3) wrote to the media to point out the study’s flaws, 4) offered extensive methodological critiques (e.g., blogs), 5), petitioned the leadership of the American Sociological Association (ASA) to make a public statement against the Regnerus study, 6) conducted an internal audit of the peer review process, and 7) submitted a brief to the Supreme Court as a discipline to make clear no evidence exists to worry about LGBT families. And, there may have been other efforts of which I am unaware.
But it wasn’t enough. Regnerus and other conservative scholars submitted their own amicus brief to the Court. And, somehow, this one study counters all of the other studies enough that Supreme Court Justice Scalia noted:
If you redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, you must — you must permit adoption by same-sex couples, and there’s – there’s considerable disagreement among — among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a — in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not. Some States do not — do not permit adoption by same-sex couples for that reason.
The American Sociological Association released another statement thereafter to clarify that Regnerus’s study was flawed. While imperfect, every other study suggests no evidence that children of same-gender families are worse off in terms of health, adjustment, academic performance, etc. And, the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas-Austin held a mini-conference on LGBT families last week, featuring Gary Gates and other big names in LGBT research. I assume this was part of the department’s effort (which started as soon as Regnerus’s study was published) to show that others in the department are doing great, pro-LGBT work.
But, it is too late. We do not yet know the outcome of the Supreme Court cases. And, it is unclear whether Regernus’s “debunked” study will be cited by other researchers, politicians, or in other court cases. These are, indeed, real possibilities because his study has been “debunked,” but not retracted. That means it still stands as a peer-reviewed, published academic article — albeit critiqued and discounted.
The lengths that these activists are going makes sense. Though we got to the point where we felt comfortable with the “debunked” status of Regnerus’s paper, it still caused damage — on our watch. Despite our intentions and efforts as a discipline, we did not do enough to prevent this study from having an impact in the fate of LGBT rights (in this case, marriage equality). Whether it comes from religion, science, politics, education, or some other institution, threats to your rights are just that, so who wouldn’t shift into self-defense mode?
Protecting Against Harmful Science
My primary concern, which I have voiced in the discussions among sociologists, is what are we doing to prevent further harm to the community that has been affected by this study? On our watch, a study that should never have reached publication ended up reaching the Supreme Court. We alerted others, “watch out!”; we critiqued Regnerus’s actions, “he’s not even measuring it right!; and even issued a formal statement saying, “we’re not with this guy, he’s crazy.” But, all while we watched Regnerus set up a very calculated assault on LGBT Americans. Since fellow sociologists have so vehemently opposed releasing the names of the peer reviewers of the study, and do not feel compelled to push for retraction, I continue to ask, so now what?
I cannot believe I have to raise this question. But, it seems some are more concerned about protecting science than protecting people from science. There are general principles regarding ethical scientific practice (including discipline specific guidelines), and the universality of Institutional Review Boards to ensure researchers at universities are not causing harm to their participants. Unfortunately, these guidelines were developed as a response to very unethical and harmful research in the past:
- During the Holocaust, the Nazis conducted many experiments on Jews (including children)
- The “Tuskegee syphilis experiment” (1932-1972), in which poor African American men were infected with syphilis without their knowledge nor with treatment: “The 40-year study was controversial for reasons related to ethical standards; primarily because researchers knowingly failed to treat patients appropriately after the 1940s validation of penicillin as an effective cure for the disease they were studying.”
- Similar experiments were conducted in Guatemala from 1946-1948. Over 80 people died as a result.
- The use of Henrietta Lacks‘s cells without her or her family’s permission or knowledge in 1951.
- Stanley Milgram’s 1961 psychological experiments on obedience, in which he deceived subjects into thinking they were delivering shocks (sometimes deadly) as punishment to a person completing a faux task. Ethical concerns have been raised about the Stanford prison experiment, as well.
- Tearoom Trade (1970) — Laud Humphreys’s study of same-sex sexual encounters in public spaces without their knowledge or consent; after observing the men, he used their license plate numbers on their cars to track down their home addresses to interview them (sometimes in front of their families).
For all of the positive things that have come from science (even from some of the awful exploitative, dangerous experiments above), science is sometimes used for evil. Too often, marginalized communities are the targets of harmful science. Of course, in this case, Regnerus and his colleagues did not have any direct contact with their participants; and, there is little reason to suspect that Knowledge Networks (which carried out the survey) caused any harm.
However, I argue that we have an obligation to ensure that harm is not caused in the activities that come after research is conducted: how the research is used and for what purposes. Some argue that, even when studies are carried out for good, we owe it to our participants to give something in return — immediate and tangible, not just “thanks for advancing science!” — for opening up about their experiences, backgrounds, thoughts, opinions, and feelings.
So, now what are we doing to protect this marginalized community that has been further harmed by science? What can we do? Below are some things that have been suggested, and my thoughts on them.
Speaking Out, In General
It is important that we speak out about this scandal, in general. Unfortunately, it feels as though some sociologists feel they have done all that they could and just want this to go away already.
But, who speaks for us? I may be wrong, but many of those — “some sociologists” — do not appear to either be LGBT themselves nor do they study LGBT communities (I’m including here bloggers and those who have left comments). So, maybe it is simple to walk away from this when you can return home to your legally-recognized spouse after a day’s work. Unfortunately, it appears that the sociology bloggers at orgtheory and scatterplot are serving as The Voice for the entire discipline, and the LGBT activists are in direct dialogue with them. I wonder what LGBT sociologists and sociologist of sexualities have to say about this scandal, and whether they feel that we have done enough.
I worry, as I have before: who gets to speak? The subfield of sexualities in sociology is relatively new and disproportionately young. We must tread lightly. And, it is likely that many have remained silent on this issue because they are soon to be or are currently on the job market; or, they are on the tenure-track; or, even with tenure, they are at the margins of their department and the discipline as a whole. Or, just like other fields, maybe some sexualities scholars see their work as irrelevant to activism. And, even for those of us who do pursue activism, we risk professional consequences. But, even those who are not explicitly involved in activism may be the target of political witch hunts or other external threats, or lack of support from the academy to do our research.
Retract It Already
The retraction of published studies is more common than I realized. But, it looks like there is no movement to retract the Regnerus study. There is a lot of shadiness, omission of important details, and conflict of interest sprinkled throughout this entire scandal. But, within conservative standards of “when to retract,” Regnerus’s study is safe. It was the peer review process that is problematic. Specifically:
[T]he paper was submitted for publication 20 days before the end of the data collection, and 23 days before the data were delivered to the University of Texas! That’s fast.
There must be some post-hoc excuse Regnerus or the journal could give to clear this up.
That is in addition to the serious methodological problems that the reviewers should have caught. That is more than enough for some to call for the study’s retraction. Okay, so, since this is not Regnerus’s fault, per se (short of questionable political motivations and funding sources), retract the study and then invite him to go through the peer review process again — this time with different reviewers who are not his colleagues.
“Out The Reviewers!”
LGBT activist John M. Becker has moved forward in demanding records from Social Science Research, namely to out the reviewers of the Regnerus study. Some of my fellow sociologists have been talking about this — I’m sure informally, but in this case publicly on blogs. Some have taken issue with Becker’s efforts, suggesting that it subverts the sanctity of the peer review system for academic publishing; to reveal the identities of anonymous reviewers is a threat to the entire scientific enterprise. Oh, and does it get ugly when sociologists and activists go head to head. But, understandably, when outside forces threaten science (e.g., forced oversight, taking away funding), we necessarily lash out in self-defense.
But, I wonder what would happen if we did reveal the names of those scholars who reviewed Regnerus’s study. Recently, while reading one article about the source of whites’ attitudes toward race-based attitudes, I noticed that the reviewers were explicitly named, right on the first page:
Editor’s note: The reviewers were Lawrence Bobo, Warren E. Miller, David O. Sears, and Susan Welch (p.723).
I decided to search Google for “editor’s note: the reviewers” to see if this was a fluke. I came across two other journals that have, or at least used to, explicitly name the reviewers of a published article, Teaching Sociology and Sociological Inquiry. In the case of the former, I thought maybe as it has become more popular, and moved toward publishing more empirically-based articles, the editorial board might have dropped this practice along the way. But, even a recent article, by sociologist Janice McCabe, dawns the editor’s note, naming each reviewer. It looks as though Sociological Inquiry published the names of authors just for a few years in the early 1990s. These are not the top journals of the discipline, but this discovery leaves me wondering what the harm would be to reveal the names of the publishers in this instance — in this case in which the peer review system was abused, misused, or underused (depending on your perspective).
This is not a question of whether sociology or any other academic discipline should maintain anonymous peer review for publishing. While imperfect, it strengthens science and minimizes (some) concerns about bias. If anything, I see room to strengthen the peer-review system further. And, let’s set aside the potential harms of the overwhelming pressure to publish for jobs, tenure, promotion, etc. as well. The question here is what harm would be caused to the peer review system, or even the entire scientific enterprise, if the reviewers of this one “debunked” study were revealed?
That some journals have revealed the names of reviewers — including articles that are ethically and politically sound — leads me to suggest that the sky will not fall if Becker is successful in his demand for the SSR records. Science will still exist the following day. But, I do agree that this may not actually get us any further in squashing Regnerus’s study or the harm caused by it.
Fight Fire With Fire: More Research!
As Fabio Rojas suggested in response to my plea to do something to take this study down, another possibility is to simply beat Regnerus at his own game. Do more, better research. Indeed, sociologists Andrew Perrin, Philip Cohen, and Neal Caren have done just that in a forthcoming article in Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health — even using the New Family Structures Study data. (Of course, they find that Regnerus’s conclusions were bogus and methodologically flawed.) I do hope, however, that awareness of their new study spreads, as JGLMH is a psychiatry journal and has a so-so impact factor. But, Perrin makes clear that this journal was chosen because of the speedy turn around, and it actually sent out a call for papers to address the Regnerus scandal.
As Michael Bader notes, this scandal has sparked even better work, and maybe science will be even stronger in the first place. But, shouldn’t we be getting it right the first time? Isn’t that what peer review is for? Sure, with time, maybe we will set the record straight. But, for now, the damage has been done for LGBT people. With so much that we have yet to study about LGBT families, it also warrants asking whether we should be worried about having to spend time, energy, and resource on redoing research.
Fabio also suggested:
- [Realize] that that history is on our side. Increasingly, public opinion polls show greater and greater majorities favor LBGT equality. So if we are winning already, I wouldn’t go and ruin one of academia’s most valuable assets – blind review.
- [R]elentlessly critique garbage and draw attention to the body of research.
- I would engage the other side with sincerity and fervor. I would show people how to maintain the high ground.
In other words, don’t worry, keep blogging, and be the bigger person. As gay people, my partner and I still cannot get married, not in the state in which we currently live nor the one we are moving to this summer. I am pretty worried about the outcome of the Supreme Court case. And, I am worried how easily this one study breezed through the peer review process, to publication, to press, to the courts. Shouldn’t more sociologists be worried about this, too? And, I am not sure what to say about maintaining “the high ground”. It seems, for the oppressed, playing nice and playing by the rules does little to protect your rights being debated and denied on a daily basis — and my colleagues seem less concerned with my well-being as a human than with the well-being of science.
A Final Plea
“You don’t know what the heck you’re talking about!” Exactly. I am just days away from receiving my PhD, and have little experience publishing and providing reviews for journals compared to the sociologists at the fore of these debates. What do I know?
That is a problem, in my opinion. A systemic problem. With a few research scandals going on these days, I am surprised that my colleagues and I are not in dialogue about science and research ethics. In fact, all that I recall is one week in my research methods course devoted to ethics. We read ASA’s code of ethics, Van Maanen’s (1983) “The Moral Fix: On the Ethics of Fieldwork,” Allen’s (1997) “Spies Like Us: When Sociologists Deceive their Subjects,” and Simonds’s (2001) “Talking with Strangers: A Researcher’s Tale.”
I read Tearoom Trade for another course, though we did not discuss Humprhey’s unethical methods. My knowledge of the Milgram experiment comes from a brief coverage of ethics in my undergraduate psychology and sociology methods courses. And, much of my knowledge about eugenics, the Tuskegee experiments, and other exploitative practices on communities of color comes from my knowledge of Black history rather than science.
In speaking with other LGBT sociologists, I know that I am not alone in my anger, disappointment, and frustration — and, my ignorance about what I can do. This is partly due to our relative lack of power, as a subfield in general (soc of sexualities) and as individuals (pre-tenure). But, it is also due to our lack of access to memories of prior scandals of this sort. For example, while I did read Richard Udry’s “Biological Limits of Gender Construction” (ASR 2000), and even Barbara Risman’s and others‘ critical responses in a class, we never talked about the broader context. What happened after the article and the responses were published?
Why don’t we talk about these types of events in our graduate courses? Why does our training on research ethics only cover the stages leading to submitting an article for publication, ignoring ethical and professional practices that follow publication? In general, I think we could benefit from a bit more reflection on science as an institution. It would be nice (I would even say crucial) to discuss the contexts behind published articles and books. A sociology of sociology, if you will. Why are the authors in certain journals overwhelmingly women, while the top sociology journals are about two-thirds men authors, and the most male-dominated journals are on methods and mathematics? Why are broken barriers in publishing somehow undermined as “affirmative action in publishing” or “trendy, but not really important” (yes, I have heard scholars say this).
If anything, I ask that we stop trying to make this scandal go away in hopes that history will stop repeating itself. Just 12 years after the scandal surrounding Udry’s study, we are faced with a similar problem. And, my generation of sociologists barely knows about it. How can we learn from the mistakes of our discipline if we are not teaching new members about them — what happened and how we resolved it? C’mon colleagues — we have got to do better, for the future of our discipline, but also for society as a whole.
UPDATE (05/02/13): And, now we have an example of the potential impact Regnerus’s study can have outside of the courtroom: the everyday harassment of LGBT people.
Most sociologists know the adage that is fundamental to (much of) sociological thought — “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” — the Thomas theorem. It is so widely known and used that few actually cite the original source, noting simply, “according to W. I. Thomas…”
I looked to formally cite this notion in my dissertation, which meant having to search for the source. So easily found: The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs (1928) by William Issac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas.
Who Is Dorothy Swaine Thomas?
Wait – what? Never in my life had I heard of Dorothy Swaine Thomas. It seemed odd that the second of only two others is rarely, if ever, cited when referencing the Thomas theorem. Is it really that hard to say “Thomas and Thomas” or “Thomas et al.” or “the Thomases”? I figured the mystery surrounding author number two had something to do with her being a woman academic in the early twentieth century.
I decided to do some digging to see who Dorothy Swaine Thomas is, and whether others had taken note on the conspicuous absence of her contribution to this important sociological theorem. I thought others may have been wary of her contribution because she was seen as an assisting author, particularly as William’s wife, than a “legitimate” co-author. Maybe she is otherwise irrelevant in terms of sociological research, theory, and knowledge.
Simply clicking her name on the Amazon page for The Child in America, I saw that she published upwards to 30 books. Okay, so she is hardly irrelevant, even by the least generous standards. (By all means, even co-publishing one pivotal book counts as relevant in my mind, but others may have higher standards of “relevance” to the discipline.)
Digging deeper, I saw that she was actually quite influential in sociology, as well as demography. She began publishing research as early as age 22, and had her PhD by age 25. She was the first woman professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. And, she served as the first woman President (and, earlier, Vice President) of the American Sociological Association, and also served as President of the Population Association of American.
Let’s call it what it is: she was an academic badass. Of special personal interest: “Although Thomas considered herself a social activist, [her adviser William] Ogburn persuaded her to become a ‘scientist,’ which in sociology meant a quantitative, preferably statistical approach to social issues” (from the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology online).
So, I am left wondering why I had never heard or read about Thomas prior to my own search. Especially because:
Thomas’s contributions to sociology were nonetheless substantial. Her high standards and clear thinking helped professionalize a discipline criticized for its armchair theorizing, jargon, and do-goodism. Despite the controversy that surrounded the Evacuation and Resettlement study, the Supreme Court later accepted it as a major resource in documenting a national wrong perpetrated by the government against its citizens.
The quantitative work Thomas pioneered helped gain sociology foundation support and provided a beachhead for women who might otherwise have been excluded from university positions. For her contributions to demography the University of Pennsylvania awarded Thomas an honorary degree in 1970 (from Blackwell).
On Sexism And Sociology
A good guess would be sexism. Though she was successful, her career was not without the constraints of sexism:
Job prospects were also not encouraging. Although women of Thomas’s generation were earning doctorates in sociology in increasing, if still relatively small numbers through the late 1920s, these graduates were effectively excluded from jobs in university sociology departments through a pattern of formal rules and informal understandings.
Unfortunately, some of her success came with the dilemma that many women scholars continue to face – the tension between authenticity and success/relevance:
Thomas experienced the pressures of being scrutinized by members of an overwhelming majority, however kindly disposed. As a result, she not only shared the outlook, the professional ethos, and the passion for objectivity of Ogburn and other male objectivists, but was one of the most ardent practitioners of their brand of sociology. Otherwise, she would almost certainly not have realized the success she did.
At the same time, had she not had so constantly to prove her professionalism and objectivity, she might not have remained wedded to so narrow a conception of her discipline, might have produced richer and more valuable insights into human behavior and perhaps even a body of theoretical work more to modern taste. Viewed in this way, Thomas’s sex exacted a toll for the very reasons that she was so eminently successful in overcoming the limitations it imposed.
The Erasure Of Thomas’s Contributions
These constraints aside — blocked job opportunities, and the way “trading power for patronage” shaped her career — there appears to be some erasure of Thomas’s contribution to sociology. In a review 244 introductory sociology textbooks (1945-1994) to assess citations of The Child in America, particularly for the Thomas’ theorem, R. S. Smith (1995) noted:
There I was surprised to discover that W. I. Thomas was not the sole author of [The Child in America]; rather it was co-authored by Dorothy Swaine Thomas.. It was this experience that started me thinking about all the times I had seen [the theorem] quoted but had never once come across Dorothy Swaine Thomas’s name (p12-3).
Most of the textbooks that cited the “Thomas theorem” merely credited W. I. Thomas. So, why is Dorothy’s work ignored? Apparently, she was primarily responsible for the book’s data collection and analyses. But, those parts are central to the book. While she later penned a letter that suggested William was the “brains” behind the theorem, the letter’s 1991 publication in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences fails to explain why she was rarely credited for the theorem from 1928 through the mid-1970s.
Unfortunately, the erasure of her contributions, as well as those of other women scholars, has a “ripple effect.” I seriously doubt that my professors fail to credit Dorothy Swaine Thomas intentionally; rather, they failed to teach me about her because they never learned about her. Her invisibility is further spread through introductory textbooks. If it were not for accidentally “discovering” her, I, too, would likely perpetuate her erasure by overlooking her work in my classes.
A(nother) Call For The Sociology of Sociology
As I have written in earlier posts, sociology, and academia in general, is not immune to the biases of society. But, what may have been intentional exclusion or erasure nearly a century ago (and, to be honest, even more recently) continues on as innocent ignorance. This is inexcusable.
The erasure of “people like us” does marginalized scholars a disservice because it paints the picture that we have had little role in shaping academia and knowledge. And, many of the names and legacies that have survived efforts to exclude and erase, as well as innocent “amnesia,” are often stripped of personhood. For example, some sociological “greats” like W. E. B. DuBois are stripped of their activism and radical politics, characterized, instead, as cooperative, mainstream (apolitical) sociologists.
But, for all of academia, this supposed “amnesia” seems like a detriment to the advancement of knowledge. Whole scholarly contributions have either been outright blocked, or eventually lost over time. Who knows whether we are “reinventing the wheel,” missing crucial insights that had once been put forth and lost?
Again, I call for a sociology of sociology, where we turn our critical lens back on our field. In many ways, exclusion and discrimination are still at play. And, there are whole careers and specific studies, theories, and insights that are lost in the past. Besides liberating these scholars and their work from academic “amnesia,” it may also be worth revisiting other “classic” work through a contemporary lens. (Full disclosure, I remain wary of giving full credit to handful of dead middle-class white men to pen the theories of society.)
To be fair, this line of work would still be a bit too “navel-gazey” for my tastes to pursue as my primary research. But, I remain intrigued enough to do my own homework in my free time (and, obviously blog about it). If anything, I would like to know the herstory of the field I love, with specific attention to the stories that are not told, and to those scholars who are not celebrated as the “fathers of sociology.”
I certainly encourage others to reflect more on the past (and present) of our discipline and the academy as a whole. At a minimum, I hope others take from this inspiration to credit the other Thomas (i.e., Dorothy Swaine) for the Thomas theorem.
Happy Women’s, Womyn’s, Womanist Herstory Month! Yep, it is March already. A time the US has set aside for obligatory celebration of girls and women and their contributions to the world. Sadly, there is a sense of obligation, with the whisperings of “do we still need this?”
Comprehensive Gender Equality
Yes, we do still need these 31 days — barely 10 percent of the entire year — to reflect on girls, women, feminism, sexism and patriarchy, and gender. By no means have we achieved gender equality. And, we are overdue for broadening our vision of gender and equality.
Some time ago, I blogged about the narrow definition of “gender equality.” In this limited, traditional sense, we are referring to the the equal status and treatment of women and men, still recognized by their gender and presumed sex. This is certainly the dominant vision of mainstream feminism, or was at least in the days of second wave feminism.
There are at least three aspects of gender inequality that remain in this limited view of gender and gender equality. First, this vision reinforces the treatment of “woman” as a singular status and “women” as a monolithic group. The unique experiences and needs of women who are also of color, poor, disabled, lesbian, bisexual, queer, older, immigrant, and so on are overlooked. Second, this focus fails to address the marginalization of transwomen, and transgender and gender non-conforming people in general. Finally, while aiming to free women from oppression, certain gender identities and expressions — namely femininities — remain stigmatized and invisible.
There is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often overlooked within our society that continues to treat sex and gender as binaries: females and males, women and men.
Women, as a group, come from diverse backgrounds: race, ethnicity, social class, sexual identity, nativity, body size and shape, religion, region, and ability. It is unsurprising, then, that various branches of feminism — or, more accurately, various feminisms — emerged to counter the exclusive focus of mainstream (second wave) feminism to the lives of US-born white middle-class heterosexual cisgender women. Some of the prominent feminisms in both activism and academia include Black feminism, Womanism, Chicana feminism, multiracial feminism, Third World feminism, lesbian feminism, and working-class feminism. Today, feminist advocacy and organizations are now more inclusive, but there is still a strong tendency to slip into “single issue” politics.
Related to this diversity among women is the variation within the category of “woman.” Just as thinking of gender in binary terms, women and men, a singular view of women misses the existence of trans* and gender non-conforming people, particularly transwomen. Unfortunately, feminist advocacy and organizations have even excluded transwomen in the past, and many wrestle today with deciding how far their inclusivity should extend (e.g., should women’s organizations serve transmen?).
Beyond diversity in terms of gender identity is the recognition of diverse gender expressions. In reality, there is no universal femininity. Rather, there are multiple femininities. Because of the conflation of sex and gender, we tend to assume that femininity = woman; so the reality that femininity can be expressed through any body, regardless of sex and gender identity, is actively resisted and suppressed. This means we also overlook the hierarchy of femininities, wherein hyperfemininity in female-bodied individuals is rewarded and valued over other expressions of femininity and its expression in other bodies.
Just to make sure the above discussion is clear, I stress that there is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often ignored or erased. “Woman” does not imply white, US-born, able-bodied, heterosexual (or even sexual), cisgender, feminine, middle-class, Christian, and thin. There is no singular status or identity of woman. As a consequence of overlooking this gender diversity, we also miss the inequality that persists among women and among femininities.
In Defense Of Femininities
Despite the many gains that (cis)women have made, and increasing attention to the lives of transwomen, femininity itself remains stigmatized and devalued. In fact, I would argue that some of the gains made toward gender equality have come at the expense of femininity. Indeed, early on, some feminists expressed concern that the elevation of women’s status to that of men’s would largely men that women become men. You can join the old boys club on the condition that you become a boy.
My discipline (sociology) recently tipped over the threshold of gender parity to become a predominantly-female field. Though the “glass ceiling” has been cracked, if not completely shattered, in some of the field’s top-departments and leadership positions, feminist sociologists continue to struggle to gain legitimacy in mainstream sociology.
Further, we continue to prioritize and reward masculine (or even masculinist) presentations of self. On two occasions, I witnessed a woman professor scold women students (in front of a mixed-audience) for appearing to lack confidence and aggressiveness: “don’t do that, that’s girly!” I, too, was discouraged by a (man) professor from being a “shy guy” during an upcoming talk, which, upon comparing notes with another student, realized was the softened version of “man up!” (I suppose I was assumed too sensitive or critical for the more direct assault on my gendered presentation of self.)
These interpersonal constraints are compounded by those at the institutional level. In particular, academic institutions continue to evaluate scholars, particularly for tenure, using standards of the days where (white) male scholars had stay-at-home wives to take care of house and home. Women who become parents face great professional costs, while women who forgo parenthood are rewarded. Of course, an ironic twist to this aspect of sexism is that fathers receive a slight boost.
As an optimist, I see liberating girls, women, as well as femininity as beneficial to all members of society, no matter their sex, gender identity, and gender expression. As a critical scholar, I see this liberation as inherently tied to the liberation of all oppressed groups. Sexism is linked to transphobia is linked to heterosexism is linked to classism is linked to racism is linked to xenophobia is linked to ableism is linked to ageism and so on.
For example, two groups of oppressed men — Black men and trans, bisexual, and gay men — stand to benefit from the liberation of femininity. Just as a hierarchy exists for femininities, one exists for the diverse expressions of masculinity, with that of US-born white middle-class able-bodied heterosexual men as the most valued. Thus, Black masculinity and queer masculinity are devalued, stereotyped, and simultaneously threatened and treated as a threat. As a result, many queer and Black men devalue femininity in society and particularly among themselves. (Some rationalize this by asking, “why would you want to be further stigmatized?”) True racial and sexual equality cannot exist if these men’s gender expressions remain constrained and policed.
It is time, then, to update our feminist vision of the future. Feminism cannot be limited to the goal of liberating (a “narrow” category of) women. We must liberate all women, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, race, age, ethnicity, ability, nativity, religion, body size and shape, and social class. And, we must liberate all expressions of gender, particularly femininities. For women will never be truly free in a society that oppresses femininity.
There have been varying responses to the recent blog dialogue between Fabio Rojas, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and me over the existence and persistence of racism in the US — what one colleague aptly called a “blogstorm.” (Just in case you are just tuning in, see Fabio’s original “post-racism” thesis, Tressie’s first response, my first response, Fabio’s response to me, Tressie’s second response, and my second response.)
Racism And Rage
Some friends and colleagues have cautioned me against participating in such public dialogue, fearing that I may face professional consequences. Others have offered their sympathy, I suppose out of concern that I feel attacked or at least stressed by these conversations. Friends, colleagues, and even relatives — mostly people of color — have cheered me on, knowing that this is a tough, yet important dialogue. I have also heard that various anonymous commentators have criticized me for so publicly demonstrating my emotions related to the topic of racism.
Fabio also pointed out that, in my original post, I noted my outrage regarding his suggestion that America is now post-racist. I have yet to address this aspect of his response, though Tressie hinted that there is something problematic about this:
Here, I will try to avoid being labeled as an “outraged” black woman by sticking as closely as possible to the logical argument Fabio as put forth.
And, concludes her post with:
Was that rational enough for me to not be the angry black woman today? Eh.
A relative with whom I shared my participation in Blogstorm 2013 also took issue with Fabio’s acknowledgement of my outrage. I did cringe upon my first read of Fabio’s response to me: “A few days ago, Eric Grollman was outraged by my post on “post-racist” society.” I felt that my rage had been spotlighted in a way that undermined my point and my entire participation in the conversation.
What’s Wrong With Rage?
Of course, I do not think that Fabio meant any harm by directly citing my own words. But, the murmurs about rage and racism are worth further examination. Regardless of Fabio’s intentions, why would I fear public acknowledgement of the emotions I experienced in the midst of this dialogue about racism?
Reading Audre Lorde‘s “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Anger” in Sister Outsider this morning provided some insight. At a speech she delivered in 1981 at the National Women’s Studies Association conference, she noted that many white feminists offered rare, obligatory attention to racism in their fight against patriarchy. And, when the few feminist of color participated, their displays of anger and rage made their white counterparts uncomfortable.
Considering the structural and everyday realities of racism, anger is an appropriate, even expected, reaction. But, it appears that these emotions scare white people at all points on the political spectrum. Why? As Lorde suggests, that anger evokes guilt, particularly in white liberals. To demonstrate one’s raw emotions regarding the oppressive reality of racism is to convey just how real, just how ugly, and just how damaging and constraining it is.
But white guilt “is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of actions…it is a just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, and the ultimate protection for changelessness (p. 130).” Many liberal white people are uncomfortable seeing or hearing racism and the consequences it poses for people of color — hence, the anxious desire to declare America “post-racial.“
A Personal Anecdote
On a number of occasions, (well-intentioned) white friends and relatives have asked me to lower my voice when speaking openly about racism in public spaces. However, I am not silenced when I am laughing loudly and enjoying lighter topics of conversation. Embedded in these requests is “please stop talking about racism, you’re making other [white] people [and me] uncomfortable.” By openly discussing racist oppression, I am forcing those who benefit from it to stop pretending that racism and their white privilege do not exist. And, good-hearted, liberal white people, in their disdain for racism, do not want to acknowledge their role in its continuance.
I have also, on a number of occasions, been criticized for being “militant.” Again, these comments have often come from liberal-minded white people. Their criticism is not that I take issue with racism, but rather that I do so without suppressing my anger. What they want of me is to address racism on their terms: through mainstream social science; using “professional” language and demeanor; embracing all people, no matter how racist. The irony!
For example, I was asked, by a white colleague during a panel on diversity in graduate school, whether I try to peacefully work things out with whites who offend or exclude me, or simply dismiss them as “racist.” I responded by trying to push a conceptualization of racism as a system of oppression, as a system that structures every aspect and every level of society. I noted that I assume all whites (who do not actively challenge racism) are racists, so, rather than getting hung on up playing the “who’s a racist?” game (which derails meaningful conversations), I can focus on the larger reality of racism. Most of the white faces in the room contorted, likely just as they dismissed any and everything I had to say that day.
Another Manifestation Of Racism: Emotional Control
Thus, another manifestation of racism is how people of color respond and react to their oppression. We are asked to speak in ways and on subjects that do not alienate whites. When we threaten to directly name the persistence of racism, we are silenced. Or, alternatively, our emotional displays are highlighted to undermine our perspective. We are dismissed as “uppity,” “hostile,” “militant,” “angry,” or even violent.
That we are not free in how we feel about racism reflects yet another aspect of racist control over our minds, bodies, and souls. (White) America listens when safe, non-threatening white men slip in discussions of racism into otherwise lighthearted conversations.
In order to fully understand racism, how it affects the lives of people of color, we must listen to and embrace how people of color respond – how they feel. For, as Lorde notes, “[a]nger is loaded with information and energy” (p. 127). To silence the anger that people of color feel, or to force them to speak in ways foreign to their own experience and emotions is to pervert the true reality of racist oppression. This is a form of “selective hearing” at a minimum, pushing the message that racism is gone while ignoring the voices of people of color that say otherwise. Yet, I would argue that this sort of control over how people of color feel and how they display those feelings is another prison bar in the jail of racism.
We are overdue for honing the creative potential of the rage that people of color suppress day after day. For, the suppression of these emotions hinders our ability to move forward in eliminating racism:
Any discussion among women about racism must include the recognition and use of anger. This discussion must be direct and creative because it is crucial. We cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect us nor seduce us into settling for anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty (p. 128-9).
In response to persistence of racism even in 2013: yes, I am angry. My anger is a reasonable and expected reaction. And, I stress that rage is not violent in its own right. While it has motivated some toward violent retaliation, it also drives non-violent efforts to create change.
What else besides anger over the existence of inequality would motivate any action to challenge it? Clearly, white guilt immobilizes. So, maybe it’s time for more anti-racist whites to get angry, too!
In a recent post, I called for extending the New York Times Room For Debate, “Do Black Intellectuals Need to Talk About Race?“ My key concern was that due to various institutional constraints, the question is moot for some; the potential professional (and personal) consequences are so high, that silence may be necessary for one’s survival.
But, now feeling a little braver because I am close to the end of my status as a lifetime student, I did talk about race in the academy. In fact, I felt comfortable enough to call attention to a blog post on race by Fabio Rojas, a professor in my department at Indiana University. But, I have only started the long process of rebuilding my confidence, particularly in my perspective (i.e., my voice), after years of being torn down and remade in graduate school. So, I still braced for the sky to fall after I clicked “publish,” releasing the blog post to the worldwide web.
Be Careful What You Wish For
Late Wednesday night, I saw an email notification that I had a comment on my recent blog post — a pingback from Fabio’s blog, orgtheory.net. It was a new blog post by him: “Response To Eric Grollman On Race.” Oh My Goddess,” I thought. “I am going to get kicked out of graduate school!” I read Fabio’s response, feeling a wave of different emotions. Obviously, panic. Then, a sense of worry that I had been too harsh, or even unfair by referencing his ethnic identity and prior scholarship. Finally, excitement, pride, relief, and hope. In January, I expressed my anger and disappointment to my friends, but felt powerless to do or say anything. Now, in mid-February, a professor in my department, on his popular blog, was responding directly to me. By August, MSNBC will be moving my social and political commentary show, Tell The Truths, to Wednesday evenings. (It is okay to dream, isn’t it?)
I watched to see what sort of comments Fabio’s response would receive, fearing others would chime in to disagree with or criticize my perspective. To my surprise, a third scholar-blogger, Tressie McMillan Cottom, joined the debate with a second response to Fabio (see her first here). Though I did not start the conversation, I am proud to be part of the very debate I called to extend. Indeed, this is not the first debate about racism after the re-election of President Barack Obama, nor the first distinguishing “post-racial” from “post-racist.”
Tell The Truths
My PhD in sociology, or at least being months from officially receiving it, is not the sole source of my new (renewed, actually) sense of confidence to speak up and speak out. I devoted some of the little free time I have these days to reading the works of Frederick Douglas, Audre Lorde, Keith Boykin, and Patricia Hill Collins. These are scholars and advocates who used their voices to make visible the lives of and conditions faced by oppressed people. They did not wait for permission to speak, and, in many ways, had to fight to do so. And, rather than seeking large samples and fancy methodological approaches to appeal to the fickle standards of “objective” science, they used their own lives as “proof” of the everyday realities of oppression.
I see in my rigorous academic training both an opportunity and an obligation to speak out. Collins speaks about “telling the truth” in both her book, Intellectual Activism and a short article in Contexts magazine. She proposes this, for scholars with social justice motivations, in two ways. First, by “speaking truth to power”:
This form of truth telling uses the power of ideas to confront existing power relations. On a metaphorical level, speaking the truth to power invokes images of changing the very foundations of social hierarchy where the less powerful take on the ideas and practices of the powerful, often armed solely with their ideas. One can imagine this process through the David and Goliath story of the weak standing up to the strong, armed only with a slingshot (as relying solely on the power of one’s ideas seems to be) (p. 37).
For many scholars, including myself, this primarily entails devoting our scholarship to changing how and on what other scholars do their research. For Collins, this has been done phenomenally through advancing intersectionality, a theoretical framework that calls for attending to the intersections among systems of oppression (racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism). I have attempted to advance this framework in my own research on the health consequences of discrimination.
This is important work that ultimately transforms science and, hopefully, the potential social change that can result from research. But, those conversations remain among scholars. And, there is a very long time between project conception to publication, publication to use by other researchers (i.e., citations), and then to any impact that work will have beyond the academy. Still, much published research remains unavailable outside of academia and, even if it was freely accessible, I am doubtful that non-academics care to read the latest issue of an academic journal.
As such, Collins proposes a second form of truth-telling – “speak[ing] the truth directly to the people”:
In contrast to directing energy to those in power, a focus that inadvertently bolsters the belief that elites are the only social actors who count, those who speak the truth to the people talk directly to the masses (p. 38).
This means more than teaching large classes of undergraduate students. It means making accessible the resources (including ideas, perspectives, and data) to “ordinary, everyday people” to “assist them in their everyday lives” (p. 38). I have attempted this by providing my perspective and findings from prior research to community groups with which I have worked. I have offered advice to family and friends who have sought to challenge workplace discrimination and unfair labor practices. And, as often as I can, I blog here and for the Kinsey Institute (KinseyConfidential.org). But, also as Collins notes, I feel obligated to let family, friends, and the broader public speak to me, as well:
I believe that our analyses of important social issues are strengthened when we engage in dialogues, and speak with people and not at them (p. 41).
As such, rather than viewing my “expert” knowledge and perspective as Truth, I allow others’ experiences and perspectives to inform, challenge, and validate my work as a scholar. (As an aside, I am often frustrated that my work as a social scientist demands that I spend hours looking at numbers — that represent individuals — in isolation.)
A Response To Fabio’s Response To My Response
Fabio noted my outrage about his suggestion that we live in a “post-racist” society, and offered the following thoughts in response:
- Recognizing progress is not logically equivalent to saying that racism is absent in our society.
- It is important to recognize the drastic reduction in racist practices in American society for political and scientific reasons. Politically, we should reward good behavior. We should praise people when they stop engaging in overtly racist actions or passing race based law and policy. If we say “nothing has changed,” then people may say “why should I change? Nothing will make people happy.” Sociologically, it is simply erroneous to equate the era of Jim Crow with the era of Obama. African Americans and other minorities have changed in many remarkable ways. People of color make more money, get better jobs, get more education, are healthier, and have benefited enormously because of the Civil Rights movement. To deny that is folly.
- Before you get outraged again, I do not deny relative differences remain, which are often substantial. But once again, we must still recognize progress in absolute terms. And I’ll take large absolute improvements over changes in relative differences any day.
- Eric raises the issue of racial privilege and subtle forms of discrimination. I completely agree! Nowhere did I deny that these remain. But that comment itself shows how much things have changes. The cost of outright racism is now so high that it must go “underground.” That’s an improvement!
- On one point, I would agree with the skeptics who believe that racism is just as bad, possibly worse, than it was at the end of the Civil Rights era. People of color are subject to mass incarceration (again). In many ways, being stuck under the thumbs of an oppressive White majority in the South in 1920 isn’t so much different than being put in jail for non-violent drug charges. I’d also add that we should consider immigration law as one massive attempt to keep out ethnic outsiders as well. And of course, I haven’t mentioned the harassment that many people of Arabic descent have experienced post 9/11.
- Finally, I stand by my comment that it is good that we can talk about race. This is a *massive* cultural change. Remember, if you can name it, you can own it.
There are a few things I wish to say in response to Fabio:
- First, I wish to clarify that, in disagreeing with the existence of “post-racism,” I do not disagree with the very real changes that have occurred in the US. That three sociologists of color, one a tenured professor at a top university and two PhD students, are having this public discussion about racial and ethnic relations is evidence itself of the massive changes even in the past 50 years and beyond. But, the major changes we have seen do not suggest the complete erasure of racism in America.
- Second, I share some of the concern that a few others have made in comments to his response and original blog post that the shift form overt, Jim Crow-era racism to subtle, “color-blind” racism is change, but not necessarily progress. If anything, it is now harder to talk about racism because, for example, racist discrimination is thinly veiled as something non-racial. Racial and ethnic minorities’ real experiences of racist discrimination are viewed skeptically, or even dismissed as paranoia, hypervigilance, or playing “the race card.” Even in academic research, despite the real evidence of differential treatment (e.g., Devah Pager’s work), so many scholars do work on “perceived” discrimination.
- Third, I point to the underlying motivations to declare the US “post-racial” as evidence of a lingering problem in racial and ethnic relations. Why is (white) America so anxious to declare racism dead? Though these desires existed before 2007, they seemed to solidify with the election of President Obama. Now that one (half) Black man has been elected twice into the nation’s most powerful position, many whites see crystal clear evidence that racial discrimination no longer exists. Thus, we lack a collective understanding of racism that looks beyond the individual level. I am pessimistic about the prospects of seeing another Black president any time soon.
- Fourth, I stress (again) that racism operates through institutional practices. Tressie wrote more about this in her first post, as well: “Central to my theorizing and empirical work is that organizations reproduce racial, gender, and class inequality”; and, she wrote a more extensive response (with great examples) in her second post. This, of course, is only one aspect of the understanding of racism as a social institution in its own right.
- Related to my third point, I am ambivalent about Fabio’s call to “reward good behavior,” specifically that we should “praise [white] people when they stop engaging in overtly racist actions or passing race based law and policy.” White America did not willingly give people of color anything: not freedom from enslavement; not full citizenship and humanity; not equal protection under the law; not the right to participate in elections and politics; not equal opportunities and access to important institutions; not freedom from violence and discrimination; and, not programs to redress the persistent economic, psychological, and spiritual damage caused by the legacy of racism in America. We have had the noble help and support of white anti-racist activists, liberals, allies, and friends throughout history. However, whites, as a group, have not given us our free, equal status. Many, many, many people of color have fought tirelessly for equality. Few whites have actively fought racism. The supposed absence of whites’ racism is not equivalent to white anti-racism. I do agree that it is important to note progress, where progress has been made — something to which people of all races and ethnicities have contributed. But, I do not feel compelled to assuage white guilt, nor to feed into whites’ savor complex. The act of thanking or congratulating a white person for not discriminating against me or being open-minded enough to treat me as an equal (without claiming to be blind to my brown skin) would be completely degrading.
- Finally, thank you, Fabio, for the response, and for continuing this debate on race and racism. I have seen a spike in site visitors, likely many of your own who are curious about this “outraged” Eric Anthony Grollman.
I look forward to continued dialogue around race, ethnicity, racism, and xenophobia!