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Last week, I served as a panelist on a townhall on diversity, inclusion, and equity in the discipline of sociology at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in Philadelphia, PA. I was kindly invited to participate in this important conversation by organizers Dr. Victor Ray (@victorerikray) and David G. Embrick (@dgembrick), and ASA president Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Presided by Dr. Austin W. Ashe, the townhall also featured fellow panelists Drs. Antonia M. Randolph (@baldwinvidal), Salvador Vidal-Ortiz (@svidalortiz), Ted Thornhill (@profthornhill), and Natasha Kumar Warikoo (@nkwarikoo). As part of my commitment to breakdown the paywalls of academic journals, classrooms, and conferences, I share my remarks from the townhall below.
The failure of sociology to become a truly diverse and inclusive discipline is partly due to its aversion to scholar-activism. Thus, the disciplinary project to diversify sociology requires us to embrace activism. This is a simple point, but it remains a controversial one in sociology, especially within ASA.
Unfortunately, I know well the antipathy that many sociologists harbor toward scholar-activism. Early in my graduate training in sociology at Indiana University (IU), I was explicitly told that the goal of the program was to “beat the activist out” of me — some sort of bizarre twist on exorcism or conversion therapy. In my last year at IU, Professor Fabio Rojas wrote a blog post to me on OrgTheory.net, entitled “Why Activism and Academia Don’t Mix.” While his intentions were well-meaning, I found it unsettling to have a professor in my department publicly put me on blast just months before I finished my PhD and started a tenure-track job.
When I pitched a joint ASA session between the Sexualities and Social Psychology sections, my main advisor snidely responded, “OK, Mr. Activist.” Somehow even putting academic subfields into conversation with one another constituted activism; the bar for what was subjected to the slur of “activist” seemed to fall lower and lower. It took me years post-PhD to acknowledge how frequently my grad school professors used shame as part of their effort to train me. Perhaps its even fair to use the term gaslighting to describe this professional socialization. No matter the term used to describe this intellectual violence, or their intentions, the impact was severe: I continue to work through complex trauma even five years since I graduated.
Throughout my career, I have repeatedly been told that my research on LGBTQ communities and communities of color is nothing more than “me-search” – work that is suspect because it is on communities to which I belong. Once I was told my interests are “too narrow” by a white person who now has even narrower research interests than me. Apparently sociology only values work that is exclusively or at least partially related to privileged people.
Let me fast-forward a couple of years past my 2013 graduation from IU. At the 2016 annual ASA meeting in Seattle, WA, panelists Charlene Carruthers (@CharleneCac), Mariame Kaba (@prisonculture), and Kimberlé W. Crenshaw (@sandylocks) delivered profound, soul-shaking remarks on the presidential plenary on Protesting Racism. (See a video recording of the panel here.)
Presider Aldon Morris then opened the floor for Q&A, around 01:26:00. With just 10 minutes remaining in the plenary, Dr. Morris took four questions and then asked the panelists to respond to them collectively. The first question came from fellow IU alum Dr. Abigail A. Sewell (@aasewell). Dr. Sewell remarked that they were an activist long before becoming a sociologist, though they came to sociology under the assumption that it would be a transformative discipline. Their expectations were not met; but, it was through Black Lives Matter protests that Dr. Sewell remembered that the Black radical tradition persists – but, apparently this lesson was learned “on the streets” (through protests), not “in the books” (through their sociological training).
What stood out even more than Dr. Sewell’s comments were those of another audience member – a European scholar whose name I cannot remember nor make out from the videorecording. So, I’ll just call her “Positivist Paula.” Positivist Paula accused Carruthers, Kaba, and Crenshaw of blurring politics and academic research, and questioned whether the panelists’ remarks could even be considered scholarly. Positive Paula declared, “Sociology is not an activist activity; sociology is an academic discipline.”
Mariame Kaba responded to Positive Paula, “[s]ome in the discipline [sociology] want to enforce and discipline others into not being [organizers]. And, I think you lose a lot of people that you could have in the discipline by those kind of rigid differentiations that are really only true in a few people’s heads.” To junior scholars, Kaba advised, “Don’t let them make you into something you are not, if you are already somebody who organizes. You are allowed to be both.”
The following year (2017), the discipline’s double standard for public sociology versus scholar-activism became more apparent to me. For example, last year, Professor Joshua T. McCabe (@JoshuaTMcCabe) tweeted, “Dear fellow sociologists: Please stop doing this. I just want a professional organization focused on scholarship.” The “this” to which he was referring was then-ASA presidential candidate Dr. Mary Romero’s personal statement, which promised a commitment to scholar-activism. Surprisingly, McCabe engages in public sociology, prominently displayed on his personal website, including essays he has written for National Review. (I and several others shared his tweet, and many responded to him. A year later, he accused me of leading Twitter mob violence against him.) For years, ASA has furthered its commitment to public sociology, even calling upon sociology departments and universities to consider this work as part of considerations for tenure, promotion, and merit review. To my surprise, the words “activist” and “activism” never appear in this report.
Public sociology, but not scholar-activism? This is not a simple matter of semantics. As part of Contexts magazine’s August 2017 symposium on the Charlottesville white supremacist riots, Dr. Kimberly Kay Hoang (@kimberlykhoang) wrote an essay entitled, “Are Public Sociology and Scholar-Activism Really At Odds?” Dr. Hoang argued that there is a long history of white men sociologists who worry that scholar-activists undermine the credibility of the discipline. She wrote, “[t]here is a contradiction in our discipline. Public sociology proponents are supporting a particular market-structure of scholar activism that separates the ‘resident expert’ from the ‘scholar activist.’ This form of public sociology favors research examining those struggling under and against the effects of power relations while marginalizing researchers scrutinizing how institutions of power operate to maintain relations of domination’.”
(Side note: Interesting, white men sociologists’ fear that scholar-activists [of color] will jeopardize their standing in society persists today; some have even talked of forming an Association of White Sociologists as they grow increasingly frustrated that more scholar-activists of color are shaping the trajectory of ASA and the discipline. You know, Make Sociology Great Again — #MSGA.)
Said another way, “public sociology is for white people” (to quote sociologist Rahsaan Mahadeo, a PhD student at University of Minnesota currently on the sociology job market — in a working paper entitled, “Marinating over the Anti-Ebony Tower.”) It assumes a detachment from “the public,” as though a scholar is shouting down from his ivory tower to the masses. But, one should never get their hands dirty with the messy affair of activism. Similarly, Dr. Hoang’s aforementioned essay asked, “who can legitimately do public sociology without diminishing the discipline’s ‘credibility as a science’?”
At the root of the activism-versus-academia debate in sociology is the discipline’s refusal to embrace the work of marginalized scholars as legitimate sociological work. Sociologists who are white, men, cis, heterosexual, wealthy, and currently without disabilities – and especially those who hold multiple or all of these identities – act as gatekeepers who wield power to determine what counts as legitimate sociology and what doesn’t, who is a legitimate sociologist and who isn’t. The dominant way of being a sociologist – seemingly detached, objective, apolitical – has long kept out critical scholars and scholar-activists, folks who are disproportionately of color, cis women, queer and trans people, first-gen, working-class, and people with disabilities.
This ideology was used to justify excluding Dr. W. E. B. DuBois from the discipline, and subsequently erasing his contributions as part of the “classics” in sociology. Dr. Aldon Morris notes in his book, The Scholar Denied, “Many contemporary scholars claimed that by educating the public in the Crisis [magazine], Du Bois was no longer acting as a scholar but had turned propagandist.” Former ASA President Joe Feagin’s (@JoeFeagin) 2000 presidential address turned 2001 ASR article, “Social Justice and Sociology in the 21st Century,” recounts the discipline’s move toward positivism, which was also a time when white men solidified their dominance in sociology departments. Excluding activism is antithetical to diversifying sociology.
Today, the discipline’s aversion to activism runs counter to the reasons why most Black and Latinx folks pursue PhDs in sociology. As Dr. Denise A. Sagura found in a 2009 study of 700 PhD students (see Powerpoint presentation here), the top reason African Americans report for attending graduate school is to contribute to the advancement of minorities in the US, and the second and third most important reasons cited by Latinx students is to contribute to their community and contribute to the advancement of minorities in the US, respectively. The top three reasons cited by non-Hispanic whites were: 1) to grow intellectually, 2) to improve their personal occupational mobility, and 3) to make a contribution to the field – in other words, motivations not driven by a concern for making a difference in society.
To ignore what motivates people of color to become sociologists means that the discipline continues to center the interests of non-Hispanic whites. It means people of color – as well as other marginalized groups – find success in sociology by mainstream standards on the condition that they downplay their commitment to activism. Perhaps it means that those who refuse to conform drop out of grad school, leave faculty positions, leave the discipline, or leave academia.
To reverse this potential “brain-drain,” to cease forcing scholar-activists to conform or hide their activism, to end the practice of privileged scholars serving as gatekeepers who dismiss marginalized scholar-activists’ work as “me-search,” we are long overdue for embracing scholar-activism as a legitimate type of sociology. We are overdue for recognizing the contributions of DuBois, Anna Julia Cooper, Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Joyce Ladner, and other marginalized scholar-activists to the discipline.
In this increasingly post-truth, anti-science, anti-union, xenophobic, white supremacist, misogynistic, cis- and heterosexist climate – failing to embrace activism may be at our own peril.
Ahead of next week’s American Sociological Association (ASA) 2018 annual meeting in Philadelphia, PA, it seems sociology’s #MeToo moment has finally arrived. Assistant Professor Robert L. Reece (University of Texas – Austin) was accused of serial rape and abuse in March — that is, after writing a Vox essay arguing that the #MeToo movement fails to consider the “gray areas” inherent in navigating heterosexual sexual activity. ASA’s Twitter account (@ASAnews) still promotes Reece’s Vox article, which — to me — is akin to promoting Klansmen’s (and women’s) views on Black people and race relations in general, and Nazis’ views on Jewish and LGBTQ Americans. ASA essentially has amplified and tacitly endorsed an accused rapist’s view of rape while doing nothing to amplify survivors’ voices.
Two weeks later, news broke that University of Wisconsin – Madison paid out $591,000 in settlements for sexual violence cases at the university. Emeritus Professor John D. DeLamater’s name was revealed as one sexual predator whom the department and university protected:
In another, sociology professor, John DeLamater, was found to commit impermissible long-term behavior harassing graduate students with inappropriate comments and touching. He was ordered to go through extensive harassment awareness training, and was no longer allowed to have unsupervised contact with students. Delamater died while the case was pending.
Later in April, Associate Professor Matthew W. Hughey (University of Connecticut) was accused of as a rape and abuse:
On August 1, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article featuring SUNY Professor Michael S. Kimmel’s response to allegations that he has sexually harassed multiple graduate students. An anonymous Twitter account, @exposeprof, questioned why Kimmel — given his long record of perpetuating sexual violence — was selected as the 2018 winner of ASA’s Jessie Bernard career award for enlarging “the horizons of sociology to encompass fully the role of women in society.” Through his public statement, he was able to set a six-month deadline for his accusers to formally report his sexual violence to ASA. If no one comes forward (despite the limitations of ASA’s reporting system) or ASA’s Committee on Professional Ethics finds his behavior in line with guidelines for ethical behavior, he wins is prize in January. The current system of reporting sexual violence that occurs at annual meetings fails to acknowledge that few victims report sexual violence.
Beyond the award, will Kimmel still be welcome to attend ASA meetings, which many of his victims also attend? Too little consideration is given to how unsafe ASA meetings are for survivors, perhaps leading some to stop attending all together despite losing out on professional opportunities to present one’s work and to network. What justice will be served to the graduate students his sexual harassment has left traumatized? Fearful? To those whose work he has stolen and claimed as his own? Besides Kimmel, how do we address this problem in the future? There are many sexual predators whose careers continue on unaffected.
And, Emeritus Professor Martin S. Weinberg (Indiana University) is one such person. On August 3rd, I decided to break my silence about the sexual harassment I experienced as a grad student at IU at the hands of Weinberg. As far as I’ve heard, Weinberg’s sexual violence has gone unpunished by IU and its sociology department for years, if not decades. Consequently, even after the he retired, he has been accused of harassing current grad students — those who have come years after me.
- @KABeard12‘s thread on being sexually harassed by Martin Weinberg and why she’s refusing to stay silent about it any longer
- @NMGronert‘s thread on making the difficult decision to report a professor for sexually harassing her, and having to avoid him thereafter
- @NBedera‘s thread on her experiences with sexual harassment in sociology and the longterm, widespread impact it has had on her life and career
- @JuniperFitz‘s thread on the additional vulnerabilities to sexual violence that scholars who are sex workers experience in sociology, sharing her own experiences with sexual harassment. Also, see her second thread.
- @WendyLiy‘s thread on the importance of the “whisper network” for women sociologists to learn which notoriously predatory men scholars to avoid in the discipline
- @MrPositiveCynic‘s thread on the broad impact of sexual violence in academia
- See my (@grollman) Twitterstorm on the 100+ sexual predators in sociology whom were noted in The Professor Is In’s crowdsourced survey on sexual harassment in academia (#MeTooPhD)
So, now we’re talking. This is sociology’s #MeToo moment, just under a year after the #MeToo movement exploded nationally (that is, over a decade after Tarana Burke launched this movement in 2006), and eight months since The Professor Is In’s survey went viral, collecting over 2,400 entries.
Our moment… A moment isn’t long enough, in my opinion. “Sociology’s #MeToo” Moment” implies that this moment will pass. By next year’s ASA conference in NYC, sociologists will be buzzing about some other controversy. Indeed, the Sociologists Against Sexual Harassment (SASH) — later renamed the International Coalition Against Sexual Harassment (ICASH), launched in 1992, seems to have died out in the past few years. Yet, here we are in 2018…
Sociologists Against Sexual Violence (SASV)
To prevent letting this #MeTooSociology moment end, I call, instead, for a #MeTooSociology movement. Given our critical investigation of power, gender, sexuality, and organizations, sociologists are in excellent position to raise public understanding of sexual violence and to inform laws and policies to support survivors and pursue justice on their behalf. And, we have at our fingertips sociological knowledge and resources to eliminate sexual violence within our own ranks. For example:
- See Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield’s (Sociologists for Women in Society president, Southern Sociological Society president-elect, and [in my opinion] the next president-elect of ASA) Conditionally Accepted blog post on the ways in which universities facilitate sexual violence. (Also see Dr. Bedelia Nicola Richards’s Conditionally Accepted blog post on the ways in which universities facilitate white supremacy.)
- See Dr. Debra Guckenheimer’s suggestions for what perpetrators (like Kimmel) should do once their sexual violence has been brought to light.
- See Dr. Hephzibah Strmic-Pawl’s suggestions for action that the discipline should take to effectively address sexual violence.
- See my blog post arguing that when departments, universities, and professional societies fail to address sexual violence in academia, they pass the burden on to individuals to work with or around (or avoid) those perpetrators.
Yet, since news broke of then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump’s taped admission of perpetrating sexual violence against multiple women, sociologists have been noticeably absent from national discourse on sexual violence. This silence is even more suspect now as a national movement has taken shape (#MeToo), and initiatives focusing on the issue specifically within academia have been launched (#MeTooPhD). In fact, even in the discipline as multiple perpetrators have been identified and victims have voiced their experiences, most sociologists have done little beyond discussion of this epidemic. While public statements are an important first step, sustained action is needed to dismantle the systems that facilitate sexual violence.
ASA has created a working group on harassment, tasked to develop a more stringent anti-harassment policy for ASA annual meetings. (But, are policies and trainings enough?) The group is also hosting two workshops at the 2018 annual meeting. (See the full list of events related to sexual violence at next week’s ASA conference here.) However, a group directly affiliated with ASA is constrained in its ability to hold the organization accountable for effectively addressing sexual violence. And, I am worried that these efforts continue to view victims as subordinate-status heterosexual non-Hispanic white cisgender women without disabilities and perpetrators as senior-level heterosexual non-Hispanic white cisgender men without disabilities. We must recognize sexual violence as one manifestation of any system of oppression, including sexism, cissexism, heterosexual, racism, xenophobia, classism, ableism, fatphobia, ageism, and religious intolerance. And, more importantly, we must be attuned to sexual violence at the intersections among these systems of oppression.
In light of these issues, Dr. Shantel Gabrieal Buggs, Dr. Hephzibah Strmic-Pawl, and I propose creating an independent initiative: Sociologists Against Sexual Violence. Broadly, this group would serve to address sexual violence in and through sociology. We cannot effectively achieve our goal of using sociological insights to end sexual violence while it continues to happen within our own ranks. Ideally, we should be a model discipline for the entire profession, and be at the forefront of national discourse on this epidemic.
Some specific ideas we have for addressing sexual violence through sociology:
- Amplifying the work of sociologists who do work on sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment, stalking, and intimate partner violence. This can include putting experts in touch with the media, creating a database of experts, and creating a blog that features accessible blog posts on key sociological insights, new research, and sociological critiques of current events. This public sociology initiative can also include offering concrete steps for organizations to address sexual violence, for bystanders to intervene when sexual violence occurs, for victims to know what options exist for them, and for potential victims to protect themselves against the threat of sexual violence. Particular emphasis should be placed on an intersectional understanding of sexual violence.
- Work to create new opportunities for research on sexual violence, including conference sessions, special issues in journals, and funding opportunities.
- Contribute to and support the #MeToo movement.
- Compile and publicize research briefs on sexual violence to serve the work of non-profit organizations, activists, lawyers, and schools. For example, raise awareness about how organizations actually facilitate sexual violence.
- Issue amicus briefs for court cases on sexual violence.
- Create a public syllabus with crucial readings for the sociological, intersectional understanding of sexual violence.
- Create a database of resources for teaching on sexual violence.
And, some specific ideas that we have for addressing sexual violence in the discipline:
- Contribute to and support the #MeTooPhD initiative.
- Conduct a survey of survivors in the discipline to assess the pervasiveness of sexual violence in sociology, the professional and health consequences of sexual violence for victims, and the social location and professional status of perpetrators of sexual violence. One crucial question is whether survivors of sexual violence limit their participation at annual meetings, or forgo these meetings all together. (Many women attend Sociologists for Women in Society exclusively for this reason.)
- Host workshops on sexual violence at ASA meetings, particularly on bystander training.
- Create safe spaces for survivors at ASA meetings (e.g., a hospitality suite just for survivors, morning meditation/prayer for survivors).
- Host trainings for department chairs to address sexual violence.
- Conduct a survey of departments to find out whether and how sexual violence is being addressed, and the effectiveness of measures currently taken.
- Push ASA to improve its reporting system for sexual violence, and the measures used to hold perpetrators accountable. Assess how useful this system is for sexual violence in the discipline that does not occur at annual meetings.
- Protect sociologists who pursue advocacy and activism on sexual violence from professional harm and public backlash.
- With every initiative, devote special attention to the discipline’s most vulnerable members, including graduate students, junior faculty, contingent faculty, and those at the intersections of multiple systems of oppression (e.g., women of color).
If you are interested in helping to launch this movement — whether it be the Sociologists Against Sexual Violence initiative or take another form — please join Dr. Buggs, Dr. Strmic-Pawl, and me during our meeting at ASA: this Saturday (August 11), 8-10pm EST in Pennsylvania Convention Center room 104. We welcome ideas for the structure this group will take, what its vision and values will be, and who will lead it. If you are unable to attend, please contact us by email either ahead of or immediately after the meeting. There are a few workshops on sexual violence at ASA that you should also check out.
On Sunday, 8/12, we ask that you wear white to help raise awareness about sexual violence in sociology. The three of us will be handing out #MeTooPhD and Sociologists Against Sexual Violence buttons at the ASA and Society for the Student of Social Problems conferences, and the ASA Section on Sexualities preconference this Thursday and Friday.
As Dr. Wingfield noted in her SWS statement this morning:
As many of you know, our discipline is having a public reckoning with the issue of sexual harassment and abuse. As the #MeToo movement has shown (and as many of us already know), no industries are immune from the problem of those in power abusing it to harass those in subordinate positions. This issue within the field of sociology is not a new one and there have been conversations about this for years. In fact, SWS was initially founded because of the lack of support for women and nonbinary people in ASA. It seems old issues die hard.
We are overdue for this reckoning. We are overdue in making our classrooms, departments, universities, committees, professional societies, and conferences safe, free from abuses of power, sexual violence, bias and discrimination, and other unethical behavior. We are overdue for recognizing and redressing the “brain-drain” that our discipline experiences in lost productivity, skipped conferences, terminated collaborations and mentoring relationships, and other ways in which individuals have to make difficult decisions about how to interact with (or not) perpetrators who walk around freely and continue to be rewarded and protected. We are overdue for putting this silly “activism versus academia” debate to rest and actually putting our insights to use to end this epidemic on our campuses and beyond.
#MeTooSociology – will you join us?
Events Related To Sexual Violence At The American Sociological Association 2018 Annual Meeting (Philly)
For my fellow sociologists planning to attend the 2018 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Philadelphia, I have compiled a list of meetings, workshops, paper sessions, and roundtable presentations related to sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, the #MeToo movement and other activism to end sexual violence. You may download a PDF version here or see the full list below. These events will also be listed in an upcoming issue of Footnotes.
WEAR WHITE ON SUNDAY, AUGUST 12TH TO SUPPORT SURVIVORS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE.
Sociologists Against Sexual Violence – a proposed new group
Sat, August 11, 8:00 to 10:00pm, Pennsylvania Convention Center, Level 100, 104.
Organizers: Eric Anthony Grollman (University of Richmond) and Shantel Gabrieal Buggs (Florida State University)
Given their critical investigation of power, gender, sexuality, and organizations, sociologists are in excellent position to raise public understanding of sexual violence and to inform laws and policies to support survivors and punish perpetrators. Yet, since news broke of then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump’s taped admission of perpetrating sexual violence against multiple women, sociologists were noticeably absent from national discourse on sexual violence. This silence is even more suspect now as a national movement has taken shape (#MeToo), and initiatives focusing on the issue specifically within academia have been launched (#MeTooPhD). In fact, even in the discipline as multiple perpetrators have been identified and victims have voiced their experiences, most sociologists have done little beyond discussion of this epidemic. While public statements are an important first step, sustained action is needed to dismantle the systems that facilitate sexual violence. This meeting is open to sociologists who are interested in brainstorming short- and long-term strategies to address sexual violence both in and through sociology.
#MeTooPhD: Addressing Sexual Violence in and through Sociology
Sat, August 11, 10:30am to 12:10pm, Pennsylvania Convention Center, Street Level, 104A
Organizer and Presider: Eric Anthony Grollman (University of Richmond)
- Irene Shankar (Mount Royal University)
- Shawn McGuffey (Boston College)
- Karen Kelsky (TheProfessorIsIn.com)
- Bethany Coston (Virginia Commonwealth University)
- Leslie Jones (University of Pennsylvania)
- Hephzibah Strmic-Pawl (Manhattanville College)
- Nicole Bedera (University of Michigan)
Ways to effectively prevent sexual violence and support survivors of such violence in multiple contexts in sociology, including classrooms, departments, conferences, research abroad, and online. And, ways that we might use sociology to support broader movements to end sexual violence around the nation.
Bystander Intervention for Combating Sexual Misconduct in Sociology: Everyone Can Be Part of the Solution (Organized by the ASA Working Group on Harassment; Cosponsored by Sociologists for Women in Society)
Sun, August 12, 10:30am to 12:10pm, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Level 4, Franklin Hall 9
Organizer: Kathrin Zippel (Northeastern University)
Leader: Sharyn J. Potter (University of New Hampshire)
How to intervene as engaged bystanders before, during and after instances of sexual and relationship violence, stalking and harassment.
Sexual Harassment in Professional Associations
(Organized by the ASA Working Group on Harassment)
Sun, August 12, 2:30 to 4:10pm, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Level 4, Franklin 13
Organizers: Kathrin Zippel (Northeastern University) and Erika Marín-Spiotta (University of Wisconsin – Madison)
- Alexandra Kalev (Tel Aviv University)
- Frank Dobbin (Harvard University)
- Justine E. Tinkler (University of Georgia)
- Erika Marín-Spiotta (University of Wisconsin – Madison)
Drawing on research on and experiences with harassment prevention in workplace organizations, we will discuss what steps professional associations can do to promote a professional, learning and working environment free of harassment.
- Sexual Assault and Intimate Partner Violence: Explanatory Factors Across Multiple Contexts; Mon, August 13, 8:30 to 10:10am, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Level 4, Franklin 13
- Gender, Social Movements, and (In)Justice; Mon, August 13, 4:30 to 6:10pm, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Level 4, Franklin Hall 6; Jaime Hartless – “#MeToo and the Silence Breakers: Managing Allyship and Incorporating Intersectionality Without Derailing Activism”
- Gendered Violence, Sexual Harassment, and Title IX; Tue, August 14, 2:30 to 4:10pm, Pennsylvania Convention Center, Street Level, 111B
- Informal Discussion Roundtable Session; Sun, August 12, 10:30am to 12:10pm, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Level 5, Salon G; Table 9; Judith A. Richman – “The ‘ME Too’ Movement challenging male abuses of power: Addressing the psychotherapy arena”
- Section on Communication, Information Technologies, and Media Sociology Refereed Roundtable Session; Sun, August 12, 10:30 to 11:30am, Pennsylvania Convention Center, Street Level, 103B; Table 05. Identity and Influence in the Digital Landscape; Leslie Jones – “#MeToo and the Digital Black Feminist Critique of Colorblind Feminist Politics”
- Section on Social Psychology Refereed Roundtable Session; Mon, August 13, 2:30 to 4:10pm, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Level 5, Salon D; Table 1; Kaitlin M. Boyle, Jennifer Turner, and Tara Elizabeth Sutton – “Feeling Sexual Harassment and Microaggressions in Graduate School: The Role of Negative Emotion in Disordered Drinking”
- Section on Sociology of Sex and Gender Refereed Roundtable Session; Tue, August 14, 10:30am to 12:10pm, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Level 5, Salon H – tables 13 (Intimate Partner Violence) and 17 (Sexual Assault, Trafficking, and Street Harassment)
This Friday, October 11th, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* (LGBT) communities will be celebrating National Coming Out Day. Beginning in 1988, one year after the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, LGBT people have recognized this day as an important moment to publicly come out or celebrate those who are already out. The social climate around sexual identity, gender identity and expression, and same-gender relationships has quickly shifted toward tolerance, especially in the last few years. So, coming out (as LGBT) has become easier, with LGBT and queer youth coming out earlier and earlier in adolescence.
Coming Out (Or Not) As A Selfish Act
Considering the growing acceptance for LGBT people, does it seem silly to stay “in the closet” (i.e., hide one’s sexual and/or gender identities)? Last week, I attended a talk by LGBT rights activists Judy Shepard; since her son, Matthew, was murdered in 1997 because of his sexual orientation, Judy has done speaking engagements all over the world to promote understanding and acceptance for LGBT people.
I was surprised, though, that she characterized staying in the closet — at least in one’s own family — as selfish. She argued that, by hiding who one’s “true” self (in this case, one’s LGB sexual identity), you are robbing family members of getting to know you completely. To be fair, she started her talk by noting some things she would say would not resonate with everyone. But, she emphasized her argument about selfishness for about ten minutes. (Other than that, I loved her talk!)
Funny, because as my mother first struggled with my (then) bisexual identity when I came out in 2003, she told me coming out was selfish. She suggested that it forced her and my father to adjust to this new me. Since this was fundamentally about sex in her mind, there was no need for me to share such personal details with my parents. (Now, over a decade later, my parents accepts me as a whole human being, and have apologized for the understandable rough time they had to go through after I came out.) Earlier this year, a football player (selfishly) argued that coming out in the NFL is selfish because it takes attention away from the entire (otherwise heterosexual) team.
So, a queer person is selfish if they never come out to their families. And, a queer person is selfish if they come out. I guess. Maybe, at the core, being queer is selfish?
Heterosexuals And Cisgender People Are Selfish
I am flipping this “selfish” accusation to highlight the selfishness of heterosexuals and cisgender people who 1) automatically assume every person is heterosexual (i.e., heterocentricism) and cisgender (i.e., ciscentricism), and 2) actively pressure LGBT individuals to become heterosexual/cisgender.
That one has to come out as LGBT in the first place is the product of the assumption that, from birth, everyone is heterosexual and that their gender identity is aligned with their sex-assigned-at birth. A common parenting strategy is to assume one’s child is heterosexual (and cisgender) until proven otherwise; and, for parents, that includes actively demonizing queer people, communities, and relationships.
When LGBT people decide to come out (or are forced out), our heterosexist and cissexist society does not throw up its hands and say, “well, I tried.” At the level of microaggressions, we are asked whether we think our sexuality or gender is a “phase,” or are interrogated about the traumatic events that led up to a deviant sexual/gender identity. We are encouraged to “try a little harder” — maybe you have not found the “right” girl, or should consider joining the military to “toughen up.”
Though veiled as innocent suggestions from a place of concern, we receive comments that suggest we should give being “normal” a second chance. Of course, this ignores the long internal process one goes through, first wrestling with one’s identity and then weighing the potential costs of coming out. It ignores that we already have “tried” heterosexuality and/or being cisgender many, many times for many, many years — that is why we have finally decided to come out as LGBT.
More severe manifestations of heterosexist and cissexist selfishness are punishing LGBT people for being different. The soft approach of re-recruitment did not work. So, the big guns have to come out. We are subject to discrimination in schools, the workplace, public accommodations, healthcare, the criminal justice system, the government, religion, etc… Countless queer people have been verbally, physically, and/or sexually harassed or assaulted. Countless queer people have been killed because of their sexual and/or gender identity. Heterosexism and cissexism are not secure enough to co-exist alongside a small minority who are not heterosexual and/or cisgender; so, queer people must be eliminated, erased from the past, present, and future, and forced to assimilate.
Shaming queer people — yes, I am calling this a form of shaming — for coming out, or not coming out, ignores the consequences of these actions. The true selfishness is demanding that an oppressed minority disclose everything to you when you want it, and hide everything when you don’t want it, while you ignore the oppressive forces that shape and constrain their reality.
As a sociologist, I must emphasize that individuals’ actions exist within a larger social context. In this case, LGBT people’s decision to come out (or not) must be viewed as an individual act within a larger heterosexist and cissexist society. Our agency or “free will” to act (or not) is shaped by opportunities and obstacles posed by interactions with others, institutions, and larger social systems (e.g., cissexism).
As a Black queer feminist sociologist, I must emphasize that the pressure to come out — whether from LGBT community leaders or heterosexual and cisgender family members — ignores the unique pressures and consequences for doing so among queer people of color, working-class queer people, queer immigrants, disabled queers/queers with disabilities, and queer religious minorities. For LGBT people who are disadvantaged in other ways, the stakes may be higher for coming out. For example, LGBT people of color risk being kicked out of their families, and lose larger ties to their racial/ethnic community; the former may be less damaging in the long-run for white LGBT people, and the latter is a non-issue for whites.
So, not only is demanding that queer people (don’t) come out selfish, it is arguably racist, sexist, classist, ableist, and xenophobic because it presumes a common set of experiences for all LGBT people.
My intention is not to demonize particular cisgender and heterosexual people. But, I do take issue with shaming queer people for either coming out or not coming out. Simply existing in this transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic society of ours is a brave act that constantly requires deciding how to
navigate survive in this world. There is no one good path because every decision we make comes with costs and consequences. Sometimes, for the sake of survival or protecting our livelihood, we cannot afford to be out. Sometimes, we consider the risks, but decide it is still more beneficial (for ourselves and others) to be out than not. And, in general, the decision to come out (or not) is not always ours to make.
Without having first-hand knowledge of the reality of being queer (i.e., that is, being queer yourself), it is unfair to question the decisions that queer people make. If you — talking to cis and hetero people here — feel the need to be critical, set your sights on the systems of oppression that shape and constrain every aspect of the lives of trans*, bi, lesbian, gay, and queer people. We could use more of that kind of critique, anyhow!
I feel heartbroken by the news that George Zimmerman walks a free, “innocent” man after murdering Trayvon Martin. It is difficult to digest that the state of Florida, among other states, has granted license (which mostly benefits whites who kill Blacks) to “stand your ground” (i.e., murder). So, while there is no doubt Zimmerman killed Martin, he was found not guilty within the content of these broad self-defense laws. Indirectly, Florida and these other states have legalized the practice of hunting and killing of Black Americans.
Post-racism my ass!
Parents And Racial Socialization
In addition to the collective outrage and sadness that followed the not-guilty verdict, I noticed other, unexpected responses. One, in particular, caught me by surprise, but probably should have been expected. Because Trayvon Martin was only 17 years old when George Zimmerman killed him, many Black parents (especially mothers) have expressed great concern for protecting their children. Some have asked specifically how they can effectively prepare their children to navigate a world where they could be murdered for carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea — that is, if they are Black.
Throughout US history, Black parents, like all parents of color, have socialized their children in a way that is explicitly racialized. This aspect of Black parenting, sometimes referred to as racial socialization, entails practices of preparing one’s children for the current realities of racism and race relations and, for some, instilling a strong sense of racial pride. So, the concerns raised by Black parents following the murder of Trayvon Martin and, again, following the conclusion of George Zimmerman’s trial, are not new.
But, the messages transmitted by Black parents to their children does change over time, reflecting the current racial climate. In their 2006 Social Psychology Quarterly article, “Race Socialization Messages across Historical Time,” sociologists Tony Brown and Chase L. Lesane-Brown assessed the content of Black parents’ racialized socialization practices over time: specifically pre-Brown v. Board of Education (before 1957; Blacks born between 1879-1940), Civil Rights protest (1957-1968; those born in 1941-1955), and post-protest (1969-1980; those born 1956-1963). The earliest cohort — those coming of age before Brown — were more likely to hear messages about deference to or fear of whites, or about color-blindness. Those coming of age after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement were more likely to hear messages of racial group pride, individual pride, or no race-specific messages at all.
Racial Socialization, 1980 To Today
What about the racial socialization of those born from 1964 to today (Blacks under the age of 50)? Black Americans who came of age in the 1980s were socialized during the time of conservative President Ronald Reagan, The Cosby Show, and heightened poverty. Those who came of age in the ’90s witnessed the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court (following the hearings of his sexual harassment against Anita Hill), the brutal beating of Rodney King by LA police, and the Million Man March. My cohort — those coming of age between 2000-2010 — has seen the election of Barack Obama (and other “Firsts” like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice), the ugly (mis)handling of evacuation before and relief after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the end of busing and subsequent resegregation of schools, and the beginnings of successful attempts to undermine and dismantle Affirmative Action policies.
What about the current racial climate — Black youth who are coming of age during the present decade (2010-)? It appears to be an intensification of the racial/racist schizophrenia of the prior decade. While President Barack Obama was reelected, there were heightened efforts to suppress Blacks’ vote. Recently, declaring racism dead or nearly dead, the Supreme Court gutted much of the Voting Rights Act. Affirmative Action programs continue to be challenged and scaled back. Blacks are disproportionately represented in prison and throughout the criminal justice system. While hearing claims that America has reached a post-racial era, the vast majority of Black Americans report facing interpersonal discrimination (Kessler et al. 1999); this is complemented by legal law enforcement practices that unfairly target people of color (including Stand Your Ground laws) and other forms of institutional racism.
Racial Socialization, Discrimination, and Crime
But, is instilling a strong sense of racial pride and preparing one’s children for racial bias effective? Yep. Prior research has suggested that the damaging effects of racial discrimination, particularly to one’s health and well-being, are buffered by a strong, positive racial identity (Paradies 2006; Pascoe and Richman 2009). This is true for racial socialization broadly, but also supportive parenting in general (Simmons et al. 2006).
Interestingly, racial socialization also partially mediates (or explains) the relationship between racial discrimination and criminal or delinquent behavior (Burt et al. 2012; Caldwell et al. 2004; Martin et al. 2010). Unfortunately, as a result of the anger, depression, hostile view of interpersonal relationships, and disengagement from conventional norms that can follow exposure to discrimination, victims of racial discrimination may be more likely to engage in these kinds of violent or illegal activities. But, Black parents’ successful efforts to instill a strong sense of racial pride and prepare their kids for racial bias can interrupt this chain of events.
For, what unfolds is much worse. With racial disparities in (hostile) interaction with the police, in arrest, in the courts, and in sentencing, the risk of imprisonment is multiplied. And, once release from prisons (at least for felonies), one’s livelihood and well-being are further jeopardized by the simultaneous stigmatized statuses of “ex-con” and Black. In certain states, that comes with the loss of key aspects of citizenship, namely the right to vote (another right that is already threatened by racial discrimination).
The sheer vastness of racism’s reach are difficult to comprehend. From birth to death, one’s life is persistently shaped and constrained by racism; even the racist treatment one faces within one institution (e.g., education) can influence such treatment in one’s navigation through other institutions (e.g., criminal justice, politics).
And effective racialized socialization can minimize some of this? That is an unfair, heavy burden to place on the shoulders of parents of color. And the era of supposed post-racism has made the job of Black parents even more complicated. How do you explain to your 12 year old that he could be President, a doctor, a teacher, or an engineer by age 40… or living in poverty, HIV-positive, in jail, or dead by age 25? How do prepare your child for racist violence, like the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, alongside the “progress” that has transpired in the past 60 years?
And, what could Trayvon Martin’s parents — Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton — have done to prevent the tragic end of their son’s life at the young age of 17? Told him to lay off of junk food? Don’t walk alone at night? Dress like characters on the uber white show, Friends? Or, stop being Black? Any of these suggestions are victim-blaming; and, unfortunately, parts of Zimmerman’s trial seem to put Martin on trial (for his own murder).
When racial socialization is not enough, and the law actually gives bigots a license to hunt innocent Black teenagers, what protection remains for people of color in America?
It is hard to hope for any answer other than, “nothing.”
Bowleg, Lisa, Gary J. Burkholder, Jenne S. Massie, Rahab Wahome, Michelle Teti, David J. Malebranche, and Jeanne M. Tschann. Forthcoming. “Racial Discrimination, Social Support, and Sexual HIV Risk among Black Heterosexual Men.” AIDS Behavior.
Brown, Tony N., and Chase L. Lesane-Brown. 2006. “Race Socialization Messages across Historical Time.” Social Psychology Quarterly 69: 201-13.
Burt, Callie Harbin, Ronald L. Simons, and Frederic X. Gibbons. 2012. “Racial Discrimination, Ethnic-Racial Socialization, and Crime: A Micro-Sociological Model of Risk and Resilience.” American Sociological Review 77: 648-77.
Caldwell, Cleopatra Howard, Laura P. Kohn-Wood, Karen H. Schmeelk-Cone, Tabbye M. Chavous, and Marc A. Zimmerman. (2004). “Racial Discrimination and Racial Identity as Risk or Protective Factors for Violence Behaviors in African American Young Adults.” American Journal of Community Psychology 33: 91-105.
Kessler, Ronald C., Kristin D. Mickelson, and David R. Williams. 1999. “The Prevalence, Distribution, and Mental Health Correlates of Perceived Discrimination in the United States.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 40: 208-30.
Martin, Monica J., Bill McCarthy, Rand D. Conger, Frederick X. Gibbons, Ronald L. Simons, Carolyn E. Cutrona, and Gene H. Brody. 2010. “The Enduring Significance of Racism: Discrimination and Delinquency Among Black American Youth.” Journal of Research on Adolescence 21: 662-76.
Paradies, Yin. 2006. “A Systematic Review of Empirical Research on Self-Reported Racism and Health.” International Journal of Epidemiology 35: 888-901.
Pascoe, Elizabeth A., and Laura Smart Richman. 2009. “Perceived Discrimination and Health: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Psychological Bulletin 135: 531-54.
Roberts, Megan E., Frederick X. Gibbons, Meg Gerrard, Chin-Yuan Weng, Velma M. Murry, Leslie G. Simons, Ronald L. Simons, and Frederick O. Lorenz. 2012. “From Racial Discrimination to Risky Sex: Prospective Relations Involving Peers and Parents.” Developmental Psychology 48: 89-102.
Simons, Ronald L., Leslie Gordon Simons, Callie Harbin Burt, Holli Drummund, Eric Stewart, Gene H. Brody, Frederick X. Gibbons, and Carolyn Cutrona. 2006. “Supportive Parenting Moderates the Effect of Discrimination upon Anger, Hostile View of Relationships, and Violence among African American Boys.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 47: 373-89.