Beyond Allies: A Call For Supportive Academic Communities

I am only one person.  A mere mortal.  So, I am keenly aware that I need the support of others to survive.  I need ever greater support to thrive.  And, in trying to make a difference in the world — to change it — I need even more support, particularly from allies.  At the start of my (hopefully long) career as an academic, I have been reminded immediately of the importance of academic allies.  But, allies sometimes get things wrong in their advocacy, or can even make matters worse.

In this post, I will articulate the the importance of allies, at least in my own life and career; and, I hope to convince you to be a better ally to other scholars (especially those on the margins of academe).  But, my larger plea is for academia communities to share the responsibility of support, inclusion, and equality.

The Problem

I have said plenty in conversations and in blog posts about the barriers to free speech in academia.  The culture of academia, as I perceive it, is one that celebrates individualism, status, competition, theory over praxis, and research over teaching.  The reward structure ensures that academics feel just anxious enough to stay focused on the carrot dangled before them.  Keeping one’s head down and mouth shut is demanded encouraged for the PhD, a tenure-track job, then for tenure, then promotion to full professors, then…  Do academics actually ever reach the promised land of “academic freedom”?

I raise this question with concern because those constraints stand at odds with the primary reason I pursued an academic career: to make a difference in the world.  I see no point to replicating the apolitical, quiet careers I see of others who have been touted as “academic greats.”  Doing so would produce yet another academic career that has no meaning to or influence on the world beyond the ivory tower.  (Let us agree to disagree that research in academic journals behind pay-walls is useful to the broader society.  That is why we invented impact factors and other ways to self-validate.)  Or worse, following the road too-often-traveled would reinforce inequality, at least within academia.

So, if I take the approach I had initially set out on, just staying silent long enough to “make it” and then start making changes, I would be waiting until retirement.  I have waited long enough, banking on days that are not promised to me, and success and “freedom” that might never come.  The expression, “well-behaved women seldom make herstory,” resonates with me.  I know I will regularly be faced with weighing success (or even job stability) with the power to make a difference; as I have noted before, I hope to forge some path between success and social justice, using each to advance the other.

As I noted in another post, I am exhausting myself by devoting energy toward being successful by traditional academic standards — a strategy that regularly feels inauthentic.  It is draining at a spiritual level to be something and someone I am not while pushing to create space for my authentic self and others like me.  I simply cannot do it alone, working toward the two big goals of keeping my job and creating change in academia and society.  Even if I chose not to go against the grain, I would still need support and guidance as a junior professor.

The need for support is especially apparent when I directly challenge “the system” or more powerful members within it.  On a number of occasions, I have spoken out and, in the face of being the sole voice before a powerful giant, ended up backing down out of fear.  Yet, on other occasions, I have spoken out and then became one of a chorus of voices, standing strong in solidarity.  Sometimes, those voices are mere whispers from behind me — a private message on Facebook to thank me for speaking out, an appreciative comment shared in passing in the hallway.

A Few Examples

Stop Saying “Mulatto”!

My entree into blogging as a form of advocacy began around age 12 or 13, as I joined an online forum for multiracial and multiethnic people.  But, I had been outspoken about the existence and equal treatment of mixed-race/ethnicity since the age of 5.  (I am sure that comes as little surprise to some who know me well…)  The first instance was pointedly asking my kindergarten teacher why I could only self-identify as one race.  I do not recall her response, though.

In my junior year English class in high school, we had a long-term substitute while our regular teacher was out on maternity leave.  He had us spend a great deal of time focusing on race, ethnicity, and nativity — specifically the experiences of Black Americans and African immigrants in the US.  At some point, we read a novel about a multiracial person; it was an older text, so the term “mulatto” was used to describe Black-and-white people.  As we discussed the text in class, a classmate spoke up: “well, the mulattoes… and, mulattoes…”  Growing increasingly offended, I shouted out, “stop saying ‘mulattoes’!”  Too angry to further explain, I sat and stewed as the class looked at me in shock and confusion.  Without skipping a beat, the (sub) teacher clarified that the term is considered offensive by some because it suggests Blacks and whites are of different species, thus mixed individuals are like mules (the offspring of a horse and a donkey).  And, we carried on.

To my surprise, he did not keep the attention on my outburst, nor did he attempt to discipline me thereafter.  It was as though my anger was expected and understandable.  It provided a moment for him to educate us about the term, not one to punish me.  That moment sticks with me today.

National Coming Out Day

A few months after I came out mid-way through my senior year of high school, I jumped to organizing my school’s minimal attempt to celebrate National Coming Out Day.  What this actually entailed was printing cards on my personal computer that participants would wear to explain their silence, then handing these out on the day of the silent protest.  In essence, this was a one-person initiative that had no input or support from the school or any staff.

One of the Junior ROTC teachers called me over in his typically gruff voice.  (I was an officer in JROTC, and president of its honor society.)  When I approached, he very kindly asked for a view of the cards to hand out to other students.  HUH?  I had braced myself to either be reprimanded for handing out “unauthorized” material or even have the caused dismissed all together.  I did not have him pegged for an ally to the LGBTQ community.  Staying true to the silent protest, I obliged by handing him a few cards without saying a word, and then nodded to express my thanks.  People can surprise you.

Staff And Faculty Allies In College

The most impressive expression of support in my life has come from staff and faculty at my alma mater (UMBC).  Students who become involved on campus, be it within already formed student organizations or even engaging in advocacy and activism, will find a great deal of support, especially from the student affairs side of the college.  As my participation in LGBTQ activities shifted into LGBTQ activism, these mentors and allies supported me and provided me opportunities to advance my initiatives.  That work moved to a bigger stage, including the formation of a group of students, staff, faculty, and administrators, eventually capturing the attention of the university president.

Looking back, I am in awe of the level of support I received from staff and faculty who put their name on the line.  Many publicly signed their name to a petition we started calling for the creation of a campus resource center for LGBTQ students.  I still chuckle as I think about one of my faculty advisors turning to the vice president to pronounce, “I’m queer – I mean, in a political sense.  I am queer!”  When my then-boyfriend and I successfully ran for homecoming court, facing hostility in the form of graffiti on our flyers, the then-director of student life worked with us to report these acts of intolerance; she also quietly handled a call from an angry parent who complained that we kissed when we were crowned homecoming king and king.  My faculty advisors signaled their strong support by allowing me to devote my honors thesis research to advancing the LGBTQ activism in which I was engaged.

Now, I realize UMBC spoiled me.  It set pretty high expectations for the kind of mentorship and support, and commitment to social justice, that I should find in academic communities.  Let’s just say there are reasons why I keep looking back to those days so fondly…

A Call For Allies In Academia

On several occasions, I have spoken up to call out colleagues who made dangerous public statements about how the world works.  Each time, I run the risk of any professional consequences that come from pissing off potential journal editors or reviewers, grant reviewers, tenure-letter writers, etc.  And, I may also face backlash or be dismissed (i.e., “you uppity…”).

When I have had allies to chime in, or at least whisper an “amen!” or “thank you,” I feel greater support as I stand on my soapbox.  When I do not, I start to question whether it was wrong of me to speak, or that I am reading too much into something or even being overly sensitive, or maybe I just do not know what I am talking about.  I hate to feel that I am begging for attention or validation, but, as a “Tweep” pointed out, we need that sense of solidarity to keep us going in our fight for justice.

Unfortunately, both tradition and the academic punishment reward system keep many of us silent.  For example, I wrote a post a few weeks ago about the hostile response that Dr. Rachel Leventhal-Weiner received when she advanced the unpopular advice to look locally for jobs, that it is okay to set geographical parameters in one’s job search.  Of course, the hostile posts of disagreement came first, and eventually others chimed in to thank Dr. Leventhal-Weiner for her post, and to criticize the aforementioned  comments.  It is not fair to make assumptions about her response, but I imagine I would have felt discouraged by the kinds of opposition she received simply for offering advice (a free service for her colleagues, current and future!).

Besides that, what seems to be a new generation of more social justice-minded scholars is currently bound and gagged by job market and tenure-track concerns.  We are simply too few and far between, and too far down the totem pole to speak out against injustice in the academy.  In order to keep the jobs for which the odds are not in our favor, we keep our heads down and mouths shut.  So, that speaks even more to the need of allies who are in positions of power, be it in the academy (e.g., chairs, administrators, tenured faculty) and/or in society (e.g., white heterosexual cis men), to advocate for those without/with less power.  But, this has to be proactive.  Please, stop waiting for marginalized faculty to raise concerns and then reacting.  There is too much at stake to consider before complaining or asking for help.  And, do not ask us for the solutions to problems that have existed longer than we have been alive!

Bystander Intervention

Beyond Allies: A Bystander Intervention Approach

So, once again, I am calling for a bystander intervention approach.  Since many of the problems in academia are systemic and institutional in origin, we cannot rely alone on individuals — namely those impacted by these problems — to create change.  This means that we should all feel a sense of responsibility for improving academia, for making it a more humane and just place.

Listen With Respect And An Open-Mind

Tenure, She Wrote notes the following for men to be better allies to their women colleagues in academia:

Know when to listen. Don’t assume you understand what it’s like for women. Don’t interject with “but this happens to men, too!” Don’t try to dismiss or belittle women’s concerns. Remember that women are often reacting to  a long history of incidents, big and small.

Appreciate what (quantitative) data can tell us about larger patterns, but do not ignore personal narratives and anecdotes.  This may be more salient to me from the quantitative-biased field of sociology.  But, I have noticed a tendency to uncritically rely on data, sometimes to dismiss one person’s experiences or to conveniently to bolster one’s point in an argument.

Keep in mind that most reports of discrimination and harassment are not false reports, be it intentionally lying or being “overly sensitive.”  In fact, these manifestations of oppression are underreported because of the potential risk for retaliation or simply being dismissed by others.  Oppressed people actually go through quite a bit of processing before they label an act as discrimination or harassment; that is, there is a chance they will conclude shy of that, giving the perpetrator the benefit of the doubt.  So, by the time they are expressing this to another soul, they have already processed how likely it is they were the victim of unfair or hostile treatment, and weighed the costs of being wrong or dismissed.

Speak Up And Out, Often

Support others — in everyday matters, but especially when the stakes are high.  If it is dangerous to demonstrate this support publicly, do so privately.  Offer some sort of signal that you agree — and, even if you do not agree, that you appreciate someone’s bravery for speaking out when it might have been easier and safer to stay silent.  Take Dr. Chris Uggen’s advice to be nice and affirming of one’s colleagues in general.  Even when colleagues are not intentionally avoiding you, it is easy to feel isolated in academia; it would be nice to be the occasional recipient of random acts of kindness, not just the big department, university, and discipline awards and honors.  In my first semester, facing a few challenges outside of work, I really could have used more support at work to ease the emotional burden.

Make equality and inclusion a priority no matter who is present.  Please do not bring up racial inclusion only when people of color are present at a university or department meeting.  Yet, do not assume that marginalized scholars’ primary concern in life is their marginalized status.  (Yes, there are academics of color who do not study race and racism; there are white academics who do study race and racism.)  Also, do not leave it to marginalized scholars to be the one’s to bring this up, for there are numerous external and internal barriers to freely tell a predominantly-privileged room of people that inequality exists in that room.  We must stop leaving the burden of fighting oppression solely to the oppressed.

Act, When Appropriate

Assess the ways in which you are reproducing inequality and practicing discrimination or exclusion.  I really appreciated a post at Tenure, She Wrote, “Don’t be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic.”  This included being vigilant of practices that burden or devalue women, especially those that hinder their academic careers and create a hostile work environment.  I would add finding any opportunity to work inclusion and social justice into one’s classroom (and beyond it) — and, especially if one is of the relevant privileged group, and thus freed from concern about being evaluated by students as biased.

When possible, use your privileged status(es) to make space for others currently excluded from the room or conversation.  I do not mean to imply we should put marginalized people’s voice on a pedestal — especially if you only do so when it is about their experiences. But, I certainly emphasize that research expertise in absence of personal experience cannot stand in place of personal experience (with or without research expertise).  Whether it is about diversifying the faculty or designing a new major, any conversation is always incomplete if diversity is lacking.

Concluding Thoughts

What I am calling for here is a collective responsibility to be better colleagues in academia — which includes being an ally and advocate for others where possible.  Our colleagues, particularly those on the margins of academia, need to feel that their perspective, experiences, and contributions are valid and appreciated.  Sometimes, this means listening to affirm someone’s experiences (rather than defining someone else’s reality).  Other times, it means pushing to create space for those who are currently and historically excluded from certain spaces.  This shift has to be both collective (we are all responsible) and proactive (we actively seek for ways to advocate or to offer support); we cannot place the burden to make academia a more inclusive and humane place on the shoulders of scholars who are systematically excluded and victimized.

A few additional resources:

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