Kasim Ortiz will be a PhD student in sociology at Vanderbilt University beginning in Fall 2014. His research interests include intersectionality, critical race theory, medical sociology, religion, urban sociology, and demography. Although, he contends that such labels of interests are too restrictive, as he is merely interested in life! Below, Kasim reflects on the difficulty of finding a supportive mentor, and the broader, uglier reality that academic training often takes the form of hazing. He offers practical tips for grad students to survive.
May I Work With You, Please? Academic Hazing, Intra-Racial Conflict & Marginality
~ To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true.
The Journey Begins…
Markedly a characteristic of graduate school is identifying a mentor, often someone whose research speaks to you, from which you can grow as a scholar and gain insight on their lived experience in academia. Also, this decision is often influenced by an ability to gain access to mentors’ professional network. Because it’s more important who you know rather than what you know, right? Racialized minority graduate students often find themselves gravitating towards faculty of color for a myriad of reasons. This mentor could very well be the only one in your department doing research that interests you. All the blacks doing research on blacks, all the Latinos doing research on Latinos, all the gays doing gay research, all the financially stable doing poverty research. Please excuse my cynicism and generalization concerning academics and financial stability, not trying to give another blow to those in the academy that find themselves financially unstable.
Well guess what, I want to research them all because all of them are me (well, except financially stable… I’m still in the “trenches”). I recognize my own financial capital in being an “intellect.” I digress. This story begins in an email: “May I work with you?? I really like your research and have ideas from which I believe can build upon your work.” Little did I realize that such “community” seeking would be the beginning of a tormented pilgrimage to belong!
Culture Shock Sets In
A growing space has been supplied to the discussion of academic hazing, especially along tenure, gendered, and racial lines. Graduate students are subject to certain expected experiences of hazing as “part of the process.” Hazing it directly complements expected norms of academic life? The backdrop for this “socialization” process often is remedied with our sole purpose being to obtain those “letters” behind our name because that will then afford us “freedom.” But why? But how? But really? But wait! “Freedom” at what cost? Grandma interjects in the back of my mind: “Boy you know nothing in life is free.”
Wikipedia (yes I know it’s not an academically “reputable” source) defines hazing as the practice of rituals and other activities involving harassment, abuse, or humiliation used as a way of irritating a person into a group and can be comprised of physical and psychological abuse. Most campuses have “anti-hazing” policies aimed primarily at undergraduate fraternalism, yet you’d be hard pressed to locate highly enforced policies on campuses that speak to academic hazing among or between faculty and/or faculty and graduate students.
Let Me Reintroduce Myself, My Body is…..
In an attempt to muddle the water, I’d like to discuss my lived experience not only as a racialized minority in the academy but also as an openly gay man with perceived “femininity,” who happens to be outspoken. Now you might ask yourself, why are those unamenable and innate qualities important? They are important because each quality represents a direct conflict against the sterilization (oh, I meant to say professional etiquette) within the ivory towers. The intersection of qualities has often resolved in a positionality reminiscent of Wocquant’s articulation of marginality. This has salience because as Wocquant notes (specific to urbanized areas), marginality is not experienced the same everywhere. Thus, it should be duly noted the situational context from which this piece arose.
I have attended a Division 1 SEC university in the southeastern United States for the past several years. I was mentally prepared for daily racial microaggressions such as when a white professor, studying disparities, proclaims in a public health course that “Tuskegee wasn’t about race? It was about class?!?” This “preparation” nonetheless minimized a constant burning at my soul physiologically and mentally.
However, I was not in any form or fashion prepared when a Black professor called my cell phone one weekend. A response to my rightfully questioning authorship on a published manuscript. The conversation proceed with, “Who the *uck do you think you are? Don’t you know I could *uck your career up?” The light bulb started warming, but wasn’t all the way on. The light bulb finally came on when a Black administrator told me, “oh no we don’t want this information to get out because [professor so and so] brings <insert famous politician> yearly to this university.” At that point it became clear, I was stuck in a crab barrel that promoted docility, unwarranted politics of respectability, and a selling of one’s soul.
My Brain is Larger Than Yours
The intellectual sizing up that accompanies life in the academy has often frustrated me beyond explanation. This frustration is amplified when it comes from the hands of those in which my hands mirror. It hasn’t become quite clear as to why such specific hazing occurs. However, why can’t I just be intelligent, passionate about learning, enjoy answering complex questions, read a lot and that be ok….isn’t this a place of “higher learning”? I’ve often speculated that academic hazing stems from hazing experienced by so many Black undergraduates as they’ve sought brotherhood/sisterhood in fraternal organizations and have made it to glory as a professor. A true crossing of the burning sands of a sort.
Yet this framing seems insufficient or at best a minimizing lens or an oversimplification. Could it be internalized racism which is rooted in historical experiences of enslavement and beyond chattel slavery? Could it be heterosexism and homophobia that deems my sexualized body dispensable among those that have similar skin tones because I am not quite a man but yet too much a feminine being? Is it because my outspoken nature is reminiscent of a “snap queen” or an “angry Black woman”? Might it be an attempt to cope with constant messages of inferiority where hazing one “less” privileged becomes necessary? Could it possibly be insecurity because of how an intersectional world experience manifests in my “thinking outside the box”? Or quite possible, academic hazing could just be internalized hatred for something someone represents for which others don’t want to be reminded of (the naivety of intellectual curiosity). I don’t have definitive conclusions to these puzzling questions, but I do have truth in being the recipient of their outcomes. My questions aren’t a futile attempt to argue from the margins without recognizing the center.
So What Have I Learned? (Here’s the Takeaway):
- Arm thy self! A desire to belong cannot, and should not, compromise your quality of life, emotional well-being, intellectual interests, passions beyond the sanitized walls of the academy, nor deny aspects that make oneself unique. This requires maturity in emotional intelligence, willingness to unveil masks, and ally building.
- Protect thy self! Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy for an unwillingness to see truth. When situational contexts become clearly detrimental find meaningful ways to exit stage left. This could mean merely throwing the deuces; however, remember the last component of the previous tip. Without ally building it can be challenging to ‘exit stage left’ but with allies you can often find some peace. Also, naivety has to be thrown out the window. Just because someone talks like a duck, looks like a duck, doesn’t always mean they walk like a duck!
- Love thy self! This cannot be iterated enough. Striking a balance in life while pursuing graduate studies can be difficult, yet you must force yourself. Find healthy (however you define) ways to disengage from academic life without jeopardizing your goals. Life isn’t always about doing; sometimes peace can be found in mindless nothingness.
- Know thy self! When you’ve had enough, allow yourself to find the coping strategy that works for you. Often this is when you learn who is part of your “community” because those who are a true social support will be understanding. On “community”: immediately locating this is vital for success in academia. If you cannot find proximal “community” develop some form of “community” that provides you shade and cover from the day-to-day psychological distresses of the academy.
- Challenge thy self! In the face of adversity do not, I repeat, do not run from it. Your feet will quickly become tired. Life in general can place you in uncomfortable situations and gaining consciousness of privilege may lead to heightened sensitivity. This is totally fine, just manage. If you feel there is a need for righteous anger, display it with your head held high, yet be open for change if necessary.
This post is an expression of me taking my own advice in challenging myself for which the following quote is truth of a new awakening.
“The Black [insert Latino] homosexual is hard pressed to gain audience among his heterosexual brothers; even if he is more talented, he is inhibited by his silence or his admissions. This is what the race has depended on in being able to erase homosexuality from our recorded history. The “chosen‟ history. But the sacred constructions of silence are futile exercises in denial. We will not go away with our issues of sexuality. We are coming home.”
Essex Hemphill, “Loyalty” (1992)