Around the time of my birth, Black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins began writing, and ultimately publishing, an essay on being an “outsider within” sociology. In her 1986 piece, “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought,” Collins writes about the difficulties Black women scholars — specifically sociologists — face in reconciling their personal experiences, identities, values, and perspectives with those that dominate academia. In particular, “to become sociological insiders, Black women must assimilate a standpoint that is quite different from their own” (p. 49). Almost 30 years later, I struggle with similar challenges at the beginning of my academic career.
In graduate school, I learned several harsh lessons about what was entailed in being a good scholar:
- Academia and activism do not mix. And, one of the primary aims of academic professional socialization is to “beat the activist” out of you.
- Good researchers do not simply study oppressed populations. Rather, one adopts a valued, mainstream framework (e.g., social psychology, medical sociology), and just happens to focus on a particular community or population. Studying race, or gender, or sexuality, or *gasp* the intersections among them are deemed “narrow” research interests.
- Qualitative methods, particularly approaches that give voice to and empower oppressed communities, are devalued relative to quantitative approaches.
- Good research is objective. One should not even write in the first person in articles and books!
I bucked at the pressure to “go R1.” I publicly declared I would not put another day of my life on hold just to attain or keep an academic position. And, I have dared to talk openly about inequality within academia. You would think that I would be passed all of this, no longer carrying around bitterness or resentment about what my graduate training was or wasn’t. It seems my journey as an outsider within has just begun. Collins argues:
Outsider within status is bound to generate tension, for people who become outsiders within are forever changed by their new status. Learning the subject matter of sociology stimulates a reexamination of one’s own personal and cultural experiences; and, yet, these same experiences paradoxically help to illuminate sociology’s anomalies. Outsiders within occupy a special place – they become different people, and their difference sensitizes them to patterns that may be more difficult for established sociological insiders to see (p. 53).
I welcome what my unique perspective stands to offer sociology and academia in general. Even at this early stage, I feel my research has covered issues that seem so obvious to me but, to date, has not been examined in prior research. However, the downsides of the tension that Collins mentions — the frustration, self-doubt, alienation — continue to take a toll on my personal and professional life. Can this tension ever be reconciled? Collins suggests:
Some outsiders within try to resolve the tension generated by their new status by leaving sociology and remaining sociological outsiders. Others choose to suppress their difference by striving to become bona fide, ‘thinking as usual’ sociological insiders. Both choices rob sociology of diversity and ultimately weaken the discipline” (p. 53).
Wow, damned if you do… This is why Collins advocates for greater acknowledgement, recognition, and use of the black feminist perspective in sociology. She argues that outsider within perspectives should be encouraged and institutionalized. In general, scholars, especially outsiders within, should “trust their own personal and cultural biographies as significant sources of knowledge” (p. 53). Without this change, scholars continue to rely on research and theory that largely excludes, or even distorts, the experiences and values of oppressed people.
I suppose some progress has been made since Collins wrote this article. Indeed, more and more sociologist recognize black feminist theory as an important perspective. But, many marginalized scholars, like myself, continue to feel conditionally accepted in the profession. Our success and relevance, even our livelihood, seems to depend on the extent to which we assimilate to white, masculinist, cis- and heterosexist, and middle-class ways of thinking (and being).