On The Importance Of Authenticity In Academia

TenureNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.

Considering how much I have “souled” out to get ahead in my academic career, I fear that I am the last person who should be giving advice on authenticity in academe. Since graduate school, I have struggled to navigate the tension between, on one hand, my black, queer, intellectual activist identities and politics and, on the other, the supposedly objective and meritocratic norms and expectations of mainstream academe. Then again, given that, perhaps I should actually be one of the first to discuss authenticity in the academy. At any rate, I will continue to discuss authenticity in academe in my blog posts on this column, for it may help others like me to survive and thrive.

Like many marginalized students, staff and faculty, I have become disenchanted by diversity rhetoric in higher education. Most colleges and universities in the United States are anything but diverse, yet the institutions appear to be obsessed with the concept — at least in publicly stating a commitment to it. But what is diversity in the absence of real inclusion, social justice and the eradication of oppression? Diversity is a hollow concept when it is limited to numbers on paper or token black and brown faces on a brochure of an otherwise white campus.

Last semester, an uprising among college students, particularly students of color, spread across America. Students spoke up to call attention to the lack of diversity, to racial hostility and administrators’ inattention to structural and everyday racism on many college campuses. Many of those student demonstrators issued lists of demands to eradicate racism at their institutions and improve conditions for students of color. It should come as little surprise that one common demand, even among student-activists on my own campus, was for more racial and ethnic diversity among the faculty.

Unfortunately, recruiting more tenure-track and tenured faculty of color is a relatively quick and easy solution, but it holds little promise for real change in higher education. And I worry administrators will latch on to that while feeling stumped about student demonstrators’ other demands, for those reasons. Underlying all of the talk of diversity appears to be the assumption that the problems of racism and racial inequality in higher education is simply having too few faculty of color. There is a stubborn blindness to the way racism and whiteness, among other systems of oppression and forms of privilege, are embedded in institutional practices and policies, campus culture and climate, and even academic curricula.

Here is what I know about diversity via my experiences as a black, queer, pretenure professor. Being recruited into a space that is dominated, both in terms of numbers and power, by white heterosexual cisgender middle-class men sets the stage for an incredibly frustrating experience, if not one filled with hostility. Since graduate school, I have felt pressure to gain acceptance into the status quo in academe on the condition that I downplay the very things that I contribute to diversity: my identities, my politics, my activism. I have been professionally successful to the extent that I distance myself from my black and queer communities, avoid marginalized research topics like sexualities and trans studies, and forgo any sort of activism.

Since I began my tenure-track position at the University of Richmond, I have wavered between being comfortable and being afraid. I deeply internalized the professional norms of my graduate training — to be “objective,” detached and apolitical — but I also resisted those norms because they were literally making me sick. Each time I put on a suit and tie, I realize I am wearing a mask of “boy drag” to protect myself from accusations of not being professional, or a serious scholar, or being too radical; from students’ challenges to my authority; and from homophobic and transphobic discrimination and violence more generally.

But, I also realize that I have been sending a dangerous message to my students: conform. In order to get ahead in life, you must be like everyone else. You can be an original … until you graduate.

What good is racial and ethnic diversity if faculty of color are silenced? Or live in daily fear? Cannot pursue research on their own communities? Have trouble publishing and obtaining grants if they do critical race research? Forgo teaching on race and racism, or teach these subjects in a detached and “objective” way? Quietly accept the racist status quo in academe? What good does seeing a black or brown face at the front of the classroom do if that face is wearing a mask?

I have been working on being more authentic as a scholar. The benefits for me are obvious, particularly alleviating the stress of hiding, holding back and self-censoring. In just the past few months, I have also realized how being authentic as a black, queer, intellectual activist impacts my students. To my surprise, many of them actually care about who I am as a person outside of class, a few even regularly reading this blog. (But about a third have criticized me as “biased” on my course evaluations.)

When I allow myself to be present, the students (at least those who want to) actually see me. And for many marginalized students, they see themselves in me and other authentic professors. It is a heavy burden to bear, particularly when we may be subject to disrespect in the classroom, poor course evaluations, denial of tenure or promotion and perhaps even violence. But to the extent that we feel safe, we can serve our students in a big way by being not just another face but actually a presence.