Authentic And Unapologetic: On Being A Unicorn In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column.

DeniseI am the only black LGBTQ professor on my campus (as far as I know). I am black, yet multiracial and multiethnic (black, white and Jewish). I am a queer man, yet genderqueer and nonbinary. I am an activist, yet working with and in the system of higher education to make a difference in society. And, I am pretenure … with no additional caveats.

I have taken up the identity of a unicorn because my existence, both on the campus and in society in general, is nearly mythical. And I regularly live with the fear that it is easier for the institution to crush me, eliminate me or force me to assimilate than it is for me to actually change the institution to include me, respect me and value me. I have exhausted a great deal of energy navigating the tension between efforts to ensure my survival as a person and those to ensure my job security; what constitutes excellence in teaching and research tends to prioritize the very things that exclude me, erase me or silence me.

But now I am in therapy, working through the traumatizing experience of graduate school. I am properly medicated to minimize the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, from which I have suffered since my third year of grad school. I have found friends and colleagues who support me in pursuing my self-defined career as an intellectual activist. And, most importantly, I have ensured that those things that will most certainly grant me tenure — publications and good student evaluations — are taken care of before anything else, while also prioritizing self-care and personal fulfillment.

My own well-being and livelihood aside, the importance of being authentic and visible for others, especially my students, was the strongest impetus to take back control of my life and my career. Early on, despite hiding in fear behind suits and a guarded demeanor, I had students who sensed that a more radical, social justice-oriented and vulnerable person was lurking behind the mask — and that they sorely needed that unicorn to come out of from hiding.

As I have taken better care of myself, and, as such, found room to take more chances in being public, I have found even more students expressing their appreciation for my visibility. In two recent examples, I wrote opinion pieces for my university’s newspaper, The Collegian: one was a “love letter” to students of color who frequently feel miserable on our predominantly white campus, and the other was a coming out of sorts as a nonbinary-identified professor. I have attended more events related to social justice, often sharing my own experiences and viewpoint, rather than hiding behind the myth of objective scientific expertise. I am often rewarded with what feels like reciprocated love from many students of color, LGBTQ students and women students — especially those who belong to more than one of these groups.

My activism on the campus, thus far, has not felt incredibly radical. I have made myself visible as a fat black queer nonbinary feminist intellectual activist. With time, therapy, medication and support, I am now less afraid to be visible as a unicorn at this institution. I no longer hide behind a mask that unintentionally sent the message that success for marginalized people requires extensive compromise, hiding and/or “souling” out. The students’ reactions — ranging from a passing thank-you to heartfelt emails and Facebook friend requests (which are declined until they graduate) — demonstrate to me that there is something inherently radical about my visibility on campus. And that the campus is so lacking in diversity — particularly at the intersections among minority identities — that it seems the students are hungry to see something different, or even something like them in the case of marginalized students (fellow unicorns).

I have already griped about the additional labor I feel as a diversity token. Where the university is ill equipped to adequately support students of color, LGBTQ students and first-generation and working-class students, the slack is picked up by faculty and staff members (often of those very backgrounds). Or these students simply fall through the cracks. Sometimes both.

But I also appreciate the importance of my presence, my visibility, my authenticity and my advocacy. Without ever agreeing to serve on a committee related to diversity, I can be a face and a voice that contributes to the sense of diversity and inclusion on the campus. Without taking on honors thesis and internship students, and the more informal advising that is common in supporting marginalized students, I can be a source of support by addressing diversity and social justice in my classes. I sometimes have to turn away a marginalized student; this is incredibly heartbreaking, but I know that such additional emotional labor is not valued and might even take away from the tasks that actually “count” professionally — the very things that will help me keep this job for the long haul.

Lately, I have been thinking of the “visibility of one” that I offer to my campus as something akin to the personal hot spot feature of cellphones. This feature essentially allows your phone to provide internet access to multiple devices. It is great technology, though I have never actually used it myself. But it makes for an interesting analogy to the kind of energy I feel I send to others on campus.

From my own visibility as a unicorn, it seems that I am able to allow others to feel seen, to feel they are not alone, to feel their struggles and experiences are valid and recognized, and to feel loved and in community. I would like to think that my writing, my approach to teaching and, at a basic level, my presence at the university is helping to boost others like me. While students — especially those who are of color and/or LGBTQ — lack support from the institution, they can find some virtual support from me.

But like cellphone hot spots, this kind of visibility of one has a huge drawback: it is draining work. My battery life depletes much more quickly. So I must also be intentional about equipping students to find support from multiple places, to advocate for themselves, to prioritize their own self-care and perhaps to become their own personal hot spot of visibility to help others. I have gotten better about leaving work behind every weekday at 5 p.m. and giving myself a true break over the weekends. I have had to turn down service requests that do not yield long-term opportunities (especially potential leadership roles).

In the long term, I want to push the institution to further diversify its faculty, focusing on both recruitment and retention, and to put resources in place that prioritize marginalized students’ success and well-being. Since I am more emotionally healthy today, I can afford to be a visibility hot spot for fellow unicorns on the campus. But it cannot be an alternative to real institutional change. Ideally, the university will provide “visibility Wi-Fi” throughout the campus (e.g., diversity in every office and department, diversity-promoting policies) so that individuals no longer need to serve as visibility hot spots.