The Cost Of “Intellectual Passing” For Minority Scholars

"Mask" by _da.Costa

“Mask” by _da.Costa

I am keenly aware of the ways in which I am “conditionally accepted” in academia as a fat Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual-activist. Conformity — intellectually, politically, and physically — is rewarded; non-conformity is punished. As an eager, yet naïve college senior, I was already aware of some of the more obvious hierarchies in the academy. I knew well enough to apply to PhD programs in sociology because that degree would allow me to later join the ranks of gender studies scholars, but the reverse was not possible. What seemed a mere matter of practicality proved to be the first of a series of decisions to “soul out” in academe. But, at what cost?

In their preface of their foundational book, All the Women are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, Akasha (Gloria T.) Hull and Barbara Smith wrote the following:

Our credibility as autonomous beings and thinkers in the white-male-run intellectual establishment is constantly in question and rises and falls in direct proportion to the degree to which we continue to act and think like our Black female selves, rejecting the modes of bankrupt white-male Western thought. Intellectual ‘passing’ is a dangerously limiting solution for Black women, a non-solution that makes us invisible women. It will also not give us the emotional and psychological clarity we need to do the feminist research in Black women’s studies that will transform our own and our sisters’ lives [emphasis added] (p. xxiv).

They go on to call for creating spaces and networks for Black women in the academy, and to reject “objective” scholarship as “an example of the reification of white-male thought” (p. xxv).

“Intellectual ‘passing’?” When I read this passage, I felt Hull and Smith had called me out directly. Though they wrote this preface in 1979 for the book, which was published in 1982, they named a trap that I (and other marginalized scholars) still fall into in 2016. I know that I am “conditionally accepted” at best, so to minimize the disadvantages I face, I have often made decisions to downplay what makes me differ from my politically-moderate, “objective,” middle-class, white, heterosexual, cisgender, men colleagues.

The most obvious is my decision to wear ill-fitting men’s suits to work, though I have publicly griped about it and am out as a fat queer non-binary person. I reasoned that I could at least get into the door if I looked the part (of a professor), and then would challenge the hell out of my colleagues and students. Less obvious is the way in which I frame my scholarship to be more palpable to the mainstream of my discipline, relying on quantitative methods and fairly uncritical theoretical perspectives.

Damn, if Hull and Smith aren’t right! The decision to act and look like the dominant group, with the conscious and sometimes unconscious attempt to avoid discrimination and violence, is the very definition of passing. The qualifier of “intellectual” is necessary here to highlight that I am not attempting to be perceived as a white heterosexual cis man; rather, I have been attempting to pass as one intellectually. My actions and appearance have served to make it difficult for colleagues and students to discern how I differ from the dominant group as a scholar and teacher. That is, as a matter of earning tenure and keeping my job, and thus my survival and livelihood more generally, but also — at least I told myself — “so they never see you coming,” as my mother would say.

I am confident that this strategy works for some marginalized scholars. Respectability politics would have fallen out of favor if they did not at least offer the promise of acceptance by dominant or mainstream society. But, I have countered my efforts to pass intellectually by speaking so openly about intending to do so, and being out and open as unapologetically different from the mainstream. You cannot start a blog that is critical of mainstream academe and expect to convince others that you are “Good As You” or even just like you. The joke has been on me since all in the Land of Oz can easily see the drag queen behind the curtain.

I am inclined to I agree with Hull and Smith that “intellectual ‘passing’ is a dangerously limiting solution” for any marginalized scholar. For me, traumatized by my graduate training, I found that there was no limit to the pressure to conform. Where and on what to publish became where to work, which entailed “advice” about how seriously to prioritize my relationship and to remind search committees that I am Black (yet downplay how I differ from whites). I conceded in forgoing the joint PhD in gender studies, then the graduate minor in gender or sexuality studies, then the qualifying exam on gender, sexuality, or race/class/gender, then the dissertation on transgender health. Now in my fourth year on the tenure-track, I am finally returning to sexualities research that I was steered away from in my first two years of graduate school. But, I still frequently have days where I no longer recognize the scholar and activist I have become.

In my classes, I have increasingly felt that I am failing my marginalized students — especially the queer people of color and women of color — in standing before the classroom behind the mask of conformity. I have been sending them the message that I am only allowed to teach at this wealthy HWCU (historically white college or university) because I look, act, and think very much like their other, privileged professors. I am able to keep this job to the extent that I continue to conform, year after year. What good is my presence if I contribute only to cosmetic diversity, while leaving intact moderate-to-conservative ideology and curricula that uphold the status quo?

Collectively, we marginalized scholars who pass intellectually do nothing to disrupt the academic structures and cultures that marginalize us. We continue to get jobs on their terms, earn tenure on their terms, get promoted on their terms, publish in their journals, apply for their grants, and so forth. We are complicit in our own marginalization, signaling to our privileged colleagues that their way is, indeed, the superior way to be a scholar — in fact, it is the only way to be a scholar. We are complicit in the practices in higher education that reinforce the status quo.

I cannot afford to pass any longer. I tried, and still ended up traumatized, medicated, and dissatisfied with my scholarship. I passed so long I no longer recognize who I am. I know the risks are real — you do not have to remind me that people have to eat! But, we cannot afford to have another generation of conforming marginalized scholars, so that future embattled intellectual-activists read things we write today in 40 years wondering why nothing has changed.

One thought on “The Cost Of “Intellectual Passing” For Minority Scholars

  1. Thanks for penning this very needed commentary. A major question arose for me while reading this, “at what point in one’s career is it ‘safe’ to no longer pass intellectually”? For those that take a stand to ensure they aren’t passing in stages of life in the academy, it can be detrimental to one’s progress. Furthermore for those that are consciously aware of intellectual passing, how do you not only hold yourself accountable but other colleagues accountable, particularly recognizing that the intent of the passage in, “But Some of Us Are Brave”, seems to really focus on collective action. Doing such important work like creating spaces where intellectual passing becomes less viable requires some element of collectivity.

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