Victor Ray On “The Racialization Of Academic Funding”

victor-rayNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. You can follow him on Twitter at @victorerikray.

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This essay is the first of two in which I will provide advice on getting research funding in graduate school. Here, I outline how disparities in graduate funding are deeply racialized and how that connects to racial issues in higher education more generally.

Let’s first take a brief look at the history of higher education in the United States. American colleges and universities were founded as white organizations. Part of their intellectual mission was to further the ideology and material practices of white supremacy. Profits from slavery, the exclusion of people of color and complicity in scientific racism were much more than unfortunate footnotes to an otherwise noble system.

As Craig Steven Wilder shows in the remarkable Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, higher education in the United States was founded on racial exclusion and explicitly designed to further white privilege. The life of the mind was underwritten by the cut of the whip. Although the civil rights movement and tepid diversity programming have reconfigured the racial relations central to higher education, they have by no means erased them. Colleges and universities attempt to project the illusion of a level playing field, yet racial disparities in funding, admittance and graduation rates remain deeply unequal.

Research funding is a racial issue in ways both easily apparent and occasionally hidden. Race shapes funding most obviously through the fact that the bulk of institutional resources remain firmly in white hands. Racial stratification is a defining feature of higher education at all levels of the hierarchy. For example, despite hand-wringing over supposedly “reverse racist” policies, whites are overrepresented relative to their proportion of the population when it comes to scholarships.

According to recent research by Louise Seamster and Raphaël Charron-Chénier, black students graduate with higher debt burdens. This bias extends to national funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health. After accounting for a host of factors that influence funding decisions — essentially, to statistically compare equally qualified white candidates and candidates of color — researchers found that black scholars were still 10 percent less likely than white scholars to receive NIH research funding. Such funding inequalities can make it less likely for students of color to be able to support their schooling and research, furthering racial inequity in higher education more generally.

Wider social factors also influence the ability of people of color to self-fund their education. As William Darity Jr., Darrick Hamilton and their colleagues have shown, deep racial differences in family wealth persist. Black and Latino families have fallen farther behind since the Great Recession, such that the “median black family has $7,113 in wealth, while the median white family has $111,740 in wealth.” The numbers are similarly stark for Latina/os. Those disparities are directly traceable to racist social policies like redlining, subprime lending and educational segregation, and they may make self-funding more difficult for nonwhite students.

Historical inequalities that can influence research opportunities and educational trajectories do not always show up in obvious ways. For instance, most legacy admittances can easily be construed as white racial preferences, given that many colleges and universities were only integrated in the 1960s. Similarly, the bias in so-called aptitude tests — which are excellent measures of inherited wealth — create the illusion of meritocracy while legitimizing educational inequality. Those historical inequalities influence current research realities. For instance, a dustup at New York University, in which the director of graduate admissions told a black student that perhaps he should rethink his application if he could not afford the fee, is a particularly blatant example of this racialized dynamic.

Because people of color are more likely to come from families without an ample and reliable store of wealth, they may not have the economic resources needed to support some basics of research. In my own discipline (sociology), necessary tools of the trade — such as laptops, digital tape recorders, data analysis software and money for transcription — may be unaffordable. A lack of funds for this basic equipment can put you behind your peers. And, psychologically, the very real sense of shame that comes from lacking resources in a society that measures your worth by your wealth can also constrain productivity. As a critical sociologist interested in racial inequality, I see how unequal funding holds implications for who gets to tell the stories of people of color.

Racial inequalities have real implications for conducting research. Sociologists have long argued that early disparities in funding create a Matthew effect that advantages scholars over the course of their careers. Based on the scripture “to them that has, more shall be given,” sociologist Robert K. Merton observed that scholars who found early success in securing funding were likely to have higher career productivity. Early funding provides vital resources — research assistants, course releases, money for travel — that scholars can use to extend their advantages. Those resources are then turned into the capital of academe: visibility, publications and access to social networks. Like compound interest, the productivity of scholars who achieve funding early in their careers is boosted, and that early advantage opens up subsequent opportunities. Racial disparities in funding thus create a cycle of cumulative disadvantage.

Beyond these reasons, the ability to acquire funding is becoming more important on the job market. Increasingly, departments in the social sciences are looking to hire scholars with a proven record of acquiring funding. Given the well-substantiated racial differences in rates of funding, this is yet another hurdle that scholars of color face — one that sets many of us behind.

Although personal action can never serve as a full substitute for institutional change, some strategies may make receiving funding more likely. In my next essay, I will offer practical advice on how students of color can increase their chances of getting funded and why they should apply for everything.

On Making Black Life Matter in Academia

Source: Elon University.

Source: Elon University.

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

In the spring, my campus hosted Alicia Garza, who gave a talk on her work as a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although her talk — including the content and her energy — was affirming, I left campus that night feeling underwhelmed. Had we invited another high-profile activist to the campus for a one-time talk only to pat ourselves on the backs and then return to business as usual?

I left wondering, do Black lives actually matter at my university, or in the academy in general? Do they hold the same value as the lives of white people on campus? Is Blackness as central to campus culture and history, social life, and university policies as whiteness is? As you can imagine, I would not be writing an essay with such a provocative title if I could answer any of these questions affirmatively.

I had hoped that we would have been mobilized, if not at least inspired, to ensure that Black lives matter on my campus, rather than giving in to the temptation of self-congratulation. There is much that my campus, as with any, could do to achieve a racially just university. A crucial starting point is to take Garza’s advice to envision what it would mean for Black life truly to matter on campuses. Many students of color can easily identify evidence of the devaluing of Black lives on campus — I know I could, too. But the more challenging, and likely more important, task is to articulate what, in fact, valuing Black life would entail. And then to make that happen.

Below, I offer a few recommendations for making Black life matter on campus, without relying solely on high-profile speakers of color.

Racial Diversity Beyond the Numbers

The value of Black life at a particular college or university should not be reduced to the “diversity statistics.” At my own institution, the University of Richmond, we tout that 25 percent of the student body is of color — indeed, commendable progress in the past few years. Yet the numbers of Black, Latinx and Asian-American students are far smaller. To be exact, one in every four students may be of color, but only one in every 16 students is Black. A Black student, then, has a one in 16 chance of seeing a face like their own as they move from place to place around campus.

We cannot assume that a diverse student body produces diverse friend groups, organizations or even classrooms. We cannot assume that it eliminates racial segregation, prejudice and stereotypes. We cannot assume that having one student of color for every three white students is enough to build supportive communities for students of color, particularly when you consider the distinct histories, needs and interests of each racial and ethnic minority group. We must ask ourselves what we assume a modestly diverse student body will bring about on the campus; it may be necessary that we intentionally support or facilitate those changes through new policies and programs — rather than hoping that merely a few more students of color than the previous year will create a racially just campus.

Race in the Classroom

We should also assess how to ensure that Black life matters in a classroom context. How does it feel to be a student of color on college campuses where there is a low level of racial and ethnic diversity among the faculty? What if students never have a professor who looks like them in all their years in college? And if they are repeatedly in classes where they are the only minority, or at least one of a small few?

Representation aside, I worry about potential challenges that arise in the classroom for students of color. Could the academic performance of students of color be hindered by stereotype threat — the fear that one is negatively stereotyped because they are a racial or ethnic minority, which becomes a cognitive barrier to one’s schoolwork? Are Black students less likely to seek out help from white professors, fearing conscious or unconscious bias or that the professor will be less helpful than they are for white students? How often do faculty members call upon Black students to give the “Black perspective” on some issue covered in class? How many Black students are assumed to be student-athletes, automatically asked for their team schedule at the beginning of the semester?

I can tell you, as a professor of color, the other side is not without its challenges. I regularly teach on racism, among other systems of oppression, in my sociology courses. Given the risk (and reality) of being labeled “biased” by (white) students — a common criticism professors of color face, while white professors teaching on race are seen as “objective” and even an authority on the subject — I am sensitive to the racial and ethnic diversity, or lack thereof, of my classes. I must emotionally prepare for days when a discussion of racism will feel more like standing trial before a jury of 20 white young adults to defend my life as a Black person. It would be unfair to rely on the sprinkle of students of color to speak up, challenge the white majority in the class or even defend me when I am challenged.

Institutionalized Racial Justice

To borrow from the Virginia Anti-Violence Project, we should regularly ask ourselves the following question: How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate and intentionally include people and communities of color?

For every decision that we make at the department, college or university level, or for our classes or student organizations, we should ask ourselves what, if anything, it does for Black lives (good or bad). We must stop relying on seemingly random, meritocratic, race-neutral and “colorblind” ideologies and practices to produce equal outcomes. To overcome white privilege and white supremacy — which are always already at play (some of it even by design) — we must intentionally and systematically prioritize racial and ethnic minorities and communities of color.

A college or university’s strategic plan is a good place to center Black lives — not just with one obligatory statement about diversity and inclusion, but instead in every statement of our goals for the next decade. We can ask ourselves how we make sure that alumni and other donors’ contributions to campus, and the way that we honor them (e.g., named buildings, statues), do not simply reproduce white supremacy and Black invisibility. As we propose curricular changes and new programs, we must take a moment to intentionally assess how the changes impact people of color.

Colleges and universities can also do much more to celebrate Black life that exists on (and around) the campus and to ensure that students of color feel valued, seen, heard, included — that they matter today, that their predecessors matter(ed), and that new cohorts of students of color will matter in the future. We need to do more to guarantee that Black staff members are not mere ghosts who clean our buildings, bodiless arms that serve us food at the dining hall or administrative assistants who simply greet us before we meet with some (white) person seen as having actual importance to our lives. We need to eradicate the sense of isolation, powerlessness, censorship and constraint that faculty of color regularly experience, particularly as we are overrepresented at lower levels (i.e., pretenure and recently tenured) and among contingent faculty. We need to better incorporate Black alumni into campus events and initiatives — especially those who felt excluded during their time at the institution.

To ensure that Black lives matter on your college campus, you must do more than bring in a speaker from the movement, only momentarily suspending the whiteness that pervades everyday life and operations. Many colleges and universities have had the audacity to envision Alicia Garza and other amazing antiracist activists at a campus podium. But, the day after the talk, do these institutions dare to start a campus movement for genuine racial justice? I hope so.

The Unbearable Whiteness Of Mesearch

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

victor-rayI recently heard of a patronizing slander directed against scholars of color. Research that examines discrimination, racism or simply focuses on communities of color has been dismissed as “me studies” or “mesearch.”

The claim is that we are provincial, our problems are particular and we are stuck navel-gazing at nonuniversal issues. The neologism has roots in deeply held ideas about the inability of people of color to study their communities objectively. That is especially the case if the scholarship locates the problems of nonwhite communities in discrimination or racism as opposed to alleged cultural deficiencies.

Calling the research of nonwhites mesearch locates scholars of color as academic special interest groups that get in the way of the real, rigorous work performed by unnamed white academics. Mesearch, as epithet, simultaneously highlights people of color as incapable of objectivity while certifying the objectivity of the speaker.

My colleagues Phillip Ayoub and Deondra Rose have defended the utility and necessity of scholars of color studying their own groups. I thank them for this and regret that we work in an environment where such types of interventions remain necessary. (And if the comments on their article are any indication, we still need these interventions.) My concern is related to theirs yet distinct.

White scholars do mesearch all the time. In many disciplines, that is simply called the canon. Claiming that mesearch is a particular issue for scholars of color demonstrates a profound lack of self-awareness on the part of researchers in the social sciences and humanities. As scholars of whiteness such as Amanda Lewis have more than amply shown, whiteness maintains its power partially through its relative invisibility. White norms and culture are projected as universal standards, but it’s only whites’ socially dominant position that allows this work to be considered universal. Relations of dominance are built into what we think of as legitimate topics of study.

Take, for instance, psychology. Many people have criticized the discipline for drawing heavily from nonrepresentative college-age populations that are overwhelmingly European American. People of color tend to be such a small proportion of the sample that researchers have routinely dropped them from analyses. Yet, when such findings are presented, they are not usually discussed as the psychological dispositions of a dominant racial group — rather they are projected as general, universal psychological processes.

Or take the discipline of philosophy. As my undergrad philosophy professor Brian Van Norden and his colleague recently pointed out in The New York Times, in America, the discipline of philosophy has a deep Eurocentric bias. They argue that we should highlight this white bias by renaming the departments “European and American Philosophy” or “Anglo-European Philosophical Studies.” Such euphemisms sound slightly less abrasive than “White Philosophical Mesearch.” Of course, philosophers of color such as Charles Mills have been pointing out the bias in the discipline for years, showing that it impoverishes and distorts our basic understanding of the contemporary world.

These are important areas of study. I have taken courses in psychology and philosophy, and they have enriched my thinking and my life. The problem arises when people claim that they are a universal representation of the human condition. These areas of study are no more universal than African or ethnic studies programs. In fact, outsiders often criticize academe for studying topics that they may see as trivial, irrelevant or too specialized for “real world” application.

Some right-wing federal and state legislators regularly lampoon and deride research they don’t understand. We academics, as a group, usually rally to the defense of colleagues whose work is attacked as trivial. A core belief of liberal arts education is that insights can often arise from arcane knowledge or unpredictable connections between disciplines. Thus, scholars who claim that people of color are especially prone to conducting mesearch undermine a central principle of scholarship. That is, scholars have the autonomy and expertise to pursue questions they find interesting and relevant.

Ultimately, the relative invisibility of white normativity creates the illusion that white subject matter is universal and universally interesting. Ironically, scholars who locate the genesis of mesearch in the work of people of color would do well to adopt a technique forwarded by black feminists: reflexivity. As Patricia Hill Collins argues, all researchers, regardless of background, should be aware of and open about how their social position or personal biography might influence their assumptions.

Teaching While Black

kc-williamsNote: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column.  KC Williams taught sociology at a small Southern community college but is now the director of African-American student affairs at the University of Arizona. A proud #ChocolateCardinal, KC earned a B.A. and an M.A. from Stanford University. She has begun a new career in public speaking and writing on feminism and race. KC tweets @ProfKCW, blogs at Amplify Voices and manages several Facebook pages including Blackademia, Welcome to My Post-Racial Life, and Fight the Tower.

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For any black faculty member who has ever felt imposed upon or discriminated against for reasons having nothing to do with your abilities, you may have been discovered to be TWB — Teaching While Black.

Even for black folk who think they share MFB (most favored black) status at their college, the rules of Teaching While Black still apply. Let one of your white students get their feelings hurt during a lecture on race — a lecture that you have been hired to deliver — then you will see how treacherous TWB can be and how quickly your most favored black status changes. Exhibits A through E: Melissa Harris-Perry, Shannon Gibney, Ersula Ore, Saida Grundy and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (just to name a few).

Somewhere along the way, we got it twisted. Many academic institutions were happy with your blackness only as long as it was propping up their sad diversity numbers. As long as you conform and stay in the shadows of their achievements, you are good to go, but if you are going to be one of “those blacks” — the troublemakers, activists, uppity black folk — now that’s another story.

When you lose that most favored black status, you will know. There will be an air of hostility from your colleagues in meetings. People you do not even know will begin to ignore you.

Secretaries will tattle on you, even if you have never done anything but support them. Some may go as far as to record their conversations with you, type them up and proclaim that they will testify in court to the comments made. Male maintenance workers will burst in the faculty restroom door, walk right in and ignore your presence, brushing by you with not so much as an “excuse me.” A vice president might call you “sassy” or “elitist” and demand that you take your prestigious alma mater out of your syllabus because it intimidates your (white) students. Yet they will also advise that you take people “out of their comfort zones.”

The college newsletter may publish your credentials incompletely, because to write them up properly — inclusive of the “with departmental honors” addendum — “might make others feel bad.” You will wonder if they actually realize how difficult it is to graduate with honors from a program like that. The very same tools required to get hired will suddenly become a barrier to full participation in that job.

Colleagues will take their disdain to the next level by sending problematic students your way or by actively dissuading them from taking your classes. Some of those students may disobey and take your course anyway. Later, they will come to you and report the negative, racist comments made while they were registering, and will put it in writing. The others? They let you know who they are on the first day of class as they sit with their arms crossed and faces torn up before you have even introduced yourself. Nearly all will soften as the semester goes on, because after all, you are not actually a monster, but you have been caught TWB.

Staff members who are paid to advocate for your role of leadership in the classroom will actively undermine your authority by empowering students to misbehave. They will encourage those students to skip the chain of command and write memos directly to the college president or vice presidents for any and all perceived rebuffs. Worst of all, when students misbehave in ways that most would consider beyond the pale, even criminally, those same staffers will stand around the water cooler discussing why you just can’t be nicer to students.

Some students will refuse to address you respectfully, but they will do so with a smile. They may even attempt to call you by your first name after you have introduced yourself to them professionally with the expected “Dr.” or “Professor” preceding your last name — on the first day of class, writing it on the board and in the syllabus.

When you’re Teaching While Black, your colleagues will also join in the fray. They will pull the office visit drive-by, wherein they will come by to ask you some basic question about some abstract theory, just to see if they can catch you off guard. And suddenly, all of them have a cousin or a neighbor who attended your alma mater; they want you to know that you are not that special. One may bring you an article explaining how they, as a Jewish person, benefit from inherent intelligence, while black people do not. They will wonder aloud to others why you kicked them out of your office. Little did they know a staffer was bragging about keeping down costs on a student fair by noting that they had “Jewed them down.”

You may see your college president around town, and despite the fact that there are rarely more than four or five black faculty (out of nearly 150), he will ask you where you work. Every time. He might do so in front of his administrators at a statewide conference, asking, “Where did we get you from?” as if you were acquired from a street corner, orphanage or auction block.

But you will fully realize you are TWB when the most atrocious things happen. When a student leaves a racist message on your office door display, or boldly tells you they do not believe you went to your university because they googled you and could not find you anywhere, or they bring a fully formed noose to the classroom to threaten you. Criminal.

Time and again, in even only the last three years, we have seen administrations handle these situations fecklessly. They have engaged in victim blaming and shaming, fired or written up the faculty member, failed to act in any meaningful way against perpetrators, and smeared the names and reputations of the victims. When you confront them head-on with the reality that you expect to be treated with respect and fairness, the Jim Crow claws come out. “How dare you not know your place, black person!” “Who do you think you are, elitist black person?” “You seem to think you deserve more than anyone else!”

This is the formula. It seems very few institutions take inclusion and equity seriously. Even those that do still handle racism and anti-blackness like it was something you were supposed to prevent — that it is an inconvenience that makes them look bad, and that is your fault.

So what can you do? Do you. Resist being lulled into the false comfort of respectability politics. Don’t think that you can “coon” your way into fair treatment — because if that is your plan, you have already lost. You know better and can sense that there is a problem if you ever find yourself thinking you have to be nicer, less bold, let it “roll off your shoulders” or hold back critique.

Don’t dull your shine for their comfort. Use the system to forward your professional goals and those of your students. Pay attention to students of color and inspire them by being fully black. Stand in your blackness because you stand on the shoulders of those who were not allowed to do so.

I came across this poem by Andria Nacina Cole, and I can’t stop thinking about how apropos it is.

They will come for your throat, Black girl. They will kill themselves trying to keep you in your place. Buck. Write pretty speeches in their language. Use their own words against them. Remember the community from which you come. And chip, chip, chip away at their systems. Forever. Until they come crashing down at their motherfucking feet.

There’s no alternative — you are black, while engaging in a noble profession within a hostile society that sees your blackness as a threat. So let it. As you work to dismantle the system, change how you respond to it. Be professional. Be committed. Be engaged.

But be you. Beautiful, powerful, wonderful black you.

On The Burden Of Having To Recruit “Your Own Kind”

Note: this was originally published on Inside Higher Ed columnLauren Michele Jackson is a Ph.D. student in English literature at the University of Chicago.

Program Recruitment From the Margins

“What is it like to be a student doing the work that you do in a place like this?”

lauren-m-jackson

Lauren Michele Jackson

Graduate students are hardly privy to ins and outs of application season, even from the other side of the curtain, but we feel the tremors nonetheless. Even before the acceptances roll out, faculty members and administrators depend on current students to recruit the prospective students they want most. As walking representatives of our programs’ successes and intellectual culture, it’s an implicit agreement upon matriculation that we fortify the reputation of our academic homes to the best of our ability, admissions efforts included.

Even if not for this arrangement, the fact that potential students would reach out to us and we divulge in turn just makes sense. Senior and midcareer faculty members toiled over their studies in an era so different as to be unintelligible. Meanwhile, junior faculty, although perhaps close in spirit, are removed by departmental philosophy — they most likely didn’t even go here.

“What is it like to be a student doing the work that you do in a place like this?”

So, now it is routine. Between summer and spring the question is expected. A little less vague, maybe, filled with consequential details like the college’s name and area specialty. Unwritten is anything that might, on its face, appeal to what many people around here would snidely call identity politics. I am never given the rhyming cute-ism assumed by Dear White People about faces and places. I am never asked what it is like to be a student who is — only one who does, and how that doing looks in the light of day to a campus like this. Prospective students never ask me what it’s like to be academic while black and a woman.

And yet I can feel another thing, the more pressing question that simmers underneath the labyrinthian negotiations and exchanges and codes of respectability that haunt the entire process of even getting to the point of daring to declare interest in something like formalized higher learning — while black. That question does not care that I am an Americanist, maybe does not even know that I work with black texts — “African-American literature” does not appear anywhere on my department profile. My photo is enough: I am merely and not so merely evidence that existence is possible. I am a touchstone.

The visible question “how do you do” is genuine, but so are the ones unspoken: How are you breathing?

Will I be able to breathe?

For its uncomfortable relationship with the public and the state, the academy is pretty content to mirror the enmities of the “real world” when it comes to people. It does not take an insider or an expert to see the diversity of ways academe is openly hostile to individuals it calls “diverse,” the humanities (god bless ’em) included. The instructors are white. The committees are white. The faculty is white. The history is white. The theory is white. The administration is white. The students are white — mostly. Some might say it is a little more complicated than that, but time for nuance is a fantastic luxury afforded if you are, well, white. If undergraduate education belongs to the order Lagomorpha, and M.F.A.s practice eugenics, a literature Ph.D. is like skipping dinner for a party that only serves hors d’oeuvres.

The sympathetic portrait for the overworked, undercompensated grad-student-cum-employee-but-kinda-still-not is a sallow thing: the owl-eyed pixie sustained by JSTOR and carrot sticks or the reedy, inert genius whose underappreciation manifests in depressive episodes soothed by Hemingway plus a Hemingway-approved beverage. Whiteness is the hypervisible champion of grad school apathy, the image implied when the subject is someone whose chosen career includes thinking for money. And as academe revels in its own romanticism, real students are drowning.

From where I sit: grad life is OK. Incredible people doing incredible things who are enthusiastic about blackness — or at very least, enthusiastic about my enthusiasm — surround me in personal and professional networks curated in real time over the course of my time here. There are colleagues who make me feel loved and necessary in an atmosphere that drives even the most privileged into isolation. Even greater is the virtual nucleus of smart-as-hell folks whose tweets and messages sustain me. I am all right. I am breathing. But it wouldn’t hurt to have some more black folks in this bitch, just sayin’.

“What is it like to be a student doing the work that you do in a place like this?”

That question rubs. As I walk on campus and see blocks brimming with private police, guns holstered, that question rubs. When fraternities and sororities — coalitions for white supremacy — do what they do best, the friction is almost too much to bear. When they are shielded further by administrative dialect, I am white-hot.

The academy is a pyramid scheme, as the old joke goes. Aging scholars coax bright young minds to work tirelessly for jobs they never intended on abdicating anyway. Pro-diversity campaigns in higher education look pyramid scheme-y in their own way: the already marginalized, further minorized in their respective departments, are responsible for recruiting “their own.” We are the one rainbow welcome wagon for the place that already demonstrates a lack of welcome for having to initiate such a campaign at all. More insidious, the directive is seductive and, shucking notwithstanding, feels mutually beneficial. They — the administration and affiliates — get brownie points, we get allies.

What is our responsibility to undermine our responsibility?

If we choose selfishness, the desire to see (more) “black faces in white spaces” outweighs concern for what happens when they get there. Selfishness hoses down the nitty-gritty and makes way for glowing reports on the institutions that would rather we did not exist. If we choose selfish, we do not have to look for allies in the abstract. But who am I to recruit the student with a bull’s-eye on their back from day one.

I continue to believe that nobody looks out for us like we look out for us. If not inborn, endangerment since birth draws black folks — black femmes especially — tighter together. Whiteness pushes out, but we (can) extend a hand, give a heads-up, keep folks in the know. For example, I think about the cumulonimbus-headed brotha who pulled me aside during a campus visit to a choice university years ago. He warned me of the friction between the two departments I would have dearly needed to work in tandem to complete my studies.

No (wo)man, person of color should be an island, nor can we lure our family under false pretenses. The negotiation is not easy. We cannot hide the dirt, we cannot unwrite the damages, but we can still extend the invitation. Honestly. There is work to do here, a lot of it. I will be here for you, but I cannot do it alone.

Pre-Tenure Scholar-Activist Blues

Me - Blue Looking

This morning’s tears were brought to you by the ongoing conflict between academia and activism.

About an hour ago, I decided to ask for my partner’s advice on a professional matter. Later this month, I am scheduled to give a talk of some sort at a race workshop in the sociology department at Duke University. My concern, on the surface, is time. The event is scheduled just a couple days after the upcoming deadline for accepted authors to submit their full contribution for my co-edited anthology, BRAVE — narratives of courage and overcoming among women of color scholars. Giving, as well as preparing, the talk means having to hold off on beginning to review the essays and provide authors feedback for revisions. That project, too, triggers concerns about time. Given the amount of work involved, the anthology has to become my sole priority for a little while. But, this is a project that will count little for tenure — if at all — and it is one that my department chair explicitly discouraged (at least while I am on the tenure-track).

What I thought was a simple practical matter — should I just cancel the talk since I feel I don’t have time? — was actually the usual internal conflict I experience between being an activist and being an academic. The question really was why the hell am I giving a(nother) talk on activism. Sure, it’s Duke — but it’s not a research talk or invited lecture.  Why the hell am I working on a book to feature stories of bravery among women of color academics?  Not only is this an edited volume, but it also seems to have little to do with my research program.

Maybe my department was right to criticize me in my mid-course review for failing to prioritize departmental service.  Since I actually exceed the expectations for doing service in the department, it remains unclear to me what else prioritizing such service would mean.  And, months after the review, in asking about it, I was told the department hadn’t yet decided what that could mean — besides pulling my weight around the department (which I do, more than I need to).  I suspect it is less about serving the department, and more about prioritizing the “wrong” kinds of external service — namely, anything reflecting or about activism.  Yet, here I am again, trying to spread the gospel about intellectual activism and doing “non-scholarly” work to amplify the voices of women of color academics.

I do this dance at least a couple of times a week.  I’ll say “fuck it” and do work about which I feel passionate (no matter its worth to my colleagues or the Tenure & Promotion Committee); then, I’ll get spooked by something, and return to resentfully conforming.  Early this week, I decided to change my mindset to be that of a professor who already has tenure, who is not concerned that the slightest misstep would cost them their jobs.  Now, late in the week, I’m back second guessing giving a talk on intellectual activism — a talk I’ve already given, and that I agreed to give again months ago.

I admitted to my partner that I am tired.  I am tired of trying to figure out what these people want from me to keep this job.  I am tired of selling out, shutting up, doubting myself, reading between the lines, begging everyone around me to assure me that my department or university or tenure letter-writers won’t attempt to sabotage me when I go up for tenure. Logically, I am in great shape for tenure, with enough publications and good student evaluations, though it seems I could stand to cutback on service to the discipline, profession, and community.  But, the biases that play out in formal evaluation in the academy are not based upon logic; so, I remain vigilant for words that say one thing and actions that say another.  It’s exhausting.

Then, the tears came, surprising both my partner and me.  Between sobs, I said that I was tired of second guessing doing work that is inherently about my survival and the liberation of my people.  I’m tired of holding out for a department or institution to value my worth as a human being, of deluding myself into thinking I would ever get their full acceptance and validation as a Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual activist.  I am tired of feeling unsettled between what is expected of me and what is exciting to me.  Given the self-doubt, and censorship, and contorting, and… and… and… is it really all worth it?  I told my partner that I would never wish this path on another person, on trying to survive within an institution that devalues your worth.

This morning’s meltdown confirms the importance of my work to champion intellectual activism, and, specifically, needing to give this talk at Duke (probably more for me than any audience I hope will attend).  I know that I am not alone, especially in the midst of widespread political turmoil and civil unrest in our country, in wrestling with the (unnecessary) tension between academia and activism.  That is why I have chosen to share this in this blog post.

I don’t have any advice to impart — yet.  I am still in the thick of figuring this shit out myself.  I invite you to stay tuned on this journey.  Though I have a growing list of role models and sheroes who have found their way, the norm appears to be one of tension — between one’s job and one’s survival.

Check out my other writings on being a scholar-activist:

Also:

Being White Does Not Make You An Expert On Race And Racism

Image source: Alex Garland

Image source: Alex Garland

I use and consume water every day, multiple times each day.  But, I would never call myself a water scientist.  (My ignorance shows in even having to look up the term, the profession of researchers who study water.)

I watch television daily, and frequently watch movies either at home or, less often, at the movie theatre.  My strong opinions and preferences aside, I would never call myself a TV or film critic.

I drive almost daily, and have been driving regularly for 17 years now. But, I don’t know the first thing about cars, and certainly wouldn’t call myself a mechanic.

I was assigned a racial identity at birth — two actually, Black and white — and have lived as a raced person in a racist society for 32 years.  I tentatively call myself an expert on race and racism because I study and teach about them, though they are not my primary area of research or teaching.  But, if these topics never appeared in my work as a scholar, I wouldn’t call myself an expert.

“Opinions Are Like Assholes…”

I am certain that most academics and laypeople share my hesitancy to claim expertise on water, the arts, and automobiles if they lack formal training or long-term experience (research, teaching, or performance) in these areas.  Though we may self-diagnose illness and injuries with WebMD, we still end up in a doctor’s office for a “real” diagnosis and treatment. How did we ever survive before there was quick and easy access to internet search engines?  Google is a verb, and Let Me Google That For You exists as a snarky response to idiotic questions that can be answered with a quick Google search.

But, race and racism seem to be the exception.  Everyone, regardless of education level, seems to be an expert on race.  Collectively, white Americans presumed to understand racism well enough to conclude that it no longer existed upon the election of a half-white, half-Black person to US President who likely only had a shot at the office because he was raised by his white mother.  I know from my slowly evolving awareness of the ways in which white privilege — specifically, the white privilege passed on to me by my white heterosexual middle-class cis man currently without disabilities father — that has benefited my own life that Obama’s upbringing is not typical for Black Americans today.  But, that nuance never appeared in mainstream discourse about the election of “the first Black president.”  And, I ask of those quick to declare we live in a post-racial (or even post-racist) society — yes, even some academics… who study race (please, excuse my shade…) — how the hell did we end up here with a known racist as Obama’s successor?

I certainly understand why race and racism are hard to understand for those who do not empirically analyze them for a living.  There is a nifty analogy for gender, that it is like the water that surrounds us as fish.  We take it for granted; it is there from birth — assigned to us, thrust upon us, taught to us, and then policed when we deviate — and thus we come to think of it as natural.  In other words, it is incredibly difficult to step outside of gender to understand it, especially gender as a social structure — a system that organizes the social world from gendered identities and expressions to sexist laws and policies.  Gender seems so everyday, so familiar, and so mundane that it is easy to only see it as something individuals have, thereby missing it as a system of oppression that shapes and constrains our lives and livelihood, interests, interactions with others, and even our organizations and institutions.  Gender is complex and ever-changing; we need women’s and gender studies programs to even begin to grapple with this complicated social system.

Race and racism share the mundaneness that we sense of gender.  We take for granted that race exists, naively assuming that it has always existed, and, by extension, is a universal and essential artifact.  Though the social construction of race has caught on as a more adequate way of conceptualizing of race, there are still spoken and unspoken glimmers of the assumption that race is biological.  There is also the stubborn mentality that racism is solely the explicit expression of prejudice toward others of a different race, which leaves anti-racist activists and scholars stuck with the perpetual burden of having to prove that racism manifests structurally and unconsciously, as well.  That’s why whites’ resentment about “PC culture” — modern social etiquette that demands you simply not say something deemed racist — is misplaced; yes, please stop referring to Black people as monkeys, but, you should also stop killing us, denying us jobs and promotions, withholding affordable loans and excluding us from predominantly white neighborhoods, expelling us from school or even sending us to prison over minor disciplinary problems, and so forth.

Race and racism are complex systems.  That is why there are scholars who devote their careers to their study.  That is why there are academic programs in racial and ethnic studies, Black studies, Africana and African American studies, Latina/o/x studies, Indigenous studies, American Indian and Native American studies, Asian and Asian American studies, Black women’s studies, Muslim and Islamic studies, Judaic studies, cultural studies, American studies, etc. The study of race, racism, and racialized communities also appears in more traditional academic programs like sociology, psychology, English, social psychology, music, theatre, art, and political science.

Race and racism warrant academic inquiry because they are important, but also because they are incredibly complicated and ever-changing.  I’m afraid your uncle Joe’s assessment of who is ISIS and who isn’t fails to constitute expertise.  I’m disinclined to consider your mom as a race scholar just because she (thinks she) has one American Indian friend.  I’d be wary of your boss’s conclusion that “Hispanics will take over America” because he gets nervous around the office’s janitorial staff when they “refuse” to speak in English in his presence.  And, I’m rolling my eyes at your friend’s story that she experienced “reverse racism” because the Black Starbucks barista was “mean” to her (read: didn’t roll out the red carpet to celebrate her existence because she’s white).  Yes, I am intentionally drawing upon examples of racial prejudice here because many everyday whites draw upon their bias and stereotypes as expertise on race and racism.

I Blame Academia (Or, What’s New?)

More frustrating is that whites’ arrogance about their expertise on race and racism exist alongside their dismissal of academic study of these topics.  And even more frustrating is that I have witnessed this not among laypeople — those whom we might dismiss as ignorant or uneducated if we are disinclined to be sympathetic, or inclined to be elitist — but from fellow academics.  Many white PhD educated people, whom I would assume to have an appreciation of other disciplines and be self-reflective about the limits of their own expertise, are quick to devalue research and teaching on race and racism.  Even in my own discipline (sociology), race and ethnicity scholars — specifically those who are scholars of color — are faced with accusations of conducting “me-search“; by virtue of their inability to be “objective” (a privilege reserved for whites, no matter their research area), their work is dismissed.  More generally, the study of communities of color is dismissed (yes, even in sociology).

I suppose we cannot be too hard on uncle Joe, your mom, your boss, and your friend for believing they are experts on race and ethnicity.  The academy itself is complicit in devaluing formal academic study of race and racism.  Though racial and ethnic studies and similar programs exist, they are woefully underfunded, underresourced, understaffed, and are increasingly under threat.  These topics have never been seriously championed in academia, and support for these programs may even be waning (at least in some places).  You can get a PhD in Black studies, but I’m not so sure you can expect to get a tenure-track faculty position (if that is your goal).  You can specialize in race and ethnicity as a sociologist, but publishing in top mainstream sociology journals will be a challenge, as will securing grant funding.  Oh, and get ready to be challenged by your students who think they know as much about race as you do (if not more if you are an instructor of color).  Why should we expect everyday white folks to take seriously “the leading expert on racism” when such scholars are not celebrated and respected as would be “the leading heart surgeon” or, hell, even the worst physician alive who, nonetheless, has the respect afforded to doctors?

The academy’s devaluation of academic study of race and racism makes it complicit in the rampant ignorance about race and ethnicity in the US.  It is partially responsible for the inevitable rise of Trump and fellow white supremacists.  It is responsible for the success of the narrative of angry poor whites who put Trump in office, despite empirical evidence that it was racism and sexism that gave him the election.  It is responsible for the dumb notion that whites can be victims of racism or the more perverse “reverse racism”, that calling attention to racism is “playing the race card” or wallowing in victimhood.  Academia is responsible for the disgusting reality that Black women scholars’ teaching and public writing about racism can successfully be demeaned as racism — this is reflected best by the fact that these scholars actually get in trouble for doing the work they were trained and hired to do!

Concluding Thoughts

The supposed post-racist era is dead, which actually serves as more proof that it never existed to begin with.  We cannot even optimistically say we’ve entered a new era of racism because many of the features of old-school racism have reemerged (including Nazism and a bit of anti-Semitism).

But, racism today is undeniably more complex than ever before.  As such, this moment is a crucial one to turn to experts on race and racism to understand how we got here and how to move closer to the death of racism.  And, by experts, I mean people who have extensive academic training and who study race and ethnicity for a living.  Now is the time to seriously support academic programs devoted to the study of race and racism.  It is the time to hire race and ethnicity scholars to aid in developing new laws, policies, and programs.  It is the time to listen to the experts of race and racism like we would to those who study climate change, or medicine, or biology, or space.  Maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess right now if we had already been seriously listening to the experts.