Black Motherhood in Academe

“If we had known you were pregnant, we might not have let you into this program — and we would have made a mistake.”

“This is your first child? Maybe you should drop this class. Statistics is a challenging course, and when I had my first child …”

“Your second child? Congratulations! That’s enough now. Two is enough.”

Such comments made it clear to me that academic spaces have firm expectations that career and motherhood are separate. I couldn’t help but also wonder how my race and gender shaped the narrative that people wrote about my choices.

The social ownership of black women’s wombs is not new. Scholars like Dorothy Roberts, a professor of Africana studies, law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, argue that black women’s mothering has been denied and regulated for centuries — from slave owners’ economic stake in black women’s fertility to the social politics of excluding black women from any dialogue about reproductive rights. Everyone has an opinion on how to control black motherhood, leaving us conflicted and stressed in workplaces across the United States. In academe, the alleged home of intellect and forward thinking, I was wrong to expect more.

As a medical sociologist, I am hyperaware of the health problems facing black mothers. Contemporary statistics on the mortality rates of black mothers and their infants are startling. Black women are two to three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, and black mothers are more likely to have preterm deliveries than white women.

Sociologists admit it is typically difficult to disentangle the effects of race and socioeconomic status on a given social problem. But when it comes to motherhood, it is clear that unequal outcomes are driven by race.

For example, research suggests that increased income and education are associated with lower rates of preterm births for white women but not for black women, and that infants born to low-income white mothers have better outcomes than those born to high-income black mothers. And it’s more than just differential access to community resources, as the data also show that high-income black mothers living in white neighborhoods are actually more likely to have low-birth-weight babies than high-income white mothers in white neighborhoods and low-income black mothers in black neighborhoods. The stress of racism, then, has an impact on black mothers that affects their health and that of their unborn children.

When I started graduate school, I felt prepared for the stressors many black women attending predominantly white institutions face, and I was not naïve about how challenging this experience would be. Graduate school is a time of heightened precarity, intellectual insecurity and stress. Black students may be more likely than white students to deal with complex family and personal situations during their graduate career, and they are also less likely to receive adequate mentorship.

Although I certainly dealt with the challenges of being a first-generation Ph.D. student, I had mentors who set the bar high yet created space for my academic babies when I chose to start my family during graduate school. One reason I made this choice is the widespread perception among academic women that graduate school is the best time to have children. If that is true, then academe needs a lot more work.

One week after having my first child by C-section, I was sitting on my living room floor doing a statistics problem set with the help of two colleagues: one studying with me, while the other held my newborn. Just two weeks after the surgery, I was back in classes — theory, methods and statistics. It was physically and emotionally painful, but unfortunately, if I wanted to be taken seriously as an aspiring academic, I felt it was my only choice. At that point, I understood two things about my academic path: racialized motherhood comes with certain expectations, and mainstream organizations were not built for mothers.

The university’s maternity leave policy was not useful for a first-year graduate student. At the time, I could have taken up to six weeks — which is half the semester. I’m still not sure how someone can take half a class, so if I had used this leave, I don’t know how I would have made up six weeks of missed course work. And since first-year courses are consecutive and sequential (for example, Research Methods is a yearlong course with a fall and spring component), I might have had to defer my first year and start graduate school with a different cohort.

Moreover, looming in the background of my decisions was the reality that mothers face social sanctions in the workplace because of the perception that they are less competent than women without children — even though there is no clear evidence supporting this perception. This institutionalized maternity leave policy was, in practice, impossible to use, and the knowledge that informal sanctions from peers and colleagues are harsher for mothers made me push harder.

Black mothers must be superwomen to be taken seriously as scholars and professionals. The stress of racism and the pressures of academe mean that mothers are constantly forced to prove their commitment to research and ability to do the work. But that kind of active coping — working harder to compensate for the strain of discrimination — can be harmful. In his research on John Henryism, Sherman James, a professor emeritus of public policy at Duke University and an expert in racial and ethnic disparities in health care, shows that active coping in the face of psychosocial stressors leads to poor health outcomes. Yet my research agenda led me to move to the Dominican Republic, family in tow, for 10 months so I could complete dissertation fieldwork. I was (and remain) committed to academic research, but what is the price for proving we belong in a place that was not created for us?

For the black mothers in academe who are working hard and wiping noses, I’d like to share a few things that I learned along the way. First, reject the superwoman label. It presumes we can do it alone without self-care. I have a supportive partner, friends and family, tough and compassionate mentors, and a university policy that subsidized some of the cost of child care during graduate school. I am impressive, but I am not superwoman, and I did not do it alone.

Second, be a hustler. Because of motherhood, I cannot always participate in informal gatherings leading to professional collaborations. Because of race and gender, perhaps, I may not be invited. So I reach out to colleagues one on one and, together, we can set the personal and professional terms of engagement.

Next, be attuned to your own needs (mentorship, writing groups, sleep, yoga …) and prioritize plans to get those needs met.

Finally, check out Dean Ashby’s suggestions for overcoming impostor syndrome.

You’ve got this.

Bio

Photo of Trenita B. Childers

Trenita B. Childers is postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research examines social causes and consequences of racial health disparities. Her commentary has also appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer, and you can follow her on Twitter at @trenitac.

Classrooms Must Be A Frontline In The Fight Against White Supremacy

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Nicole Truesdell is the senior director of the office of academic diversity and inclusiveness, and affiliated faculty in critical identity studies at Beloit College. Her general interests are in radical pedagogy, academic hustling and social justice. Her research focuses on the intersections of race, racism, gender, class, citizenship and the modern nation-state, higher ed, and radical black thought in the US and the UK. Her latest co-authored article, “The Role of Combahee in Anti-Diversity Work,” is forthcoming in Souls.

Recent events in Charlottesville, Va., and Shelbyville, Tenn., show us the modern face of American white supremacy. Rather than marching under sheets or lurking in the backwoods, today’s white supremacists stand proud in their tan khakis and white polos with tiki torches in hand. No longer are sheets needed to masks their faces as white men and women boldly shouted racist chants like “blood and soil.”

Instead, we see a disturbing trend emerging in larger society to label this speech and action as opinion-based ideology with no social, political or economic ramifications. While some people will look to the current U.S. president as the source of this normalization, his administration is not the only location to push “both sides” rhetoric. Instead, we can also look to colleges and universities as sites that help both disseminate and normalize racist hate speech.

Alt-right/white supremacist speakers and organizations are choosing to use and abuse colleges and universities as locations at which to speak and recruit. Speakers like Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter spew their hate-filled opinions from college lecture halls, relying on academic free speech as their alibi of legitimacy in these locations.

Colleges and universities that allow these speakers on their campuses say they are committed to upholding “free speech” rhetoric, no matter its consequences to the students, faculty and staff members who live and work in these places. “We welcome a diversity of opinions” tends to be a favorite tagline of places that invite these controversial speakers to come and set up shop, signaling a welcome to (and normalizing of) hate speech. Yet when those who are committed to antiracism, antioppression theory and practice — such as Lisa Durden, Johnny Eric Williams or Tommy Curry — use these same locations to push back against this toxic rhetoric, they are met with death threats, job loss and/or lack of support from those same institutions.

Why are colleges and universities prime and targeted sites for white supremacist speakers and their allies? Because it is in these locations where administrators saw diversity as a problem and not, as Christina Berchini says, “the symptom” of the ways white supremacy is embedded in the structure of higher education. Students across the country organized and began to protest and create sets of demands on the various ways they saw this inequity within their colleges and universities. In response, college administrators and boards of trustees have created “diversity and inclusion” strategic plans and initiatives to placate student demands. Many of those plans have not focused on structural changes but instead have relied on Band-Aid approaches that give just enough to student demands while never addressing the racist structural barriers that created the issues to begin with. In the process, many colleges and universities are now invoking “academic freedom” and “dialogue” as a way to “speak and hear” across difference in order to stop “divisive” rhetoric from taking hold.

Yet the implementation of such initiatives seems one-sided, and, instead of making space for students, faculty and staff members at the margins, they have ended up further marginalizing the demographic groups that demanded change in the first place. Instead of moving institutions forward, both diversity/inclusion initiatives alongside pleas to have more neutral stances inside and outside the classroom focus more on making majority students (namely, white students) comfortable at the expense of those who took the risk to protest injustice in the first place (usually black, brown, queer and trans students who sit at multiple intersections) because they sit in institutions that were not made for them. In this process, structures of oppression are never interrogated and instead everything is rendered “opinions” that can be “debated.” This process of deflection has helped normalize (and even welcome) hate speech on campuses, making them prime locations for white supremacists to target.

Many people call for an end to politics in the classroom, as this is seen as the source of the problem. Rather than address systemic and structural oppression and discrimination, faculty are being asked to take “neutral” stances and just teach our disciplines, leaving politics to social media and in-person conversation. Yet for many scholars, this is our work. Many of us are trained to see and then speak on institutional and structural systems of oppression. I have been trained specifically to see and call out institutional racism through an intersectional lens. If we are being told to just do our job, then we are. So the real question becomes, is society ready to accept the true point of an education, which is to develop a group of critically thinking, conscious citizens? Is higher education ready and capable of taking on this work?

That is the true point of education, what James Baldwin meant when he said in 1963, “The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” As educators, it is our job to teach students how to think critically so that they can engage with larger social issues. That is not confined to just the social sciences, but has an impact on all academic disciplines and departments. Yet as Baldwin also said, society is not always that anxious to have a mass of critically thinking and engaged people, because “what societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.” That is why education matters more so now than ever as a location that should be unapologetically committed to developing students to become true critically engaged thinkers who learn how to apply those knowledges, methodologies and skills to locations outside spaces like this.

It is on college and university campuses, and within our classrooms and through our programming, where resistance to this encroaching normalized white supremacist ideology must be challenged. Now is not the time to side with neutrality. In my office, we have taken up this challenge head-on through our programming and work with students. This academic year our #GetWoke series is focused on Organizing and Activism During 45. We created an open-source syllabus to accompany the panels we host around this theme, using both music and accessible reading pieces to guide and contextualize each of our panels.

Our goal is to have the campus and community understand what organizing and activism are, why individuals and groups participate in these practices, and what possibilities there are or can be when we engage in other ways of knowing and being. In doing so, we hope conversations and actions move away from partisanship and into understandings of what we want humanity to be. What humanity should be.

Power-Conscious Approaches To Campus Sexual Violence Prevention

Harris & Linder

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Chris Linder (@proflinder) is an associate professor of college student affairs administration at the University of Georgia. Dr. Jessica C. Harris (@DrJessicaHarris) is an assistant professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California, Los Angeles. Be sure to see their first blog post on challenging taken-for-granted assumptions in research on sexual violence.

Feminists have long advocated that sexual violence is more about power than about sex, yet few people understand what this means. Further, when mainstream feminist movements (i.e., white, middle-class, educated, cisgender women) highlight that power is integral to understanding sexual violence, that usually (re)centers power connected with only sexist oppression. While misogyny, patriarchy and sexism contribute to sexual violence, we argue that the root of sexual violence is deeper than the sum of these sexist systems.

The root cause of sexual violence is oppression, in all of its manifestations, including racism, cissexism, heterosexism, ableism and sexism. Oppression results from people abusing power or lacking consciousness about how power influences their own and others’ experiences. For these reasons, we advocate a power-conscious approach to addressing sexual violence.

What does “power conscious” mean? Simply put, it means paying attention to power dynamics at work in individual, institutional and cultural systems of oppression. Developing power consciousness means that we ask:

  • Who is missing in this discussion? Who is centered? Why? (See our previous essay for a fuller discussion on this.)
  • Who has the power — both formal and informal — in this system?
  • How do social identities influence who is heard and who is ignored and silenced?
  • Who benefits from this system? Who does not?

For example, how do social identities influence people’s experiences in the criminal justice system? The cases of Cory Batey and Brock Turner illustrate how racism and classism show up in sentencing processes. Cory Batey was a black football player at Vanderbilt University; Brock Turner was a white swimmer at Stanford University. Both men were convicted of committing sexual violence. Batey was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and Turner was sentenced to six months in jail. Although state law and specific contexts make up for some of the discrepancy in sentencing, they cannot account for the drastic differences in the sentencing in these cases.

How does that relate to our campuses?

College campuses are mostly made up of the same people who make up our larger communities, so racism and classism are showing up in our campus accountability systems, as well. Campus police, campus judicial systems and even victim advocacy services are not immune from failing to consider the ways people from historically minoritized communities may not experience campus systems the same as students with mostly dominant identities.

So, what do we do? Below, we offer three specific recommendations for approaching sexual violence from a power-conscious perspective.

Learn the history of rape and racism. Ahistoricism, or failing to understand or account for the history and context of an issue or topic, leads to incomplete and ineffective strategies for dealing with sexual violence. For example, sexual violence law is fundamentally racialized.

Early sexual violence laws in America were rooted in property law. White men were the only people who could file charges of rape, as rape was considered a property crime — something that reduced the value of a man’s daughter, essentially his “property.” Additionally, in the time period after the Civil War, white men falsely accused black men as perpetrators of sexual violence directed toward white women to maintain white men’s power and dominance.

More recent sexual violence laws, specifically, the Violence Against Women Act, emerged during the “tough on crime” era of the 1980s and ’90s, which was also highly racialized. People in that era sought to address drug abuse, but drug laws and enforcement focused primarily on poor communities and communities of color, contributing to the continuation of portraying men of color as criminals.

Given the racialized history of sexual violence law and the current context of racism in legal and policy systems, administrators and educators on college campuses should consider community accountability processes as an option for addressing sexual violence. Community accountability, as described by the INCITE! women of color against violence collective, means that communities stop relying on systems that perpetuate violence toward them and start relying on each other to hold perpetrators of violence accountable and work to transform perpetrator behavior. Community accountability is not appropriate in all cases and must be carefully implemented under the leadership of people with a significant understanding of it (specifically, women of color, who created it).

Further, in cases where campus adjudication systems are used, people involved in those systems must be educated about the role of oppression in legal and policy response, as well as the history of the intersections of oppression and sexual violence. A deeper understanding of history may lead to more equitable outcomes in campus adjudication systems.

Employ an intersectional, identity-conscious perspective. Foundational intersectionality scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw provides a number of examples to illustrate centering women of color and poor women in interpersonal-violence work. Crenshaw helps us understand that, by centering the most marginalized people in efforts to address interpersonal violence, no one is left out. When white, cisgender, heterosexual women at elite institutions of higher education are centered in sexual violence work (as they are now), they are the only ones to benefit. However, when marginalized populations are at the center of antioppression work, strategies are more comprehensive, resulting in more effectively dealing with interpersonal violence.

That being said, incorporating intersectionality into student affairs practice does not mean that every program has to be for every student. There is no such thing as an “all-inclusive” program. In fact, this is dangerously close to the concept of “color blindness,” or the notion that one does not “see” color when discussing race. In addition to the ableist nature of the term “color blindness,” using an “identity-neutral” approach to any issue effectively (re)centers people with dominant identities, who are treated as the norm or default.

Related to campus sexual violence, seemingly identity-neutral approaches effectively make the experiences of any victim who is not a white, cisgender, heterosexual woman invisible. Designing programs that specifically center the experiences of men survivors, trans and queer survivors, survivors of color, and survivors with disabilities (re)centers their experiences in the conversation. Doing so will result in better-informed providers and more empowered survivors. This also frees up space to develop programs specifically for white, cis, hetero women, whose experiences are distinct in and of their own — just not the only experiences, as currently portrayed.

Focus on perpetrators. We are working on a research project examining the ways sexual violence is portrayed in campus newspapers. An initial review of the data reveals that perpetrators are invisible in most articles about sexual violence. Language used throughout newspaper articles often implies that sexual violence just “happens,” as though there is no actor or explanation for it.

By making perpetrators invisible, we ignore important power dynamics at play. Perpetrators — not alcohol, not being at the wrong place at the wrong time, not miscommunication — are solely responsible for sexual violence. Failing to acknowledge this ignores the power that perpetrators wield, placing responsibility for ending sexual violence on the wrong people: potential victims, bystanders and advocates.

Campus administrators and educators should work to ensure that perpetrators are made more visible in discussions of sexual violence prevention. For example, rather than only focusing on teaching potential victims how to avoid being assaulted, we should spend more resources teaching people not to rape. Focusing on perpetrators as the cause of sexual violence may contribute to increased community accountability for their actions. People will begin to see the perpetrator — not alcohol or miscommunication — as the key problem.

Supporting Queer Survivors Of Campus Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Nicole Bedera is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality with emphases on sexual violence, masculinity and queer women. Dr. Kristjane Nordmeyer is an associate professor of sociology at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. Her teaching and scholarship focus on gender, sexuality, research methods, cats and Scandinavia.

Queer women are commonly the targets of sexual violence on college campuses. Approximately one in five lesbian students and one in three bisexual women students are sexually assaulted before they graduate. Beyond these statistics, little is known about the experiences of queer survivors of sexual violence.

To fill these gaps in the literature, we are conducting a qualitative study using interviews with queer survivors of campus sexual assault. In this article, we will offer recommendations for how university faculty members, staff members and administrators can effectively support queer survivors.

First, we share two women’s stories — one who used campus resources and another who intentionally did not — to discuss some of the challenges of providing campus resources to queer survivors. All names are pseudonyms, and some details have been changed.

Ashley, a pansexual woman, was deeply involved in social justice initiatives at her university. When another member of the LGBT club raped her, her proximity to social justice organizations made her feel trapped. Originally, Ashley wanted to keep her sexual assault quiet, but she told her supervisor at work to access scheduling accommodations, not knowing that her supervisor was a mandatory reporter. Ashley was forced into an unwanted investigation of her assault.

Because her friends were involved in social justice groups, including the judiciary board that would hear her case, Ashley felt pressured to tell everyone about being raped. Her friends were initially supportive, but their roles in campus proceedings around sexual violence made it difficult for Ashley to know how much of what she shared would stay between them. Rumors and controversy about her sexual assault led her to feel unwelcome in the campus LGBT club.

Taken together, the investigation and the LGBT club’s reaction to her sexual assault pushed her out of the club, making Ashley feel as though she had no control over what happened after her rape and that she had lost her safe space on campus.

Lydia, a lesbian woman, was sexually abused as a child, struggled with drug addiction and had little support from her family since they did not approve of her sexual orientation. When she was raped twice during her first year of college, it never occurred to her to seek out campus resources. Trauma was commonplace in her life, and she felt more traumatized by events in her past than by being recently raped.

Lydia did not think that campus resources were intended for people with histories of violence, trauma and addiction — people like her. She doubted that she would relate to other survivors or that service providers would understand her nonchalance toward victimization. Although she displayed many signs of trauma, including self-blame and flashbacks, her past experiences with other service providers made her reluctant to seek support. And Lydia was probably right; the campus support network for sexual assault survivors was likely unprepared to manage the complexities of her sexual orientation and other past traumatizing experiences.

These two women’s experiences may appear to have little in common, but their stories overlap a great deal. Both survivors felt a mismatch between their needs and what campus resources could offer. Ashley experienced that mismatch firsthand. Lydia’s fear of a mismatch kept her from seeking help altogether. Both survivors suffered from their colleges’ inability to adequately provide for queer victims.

Below, we present seven suggestions for campus service providers and others who work most closely with students about how to better support queer victims through campus resources.

Represent a diverse array of victimization experiences. Knowing about and preparing for victims with a variety of experiences and identities is important. Be honest about what groups you have considered and display the information openly to help victims make the best decisions for themselves. Remain open to hearing about other types of victimization and varied effects on victims and take their criticisms of your organization to heart — and to your next policy meeting.

Recognize the prevalence of revictimization. Revictimization is incredibly common among all sexual trauma survivors, but especially pervasive in queer populations. Further, previous trauma related to coming out or sexual orientation-based harassment may change the way they see and experience sexual victimization. Queer survivors may have already had bad experiences with service providers that pose an additional barrier to effectively supporting them. They may also be so used to trauma that they struggle to recognize when they need help, especially since they often need different services than those typically offered. For example, Lydia did not need someone to walk her through what to expect as she coped with trauma, but she could have benefited from speaking with someone who could help her to understand a cycle of abuse perpetrated by many different people.

Provide opportunities to get to know campus services. Opening an official investigation or agreeing to the emotional labor of months of therapy is a big commitment, especially when a survivor is unsure of an office’s support for queer victims. Hosting other lower-impact events that allow survivors from diverse backgrounds to meet recognizes the needs of queer survivors in a way that can build trust and helps them find a supportive community.

Link survivors to a range of different services, including those offered off the campus. Survivors who are well integrated in social justice groups on the campus probably know some of the people who run or participate in campus services. Provide them with alternatives that will not force disclosure of their sexual assault to a friend, employer, professor or staff member. Help them plan for and navigate conflicts of interests on the campus and choose other sources for support. In case the institution is ill equipped to support queer survivors, such guidance should include external resources — but that option should not be offered in place of improving on-campus programs.

Help queer survivors understand what they have to lose. Just as with other victims, queer survivors are often sexually assaulted by people they know. Disclosing the details of their sexual assault may destabilize their social group — which may be one of the only safe spaces for them on the campus. Service providers must strategize with queer survivors about how to choose whom to trust with their story and how to navigate a once-safe space that is now dangerous. Similarly, facilitators of campus queer spaces must know how to remove sexual assailants and manage the controversy surrounding violence within the group.

Be candid about mandatory reporting requirements. Investigations like Ashley’s can disempower victims. Students should know that they are speaking to a responsible employee before they disclose information that will force them into an investigation. This is especially important for students whose relationships with faculty and staff members have become blurred through friendship. Remind students who hint at disclosure of your responsibility to report through the U.S. Department of Education mandate and Title IX policies. Allow them to feel out their options by answering their questions about a “hypothetical situation” about the reporting process and available resources to survivors.

Collaborate. Whether you belong to a queer organization or you provide services to sexual assault victims on campus, you need to extend a hand to work together, particularly with the students most affected.

Queer sexual assault survivors in higher education deserve autonomy and resources to meet their distinct needs. By working with them, we can create a more inclusive approach to victim advocacy.

Surviving Institutional Racism In Academe

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). The author is a Black woman professor at a small liberal arts college. She was strongly encouraged by IHE to remain anonymous for fear that her colleagues or university would retaliate against her for calling out the racism that she has experienced at work.

Readers, I will be honest with you: when I accepted my first tenure-track position, I was excited to formally join the academy. I naïvely assumed the bubble of academe would insulate me from, well, everything. I raced toward my Ph.D. in search of social protection, professional stability and financial freedom. Instead, I found early-career emotional, physical and mental exhaustion.

Upon joining the professoriate, I thought I was joining a group of people committed to a similar end goal. I imagined college faculty members as collective change agents transforming the lives of future generations. I was wrong. Colleges as manufacturing plants for little liberal soldiers is a fairy tale created by political conservatives to reconstruct classism around education rather than political affiliation. I have found few liberal “havens” in academic spaces, and I am not sure that there is a happy ending here.

I am sure none of what follows is unique to my experiences as a black woman faculty member at a HWCU (or historically white college or university). The ordinary nature of racism in the academy encourages its growth where it seemed, to me, least likely. A small segment of faculty of color experience extreme harassment, receiving death threats and sometimes termination for their public discussions of white supremacy and privilege. Most of us, instead, experience professional death by a thousand cuts. We spend our days ducking microaggressions, hurdling stereotypes and navigating emotional distress. Most of us will be denied tenure, and many will be too exhausted to protest if we managed to land a tenure-track job at all.

When I went to work mobilizing support for change, I had no idea the toll institutional racism in this setting and academe more generally would take on my physical health, my spirit and my passion for educating. I led poorly attended workshops on “othering” in the classroom. I proposed noncomparative research on black student communities, but reviewers suggested white subjects were imperative to create valid data. I came to the academy to create platforms for change. Instead I found an institution where skepticism permeates discussions of inequality and willful ignorance of prejudicial rhetoric perpetuates discrimination.

Here are some lessons about surviving academe’s institutionalized racism that I have learned the hard way.

The job of a professor is physical work. In graduate school, I rarely heard discussions of the physicality of academe. I did not expect to feel the work so viscerally. The constant tension is a byproduct of the inherent conundrum of my role on the campus. I am expected to exert power where it is not assumed. Fellow faculty and administrators challenge my fit while also thrusting me into the limelight. Students test my steadfastness and institutional authority. My body language is constantly surveilled and therefore must be managed. “Stand taller, take up space, remember you belong here” is a mantra I repeat often to myself. Tenure won’t change this, and publications won’t, either. A short critical comment in faculty meeting requires brute force to momentarily pause my shaking hands as I stand to address fellow faculty. There is no alternative action in this example. To allow my hands to shake would undermine the little power I’ve amassed, but the physical exhaustion I feel afterward is palpable.

You cannot always be the counselor. The impact of white supremacy on campus is often silent in its devastation. Coupled with low levels of student trust in faculty and staff, marginalized students have few spaces where they can speak openly and without fear of recourse. So I opened my door. I let students unload their experiences on me, but it is difficult to maintain emotional distance when we are angry about the same things. What would you tell a black student who has to attend class with a peer who yelled racist epithets at them last weekend, or a survivor who has to eat in the same dining hall as their rapist? I listened to them, tried to console them, to temper the anxiety and frustration plaguing them. I met with anyone with institutional power to plead my case. I lost sleep, I cried. I want to give these students a voice but almost lost mine in the process.

People will try you. I joined the academy because I love to explore, teach and write. I expected to feel at home, but instead of like-minded peers I found antagonists. Instead of solidarity, I found cynicism. I endure affirmative action jokes from white colleagues and passive digs at my inability to “look like a professor.” Students of all races challenge my syllabus, threaten to go “over my head” to their white man professor of choice and reject social inequality discussions in the classroom.

Administrators are happy to use my efforts to promote institutional diversity initiatives but routinely ignore my recommendations for effective structural and cultural change. They ask: Why are you so sensitive? Perhaps it wasn’t their intention to offend you? Who else corroborates your story? What could you have done differently? Have you reviewed the institutional policy on this topic? Perhaps you should discuss with unreachable person X. Many students and staff members regard me as a member of the liberal elite pushing overwrought theories of social inequity on the next generation. I am an outsider. Therefore I can be openly challenged, admonished and ignored at the whim of those around me.

You are not alone. I dreamed of rallying a group of like-minded thinkers to the same table so that we could make a plan to save the world. But that never happened. At first, my colleagues were happy to help champion issues of marginalization on campus, especially when catchy buzzwords were involved. Increase diversity! Improve inclusivity! But the excitement faded quickly in the face of constant administrative resistance. I also found it difficult to use cultural support, once a dependable savior, as a scaffold. I thought myself a burden to those struggling through their own fatigue. I watched from the outside for too long, wondering if other marginalized faculty felt similarly alone and disappointed. I wish I had known sooner that they did.

You can decide your success. I would love to be awarded tenure when the time comes, and I would like to publish social justice research in peer-reviewed journals, but I realize now that may not be my path. The difficulty to produce in this environment, to maintain creativity amid the emotional, physical and psychological strain of this job, cannot be overstated. I have dedicated hundreds of hours to improving the academic experiences of the marginalized at my institution. It hasn’t made a difference, but I will not stop fighting.

Instead, I stopped using institutional change as a marker of success. I prioritize my stability, health and happiness. I don’t need to create a more liberal environment to experience success. Sometimes a day maintaining collegiality far above what I receive is success. Continuing to raise my voice is success. Providing support for those who need it, even when it is difficult to find myself, is success. And most days that’s enough, for now.

3 Questions Researchers Should Ask About Sexual Violence

Jessica Harris and Chris Linder

Harris & Linder

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column (here). Dr. Jessica C. Harris (@DrJessicaHarris) is an assistant professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Chris Linder (@proflinder) is an associate professor of college student affairs administration at the University of Georgia.

Starting in 2016, we began conceptualizing and co-editing our book, Intersections of Identity and Sexual Violence on Campus: Centering Minoritized Students’ Experiences. When people ask us what exactly the book is about, we often reply that it provides a critical approach to campus sexual violence. Since the book was published, we have reflected on what we learned from the editing process. But even more, we find ourselves asking what makes this book and our work critical. What does a “critical approach” mean, especially as it relates to campus sexual violence?

While our answers are always changing, we understand that critical approaches to sexual violence account for systems of domination, power and privilege. Critical approaches challenge dominant ways of knowing and expose hidden assumptions that are often taken for granted. Critical approaches center the lived experiences of minoritized individuals who are pushed to the margins by those systems of domination, dominant ways of knowing and hidden assumptions.

As a result of our reflections, we wrote this essay to further explore critical approaches to campus sexual violence research. We interrogate three seemingly straightforward questions that researchers must re-evaluate with a critical lens in an attempt to eradicate — not just prevent — campus sexual violence.

Whom Are We Studying?

Whom we study may be, for some researchers, the most straightforward question within campus sexual violence research. When examining the existing research on campus sexual violence, one might discover that we, as researchers, study women students and sexual violence or perhaps men as perpetrators of sexual violence. Straightforward populations, right? But if we aim to critically interrogate campus sexual violence, we should be very skeptical of seemingly straightforward answers, because they are often riddled with assumptions and essentialism.

For example, for those of us who study women students, whom do we mean by “women”? Do we really mean white women? Or do we mean women across racial and ethnic identities? Are we only including cisgender women students without naming them as such?

We must be clear as to what we mean when referencing identity and whom we study. Clarity not only helps the reader understand whom they are reading about but also helps avoid further minoritization of already minoritized campus communities. For instance, claiming that research focuses on women when it really only accounts for white cisgender women maintains an assumption that white cis women are the prototype, or norm, by which all women’s experiences are measured and understood. We must be explicit from the beginning (not just in our methods sections) about whom we are researching.

When we are explicit, we can identify who is represented within campus sexual violence research and who is not. Being explicit allows us to center students who hold identities that are rarely, if ever, centered in such research. For example, when it is made explicit that research on men and women students who are survivors of sexual violence refers to cisgender heterosexual white men and women survivors, we can readily identify a gap in research that explores the experiences of trans and/or women of color and/or men of color survivors. In being explicit, we can identify the intersections of identities that have not yet been accounted for, and may be masked, within existing research.

What Are We Studying?

In our research, we must also interrogate what we are studying. When asked, “What are you studying?” we might answer, “Campus sexual violence.” Or we may answer, “Sexual violence prevention” or “The connection between alcohol and campus sexual violence.” Indeed, those latter two replies may be common, as the majority of research on campus sexual violence focuses on sexual violence prevention and/or sexual violence and alcohol.

But unfortunately, focusing only on surface-level issues like alcohol use or abuse masks and maintains systems of oppression that influence sexual violence on campus. In short, researchers exploring those topics often gloss over the deeper “What?” of sexual violence.

If we aim to eradicate sexual violence on campus, we must move beyond research that interrogates individual or surface-level issues. We must shift what we explore so that our research interrogates systems, issues and contexts that influence and perpetuate such violence. Researchers should ask, “What systems, structures and histories must we focus on in an attempt to better interrogate and destabilize a culture of campus sexual violence?”

For instance, researchers have repeatedly explored how alcohol intensifies men students’ sexual aggression, which may influence their perpetration of sexual violence. Here, the “What?” centers on sexual violence, alcohol and male aggression. But if we asked a different “What?” question, we challenge the assumption that alcohol is the precursor to male aggression and, subsequently, sexual violence. If we interrogate what it is about the campus context, the campus drinking culture and the patriarchal systems and sexist environment that encourages and condones men’s aggression as a tool to dominate others, then we may be better equipped to dismantle the roots of sexual violence.

When Are We Studying?

As we worked on our book, we came across an article that referred to campus sexual violence as an epidemic. That word, in connection with campus sexual violence, did not sit well with us. We could not put our fingers on why exactly we were uneasy, so we looked up the word “epidemic” in an online dictionary. Webster told us that an epidemic “affects a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community or region at the same time and is characterized by very widespread growth or extent.” The response in our heads was simply, “No.”

Why? Because claiming that sexual violence is an epidemic is to negate and excuse the violent finding and taking of the United States. Specifically, it excuses how white men, throughout history, have used rape as a tool of colonization, domination, terrorization and control. For example, white colonizers introduced a patriarchal and white supremacist system to the North American continent through the rape of indigenous women’s bodies. Their violent terrorization not only asserted control over those women’s bodies but also over indigenous culture.

When violent histories are acknowledged, it becomes clear that sexual violence has not become an epidemic. Researchers must account for this history throughout the research process — from the conceptualization of research questions to the writing up of data. When asking questions, analyzing data and writing reports, scholars must be sensitized to the fact that sexual violence has always been around and disproportionately affects and violates communities of color.

Additionally, we must be careful not to implicitly contain campus sexual violence to a specific time period. We have read many articles and books that introduce readers to campus sexual violence through recent Title IX legislation and the 2011 Dear Colleague letter from the Office for Civil Rights. In fact, we may be guilty of this in our own writing. We encourage scholars to reach before 2011 and beyond current legislation, and acknowledge that sexual violence has always held a violent presence within this country and on college campuses.

Researchers must not forget that, while some may frame sexual violence as an epidemic — a disease that affects the United States — rape is a symptom of larger social diseases, including white supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, ableism, genderism, capitalism and other oppressive systems. Moreover, research must interrogate how U.S. institutions of education not only exist on the very land in which these individuals and communities were violently assaulted, but also how they rest upon the histories, values and (colonial college) systems that this use of force helped to construct.

Teaching About Sexual Violence: Think Intersectional

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jamie J. Hagen is a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts Boston researching gender and security. Her most recent article is “Queering Women, Peace and Security.” She is also an independent journalist and writes about queer politics and reproductive justice.

Intersectionality And Sexual Violence

In a year in which sexual harassment and rape have made national headlines, classroom discussions about the topic of sexual violence are more important than ever. The classroom can provide a place to consider the larger power structures in place for both victims and survivors of sexual violence as well as the perpetrators of it.

I research and write about people who are often left out of conversations about sexual violence, specifically lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer survivors. Academics who research and/or teach on sexual violence often overlook LGBTQ people in their work because this population does not fit the perfect-victim narrative. The work that I do as a feminist security scholar offers a distinctive look at how assumptions about sexual violence play out in the classroom and our research.

Those pushed to the margins of society because of their sexual orientation and gender identity experience unique vulnerabilities to violence that are missed when we overlook those identities. By including conversations about homophobic, biphobic and transphobic violence in discussions with students about sexual violence, instructors can broaden the framework in crucial, intersectional ways. To better understand sexual violence, instructors should work to bridge attention to anti-LGBTQ violence with attention to patriarchal social norms that drive acts of sexual violence. Making such connections can better inform students about how sexual violence and gender-based violence impact men, women, queers and gender-nonconforming individuals.

Problematic Assumptions About Gender

In my research, I focus on the context-specific analysis of sexual violence in conflict-related environments. Since the 2000 passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, such violence has drawn much more attention, even leading to the establishment of the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics. This center came out of the Preventing Sexual Violence initiative championed in 2015 by former U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague and the special envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie.

Yet such high-profile attention to wartime sexual violence presents challenges as well. For example, some feminist international relations scholars find the new “rape as a weapon of war” narrative that has gained much media attention incomplete or even unhelpful. Part of the resistance is to the framing of women as primarily victims of violence rather than change agents in global politics. A “Monkey Cage” blog post by Kerry F. Crawford, Amelia Hoover Green and Sarah E. Parkinson about the language of sexual violence as a “weapon of war” explains, “Narratives that focus on a narrow subset of sexual violence — strategic rapes, with rhetorically convenient perpetrators and victims — are powerful but dangerous.” When those assumptions minimize or erase the agency of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, it can hinder any efforts to move toward community-based solutions. Another troubling aspect of this frame is how it can neglect to consider the prevalence of sexual violence before and after times of conflict.

One common assumption about sexual and gender-based violence is that it is about sex — that is, sexual desire or attraction. It is actually about power. This is critical to understand when it comes to finding ways to respond and prevent this violence. Another assumption is that men are only perpetrators of sexual violence, while a growing body of literature highlights boys’ and men’s experiences as victims of such violence. Rosemary Grey and Laura J. Shepherd write about the danger of “absent presences in our analysis” when it comes to men and sexual and gender-based violence.

A full picture of those who face insecurity because of their gender requires a context-specific analysis of which individuals may be most vulnerable to rape and other forms of gender-based violence. An intersectional feminist analysis of this violence must account for racial, ethnic, religious, social and political drivers of violence. It is essential to recognize the intersecting systems of oppression when it comes to understanding and responding to sexual and gender-based violence.

Queering The Conversation

Stories about LGBTQ people are often absent from discussions about sexual violence in the classroom and in research. That is true despite findings that LGBTQ students are more likely to experience sexual harassment on college campuses. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center provides an overview of violence over the past two decades pertaining to sexual violence and individuals who identity as LGBTQ. Sexual harassment between same-gender peers is also a concern. All of the studies point to the need for more research on this topic, and some note the difficulty of studying LGBTQ individuals as a monolithic group when the assessment of the needs and experiences of each group individually is necessary.

Antiviolence organizations that respond to violence targeting LGBTQ individuals offer some insight into how the sexual violence conversation is already shifting. In the forward to the anthology Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices From Within the Anti-Violence Movement, Reina Gossett writes about how work to address sexual violence has evolved over the last decade along with cultural shifts regarding what is considered sexual violence. Gossett explains, “More and more people are naming interpersonal and institutional sexual violence as inextricably linked to other forms of oppression. More and more people are working to reframe who exactly they mean when they say survivors of sexual violence, and more focus is going towards centering strategies that work through prevention, intervention, reparations, accountability and ultimately collective liberation.”

The collection Gossett introduces links to disability justice, sex worker rights, gender self-determination, queer and trans liberation, and prison-industrial complex abolition. Considering how race, ethnicity, social class, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, and disability impact a person provides necessary contexts to framing acts of perpetuating sexual violence, as well as navigating society as a survivor. As a blog post for Ms. notes, “Educating students, for example, about preferred gender pronouns, the connections between sexual assault and hate crimes, racialized gender stereotypes, and how people with different physical and mental abilities express consent, should be part of a comprehensive antiviolence strategy.”

Classroom discussions about sexual violence can be improved in important ways by queering assumptions about both perpetrators and survivors of sexual violence and gender-based violence. Those leading these conversations should consider the following five questions:

  • How do you define sexual violence? How do you define gender-based violence?
  • How can we move the conversation in the classroom and in research about sexual violence beyond common assumptions about who is a survivor and who is a perpetrator?
  • Which voices are we including in discussions to understand and respond to sexual violence? Including perpetrators as well as survivors is important.
  • Is the conversation about sexual violence intersectional? For example, an intersectional conversation will avoid white savior tropes and heteronormative assumptions.
  • Do you discuss the role of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia as they relate to sexual and gender-based violence? How do hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity relate to this conversation? Consider providing context about how cis privilege, monosexism and heteronormativity influence assumptions about who is a survivor of sexual and gender-based violence and how this limits our frame of understanding.