Why I Am Committed To Fighting Oppression In Academia

Image Source: Rigers Rukaj

Image Source: Rigers Rukaj

“Facts about the Black vagina — the hardest working vagina in America.”

A few days ago, I watched in awe as activist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw read her poem, “The Black Vagina,” at a production of The Vagina Monologues in Harlem, NY.  Unfortunately, I did not actually observe from the audience in the infamous Apollo Theatre.  Rather, it was featured on V-Day: Until The Violence Stops – a documentary about productions of The Vagina Monologues and other activism to end violence against women around the world (see the trailer here).

Eve Ensler’s play-turned-global-movement impressed me.  But, observing Crenshaw – looking fierce in a beautiful red gown ready for some glamorous Hollywood awards show – speak truths to what so many Black women in America know, I went back to my usual place of self-doubt: what am I doing with my life?  Here was the scholar who developed the theoretical framework of intersectionality and, today, a scholar-activist at the forefront of #SayHerName movement to end violence against Black women.  And, without a hint of doubt, without a word of apology for her presence or explanation for why she wasn’t doing research instead of working in the community, there she was on that Apollo stage singing the praises of the Black vagina.

I spent the rest of the day deep in reflection.  “I’m not doing enough as an activist.  Why do I even call myself an activist, a scholar-activist, an intellectual activist?”  Unfortunately, the question — am I enough — is a commonly occurring one for me.  And, I realize not feeling [X] enough — skinny enough, pretty enough, smart enough, rich enough, popular enough, Black enough, gay enough, feminine enough — is not unique to me.  But, there is something unique about my sense of being inadequate as an activist — and it’s not just that I simultaneously worry that I’m too much of an activist, that the work that won’t count toward tenure may actually cost me tenure.

The work to which I am referring is this — this blog, the column on Inside Higher Ed, the talks I’ve given, panels I’ve served on and organized, the long-term effort to call attention to and eliminate injustice in academia.  Even as I write what sounds impressive, I feel as though I padded the previous sentence to silence the voice that once asked, “so, all you do is blog?”  My critics, largely contained in an anonymous wiki for cowardly trolls, accuse me of being overly dramatic, preachy, self-righteous, and whiny; worse, they suggest that my sense of injustice in academia is really just the product of mental illness or even mental disabilities (putting it politely relative to the more offensive language they use).  This is a form of gaslighting, and it has proven somewhat successful.  But, the trolls aren’t alone in leading me to question my academic justice work.  It doesn’t count for tenure (and, realistically, is potentially a liability); and, my graduate training served to “beat the activist out” of me because activism and academia supposedly don’t mix.

In other words, there are two powerful messages that come from my training, the expectations of me for tenure, and my critics.  The most obvious is that this work is risky.  And, the other is that there really isn’t a problem to address.  Academics ask, what injustice?  What discrimination?  What sexual harassment?  What motherhood penalty?  What exploitation of grad students and contingent faculty?  The latter message has successfully led me to doubt myself.  What’s that expression — that if you repeat something enough others will believe it’s true, especially if you talk loudly enough.  (It worked for a certain elected official with no political experience and ample experience as a bigot and rapist…)

This work, however, is too important to second-guess myself.  So, I’m planting my flag into the ground to declare that I am here to unapologetically fight for justice in the academy.  Below, I offer a few reasons why this work is important.

Why Working For Academic Justice Is Important

Because Academic Injustice Exists

Perhaps the most important reason to fight for justice in academia is, well, because there is pervasive injustice in academia.  Yes, to my surprise as a first-year graduate student, academia is not immune to systems of oppression.  Classism, ableism, fatphobia, xenophobia, racism, cissexism, sexism, heterosexism, and ageism — systems of oppression that are embedded in every social institution — have been at home in every college and university from their creation.  These manifest as everyday microaggressions, subtle and overt discrimination, disparities and leaky pipelines, rampant sexual violence, interpersonal and institutional barriers to accessibility for all people, prioritizing profit over justice, prioritizing academic freedom over academic justice, curricula that erase or tokenize or exotify oppressed communities, and so forth.  That oppression exists in academia should suffice as enough reason to fight it.

Because Academia Reproduces Social Inequality

Unfortunately, the academy does not merely reflect the aforementioned systems of oppression; it also reproduces them in the larger society.  There is ample evidence that education, the supposed “greater equalizer,” actually exacerbates inequality.  Think about who goes to college: who performed well enough to get in, who attended a high enough quality school to get in, who can afford to go, who has the cultural capital to know how to apply.  Among those who attend college, there are disparities between those who to go community colleges and four-year colleges, between those who go to state schools and those who go to private schools, between those who graduate and those who never do.  Even with a degree in hand, there are disparities by academic major, quality in the training received, and additional opportunities like studying abroad and internships.  There are some statistics that leave one to wonder what higher education is doing for oppressed groups, if anything positive.

And, it isn’t just at the undergraduate level.  It is also in graduate education, and among staff and faculty.  Let me highlight a few examples for faculty.  Take the gender and race wage gaps.  There are several manifestations of oppression in academia that contribute to these disparities: discrimination against people of color and women (especially those with kids) in hiring, tenure, promotion, and raises; harassment, which undermines a scholars’ productivity and well-being; disproportionate levels of undervalued (and usually unpaid) service, especially “diversity work“; the devaluing of gender studies, women’s studies, racial and ethnic studies, and cultural studies; racial and gender bias in publishing; racial and gender bias in course evaluations; the exclusion of women and people of color from high-status professional networks; the overrepresentation of women and people of color in poorly-paid, overburdened, temporary contingent faculty positions.  You know, just to name a few things that exacerbate the broader patterns of wage disadvantages for oppressed folks.

Because Inequality In Academia Compounds Social Inequality

Since scholars from marginalized backgrounds were already oppressed before pursuing an academic career, injustice in academia further compounds the oppression we experience, thereby making the problem worse.  Black academics, for example, cannot separate the racism they experience after they leave work from the racism they experienced at work.  It doesn’t matter the source, shit is shit, and it stinks all the same.

I study discrimination and health, so the compounding affect on a scholar’s health comes to mind first.  Discrimination is a stressful experience.  Even just agonizing over whether the negative outcome one has just experienced was the product of discrimination is stressful.  In giving privileged others the benefit of the doubt (because, counter to accusations of “crying wolf” or “playing the [fill in the blank marginalized identity] card”, no one wants to acknowledge that they were discriminated against), we only continue to stress over the event in question.  This kind of stress raises your blood pressure and heart rate, it impedes your immune system, and it hinders your ability to make healthy choices regarding food, alcohol, drugs, and sexual activity — basically, discrimination kills.  The stress of “teaching while Black” compounds the stress of “driving while Black,” and the worry for the safety of one’s Black teen-aged children innocently hanging out with their friends, and the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream or booze one uses to forget the day’s troubles, and the racial bias in the health care one receives, and the worry about what is to come of this country now that a known racist is running it, and on and on.

Together, this means that our oppressed scholars cannot do their best work, and it hurts them in getting hired and tenured and promoted.  It means we may be more likely to have to take medical leaves, or retire early, or find a new job, or leave academia all together, or even die earlier.  Besides illness and death, the consequences of discrimination and inequality in academia compound other outcomes of social inequality (e.g., wage disparities, discrimination in real estate and mortgage lending, the burden of caregiving and financially supporting relatives also impacted by discrimination, etc.)

Because Academic Injustice Hurts Science And Higher Learning

Addressing injustice in academia is important because, on the whole, we are not doing our best work.  Academic injustice is a threat to science and higher learning.  Certain voices and perspectives are excluded from conference panels, works cited, journals, and course syllabi due to rampant bias.  Entire fields like queer/LGBT/sexuality studies, gender studies, women’s studies, Black studies, Latinx studies, Indigenous studies, fat studies, and disability studies are underresourced, underfunded, and understaffed on college campuses because they make central oppressed communities.  As noted above, discrimination and harassment undermine oppressed scholars’ ability to do their best work, to put their work to use, to be taken seriously by their colleagues.

I imagine we routinely experience a brain drain in academia owing to the 50 percent drop-out rate among grad students, and perhaps many oppressed scholars with PhDs who eventually leave academia for the sake of their well-being or because of shitty wages as an adjunct.  Diversity in academia is not merely some liberal political project; it is how science advances.  Actively excluding oppressed scholars, or failing to prevent such exclusion, is a political project — it’s called white supremacy, misogyny, queerphobia, class oppression, fatphobia, ableism, and ageism.

Because Academic Injustice Undermines Our Ability To Fight For Broader Social Justice

A related reason is that leaving injustice in our ranks unaddressed undermines our ability to address injustice beyond the ivory tower.  First of all, we’re hypocrites to pursue research that is critical of the rest of society, including other social institutions like law, the government, medicine, military, the labor market, religion, the and family, while oppression manifests in academic institutions.  Yet, somehow, we have the rest of society convinced we’re all a bunch of liberals promoting various social justice agendas; we successfully convince prospective grad students who want to make a difference in the world that academia is the right profession for them.

We are not doing our best work as teachers, mentors, artists, scientists, advocates, and analysts. We uphold tenure-track jobs at Research I universities as the ideal path for every PhD despite the adjunctification of higher education, riding that sinking ship on its way to the bottom of the ocean.  We could work in and with the community and partner with organizations outside of the ivory tower to reestablish our importance to society as a whole. Acknowledging my optimism here, I wonder whether that would help to reverse the pattern of drying up government funding for higher education and, in turn, the trend of replacing tenure-track positions with temporary adjunct positions.

Because — Oh, Fuck! — Trump Was Elected President (Fuck!)

Finally, now more than ever before, there is an urgent need for the academy to stand up to bigotry, violence, xenophobia, bullying, surveillance, and other social problems that threaten to get worse under the incoming presidential regime.  Academic isolationism is a foolish strategy — just look where it has gotten us thus far (read: declining state and federal funding, adjunctification, exploding student debt, irrelevance to the rest of society).  We are perhaps complicit in political rise of a racist rapist with no political experience.

But, it is not too late.  We can stop clinging to the myths of meritocracy and objectivity that only serve to distract us to the rampant inequality within our ranks.  We can stop prioritizing academic freedom, which merely tolerates academics’ controversial work while also enabling bigoted scholars oppressive antics; instead, we can bravely prioritize academic justice — an intentional effort to use academic work to promote justice.

I hope that I have convinced some readers why we can no longer delude ourselves into thinking inequality in academia isn’t that bad, or perhaps that addressing it is no better than “navel-gazing.”  Even if not, I find myself more firm in my commitment to fight academic injustice and to promote academic justice.  We’re wasting our time here if we continue to allow oppression to manifest in our profession.