Beyond Allies: A Call For Supportive Academic Communities

I am only one person.  A mere mortal.  So, I am keenly aware that I need the support of others to survive.  I need ever greater support to thrive.  And, in trying to make a difference in the world — to change it — I need even more support, particularly from allies.  At the start of my (hopefully long) career as an academic, I have been reminded immediately of the importance of academic allies.  But, allies sometimes get things wrong in their advocacy, or can even make matters worse.

In this post, I will articulate the the importance of allies, at least in my own life and career; and, I hope to convince you to be a better ally to other scholars (especially those on the margins of academe).  But, my larger plea is for academia communities to share the responsibility of support, inclusion, and equality.

The Problem

I have said plenty in conversations and in blog posts about the barriers to free speech in academia.  The culture of academia, as I perceive it, is one that celebrates individualism, status, competition, theory over praxis, and research over teaching.  The reward structure ensures that academics feel just anxious enough to stay focused on the carrot dangled before them.  Keeping one’s head down and mouth shut is demanded encouraged for the PhD, a tenure-track job, then for tenure, then promotion to full professors, then…  Do academics actually ever reach the promised land of “academic freedom”?

I raise this question with concern because those constraints stand at odds with the primary reason I pursued an academic career: to make a difference in the world.  I see no point to replicating the apolitical, quiet careers I see of others who have been touted as “academic greats.”  Doing so would produce yet another academic career that has no meaning to or influence on the world beyond the ivory tower.  (Let us agree to disagree that research in academic journals behind pay-walls is useful to the broader society.  That is why we invented impact factors and other ways to self-validate.)  Or worse, following the road too-often-traveled would reinforce inequality, at least within academia.

So, if I take the approach I had initially set out on, just staying silent long enough to “make it” and then start making changes, I would be waiting until retirement.  I have waited long enough, banking on days that are not promised to me, and success and “freedom” that might never come.  The expression, “well-behaved women seldom make herstory,” resonates with me.  I know I will regularly be faced with weighing success (or even job stability) with the power to make a difference; as I have noted before, I hope to forge some path between success and social justice, using each to advance the other.

As I noted in another post, I am exhausting myself by devoting energy toward being successful by traditional academic standards — a strategy that regularly feels inauthentic.  It is draining at a spiritual level to be something and someone I am not while pushing to create space for my authentic self and others like me.  I simply cannot do it alone, working toward the two big goals of keeping my job and creating change in academia and society.  Even if I chose not to go against the grain, I would still need support and guidance as a junior professor.

The need for support is especially apparent when I directly challenge “the system” or more powerful members within it.  On a number of occasions, I have spoken out and, in the face of being the sole voice before a powerful giant, ended up backing down out of fear.  Yet, on other occasions, I have spoken out and then became one of a chorus of voices, standing strong in solidarity.  Sometimes, those voices are mere whispers from behind me — a private message on Facebook to thank me for speaking out, an appreciative comment shared in passing in the hallway.

A Few Examples

Stop Saying “Mulatto”!

My entree into blogging as a form of advocacy began around age 12 or 13, as I joined an online forum for multiracial and multiethnic people.  But, I had been outspoken about the existence and equal treatment of mixed-race/ethnicity since the age of 5.  (I am sure that comes as little surprise to some who know me well…)  The first instance was pointedly asking my kindergarten teacher why I could only self-identify as one race.  I do not recall her response, though.

In my junior year English class in high school, we had a long-term substitute while our regular teacher was out on maternity leave.  He had us spend a great deal of time focusing on race, ethnicity, and nativity — specifically the experiences of Black Americans and African immigrants in the US.  At some point, we read a novel about a multiracial person; it was an older text, so the term “mulatto” was used to describe Black-and-white people.  As we discussed the text in class, a classmate spoke up: “well, the mulattoes… and, mulattoes…”  Growing increasingly offended, I shouted out, “stop saying ‘mulattoes’!”  Too angry to further explain, I sat and stewed as the class looked at me in shock and confusion.  Without skipping a beat, the (sub) teacher clarified that the term is considered offensive by some because it suggests Blacks and whites are of different species, thus mixed individuals are like mules (the offspring of a horse and a donkey).  And, we carried on.

To my surprise, he did not keep the attention on my outburst, nor did he attempt to discipline me thereafter.  It was as though my anger was expected and understandable.  It provided a moment for him to educate us about the term, not one to punish me.  That moment sticks with me today.

National Coming Out Day

A few months after I came out mid-way through my senior year of high school, I jumped to organizing my school’s minimal attempt to celebrate National Coming Out Day.  What this actually entailed was printing cards on my personal computer that participants would wear to explain their silence, then handing these out on the day of the silent protest.  In essence, this was a one-person initiative that had no input or support from the school or any staff.

One of the Junior ROTC teachers called me over in his typically gruff voice.  (I was an officer in JROTC, and president of its honor society.)  When I approached, he very kindly asked for a view of the cards to hand out to other students.  HUH?  I had braced myself to either be reprimanded for handing out “unauthorized” material or even have the caused dismissed all together.  I did not have him pegged for an ally to the LGBTQ community.  Staying true to the silent protest, I obliged by handing him a few cards without saying a word, and then nodded to express my thanks.  People can surprise you.

Staff And Faculty Allies In College

The most impressive expression of support in my life has come from staff and faculty at my alma mater (UMBC).  Students who become involved on campus, be it within already formed student organizations or even engaging in advocacy and activism, will find a great deal of support, especially from the student affairs side of the college.  As my participation in LGBTQ activities shifted into LGBTQ activism, these mentors and allies supported me and provided me opportunities to advance my initiatives.  That work moved to a bigger stage, including the formation of a group of students, staff, faculty, and administrators, eventually capturing the attention of the university president.

Looking back, I am in awe of the level of support I received from staff and faculty who put their name on the line.  Many publicly signed their name to a petition we started calling for the creation of a campus resource center for LGBTQ students.  I still chuckle as I think about one of my faculty advisors turning to the vice president to pronounce, “I’m queer – I mean, in a political sense.  I am queer!”  When my then-boyfriend and I successfully ran for homecoming court, facing hostility in the form of graffiti on our flyers, the then-director of student life worked with us to report these acts of intolerance; she also quietly handled a call from an angry parent who complained that we kissed when we were crowned homecoming king and king.  My faculty advisors signaled their strong support by allowing me to devote my honors thesis research to advancing the LGBTQ activism in which I was engaged.

Now, I realize UMBC spoiled me.  It set pretty high expectations for the kind of mentorship and support, and commitment to social justice, that I should find in academic communities.  Let’s just say there are reasons why I keep looking back to those days so fondly…

A Call For Allies In Academia

On several occasions, I have spoken up to call out colleagues who made dangerous public statements about how the world works.  Each time, I run the risk of any professional consequences that come from pissing off potential journal editors or reviewers, grant reviewers, tenure-letter writers, etc.  And, I may also face backlash or be dismissed (i.e., “you uppity…”).

When I have had allies to chime in, or at least whisper an “amen!” or “thank you,” I feel greater support as I stand on my soapbox.  When I do not, I start to question whether it was wrong of me to speak, or that I am reading too much into something or even being overly sensitive, or maybe I just do not know what I am talking about.  I hate to feel that I am begging for attention or validation, but, as a “Tweep” pointed out, we need that sense of solidarity to keep us going in our fight for justice.

Unfortunately, both tradition and the academic punishment reward system keep many of us silent.  For example, I wrote a post a few weeks ago about the hostile response that Dr. Rachel Leventhal-Weiner received when she advanced the unpopular advice to look locally for jobs, that it is okay to set geographical parameters in one’s job search.  Of course, the hostile posts of disagreement came first, and eventually others chimed in to thank Dr. Leventhal-Weiner for her post, and to criticize the aforementioned  comments.  It is not fair to make assumptions about her response, but I imagine I would have felt discouraged by the kinds of opposition she received simply for offering advice (a free service for her colleagues, current and future!).

Besides that, what seems to be a new generation of more social justice-minded scholars is currently bound and gagged by job market and tenure-track concerns.  We are simply too few and far between, and too far down the totem pole to speak out against injustice in the academy.  In order to keep the jobs for which the odds are not in our favor, we keep our heads down and mouths shut.  So, that speaks even more to the need of allies who are in positions of power, be it in the academy (e.g., chairs, administrators, tenured faculty) and/or in society (e.g., white heterosexual cis men), to advocate for those without/with less power.  But, this has to be proactive.  Please, stop waiting for marginalized faculty to raise concerns and then reacting.  There is too much at stake to consider before complaining or asking for help.  And, do not ask us for the solutions to problems that have existed longer than we have been alive!

Bystander Intervention

Beyond Allies: A Bystander Intervention Approach

So, once again, I am calling for a bystander intervention approach.  Since many of the problems in academia are systemic and institutional in origin, we cannot rely alone on individuals — namely those impacted by these problems — to create change.  This means that we should all feel a sense of responsibility for improving academia, for making it a more humane and just place.

Listen With Respect And An Open-Mind

Tenure, She Wrote notes the following for men to be better allies to their women colleagues in academia:

Know when to listen. Don’t assume you understand what it’s like for women. Don’t interject with “but this happens to men, too!” Don’t try to dismiss or belittle women’s concerns. Remember that women are often reacting to  a long history of incidents, big and small.

Appreciate what (quantitative) data can tell us about larger patterns, but do not ignore personal narratives and anecdotes.  This may be more salient to me from the quantitative-biased field of sociology.  But, I have noticed a tendency to uncritically rely on data, sometimes to dismiss one person’s experiences or to conveniently to bolster one’s point in an argument.

Keep in mind that most reports of discrimination and harassment are not false reports, be it intentionally lying or being “overly sensitive.”  In fact, these manifestations of oppression are underreported because of the potential risk for retaliation or simply being dismissed by others.  Oppressed people actually go through quite a bit of processing before they label an act as discrimination or harassment; that is, there is a chance they will conclude shy of that, giving the perpetrator the benefit of the doubt.  So, by the time they are expressing this to another soul, they have already processed how likely it is they were the victim of unfair or hostile treatment, and weighed the costs of being wrong or dismissed.

Speak Up And Out, Often

Support others — in everyday matters, but especially when the stakes are high.  If it is dangerous to demonstrate this support publicly, do so privately.  Offer some sort of signal that you agree — and, even if you do not agree, that you appreciate someone’s bravery for speaking out when it might have been easier and safer to stay silent.  Take Dr. Chris Uggen’s advice to be nice and affirming of one’s colleagues in general.  Even when colleagues are not intentionally avoiding you, it is easy to feel isolated in academia; it would be nice to be the occasional recipient of random acts of kindness, not just the big department, university, and discipline awards and honors.  In my first semester, facing a few challenges outside of work, I really could have used more support at work to ease the emotional burden.

Make equality and inclusion a priority no matter who is present.  Please do not bring up racial inclusion only when people of color are present at a university or department meeting.  Yet, do not assume that marginalized scholars’ primary concern in life is their marginalized status.  (Yes, there are academics of color who do not study race and racism; there are white academics who do study race and racism.)  Also, do not leave it to marginalized scholars to be the one’s to bring this up, for there are numerous external and internal barriers to freely tell a predominantly-privileged room of people that inequality exists in that room.  We must stop leaving the burden of fighting oppression solely to the oppressed.

Act, When Appropriate

Assess the ways in which you are reproducing inequality and practicing discrimination or exclusion.  I really appreciated a post at Tenure, She Wrote, “Don’t be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic.”  This included being vigilant of practices that burden or devalue women, especially those that hinder their academic careers and create a hostile work environment.  I would add finding any opportunity to work inclusion and social justice into one’s classroom (and beyond it) — and, especially if one is of the relevant privileged group, and thus freed from concern about being evaluated by students as biased.

When possible, use your privileged status(es) to make space for others currently excluded from the room or conversation.  I do not mean to imply we should put marginalized people’s voice on a pedestal — especially if you only do so when it is about their experiences. But, I certainly emphasize that research expertise in absence of personal experience cannot stand in place of personal experience (with or without research expertise).  Whether it is about diversifying the faculty or designing a new major, any conversation is always incomplete if diversity is lacking.

Concluding Thoughts

What I am calling for here is a collective responsibility to be better colleagues in academia — which includes being an ally and advocate for others where possible.  Our colleagues, particularly those on the margins of academia, need to feel that their perspective, experiences, and contributions are valid and appreciated.  Sometimes, this means listening to affirm someone’s experiences (rather than defining someone else’s reality).  Other times, it means pushing to create space for those who are currently and historically excluded from certain spaces.  This shift has to be both collective (we are all responsible) and proactive (we actively seek for ways to advocate or to offer support); we cannot place the burden to make academia a more inclusive and humane place on the shoulders of scholars who are systematically excluded and victimized.

A few additional resources:

RIP Tim Ortyl (1982-2013)

Tim Ortyl (1/24/1982-10/25/2013)

Tim Ortyl
(1/24/1982-10/25/2013)

This weekend, I saw news in my FB feed that my friend and colleague, Tim Ortyl passed away.  Tim was a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota — just a couple of months shy of becoming Dr. Ortyl and securing a great tenure-track faculty position.  Given his otherwise good health, his young age, and all that his life promised the universe, my brain refused to process the news.  Once I clicked to see Tim’s Facebook page, the outpouring of messages expressing hurt, disappointment, shock, and sympathy for Tim’s family confirmed it.  Damn.

The details are still vague at the moment, but it appears what took his life was related to his epilepsy.  Another young life unexpectedly taken by epilepsy.  I feel the same way I did when my 19-year-old cousin Danny passed in 2010 from a seizure; he suffocated because he was face down in bed.  I feel robbed.  I feel we have all been robbed.  The universe gave us someone whose life promised greatness and success, only to take them away at a young age.  The theft feels so much crueler because Tim was just shy of being rewarded for his hard work in graduate school.  Why now?

I met Tim in 2008 at the Summer Institute in sexualities studies held at the (then) National Sexuality Resource Center (San Francisco State University).  Tim struck me by the size of his brain and the size of his heart.  He had a clear vision for his career as a scholar — one that was bound to change how we think about relationships, family, gender, and sexuality.  But, he was not arrogant about his brilliance and skills; he was always open to receiving feedback and being challenged to be even better at his work.  After that summer, distance — him in Minnesota and me at Indiana — reduced our contact to catching up at annual conferences, with the occasional exchange on Facebook or text message.

From left: Me, Tim, Darla, and Monique

From left: Me, Tim, Darla, and Monique.  San Francisco, CA.  August 2008.

We stayed connected, but never as much as I would like.  I, like many people, simply told myself we will do more next time.  Maybe he will interview at a school near me.  Maybe I will be invited to give a talk in his neck of the woods.  No?  Okay, well there is always the American Sociological Association meeting in August.  I am sadden that there are no more next times.  We already had our last exchange: it was his text message to me to express excitement about making the short list of candidates for a job — one of what would become many, I am sure.

Speaking of the job market, the dreadful thought cross my mind: did stress play a role?  Trying to survive on the academic job market is a tall order.  Unfortunately, the market offered little when he applied for jobs last year.  But this year — with a few jobs actually in sexualities — this was Tim’s year.  We were not close enough for me to really know how he was holding up.  Maybe, like many, he only updated people who are not as close to him about the big, positive news about the job market — but, kept to himself and close friends and family about his health, well-being, and doubts.  I know that he was pursuing some sort of medical treatment to control his epilepsy, but maybe such treatments are far from 100% effective.  I learned with my cousin’s passing that thoughts about whether these tragedies are preventable and other “what if?” questions are futile; a young, warm soul has left this earth.  All that we have left is the memory of Tim, and the challenge of making peace with guilt and anger and shock.

Tomorrow is not promised to any of us.  Tomorrow is not promised to any of us.  As far as I could tell, Tim did not wait to start living once he had his PhD, or a job, or tenure, or… whatever academic milestone.  He was a positive leader in his fraternity, Delta Lambda Phi, leaving behind many young gay, queer, and bisexual men who look up to him as a role model.  The beginnings of a promising career as a researcher had emerged well before he approached the job market; he just had another solo-authored article published recently.  This included advancing publicly accessible scholarship (Contexts magazine and the Society Pages blog).  He was also an active LGBT advocate within the discipline of sociology, working to create community among queer sociologists and make the discipline more LGBT-inclusive.  His passing is a huge loss to many, many people.

Tim Joy Me.  August 2008.  NSRC Summer Institute, SF.

From left: Tim Joy Me. NSRC Summer Institute, SF, CA.  August 2008.

Rest In Peace, Tim.  You are already missed.

Another Consequence Of Homophobia: Overcompensation?

In my and other scholars’ research, the damage of discrimination to one’s health and well-being is clear.  On top of the constraints discriminatory treatment places on one’s life chances and livelihood, victims of discrimination are furthered burdened by the blow to their sense of justice and fairness, and their well-being.  It is no surprise then that so much research focuses on discrimination as a mechanism through which social inequality is maintained.

From my personal life, exercised in my professional life but not as a topic of research, I know well about the “positive” consequences of prejudice and discrimination.  I do not mean positive as in good or desirable.  Rather, I mean the consequences that otherwise would be good or desirable if they were not the product of facing discrimination or prejudice.  I mean the sense of solidarity with fellow members of one’s oppressed group, pride in one’s identity and community, and a drive to persevere and overcome adversity.

The “Gay Tax”

I know well of the “Black tax” that I and other Black people face, having to work twice as hard to receive equal recognition.  This is because Black people are stereotyped as unmotivated, unintelligent, culturally inferior, unprofessional, and immoral.  I find myself particularly concerned with how others will evaluate me and my work.  I find myself having to give a second thought to people who don’t give me a first.  It is hard for me to let trivial slights go because I refuse to be undervalued or underestimated.

In comparing how I navigate this homophobic society as a gay man to the “Black tax,” I can discern a “gay tax” that manifests as regulating (read: suppressing) my gender and sexuality.  To minimize heterosexual men’s discomfort with my sexuality, I remain physically and emotionally distant, and “man up” my gender presentation.  To dodge religious folks’ judgement, I make as little reference to my sexuality as possible.  And, as many couples do, my partner and I are rarely affectionate in public.

All at once, I am aware of these aspects of the “gay tax,” critical of them, but pay them for my safety and well-being.

Another “Gay Tax”: Overcompensation?

But there may be another aspect to the “gay tax” that is similar to the “Black tax.”  Aware of the devalued status of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in society, some gay men have expressed through autobiographies that they throw themselves into their work to elevate their status.  Maybe, just maybe, if you are the first gay president, the world will see you just as “the president.”

In a recent study, Pachankisa and Hatzenbuehler (2013) found support for the “best little boy in the world” thesis.  In a sample of gay and heterosexual male college students, their results suggest that gay men are more likely than heterosexual men to derive their self-worth from academics, appearance, and competition.  And, the length of time that gay men remained in the closet, and the level of homophobic prejudice and discrimination in their state, were strong predictors of the extent to which these young gay men derive their self-worth from competition.

It’s the idea that young, closeted men deflect attention from their sexuality by investing in recognized markers of success: good grades, athletic achievement, elite employment and so on. Overcompensating in competitive arenas affords these men a sense of self-worth that their concealment diminishes (from NYT review).

The downside of this “positive” consequences of the stigma gay men face is their health and well-being.  Through a nine-day diary, these gay men’s focus on elevating their status (either professionally or aesthetically) predicted long periods of isolation, interpersonal problems, unhealthy eating behaviors, and emotional distress.

All Gay Men?  What About Women?

The researchers devoted a great deal of discussion to the generalizability of their findings.  With a non-random sample of gay male college students, there is reason to worry that these findings do not translate into the experiences of all gay men, particularly those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  Further, the sample is overwhelmingly white.  So, in a blog post about the article, the lead author noted:

Importantly, like the authors of “best little boy in the world” narratives, the participants in our study were mostly white, middle class, college-educated men.  The extent to which possessing multiple stigmatized identities might shape self-worth remains to be seen, as does the extent to which this or a similar phenomenon applies to women.

In addition to assessing how other gay men (especially gay men of color, working-class gay men, older gay men), are affected by and respond to homophobia, one curiosity remains: what about women?

What about female sexual minorities, you might ask? “The notion of the ‘best little boy in the world’ crops up everywhere in stories about gay men’s early lives and not as much in the narratives of young lesbians,” lead researcher John Pachankis of Yeshiva University told me in an email. “That certainly doesn’t mean that women don’t experience a similar phenomenon, but only that lesbians’ personal stories don’t seem to emphasize it as much.” Exploring that particular question is a next step for research, he says.

Ironically, the language of “overcompensating” has been used in discussions of this study, but without explicit reference to the gendered notions of (men’s) overcompensation.  It may be the case that these young men are emasculated by homophobia, and they (like many men) have found some way to compensate in their effort to measure up to the rigid expectations of masculinity.  And, funny enough, many appear to set their sights on arenas that are not vehemently homophobic — academics and aesthetics.  Athletics, sex with lots of men, and big trucks do not seem to top the list of the things gay men wish to brag about.  So, this raises some interesting (unaddressed) questions about gay masculinity.

That’s Me!

Ah, yet another study where I, as a scholar, am humbled to reminded that I am a human, equally affected by the social world as everyone else.  In his NY Times article, federal lawyer Adam D. Chandler echoed some of these sentiments:

But seeing your reflection in an empirical study has its drawbacks. The flip side of discovering you’re not alone is the melting of your presumed snowflake uniqueness. Now I’m a statistic, another data point, just an ordinary overachieving closet case.

That’s bad enough. What’s worse is that the biography is half finished. They haven’t told me what’s on the other side of the closet door. Once I’m no longer harboring my secret, will I lose my drive? Or will my lifelong trophy hunt expand to include a search for a trophy husband?

I don’t know the answers. But I’m ready to find out.

Toward (Some Of) The Answers

Like any manifestation or consequence of oppression, a starting point is becoming aware of this drive to overcompensate.  This is yet another aspect of the homophobic reality gay men note and challenge in raising our gay consciousnesses.  And, I can provide (some of) the answers Chandler wants.

In a general sense, strong social support will help to minimize some of the distress.  And, having multiple roles or other important, ongoing tasks, events, affiliations, relationships, etc. is beneficial as well.  We do ourselves a disservice as gay men by isolating ourselves — that’s the opposite of seeking social support and others like us (as well as supportive allies).  By focusing narrowly on elevating our status, we place so much stock into too few things, leaving us vulnerable to having our entire self-worth tank when those aspects of our status do not go well.

But, more specific to gay men is a strong, positive gay identity and connection to the LGBT community that helps to buffer the harmful effects of our exposure to prejudice and discrimination.  While inevitable, how we respond to these stressful aspects of homophobic oppression can reduce their impact to our health — namely, challenging discriminatory treatment and confiding in trusted others about these experiences rather than accepting and repressing them.  And, rejecting (rather than internalizing) the homophobic prejudice and stereotypes of our society, and general self-acceptance are crucial for our well-being.  I recommend (again) Dr. Crystal Fleming‘s advice on rejecting others’ stereotypes and hatred.

The lead author of the study, a psychologist, offered the following recommendations:

Our research also reveals some important lessons for young gay men’s health and well-being.  The results of our research suggest that gay men take careful stock of the extent to which their self-worth derives from seeking status from domains like being the best, looking the best, or earning high grades or lots of money.  If gay men do recognize that their self-worth comes from those domains, they might consider the health costs of doing so.  Do they experience trouble in relationships with others, such as frequent arguing or spending lots of time alone?  Will they compromise personal values to attain status?  Are they chronically stressed or engaging in unhealthy habits, like going to the gym to an unhealthy degree or restricting their food intake?

If gay men answer “yes” to any of these questions, it will first be important to recognize that these difficulties are not personal failings and may have their source in stigma and the early lessons learned from growing up in a stigmatizing world.  Psychotherapy with a compassionate, gay-affirmative therapist can help gay men understand the legacy of experiencing early stressors like hiding one’s sexual orientation during adolescence or growing up in homophobic environments.  For many gay men, the negative effects of these early experiences may not be obvious at first, but can nonetheless be successfully addressed with supportive help from friends or professionals.

In understanding this “gay tax” as a stressor unique to gay men (similar to the “tax” that other oppressed groups face), I also recommend mental health service that treat patients who are gay as gay patients.  That is, care that understands the unique needs and experiences of gay people, rather than treating them as interchangeable with any other patient.  I strongly recommend The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World

Oh, and eliminating homophobic prejudice and discrimination helps, too!

On Doubting And Denying Each Other’s Experiences and Perspectives

The recent sociological blog debate on the supposed era of post-racism still weighs on my mind today, even as the conversation has tapered off.  Beyond arguing against this idealistic (and limited) vision of post-racism, I have reflected a great deal on how we have talked about race and racism, and the barriers that seemed to have gotten in the way of meaningful dialogue.

I have reflected upon how others have perceived me or even gone to the extent of criticizing me.  Most recently, I heard that some of my fellow graduate students dubbed me overly-sensitive.  I am used to this critique.  But, I joked with some of my friends that I must have gone “soft” over the years; I was labeled “militant” within my first year of graduate school, and then “uppity” by my third year.  Now, in my sixth and final year, I am merely “overly-sensitive.”

Doubting And Dismissing

Initially, it is upsetting to have fellow scholars — who are, by training, critical of the social world — lazily dismiss your critique of oppressive and unequal practices as sensitivity.  But, I learned to make peace with the reality that making friends in the academy is a bonus, not a given (this is not college!), and privileged and oppressed people come to academia for very different reasons.  Though we get the same training and do similar tasks (i.e., research, teaching, service), these are means to different ends.

So, I have grown used to the criticisms of unsympathetic privileged individuals — purportedly-liberal whites, heterosexuals, men, those of the middle-class, and those born in the US.  This weekend, it donned on me that the criticisms that have stood out in my mind, those with which I struggle for some time, are those from fellow marginalized group members — people of color and LGBT folks in particular.

Doubt And Dismissal By Other Marginalized Individuals

Obviously, the recent debate with Fabio Rojas (a Latino professor who advocated the “post-racism” thesis) continues to linger in my mind.  And, I still shudder today at the thought of having a gay man (who was a friend at the time) dub me “uppity” in arguing about the persistence of homophobia and racism.

My initial concern with having another person of color deny that racism exists, or is a persistent problem, or was relevant to a particular event in question is the fear of “airing dirty laundry.”  This is particularly true for Fabio’s suggestion that we live in a post-racist era.  Whether this is true or not, I fear that whites who secretly believe this, or who are on the fence about the significance of racism today, or who are too lazy or limited in their thinking to assess for themselves, will take this “post-racism thesis” and run with it.  “You see, even he thinks it, and he’s Latino!”  But, realistically, the hunger to declare racism dead is strong enough that those kinds of folks will find the evidence they need to do so anywhere.

But, beyond that fear, it has become clear to me that having another member of your oppressed group doubt or deny your experiences with oppression or your perspective more generally is harmful and disappointing in its own right.  First, because they do not completely agree, and, second, because they deny your perspective.  Of course, this is not to say that they cannot disagree, nor that you are automatically right and they are automatically wrong.  Rather, I take issue with those who seem so set on denying the existence of oppression that they reject your experiences and perspective that challenge that ideal picture.

In the two examples I mentioned, after drawing upon my personal exposure to racist prejudice and discrimination, a fellow man of color pointed out my (justified) rage and pressed on with his argument that racism does not exist.  After describing the homophobic prejudice and discrimination I have faced, a fellow gay man dismissed me as “uppity” because I became angry that he denied that homophobia is “all that bad.”  For whatever reason, they are so tied to these post-racist and post-homophobic utopias that my experiences failed to serve as evidence of racism and homophobia, and I needed to be further silenced by trivializing my anger.

Intersections With Power And Privilege

What complicates these kinds of challenging conversations with other marginalized individuals is that we may hold other privileged identities.  The force of the blow of being called uppity was multiplied by 100 because it came from a white man.  Our shared marginalized status as gay men shifted to the periphery in my mind as I was subject to the most racist verbal assault in my life, short of being called “nigger.”

As I have since learned, the racist history of the term uppity is not widely known; however, he failed to apologize once I called that to his attention.  Rather, he pressed on to correct me: “you could also say ‘uppity bitch’ or ‘uppity faggot’; it’s not just about race.”  He was right; it is not just about race.  It is about power.  Rather, it is about disempowering the recipient of the charge of uppitiness.

In addition, axes of power drawn from institutions can complicate matters, as well.  One challenge to the dialogue with Fabio is that he is a tenured professor; I am a graduate student on the verge of finishing my training (so, I still tread lightly to prevent making myself vulnerable to backlash).  Though he has not exploited his power, and has been civil throughout the debate, he very well could draw upon his status as a professor to silence me.

In my and other students’ interactions with other professors, being told homophobia is not that bad or sexism is dead and gone, we, as mere students, can only go so far in disagreeing with a professor.  Beyond fearing retaliation, we are constrained in many ways because these conversations tend to occur on the professors’ turf and terms.  How intensely and for how long can you disagree with a professor as you sit in their office, meeting with them during the time they are available?  And, you probably met with them for their help.  Moments after you leave their office, you could witness a white professor pet the hair of another Black student and ask whether it is really hers, but, while in the professor’s office, their view that “racism is not that bad today” is Truth.

A Call For Better Support From Our Fellow Group Members

I should stress that I do not intend to demonize those individuals of one’s own marginalized group for disagreeing, or even verbalizing that disagreement.  Also, I do not care to engage why some oppressed people fail to “see” oppression.  Some may have yet to gain the necessary consciousness to see more subtle expressions of prejudice and discrimination.  For the rest, dismissing them as having internalized their own oppression is just as harmful as them denying your oppressed reality.

Instead, I call for doing a better job of supporting one another.  As marginalized people, we already face enough doubt and denial from privileged people.  I will probably spend much of my energy in research, teaching, and serving on various university committees trying to convince whites that racism still exists.  What I need from other people of color, then, is a shared safe space to be free from doubt and denial.  Let us be sure to protect a space for ourselves where we do not have to convince one another that racism exists, or that our experiences were really shaped by racism.  We need a space where we will not trivialize each other’s emotional responses to prejudice and discrimination.

In fact, this safe space is one of the reasons why marginalized folks seek out others like themselves.  It is exhausting to deal with heterosexism and homophobic prejudice and discrimination, having your rights debated daily and voted upon every election cycle, while being told your fight for equal rights is not that important.  So, LGBT and queer people find solace in one another’s company.  It is no coincidence that, given my challenging experiences in graduate school, most of my closets friends today are queer, of color, and/or working-class.

I do think that we should challenge one another, whether it be raising our consciousnesses about our oppressed reality or trying to think outside of our own perspective.  But, this is not the same as outright doubting or denying someone’s experiences or perspective.  While growing together, supporting other people of color, other LGBT and queer people, other folks from working-class backgrounds, and other women means seeing, hearing, and validating each other in a society set on making us invisible, silent, and insignificant.