Three Posts: Impostor Syndrome, Alt-Ac, And Activism

Every once in a while, I search for myself on the internet.  Recently, I have also searched for any references to this blog.  Call it self-absortion, paranoia, or pride — whatever.  But, I like to keep track of what, if anything, is being written about me (and this blog) other than what I write myself.  For the most part, I am pleasantly surprised every once in a while when another blogger notes feeling inspired by me/this blog to write about a particular issue or experience.  Yesterday, I came across three such blog posts, which are interesting in their own right aside from me feeling honored to be deemed an inspiration for the posts.

  1. Nathan Palmer, a sociologist and academic blogger, wrote a post, “I May Be an Impostor, but…,” about some of the fear and self-doubt many scholars experience as we “write in public.”  Unfortunately, as Nathan notes, we sometimes avoid writing all together because the self-doubt is crippling: “Because of my impostor syndrome I’ve ducked opportunities; I’ve deliberately held myself back. I’ve held my tongue (believe it or not).”  Nathan created and currently runs or edits three blogs filled with resources particularly for sociology classrooms: SociologySource and SociologyInFcous and SociologySounds.
  2. I discovered that the first post on AltAc Liberation, a new blog for “PhDs, grad students, terminal degree-ers, and other doctoral folks to explore the road less traveled by,” reflects on my characterization of academia as a “warzone.”  The author, who writes anonymously for fear of professional retaliation, writes about the pain of feeling unsafe and perpetually vulnerable in academia.  Overwhelmed with this pain, and of frustration and disappointment with academia — what it proclaims it is and what it is in reality for marginalized scholars — the author is seriously considering leaving academia all together.
  3. I also discovered a new blog, that of Michelle Munyikwa, an anthropology graduate student — including Michelle’s recent post on activism in academia: “Be vital. Be involved.”  “I think, ultimately, I am likely to agree with Dr. Grollman, and cannot imagine engaging in this career without an element of activism. I’m hoping to avoid the beating that grad school promises (wishful thinking, perhaps?).”  It is reassuring to hear from Michelle that attending to the problems within academia (e.g., poverty among adjuncts, high debt among PhDs) are increasingly important, maybe as important as addressing problems outside of it — and that Michelle recognizes the importance of “being involved.”

Academia Is A Warzone

Image Source: CBS News

Day after day, I return to work with the notion that academia is a safe, inclusive, and supportive environment for intellectual growth.  Like many people, I recognize the pattern that greater education, particularly college, is associated with liberal and tolerant attitudes.  Academic institutions, themselves, are characterized (for better or worse, depending on one’s perspective) as bastions of liberal ideals and practices, protected from the world “out there.”

I have been drinking the academic Kool-Aide since my freshman year of college, even once I realized it is spiked with a poison that could slowly kill me.

Academia Is A Warzone

Yes, the title of this post is intentionally provocative.  The language is a bit extreme considering that many readers will think of death, blood, bombs, landmines, war rape, propaganda, and other gruesome aspects of war.  I apologize, in advance, if the analogy is offensive.

But, I would also like to broaden our definition of war beyond the extreme, yet localized and ephemeral image that comes to mind.  In my opinion, to the extent that marginalized groups face systemic discrimination and violence from birth to death, justified by propaganda, these groups represent the severely outnumbered side of a war.  Considering the many ways in which institutional and interpersonal discrimination, poverty, and physical violence impact the health and well-being of marginalized groups, the death tolls of these wars are simply immeasurable.

Academia is not exempt from those wars.  Colleges have excluded women, people of color, and people with disabilities/disabled people throughout history.  Today, discrimination against these and other marginalized groups continues in the hiring and firing of staff, faculty, and administration; tenure and promotion; admissions; wages; and, other institutional practices.  These groups are subject to harassment and violence at the extreme, to subtle, but more routine microaggressions.

And, yes, there are examples that fit the more extreme imagery of war: racial harassment; sexual violence, including sexual harassment; homophobic murder and harassment; transphobic assault; xenophobic assault and anti-Semitic harassment. While these extreme acts seem isolated and rare, they act as hate crimes — reminding other members of these communities of their inferior status and to live in constant fear.  And, they occur along with less severe, but regularly occurring bias incidents: slurs, property damage, graffiti, verbal harassment, etc.

Image Source: Huffington Post

The Academic Fairytale Is Dangerous

Why has it taken over a decade for me to finally acknowledge academia is not a safe, inclusive, liberal place?  When staff in the scholarship program I was in during the first half of college grumbled when I brought up LGBT issues, I should have caught on.  Or, having “GAY” written on the whiteboard on my dorm door.  Or, seeing graffiti about “fags” in the Chemistry building men’s bathrooms.  Or, having several of the flyers my then-boyfriend and I put up to campaign for homecoming court vandalized with “fag” this, “pole-smoker” that.  I guess I knew homophobia would be a challenge — one I came prepared to fight.

With the first racist microaggression I faced in graduate school — even before classes had officially begun — I started to catch on.  But, six years later, now as a new tenure-track professor, I am finally declaring that enough is enough.  When my partner told me he felt helpless to support me day after day, as I come home fuming about some microaggression I have faced, I teared up — well, because he named it: “oppression.”  I know it, and regularly name it myself, but tend to stay just shy of fully acknowledging the reality of my experience as an oppressed person in academia, and the world in general.  My fear is accepting “oppressed” leaves little hope, little room for change.  But, the real danger is in denying how frequent and intense the hostility really is.

I study the health consequences of discrimination — so, I can tell you via research expertise (yeah, I’m saying “expert” — deal with it!) and personal experience that the hostility that marginalized students, staff, faculty, and administrators face is harmful.  In actual “wars” in the traditional sense, it would be foolish to try to reason with one’s opponents, who are armed and out for blood.  You protect yourself and fight back.  But, in buying into the fairytale that academia is safe, humane, and socially-just, we fail to arm and protect ourselves.  We repeatedly fail to psychologically prepare ourselves for battle, leaving us vulnerable to the full effect of every assault.  When attacked, we spend the rest of the day, week, month, semester, year… however long… trying to make sense of how that could happen here, how could they do that.  Unfortunately, this kind of rumination exacerbates the wear discrimination and violence has on our health and well-being.

Image Source: Center for American Progress

Prepare For Battle

I hope that even readers who scoff at the allusion to war recognize that academic institutions are — for some — toxic, hostile, unsafe, and exclusive places.  We do ourselves (particularly marginalized people) a disservice by thinking of acts of intolerance in academic spaces as isolated incidence, rather than manifestations of larger systems of oppression.  And, we fail to make efforts to prepare ourselves.

So, here are some suggestions:

  • Purge the idyllic, utopian vision of academia from your mind.  No place on earth is free from prejudice, discrimination, and violence.  Even if we disagree about how bad things are in academia, I ask that you at least acknowledge that there is room for improvement.
  • Acknowledge the high, pervasive levels of discrimination, harassment, and sexual violence within academic institutions.  Since it may be easy to discount the extreme stories that capture the media’s attention as isolated incidents, look for a source that keeps a record of these events — and then inflate the numbers, as these incidence are severely unreported (and mishandled).
  • Develop a plan-of-action to cope on a regular basis and for less frequent, but more extreme incidents.  I keep learning the hard way that I cannot go to events and meetings on campus as though I am privileged, freed from exposure to bias.  For new, unknown terrain, as well as spaces I already know to be hostile, I should 1) never go alone, nor sit alone, 2) have already established a team-effort to handle bias, and 3) have a prearranged time to debrief afterward.  This could prevent being blind-sided by offensive comments or actions, being shut-down and thus unable to speak up or out, and having the rest of my day emotionally derailed.  I should be meditating when I get home, but I at least try to journal to get toxic thoughts and emotions out so I can enjoy the evening with my partner.
  • Seek out allies, and not just in the predictable places.  I have found a great deal of support inside and outside of my department, including members of the university staff.  I have more in common in experience and values with people of color, queer people, and other social justice-oriented people than sociologists, or even academics in general.  Also, these outside perspectives can offer a new way of looking at a problem, or even entail “dirt” you would not get from insiders.  Here, I emphasize quantity (i.e., have at least a few allies in different places) and quality (i.e., meaningful connections with trusted friends and colleagues).
  • Consider ways to support others as they go to battle.  Check the academic fairytale in your colleagues and students.  I do not mean to force your perspective or to burst their bubbles; rather, do not let others deny or discount their own exposure to discrimination and harassment.  Affirm others’ experiences are real and unjust — at least to the extent that they have the right to feel what they feel without explanation.  If you can, offer other forms of support.
  • Teach marginalized students how to survive in academia.  A friend and colleague in student affairs has twice asked me what I am doing to teach my students survival skills.  Wow.  What a thought, right?  I still do not have an answer; my focus has been on affirming marginalized students’ existence and experiences, but never at the level of teaching survival skills.  As I develop syllabi for next semester, I will have to think about this, though it may take years to do so effectively.  By design, the content of college-level and graduate-level education barely reflects the lives and perspectives of oppressed people.  When reflected, we often get as far as highlighting that they are, indeed, oppressed, but fail to talk about how they are surviving, thriving, remaining resilient, and fighting back against oppressive structures.  So, this is an ideal, at best, for now.
  • If necessary, keep a personal record of acts of intolerance, particularly if there is a repeated source or perpetrator.  If things become severe enough that you have to seek justice or protection through some institution or external party (e.g., EEO, human resources, the police, Office for Civil Rights, an attorney), it may be useful to have a record.  And, you may need one or more witnesses to confirm your reports — maybe bring a colleague or friend along, or speak with someone else privately, hopefully to get them to start taking note in the future.
  • Consider speaking openly about your experiences.  This may help to affirm others’ experiences, and remind them that they are not alone in facing systemic, pervasive discrimination and harassment.  It lets potential allies know that these kinds of events do occur, hopefully, encouraging them to take note and act.  And, it can dismantle the cloak of silence; it can shift victims’ silent suffering to the public shaming of perpetrators of discrimination and violence.
  • Fight back.  At a minimum, be involved in your academic community to 1) be visible as a marginalized person, ensuring that your voice is heard and 2) create change.
  • Stay healthy and well, in general.  And, if a particular environment is too toxic to stay healthy and productive, you may need to seriously consider leaving, moving elsewhere, or taking temporary leave (if possible).  As I have said elsewhere, try to avoid going to places that are obviously toxic or hostile.  Unfortunately, self-care is a deeply political act for marginalized people within environments dead-set on destroying them.

What strategies have worked for you to survive in academia?

Earning My Stripes As An Intellectual Activist

via The Retriever Weekly (UMBC)

via The Retriever Weekly (UMBC)

Last night, I received an email from the Tennessee Anti-Racist Network thanking me for allowing the organization to use my blog post on a bystander intervention approach to anti-racism for their April 2013 conference theme.  This served as a counter-protest to a white supremacists rally:

American Renaissance (AmRen), a white supremacy group, plans to hold their annual racist conference at Montgomery Bell State Park Conference Center, near Dickson, Tennessee, April 5-7, 2013. 

[Download the post-conference recap here.]

This sounded like an important event, so of course I agreed to lend the idea as my way of supporting it.  Bystander intervention was developed as a community response (i.e., it is the community’s responsibility) to eliminate sexual violence.  At some point, other advocates have picked it up to fight other forms of bigotry and violence, including racism.  So, it certainly is not my original idea; but, I do take credit for my own perspective on it as laid out in my blog post, “A Call For Bystander Intervention To End Racism.”  At the time, I was finishing up my dissertation; so, the idea of having a blog post serve as an anti-racist conference’s theme was a welcome break from sitting alone in my apartment day in and day out (in the name of social science, of course!).

The email I received last night also included a request to continue using the theme of anti-racist bystander intervention for their upcoming counter-protest on October 12 in Murfreesboro, TN:

On October 12, League of the South, an extremist hate group will invade middle Tennessee and try to infect our home with false Southern Pride (aka white power).  They intend to demonstrate in Murfreesboro and Shelbyville.  We intend to get in their way.  They are already bullying and trying to intimidate Tennessee residents who are taking a stand against their racist group.  Don’t let these people invade OUR home and get away with this.

But, the organizer also gave me the heads up that they have faced some backlash — and, my name has come up:

From the Tennessee Anti Racist Network page:
“Be proactive. Do not be a bystander. Go to the Murfreesboro, TN, Anti Racist counter rally on October 12, and tell League of the South To Stop The Hate.  Information on this page adapted and taken from Eric Grollman at http://egrollman.com/?s=bystander+intervention

Eric Grollman is a professional Black homosexual feminist (his articles on those interests are on his website). He says he is a scholar whose “research centers on medical sociology and social psychology to investigate race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and sexualities, and the intersections among them.” He “examines the social factors that produce and maintain disparities in mental, physical, and sexual health” and “investigate(s) the effects prejudice and discrimination on marginalized groups’ health and well-being.” With meager credentials, these special interests must have been what got him a spot as Asst. Professor at the University of Richmond.

So, I suppose I am now on the white supremacists’ shit list.  I tweeted about this, and shared it on Facebook, receiving mostly praise (“you’ve arrived!” as indicated by making enemies, especially of the bigot variety).  A few folks expressed some concern: notify my university just to err on the side of caution for my safety (done); make sure I am taking care of myself internally to weather any more that may come of this (a work in progress).

The funny thing is, I just wrote a post yesterday on “playing it safe,” and that I am still doing other things that appear anything but safe and traditional.  I have been calling for greater intellectual activism — in my case, blogging — and, I suppose pissing off racist bigots counts for something.  This is at least a reminder to be careful what you wish for!

Now, back to being a good first-year professor with “meager credentials.”  I should know being a “professional Black homosexual feminist” will not guarantee job security.

Coming Out Everytime We Let Others In

Yesterday, in my upper-level course on gender and sexualities, my students and I discussed the life-long process of coming out as LGBT.  In essence, because of heterocentricism (the assumption that everyone is heterosexual) and, what we can call ciscentricism (the assumption that everyone is cisgender), LGBT people are forced to out themselves to each new person they meet (if they decide not to be presumed cisgender and heterosexual).  As one student pointed out, that, of course, presumes one is closely aligned with the stereotypical images of heterosexual and cisgender people; any displays of gender non-conformity may lead one to have their sexual and/or gender identities questioned.  Still, to some degree, we believe there is some choice in the matter, whether to out oneself or confirm others’ suspicions.

In this conversation, I chose not to out myself — a position I usually take until the end of the semester (once course evaluations are in).  I have mentioned “my partner” to two students, and, aside from wearing suits, I rarely obsess over presenting myself as hypermasculine (or even masculine, for that matter).  So, my students may already have suspicions about me, at least regarding my sexual identity.

And, though quite relevant, I had not mentioned an incident that occurred immediately before class.  I briefly returned home to regroup before the late, 4:30pm-7pm class.  As scheduled, our front and back doors had been replaced.  The workers had thrown our door mats aside, failed to return moved furniture to their original location, and left sawdust on the floor and some furniture.  The blinds from the original back door sat on our kitchen table.  And, a bag of used doorknobs sat on our front porch.  This was just shitty, inconsiderate work.

The worst sign of their inconsiderate presence was this:

Ugh.  This pamphlet from a Billy Graham affiliated church in the city was left on our kitchen table.  If this was “innocent” proselytizing, it was inappropriate.  But, with a number of pictures of my partner and me up in the kitchen and other rooms, I suspect this was something more.  An unknown number of strangers entered our house and decided we needed Jesus in our lives.  As gay people, this was a minor, yet symbolic assault from strangers who decided we were immoral because of our sexual orientations and our relationship.

Connecting this back to my class’s discussion, I realized that I could be in the closet in every aspect of my life: at work, with friends, doctor‘s visits, etc.  No one but my partner and I would know we identify as gay and that we are in a long-term, committed, loving relationship.  But, if we lived together, as we do, at some point the apartment complex may know (or suspect), and the service people who enter our homes would figure it out.  To these strangers, we would have no choice about being out, unless we went to the lengths of hiding any signs of a relationship, or even living apart.  There is a base level of outness that life demands if you want any semblance of a full life as a queer person.

As I threw clean dishes into the cabinets later in the evening, I began to realize just how upsetting this experience was.  Simply put, I feel violated.  Strangers were given access to my personal home, and judged me, and had the audacity to leave behind their propaganda just to let me know what they thought.  Even in my own fucking home I am not free from homophobia.  It is bad enough that I bring the stress of bigotry home, in its wear on my health, in the suits I quickly strip off when I get home like taking off a costume, and in the taxes I pay for my partner to receive benefits in a state that ignores our relationship.  But, this incident pushed beyond that.  I came home to a visible reminder that strangers think I am immoral.  Fuckers.