An Intersectional Framework For Campus Sexual Violence Prevention

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Nadeeka Karunaratne serves as the student development coordinator in the Cross-Cultural Center at the University of California, Irvine, and previously worked as the violence prevention coordinator in the university’s Campus Assault Resources and Education Office. She is a trauma-informed yoga instructor and is fascinated about all things at the intersection of yoga and social justice.

I used to work as the sole violence-prevention educator at a large public research university. So I understand many of the demands placed on staff in campus prevention and advocacy offices. Those demands include fulfilling workshop requests, hosting training after training, creating engaging programming, and educating an entire campus community about sexual violence.

However, I also know that the ways in which we do all of that can be isolating, marginalizing and ineffective for many student communities.

As a woman of color, I have often been in white feminist anti-sexual-violence spaces where my identities and experiences are erased and further marginalized. My journey toward an intersectional framework of prevention — one that focuses on the most marginalized communities and discusses how multiple forms of oppression intersect with sexism — began with my own experiences as a prevention educator.

I began to place my own experiences within a larger context when I heard Jessica Harris speak at the 2016 annual conference of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. She connected critical race feminism to sexual violence and the experiences of women of color. CRF examines the intersections of race and gender in relationship to power and aims to deconstruct interlocking systems of domination — specifically, white supremacy and patriarchy. Harris shared her conceptual framework, explaining that women of color do not just face quantitatively more issues when they suffer from violence, but also that their experiences are qualitatively different from those of white women. Indeed, research shows that women of color undergo different rates of violence and have qualitatively different experiences of trauma.

I was able to further develop my intersectional prevention education philosophy through a conceptual framework at the 2016 conference of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. There, Farah Tanis of the Black Women’s Blueprint introduced her theoretical expansion of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social-Ecological Model. She included “structural” and “historical” levels in her framework and discussed the importance of considering history and systemic structures of oppression in prevention. Indeed, the history of sexual violence in the United States has foundations in racism and colonialism. Rape is a tool in white colonizers’ violent tactics to eradicate and oppress indigenous communities. White people’s use of rape as an oppressive tool continued during slavery, wherein white men raped black women without consequence.

Our country’s system of higher education also shares a history of colonization, as the first colleges were established within a colonial context. Today the media and the dominant narrative in this country can portray stereotypes about women of color that are harmful and serve to legitimize their sexual abuse. In addition, the dominant narrative depicts men of color as preying on innocent white women. This can be seen from the dominant portrayal of what survivors on college campuses look like. It can even be seen in the renowned documentary The Hunting Ground, where the only named perpetrator is a black man who raped a white woman. However, even with all of this historical context and present-day narratives, discussions of racism and other forms of systemic oppression are often absent in our prevention education.

In order to address multiple forms of oppression in our education, we must move beyond supposedly inclusive prevention education, where we use gender-neutral pronouns and images that represent visible diversity, to a framework of prevention that is intersectional at its very foundation.

Below are some of the ways I have begun to do so in my own work. These strategies have been effective in engaging students in complex conversations about issues of sexual violence.

  • I open my workshops by introducing the issues of sexual assault, stalking and relationship violence through the lens of power and control. I explain that a perpetrator uses these forms of violence to exert power and control over another person. I then discuss how those forms of violence are about power and control on both an individual and a systemic level. I have used this framing of the issues as an opportunity to educate students about the historical, racist and colonialist context of sexual violence.
  • One of the core tenets of critical race feminism is the importance of storytelling, specifically counterstorytelling. Counternarratives can serve a vital role for empowerment in our prevention education, particularly when mainstream white feminism excludes those narratives. We need to think of how the current national conversation centers on white, cisgender female bodies and then critically reflect on how our programming and prevention education does the same. We must then center the most marginalized in our society within our work. One example of a counternarrative I use is the pushback against the California legislation on mandatory minimum sentences in the aftermath of Brock Turner’s conviction. I explain that, while some advocacy organizations have lobbied for mandatory minimum laws, other organizations, particularly those led by women of color, emphasize the disproportionate impact of incarceration on communities of color. Additionally, I note that the notion of justice is complicated, since the definition of “justice” (i.e., incarceration of perpetrators) does not look the same for all survivors.
  • In many workshops, I discuss trauma-informed approaches for supporting survivors, as a form of tertiary prevention. I address some of the specific barriers to seeking support, leaving abusive relationships and reporting sexual assault (administratively and criminally) that exist in different communities. In addition to discussing barriers, I also talk about the community-specific ways of healing and coping that exist. This is important for moving away from a solely deficit-based way of thinking about marginalized communities. Introducing such nuanced ways of understanding support-seeking and healing will help people to assist any survivors who may disclose to them — and in ways that do not perpetuate further violence or marginalization.
  • When talking about rape culture, we must discuss how different people’s bodies may be represented in the media, rather than talking generally about the representation of women. That includes highlighting how the hypersexualization and exotification of women of color and their bodies, and the negative portrayal of people with disabilities, to name a few examples, contribute to rape culture and sexual violence.
  • One of the most utilized forms of prevention education within higher education is bystander intervention. However, traditional bystander intervention education does not account for the experiences of some of our students on many levels. Common lessons — such as calling 911 as a strategy, asking students to visualize perpetrators and ignoring the influence of identity in intervention — range from problematic to harmful. These lessons may make bystander intervention inaccessible for students from certain communities and further perpetuate stereotypes about men of color. We must complicate how we talk about bystander intervention — for example, by highlighting the salience of identity in intervention and acknowledging specific barriers — in order for it to be an effective tool.

These are just a few ideas and strategies to help us move beyond traditional methods of prevention education. We must invest in research and practices that explore new models, particularly in the context of higher education. Discussions of identity and intersectionality are vital to prevention education. Students are not interested in hearing presentations where their lived realities are not reflected. Students are not interested in engaging in education that fails to acknowledge the complexity of identity or that does not address the wholeness of what they experience.

I will end with a quote from the brilliant Audre Lorde that further illustrates the importance of an intersectional framework of prevention education: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

Navigating Sexual Harassment In Academia As A Young Black Femme

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Gabi Jordan (a pseudonym) is an assistant professor of sociology. She studies race, ethnicity, gender and intimate relationships.

“Oh, you have everything going on there, don’t you?”

The above question took me by surprise. I was going about my usual routine in the campus writing center, checking in with student athletes and their graduate student mentors about upcoming assignments. My questioner had appeared from around a corner just as I was leaving a study room. With a smile, he gestured toward my face.

I laughed, awkwardly. It was immediately clear to me that the “everything” to which he referred were my nose and septum piercings, as I had become accustomed to people commenting on them regularly.

As I prepared myself to make an excuse to turn and walk away, he said, “You even have one in your tongue; let me see it.” The awkward smile on my face fell, and I choked out a short laugh. I felt frozen, unsure of what to do or what to say.

This older man was not my superior, but a coach for one of the university sports teams for which I tutored at the time. Though I had been warned that coaches should not be asking questions about student athletes, little direction was provided for how to avoid a coach if they did try to chat. As I mumbled about having students to check on, he reached out a hand towards my curly hair and inquired as to whether I was married or had any children.

I was able to end this encounter by entering another study room and checking in with some other students. But I spent the rest of my shift at the writing center feeling extremely uncomfortable and questioning whether I had done something to invite the coach’s comments and questions about my appearance and personal life.

This moment remains vivid in my memory because it is not the first time that I experienced unwanted attention in my workplace or other professional spaces. Truly, it is not the first time in my life that I have had my appearance discussed in a way that made me uncomfortable.

I am a light-skinned, mixed-race black woman who is visibly feminine, with big curly hair and what is considered to be both a “voluptuous” and “fat” body. Consequently, I have been subjected to aggressive street harassment, followed by men in stores, grabbed by men (and women) in bars, had students write offensive comments about me in their course evaluations, and witnessed rape “jokes” being directed at student athletes in the middle of a writing lab.

I have even experienced sexual harassment at the hands of fellow academics. For example, at the 2016 American Sociological Association annual meeting, I had the unfortunate experience of having a male professor comment on my “beauty” in the middle of a conversation about my research, with him reaching out to caress my face.

A lifetime of men (and many women, too) feeling entitled to make lewd comments or touch me without my permission has, in some ways, made me numb to the ways in which my body is viewed as accessible. My research on the intersections of race, gender and sexuality has allowed me to intellectualize why such harassment often happens. Yet even with the minor protections that an intellectual understanding of these experiences lends me, I continue to struggle with being socialized to believe that I am somehow complicit. I often feel guilty about wearing makeup and dressing in formfitting clothing, even as I wear high necklines and hemlines that come to the knee. Despite teaching my students about how the notion that women are sexual gatekeepers is part of an oppressive gender structure, I have a hard time not blaming myself for the harassment I experience.

My physical appearance remains a factor in everything that I experience in the academy, particularly the ways that my students and my colleagues find it appropriate to speak on my attractiveness (or lack thereof). My experiences contribute to well-documented evidence of the ways that femme people are subjected to particular kinds of surveillance and, subsequently, harassment and violence. My membership in a discipline that recognizes and produces knowledge about various forms of sexual violence yet also fails to address harassment forces me to realize that there are still many gaps in how sociology departments and national organizations take steps to protect scholars.

I spent most of my graduate training unsure to whom to report these encounters and feeling awkward about discussing them with my (black, cisgender) male adviser. That awkwardness mostly stems from my own insecurities about admitting that I am vulnerable rather than deficiencies on my adviser’s part; in bringing up my harassment, I confirm that I am a sexualized body. Due to having had colleagues who are men of color tell me that the racialized and gendered harassment that runs rampant in higher education is something that I should “get used to,” I feel hesitant to bring up how my appearance impacts my ability to teach, to network with others or to conduct my research.

When I did report to one of my university’s human resources offices, I was told that I was not guaranteed any anonymity and, in the case of the coach’s unwanted attention that I described above, he would be let off with what they called a “positive confrontation” that I was assured would not enter his employee record. Instead, I was moved to another writing center and forbidden to work with student athletes who were members of that coach’s team. Essentially, this suggested that I was actually at fault, rather than the man who invaded my personal space and asked me inappropriate questions.

A Call For Change

Considering that women and femmes of color in academe already must anticipate that they will be viewed as less capable based on racist and sexist assumptions, what steps can they take to care for themselves amid a culture that fosters harassment?

To survive and thrive in the midst of these issues, I find it important to note that I am not alone. A 2017 report from the University of Texas at Austin found that 22 percent of students have experienced harassment perpetrated by a faculty or staff member. To this end, I have relied upon friends and mentors as a source of support while navigating these experiences. They remind me when something I have experienced is not OK and help me determine how to report or confront sources of harassment.

For women and femmes of color to thrive in the academy, and within sociology more specifically, there must be structures in place to support mentorship and community building. For instance, having multiple women and femme scholars and allies to reach out to redistributes the labor that often is placed on a single faculty member of color to provide all emotional support.

Further, faculty advisers need to be sensitive to the specific kinds of harassment that women and femmes of color may be subjected to. Advisers and department administrators must actively work to swiftly and effectively address harassment at the hands of faculty and other superiors, as well as between graduate students.

These interventions are just a few that can reduce feelings that there will be repercussions for reporting or that someone being subjected to harassment is at fault. Recognizing this issue, implementing clear and direct procedures for reporting and reprimanding harassment, and encouraging those with social and institutional power to intervene and quickly shut down inappropriate behavior are small steps that can be taken toward making the academy a safer place.

An Introduction To Our Series On Sexual Violence In Academia

Source: UMBC’s The Retriever Weekly, Volume 39, Issue 27.

Source: UMBC’s The Retriever Weekly, Volume 39, Issue 27.

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

Amplifying the Voices of Survivors

The photo above was taken during a Take Back the Night march at my alma mater, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, in March 2005. It was taken by student, Matt Stockslager, and appeared in the university’s student newspaper, The Retriever Weekly. You can see me on the left, sporting a funky blue button-down Southpole shirt, dark blue jeans and Timberland boots, holding a sign that is hard to read and that my memory fails to recall.

In those days, I double majored in sociology and psychology while pursuing a certificate in women’s studies (now gender studies). My feminist and queer consciousness were just beginning to grow inside the classroom as I was exposed to critical writings on gender, sexuality, feminism, queer theory, race and intersectionality. And my critical consciousness was budding outside the classroom in this and other forms of feminist activism on campus, as evidenced by organizing for the creation of an LGBTQ campus resource center and hosting events to foster dialogue about diversity and inclusion.

I fondly remember marching alongside other students, faculty and staff to demand the end of sexual violence on our campus and in the local community. With slight embarrassment, I also recall being asked to share the megaphone that I must have been hogging during the march. Selfishly, I felt good about knowing that a booming, somewhat masculine voice shouting to end rape was significant and would capture others’ attention. Then, as now, I felt that white heterosexual cis women’s faces were those that typically represented anti-rape advocacy, perhaps to the detriment of the broader movement — women of color, trans women and queer women may hesitate to get involved where they do not see themselves reflected, and cis and trans men may struggle to find a place in the movement. So I shouted with pride, “Two, four, six, eight!” — or something along those lines — until I was politely asked to hand the megaphone off to someone else.

I was a bit annoyed at the time, but I understood. And in hindsight, I realize how problematic my behavior was. Sure, I could make a stink about what seemed to be the silencing of my voice — a voice that very well could be one of a survivor. (And it may be? I am not entirely sure.) Or I could emphasize the points that I just made above, about the power of representing cis and trans men in sexual violence advocacy, about ensuring that the cause is not seen simply as one for white heterosexual cisgender women.

But I believe it was just as important, if not more so, that I not steal an opportunity to hear the voices of actual survivors, especially those of women survivors. While I was proud of my participation, and recall it fondly today, that march was never meant to be about me (no matter my identities) — it was about a movement to end a crisis that affects too many people.

Amplify Their Voices

Over the past year, the informal mission and potential power for change of this blog, “Conditionally Accepted,” has become clearer to me. I have not yet said this publicly, and this is currently not much more than a half-baked idea, so please don’t quote me on this. But I see this blog’s mission as the following:

  1. advocate for justice in academe,
  2. amplify the voices of marginalized scholars and
  3. aggravate the status quo in the academy.

The appealing alliteration aside, I think these three A’s — advocate, amplify and aggravate — effectively encompass what we have been doing on this blog since its inception in 2013 (even before it became an Inside Higher Ed career advice column in 2016), as well as where we will likely go in the future.

Over a decade after the embarrassing megaphone incident in 2005, I now value the opportunity (and, I would even say responsibility) to amplify others’ voices. In gaining access to the megaphone, I had an opportunity to amplify that I did not take. Rather than selfishly projecting my own voice, I could have used it to tell the stories of those who could not speak or, more importantly, handed the megaphone off to survivors who could speak. I could have used my voice (without the megaphone) to echo what a survivor said with the megaphone.

Today, I have successfully established an online platform that features marginalized scholars’ voices and stories. Here, each of us can write in the first person, claiming our truth and our identities, our value and our experiences. I have occasionally opened up about my own experiences with sexual violence, particularly the difficulties inherent in teaching on the subject, I have written about my observations of academic organizations and institutions’ mishandling of sexual violence cases, and I have attempted to draw attention to other activists’ fights against sexual violence. But all of what I do as a well-intentioned advocate is secondary in importance to giving space to survivors to tell their own story, to use their own voices to speak for themselves.

It is more important than ever that we work to make space for survivors to tell their stories. In general, a silence surrounds the subject, with ignorance and complicity keeping bystanders quiet, and victim blaming and slut shaming keeping survivors’ mouths closed.

And even where there is dialogue is typically part of the problem, as well. Conversations about sexual violence — a hate crime, a tool of oppression, a social problem — are too often reduced to speculations about responsibility, intent and the veracity of survivors’ reports. The media qualify reports of sexual violence with the word “allegedly,” which veils the undermining of survivors’ voices with concerns about legal considerations. In some places, “devil’s advocates” — clueless, conservative, white, heterosexual cis men — are given more room to weigh in on something they have probably never experienced and on which they lack expertise.

Apparently, we do not want to hear survivors, we do not want to believe them, we do not want to recognize them as credible sources on their own experiences. So they have to find their own spaces to share their stories. (See also this Washington Post series.)

So in the spirit of amplifying the voices of the marginalized, “Conditionally Accepted” will feature guest blog posts about sexual violence over the next six months. Yes, we are devoting half the year to this oh-so-important topic, though we know six months is hardly enough. Several guest bloggers from different career stages and academic and social backgrounds contributed to our call for blog posts on rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking and intimate partner violence in higher education. Some people reflect on a personal experience, some offer teaching and research tips, and others offer advice for effectively supporting survivors and ending campus sexual violence.

This series of blog posts will certainly not solve all the issues, but it is at least one way to amplify the voices of survivors — and, to be certain, that is an important first step.

Black Feminism Will Save My Life

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Note: this blog post was originally published on The Feminist Wire (TFW).

Like most Black folks, I have a Black woman to thank for my existence (my mother) who, in turn, has another Black woman to thank for her existence (my grandmother), and so on. I have them, and my aunts and older cousins to thank for my survival in this oftentimes-hostile world. Black women babysitters, neighbors, friends, teachers, mentors, and colleagues have educated me, protected me, supported me, advised me, and loved me in childhood, adolescence, and now adulthood. Now, as I fumble through my academic career, simultaneously trying to recover from the trauma of grad school, survive the tenure-track, and thrive as a scholar-activist, I have Black women researchers, theorists, and writers to lean on during my journey. Indeed, Black feminism will save my life.

The Gifts of Black Feminism

I was introduced to the framework of intersectionality and Black feminist theory more generally, as an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). In one assignment from my upper-level Women and the Media course, taught by Elizabeth Salisbury (a white anti-racist feminist instructor), I reflected on my intersecting sex, gender, sexual, and racial identities. I still remember being blown away by all that I learned in my Women’s History and Black Women’s History courses, taught by Dr. Michelle Scott (a Black woman history professor); I was shocked by how little I knew about Black women’s involvement in the abolition, suffrage, feminist, Civil Rights, and Black Power movements. Although Black feminism was not treated as a central theoretical framework in most of my graduate school courses, it has remained a focal point in my own research, teaching, and service.

Graduate school – MA and PhD in sociology from Indiana University – is where I first discovered the toxic, soul-crushing nature of academe. This training was not a period of self-discovery and consciousness-raising; if anything, grad school was set to “beat the activist” out of me, to de-radicalize me as a scholar-activist and to sever my ties with my communities. With only one Black woman professor on faculty and very little support of critical intersectional work, my graduate department was not a place that was a welcome home for Black feminists and womanists. These years were soul-crushing – even traumatizing; now three years later, I am seeing a trauma-certified therapist and taking Lexapro for the ongoing generalized anxiety disorder. I was knocked out of my metaphorical Black feminism life raft and nearly drowned as a result.

The Gift of Self-Definition

Late in my last year of graduate school, and subsequently in my tenure-track position at the University of Richmond, I rediscovered the life-giving force of Black feminism. In a blog post, I wrote about Dr. Patricia Hill Collins’s 2012 book, On Intellectual Activism; I devoured every word of her book as it named the kind of work I aspired to do (intellectual activism) and made such work seem like a natural extension of the career of Black feminist scholars. Her book reintroduced me to the core components of Black feminist theory, which she articulated in her book, Black Feminist Thought – in particular, the intersections among systems of oppression and the importance of self-definition for Black women. I took up her notion of self-definition in declaring that I am pursuing my career in sociology on my own terms – inherently activist, or nothing at all.

Unfortunately, self-definition has not been a smooth process. I regularly burn the candle at both ends trying to exceed the expectations of mainstream academe (to keep my job) and subverting the academic status quo. At any given moment, I waver between fear of my grad school advisors’ warning that I will be irrelevant (to mainstream sociology) and smugness as I intentionally buck the system. It is an unfair burden to have to weigh between keeping my job and liberating my communities.

The Gift of Liberation from Oppressive Institutions

But, Black feminism has somewhat eased this ambivalence. The good Lorde – Audre Lorde – once wrote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Though telling myself that I am simply working within the system to enact change has helped me to sleep at night, I realize that playing by the rules of the Ivory Tower serves to perpetuate the status quo in academe and society more generally. How can I expect to challenge academic injustice by reinforcing unjust practices? Lorde once said that “your silence will not protect you” – a powerful phrase prominently displayed on a bumper sticker on the very laptop I am using now to write this essay. Lorde has shattered any naïve notion that playing it “safe” in academe will ever ensure my safety, livelihood, and status. To be a good little mainstream sociologist is to be complicit in the discipline’s racism.

Yet, contemporary Black feminists have been incredible role models for avoiding the seduction of letting the academy validate my existence. Oh, and have I been seduced, even to the point of internalizing the view that I am only valuable as a member of society so long as I publish and that leisure and relaxation are tools of the devil. I am thankful that a friend, Dr. Abigail A. Sewell, introduced me to The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure – Without Losing Your Soul as we were finishing up our respective dissertations. A couple of years later, I found myself having a phone conversation with the book’s lead author, Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, to ask for advice about moving my blog, ConditionallyAcepted.com, to InsideHigherEd.com, which also features her biweekly academic advice column, “Dear Kerry Ann.” Through a series of conversations with her, as well as various resources produced by her organization (National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity),I have been inspired to let my big dreams and goals guide me, rather than being driven (or coerced) by external validation like tenure and promotion.

Similarly, I was inspired by Dr. Zandria F. Robinson who, when under a national conservative media attack on her online writing (and character, politics, appearance, and menstrual cycle), had the last laugh as she maintained her value and integrity no matter the institution that employed her. Academic institutions, as with any social institution, were overwhelmingly built by and for wealthy white cishet men without disabilities, and they continue to systematically exclude and exploit everyone else. I will never be free if I live my life defined by institutions that hate me and people like me. Perhaps because of the simultaneity of and intersections among racism, sexism, and classism, many Black women have never been under the illusion that an institution will value, liberate, and uplift them; instead, some have taken to carving out safe spaces in these hostile institutions or creating their own institutions and organizations outside of them.

The Gift of Positionality

Black feminists’ emphasis on positionality – that is, recognizing how one’s intersectional social position shapes one’s view of the world – has allowed me to embrace the influence of my personal biography on my scholarship. Through my graduate training, I was taught that legitimate sociological scholarship focuses on social institutions (e.g., medicine), not social groups – especially not marginalized groups. I was encouraged to embrace a professional identity as a medical sociologist who just happens to study Black and Latinx people, LGBTQ people, and women; I was discouraged from being a sociologist of sexualities, of gender, or of race. The greatest suspicion of all was of sociologists who were not simply experts on some group, but were a member of the group: Black sociologists, queer sociologists, feminist sociologists, disabled sociologists, fat sociologists. Having expertise “of” some sociological topic creates enough distance between the presumably objective sociologist and her research. But, to be your topic threatens the appearance of objectivity.

It has taken me a few years to actually embrace my positionality in my scholarship. Yes, I am Black, and queer, and non-binary, and fat, and a feminist. And, my work as an activist – to advance these causes and liberate these communities – is the primary motivation behind my research on sexualities, gender, race and ethnicity, and weight. I have Black feminists to thank for taking objectivity to task and for celebrating positionality rather than pretending to be objective. My work has become easier now that I allow myself to say I am a Black queer sociologist (who happens to study health), rather than forcing the label “medical sociologist” (who happens to study race, ethnicity, gender, and sexualities).

The Gift of Self-Care as a Political Act

Black feminist writing about self-care will save my life. This self care is different from the neoliberal “life hack” and yoga-and-mindfulness-fad stuff that fills my Facebook feed. As Lorde argued, self-care is a political act; the audacity of self-preservation within institutions and a national context that is set on eliminating Black women is a far cry from white middle-class folks’ efforts to make their privileged lives just a little bit calmer. When racial organizations slant toward the plight of Black cishet men, when feminist organizations champion the causes of middle-class white cishet women, when the rest of the country doesn’t give a damn either way – Black women are left on their own to simply survive from day to day. Self-care as a counter to others’ efforts to eliminate you is nothing short of an act of warfare.

Black feminism’s emphasis on self-care has forced me to rethink how own efforts to survive and thrive – how I approach and conceptualize them. It convinced me to critically analyze the features of graduate school and the academy more generally that left me with a PhD, generalized anxiety disorder, and complex trauma at the end of my graduate training. Had I been aware of the oppressive structure and culture of mainstream academe from the start – the pervasive micro-aggressions, the devaluing of scholarship on my own communities, the elitist emphasis on Research I careers, and the efforts to “beat the activist” out of me – I may have been better prepared with ways to preserve myself. Hindsight is 20-20; now, I am better armed as I take on the rough road of the tenure-track. I have sought out mental health care, I have looked for supportive critical communities, I have taken on new ways to embrace authenticity in my scholarship, and so forth. Thanks to Black feminists, I am aware that my survival falls in my hands alone; I could find myself dead or near-death on the other side of tenure if I continue to naively assume my department and university cares about my well-being beyond my CV.

The Gift of Entrepreneurship

Beyond simply surviving, I am grateful to Black feminist friends and colleagues who have modeled for me bravery in the face of vulnerability, invisibility, exploitation, and extinction. Since starting Conditionally Accepted, I have become connected with a wide network of smart, critical, and creative people. And, I have noticed an interesting pattern: most of the scholars who are successful public intellectuals and academic entrepreneurs are Black women. Dr. Manya Whitaker started her own educational consulting business, Blueprint Educational Strategies. Dr. Fatimah Williams Castro runs her own business to help academics develop alternative careers (“alt-ac”) – Beyond the Tenure Track. Dr. Michelle Boyd started and runs Inkwell Academic Writing Retreats. Dr. Chavella Pittman runs workshops on bias and incivility in the classroom through her business, Effective & Efficient Faculty. Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming is just beginning to offer professional development workshops. And, of course, there is the Oprah of professional development, Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, founder and CEO of NCFDD.

Giving Back

I would be remiss to devote this essay solely to the gifts I have received from Black feminist scholarship and activism. To me, Black feminism is not simply an ideology and movement from which others (including me) passively benefit. To be a Black feminist is to be committed to advancing intersectionality, positionality, and self-definition and to liberating all Black women. And, to be an ally to Black feminists, I feel a sense of obligation to use my generally privileged status as an individual often perceived as a cisgender man to live into this commitment.

I am still figuring out what that means for the long-haul and on a day-to-day basis. At the baseline, I regularly draw upon a principle of the Virginia Anti-Violence Project (for which I sometimes volunteer) to ask, “How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate, and intentionally include people and communities of color?” – tailored to ask specifically about Black women.

How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate, and intentionally include Black girls, women, and femmes?

Failing to regularly prioritize the inclusion, support, and advancement of Black women means that white cishet masculinity pervades as a norm, as the default; attention to Black women comes up only when they demand it or when the dominant group bothers to attend to diversity (which usually fails to consider intersectionality). When I plan events on campus, I aim to center the voices of women of color, especially when the topic at hand disproportionately affects them and/or affects them in unique ways. For example, I have begun organizing workshops at academic conferences on supporting intellectual activists and protecting them from professional harm and public backlash; since women of color have been the most vulnerable to these attacks, I have centered their experiences. When Black women panelists are available, I center their voices; when they are not, I cite their work and refer to their writing for further information.

Perhaps my biggest commitment to Black feminism to date, at least as a scholar, is the co-editing of an anthology that will celebrate academic bravery among women of color scholars. With my colleague and friend, Dr. Manya Whitaker, I am currently collecting narratives and creative works from women of color academics that reflect upon times that they spoke up, took risks, reconceptualized what it means to be a scholar, advocated for change, overcame adversity, etc. The inspiration from this work came from a comment that Dr. Brittney Cooper casually made as a fellow panelist at the Parren-Mitchell Symposium on Intellectual Activism at the University of Maryland in April 2015. She remarked that there was too much cowardice in academy, and that what we need to best support intellectual activists is more academic bravery. As far as I have seen, no one else is talking about this, despite the widespread culture of fear and risk-aversion in academia. But, from my observations, some of the most innovative, entrepreneurial, creative, and all-around badass scholars today are women of color. I am incredibly moved by their individual and collective bravery and want to document and celebrate it; I want to put it into a single book (for now) so future women of color scholars will already have a manual for being brave, hopefully forgoing years of floundering, fear, isolation, self-doubt.

This is just the beginning. I owe my life to Black women and Black feminism. They gave me life. They have sustained my life. They inspire me. They care for me and love me. Black women rule the world – I’m just doing my part to see that the rest of the world wakes up to that reality!

I Don’t Exist (Yet)

Me - Tower Dark

Some time ago, I shared a secret with two friends: I find myself frequently searching for things that move me.  A deep, insightful book.  An exciting new song.  A novel movie.  An unusually critical article.  An event that pulls on my heart strings.  Something that will feed my spirit in a way that most things do not.

One of these two friends responded, “doesn’t that seem unhealthy?”  She worried that having spiritual food located externally, and its actual whereabouts unknown and fleeting, was no way to live a self-sustaining live.  I had never thought of this kind of hunger as unhealthy.  I had actually convinced myself that this was my way of searching for meaning in the world, specifically for my own life.  Isn’t it a good thing to want more from life, to proactively look for more and better rather than simply accept what is?  And, don’t we all get excited when something “gives us life”?

My friend’s concern came to mind recently as I browsed a local bookstore.  I sat on the floor before the disappointingly small selection of books on LGBTQ issues.  I found myself looking for… well, myself.  Where is that story about people like me?  It finally clicked.  Maybe this is not exactly what concerned my friend.  But, it definitely concerned me.  I am not (only) looking for meaning; apparently, I am desperately searching for myself, something more than my own reflection in the mirror.

The media.  My workplace.  My family.  Politics.  Religion.  My own racial and sexual communities.  People like me do not exist, apparently.  I am invisible.  Or, maybe I do not even exist.

Fuck intersectionality.1  As one part of myself becomes visible, the other parts remain invisible.  Black is straight.  Gay is white and thin.  Black and white cannot coexist, so where does that leave me as a multiracial person?  Where does this leave me, Black, white, queer, fat, something other than hypermasculine yet male-bodied?  Fuck intersectionality.  Fuck being unique.

It takes energy everyday to exist — to dare to enter the world as the other other Other.  Some days, I am exhausted from it all, from forcing the universe to see me, from trying to carve out space in the world for myself.

But, that is the key to my survival.  My existence is not a given.  It is the outcome of a lifelong fight against invisibility, bias, exclusion, and even conditional acceptance.  It comes from not giving up, or settling into subordinate status.

I will exist — or die trying.

____

Notes

1 To be clear, this statement reflects my frustration with existing at intersections among multiple oppressed statuses, not the theoretical framework of intersectionality.  Indeed, intersectionality and Black feminist theory in general have been instrumental in making visible such intersections and highlighting the critical importance of studying them in academia.  Intersectionality as a framework “gives me life” in so many ways.

Objectivity Doesn’t Exist (And That’s A Good Thing)

Source: Steve Jurvetson

Source: Steve Jurvetson

Many scholars have long criticized the notion that research, in any capacity, can be “objective” — free the personal biases of the researcher, and reflecting universal Truth.  So, I will not take the time to review the argument(s) that research cannot and never will be objective.  Instead, I would like to reflect on the benefits that come from the inherently subjective nature of research — at least in my own experience.  While the “how” of the research process — how research was carried out — cannot be separated from the humanness of the researcher, I am more interested here in the “why” (why it was carried out and in that way).

Researchers Are Human

In much of my graduate training, and even at times now as a professor, I have agonized over concessions I feel forced to make in order to be successful.  I have sometimes relinquished authenticity in order to appeal to the mainstream of my field(s).  In other words, knowingly (or unknowingly), I have sometimes acted in a way that would keep me from standing out from the crowd.  I am already marginalized in academia and society in general; I cannot totally shake the feeling that I must “fit in” somewhere.

Fortunately, I have been moving in the direction of accepting my uniqueness.  Statistically speaking, I am a unicorn.*  There are few people in the US — the world even — like me.  And, my unique social location informs a unique perspective on the world.  I do myself a disservice by working against my uniqueness.  I do science a disservice by withholding a perspective that may challenge conventional and mainstream research.  And, I do my students a disservice by advancing the same perspective they might find in every other course.

In embracing my unicorn-ness, albeit unevenly throughout my career, two unique lines of research were born.  In one, which I started early in my career, I attend to sexual orientation as an important social status — one that likely shapes an individuals’ worldviews.  There is good work that looks at the sexual, romantic, and familial lives of sexual minorities, and other work examines their exposure to homophobic and biphobic discrimination.  But, these approaches have tended to focus at the surface level of this groups’ marginalization — what makes them unique (to be frank: sex and relationships) and the consequences of being stigmatized.  It is my hope to highlight how else this status shapes our lives.

In the other line of research, I have been more intentional in embracing my inner unicorn.  I examine exposure to more than one form of discrimination (e.g., Black women’s experiences of race and gender discrimination), and the impact it has on health.  In hundreds of studies on self-reported discrimination and health, I saw few that acknowledged that some individuals, namely those who are marginalized in multiple ways, face more than one form of discrimination.  I have been pushing greater attention to the intersection among systems of oppression (intersectionality) in this line of research.  But, as the intersectional theoretical framework has implicitly favored qualitative approaches over quantitative approaches, I now find myself pushing back on intersectionality to take seriously the quantifiable aspects of life at the various intersections.  (This comes after feeling I should apologize to intersectionality scholars for doing it “wrong.”)

Speaking of intersectionality scholars, three come to mind who, in their own ways, embraced their unique perspective.  Two, obviously, are the foremothers of the intersectionality perspective: Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (the legal scholar who originally created the theoretical framework) and Patricia Hill Collins (the Black feminist sociologist who elaborated and further popularized it).  In her latest book, On Intellectual Activism, Dr. Collins discusses why she advanced Black Feminist Thought, including intersectionality — gaps she saw in how other scholars were examining the lives of people of color and women (as distinct, non-overlapping groups) among other reasons.  Another researcher who has embraced her unique perspective and social location is sociologist Mignon Moore, who has 1) pushed intersectionality scholars to bring sexuality (back) into such work and 2) challenged prior work on lesbian couples and families that failed to look specifically at Black women.

Imagine if these scholars decided not to “go against the grain,” did not dare to advance scholarship that actually reflected their lives and communities.  Would intersectionality be an increasingly popular theoretical framework in the social sciences?  With no hope of studying their often invisible communities, would marginalized students decide against training in traditional fields like sociology, law, psychology, etc.?  Or, would they even consider graduate training or an academic career?  By honing one’s own unique perspective, and inspiring new scholars to hone their own, we advance science to reflect diverse viewpoints and approaches, and challenge existing ones that may be limited or even one-sided.

Personal Motivations For Research

No matter the perspective you advance in your research, another important component of our subjectivity as researchers is why we study what we study.  Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega recently reflected on the role of emotions in his (and other scholars’) research.  Though his work might be classified as positivistic in his approach, generally keeping focus away from him as the researcher, he embraces his personal motivations that influence what he studies and why:

It’s no secret to anyone that I have publicly declared my own research position and what drives and fires my research focus: I strive to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. I want to see poverty alleviated and, if possible, eradicated. I want to address global inequalities and inequities. My research is driven by an intense desire to increase access to proper sanitation. Water poverty pains me and I want to help reduce it. Informal waste recyclers’ frequently face inhumane working conditions, thus making them vulnerable populations. I am interested in empowering the disenfranchised, and thus I strongly believe that my research benefits from the raw emotions that I feel whenever I am faced with, for example, the realities of poor communities with little access to water.

I suspect most researchers are influenced, to some degree, by their personal interests and values — at least in choosing what to study.  Women are overrepresented in research on gender and sexism.  The majority of scholars who study race, ethnicity, and racism are people of color.  I have heard those who have either suffered from mental illness or had relatives who did are drawn to psychology and psychiatry.  Even aside from what some have called “me-search,” I suspect curiosity — some mystery from one’s childhood that propels a desire to study it deeply — drives other researchers’ work.  Does anyone study something they do not care about at all?

I would argue that one’s passion for a particular topic still informs later aspects of the research process — not just in choosing what to study.  For example, a researcher may be disappointed to yield a “null finding,” that something that concerns them was not found in their analyses.  Of course, a good researcher would not intentionally manipulate their data or analyses in order to create a desired outcome.  (And, a good researcher would already exhaust all alternative measures and analyses.)  But, failing to find something you expect to find (either from personal experience or prior research) may push you to look a little deeper, to think more creatively about your analyses.  If one found that Black Americans fared better than whites on some health outcome, one might double-check their data and analyses because so much prior work suggests otherwise; if that finding truly holds beyond thorough examination of alternative approaches, a researcher might pursue additional projects to find what explains this odd finding in hopes of eliminating racial disparities in health.  A researcher who is not personally invested in what she studies might accept her results as is; she might not feel compelled to further unravel mysterious or provocative findings.

And, personal values and passions may influence what comes after our research is published.  To date, publishing in peer-reviewed journals that are locked behind paywalls remains the norm for much of academia.  There is little institutional reward (possibly even informal sanctioning) for making one’s scholarship accessible beyond paywalls and the classroom.  But, some scholars do take the time to propel their work beyond these boundaries.

There are numerous terms for such public scholarly efforts (e.g., public intellectualism, public sociology), though Dr. Collins has the best articulation of such work in On Intellectual Activism “speaking truth to power” and “speaking truth to the people.”  In her own career, she has balanced the two strategies of intellectual activism — advancing knowledge through theoretical and empirical work, and advancing knowledge beyond the Ivory Tower.  I see what one does post-publication as either the simple advancement of one’s career (“publish or perish”) or the advancement of a community or society (or both).

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School, by Race/Ethnicity

Embrace Your Inner Unicorn

To be clear, agreed-upon standards of careful, thoughtful, and rigorous theorizing and empiricism is a must.  But, the pressure to maintain the same frameworks or perspectives considered traditional or mainstream in one’s field likely hinder the development of new ways of thinking, maybe even new ways of doing research.  It is a shame, in my opinion, that critical, radical, novel, and cutting-edge scholarship is too often discouraged, not supported, not mentored, not funded, not published, or even professionally punished.

Can we stop pretending objectivity exists?  Can we stop pretending we, as researchers, are soulless, experienceless, identityless, valueless automatons?  Conformity is overrated.  And, I would argue that it is bad for science and education.  Please, rather than suppressing who we are as humans, let’s embrace our unique perspective and experiences — the very things that likely propelled us into academia in the first place.   Since many marginalized students do not even see themselves reflected in their training — lack of diversity among faculty, narrow perspectives advanced in courses — we owe it to future generations to push out the boundaries of science and education.  Hell, we’re always already dismissed as “biased” anyhow!

___

NOTES

* LGBT-identified individuals comprise of 3-4% of the US adult population, half or slightly less than half are men, and one-third of LGBT people are of color.  We’re already below 1% of the population here.  Narrow that to multiracial gay men.  And, add the layer of education, that 1% of the population receives PhDs.  Like I said — I’m a frickin’ unicorn.

Gender And Class Shape How Researchers See Your Race

Sociologists Andrew M. Penner and Aliya Saperstein have published yet another study that demonstrates how we categorize others in terms of race — not just racial stereotypes, but even racial identity — is dependent upon their other characteristicsIn their most recent, published in the June 2013 issue of Gender & Society, the researchers found that individuals’ socioeconomic position and gender predicted whether their race would be recorded by interviewers as Black, white, or other:

Researchers study what shapes racial classification. In a novel study that looked back at how survey interviewers racially classify people over the course of their adult lives, sociologists Andrew Penner and Aliya Saperstein discovered that from one year to the next some people’s race appeared to change. This change occurred when the interviewer in one year wrote down one race, but in the next year the interviewer wrote down a different race. Penner and Saperstein call these changes in classification “racial fluidity,” and the researchers wanted to know what affected how a person’s race was perceived.

Though they found general factors that seemed to determine respondents’ racial classification, some were gender-specific:

The study found that men and women had similar levels of racial fluidity overall, and some factors, such as where the people lived, resulted in similar changes for both women and men. All else being equal, people were more likely to be classified as white and less likely to be classified as black if they lived in the suburbs, while the opposite was true for people living in the inner city.

However, other factors that triggered changes in racial classification differed by gender. In particular, poverty made men and women less likely to be classified as white, but the effect was stronger for men. Penner explains, “This is consistent with traditional gender roles that emphasize men’s responsibility as breadwinners, so that poverty changes how men are seen more than how women are seen.”

On the other hand, women, but not men, who have received welfare benefits are less likely to be seen as white and more likely to be seen as black, even though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that in 2010 70% of welfare recipients are not black. Penner continues, “This result speaks to deeply entrenched stereotypes of ‘welfare queens’ originally made popular by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Knowing that a women is on welfare triggers a racial stereotype that isn’t triggered for men.”

Consistent with other widespread stereotypes, being a single parent affected a woman’s likelihood of being classified as white more than a man’s, while having been in prison affected whether men were classified as white but not women.

Some Additional Thoughts

This study, and their larger research project on racial fluidity, is a major contribution to the sociological understanding of race.  Put bluntly, their work provides further evidence that race is socially constructed.  It is not fixed (i.e., unchanging) nor universal.  Rather, race is contextual, fluid, and, most importantly, an arbitrary way of classifying people.

It is also a commendable extension of intersectionality, wherein the researchers highlight the intersections of gender and social class in racial classifications.  How we view others in terms of race is contingent upon their socioeconomic standing and gender.  To study race separate from other important social characteristics is to paint an incomplete picture.  I particularly appreciate their detailed discussion of doing intersectionality (i.e., applying an intersectional framework) in quantitative research — a practice that remains contentious among (and even antithetical to some) intersectionality scholars.

Lingering Questions

One question that lingers in my mind is the perceivers’ background.  That is, do these dynamics play out the same way for all interviewers?  Are they unique to interviewers of a particular background?  Heck, let me just say what I really mean — is it just white interviewers whose racial classifications appear to be contingent on classed and gendered notions of whiteness and Blackness?  The researchers accounted for various characteristics of the interviewers, including gender, level of education, and age — none of which effected racial categorization.  But, interviewers’ self-identified race did.

In particular, respondents were significantly more likely to be coded as white if the interviewer was white (at least compared to Black interviewers); the reverse was true for coding respondents as Black.  (Maybe these dynamics would reflect other race interviewers’ racial classifications if the survey was more racially inclusive than Black, white, and “other.”)  Since this was merely background noise for the researchers’ primary analyses, they did not dig deeper into this.  Why are white interviewers more likely to see respondents as white, and Black interviewers more likely to see respondents as Black?

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 6.57.11 PM

I suppose from my own experience — notably, as someone who is racially ambiguous — there tends to be just as much racial inclusion as there is racial “Othering.”  Some whites and Blacks have seen me as “one of their own,” while others see me as belonging to some other racial group.  So, I am surprised by this bias of categorizing others as one’s own race.  Certainly more research is needed to better understand these dynamics.

A Clarification

A point that seems lost in the academic press releases, commenting on “how others see your race,” is that those “others” are NLYS interviewers.  Certainly, interviewers and researchers are mere humans; thus, it would be inappropriate to expect them to be totally free of society’s influences (including stereotypes and biases).  I could make an issue of the supposed generalizability of the study — that we cannot assume trained interviewers’ racial classifications reflect those of laypeople.  But, their other work makes this concern unnecessary.

One article about the study noted:

These changes were not random, as one might expect if the interviewers were just hurrying to finish up or if the data-entry clerks were making mistakes. The racial classifications changed systematically, in response to what had happened to the respondent since the previous interview.

Interviewer error is inevitable.  But, this kind of systematic racial misclassification raises some cause for concern.  These “mistakes,” to some unknown degree, biased research based on the NLYS data.  In particular, it may have produced inaccurate estimates of racial differences on some outcome (e.g., health).

Fortunately, NLYS along with many other widely used surveys (and the US Census) have ceased interviewer-imposed race and ethnicity.  Now, respondents themselves provide their self-identified race and ethnicity.  While this eliminates interviewer bias, this approach is still imperfect for the fluidity and complexity of race.  In another study by Saperstein and Penner, individuals’ racial self-identification depended upon prior incarceration.  While this may appear to be evidence that respondents lie about their race (which is possible), it actually suggests that even how individuals see their own race depends upon their experiences and status.  Arguably, these contingent self-identified racial categorizations may reflect how others see them.

In other ways, researchers and interviewers may continue to impose their perceptions on respondents.  I have witnessed first hand the imputing of respondents’ gender.  The rationale given against explicitly asking respondents their gender was to avoid offending them: “can’t you tell by my voice that I’m a man!”  I am confident that most people were accurately classified by their self-identified gender.  But, I worry about the unknowable number of people who were misclassified.  I wondered why, when asking about personal opinions and intimate details of strangers’ lives, there was fear of offending them by asking about something so readily volunteered, constantly provided on official forms.

Concluding Thoughts

Although our openness as researchers introduces messiness and complexity, I feel we owe it to the people we study to willingly capture the messy, complicated details of their lives and identities.  I fear we too often choose the convenience of easily contained categories and quantifiable experiences over the rich complexity and diversity of our social world.  Though barely mentioned in the press for the article, Penner and Saperstein’s study reminds us just how complicated and messy that world is.