Navigating Difficult Dialogue In The Classroom

Before the semester started, I attended a workshop on effectively navigating difficult dialogue in the classroom, co-organized by my own institution (University of Richmond) and another nearby college (VCU).  The bulk of the three-hour long workshop seemed to revolve around microaggressions that occur in the classroom; but, the overall goal was to build our toolkits as educators to recognize them and hopefully diffuse them, and understand what happens when we fail to do so.

Psychologist Derald W. Sue and his colleague define microaggressions as “[b]rief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group” (Sue et al., 2007, p. 273).  Such experiences have various negative consequences for marginalized individuals who may face various microaggressions throughout the day.  As Dr. Sue and colleagues highlight in other work, they may also produce difficult, tense, unworkable dialogue when they occur in the classroom.

Below are a few strategies we discussed in the workshop to prevent, recognize, and diffuse microaggressions that occur in the classroom:

  • Set a tone of inclusion, safety, and respect from the beginning of the class.  One specific strategy is to allow the students to develop a set of ground rules that will be used for classroom discussion for the semester.  Some good examples that we, as workshop participants, came up with include: use “I” statements (speak for yourself); avoid interrupting others; avoid passing judgement; minimize defensiveness; confidentiality; there are no “stupid” questions; take note of others emotions to gauge (dis)comfort.  From personal experience, this worked great in a class of 11 students, but does not seem as significant in my class of 24.  I suspect an important step even before this one is to clearly define what discussion looks like in one’s class, particularly given the (large) size.
  • Pay attention to classroom dynamics.  Has a student’s body language changed from calm to tense?  Or, engaged to disengaged?  Has a student that usually talks often become silent all of a sudden?  Do students change their chosen seat in the classroom after sitting in one place for sometime?  (In other words, are they avoiding another student, or maybe moving further away or closer to you?)  Is a student with otherwise perfect attendance suddenly absent after a class that seemed odd or tense?  Some of these, hopefully, attune you to difficulties and tension that arise right away so that you do not see lingering effects in the next class meeting or thereafter.
  • Take an active, not passive, approach to addressing microaggressions when they occur.  This means continuing to actively facilitate classroom discussion rather than allowing the students to take over.  Even if you are uncomfortable, refrain from changing the subject or becoming silent all together.  As much as possible, contain your own emotions in hopes that you can deal with them after class.
  • Another strategy to consider before the semester even begins is becoming more comfortable with the course material, but also (even if not related) talking about issues of inequality, prejudice, and discrimination.  You should not rely on students to respond in certain ways or to speak as experts on behalf of their own racial or ethnic group.  I personally struggle with this, sometimes (wrongly) assuming that certain students will offer a critical view on some issue I bring up; sometimes, students will surprise you by taking a different view or remaining silent all together.  While this, on the surface, makes sense as the responsibility for the lone instructor for the course, I also understand the constraints we (especially marginalized scholars) feel.  We worry about being intensely challenged by a student or disrespected, or about being dismissed as “biased” or prejudiced.  And, we worry how this will affect future classroom dynamics, course evaluations, etc.
  • Challenge microaggressions directly.  Ask deeper questions that encourage students to name and examine their underlying assumptions.  Remind students of the ground rules that the class set at the beginning of the semester.  If the comment is not even relevant to the subject, let the students know (while also signaling that the comment was hurtful or offensive).  If the incident was serious enough, deal with the student(s) directly after class.
  • If relevant, cover microaggressions in the class.  This will familiarize unfamiliar students, and may help marginalized students give name to these subtle yet pervasive experiences.  It will provide students with a common language and conceptualization to use in class discussion.
  • When a microaggression occurs, make sure to acknowledge the (potential) victim(s), as well.  Effectively diffusing such incidents is partly work to address the perpetrator (intentions, assumptions, learning from one’s mistakes, learning how others were hurt) and partly work to address the victim (emotional/social/physical responses, lingering impact).  One of the major pitfalls is the insult of not having one’s existence, experiences, and emotions validated following the injury of a microaggression.  Students of color, for example, may be further silenced following a racist microaggression if the instructor fails to signal that they are aware of it and that someone was hurt by it.  This, of course, does not mean looking at students of color and asking, “you’re Latina — how did that comment make you feel?”  Maybe it is best to ask the entire class how they felt, and explicitly naming that some people of color may be hurt by such comments.  It is not enough to accept what may feel like shallow comments from well-meaning white students.

Also, the organizers have kindly agreed to let me share the overview of [download PDF] and notes from [download PDF] the workshop.

My Interview On Social Media Use And The Academic Job Market

In the winter issue of the newsletter of the Medical Sociology section of the American Sociological Association, you will find an interview by UGA sociology PhD student Jessica Seberger with me on social media use and the academic job market.  Jessica, as the Student Newsletter Editor, has been interviewing recent PhDs about their experiences on the job market and in the early part of their career in academia, with a particular focus on using social media for research, teaching, and service.  I was honored to be her latest interviewee!

You can see the full newsletter [download PDF] or just the interview below.

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For my stint as student editor I want to explore how recent PhDs found and secured positions within or outside of academia and how sociologists (with a focus on medical sociologists) connect to others through technology. I intend to explore discussion with sociologists who communicate extensively through Twitter, those who use groups on Facebook as a resource for classroom material, those who have and  maintain personal/professional blogs, and those who contribute op-ed pieces to major news outlets.

For this edition of the newsletter I interviewed Dr. Eric Grollman. Dr. Grollman recently received his PhD from Indiana University and has secured a tenure-track position at the University of Richmond. Dr. Grollman’s research examines the impact that prejudice and discrimination has on marginalized groups’ health, well -being, and world views. Within the last year he has also restarted a blog he started in graduate school. That blog, ConditionallyAccepted.com, provides a space for scholars who exist at the margins of academia. In the following interview we discuss his new position, his blog, and social media use by sociologists in academia.

JS: You’ve recently joined the University of Richmond as tenure-track professor. What made this position a good fit for you? How was your transition from graduate school to assistant professor?

Dr. Grollman: What I was looking for, on the job market, was a place where a good balance between personal life and professional life was possible. I’d heard this was more doable at a liberal arts institution. I also really wanted to work at a place where there was an acknowledged synergy between doing research and teaching. When I interviewed at the University of Richmond one of the professors whom I met with mentioned that they focused on this synergy, and I was drawn to that. I expected my transition to professor to be a bumpy transition, but making the switch from graduate student to professor isn’t as automatic as you’d expect. I also had plans to be politically neutral my first year but there were a couple of times where I stepped on political landmines that I didn’t know about and I had to deal with the consequences of that. So I was hoping to quietly focus on my work and establish myself but there was still political stuff that I found myself bumping up against.

JS: In the last year you’ve restarted a blog you started as a graduate student. What inspired you to start the blog? Could you tell me a bit about it?

Dr. Grollman: I wanted to play it safe while on the job market so I censored my online social media accounts while on the job market but that self-censorship took a toll. At some point I thought to myself, “I can’t do this anymore,” especially at a time when I was starting to see parts of academia that were really kind of ugly and upsetting [note from JS: see conditionallyaccepted.com for more details]. This was all when I was most socially isolated because I was working on my dissertation. So I started this blog where I planned to write about instances of discrimination and micro-aggressions, while keeping myself anonymous. But, I still felt it was too risky to do this while on the job market, so I deleted the blog. After graduating I still felt like there needed to be some space within academia, particularly for marginalized scholars who face these difficult and unfair experiences. I felt like these experiences needed to be highlighted so people can stop suffering in isolation. I found out later that many of my experiences were common, but I didn’t have those stories accessible to me. I hope that with this blog I can have this space where people are telling these stories, and talking about how they navigated through these experiences so we can make these experiences transparent.

JS: How have others responded to your blog within the field of sociology?

Dr. Grollman: It’s hard to gauge. I keep waiting for the shoe to drop, for someone to say, “Okay, you’re out of here, you’re fired.” So I’m still waiting for that but it hasn’t come yet. Ironically, I came to the University of Richmond thinking that this was a great place for me because no one would give me grief about blogging.  Initially, I still kept it really private, in part so I could gauge the political climate. At colloquy, when new faculty are introduced to the full faculty body, my dean introduced me and said, “Oh, this is Eric Grollman, he’s a new professor of sociology and he blogs, sometimes personal and critical reflections.” My heart dropped because I was being outed in such a big way. I kept waiting to hear if there’d be repercussions to my blogging. So, I asked the chair of my department, “Do you all know that I blog?” and she said, “Of course, it’s so public, everybody knows.” She said that people like it and that it was part of what made me strong as a candidate. That is not what I’m used to. That just reinforced why Richmond is a good place for me. Outside of my institution I have heard good things. A lot of people seem to appreciate it and say, “Oh this is so inspiring, you’re so brave.” So it’s been good overall.

JS: Do you use social media in other ways as a sociologist (for example, in the classroom or at conferences)?

Dr. Grollman: I haven’t figured out how much I want to use it in the classroom and pedagogically. Right now if I want to share links with my students, I’ll show them the link at the start of class. It’s something I’ve been thinking about but I would prefer to do my homework first before I start using it. I do use Twitter to put out teaching questions like, “Hey, people who teach, what would you recommend for ___.” At conferences, sometimes I’ll “live tweet” with other people so others who are not in a session have a record of what was said. Also, using Twitter and other social media has created a nice academic network, even with people I wouldn’t normally connect with at conferences or in person. It has been good in that way, as far as using and sharing resources.

JS: Do you feel compelled to be “on” or professional with your twitter account at all times?

Dr. Grollman: I’ve been trying to figure out what the right balance is. I’ve been feeling too “out there.” I don’t censor myself too much; I post a hybrid of personal and professional on Twitter. It’s just me and what I would say (outside of class). Lately, I’ve been becoming unhappy because sometimes it opens me up to hostility as I become more visible. I’m not really ready to deal with that kind of hostility. We simply don’t have professional norms around how (and whether) to use social media, whether it “counts,” and what protections there are for those who use it.

JS: Some of the topics on your blog are pretty personal. How do you feel about self-disclosure as a sociologist?

Dr. Grollman: I think it’s underrated. My opinion is that our goal seems to be being “objective,” which we know doesn’t exist. In general we seem to discourage using the personal as a perspective, as a support for something. Pedagogically, you can’t ask a human to set aside their humanness to make sense of the social world. If we want to have a conversation about how racism shapes health, it’s unfair and nearly impossible to ask me to set aside my own experiences with racism and my health. (Keep in mind that this is not at the expense of existing research and theory.) Since we don’t put these stories out there, they’re not out there. I think there’s power in telling your personal experience, otherwise we just leave it invisible and pretend that it doesn’t happen. Blogging and Twitter are spaces where I can actually write about my personal experiences. It opens up these new spaces to have these conversations that are for public consumption. My intent is to provoke conversations about these sensitive issues. For example, writing publicly about my struggles with anxiety in graduate school, or experiencing racist hostility from other academics hopefully contributes to a chorus of voices that highlight how pervasive these problems really are.

JS: What advice do you have for graduate students or junior faculty with regards to social media?

Dr. Grollman: I have two bits of advice. The first is to think about the benefits and consequences of using social media. The benefits of it are being open and accessible, inspiring people, or speaking in ways that you can’t in journals or in the classroom. The consequences may be that since it is public, what we do outside of the classroom and in publications may trickle into our colleagues’ evaluations of our work. You have to be comfortable with what you put out there. There are some people who have been harassed, particularly women who blog or are on Twitter, when people don’t agree with what they’re saying. The second piece of advice is to take time to reflect on why you’re using social media. Because we haven’t crystalized its professional value, you have to be intentional and self-directed in deciding why you’re using it and what you want to come from it.

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.”

“Cultivating Allies As A Woman of Color in Academia” – By Dr. Manya Whitaker

Dr. Manya Whitaker, an education professor, regularly offers personal reflections, advice, and critiques on her blog, the other class. Below, Dr. Whitaker provides advice for seeking allies in academia, particularly for women of color.  Be sure to check out the other great guest blog posts by Dr. Whitaker.

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Cultivating Allies as a Woman of Color in Academia

Manya WhitakerI tried my best to not comment on the pseudo Harlem Shake crap that is all the rage right now, but since students at my college filmed a video of themselves engaging in that nonsense, and said video went viral, this issue has become personal. It has become all the more personal because while I can excuse the students for participating in cultural mockery and theft (hey — they are 20, they do not know), I cannot excuse my colleagues. Since so many others have taken the time to breakdown the History of the Harlem Shake, and to write articles about cultural misappropriation (here, here, and here) I feel no need to go down that path.

Instead, I want to discuss allyhood in academia and how as a female junior faculty member of color, I must identify allies…and those who would be betray me with a click of the mouse.

A few posts ago I mentioned that I am reading Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. There is a section in the book about forming networks of allies in the Academy. Nancy Cantor wrote the introduction for that section and states ‘It’s both difficult and important that women who are white—the relatively privileged ones who have been the primary beneficiaries of feminism—perceive, acknowledge, and then act against the additional forms of discrimination experienced by women of color without feeling defensive’ (pg. 222). I flagged this sentence when I first read this chapter weeks ago and more now than then, I feel this is an important point. So this is where I shall begin my tale of betrayal at a small liberal arts college.

Because our students’ video was such a hit, the faculty thought it would be ‘fun’ to film our own 30 second video at the next faculty meeting. Actually, two faculty members came up with this idea and emailed the rest of the faculty with the suggestion. Now, upon receiving this email I was astounded. I was astounded not because this idea emerged—it was inevitable that someone would hop on this train to nowhere. No, I was stunned because of who made the suggestion. The people who made the suggestion would never be people I’d think would support such nonsense. Both of these people are faculty who—whether they feel this way or not—occupy marginalized spaces on campus. Though both senior faculty members, one is openly homosexual and the other is of Asian descent. The latter specifically researches issues pertinent to race, so her complicity felt like a slap in the face. After reading the email I said aloud to myself ‘is she serious?’ My immediate emotional experience cannot be described as anything other than feelings of betrayal laced in incredulity. This quickly turned to anger.

A close friend and African American colleague contacted me about this issue to formulate a plan for how we were going to respond if in fact the faculty decided to film this video. During that conversation, we thought about who else was ‘down for the cause’ and could only come up with two nonwhite faculty members. While we both wished a senior faculty member was not away on sabbatical because she certainly would’ve publicly allied herself with us, we were stunned that between two of us, we could not identify more people who would stand up and fight with us. At the end of the convo, I sadly said ‘wow…I thought we had more allies.’

Though a few minutes after the aforementioned conversation, the Asian faculty member emailed to say maybe we shouldn’t do it because after quick research, filming such a video may have ‘unintended consequences’, I couldn’t help but continue to be enraged because a) this idea emerged in the first place, and b) it could be just as easily quelled without a dialogue between affected parties.

The ‘settling’ of this issue was devoid of critical thought or open conversation. The words race, misappropriation, cultural theft, black, misidentification, or history were never mentioned. All we got was a two sentence email cloaked in light hearted liberal arts humor with a slight acquiescence that yes, perhaps this idea was not the best because they may perceive unintentional harm. The word ‘unintentional’ is laced with blame on the others and drenched with self excuse. By not discussing it, or even opening it up for discussion, the issue was deemed unworthy of discussion. That email was colorblind, perspectiveless, ahistorical, and riddled with power. Because she decided that she did not want to discuss it, the issue was closed. What of us who are still upset? Still offended? Still full of words we have been barred from sharing because the prefix to your title outranks the prefix to mine?

No. This does not feel like allyhood.

“By your powers combined…I am Captain Planet!” Hehe..I think of this when I think of allies.

I have learned a few things. First, friendship and respect do not equate allyhood. While mentally scrolling through my list of friends for possible allies it became clear that few people would sacrifice their reputation or professional relationships for the greater good (perhaps because they do not view it as ‘greater’ or ‘good’). Few people can find the courage and fortitude to do more than softly agree behind closed doors. When it comes time to stand up publicly and declare an alliance, most friends will hold their heads down while avoiding eye contact (if they are not in fact, already out of the door). They do not want to look me in my eyes and see the result of their abandonment. And I get it. It’s hard to do what you know is right when you don’t feel anything was wrong.

A chapter in Presumed Incompetent written by Margalynne Armstrong and Stephanie Wildman outlines what it takes for people to truly be considered allies when it comes to issues of race. They describe the necessity of color insight—the recognition that a racial status quo exists in which society attributes race to each member—to battle the pervasiveness of colorblindness. Ignoring issues of race under the guise of equality does nothing but create a space in which racism and oppression can grow unchecked, only emerging when people can no longer avoid discussing the black, brown, yellow, or red elephant in the room.

They also borrow from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1994) discussion of perspectivelessness—the adoption of the “neutral” white norm as the default for laws, values, and behaviors. I especially believe this construct is constantly at play in racialized environments because it empowers people to not think about how their behaviors and words affect others. It is as if they believe ‘if most people are fine with it, then what’s the big deal?’

Yes, it seems to me as if colorblindness precedes, or perhaps bolsters, the existence of perspectivelessness. It is easy to ignore others when you refuse to accept that no, everyone is not like me and everyone is not treated as I am treated. I am especially concerned with the fact that the homogenous climate of academia facilitates (and sometimes encourages) the silencing of racial discourse. Why is it that one woman of color was allowed to represent the collective voices of ethnic minorities? Why didn’t a white colleague challenge her self-assumed position as Speaker of the [Colored] House? Most of all, why were we faculty members who disagreed with her narrative forced to plot and plan in secret instead of being given the space and opportunity to express our views publicly? The fallacy of community in academia made certain that she felt comfortable not having to think about how her endorsement of a racialized behavior would be perceived by white colleagues. She is tenured, she is well respected on campus, and she is Asian. So of course she has the experience, the knowledge, and the right to suggest such an idea. Because if she thinks it’s ok, and she is Asian, then it must be ok, right?

I am certain she never intended to speak on behalf of all ethnic minorities, but the reality is that many believe in the singular experience of minorities. Why didn’t she and other faculty in support of this video research the topic before going public with it? If we who are scholars trained at top notch institutions, national award recipients, professors at a tier 1 college do not feel the need to investigate the origins and implications of pop cultural trends, the future of academia is bleak.

We in academia are far from what Susan Sturm (2006) calls an ‘architecture of inclusion’ because we do not acknowledge what it takes for others to be included. It takes more than a shared smile in the hallway, laughs over lunch, invitations to personal events, and overlapping research interests to build inclusivity. As Nancy Cantor states, it takes ‘a culture of collaboration where issues of intersectionality can be addressed. Inclusion requires justice and due process. It also needs the give and take of social support, of flexibility of models and respect for individual and group differences…’. I would add that inclusion requires true allyhood—loud, proud, public allegiance across diverse people. Allied relationships are built upon shared knowledge, even if there aren’t shared experiences. Most importantly, allyhood, and by default, inclusion are not ephemeral weak constructs easily undermined by threats of ostracization or promises of promotion. Allies are people to whom we can turn for support even when, no—especially when—the professional turns personal.

When Being Queer Was My Little Secret

Source: PostSecret

Last weekend, my partner and I went to a thrift store run by the local LGBT community center.  As we had on previous visits, we perused the store’s library.  I followed my usual routine: LGBTQ books, sociology (mislabled, in my opinion), health and medicine, history — areas of personal and professional interest that I search at any bookstore.  I found myself hoping for that one book, that one queer book that I would secretly read and enjoy at home.

“Wait,” I thought.  It was an LGBT thrift store; there are several LGBTQ-themed books.  And, it is 2013 now, so LGBT issues are discussed and written about rather publicly these days.  I no longer have to find pictures of and stories about people like me in that one queer book in the store.  Those were the days of the closet — not just my own, but the collective closet all LGBTQ people stayed in until recently.  Obviously, much of the infinitely long road to full equality and acceptance lies ahead, but much progress has been made even in my three decades of life (and one decade out as a queer person).

But, I actually felt a little disappointed that queerness is no longer my little secret.  I felt the tiniest twinge of nostalgia.  I cannot really explain why, for being in the closet was an awful period to which I would rather die than return.  I suppose the only seemingly rationale explanation is that I miss the control I felt, or convinced myself I held, over the knowledge and visibility of my sexual identity.  At 17, finally unable to deny who I was any longer, I started coming out to certain friends and family — but, I decided whom to tell and when.  Of course, people talk, which I also factored into the coming out process.  And, aside from two male “friends” (who had a rather homoerotic friendship with one another), the reception was generally positive.  (Well, family took some time, but have come around completely.)

Out There, Everywhere

Now, I do not feel I have that control anymore.  By virtue of my research and the kinds of courses I teach, students and colleagues typically assume I am gay.  These aspects of my professional life that presumably reflect my personal life are publicly accessible, and even recorded through course history, and my publications and conference presentations.  Recently, when I printed out the midterm exam for the gender and sexualities course I am currently teaching, I felt exposed — any colleague could pick up the exam from the printer and assume it must be mine.  “Right, he’s the sexualities guy…” (read: he’s the gay guy).  With what I presume are few out LGBT faculty and/or professors who teach courses on sexualities at my university, it feels as though a spotlight is permanently directed on me.

Further, the introduction of institutions’ involvement in my romantic life has been a bit jarring for me.  By jointly signing a lease on our apartment, and opening various accounts jointly, my relationship with my partner is “official” — with various people at these institutions privy to it, and free to make whatever assumptions about us.  Each time maintenance or some sort of service person comes to our home, we have to worry what they will think and assume, and how they will react based on those assumptions.  And, now as my university moves forward in aligning with federal recognition of same-gender couples, but constrained by state law that prohibits same-gender marriage, I once again feel I have no control over my own sexuality.

While I want access to these various institutions and the associated benefits, and recognition as a committed couple with my partner, I also regularly fear assumptions, microaggressions, and other forms of hostility.  These are the very things I typically guard against by controlling who knows what and when about my sexuality and relationship.   I suspect other queer people may feel a bit unsettled by this patchwork of homophobic prejudice and discrimination interwoven with acceptance and recognition.  I feel I am hyper out at work, where my queer identity, relationship, and scholarship are recognized and affirmed, but my partner and I are vulnerable to intolerance off-campus and are reduced to “roommates” by state law.  This is a strange and unsettling liminal space for me as a queer person.

What Now?

As quickly as LGBT rights have been advanced in the last decade, it feels a bit out of our hands as queer people to predict what lies ahead.  I suspect the entire country will have marriage equality before 2020.  But, will LGBT people feel any safer in public, walking down the street hand in hand with their partner?  The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) will eventually be passed to protect lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, as well as trans* people, but transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic violence will remain a pervasive reality for us.  There will be greater acceptance for LGBT individuals (to varying degrees) and same-gender relationships, but a pretty solid disdain for queer sex.  And, my greatest fear of all is that we will begin hearing the retort to demands for LGBT rights — “but, you can get married now!”

Yeah, as sick as it may sound, I kinda miss being 17 and out to the chosen few.  Things were clearer, more consistent, predictable, and easily controlled.

Microaggression Of The Week: Heterosexism FTW

“Did you want [life insurance] for your wife?”

That comes from my HR office… in an email response to a form I filled out to apply for life insurance on behalf of my partner and myself.  So, you know, his traditionally-masculine name (Eric… yes, we have the same first name), and checking ‘M’ for his sex, and checking “I currently have an eligible Domestic Partner” rather than providing the date of our (heterosexual) marriage — all of that failed to correct the automatic assumption that I, as a man, am 1) married 2) to a woman.

I fumed for a bit, and then responded politely to correct the heterosexist assumption.  When I received a call instead of an email reply, “partner” was used, but no apology was given for the mistake.  Insult, meet injury.

From there, I had to compartmentalize my hurt long enough to meet with a student who dropped by unannounced, and then teach my gender and sexuality course.  It is no wonder that I left campus that night exhausted, grouchy, and a little queasy.  Sadly, that is only one of many days that have either been completely derailed by a microaggression, or that I have had to conjure great emotional strength to box it up until I get home.

Yeah, so being a marginalized faculty member is probably a health hazard.  No, really.

“I’m Sure He’s Not Racist” — Why Not?

not racist

I swore I would stay politically neutral and as as silent as possible during the first year (maybe longer) on the tenure-track.  (Well, kinda.)  I am brazen enough to come to the job with specific plans for change, but wise enough to know that I need to learn the political climate first.  But, damn if it doesn’t seem impossible to avoid political battles despite your best efforts.

With one political landmine that I accidentally stepped on, I alluded that it was not clear that an invited speaker holds favorable views about one of several marginalized communities about which she spoke.  The only defense against that allegation I heard was 1) her work was not really about those communities (which made it worse, in my opinion) and 2) “I’m sure she’s not intolerant.”

There… that right there!  I have heard on many occasions the hopeful assertion that “I’m sure she isn’t racist” or “he probably didn’t mean it that way (i.e., sexist).  It seems our default assumption is that people are good at heart and don’t have a “racist/sexist/homophobic/etc. bone in their body.”  Someone has to be undeniably prejudiced and frequently practice discrimination in order to be beyond our threshold of acceptable bigotry.

Well, as a marginalized person, I have to say that assuming every new person I meet is not — specifically, in my case — racist and/or homophobic is dangerous.  I have been assuming the best in others all of my life, only to find I am punched in the gut by subtle bigotry because my defenses are down.  I went to graduate school unprepared for the microaggressions, assumptions, and discrimination I faced there (on and off campus).  Even with repeat offenders, I still did not (and, to some extent could not) eliminate them from my life entirely in order to protect myself.  Here I am now, starting a new job, and I am making the same mistake.

Beyond failing to protect myself, assuming others are prejudice-free and practice equality is naive in the face of empirical evidence — both published research and personal experience — that most people are bigoted to some degree.  I have few genuine, problem-free connections with other humans for that reason.  Oh, she seems pretty open on race issues, but trivializes my experiences with homophobia.  He and I feel a strong solidarity around queer issues, but bringing up male privilege is the best way to end that conversation.  Telling myself that most people aren’t bigots is lying to myself when I know in the back of my head the reality; I am naively falling for the “a few bad apples” mentality.

Focusing on who is racist and who isn’t, for example, misplaces attention to individuals within the larger social system of racism.  I call it the “racist hot potato” game, where we make futile efforts to discern who is a racist and why.  All while we leave in place the systemic marginalization of people of color and privileging of white people, and ignoring the daily microaggressions and threats of violence against racial and ethnic minorities.  “I’m sure he meant no harm” let’s both an individual who benefits from that system of oppression, and oppression itself, off of the hook.  You are then left with your doubt and now dismissed accusations — maybe even the counter-accusation that you are hypersensitive, petty, or even a bigot yourself.

So, in thinking about oppression in systemic terms, I should be less focused on individual oppressors.  People are a large part of the problem, but it is futile to focus just on individuals.  And, it is dangerous.  So, for my survival, I am no longer assuming people are not bigots.  Ideally, I will take one of the best pieces of advice I have received lately: have no expectations.  (You won’t be disappointed!)  At my most pessimistic, I can take the “prejudiced until proven innocent” approach with each new person I meet.  I just wish it had not taken nearly three decades and lots of disappointment with humanity to get to this point.