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.”

Beyond Allies: A Call For Supportive Academic Communities

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

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

The Problem

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Examples

Stop Saying “Mulatto”!

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

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

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

National Coming Out Day

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

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

Staff And Faculty Allies In College

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

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

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

A Call For Allies In Academia

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

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

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

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

Bystander Intervention

Beyond Allies: A Bystander Intervention Approach

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

Listen With Respect And An Open-Mind

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

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

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

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

Speak Up And Out, Often

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

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

Act, When Appropriate

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

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

A few additional resources:

Want To Be Successful? Just Publish, “Dude”!

A study about the predictors of a successful research career (i.e., more publications) has been making the rounds in the media — at least those outlets that publish press releases of new and provocative research.  In “Predicting Publication Success for Biologists [download],” William Laurance, Carolina Useche, Susan Laurance, and Corey Bradshow found that biologists who published earlier in their careers have a (minor) advantage in their publication success over time.  Interestingly, the prestige of one’s university had no effect.  Women faced a disadvantage, as did scholars whose first language is not English.

So, the take away point is: “dude, seriously, publish.”

Reproducing Inequality By Ignoring It

Um, hello?  “[L]anguage and gender appear to contribute to one’s research success, with male academics and native English speakers having a modest advantage” (p. 821).

“For women scientists, it’s just not a level playing field, and we need to find ways to help them advance professionally,” Professor Bradshaw said [source].

If we continue to advise graduate students in this way, telling them “dude, seriously, publish,” women, on average, will always come up short compared to men.  This is for two reasons.  First, this ignores the consistent evidence that women face barriers in productivity and publishing.  An analogy would be having two runners compete in a race: a woman wearing a blindfold with her legs tied together, and a man without those constraints — and, the woman starts out 20 feet behind the man.  This is while their shared coach is shouting, “run faster!  pick up your feet and run!”  So, every time what men can and do accomplish is held as the standard of success, women are less likely to be seen as qualified, successful, or productive.

Second, “dude, seriously, publish,” is a great example of the supposed gender-neutral (read: masculinist) style of mentorship that many professors take.  Oh, I have lost count the number of times I have witnessed mentors give advice in the form of policing their students’ gender expression.  “Don’t do that — that’s girly!”  “Man up.”  “No more of this ‘shy guy’ stuff.”  Sometimes, that spills over into attempts to control the reproductive choices of one’s students and colleagues: “don’t have a baby until after tenure”; “if you must, pop one out during winter break so you can get back to research.”  I have seen gender-policing cost candidates a job: “she looks too much like a party girl.”  So, the advice is more than “seriously, publish”; it is also to be a “dude.”  Then, you will really be successful.

The Quantitative Claws Are Coming Out

Is that a read?

And, another thing!  This study’s findings are based on this sample: “established academics includ[ing] 113 male and 69 female subjects. Over 60% of those in our sample (116) were native English speakers” (p. 819).  That is 182 biologists around the world.  Yes, that is a small sample.

Let me dig in a little more.  These were scholars who “(1) had completed their PhD before 2000 (giving us a 10-year window after the PhD to assess publication success) and (2) had an updated copy of their curriculum vitae (CV) available online (i.e., with information on their publication record, as well as data on gender, the year of PhD completion, and the university from which the PhD was granted)” (p. 818).  Their analyses considered gender, language, year of first publication relative to the conferral of their PhD, and the prestige of their current university.  So, other axes of inequality were not considered (e.g., race and ethnicity, parental and marital status).  Tenure status was not considered.  The country or continent scholars are in was not considered.

Oh, and their outcome “included only peer-reviewed papers in journals listed in the Web of Science, regardless of whether the researcher was the lead author. Of course, our response variable does not include other measures of scientific success, such as the number of citations a researcher receives” (p. 818).  Order of authorship was ignored.  Number of co-authors, if any, was ignored.  Other journals were ignored.

To Be Fair

Let me stop there.  My intention is not to trash the authors’ work.  They are honest about the limitations of their data and analyses.  What does concern me is the uncritical uptake of their findings by blogs and science news outlets.  In general, there is not enough caution expressed, given the limited sample.  Statements like those below feel a bit overblown in the absence of a large, representative, diverse sample:

It doesn’t matter whether you got your PhD at glittering Harvard University or a humble regional institution like the University of Ballarat. The supposed prestige of the academic institution has almost no bearing on your long-term success, once other key variables are accounted for.

By far the best predictor of long-term publication success is your early publication record – in other words, the number of papers you’ve published by the time you receive your PhD. It really is first in, best dressed: those students who start publishing sooner usually have more papers by the time they finish their PhD than do those who start publishing later.

The take-home message: publish early, publish often.

To be fair, that means the findings regarding gender (and language) may be overblown as well, though there is prior research pointing to gender inequality in research.  However, the “minor disadvantage” they found for women and scholars whose first language is not English may appear smaller because of the small number of those scholars in the sample.

A Personal Rant

The presupposition of a good, one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring graduate students is so problematic.  That is simply bad for students of marginalized backgrounds — the assumption that they can be mentored as though they are no different from white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities.  The challenges are not the same, nor are the reasons for pursuing higher education in the first place.  This also overlooks that those challenges then translate into indirect disadvantages for one’s students; apparently, the way to go for students of color is to find a white man professor as their primary advisor [download report on this here].

This universal approach to mentoring (read: mentoring white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities) also reinforces what is expected of newly minted PhDs.  Each time my graduate department hired, I attended the job talks and paid attention to how candidates were treated and talked about thereafter.  I even served on my department’s executive committee one year that we hired a few people.  The message I learned was open searches were for the best candidate out there — that is, a sole-authored publication in the #1 or #2 journal of our discipline.  Ironically, the students who typically accomplished that as a student of our program were heterosexual white cis men.  Yes, it left me a little bitter that I was leaving with a PhD from an institution that would never see me as qualified enough for a faculty position.  But, of course, there was the “target of opportunity,” the option of coming through the side door (in my humble opinion) for candidates of color.

But, I did start publishing “early.”  I had a co-authored publication by my third year, and a solo-authored piece by my fifth.  Realistically, to have any chance of publishing in the top three journals of my discipline, I would have had to stay in graduate school two, maybe even three, additional years.  That is, I could have a shot of achieving the records of past (white heterosexual cisgender men) superstars if only I stayed another 2-3 years.

What really, really pisses me off is that marginalized students end up disadvantaged as they progress through their graduate training, but had to start off exceptionally to be admitted in the first place.  Top-tier programs are not accepting “average” women, students of color, and other marginalized students.  One must overcome the “black tax” and the “female tax” and other barriers to have an equal shot at being accepted into a graduate program.  That means, on average, we are already starting off stronger, more exceptional than our privileged peers.

If you take away the obstacles we then face during grad school, we should be outperforming our privileged colleagues.  But, because of those obstacles, we do not even end up on equal footing — we still come up short, and have to consider setting our sights lower or even taking a “diversity hire” position to get into top-ranked places.  For myself, finishing “early” (6 years relative to the typical of 7-9 years) means I could have finished even earlier, or had a publication in the top journal within the same six-year time frame, if I did not have to trudge trough the homophobic and racist crap built into academia.  Yeah, I’m not bitter at all.

Take-Away Point

The implication for graduate training is obvious. If you aren’t actively cultivating scholars who are trying to publish, you’re screwing over your PhD students [source].

Yeah, that is only the tip of the iceberg of problems with graduate mentoring.  Our approach to mentoring graduate students cannot ignore who they are, their interests and plans, and their background.  This does them a disservice, treating them as interchangeable with any other student (though professors hardly see themselves as interchangeable).  And, it likely plays some role in reproducing inequality.  For those who successfully pursue academic careers, marginalized students, on average, will always come up short, thus facing a disadvantage on the job market.  (Since there is inequality in pay by university prestige, once again, academia is reproducing racial and gender inequality.)

But, we must also worry about those who pursue “alternative” careers or drop out all together.  Seeing and finding mentors who “look like us” is still a challenge because they are few and far between, especially further up the university rankings.  We must weigh between a white heterosexual cisgender man professor as our mentor for success reasons, and a mentor who comes from the same marginalized background for understanding and support on our terms.  It is important to “go rogue” and pave your own career path, but too many marginalized students end up going it alone because they cannot find suitable mentors.  And, telling them, “dude, seriously, publish,” is not helpful, or may even exacerbate their problems.

A Space For Me In Feminist Activism?

In recent years, I have either stayed clear of women’s and feminist groups I presume to offer a safe space for women, or ask outright whether they are intended to be a safe space before I begin participating.  Feminism is not intended to offer something to me as a man, so I acknowledge and respect that much of it is not necessarily a space for me.

via The Retriever Weekly (UMBC)

2005 Take Back the Night Rally at UMBC.
I am in the funky blue shirt, holding a sign, on the left side of the picture.

Men’s Pro-Feminist Groups

It appears that others know well that men’s place in feminist activism is a precarious one.  I am aware of a few groups — some pro-feminist, some for sexual violence prevention — that are run by and for men who wish to advocate for gender equality and eliminate violence against women. (Thus, I am not confusing these with “men’s rights” groups, that advocate for advancing men’s status in society even further.)  There are also resources like The Guy’s Guide to Feminism that are produced for and by men to better understand feminism, gender inequality, and sexism.

I am uncertain of the particular histories of these kinds of groups.  Were they started because feminist women effectively articulated a need to have groups that serve as a safe space for women?  Did men feel out of place in these kinds of groups?  Or, are (some) men aware that the kind of advocacy they would pursue would be qualitatively different — for example, more inviting to men, and possibly even more influential among men as a whole?

My Involvement In Men’s Pro-Feminist Groups

I understand the significance of pro-feminist groups for men.  But, I initially felt no particular draw to such groups.  A few years ago, I did actually become involved in one — not necessarily by my own decision-making.

I became involved with a local sexual violence prevention organization as a graduate student.  The organization also served as a rape crisis center and shelter for women (and their young children) fleeing abusive partners.  Understandably, the organization limited the number of volunteer positions that men could hold in order to maintain a safe space.  But, that meant my involvement was constrained to external programming, namely sexual violence prevention education in local schools.  Since that ended up not working for my schedule, I was invited to help start a group, “Man Up!”, for men to raise awareness about and eliminate sexual violence.

I knew from the start that I felt out of place in Man Up!  Even the group’s name symbolizes the emphasis on men‘s involvement.  I did my best to stick with it, but slowly drifted out of the group until I was no longer participating at all.  I dreaded meeting with other men — especially straight men — about gender politics.  I was not enthusiastic about reaching out to young men about healthy relationships and consensual sex — presumably heterosexual relationships and sex.  And, even the perspective of the group — men‘s sexual violence prevention advocacy — felt distant from my feminist politics.

Fortunately, I moved to another external project — healthy romantic and sexual relationships among young gay, bisexual, and trans men — and stuck with that until I had to focus exclusively on my dissertation.

Invisible In Men’s Pro-Feminist Groups

This summer, I had the pleasure of meeting a bright undergraduate student who presented a paper on men’s anti-sexual violence groups at the American Sociological Association.  From my own experiences, I had assumed it was just me; because of my gender politics and genderqueer identity, I feel uncomfortable in predominantly-male spaces.  But, this student pointed out larger problems with these groups.

In particular, (some of) these groups are founded upon whiteness and heteronormativity.  They are created for heterosexual men to have healthy, consensual relationships with their women partners.  Advice like, “just don’t rape your girlfriend or wife!”, presumes that all men participants are engaging in heterosexual relationships.  What about bisexual, queer, and gay men?  Similarly, advice to check one’s white privilege erases men of color who are involved in pro-feminist and sexual violence prevention advocacy.  So, as a queer man of color, I often walk away from these groups for men feeling invisible.

The student also pointed out the missing structural and cultural perspectives of these groups.  The flip of blaming women for their own victimization is to blame individual men for perpetrating violence and discrimination against women.  There is inattention, then, to the ways in which organizations and institutions reproduce sexism and to the larger rape cultureSystemic problems cannot be properly addressed with individual behaviors.

Carving Out My Own Space

I suppose the starting point to finding a space for myself in feminist activism is a recognition that it cannot be a space for men.  It has to be a space that explicitly acknowledges queer men’s social location in our sexist and heterosexist society.  We are still privileged as men, albeit disadvantaged by trans-, bi-, and/or homophobia.  It is a major oversight to assume that queer men are immune to sexism and free of male privilege.  Sadly, I did not find much on queer men’s feminist advocacy, so I created a short essay, “A Gay Guy’s Guide To Feminism – A Brief Introduction.”  But, even these initial efforts fail to directly address my perspective and experiences as a person of color, and a fat person.

Black Gays for Justice and Respect

In some ways, I feel I should still participate in groups where I am the only man, only queer person, only person of color — or even only queer man of color — to ensure that my perspective is reflected.  But, in others, I need to acknowledge that a focus solely on gender simply does not fit for my perspective — one that is is inherently intersectional.  I do not fit as a fat brown queer man, not simply because I hold these identities, but because of the worldview that is shaped by the intersections among them.  I suppose at best, I can collaborate with feminists and be an ally to women; but, the space in which I will be most instrumental, and feel most comfortable, is one that advocates for human rights, with explicit attention to the intersections among racism, sexism, classism, fatphobia, transphobia, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, and xenophobia.  I suppose I found the answer to my question.

On Using Privilege To Fight Inequality

Though I have openly written about and reflected on the ways in which I am privileged — as a male-bodied individual of a (presumably) middle-class status — there are numerous thoughts I have left unwritten.  Since I cannot find enough potential benefit to discussing my identity as a feminist that outweighs the risk of offending (some) women in doing so, I have decided to devote that energy to discussing sexism.  Sure, I might win the respect and approval of some feminist women, and signal to men that we, too, can hold feminist values.  But, the focus never needs to be on me.  Even for this post, I take seriously the suggestion to focus on listening to oppressed people in order to become a better ally.

As I consider the suggestions that have been proposed for privileged people — to listen (rather than talking) and to keep the focus on systems of oppression (rather than myself as a privileged individual) — I feel I am receiving little guidance for challenging oppression.

Step 1: become aware of my privileges as a middle-class US-born cisgender male-bodied person without disabilities.

Step 2: keep my focus on the ways that marginalized groups are systematically oppressed.

Step 3: …?  Relinquish the privilege that I am systematically afforded in every interaction and within every institution?  I, at times, try; but, as a (white heterosexual middle-class man) friend noted, privilege is like a boomerang that others throw back to us every time.  For, we are disrupting the status quo, which must be fiercely defended and protected at the interpersonal and institutional levels.

On Using Privilege

For most marginalized groups, one component of their minority status is their relatively small size.  So, just by sheer numbers, they cannot challenge inequality alone.  Allies are crucial.  But, this need is not merely a matter of numbers.  Allies, by virtue of their privilege, have access to interactions, conversations, and spaces that many/most/all oppressed people do not.  Allies, then, are needed to reach these spaces that are inaccessible to oppressed people.  Sometimes, these are the most critical spaces.  And, no matter the space, the work of allies may be more influential to changing the minds and behaviors of other privileged people because the oppressed are dismissed.

So, I feel an appropriate Step 3 — one that must begin immediately, even as I continue to evolve in my awareness and acceptance of my privileged statuses — is to use my privilege.  Everyday, I interact with trans* people and cisgender women as my equals (simply because we are all human), and trying to opt out of practices that reinforce or celebrate (cisgender) men’s privileged status.  But, trying not being sexist and transphobic is just that; these efforts are not the same as being anti-sexist and anti-transphobic.

As a cisgender male-bodied individual, I am regularly perceived and privileged as a man; I am given the keys to access (cis)men’s spaces.  With the freedoms that come with those privileges, I often raise questions about sexual violence prevention and the inclusion of trans* people.  Yesterday, I pestered my colleagues — in an effort to better capture gender diversity in the collection of demographic information — to work in the direction of infinite inclusion rather than reducing the number of “boxes” in which individuals would be placed.  But, being mindful not to speak on behalf of ciswomen and trans* people, I limit my comments to raising questions and complexities, and encouraging that we let the oppressed provide their own answers and visions.

Privilege Can Be Complicated

For some (myself included), becoming aware of one’s privilege can be a complicated matter.  Some forms of privilege are less understood.  For those who are disadvantaged in one way, it may be easy to focus just on one’s own oppressed status, while overlooking others‘.  And, individuals who are simultaneously of privileged and disadvantaged statuses (i.e., multiracial people) or who have transitioned from the latter to the former (i.e., trans men), reconciling this complex position can be challenging.

DFP SuitIn my own case, I am privileged as a cisgender person and as a man, despite my genderqueer identity, because my gender expression is generally masculine and presumed consistent with my sex.  This has to do, in part, with my fear of the potential consequences — violence and professional costs — that would result if I played with gender as I wished.  As a queer man, I struggled for some time to understand how I might be privileged as a man and contribute to the oppression of women.  The hardest lesson was that objectifying women is just that; that I am exclusively attracted to men does not “free” me from perpetrating sexual violence against women.  Unfortunately, much of what is written by men for men on feminism and gender tends to presume the readers are (white, middle-class) heterosexual (cis)men; so, I have had to think “outside” the box to define a role for myself as a queer man in feminist activism and scholarship.

At times, I am also privileged as a white person.  When I am with my mother, there seems to be little question that I am of color — usually (correctly assumed) Black.  When I am with my father, we are regularly presumed to be strangers to one another — and, I assume this is because my brownness is quite obvious juxtaposed with his (obvious) whiteness.  But, on a number of occasions when alone,  I have been (partly) mistaken as white.  As this usually comes as a surprise, I cannot assess how often I am presumed to be and, thus, privileged as white (a white man, at that!).  So, unfortunately, I do not have the same control over my white privilege (however extensive it may be).  (See an interesting example of someone who does.)

By virtue of my parents’ (current) middle-class status in education and income, and now holding a PhD myself, I am undeniably middle-class and privileged as such.  I suspect I have struggled with middle-class privileges more than those related to gender and race because I feel lumped with a class of people who were born into wealth and reflect little on their privilege.  My parents, including my mother who grew up in poverty, were poor when they had me.  They earned college and master’s degrees, and the subsequent career advancements, while raising me and working full-time.  So, I feel I belong to a 1.5 generation of middle-class people.  But, though not born into such wealth, I have still benefited from it greatly.  At the moment, I am still carrying debt that accrued while finishing my dissertation and then moving for my new faculty position — a job that will quickly pay off that debt, and solidify my middle-class status by education and income.  Now, an obligation falls on my shoulders to constantly raise questions about class inequality and the inclusion of poor and working-class people in the (middle-class) professional and academic spaces I will access.

I share all of this for a few reasons.  First, much of the talk to privileged folks, be it from oppressed groups or the privileged themselves, assumes one is privileged on every social hierarchy.  This misses the spirit of intersectionality, which, if considered, would call for more nuanced assessments of privilege (and disadvantage).  For example, The Guy’s Guide to Feminism should note that its intended audience is white heterosexual US-born cisgender men.  Ironically, in an effort to speak to men about gender and feminism, I felt erased as a brown queer man reader (also see #s 23 and 24).

Second, I also want to note the complexity of privilege to those who occupy these liminal spaces, or who have transitioned into privilege from a disadvantaged status.  Initially, this may be surprising — even difficult to believe, and a bit scary.  But, once we are aware that, in some ways, we are/have become privileged, we must be sure to use it effectively to challenge inequality (rather than reinforce it).  For example, I have found that my lighter skin color and (literal) familiarity with whites has afforded me a little more room to speak with whites about race — to even challenge them on racism — than darker-skinned people of color.  In fact, I would say we should see these complex statuses as a unique space to both learn about and challenge oppression.  This is a rare vantage point that offers a unique perspective that would be lost if we simply listen or ruminate in guilt over our (quasi-)privilege.

Concluding Thoughts

To be completely clear, I am write this post with the hopes of encouraging more people who are privileged in some way to use it for good (i.e., challenge inequality).  I am not certain that one can actually relinquish their privilege — well, short of changing your status, everyone’s memory of it, and how it has impacted your experiences, worldviews, relationships, and livelihood.  And, one less privileged person may not be moving us closer to eliminating oppression.  But, it can be quite powerful for privileged people to use their privilege to make change and make more room in exclusive spaces for the oppressed.  And, as a good sociologist (should), I see the responsibility of eliminating inequality in everyone‘s hands — oppressor and oppressed alike.

“On Teaching (Trans) Gender” – Guest Post By Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello


Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello, a sociologist, recently shared some of his experiences as an intersex trans man in academia on his blog, TransFusionHe candidly discusses how his colleagues, students, and institution have responded to his transition.  And, beyond being intersex and trans in the academy, he highlights some of the constraints he faces in teaching on intersex, trans*, and queer issues in his classes.  His post is below

You may also find his blogs TransFusion and The Intersex Roadshow of interest.


I am a white, middle-aged, intersex trans man. I teach sociology at a large Midwestern state university, and sociologically speaking, gender transitioning here has been fascinating. It’s a story of prejudice and of privilege.

On a personal level, it’s been weird.

I’m the first professor to have transitioned at my university, despite its huge size; while locals think of the university and surrounding area as very liberal, from a national perspective, they’re quite socially conservative. It’s a land of racial segregation, and of LGBT+ closeting. Many of the tenured white gay cis male professors I know here, for example, are not out at work, and communicate about sexual orientation in coded phrases straight out of the 1950s. (Having moved here from the San Francisco Bay area, the level of closeting is eye-popping.) As far as I can tell through my social networks, two people proceeded me in gender transitioning at my university, both trans* women staff members who soon left. In any case, my administration had little experience in dealing with gender transitions, and none with the issues raised by an instructor doing so, when I announced that I had begun the process.

My university has no official policies and procedures for dealing with gender transitioners, though it does formally include a ban on discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression in its antidiscimination clause. Since it’s a huge institution, the lack of policies made transition a bureaucratic nightmare. I could write a long and very tedious post just about that, but suffice it to say that as I enter the fifth year of my transition, I am still finding my old female name being given out by yet another independent university software system.  And I still have in my files, where I regularly now ignore it, a memo to all individuals with offices in my building stating which single male bathroom I will use on campus, so that they can avoid it if they wish.

(This very awkward memo was the only notice given by my university about my transition to others, and I was expressly forbidden to send emails myself to people outside my department to let people know. The administration’s reasoning was that if they let me announce my gender transition and name change, they’d have to let every woman who got married and changed her name to send a broadcast email, clogging up 40,000 mailboxes. When I pointed out the difference between getting married and gender transitioning, that was considered “political,” and sending political email on work computers a violation of state law. Thus, years into transition, I still find myself on committees with people I’ve worked with before who now have no idea who I am, and I have to come out endlessly. It’s just as socially awkward for stammering others as it is for me.)

The physical process of my early transition was made especially awkward because I got to go through it in front of my large introductory-level class of 350 Midwestern students. Most of them were 18 or 19 and on the tail ends of their own awkward adolescences, and few of them were aware of ever knowing a trans* person in real life. I did explain to them that I had changed my legal name and the gender on my ID, that I was beginning my medical transition, and what pronouns to use in referring to me (despite explicit instruction from administration not to discuss my transition, because it was my “personal” and “political” business that I should not “impose” on students). I had to give students some way to understand and address their instructor. But many students couldn’t process the information and didn’t know what to make of me. In hindsight, it’s sort of amusing, but at the time. . . ugh. My very androgynous body made students anxious, and they stood much farther away from me when speaking to me after class than students had in prior years. Every time my voice cracked, a little ripple or shudder moved across the lecture hall. I often caught students inappropriately staring at my chest or my groin, and both they and I would flush when I caught them.

That semester my student evaluations, while still generally positive, were much less enthusiastically so than in the past—and most were very awkwardly worded to avoid any use of pronouns (“The professor seemed to know what the professor was talking about.”). Of the modest number of students who did use pronouns in writing their evaluations, more used female pronouns than male (and none used gender-neutral pronouns). My gender—and students’ discomfort with my physical androgyny—were front and center in everyone’s classroom experience, both mine and that of the students.

But after a couple of years on testosterone I had grown a solid beard, and people by and large “read” me as male, including in my classes. The majority of my students called me “he” without hesitating, and the chest-and-groin-checking was much reduced. My student evaluations rebounded into the quite-positive zone. And my personal experience rebounded further yet. I found that I now received male privilege. Before my transition, students had regularly commented on my appearance, dress or hairstyle—now none of them did so, as men are judged by their minds much more than their bodies. Students now see me as more authoritative than in the past. Most defer to me more, challenge me less, and some even find me intimidating (at my mighty 5’2”).

And it’s not just male privilege that I now experience, but that most celebrated form, white male privilege. I have become The Man. And while this means that some students of color in my very racially-segregated setting, while still respectful of me, also react to me with greater distrust than students of color displayed before my transition, amidst the white majority I am treated as a person of dignity, trustworthiness, competence, and esteem. This happens in the classroom, in administrative meetings, and when I’m driving a car or visiting a store. As I’ve only experienced this for a few years out of my almost 50, it’s glaringly obvious to me, and I’m amazed that my fellow white men who are cis gender seem so often to feel disrespected and put-upon. Small reductions in deference to white male power prey on their minds, but believe me—our privilege is still very substantial.

I have to note how much easier it is to transition to male, and to do so as a white person. My wife is an intersex gender transitioner like myself, and I see every day how much more difficult it is to be a trans* woman. Transphobia directed at trans* women is much more virulent, and is compounded by misogyny. Androgyny in trans* women is treated with much more negative social sanction than androgyny in trans* men. Trans* women of color are routinely treated by others as if they were sex workers, and subjected to extraordinary levels of discrimination, abuse, and violence. So I enjoy not only privilege as a white man, but in comparison to others in the trans* community.

I wanted to lay all of this out before raising a problem I face, relating to a modest number of students who now complain about my teaching. I want to make it clear that I recognize how privileged I now am as a white male tenured professor to be able to have such a job issue to worry about at all. Still, as a trans gender man, I have issues to worry about that my cis counterparts do not.

I teach hundreds of students every year, and every year a small number of them who are not doing well in my classes, perhaps a dozen, complain about my teaching. It’s rarely my teaching style that they object to; they usually complain about one of two content areas. One of these I don’t worry about: they object to my teaching about global climate change in my social problems class. Students who complain about this are usually cis white guys with right-leaning politics who argue that I am teaching “pseudoscience” concocted in a leftist conspiracy. Whatever. The empirical evidence for global climate change is great, and I am sure the political motivations of this group of students’ objections would be clear to my administration if the students were to file formal complaints.

The other group of students’ complaints I worry about regularly, however. These involve students who object to what I teach about intersex and trans gender issues (basically, that forcing cosmetic genital surgery on unconsenting infants is a bad social policy, and that transphobia is a form of bias akin to sexism, racism, and homophobia). Unlike those who object to my teaching about climate change, these students are usually (cis) women who take my gender class. Some are white women from rural areas of the state; some are African American women from urban locations; many of them explicitly self-identify themselves to me as Christian. They believe that sex must be binary, and that “corrective” surgery for intersex “disorders” in infancy is a medical imperative. Further, they believe that binary genitals (constructed or present at birth) must determine gender, and that a desire to gender transition is both a mental illness and immoral.

From my perspective, this group of complaining students is exactly like the first group: they hold to an ideology that is political in nature and in conflict with the literature in my field. As I point out at the start of my classes, there are many different perspectives that can be taken on any given issue—biological, psychological, religious, political, etc.–but that they are taking a sociology class, and in this class, are expected to learn and employ the sociological position in assignments and exams. I have no desire to be the thought police, and I tell them I support their right to use other perspectives in other contexts. But it is my job as a professor to teach them the subject matter they have signed up to learn. Most students have no problem with this—but there are some who are very resistant.

So, the two groups of complaining students may be analogous in being resistant to learning class content—but the students who object to the intersex and trans gender components of my classes pose much more of a problem for me.

One problem they present for me is that they often persistently misgender me. Now, I teach my Sociology of Sex and Gender course as an online summer class. This means that students don’t see me in front of them—instead I have a virtual presence for them, constructed mostly via text. During the first week of class, I do have students post pictures of themselves, and I post one myself. And our first exercise requires students to state their gender identity and list the pronoun they use—and again, I do the same myself. Further, each student receives at least four personal comments from me each week, and all are signed “Prof. Costello.” So, my gender, pronoun, and the form of address I expect are theoretically made clear to them. In the early days of my transition, I was more likely to be addressed as a male in this online setting, due to my clear masculine self-framing, than I was in my in-person classes, where my physical androgyny outweighed my self-presentation in students’ minds. But now, the reverse is true. Students in my in-person classes don’t often misgender me. Every summer, however, I have some students who persistently refer to me as “she,” or the eye-rolling “Mrs. Costello”–something students never called me before my transition. I correct them in a matter-of-fact manner, first addressing whatever their substantive point was in their post or email, but they often continue to mispronoun me. Rather than helping to correct any peers who misgender me in online discussions, other students often seem to become less sure of the “realness” of my male status, and some become uncomfortable, seeing me as “forcing my issue down other people’s throats” (an aggressively Freudian description one student gave me in an email intended to be sympathetic). This happens despite my constant efforts to be polite to people who refuse to recognize my gender identity and legal sex that trans* friends see as going well above and beyond the call of professional duty. The persistent misgendering makes me feel dysphoric, and the class atmosphere less comfortable for all.

In my class on sex and gender, I assign one exercise about intersex issues, and one with an optional trans gender focus. It’s in this context where I most often encounter active student resistance to course content, though it does arise elsewhere. Now, to be clear, the way I grade all course exercises is according to the quality of the essays submitted. Students are expected to cite course readings or lecture points in analyzing a hypothetical situation. So long as they do that, and write a coherent essay, their conclusions can be whatever they like. For example, this summer a student wrote her essay on the abortion unit of the course about how she believed doctors should universally screen fetuses for intersex conditions and abort those found to have them. I personally strongly disagree, but so long as the student cited course materials sensibly and wrote a cogent analysis, she’d receive full credit. I don’t let the fact that I perceive writing such an essay to a professor whose intersex birth status was clearly revealed earlier as microaggressive impact my grading. But if students fail to try to engage in any way with the course materials, and simply assert their opinions, citing no class readings (or sometimes citing instead their Christian status, which is no more a source of sociological authority than is my being Jewish), then they do quite poorly on an exercise.

The problem is that such students often perceive their poor grade as due to my “pushing an agenda.” More: they frame me as an abuser. They often present themselves as trying to protect innocent children from sexual radicals who seek to damage them. Complex and inchoate ideas often come up relating to permissive versus authoritarian parenting, or eugenic ideology (from white students), or the imposition of purportedly white preoccupations onto struggling African American families (from Black students), or about the decline of American civilization. But central to most student complaints about poor grades on intersex and trans* exercises is the framing of me as lacking any authority to teach on these matters, because I am “biased.”

The idea that only the privileged have the right to speak about the marginalized because the privileged are objective and the marginalized are not has been critiqued by many. Before my transition, cis male students in my gender class often complained that as “a woman,” I was biased while they were not, and that the statistics I cited were not credible. I didn’t worry about this at the time, because if any of them ever made a formal complaint to the administration, I expected the administration to be suspicious of such a claim. (It turned out I was probably wrong. I almost didn’t get tenure because an outside reviewer claimed that my research on race/class/gender in the professions was a mere voicing of personal bias against white men. He bolstered this claim by attacking my very large qualitative research project (almost 100 in-depth interviews plus 18 months of participant observation) as not meeting the significance standard for a quantitative study, which was just silly, but it gave his critique the veneer of “objectivity” that led my tenure case to be voted down. I did finally get tenure on appeal, after a long and exhausting battle, but it was a very close thing.)

Now, my university, like most, is generally staffed by people who believe that gender discrimination is a bad thing, not to be tolerated. Even so, male professors earn more than female ones, are more likely to get tenure, and are less likely to be accused of bias in their work. But what about trans* gender discrimination? While my university does have a formal policy banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression, in my experience, many of the faculty, students and staff are uncomfortable with gender transition and hold private or public cissexist views. And so I am rationally worried about what would happen if one of my students who do poorly on a trans* or intersex assignment in my class were to take their complaints beyond exchanges with me and up the administrative hierarchy. Supposedly I have job security in the form of tenure, meant to protect professors’ ability to teach and engage in research with full academic freedom. But tenure is not “forever” if a professor commits an offense, such as criminal activity, dereliction of duty—or harassment. And I have no doubt that students who persistently misgender me and who refuse to engage in course materials dealing with intersex and trans* materials feel that I am “harassing” them, rather than vice versa. And remember, some frame me as advocating child abuse, which is a criminal offense. One of my recent students who watched an optional video link I posted to a mainstream TV news story about a young trans* girl wrote a post accusing me and the media of assisting the girl’s parents in “abusing” her by “allowing” a “confused boy” to wear dresses. And while contemporary social science literature supports the recognition of trans gender identification in children, it’s plausible that there are administrators at my university who share my complaining student’s perspective: that I am pushing a disturbing agenda and harassing students who fail to parrot it back at me.

Given that I was explicitly instructed by administrators not to use my teaching podium as a soapbox for advocating my “personal agenda,” I worry that including segments on trans* and intersex issues in my courses on gender, sexuality, and on social problems might somehow be framed as a breach of duty on my part. But to avoid teaching on these topics where they are obviously relevant is something I see as the real breach of pedagogical duty. Should I as a Jew not be able to address religion in my courses, because as a religious minority I am not “objective”? Should my colleagues who are people of color not be able to teach about race in their classes? Taken to its logical extreme, are the only suitable sociology professors cis, straight, white, middle-aged, middle-class, Christian men without disabilities? (Of course, the opposite is in fact true: a person who has experienced something has a better understanding of what is involved than someone who has no such first-hand experience. You won’t find me taking a SCUBA diving class from someone with only academic book-knowledge of diving. . .)

Many, many instructors have faced this issue of being members of a marginalized group and being accused of bias when teaching about that group. As a white man, I enjoy a privilege many of these instructors have not enjoyed, that of being presumed competent as a professor by virtue of my race and gender. At the same time, privilege is always context-dependent. As an intersex trans* person, I’m a member of a small minority that is currently considered quite outré , in the Midwestern city where I live.

And thus, in teaching on the topics on which I have the greatest expertise, I always feel at risk, my job security subject to challenge from people who refuse even to do class readings. And that. . . is sad.

On Doubting And Denying Each Other’s Experiences and Perspectives

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

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

Doubting And Dismissing

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

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

Doubt And Dismissal By Other Marginalized Individuals

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

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

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

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

Intersections With Power And Privilege

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

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

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

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

A Call For Better Support From Our Fellow Group Members

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

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

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

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