An Update On My 7-Year Experiment

Tenure

As my tenure-track job officially started in August, I publicly declared that I refused to stop living a full, meaningful, fun, and healthy life just for the hope of job security in seven years.  Following Dr. Radhika Nagpal‘s essay, “The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life,” I decided to experiment with a worry-free pursuit of tenure — but, without waiting until I have secured tenure to speak about it publicly:

So, here it goes.  For the next seven years, I will continue to publish research, teach courses, mentor students, blog, and work with community organizations.  I have chosen to stop biting my tongue because I am tired of tasting blood.  I will be a whole person to my colleagues, students, friends, and family — and myself.

I just finished my first semester last week.  So, how is it going thus far?  Well — I am alive, still employed, and have no desire to look for a new job or move to a new place or leave academia.  But, you know me — I have to reflect more extensively to paint an accurate picture.

Teaching

I taught two classes this semester: one brand new prep (research methods) and a semi-new prep (adding more gender to my sexual diversity prep for gender and sexualities).  Moving from one class, three years ago as a graduate student instructor, to two classes was a bit of an adjustment.  Methods seemed to be first thing in the morning, with prep, grading, emails, and students dropping by office hours throughout the rest of the week.  The course is not the most intellectually challenging, but demands a lot of work on the students’ part (and, as a result, on mine) to effectively teach methods.  At times, my once per week, night-time, semi-prepped gender and sexualities class felt like an afterthought.  With a class full of seniors, with few but big assignments, it did not require as much of my attention as the methods course.  In the spring, I will have one new prep — social inequalities — and will teach two sections of methods.  I am sure going from two to three courses will be another bumpy adjustment.

I am still trying to figure the students out intellectually, politically, and in terms of demographics.  Just as I feel I have the student body figured out, my suspicion is disproved or complicated.  The biggest adjustment is to how stretched thin many of the students appear — suffering from a second or third cold, sleep deprivation, and constant worry and anxiety.  On occasion, I have mistaken exhaustion for laziness.

I have received my students’ evaluations.  Overall, I get the impression I am “ok” in most of their eyes (especially in research methods), though some seemed to think very highly of me as an instructor.  So, I have wrapped up the semester feeling good about a generally successful “Round 1,” particularly for my methods course.  I struggled somewhat with this new prep, trying to find the right balance of tradition (i.e, how it was taught it in the past) and my own spin.  Eventually, I realized my appreciation of tradition was actually fear driven by “impostor syndrome.”  What do I know about teaching research methods?  Ironically, I dreaded teaching quantitative methods and statistics for much of the semester (the methods I use in my own research!)  What should I teach?  What aspects am I supposed to teach that I barely understand myself?  Impostor syndrome was turning into feeling genuinely unqualified for the job.  That was the absolute worse feeling in my career thus far.

To my pleasant surprise, these aspects of the course went swimmingly — well enough that my qualifications became undeniably clear to me.  I take from this a reminder to trust my gut (stop beginning with what others have done) and to proudly think outside of the box.  I was explicitly hired for my unique scholarly approach; I just have to remind myself of that on the not-so-perfect teaching days.

Me - Presentation 1

Research

I was warned that few professors actually make progress on their research in their first year on the tenure-track.  You are adjusting to so many things at once.  In the words of Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, the one thing that counts the most toward tenure (particularly at research universities) is the one thing with the least external accountability: research.  Teaching will take up every free minute if you let it.  Email and meetings take up the rest.  So, I went into this semester frightened but motivated.

For better and not-so-better, I sent out all three of the empirical chapters of my dissertation, and began extending a smaller review chapter, which I eventually sent out.  By the beginning of the semester, I already had one revise and resubmit (R&R) — a chapter about which my committee felt the most apprehensive in terms of publishing.  Soon after, I had a rejection for my strongest paper from my discipline’s top journal.  I quickly revised it and sent it to the top journal in my subfield.  That paper came back with a very promising R&R, which I turned to to get away from the other, daunting R&R.  Now, it is forthcoming at that journal, scheduled for its next issue!  The third paper was rejected, returned with pages and pages of nit-picky, soul-crushing feedback.  I sent the review paper to a journal outside of my discipline, only to have it handed back with no reviews.  One on-going co-authored paper has finally been sent out for attempt number three, and I hope to submit another soon.

So, here is the tally: 1) one rejection-turned-accepted (in print by March); 2) one daunting R&R, possibly turned co-authored to complement me where I am a bit lacking in expertise; 3) one painful rejection that I have not fully digested; 4) one quick and surprising desk-reject that I need to start from scratch empirically; 5) one co-authored paper under review; 6) one co-authored paper soon to be under review at a top journal.  My goal is to wrap up all of the projects that do not “count” as much toward tenure because they were not started at my current institution.  I hope to have evidence of progress on new projects by my mid-term review (in 2.5 years).

Yes, I sleep.  No, I am not neglecting my teaching.  No, I am not doing shoddy work, or aiming for “easy” journals.  What has helped is sitting my butt down each morning to write for at least 1 hour.  And, obviously, that is not enough to actually do the research, so I often left Thursday and part of Friday to run analyses and create tables.  Soon into the semester, I connected with four other junior faculty — from various disciplines — to create a bi-weekly writing group.  We talk through the challenges we face in our research — empirical, political, disciplinary, interpersonal, and emotional.  We are able to ask the tough questions that we are not as comfortable asking those who decide our fate (i.e., senior colleagues).  Sometimes, others say what you already know, but need someone else to validate you.

Realistically, the kind of productivity that seems feasible during the semester is editing existing papers.  I do not feel I have the time and energy to explore new data or literature.  I did run models — even redid one paper’s results section — but there were no stretches of hours of looking up literature to review.  I suspect the heavy initial lifting for projects will be limited to the summer and other long-ish breaks.  So, I am planning ahead to get moving, particularly on 1-2 new projects, over the summer so that I can shift to writing and revising during the fall and spring.

Service

Well, I am in a fortunate position, for service is not yet expected.  No advising, no committee work, and too new for independent studies and student research.  But, I hear it coming.  Advising starts, for certain, in the next fall semester.  And, I know my name is crossing colleagues’ minds for certain committees.  So, thus far, I have worked on expanding this blog, and attending committee meetings of my choice.  I talked a bit game in August about working with community groups.  But, then the semester started.  When I get home from work on weekdays, and wake up late on the weekends, the extent of the energy I have for service is blogging.  I am embarrassed to admit that.  But, this is one exhausted professor!

Politics

Oh, but do not think for a moment limited service means I am not stirring up some kind of trouble (in a good way!).  Politically speaking, my 7-year experiment has been, well, interesting and eventful.  I certainly made known that I refused to be a scared, silent, invisible, stressed out pre-tenure professor.  But, there were political landmines that I stepped on that I had not anticipated nor intentionally sought out.  I promise you — I did not actively seek out ways to “rock the boat,” though I did not make secret my long-term plan to make a difference on campus and beyond.

Well, there was the negative comment about me on a white supremacists’ blog site.  Then, the religious literature left in my apartment, probably by a maintenance or construction crew member who did not approve of same-gender relationships (i.e., my partner and me).  Then, another unnecessarily mean comment online questioning my credentials and political agenda.  Oh, and the threat to sue me over a blog post unless I edited it.  Sheesh.

For reasons that probably seem obvious to other academics — or, really anyone who has to navigate workplace politics, I did not publicly mention other landmines that went off.  Maybe I alluded to them — I cannot remember at this point.  One was challenging the message that an invited speaker’s talk seemed to send about marginalized groups, and later questioning the funding source.  Whoops!  I found out I was not alone in my concern, but I was the dummy who opened his mouth about it.  That blew over, but now some people’s first impression of me may be the uppity new junior professor.  (Funny, I was asked directly after the talk, “nothing?  you didn’t ask a single question!”  Nope — because you wanted me to.)

But, there have been positive outcomes, as well.  Sonya and I have gotten praise for starting and expanding this blog.  I have heard comments here and there with words like “inspiring.”  (Loving it!)  I have been credited by friends for encouraging them to be braver or more outspoken.  I have not been at my new institution long enough to be a part of big change, but I believe my arrival has been noticed by students, staff, and faculty.  I am brown where there are not a ton of faculty of color.  Queer where few are visibly and vocally out.  Young, outspoken, and accessible.  I suspect word will soon travel — hopefully in a positive way!

Health And Well-Being

But, how am I really doing?  I started off eager but nervous and still recovering from the self-esteem-crushing effect of graduate school.  I finish on a wonderful high note: a forthcoming article in the top journal in my subfield.  And, yes, I am taking on R&R with great intensity — that is, rest and relaxation for you scholars who are not as familiar with the acronym.  I feel a twinge of guilt for taking time off.  But, the guilt is far outweighed by the exhaustion I felt throughout the semester.  In order to stay productive, with now three classes (including one new prep), I cannot return for the spring semester anything short of recovered.

It was a doozy of a semester.  By the close of the first month, the social isolation took its toll.  A new pattern of weeping in my office either Wednesday or Thursday morning emerged.  And, the next day, I would return as my fierce drag queen alter ego Denise (in attitude only, not attire).  But, that stopped being enough.  Already exhausted and weary, I hit little bumps or stepped on landmines that felt like all-out assaults.  And, when a friend passed mid-semester, I was completely worn down.  That period, and the day of the shooting on my mother’s job, were nearly impossible to carry on with “business as usual.”  It has taken a great deal of discipline, resilience, and optimism to push through the exhaustion, disappointment, worry, heartache, and loneliness.

To be fair, I should be giving myself permission to just survive.  No one expects more of a new professor.  But, I expected to do more than survive, which, to be fair, I have!  I started out setting up meetings with colleagues in and outside of my department, my dean and associate dean, and associate provost.  My goal was to make a connection, ask for advice on adjusting and being productive, and share my five-year plan toward tenure.  The first couple of meetings were ok, but more time was spent on the “how to adjust” part than on the “let me show you my plan!” part.  Once the semester really kicked-in, these meetings dissolved into “will you be my friend?”  I resented appearing like the weepy and exhausted new professor — but that’s exactly who I was.  Who can talk about a five-year plan when weeping cut into the time you set aside for writing?  Fortunately, I have connected with supportive and understanding people around campus this way.

Me - Side BW

Looking Ahead

Semester One, done.  And, I would say I am in pretty good shape for the conclusion of my first semester and start of my second.  I go into Semester Two continuing to do what worked: take evenings and weekends off; do yoga in the morning; write at least 60 minutes first thing in the morning at work; keep meeting with my writing group; take regular lunch breaks; and, accept that the first year is primarily about adjusting surviving.  I return knowing to make more of an effort to connect with my colleagues (just being visible is not enough), and that there is no such thing as being apolitical.  I suppose the biggest lesson of all is that I am still learning and growing as a scholar (and that is a good, and expected, thing).

So, where does the 7-year experiment stand?  I am certainly aware that my refusal to be quiet and politically inert comes at a time where job security is threatened, political action is punished, radical ideas and people are attacked, and free speech is undermined.  It almost feels as though I am finding solid ground just as chaos ensues around me.

To my pleasant surprise, I have taken a position at an institution that celebrates — not merely tolerates — my outspokenness, my emphasis on collegiality and inclusivity, and even my blogging.  Silly me, I chose this job knowing I would be comfortable to engage in this kind of advocacy.  But, it took explicit affirmation from my colleagues, chair, and dean to fully acknowledge and appreciate it.  It seems I am appreciated because of, not despite, my emphasis on intellectual activism and accessibility.  So, until I begin seeing indications to the contrary, I am going to keep being myself.  I feel even more compelled to do this kind of work, and take this kind of approach, because of the number of scholars who can’t.

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:

Stop Telling Me To Be Quiet

Tenure

“Careful.”

“Lower your voice.”

“Keep your head down and your mouth shut.”

“Don’t rock the boat.”

“You need to tone it down.”

It seems the universe has been dead-set on silencing, immobilizing, paralyzing, and deradicalizing me since my birth.  In simply being myself, which happens to entail being outspoken about injustice, I have been labeled uppity, radical, provocative, militant, showy, hypersensitive, and a trouble-maker.  In choosing to pursue a career in which I make change from within the system, I have struggled much of my life with finding the right balance of keeping my position and speaking out.  Worrying about what others think of me, specifically of losing out in major ways, I remained in the closet until age 17.

You would think it would be smooth sailing since then.  Actually, the further I have gone in my career — college, graduate school, and now a tenure-track faculty position — the more anxiety I have felt about how I present myself to the world.  At the same time, the “innocent” requests to shut up, hide, and stand still have increased.  Even at my quietest, most inauthentic, and politically inert point, I still receive these request.  It seems the universe won’t be satisfied until I completely disappear.  Or, maybe become a white straight man who upholds the status quo.

Enough! 

Recently, I ran into a friend who relayed to me other friends’ concerns that I am “too out there” in my new job.  Their thinking, along with everyone else’s it seems, is that tenure-track faculty should be seen and not heard.  Particularly for me as a young Black queer man, in an interracial same-gender relationship, living in the South, I should be ever vigilant about how I present myself to the world.  Duh.  I did not secure this job without doing that for years in graduate school.  I did not burst through my university’s doors declaring I would radically change the place.  Trust me.  To survive in this racist, sexist, heterosexist society, there is not a single day in which I do not constantly think about self-presentation.

When the quantoid in me lights up, I am really fed up with these requests.  I have lost count of the number of times I have been encouraged, usually from a place of concern, to be quiet, tone it down, hide who I am, etc.  Whatever the number, it far exceeds the times I have been encouraged to speak up, be seen, or shake things up.  And, let’s count the number of people who quietly exist within the status quo.  There are plenty.  We can afford to have just one more person who may make herstory by refusing to be “well-behaved” and quiet.

Where is the limit on being well-behaved?  Is being a good little black gay graduate student for six years enough, just til I get a PhD and a job?  No?  Oh — maybe it is the seven years of wearing suits that betray my genderqueer identity and stressing myself to publish in my discipline’s top journals — you know, to secure tenure.  Assuming I am of the rare sort to finish graduate school before 30, that means I can finally be free to be my outspoken self in my mid-thirties.  That is, you know, banking on tomorrows that are not promised to any of us.

And, outspokenness and activism are not the only things that are policed.  It is my identities as a queer person of color that are seen as a threat.  By entering into spaces that historically have excluded people like me, now shaping the next generation’s minds, I am a threat.  I am a threat whether I hold radical politics or not.  I could play it “safe” by academic standards and still be lynched outside of work because of my race.  Or, I could be denied tenure — you know, because discrimination and harassment occur within academia, too.  It is a damn shame, but the truest reality of them all is that my PhD merely affords me a different kind of policing of black and queer bodies.

I am tired of having to name my career path as one that seems out of the norm.  I am tired of having to justify not pursuing that good, ol’ prized Research I (R1) path, or even the silent, politically inert journey toward tenure at any type of school.  More importantly, in the midst of this miserable first semester, all that I do that is being read as outspoken or radical are merely strategies for my survival.  I am trying to carve out space in the universe so that I can actually get out of bed in the morning to go to work.

I note the good intentions behind the requests for silent inaction.  I appreciate it.  But, they typically come from people who do not know me well enough to give that kind of advice.  They do not know how much I really do negotiate interactions with others.  They do not know how many times I have completely shutdown because something so offensive has been said and I stew in guilt for not speaking up.  They do not know how many mornings I fight with my body and body image issues trying to fit into costumes deemed appropriate for professional men.  They have assumed I am recklessly opening my mouth without thinking, without doing my homework to make an informed critique, and without thinking about the potential consequences.

I am not an idiot.  I know what can happen to “outspoken faggots” and “uppity niggers”.  In a way, I am risking my life, or at least my status and position, to prevent that for myself and others like me.

So, please do me a favor.  Stop telling me to be quiet.

This Is Not A Pity Party

A week ago, a comment was posted on our Facebook page to express irritation with memes (like the one I posted, but later deleted) on the difficulties of graduate student life.  I replied to ask what should be highlighted instead — what would be a more appealing meme?  Lots of great things were offered, with a subtle nod to the privileged status of graduate students, professors, and adjuncts (who have health insurance and decent pay).

I followed up in a private conversation with the commenter to express my concern about implying academics are too privileged to complain about challenges they faced.  I felt the point was missed, and I did not have the energy to fight about it so I deleted the post and private conversation.  I suppose that is one (passive) way that I agree to disagree.

This Is Not A Pity Party

Let me be clear: Conditionally Accepted, blogs by marginalized scholars, and every other public expression of frustration and pain regarding academic life is no pity party.  The kinds of complaints that are raised — sexual harassment, discrimination, exclusion, social isolation, tokenism, stereotypes, lack of support, lack of guidance, lack of funding and resources, etc. — reflect a desire for something better that does not currently exist.

Most people who seriously pursue a scholarly career (be it in academia or beyond) simply want to do good, meaningful work with the necessary tools, resources, and support that it takes to excel.  I have met many jaded, burnt-out, self-doubting, depressed, anxious, and abused scholars — but,  I have not met a single scholar who throws themselves a pity party for the sake of misery.

To clarify, the commenter raised concern that too much attention is focused on the negatives or the downsides of being an academic.  What about how cushy our jobs are?  What about the great conversations we have with colleagues?  What about the autonomy?  Yes, what about them?!  Speaking for myself, many of the positive, unique features of academic careers are what led me to pursue one.

But, we must highlight the negative features that prevent some from entering academia (either by force or wearing people down to the point of leaving) or that constrain how successful academics can be.  This is how I justify devoting a great deal of time and energy to running a blog site for academics.  I aspire to highlight inequalities that exist within academia, hindering the potential of scholars of marginalized backgrounds.  Indirectly, these barriers rob the rest of society of the full, unconstrained contribution of LGBT, women, racial and ethnic minority, working-class, immigrant, disabled, fat, and religious minority teachers, researchers, and advocates.

This is not a pity party; this is about fighting for having an equal role in shaping and changing knowledge in society.

Breaking The Silence

And, the recent incidents of sexual harassment in the sciences — namely their public disclosure, the responses, and the outcomes of these events — affirm the importance of this work.  If you are unfamiliar with these events that occurred in mid-October, let me give a very brief run-down (full rundown provided elsewhere).

By naming these experiences of sexual harassment, particularly openly (i.e., not anonymous or pseudonymous), and by naming the perpetrators, the silence surrounding these acts is broken.  The myth that these incidents are likely misunderstandings or mere isolated incidents is shattered.  The powerless regain power by refusing to be silent about an oppressive experience faced by countless women in academia and beyond.

If anything, these kinds of conversations are not about pity — they are about power: reclaiming power and empowerment.  Why suffer in silence when the problems I face are systemic, faced by so many other marginalized scholars?

Besides — you can always change the channel if you do not like what I’m saying.

The 7-Year Experiment: Tenure-Track Without Losing My Soul

I am inspired by Dr. Radhika Nagpal‘s essay, “The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life.”  In it, she writes about taking control of her life while she was on the tenure-track, rather than letting tenure control her.  If you have not read it yet, do so right now (you’re welcome) and then don’t forget to come back here!

There is some great reflection that I suspect will be useful to tenure-track academics with young children.  But, I feel the essay is missing other important contexts that are omnipresent in the stories of marginalized scholars: prejudice, discrimination, stereotypes, harassment, double-standards, invisibility, hypervisibility, tokenism — just to name a few manifestations of oppression in academia.  There is a good chance Nagpal faced some of these realities herself, though not addressing them explicitly in her essay.  So, a great way to repackage her essay to scholars on the margins would be to infuse the experiences relayed in Presumed incompetent and the advice from The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure–Without Losing Your Soul.

A 7-Year Experiment

Of course, as a brand new assistant professor, I do not have a story of the tenure-track without the stress (in the contexts of racism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression).  But, rather than telling my story after I receive tenure, I offer my story while pursuing tenure without the stress.

Consider this my 7-year experiment.  Beginning today, I have decided to work toward obtaining tenure without compromising my health, happiness, authenticity, or politics.  I will reflect on my experiences over the next seven years so that others may learn from my successes and failures.  Yes, I am putting myself on the line to test this hypothesis: can marginalized academics win tenure “without losing their souls”?

Starting Points

First, I should note that I feel relatively comfortable embarking on this experiment for the world to see because I accepted a position where the tenure requirements seem doable.  So, a first step toward pursuing a stress-free life on the tenure-track is placing achievable tenure expectations as a top priority for a job, rather than letting the school’s prestige dominate the list.  Yes, I do want to be challenged, and the expectations are high enough that I cannot do research or teach once in a blue moon.  But, I struggled with anxiety long enough to forgo signing up to be challenged at anxiety-provoking levels.

I can also tweak Nagpal’s own guidelines to fit with my journey toward tenure without losing my soul:

  1. I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
  2. I stopped taking advice.
  3. I created a “feelgood” email folder.
  4. I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  5. I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
  6. I found real friends.
  7. I have fun “now”.

1 — I printed out a similar little note that says “This is a 7-year postdoc.”  But, I am inclined to see this more as “I am a professor at this university for at least 7 years.”  This is my reward for six difficult years in graduate school, plus four years in college.  My time in graduate school entailed many instances of remaining silent, or censored, or deferential — even when I saw injustices or was the target of a microaggression myself.  I learned to present myself, my work, and my perspective in “safe”, apolitical, and mainstream ways to get ahead.  Why be silent, censored, and subservient for another seven years?  I worked hard for my freedom (the PhD), and I have my “papers” to prove it.  My PhD will serve its intended purposes of liberating me, my voice, my perspective, and my communities.

2 — “I stopped taking advice,” especially from people who are not of the same or similar social locations, or, at a minimum, clearly do not have my best interests (as a whole person) in mind.  Upon hearing the awful, and sometimes oppressive advice throughout graduate school (“remind them that you’re Black,” “man up!”, “a little bit of anxiety is good for you”), I have learned the hard lesson that there is a lot of advice that is thrown around, and most of it speaks to privileged scholars’ experiences (if it is based in truth at all).  The most helpful sources of advice as I progressed through the difficult year of job market and dissertating were my partner, my family, my friends, and my own heart, mind, and spirit.  My career will never mirror that of another person, so I have to do a better job of listening to that internal adviser.

3 — I acknowledge the institutionally valued markers of success (i.e., publication, grants, student evaluations, awards), but I will stop ignoring other signs of being loved, valued, and respected.  I have been collecting nice notes from friends and family in a Word document.  After attending the American Sociological Association annual meeting this weekend, I realized that I should better appreciate how many people value this blog.  (I heard from a dozen people, “I love your blog!”, but only once heard “I’m familiar with your research.)  This includes allowing being valued to work both up (i.e., from senior and higher-status scholars) and down (i.e., from younger and lower-status scholars), for chasing the attention of overburdened “stars” in my subfields places too much of my self-worth in the hands of people I must convince to notice me.

4 — I will continue working weekdays during reasonable work hours (sometimes 8am-6pm), as I have been doing since the second to last year of my graduate training.  Labor rights activists worked too hard to block off Saturday and Sunday as days off from work for me to relinquish the weekend.  That, and my salary is based on a 40-hour workweek, so I would rather save time in which I am volunteering for community service rather than to academic service.  I learned that I ultimately become too tired to work, and trying to do so every day left me unproductive and riddled with guilt and anxiety for not working.

Me - Rock Star5 — I must be a whole person.  This means I will have to stop extensively managing my self-presentation.  As a student, and even as new professor, I find it incredibly reassuring to see advisers as whole people — people who have families, laugh, cry, dress up and dress down, drink, etc.  I can stop using a professional-looking photo as my profile picture on Facebook.  I will not fall into “shop talk” outside of the office with colleagues who are also friends.  I owe it to myself, my partner, and my friends and family to be something more than the one-dimension of scholar.

6 — I will work at finding “real” friends, which may include my colleagues, but should include non-academics, as well.

7 — I will start having fun now because my health depends on it, and tomorrow is not promised to me.  It seems odd to me to work so hard for 6-10 years for a PhD, to then work even harder for another seven — all in the name of the job security we assume non-academics are not promised.

Status Or Happiness?  I’m Choosing Both

Inherent in this experiment, as well as Napgal’s post, is the assumed contradiction between status and happiness.  I have reflected in personal writing on these two paths as a series of major and minor crossroads throughout my life as a marginalized scholar:

These crossroads are just one aspect of the larger decision I face: do I choose status, or do I choose happiness?  In some ways, I have already made decisions toward both ends.  Unknowingly, I chose a top-ranked PhD program; I liked the feel, and assumed I would have support for my work in sexualities.  But, I took a liberal arts position close to my family, forgoing a longer stay in graduate school to increase my marketability (to research intensive schools).  My work took on a mainstream approach, while pushing the envelope.  I present myself in normative ways, but make no secret of my politics, views, and experiences.

I was reminded of the importance of reflective writing.  Immediately after I wrote the previous paragraph (yesterday, on my flight back from the ASA conference), I wrote the following:

The more I reflect on this, I realize I am actually on neither path.  I have not selected the “easy” route, completely relinquishing hope for status or prestige.  But, I also have not completely sold my soul for the status-driven route.  By bouncing back and forth between the two routes, I am actually on my own path.  And, it is my hope of hopes that I actually pave a new path, that my footsteps are making visible a new route for others.  With a commitment to paving the way, I must be open and honest with others about my successes and missteps.  My tale may even be a cautionary one for others behind me.  I must tell my story and live openly for the purview of others like me!

That is, it was this personal reflection that sparked the idea for this post.  I have done some digging to find out about other scholars before me who pursued alternative paths, for these individuals were either invisible in my graduate training or the more radical aspects of their lives were stripped away.  For example, though sociologists are slowly beginning to recognize the work of W. E. B. DuBois, we never talk about his work with NAACP, his experiences of racist discrimination, or anything other than his published works.  This, in my opinion, speaks back to being a whole person, even for other academics.  I would love to hear, “wow, I liked your article in Journal of Health and Social Behavior, and omg, your blog is amazing!”

Tenure

So, here it goes.  For the next seven years, I will continue to publish research, teach courses, mentor students, blog, and work with community organizations.  I have chosen to stop biting my tongue because I am tired of tasting blood.  I will be a whole person to my colleagues, students, friends, and family — and myself.  I chose not to stress about tenure, working on projects that meet my goals of social justice and accessibility at my own pace.  I will focus on “connecting up”, forging connections with senior scholars and the “big names” in my field, as well as “connecting down” by making genuine efforts to connect with my peers and younger scholars and students.  I will give occasional updates, and, in the end, report back on the findings of this 7-year experiment.  Wish me luck!

Focus, Focus, Focus!

During my days in the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, the early years of college at UMBC, I always appreciated visits from Dr. Freeman Hrabowski — the university’s president, and Meyerhoff’s co-founder.  Obviously, we did not see him daily because of his busy schedule, but his time with us was significant.  It is funny, though some students criticized his emphasis on academics and leadership over other things like athletics (which is dominant at bigger campuses), Dr. Hrabowski was in some ways a coach.  He would always conclude his visits by having us recite “Dreams” by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes:

Dreams

By Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Then, together, we would say, “focus, focus, focus,” while moving our hands up and down in unison with each “focus.”  Maybe reciting poetry is not typical in basketball locker rooms, but the sentiment to “get our head in the game” parallels a coach’s pep talk.

I left the Meyerhoff program after a year and a half, finishing out the remaining 3.5 years on a general scholarship and pursuing sociology as my major.  But, this kind of mentoring, the emphasis on holding fast to dreams and staying focused, has stayed with me all of these years.  Previously, I have reflected on how Dr. Hrabowksi’s mentorship and leadership has touched my life; and, I wrote about the support and encouragement I received from the late Meyerhoff director LaMont Toliver (who passed in 2012).  I credit Anika Green, a former assistant director (and my advisor at the time) of the Meyerhoff program, with forcing me to get my act together after a first, very disappointing year in college.  (I promised I would do better my second year, to which she said matter-of-factly: “prove it.”  And, so I did.)

The Philosophy of “Focus, Focus, Focus”

I take from their guidance during this key developmental period in my pursuit of higher education the mantra to “focus, focus, focus.”  Certainly, there are times when we cannot focus because something is off or amiss.

To an outsider, I likely seemed uncommitted to academics during my first year, and maybe even trying to “pull a fast one” during the beginning of my sophomore year in taking introductory classes in sociology, psychology, and women’s studies (my major was mathematics at the time!).  But, I struggled to focus because my heart was not in what I was doing/studying.  What I realized later was that my advisors in the Meyerhoff program were committed to my success, even if that path fell outside of the program’s focus on science, mathematics, and engineering.  For all of my growth since I start college 10 years ago (wow…), now with a PhD in sociology and headed to start my tenure-track job at a top liberal arts college, I cannot imagine that they are anything but happy and proud.

Beyond resolving any fundamental barriers to focusing, I understand the “focus, focus, focus” philosophy as one that suggests staying true to an internally defined path.  Certainly, we should be open to changes and detours, to learned lessons from mistakes and failures, and the support and encouragement from others.  But, our calling in life comes from within; it cannot and should not be given to us from others.  Focusing also means staying strong against hostile, external threats that aim to knock us down or block us from excelling.  We have to resist the challenges that aim to undermine our success.

Renewed Relevance

I am generally self-aware, spending a fair amount of time reflecting on where I am in life and how things are going.  Sadly, this tilts a little more towards worrying about the future, getting work done, and staying on top of and (ideally) ahead of things.  But, there is just enough reflection on my past and present to appreciate growth, learn from my mistakes, reassess and reevaluate, and recognize others’ impact in my life.

Sometimes, that feeling that things are off arises.  I have felt it a few times this past year as I went on the academic job market, completed and defended my dissertation, and peeled some of the figurative tape across my mouth to begin breaking silence around important, urgent issues in academia.  I have had to navigate what I feel is right and important, others’ expectations and advice, and some supportive, as well as unsupportive, responses from others.  In doing so, I have felt, at times, as though I may not being going about things the right way, making a mistake, saying or doing something that is unpopular, etc.

So, I have found it useful to seriously, intentionally focus, to ask myself — “okay, what is my path right now?  what are the most important things I need to be pursuing?”  No matter my concerns about what colleagues are saying in the blog world, speaking with other academics is not a priority for me.  So, in stepping back (a second time), I have reminded myself that the purpose of my blogging is, first, to educate, to offer a perspective on current events that I do not see otherwise offered.  A second purpose is to offer advice, resources, opportunities, and insights to colleagues in similar or the same fields and/or of similar backgrounds.

But, beyond blogging, I have reflected on my overarching focus as an academic: to educate as a means of social justice and liberation.  That includes creating new knowledge and correcting/extending existing knowledge (i.e., research) and teaching.  To further the reach of these activities, given the paywalls that restrict research and college education, I blog and work with community groups.

As some of my friends and I joke, “you can’t hug every cat.”  In other words, while I may be concerned about so many varied issues that ultimately stem from inequality and discrimination, I should not spread myself thin trying to blog about every ongoing current event, and keep up with others’  blogs, and participate in blog wars with colleagues, and so forth.  I have to “focus, focus, focus.”

In fact, I am beginning to see the value of focusing on doing a lot on fewer things.  I, metaphorically, have to plant my flag in some spot on the earth and expand outward from there.  And, that all starts from the internal — I am that flagpost.  By having a strong sense of who I am, what I value, and what my goals are, I can be more efficient in making incremental changes around me, starting small and getting bigger over time.

Maybe I can encourage others to do the same, to “use their powers for good” rather than waste it or even use it for bad reasons.  Thus, I conclude with an overly simplified characterization of Gandhian philosophy: be the change you wish to see in the world.

So, here’s to a renewed focus on matters most in my pursuit to improve the world!

PS: Two sociology bloggers, who I admire, inspired this post: Tressie McMillan Cottom who has a clear perspective and educational agenda, and Dr. Crystal Fleming, who regularly self-reflects on her blogAware of Awareness.

More On Barriers To Meaningful Conversations On Racism

In an ongoing blogosphere debate among four sociologists (including me) on the persistence of racism in America, one issue has been sporadically addressed: barriers to frank, meaningful conversations about race and racism.

Referencing a New York Times “Room for Debate” discussion on Black scholars’ obligation to talk openly about race, I stressed that certain institutional barriers hinder our ability to do so.  In particular, due to the low-status of graduate students in the academy, and the fears of professional consequences for pre-tenure professors, many academics are silenced as a necessary means to professional survival.

Sprinkled throughout other parts of the ongoing debate have been references to interpersonal barriers to talking about race, as well.  Though they have been touched on to some degree, I wish to make explicit two interpersonal barriers that hinder our ability to have meaningful exchanges about the continuing significance of race and racism: (hyper)personalization and depersonalization.

(Hyper)personalization

Before I begin, I will note that by personalization, I mean to take or make something related to oneself (i.e., “take things personally”).  We are mere humans who have only one perspective from which to view and experience the world — our own.  So, we cannot help but to personalize the everyday interactions with have with others.  In fact, with so many things to achieve in one day, we are driven to maximize those things that relate to us in some way, and minimize those that seem irrelevant to us.

One aspect of personalization that often serves as a barrier to open dialogue about race and racism is hyperpersonalization, or making or taking things so personally than a broader conversation is blocked.  One major example of this is when one perceives a (generally) broad conversation as a statement about oneself or one’s views or actions.  I can think of many examples from conversations I have witnessed or of which I have been a part wherein a white person feels as though they have been accused of being racist.

In fact, from the initiation of the conversation, many white people anxiously navigate the question whether they may be racists.  In various blog posts, I have referred to this as the “racist hot-potato” or “who’s a racist?” game.  Too often, white people feel constrained in dialogue about race, or aim to avoid it all together, because they fear the label of “racist.”  Unfortunately, their resultant behavior or even open admission to this fear does not help their case against the charge of racism.  Taking the mere fact that racism is being discussed as a personal indictment of racial prejudice shuts too many meaningful conversations down before they even begin.

Ironically, the other side of the coin of hyperpersonalization is the ugly charge, often made by whites about people of color, that one makes or takes things too personally, thus forcing unnecessary attention to (than away from) race and racism.  The “Derailment Bingo” card that Jason Orne included in his recent blog post has great examples of this means of shutting down a conversation about oppression:

Depersonalization

The opposite extreme of hyperpersonalization, then, is depersonalization, or making or taking things completely unrelated to oneself.  Unfortunately, this comes too easily for white people because their racial privilege blinds them to the infinite ways in which race and racism shape (i.e., benefit) their lives.  For many reasons, it is simply difficult for whites to see race — their own, others’, and racism writ large:

  • The numerous, subtle, and taken-for-granted privileges afforded to whites are hardly ever announced as such.  “Sir, you have received this unproblematic dining experience because you are white.”  As a multiracial person, sometimes read as (completely) white by others, I have benefited from presumably pleasant, unproblematic experiences that may have been the product of white privilege/the absence of racial discrimination.
  • Today, some degree of racial prejudice operates in our minds unconsciously.  Thus, the aforementioned white privileges are often given in the absence of conscious, intentional racist motivations.
  • Presumably, most whites pride themselves on being good people.  So, short of actively promoting racism, knowingly benefiting from racial privilege, or discriminating against people of color, there is little need to assess one’s own racial biases and actions.

Given the ease with which one can distance oneself from racism “out there,” one remains uncritical of one’s own views and actions.  It remains easy to speak as though one is objective in dialogue about racism.  A consequence of this, then, is a mismatch between frames used in conversation.

For example, I may speak from personal experiences of racial discrimination and slights.  To have those experiences, or my perspective (which is informed by those experiences), met with an alternative, “objective” perspective can lead me to feel that the validity or significance of my experiences has been challenged or dismissed.  Interestingly, the denial of racial minorities’ personal experiences with racism has been defined as racist microaggressions themselves.  (So, too, has been the denial of one’s own racial bias.)

Even short of dismissing another person’s experiences, depersonalization also reflects how whites may approach a conversation on racism relative to that of people of color.  Given the persistent stereotypes, myths, and bias related to race, I cannot help but feel the urgency of life or death, freedom or bondage in every conversation about racism.  Though a bit to optimistic, I feel compelled to convince others to acknowledge the history and present reality of racism in America, for doing so could literally mean changing the course of future events; allowing uncritical views on race could mean death.  So, I am frustrated when I encounter whites who approach such conversations with little interest (or the arrogant attitude that it is my job to convince them of its importance), or, worse, a playful round of “devil’s advocate.”  Racism is no game.  And, it certainly isn’t fun.

A Sociologically-Informed Conversation

A useful approach, then, is a healthy balance of personalizing and depersonalizing conversations on race and racism.  Or, to clarify, we may find more meaningful discussions through a sociological perspective: recognizing our personal experiences and biographies are shaped and constrained by larger social forces (e.g., racism).  It is useful to bring our own perspective and experiences to bear in a conversation, but to rely on them alone misses the structural and historical aspects of racism.  It is useful to think structurally and historically about race and racism, but not devoid of actual people and their experiences.

Further, I echo Jason’s sentiment that these conversations must be initiated and continued by both people of color and whites.  It is exhausting for racial and ethnic minorities to constantly have these conversations, in part, because they often have to start from the beginning, Race 101 — defining race and arguing its continuing significance.  Too many whites think and talk about race only in the presence of people of color, or reserve talking about racism for conversations with friends and colleagues of color.  But, racial and ethnic minorities cannot bear the burden of talking about racism alone due to the numerous interpersonal and institutional constraints that I and the other bloggers have pointed out.

What may help whites is moving beyond the personal indictment of racism.  As Jay Smooth, radio host and anti-racist activist, noted in a 2011 talk, the myth of the racist/non-racist duality shuts down conversations on race and racism, and gives the false assurance that one’s work is done by not being racist.  Racism is a social system; it shapes and constraints every aspect of social life.  Non-participation is not a possibility.

Thus, in being totally, unapologetically frank about this, either you actively resist racism (i.e., anti-racist) or you are complicit in its persistence (i.e., racist).  In his talk, Jay notes that one cannot merely select non-racism as a lifelong, static trait in 2008; just like being a clean person, the status of an anti-racist reflects the lifelong, active effort to challenge racism and racial inequality.

No matter how much whites engage in anti-racist work, they can never completely eliminate white privilege from their lives; thus, the question, “who’s a racist?” is moot.  A more fruitful perspective is one that focuses both on the structural manifestations of racism, as well as individuals’ beliefs (i.e., prejudice) and behaviors (i.e., discrimination) that justify and support them.

Closing Thoughts

This, of course, is not necessarily an easy nor full-proof strategy.  Talking about race and racism is challenging, no matter how critical, mindful, forgiving, and understanding our approach.  And, even among sociologists, it is easy for some to hide behind science to avoid talking about it personally, or even use it, albeit selectively, to prove racism no longer exists or has declined in significance.

But, it is crucial for further progress toward racial equality that we are able to have these difficult conversations.  For as Jay noted, we must not mistake our silence about racism as evidence of our success in eradicating it.  If anything, a day where we do talk freely and peacefully about race and racism would be a real sign of progress.

Finally, check out Jay Smooth’s advice for calling out racist words and behaviors (hint, first distinguish calling out people’s racist actions from calling out racist people — the latter is sure to derail the conversation).