Midterm elections and break

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As the results of the midterm elections came in, we cheered on the women of color and Indigenous women who will be a part of a more diverse group of representative on the local, state, and national levels. We feel good about the part that we played. Anita is especially excited about having played a tiny part (writing 60 postcards to voters) in support of Florida’s Amendment 4, which passed and restored the right to vote for more than a million Floridians. Adriana also wrote postcards in support of candidates across the country, but is especially proud of getting out to canvass twice in MN-2.

And we know that there’s so much more work still to be done. We’re inspired by our friends, family, students, and alums who have dedicated their time and energy to electoral politics while also being clear that elections are only a part of what needs to change in order to build a more equitable society for us all.

We plan to be back in January with a series of posts about the ramifications of the #metoo movement on academic freedom, particularly as it relates to how we think about what and who we teach in our classrooms. We’d love to hear if there are particular questions or topics you’ve been thinking about in that area that we might be able to address in our posts. You can email us as doxprofx@gmail.com or submit a question here anonymously.

 

Civility and Racism–Links roundup

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This week, we want to highlight an essay published this week, “I fought academia’s cult of civility and all I got was this lousy PTSD diagnosis” by Naima Lowe. In it, Dr. Lowe details how her efforts to defend students’ right to protest at Evergreen State College put her in the crosshairs of right-wing hate groups. Bombarded by hate mail and threats (some of which she reprints in this essay along with the graphic, racist images she was sent), she attempted to find institutional support. While her story reveals how institutions are not equipped to protect faculty members who are doxxed and threatened by outside groups, it also demonstrates how her institution was unwilling to help her and instead found ways to find her responsible: by deeming her behavior uncivil, by equating her anger about racism with the hate flooding her in-box, by claiming an institutional need to “remain neutral.” We were impressed by Dr. Lowe’s honesty and courage in publishing this searing account of her experiences. It is a singular story, but we think her analysis makes it useful for all of us, and we urge you to read it.

How now down brown Take 5: Stereotype threat, gender pronouns and the gender binary

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In this post, we address a question sent to us by our colleague, Anna Moltchanova, who teaches in the Philosophy Department at Carleton College. Anna asked us whether there’s a downside to having students introduce their pronouns in class and identify themselves as a particular gender in that it might introduce stereotype threat and affect their performance in class, especially since the first class of the term can set the tone for the rest of the term. She noted that philosophy is a field that is very gender-imbalanced and she wanted to know if there are ways to counter stereotype threat. She also asked, given the gender imbalance of the field, whether deconstructing the gender binary in such a context may cause some unintended retrograde consequences.

Thank you, Anna, for giving us a chance to think through this complicated set of issues that you raise about how to ensure a more equitable learning environment for all students, given how male-dominated the field of philosophy is.

As Claude Steele and other researchers have defined it, stereotype threat describes a situation where a person’s performance on a task is negatively affected by their concerns about how they will do on a task, because their identity group is stereotyped as not being skilled or capable of that task. Researchers have demonstrated that any group can be susceptible to such a threat–in this talk, for example, Steele gives the example of how a White man might be under stereotype threat when asked to perform in a rap battle! There are a few conditions where stereotype threat gets “activated”—the stereotyped identity has to be “primed” in some way and the person has to care deeply about doing well on the task. Is it possible then that being asked to share gender pronouns could “prime” a female student in a philosophy class?

From our understanding of the research on stereotype threat, that is not out of the realm of possibility, but we’d want to weigh this possibility against the alternative. Given how important it is for people to be recognized as the gender they are, in this case, we’d venture to say that the possibility of triggering a stereotype threat seems lower than the possibility of the harm caused by mis-gendering students. One of the main things we understood from the conversation that we had with our friend and former Carleton colleague, Tegra, is that asking for gender pronouns ensures that we’re not assuming people’s gender based on our perceptions of their gender expressions (you can check that two-post conversation here and here). In other words, the moment where we are sharing our pronouns is not the first moment in which we are gendered in a classroom. It is difficult not to automatically assign gender identities to everyone we encounter—in fact, that’s one of the hardest habits that we have to break in order to ensure that we’re allowing everyone to tell us their gender rather than assuming it. Given that, asking for pronouns allows individuals to claim their own gender identity.

Once you or we have decided, then, that the benefits outweigh the costs of asking for gender pronouns, we can look at the research on stereotype threat that has shown that there are ways to mitigate its effects. It’s important, for example, to talk about doing well on a specific task or in a field as the result of effort and growth, rather than some idea that some people (or some genders!) are “naturally” better in philosophy than others. The idea of a growth mindset can allow women students to understand that philosophical intelligence is malleable rather than fixed. Studies have also shown that it’s important to think about the situational cues being given to students about who belongs in a particular department or field or what researchers calling “belonging mindset.” Promoting a growth mindset and paying attention to what implicit and explicit messages are being given to students about who “belongs” to a department or field can help encourage students from traditionally underrepresented groups (based on gender, race, socioeconomic class) to see themselves as philosophers or physicists or mathematicians. Such messages are conveyed in myriad ways: the gender balance of faculty in a department; the identities of speakers in a department; whose voices and perspectives are included in the curriculum and so forth.

Finally, you ask whether incorporating the notion that gender is non-binary risks necessary attention to the ways in which women have been historically marginalized in the field of philosophy and continue to face such marginalization. We were discussing just this issue in a different context recently. Anita mentioned that she saw a post by an alum during the Kavanaugh Senate confirmation hearings about how the discourse around gender and sexual violence reinforced the gender binary and made invisible the experiences of trans and gender expansive survivors of sexual violence. For a moment, Anita was taken aback and annoyed–can’t women (and clearly at the time she was defining women as cis-women) not have the spotlight for just a moment to focus on their experiences of harm? Then she took a step back to remember that expanding our definition of who has been harmed doesn’t subtract from the harm that one particular group experienced. Indeed, as we expand our understanding of who has been harmed and how, we gain better insight into the way power is structured. It also allows us to build broader coalitions in the fight against power structures. In this case, it is not just cis-women who are harmed by patriarchal structures, but all women and all people who are seen as not belonging in philosophy because of their race, class, gender, and other social identities.

P.S. Neither of us are experts in the concept of stereotype threat, nor are we in male-dominated fields, so we welcome any anecdotes, experiences, strategies, and generous critiques you may have (especially if you’re in White/male-dominated fields).

Suggestions for further reading:

Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When white men can’t do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(1), 29-46.

Beasley, M. A., & Fischer, M. J. (2012). Why they leave: The impact of stereotype threat on the attrition of women and minorities from science, math and engineering majors. Social Psychology of Education, 15(4), 427-448.

Davies, P. G., Spencer, S. J., & Steele, C. M. (2005). Clearing the air: identity safety moderates the effects of stereotype threat on women’s leadership aspirations. Journal of personality and social psychology, 88(2), 276-287.

Spencer, S. J., Logel, C., & Davies, P. G. (2016). Stereotype threat. Annual review of psychology, 67, 415-437.

Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American psychologist, 52(6), 613-629.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797-811.

Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J., & Aronson, J. (2002). Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 34, pp. 379-440): Academic Press.

With great power comes great responsibility

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Spiderman is right.

Starting this fall, Adriana is a Full Professor, having been promoted this past spring (woohoo!!). As we celebrate this well-deserved recognition of her accomplishments, we want to take this moment to share some reflections on holding positions of power within institutions. As we’ve written about in other blog posts, earning tenure and now being promoted to full professor hasn’t been an easy process as women of color. First, there are fewer and fewer opportunities generally for people to obtain tenure-track positions, given the growth of contingent faculty positions. And given the racist and sexist history of academia, currently only a few women of color are full professors. Data from 2014 shows that only 28% of the full professors with tenure currently are women; there are only 143 Native American women in this category, 1,247 Latina women, 1,593 Black women, and 2,489 Asian American women. Adriana becoming a full professor is a big deal then for her, for Carleton, and for academia in general.

While our journeys to positions of power within academia have been difficult, we do now hold some power in our institution and we want to be thoughtful and mindful about what that means, especially in our interactions with folks who generally have less institutional power than we do–staff, students, and junior/non-tenure track faculty. This summer, we were surprised by the seeming lack of accounting for such differences in institutional power in the case of the sexual harassment case involving a full professor at New York University. While we won’t delve too deeply into our take on both Professor Ronell’s actions or those of senior scholars writing to defend her (we recommend this piece or this one for an insightful analysis), we were struck by the senior scholars’ apparent failure of imagination–could they have forgotten what it’s like to be a graduate student, to have little power, little access, and so much precarity?

As we discussed this case and our fundamental disagreement with how senior scholars responded, we had to admit that there were times when we, too, were not as mindful about differences in power at our institutions. Anita, for example, was reminded of the time when she sent an email to an untenured faculty member about a pedagogical tool used to discuss a text that she knew this faculty member was teaching in their class. From Anita’s perspective, it was just a friendly, collegial email–”Hey, you might be interested in this cool thing someone is doing”–and she was puzzled when she got back what she saw as an unnecessarily defensive email from the junior faculty member, explaining what they did in their class. When she chatted with Adriana about this, Adriana rightly pointed out that this faculty member probably was under a great deal of pressure during their tenure process where it can feel like everything you do and say is under scrutiny by students and senior colleagues. A “friendly” email from a tenured faculty member might not seem so friendly in that context.

Adriana recalled a time when she partnered with a staff member on a cool project. Adriana was very excited about the project, and she was eager to put in time organizing, strategizing, and making the project happen. She thought that if her partner had differences of opinion, they would just bring it up, and since that never happened, she plowed ahead. Of course, you’ve probably guessed that, actually, the partner had plenty of ideas, did not completely agree with Adriana, but never felt comfortable raising disagreements or areas of concern. When Adriana realized this, she felt terrible–she had failed to think about the faculty-staff power dynamic–and, more particularly, the institutional classism documented in the 2008 Carleton College climate survey. She hadn’t recognized her own power and, because of that, had bulldozed her colleague–she didn’t mean to do so, but the effects were the same.

These two examples are situations where we did become aware of how we were wielding power in unintended ways, but the damage had already been done. And we’re sure that there are other thoughtless uses of our power that we don’t know about. Going forward, the best we can do is to try and stay open to people’s critiques of our actions, especially from those who have less institutional and societal power than us.

The Ronell case also reinforced for us something we think about a lot and have written about before in this space. Researching, teaching, theorizing and writing about identity, power, and privilege does not make us immune to exercising power and privilege unfairly in our professional lives. In fact, sometimes being an “expert” in these fields can be used as a way to deflect reflection on our actions. Given that we both focus on issues on race and racism, for example, we know that saying that we are anti-racist isn’t a vaccination against being racist. We are not immune to acting passively or actively in ways that are racist just because we have friends of color, we are people of color, we can quote James Baldwin or Audre Lorde extensively…and so forth. It takes active, constant effort. Beverly Tatum describes this effort as walking against the flow of a moving elevator at a faster clip than the forward momentum. Jay Smooth talks about this effort as akin to daily, routine dental hygiene. Whatever metaphor you find helpful, it’s important to not fall back on the very tempting impulse to react to accusations of racism (or other -isms) in ways that make it seem like you’re somehow incapable of ever being racist. Because you’re not. Because we’re not.

Note: We’re back! As always, we will alternate original posts with links round up posts. We had a lot of fun answering your questions last year and would love to do that again. You can email us as dosprofx@gmail.com or submit a question anonymously here.

Calling out, calling in

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We’ve been thinking about call out culture for a while now (here’s one example of what might be seen as a “calling out” of people with privilege). We’ve read think pieces that argue that call out culture in social justice circles is toxic and that we need to be more strategic about how we call out people’s troubling behavior, while others counter this notion that it is call out culture that is toxic rather than racism, sexism, or rape. Like other folks we’ve talked to about this topic, we were especially struck by the tone of some of the conversations we witnessed our students having online. We were sitting around, thinking to ourselves, with fingers on chins, “Oh, these young people, if only they’d learn how to be kind on the interwebs.” As we talked about more about it, however, especially in light of some of the reactions we’ve gotten to some of our blog posts, we came to some different conclusions.

We think that the binary between call out and call in culture is not nuanced enough. If we want to move to “call in” culture, what exactly does that mean and what needs to happen so that people can understand that we’re ‘calling in’ and not ‘calling out’? What if people don’t want to be called in? What if no matter how gentle or strategic you try to be, people feel called out? What if there’s a long history of someone feeling silenced or trying various ways to point out troubling behavior that gets ignored (“calling in”) until words and frustrations explode on Facebook or other social media?

One way to think about this that brings nuance, we think, is to remember that context matters for how and when we point out troubling behavior or language that reinforces racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, transphobic structures, policies, and systems. One context that we think a lot about is intergroup dialogue. In this context, people are encouraged to share their stories and experiences; the goal is not to convince people that they are right or wrong. The participants are not presented with a host of data or statistics. However, they are encouraged to situate their personal experiences within larger structures, to consider the impact of their words on their fellow participants, and to stay open to how their path to college and in college was made easier or more difficult because of the access their identities afforded them or not. And it is the job of the facilitators to help participants do this kind of work–to ask difficult questions, to point out patterns in what had been said, to push back. The facilitators are there to notice not only what is being said but also what is not being said, body language, and so forth. Agreeing to be a facilitator or to be a participant in this context means that you’re taking on a particular responsibility to being open to critique and to being generous and productive with how you push back. However, these responsibilities are not ones, we think, is fair to expect students, particularly students who hold marginalized identities, to take on all the time on campuses in all contexts.

We admire the work that some folks have taken on to have difficult conversations with people who fundamentally disagree with them, and perhaps even dislike or hate them. For example, Dylan Marron who has conversations with people who have written hateful, personal comments about him online. Or the musician Daryl Davis who, for decades, has taken on the work of talking with people in the KKK and has convinced many to leave.

We don’t think it’s possible, though, for everyone to do this kind of work or that it’s fair to have the expectation that our students will do this difficult work especially in contexts when they haven’t agreed to do so. While in the context of intergroup dialogue and in classes we teach, we do ask students to listen differently, to be generous in their critiques of readings and each other, we do think there are times when it is appropriate and necessary to call out individuals in a public way.

What is difficult, though, is figuring out when and why that’s necessary or appropriate. We’ve been asked the same question about some of our posts. We’ve been asked, given that we work at a small college, what was our goal in naming specific experiences in our blog posts?

As we were writing, we thought that in not naming people but naming behaviors, we were not individualizing it. We believed that by placing particular interactions within structure, we might make it possible to shift behavior, or at least make it possible for other people to see our perspective more clearly.

In the conversation that follows we dig in a bit more into the question of context and goals when it comes to “calling out.”

Adriana: I’ve been thinking about how helpful it has been to me to think about higher education as a white space, through Sara Ahmed’s work for example. Spaces are racialized and therefore can be felt as less productive, less welcoming, depending on your background. Then I couldn’t help but see Carleton through that lens, on behalf of my classes and my students, and I think that’s what we try to do with our blog. We’re not trying to get people to believe what we believe. We’re discussing our own experiences: this is why our worldview is this way, and here’s some research for why we think our worldview is not just the two of us. Then maybe you (the reader) could shift your point of view a little bit.

Anita: Right. It’s our experiences of these interactions. But there is the other person in the interaction and clearly, they see it differently. One could argue that the way we’ve written about some of our experiences was ungenerous, unkind, unproductive. They could ask what was our goal in writing about moments that are specifically about Carleton and some of our colleagues, because even if we don’t name specific people, we’re talking about faculty meetings, we’re talking about White faculty, for example. What was our goal in presenting our side of the interaction?

Adriana: What do you think our goal was?

Anita: I think it was as simple as [or as complicated as!] interrupting that White space, the White take on things. Or this notion that we don’t have a problem. That we’re not a White space. We were pushing back on how we (the college community) don’t tend to name things. We don’t name Carleton or faculty meetings as these White spaces. We were interrupting that happy space, the happy Whiteness.

Adriana: It’s the killjoy moment. That’s the complicated part of call out culture. In being the killjoy in the moment, we may not intend to be so interruptive that things get shut down in particular ways. Of course, they never get shut down at the heart of the machinery. They get shut down in these junky, clunky ways that preserve the machinery,and that makes sure that the center keeps on running. We might think we’re being judicious and thoughtful about our call out but simply because it’s a killjoy call out, it gets perceived in these really painful ways for people. When students do it on Facebook, we’re sitting here, judging, and saying, “Why don’t you be a little bit nicer?” but maybe the students have tried to be nice and it got the same results for them as it has for us.

Anita: I think of the way that people were surprised by the blog, surprised by the tone, surprised by “what? You’re not happy here” or perhaps some people who felt called out might have reacted with a “but they never said anything to me!!” For our students, maybe by the time they get to Facebook (and sometimes this history is hinted at in their FB exchanges), they’ve already had these clearly unproductive exchanges in person. And then they get to this place where they’re frustrated not just by a particular moment but by a whole history of moments and they jump to pretty cutting language in their online exchanges. In the same way, even in the faculty meeting we talk about, there was a build up, there were earlier moments in which you tried to intervene, you had tried to be heard in person, and you weren’t heard. Again, if it was just that moment, we wouldn’t have written a blog post about it. But it’s hard to make visible that history of why that particular moment felt so frustrating. We do try to situate that moment in a history, in a structure, but perhaps that does not seem as obvious to others as it does to us. So then our post comes out in this way that people are surprised because they haven’t felt like we articulated our experiences of those moments to them in person or we have articulated it but people haven’t heard us.

Adriana: Then we do it in this somewhat direct way, in this culturally unacceptable way. It’s not that it’s wrong or vulgar. The fact is that it’s blunt and public makes it culturally inappropriate, and that means it gets read as spiteful, unproductive, personal, vindictive, ungrateful.

Anita: But what can you disagree with when we write about our experiences? You can disagree with the fact that it wasn’t your experience but how can you disagree with our own interpretations of our experiences? Which is what I think is happening. Saying, “But that’s not what I meant” negates our experiences, it negates our interpretation, it negates the impact. In a world where everybody has equal power, we could have just said, “Oh, this is what I heard when you said this” and the other person would say, “Oh, I hear you, though that’s not what I meant.” But a lot of the times institutional power works in ways that we don’t even get to say that. Somebody says something, you object, but just in your head, or with your friends. You don’t actually feel like you have the power or the wherewithal in the moment to respond directly. What we’re trying to think through is what happens in interactions where there are clear institutional lines of power; with faculty, for example, it’s between tenured or untentured faculty that often map onto differences in broader societal power because of race, gender, class, etc. Because if they are my peer or my friend, then there are different ways of calling out that are possible when there isn’t a power imbalance.

Adriana: I mean, you just call me out directly. [laughter]

Anita: But we don’t have institutional power over each other. I assume that students also call each other in more gentle ways among their friends.

Adriana: The perceived violence of the call out is exacerbated when there’s greater power imbalances involved.

Anita: Yes, it’s about power but also about a lack of relationship. For us, and in the intergroup dialogue context, this is why you build a sustained relationship.

Adriana: Maybe in these FB convos, they are not interested in sustaining relationships and maybe that’s okay. Why are we afraid of moments that are not about building community in particular ways? I’m thinking of Miranda Joseph’s study of LGBTQ organizations, where she tracks how in their work, these utopic dreams of how things should be get in the way of actually doing the work of building community.

Anita: At Carleton, there’s this rhetoric of how we are already a community. It’s not an utopian goal. It’s presumed that it’s already there and so we don’t have to work at it. So by challenging what happens at Carleton, we’re breaking community rather than believing in it. But what we’re saying is that for some of us, that community doesn’t exist.

Adriana: Yes, there’s a superficial sense of community. But there’s a difference between choosing each other and thus calling each other in, and this idea that somehow just because we’ve all chosen to be in this place, we are part of a community. You know me. I’m an optimist. I’m into this idea of bringing people from all over the world and saying we want you to choose each other; think of yourselves as belonging to each other. There are ways that the institution tries to build that community, in orientation, at the beginning of year. But it’s also this idea that you’re now at Carleton. And you should get along. Or you will get along.

Anita: Why do people come to college? If you come to a small college, are you buying into some part of it’s going to be this utopian community? We’ve talked to some women of color alums who felt some level of betrayal of that idea because the community didn’t work for them, it didn’t support them.

Adriana: And for faculty, just because we have chosen to work at this place, there’s an expectation that we’d get along, we’d be friends. We are just choosing a job, a pretty good job, but it’s a job. It’s not like someone said, hey, there’s this utopian community, and you see that in the brochure,  it looks amazing, and that’s why you get a job here.

Anita: No, but collegiality is a part of how we’re reviewed. And collegiality often gets translated to not challenging the institution or at least not challenging it in a way that actually changes anything. For faculty, it’s the notion of collegiality that’s invoked that ends up silencing dissent and for students, it’s the notion of community.

Adriana: I think the language of community gets used for faculty, too. When people speak up, sometimes the response is, “Don’t you remember our values about civil discourse?” Students are told that healthy exchanges of ideas is good. Civility is valued. But we don’t talk about social justice in our official statements about the college. We don’t state explicitly that we believe in justice, that we believe in racial equality.

Anita: Yes. And there’s no guidance about what to do when when different values clash. Yes, we value free speech and we value non-discrimination but what happens when those values clash in a particular incident? Is it a balance? Does one get valued over another?

Adriana: Part of that fake binary between call out or call in culture is related to this idea that we have a desire to build community, to build towards something we want to see. But what happens when there are differences in what we are building toward? It’s not like we all have the same ideas of a an utopian community. There definitely wouldn’t be enough crying in your utopia for my taste! [laughter]

As you might be able to tell from this post and our exchanges, we are still thinking through our ideas about the “call out/in” culture. We would love to hear from you how you’ve been thinking about these issues, within a college campus context, and also about how you’ve been navigating these issues once you’ve left that context. Please comment here if possible so that other readers can see your ideas!

How now down brown, Take 2: The state of campus discourse

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We received this anonymous question and since we are not sure if the person is a student or faculty/staff person on a college campus, we decided to answer the question assuming it’s a student, though what we have to say can apply more broadly:

“I have become quite concerned with the state of social/political discourse on campus. There does not seem to be any room for any viewpoints which are not decidedly progressive. Even a mostly liberal viewpoint with a caveat is condemned. In many spaces on campus, the only acceptable viewpoint is the 100% fully liberal one with no caveats or references to complexity of the issue at hand. An example of this attitude: any difference between a privileged group and a marginalized group is 100% due to oppression/discrimination and if you suggest any other potential factor, you are complicit/unenlightened/inconsiderate. Only a portion of people perpetuate this culture, but they are the most vocal and end up dominating discussion spaces. What can we as a campus do to improve the state of our social/political discourse?”

Dear Quite Concerned,

Thank you for your question; we appreciate your concerns about the state of social and political discourse on your campus. As we began discussing your question, it became clear that it was open to different interpretations and expectations. We decided to  intersperse our answer with the moments of conversations we had as we discussed it.

First we want to try and unpack your question. The one thing we see in how you start and end is that you’re framing your concern as an institutional one–you’re concerned about the state of campus discourse. The middle, however, is chock-full of frustration about not being heard. In other words, there seems to be a disconnect between how you try to help us see the issue and the way you are experiencing the issue. The phrase “state of social and political discourse” is so broad. Are we talking about classroom culture or lunchroom conversations? Where is this discourse taking place? We emphasize this because, of course, there isn’t one “state of discourse” on any campus; rather, there are multiple spaces of discourse with multiple goals and norms. For example, if I’m in the Gender and Sexuality Center on campus and my goal is to advocate for gender neutral bathrooms, that is not a time when I want to have a conversation about whether someone thinks trans identity is “real or not.” Maybe at that point, someone trying to have that particular conversation would get shut down. In other words, we think it’s important to consider different discursive spaces and their expectations. In what contexts are diversity of viewpoints welcome and necessary and for what purpose? We’d go so far as to suggest that a diversity of viewpoints does not necessarily equal a “good” or “healthy” state of political and social discourse; it all depends on the particular discursive space and its –oftentimes unwritten– expectations.

Both of us have gone through trainings to help us lead dialogues, so one of our first moves in discussions about identity and politics, if someone brings up the possibility that we are complicit, unenlightened and inconsiderate, is that we try to take a step back and consider whether we are complicit and inconsiderate. We try to see these moments as learning moments and not necessarily about proving our progressive credentials. We’re wondering if you’ve done that; have you been able to really listen to the stories that matter to people as they reject your point of view?

We ask this because the example that you give, “differences between privileged and marginalized groups,” is vague. We wondered what exactly you meant by that phrase. What differences are we talking about? We can imagine a conversation about, say,  racialized differences in educational outcomes where someone suggests that we should think about “cultural factors” or “IQ” without attending first to societal and structural factors. We would see this suggestion as being complicit in continuation of oppression because there is a long history of people ignoring historical and structural disadvantages. Because of our disciplinary training, we both see larger structural factors as having better explanatory power for the social, economic, and cultural differences we see among groups. We also think that we’re all always complicit in oppression–as individuals, we are embedded in structures and thus help to maintain and reproduce those structures of oppression, regardless of our positionality.

As we thought through your question and considered the ways in which conversations about oppression and privilege require us to consider our own individual complicity in these structures, we surmised that perhaps there are times when you feel a bit browbeaten by these interactions because you are recognizing that complicity.

You can see perhaps that we think it is important for individuals to consider their own resistances and tensions to conversations about power, structure, and racial/class/sexual/gender formations. But all that said, there are times when discussions can feel unproductive and unhelpful on campus; from our viewpoints as faculty,  some student-focused discussion spaces for students, in particular, seem to have become very fraught and divisive. From conversations with colleagues at other colleges, this seems to be a common refrain, reflective of the state of discourse at the national level.

Here’s how we proceed in these kinds of spaces: we recognize that we cannot change what is happening to us; we can only change our reaction. After all, we cannot necessarily change how another person engages in a discussion, but we can become better at listening.

We both believe that all of us can work on listening more closely and with less personal investment in any conversation that is about social justice, about structure. Listening helps us move away from shaming towards naming structures. In other words, shaming others or ourselves does no good when we are trying to understand. At the same time, we need to get better at recognizing when we have positions of power in institutions and societies, this naming of structure can feel personal. Especially for those of us with identity-based positions of privilege, we need to develop that ability to not react right away when you feel like something is challenging you.

One emotion that tends to paralyze a lot of people is anger. While we are worried that people aren’t able to talk to each other because of anger, we deeply believe that we all need to get better at listening to anger and why a person might be angry. People have stories and experiences of discrimination that they need to share, oftentimes without wanting or needing analysis or counterpoint. In one of the groups that we are both a part of, we use meta-language to mark the kind of conversation we need–“this is NOT a problem-solving conversation”–as a way to let our friends know that we want their empathy, not their fixes.

Perhaps we move towards having more productive conversations through such signaling of intent and, in general, if we got better at not just needing to make our point in a conversation– “No, but it’s not about oppression!”–and  just ask questions about stories and experiences.

Adriana: Yes! It’s about dialogue! Ask questions.

Anita; Yeah, but what if somebody says when you are doing all the right things, “Fuck you! You’re complicit!” what do you do at that moment?

{long thoughtful pause}

Adriana: I think a response to pain has to be empathetic. It has to be as open as possible. I’m struck by that moment in the documentary from Stir Fry when the White man says to the woman of color, “I just don’t understand your pain. I really feel terrible, I just don’t understand.” And she says, “Just sit with me. Just sit in my pain with me.” I think the difficult thing about what you were asking me right now is that I can imagine scenarios where someone is super angry with me and I’m just not getting it, I’m unenlightened. I don’t see it yet so I can’t apologize because it wouldn’t be authentic. It would be fake for me to say “I’m sorry” because I need to understand first, but that person can’t teach me because they’re not in that space. So I need to acknowledge that in some way what is happening, where I say, “I hear your anger and I’ll sit with you.”

Anita: Maybe the move you make  when you feel attacked is to listen more, rather than needing to respond more. The thing that we do sometimes…I do it all the time [we all do it!], I think about all the arguments I’ve had where I should have been better at stepping back, taking a breath, and sometimes, yes, I did, but also there are many times when I didn’t.  It’s hard to tell from this question where this person is coming from. I would want to ask them: Have you always been at places before coming to this campus where your viewpoints have always been validated? Imagine going through 12 years of schooling where you’ve had very few people validate your experiences and your perspective. Maybe this campus is the space, for whatever reason, that finally does feel like a space where you can take up more space than you have been able to before. Imagine that when people shut you down, sometimes it’s terrible and they should do better, but other times, where is that coming from? Can you have this moment of empathy, especially if you’re someone who hasn’t experienced being shut down before coming to this campus?

We don’t know, from your question, what campus you’re on, but we’re going to imagine you here at Carleton. We’ll imagine that you think of yourself as liberal. You’re going to all these events and you’re realizing you’re not as liberal as you thought. And you see that there are critiques of the liberal logic of the world which make it seem like this campus has no space for you. In the between-the-lines of your question, we hear that you want to feel like your voice matters too. And a lot of what we’re saying is that sometimes your voice doesn’t matter and that hurts.

But what we’re saying is perhaps your voice doesn’t always need to matter. For example, if people are talking about differences between privileged and marginalized groups, why do you feel the need to bring up other factors? Are you trying to solve a problem? Are you trying to think about other ways to change things?  As we mentioned earlier, we’re both structuralists. To us, saying that we need to change cultures or people, without changing oppressive structures, seems to us to be replicating a colonialist model that blames people for their own circumstances.

Because your example is vague, we thought through a hypothetical example that would apply to our positions as faculty.

Let’s say there was a review of tenure cases in the past 25 years, and we see a trend of faculty of color getting tenure at lower rates than White faculty. When the two of us would talk about it, we’d start by talking about the structures on campus that might be making it harder for faculty of color to get tenure. If another faculty member at that meeting said, “Well, maybe we should think about how faculty of color aren’t as good teachers. Maybe faculty of color have inferior publication records,” we would feel that this person was missing the point. We’d argue that they’re justifying discrimination against faculty of color and reinscribing minority status because we’re starting with the assumption that faculty of color are as qualified as White faculty. We probably would react with emotion, perhaps anger, and while that might make that faculty member feel like we’re attacking them, we’re actually just pointing to the fact that we need to get to the structural factors before jumping to the “faculty of color are deficient” narratives. We’re also well-versed on a large body of research on the long history of tropes of people of color not being as qualified as explanations for why there are so few people of color in institutions. We’re always trying to work against that kind of narrative.

Finally, the other thing we hear you saying is that making the case for structural factors/discrimination is a “simple” one. We would say that to talk about structural factors as we would in this faculty tenure example is to discuss a complex set of a factors that coordinate to reproduce the position of these faculty of color.

We want to end by commending you for caring so much about having these conversations, and trying to figure out what that can and might look like. In a future post, we plan to discuss our thoughts about call out culture in the age of social media and the possibilities of coalition politics. For right now, though, we’d just remind you and our other readers that face-to-face conversations matter. They’re hard. When you have them, you’ll see the look on people’s faces when you call them names or get really angry, you’ll see them shut down, and you’re hopefully going to think about whether that’s your end goal. If you just want to shut people down, go right ahead. But if the goal is –as we hope– to generate new communities and new systems of justice and a better future, we need to recognize that we live in a fucked up system, but we’re not going to make it any better by using the same fucked up ways of engaging with each other.

P.S. A quick note about how we would address this question a bit differently if it comes from a faculty member: We would say that we have institutional power, so if a student is saying to us, “you’re a terrible person” we don’t have to take it so personally. We have to have more sympathy and empathy and even when we might feel attacked, our job is to listen. Also, in our classrooms, we can set up discussion norms to make sure no one is dominating for whatever reason. We can use our power wisely!

P.P.S. If you want to submit a question, you can do so here.

 

How now down brown (aka Adriana and Anita become advice columnists), Take 1: Surviving grad school

Image source

Dear readers, Happy New Year! As we wrote in this post last year, we asked our readers to submit questions they may have about navigating race on college campuses and this post is our first attempt at being advice columnists! We would like to encourage those of you who have advice to share to post your thoughts here on the blog so that the person asking the question can benefit from your ideas as well as our own. Also, if you want to submit a question (with your name or anonymously!), please do so here. Finally, we’d like to thank our friend, Rini, for helping us brainstorm the name of our advice column!

The following question came from a Carleton alum who decided to pursue an advanced degree in a field focused on Western cultural traditions (we paraphrased and changed some details to maintain the person’s anonymity):

“My original plan was to apply for a PhD, but things have changed…none of the texts I read speak to my positionality as a non-Christian, non-American, non-white woman! While it is true that my positionality allows me to raise important questions about inclusion and diversity that challenge these thinkers, it has left me quite frustrated. Lurking on the periphery of my area of study has become both academically and personally exhausting. Because of how my chosen field is exclusionary in content, in method, and in voice, I’ve found that my only choice is to act as “challenger.” I started to look for new academic arenas of inquiry. In other words, I feel like I no longer have a strong, academic foothold and instead find myself swimming in a large ocean of possibility. My biggest issue however, is that I am spoiled for choice. Since I no longer feel anchored to my identity as a scholar of [field of study], I am not quite sure where to go from here, and how I would even begin that process. I am experimenting with other departments this semester, and while it has been a gratifying experience, a part of me feels like I have been pulled back to square one. There is so much information around me, and to be honest, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed and quite directionless.

I go back and forth between feeling free and feeling trapped, but mostly I just feel nauseous! How do I make this uncertainty productive?

Signed, Mostly I Just Feel Nauseous”

Dear MIJFN,

Your questions and concerns are meaty, indeed. First, we wanted to recognize that you’ve already stepped into some certainty by deciding to leave a field where your situated knowledge production was marginalized and you felt unmoored and tired. While this is a step into uncertainty, it’s also a step out of perpetual exhaustion and intellectual alienation. As you know, you are not alone in moving into an academic field with love and engagement only to find that these fields don’t love us back. Like other scholars, women of color are drawn to academic fields for all sorts of reasons: because we want to learn these tools and voices and histories–but often, as WOC, we open our minds and hearts to these ways of knowing only to find that these disciplines expect us to assimilate to their values and ways without ever being open to how our diverse bodies might bring diverse ways of knowing. Some of us make peace with that, staying in fields and making sure we find other places where we can be loved and seen. Others of us, like you, decide that participation in a field from a constant sideline, where the contributions you make may be superficially welcomed even as they reify you as an outsider… well, that that’s not worth it. You’ve basically recognized that a field that you love might, in some very real, vital ways, kill you, take away your joy of learning, minimize your ways of making sense of the world. [see footnote]

So now that you’ve chosen you, how do you “make uncertainty productive”? As you can imagine, we’re not big supporters of the term “productive” – so let’s think about how that word is working for you and how it might be getting in your way. After all, what kinds of expectations are we pinning to the concept of “productive”? We’re guessing that you’ll feel you have been productive once you have chosen your next academic step; we’re also willing to bet that any kind of daydreaming, researching, mind-resting, sleeping, etc. that you do until then will make you feel not at all productive. And yet how are you supposed to make a choice about your next step unless you allow yourself to wander a bit, both metaphorically and literally?

We also want to say that the path to being in academia is only one of many paths one can take in life and our paths in academia are only two possible paths. We can only offer you what we have learned from our journeys, but we want to make sure that we don’t make it seem like academia is the only path to being able to do what you want to do. So we encourage you, and we’re sure you are doing so, to talk to people who are not professors, who are not graduate students, who didn’t graduate from college about their paths as well. Our view, like everyone else’s, is limited by the contours of our lives.

But back to what we do know some things about: we recommend you take long walks and allow yourself digressions. Wandering through the stacks of a library, looking at journals’ table of contents can be a great way of seeing what different fields are up to, what they’re prioritizing, what they’re arguing about. Wandering around a neighborhood can let your mind ask questions and notice things. Like they usually tell us in our yoga classes (we don’t really manage to follow directions, but we try): notice what you’re thinking and feeling, but don’t hold on to it or worry about it. Just notice. Pay attention to this mind and heart that you’ve developed; you’ve got skills. You are a scholar. Take note. See you. Know that there are others like you out there, even if they are not in your particular program or institution—try to connect with them through online or IRL networks.

Another way to think about this stage of uncertainty is that it is entirely normal. Most people go through it as college ends and they need to figure out which jobs to apply for. So your “big transition”–the one that requires you to go through some degree of personal crisis [who am I? what do I value? who do I want to be in 10 years] was just delayed a little bit. Now that you’re going through this transition, be kind to yourself, just like you were kind to all your classmates as they flailed about, emitting anxiety fumes, at the end of their senior years. What did you tell them then? What, then, can you tell yourself now? How we each “keep it all together” in times of chaos and uncertainty varies from person to person. Adriana writes stuff down and sings out loud. She makes sure she gets at least a hug a day from someone she loves. Anita believes strongly that one cultivates resilience and strength through community. She attends plays put on by community groups, supports friends who are performing their poetry or their music, and makes it a priority to build a network of support full of amazing people of color wherever she is. It’s these people and support networks that got her through predominantly White undergrad and grad schools experiences, and continue to support her as she navigates her way through academia as a woman of color faculty. You need people who will hear your anguish, your rage, and your joy without needing you to tone anything down even if you’re in a graduate program where you can find more of yourself in.

One last thought: to be able to sit in uncertainty–in not knowing–is an important skill. Adriana has long been a fan of Richard Feyman’s words on this issue: “You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit; if I can’t figure it out, then I go onto something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell — possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.” (link below)

If you can be comfortable in uncertainty, you can ask bigger, more impossible questions. Asking bigger questions allows you to wander more, to dream more, while also being incredibly humble about your place in it all. Your uncertainty is also your openness to the world, to new ideas, to new directions, to paths that you could not see before. Best of luck as you chart your way!

Footnote: We do wish that academia would think more about this, because the question is a vital one. After all, how do we diversify our ranks, our perspectives, without in some way letting those perspectives and challenges shift the discipline? Maybe that’s why I (Adriana) love being a part of American Studies. In a recent interview, Kandice Chuh, the ASA president, says, “For me, ‘America’ is not the object of American Studies. It’s actually a space through which we think, to ask other kinds of questions, questions having to do with humanization, with materiality, with power, with possibility, with nation, with colonialism” (link below). That’s a really different answer than would have been given twenty years ago; American Studies has shifted from and “exceptionalist” logic (what makes America so great?) to one willing to see the contradictions between the idealized, imagined America and the lived one with all of its institutionalized cruelty.  

Links:

Richard Feyman’s quote.

Kandace Chuh’s quote.

P.S. We saw that Roxana Gay has started an occasional advice column, which we are very excited about!