On Coping with Family Who Do Not Value Academia or Your Work

Having just completed my MA and on the precipice of entering a competitive PhD program, I’m often asked by family members and others about the status of my work—not where I am in the process of writing my dissertation or studying for comps, but how close I am to being finished and, more importantly, how close I am to “actually working.”

These annoying conversations can sometimes be chalked up to the fact that the career paths within academia vary from discipline to discipline and are often enigmatic to those looking in from outside. Ignorance of something you’ve had no contact with is certainly not a crime and asking innocent questions is a normal way to reconcile what you think you know with what you don’t.

However, that’s not typically what is happening here. Generally speaking, what these people want to know is how/when is what I’m doing in grad school going to help me make money. The overarching tone of this line of questioning is that, if what you’re doing isn’t eventually going to pay dividends in the form of money, then why are you wasting your time?

Meaning and our understanding of meaning has been undeniably warped by capitalism. It is meaningful for me to better understand how society functions and the ways in which that functionality (or dysfunctionality) impacts people’s lives. I want to understand the way power flows through society and shapes our lives. I want to understand how the construction of the self and the desire to protect one’s identity results in widespread violence and harm to others.

My desire to understand is stronger than the capitalism-manufactured desire to live in complicity and comfort. Success, for me and many other academics, is not defined by access to power and money, but by degrees of meaningfulness. I want my life to be meaningful.

This sentiment is difficult to communicate in a short conversation. Further, the question about the profitability of my PhD question is complicated by the nature of my discipline. Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies is not a widely known discipline. If you’ve never gone to a 4-year college or university, you’re probably unaware of its existence. Additionally, the methodology of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies programs varies widely from school to school. Some programs are more philosophical, some are more literary, and some center more on social science. Some programs focus exclusively on the experience of women and gender, while others make a point to craft an intersectional canon that has a wider view of interlocking oppressions, like colonialism, capitalism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia. Most shot-in-the-dark guesses from family about what my discipline entails fall in the realm of “psychology of women,” “history of women,” and (once) in “men who want to be women.”

But gender is a common experience. Nearly everyone has a gender and everyone knows what gender is, at least implicitly. They may not understand why or how gender operates, but they can recognize its components and can even pick out experiences they’ve had in which gender and/or gender roles was reinforced. Despite this, gender goes unexamined in these circles because it is viewed as biologically predetermined, not socially constructed. Gender, for most people, is common sense. Why dedicate resources and time to trying to understand something that is common sense, especially if it isn’t patently lucrative?

If I were getting my PhD is something like Physics, Engineering, or even Philosophy I wouldn’t face the same blank expressions I get when I respond with, “I’m getting a PhD in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.” This sentence often communicates nothing to the person I’m saying it to. It’s not lucrative-sounding. It’s not intimidatingly “smart-sounding.” It’s not an old, recognizable discipline. It sounds a lot like common sense.

However, the skills I have acquired during my undergraduate and graduate work in WGS are incredibly useful in deciphering, understanding, and communicating complex ideas about how the world works. My research on the metaphysics of dominant ideology and reactionary movements is particularly useful in this dark political moment. I have learned how to deftly braid and unbraid the common threads of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia and extrapolate those experiences onto the broader concepts of identity and ideological frameworks. So when the conversation turns to something I know a lot about, like gender identity, white supremacy, or classism, I draw on that knowledge and those skills. I draw on the experience I have, not just as a woman, but as a woman educated and trained to stand in front of a classroom and teach undergraduates the broad strokes of social constructivism, the historical legacy of white supremacy, and the oppressive mechanics of capitalism.

I am the only person in my immediate family to attend college and the only person in my extended family to achieve a traditional graduate degree (i.e., not a law degree or an MA in Education). Because many of my extended family members neither truly know nor respect me, I have often been spitefully baited to “perform” my expertise. This baiting usually comes in the form of a homophobic Facebook post, a sexist comment, or a derisive remark about my politics. I have, in the past, obliged. Despite having the intellectual and moral high ground in these conversations, I am ridiculed because, despite my degrees, time spent, pages written, books read, classes taken, my knowledge is viewed as uselessly subjective and without merit. While I know this is not true, it’s still a frustrating experience. Moreover, it underlines the fact that my family doesn’t see the value in academia or my work and has no interest in attempting to.

For the less malevolent members of my family, telling them I’m teaching seems like a good-enough workaround for the otherwise “uselessness” of my degree. Teaching is, after all, a decent profession for a woman. And it’s a real job! You go to the place, you do the thing, you get paid.

For those who have no interest in reconciling the image they have of me as an awkward goth teenager turned leftist-atheist-warper-of-young-minds-succubus with what I actually am, there’s no point in having a conversation—any conversation. I do not owe them a compromise on the work that not only makes up my working life, but informs my identity in profound ways. I owe them nothing.

We deserve to exist without having to justify where and how we find meaning in our lives. More to the point, we deserve to work without having to justify the value of that work to people who either don’t have desire or ability to conceive of its nature or importance.

 

 

 

 

 

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On Taking the Socratic Approach to Garden Variety Racists

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As a white person working to end white supremacy, one of the necessary pieces of one’s praxis must be calling out other white people on their racist beliefs, values, and actions. As one might imagine, this hardly ever goes over well. White people especially have a habit of getting catastrophically offended, defensive, and obstinate when someone explicitly links their seemingly objective beliefs to their white supremacist inclinations. This is, in part, because most white people don’t understand racism as a social concept. That is, they simply don’t know what it means to be racist.  To them, one should be able to say some abhorrent remark such as “they bread [sic] like crazy,” and have such a remark be regarded as objective truth, free from probing judgments about the epistemological and metaphysical origins of said remark.

Indeed, when talking about how white people view racism, we must first examine the way white people view reality. To be “woke,” so to speak, means to be made aware of the ubiquitous power structures that shape our lives. For white people, this means slowly coming to grips with the fact that we benefit in innumerable ways from white supremacy and white privilege. Whiteness is normalized in society, so it’s easy for white folks to go about our daily lives, pretending as if everyone gets an equal shake. This is a comfortable space to inhabit. It is not comfortable to cast the power structures that make up our society into sharp relief.

For those people who do not understand racism and what it means for one’s existence to be molded by oppressive white supremacy, racism seems to be a very, very specific form of violence. Oftentimes racism is presented and conceptualized as an antiquated anomaly; it’s something that happened in the past, but rarely happens now. It’s The KKK, Jim Crow segregation, mobs of white people screaming at young Black women trying to go to school. It’s something that originates within but occurs outside the body; it is physical violence or intimidation with a specific political purpose.

However, we know that racism rarely takes on these very public forms. In reality, racism most frequently occurs in two forms: private racism and systemic racism. Private racism is the result of socialization via living in a white supremacist society. It is through this process of implicit and explicit socialization that white people come to understand that society values their bodies, thoughts, voices, and humanity more than those of people of color.

Simultaneously, society also communicates that it is somehow impolite to openly acknowledge this tacit power imbalance. The social rules of white society dictate that one never draws attention to the comforts supplied by white supremacy. Doing so has the potential to destabilize the validity of those comforts, where they originate, and who is deprived of them. White people who communicate racism out in the open (Klan members, Neo-Nazis, the Alt-Right) are viewed by other white people as uncouth or (especially in the case of white liberals) troglodyte. The irony is that public-racists often embrace these labels and twist them in the name of anti-political correctness, asserting that they’re simply brave enough to express the “objective truth” [Warning: that link directs the reader to Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer’s website] that white people are simply better than people of color.

These two messages come together to form a private understanding about the nature of race that colors white people’s behaviors and manifests in the form of implicit and explicit biases: the hiring manager who passes over applicants with Black-sounding names, the white woman who calls the police on a Black man simply walking down her street, the gay white man who refuses to date “fats, femmes, or Asians.”

Systemic racism is the racism that has been built into society’s structure. Society is comprised of individuals and for a long time, individuals in charge of making laws and policy were nearly exclusively white people–mostly men. And because people of color were, until very recently, openly viewed as inferior to white people, racism was and continues to be sewn into the fabric of our society. This form of racism manifests in how the logics of slavery permeate today’s prison industrial complex and criminal justice system, in immigration policy, and in the global destruction wrought by the concomitant forces of neocolonialization and neoliberalism.

But white people don’t know these things. They conceptualize racism as something that is done to people and, most importantly, that the communication of racist ideology was the intention. That is, if someone didn’t mean to be racist, they were not racist. White people’s understanding of racism is further complicated by the defenses erected by white people to fend off the hurt feelings that come with being called on their racism: i.e., “playing the race card,” “race-baiting,” “political correctness,” etc.

Despite these complications, it is the obligation of white people working to end white supremacy to call out the racist beliefs, values, and behaviors of other white people. Because racist white people tend to view other white people as “safe” when it comes to expressing their private racism, it’s not difficult to encounter racism during one’s everyday life. White people who are committed to abolishing white supremacy are compelled to challenge the people who hold or express those beliefs. The best method to do this, I’ve found, is using a modified form of the Socratic approach, in which you probe the foundations of the racist’s beliefs with targeted questions (shown below) and/or asking them to explain their beliefs to you (shown above).

I’ve included screenshots of Facebook comments to illustrate this strategy, acknowledging that the racism contained within these posts qualifies as “public racism.” Calling out all forms of racism verbally and in person is crucial to ending white supremacy. ]

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The Socratic approach has the potential to be effective because it destabilizes the racist’s belief system, which normally goes unchallenged. Garden variety racists (i.e., not Alt-Right or Neo-Nazis) often live in a bubble; very little penetrates their ideological safe space or forces them to think critically about race or oppression more broadly. It is very likely they won’t know how to respond or will respond unsatisfactorily. However, by asking questions that probe the white supremacist foundations of their ideology, one forces the racist white person to question why they think, for example, Latinxs “breading [sic] like crazy” is a bad thing. Of course, the answer to the question I’ve posed to Debbie is that she doesn’t think Latinxs belong in the U.S. and that having fewer or no Latinxs here would be a good thing because she doesn’t like them for a variety of racist reasons. It is also very likely that Debbie has never considered this. Her long-held racist beliefs simply layered upon one another. They morphed and began to look like other things: displaced economic anxiety about Latinxs taking jobs, hankering for the “good ole days” when America was great, false claims about the criminality of immigrants, etc.

The Socratic approach also has the added benefit of being less time-consuming. In the post-truth age of fake news, drumming up facts and constructing bulletproof arguments is all but useless. Arguing with racist white people about the nature of racism in America, using facts, demographics, subjective experience, and race theory is fast becoming just as pointless as arguing with anti-vaxxers or flat-earthers. At best, it’s an exercise in flexing one’s argumentative prowess, but such an exercise can quickly devolve into classism or ableism (a post for a later day), wherein one person shoves their expertise down the throat of a person who, sometimes unsympathetically, never asked for a lesson (despite probably desperately needing one).

All of this is to say, if you see/hear something racist, say something specific and pointed with a question mark on the end. Destabilize racist beliefs, so long-held that they begin to look like truth. Confuse and challenge those people who think privately held racist beliefs are acceptable. Be hostile and confrontational. If you can’t change beliefs, then you can weaponize shame to change words and actions.

 

Hard Facts: The Confederacy was Racist and so are its Monuments

RE: Douglas Young’s “Guest column: Resist intolerance, preserve nation’s history and heroes despite flaws”

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Young’s article, “Resist intolerance, preserve nation’s history and heroes despite flaws,” is not only a logically flawed argument but a disturbing indicator of persistently bad scholarship. The most egregious error Young makes is attributing the removal of Confederate monuments to the slave-owning status of those men depicted. These monuments are not being removed because those depicted owned slaves. They are being removed because these men were the leaders of a treasonous insurgency, predicated on white slave owner’s desires to assert their dominance over people of color.

Looking beyond the various conservative dog-whistles present in his column, Young bafflingly chooses to cite Karl Marx, the ideological leader of so-called “leftist firebrands.” However, he cites Marx entirely out of context. As an academic and a political scientist, Young should know better. Marx reported on American Civil War as a journalist. He viewed the war, not as a “War of Northern Aggression” as some Southerners like to mythify it, but as a revolt in which wealthy slave owners attempted to preserve their political and social dominance over abolitionists and blacks in the South. Marx wrote:

The question of the principle of the American Civil War is answered by the battle slogan with which the South broke the peace. Stephens […] declared in the secession Congress, that what essentially distinguished the Constitution hatched at Montgomery from the Constitution of the Washingtons and Jeffersons was that for now for the first time slavery was recognized as institution for good in itself, and as the foundation of the whole state edifice, whereas the revolutionary fathers, men steeped in the prejudices of the eighteenth century, had treated slavery as an evil imported from England and to be eliminated in the course of time. (Schraffenberger)

While Young is correct in asserting that all U.S. Presidents prior to Lincoln either owned slaves or were pro-slavery, he conveniently omits the fact that our glorified Founding Fathers viewed the country’s relationship to slavery as unsustainable.

Young prefers to situate himself and other “patriots” amongst “flawed yet chosen” figures like Moses, David, the Founding Fathers. In actuality, Dr. Young is aligning himself with the likes of Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, who recently led a group of white supremacists, with torches under the cover of night, to protest the imminent removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. The symbolism of the torches was meant to invoke the imagery of a lynch mob as the protestors chanted “You will not replace us.” The “us” here is, of course, white people and the legacy of white supremacy that remains undeniably salient in this country today.

Young’s weak assertions to contrary, one can respect the complex and painful history of the South without, quite literally, idolizing its white supremacist roots. Doing otherwise erases a history of a generational campaign to sanitize the racist realities of slavery and The Civil War, to further divide blacks and whites, and to protect the legacy of a white supremacist South.

 

Identity Politics and the Fallacious Reasoning of Classic Leftists

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These days, it’s easy to find oneself pulled into “leftbook thunderdomes” on Facebook. These discursive environments–and that’s what they are, despite assertions to the contrary–produce, regurgitate, deconstruct, critique, and reassert theory at a rapid pace. Often these interactions between opposing views implode and they are almost never useful for those actually engaging in the “theorizing.” However, these are useful sites for observing the recapitulation of leftist thought and the various overarching themes present in contemporary leftist theory.

That said, these discourses often reproduce the banal tensions present in leftist theorizing. One common example of this is the discourse surrounding identity politics on the Left. Identity politics (or “idpol” as it is often spat in derision by the white male guard of classical Marxist theory) is the (apparently) radical notion that marginalized voices should be centered in both praxis and theorizing about the nature of oppression. Generally speaking, identity politics is used to unify groups under the umbrella of their shared identity. For example, feminism uses identity politics to unify women under the shared experience of womanhood and movements for racial justice use identity politics to center people of color.

However, some on the Left (typically white men) view identity politics as a way of culling the voices around issues of oppression. The accusation is this: Idpol is killing the Left. To white men, who often luxuriate in the spotlight when it comes to asserting opinions, centering marginalized voices and opinions is viewed as the theft of something they feel as if they deserve just as much as anyone else. Indeed, white men often discount the value of marginalized voices because those voices, to them, are subjective, and therefore tainted, irrational, etc. That is, because they, via their identity as white men, have dodged the implications of racism, sexism, etc., they view their experiences as objective, making their opinions are rational, clear, and, thus, more valuable.

The primary issue with this (and there are many) is that being inexperienced when it comes to racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression is, in fact, an experience in and of itself. If a person has never tasted coffee, their experience of going their whole life without tasting coffee is relevant to understanding their experience as a person living in a coffee-drinking culture. Now imagine if that person applied for a job to be a coffee roaster, despite never having tasted it. This person would not necessarily be a better coffee roaster because their tastebuds had never experienced other forms of coffee and, indeed, one could make the argument that their inexperience would hinder their ability to determine what was and was not good coffee. For the white men of the Left, their purported “objectivity” stems from inexperience. That inexperience is relevant in determining their ability to adequately assess the value of experience and identity on the Left.

Also revealed in these conversations is the argument many white men on the Left make regarding the decentering of class politics in favor of identity politics (i.e., racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, etc.). There are two problems with this. First, to engage in (good) feminism, anti-racism, and other modes of liberatory politics, one must also be engaged in the movement to end capitalist exploitation, neoliberalism, and class oppression more broadly. This is why the anti-racist movement is necessarily concerned with ending Black poverty, and why feminism is concerned with the fact that women (especially women of color) are the most likely to be affected by poverty.

Second, engaging in class politics is engaging in identity politics because class is an identity. For my part, I grew up in a double-wide trailer. There was always enough food, but there wasn’t always enough money and we struggled sometimes with healthcare, debt, and making ends meet. That experience shaped my class identity and my class identity inflects the way I interact with the world around me. It has affected the types of knowledge I have access to, and how I interact with the systems and institutions around me. My class identity has radically impacted the way I navigate higher education, especially now that I am attending a private university that would otherwise cost upwards of $60,000 per year if I were unfunded. Thus, the denigration of “idpol,” particularly as it pertains to the fallacy that centering racism and sexism means decentering or ignoring class, is absurd and fails to recognize that consideration of classism is, in fact, identity politics.

Because class is, in a way, objective (that is, it is defined at least in part by numbers, income, etc.) it permits white men on the Left to falsely characterize it as above the more ill-defined experiences associated with racism and sexism. Indeed, racism and sexism are often reinterpreted “by the numbers,” so to speak, by transferring institutional oppression and systemic violence into data about income stratification, wage gaps, unemployment rates, etc. This conflation allows white men to pretend class is objective like them; it has the ability to touch everyone equally, unlike the intrinsically experienced identities of racism, sexism, ableism, etc.

Pointing out this fallacy is to say that white men should continue the work of decentering their own voices in favor of marginalized voices. This is difficult for them. They feel as if they are giving up something, and in a way, I suppose they are. But white male identity is not to be without identity. It is an identity on its own and has specific political implications and privileges. It is trite but nonetheless necessary to say that those privileges should be used for good.

“Idpol” is not killing the Left. Historically speaking, failure by the Left to consider other oppressed identities alienates a wide swath of those interested in ending all forms of oppression, not just classism. That is to say, racism, sexism, and other forms of marginalization in the Left is the mechanisms that divide, not radical, inclusive identity politics.

 

Indeed, along with the ethical urge of each individual to affirm their subjective existence, there is also the temptation to forgo liberty and become a thing. This is an inauspicious road, for they who take it – passive, lost, ruined – become henceforth the creature of another’s will, frustrated in their transcendence and deprived of every value. But it is an easy road; on it, one avoids the strain involved in undertaking an authentic existence.

Simone de BeauvoirThe Second Sex.

For me, writing is a gesture of the body, a gesture of creativity, a working from the inside out. My feminism is grounded not on incorporeal abstraction but on corporeal realities. The material body is center, and central. The body is the ground of thought. The body is a text. Writing is not about being in your head; it’s about being in your body. The body responds physically, emotionally, and intellectually to external and internal stimuli, and writing records, orders, and theorizes about these responses. For me, writing begins with the impulse to push boundaries, to shape ideas, images, and words that travel through the body and echo in the mind into something that has never existed. The writing process is the same mysterious process that we use to make the world.

Gloria Anzaldúa, Light in the Dark : Luz En Lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality