Presence, Absence, and the Labor of Being

Presence, Absence, and the Labor of Being
Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, PhD

Later this week, I will meet and spend significant time interacting with the first-year students and a small group of the faculty in the student affairs master’s degree program that I am joining this fall.  Two of the questions we are asking them to reflect on are “Who are you doing this work for?” and “What brought you to this work?”  My own answers to these questions are simple in my mind.  I was brought to this work by an undergraduate experience that fulfilled and empowered me academically, but which stunted and harassed me socio-culturally.  I was brought to this work by an intense desire to change the practice of higher education so fundamentally that no one else would experience the latter while pursuing the former.  I do this work for the child I would bring into the world and for all those people’s children who would follow me into colleges and universities in the U.S.  I do this work for the professionals looking for alternative ways to be and to do their practice.  I do this work for the other scholars who are also doing this work and looking to be in community with like-minded peers.  To say it more plainly, I was brought to this work by a belief that I could inspire, ignite, and enable organizational/institutional transformation; I do this work for all those who participate in these institutions.

In my third-year review service narrative, I quoted Marian Wright Edelman’s oft-repeated line that “service is the rent we pay for being.”  Moreover, because of that guiding philosophy, I viewed my university committee assignments and engagement in professional associations as the place where I put into practice my teaching and research.  In these venues, I contributed my efforts—my unpaid labor (service)—to enact the theories and philosophies I asserted were more just, more equitable, more aligned with the findings of my own and others’ research.  This is a view of service that I continue to hold today.  It has made me a thorn in the side of several university administrators (a provost once described me to a colleague as “intense”) and association leaders.  I am happy to be a thorn, to prick, to induce bleeding of poison.

This is not what is commonly meant by “community service,” however.  The community is those people whose lives and work exist beyond the ivory tower.  The community is where real people’s lives have weight and meaning.  The community is where I, and other academics, should be doing our work.  I don’t find this view of community and community service wrong, but I do find it unnecessarily narrow, binarist, and even anti-intellectual.  Colleges and universities and professional associations are also communities.  They are communities that include people who come from and live in those real communities beyond the walls of our campuses and the virtual and convention spaces of our associations.  They are comprised of people whose ideas about life, education, and equity have and will continue to influence the everyday lives of people who will never step foot on campus or become members of our associations.  These are the communities to whom I have committed (not exclusively, but predominately) more than two decades of my service.

“Service is the rent I pay for being,” Edelman.

Being who I am—a Blackneuropsychdisabledqueerpolywomanistparentingtransmyn who is also Christianprofessedmiddleclasseducatedbuildingwealthphysicallyabledaveragesized—means being prepared to (be) educate(d), chastise(d), correct(ed), horrify(ied), support(ed), anger(ed), and hurt(hurt).

Where I perform my service and the why-for and who-for of my work usually means that I am subject to having to surrender my own wounds and woundedness to the service of organizational/institutional transformation I may never experience, for the benefit of those who will follow me into these spaces, and those whose lives will nevertheless be impacted by what happens in these spaces.

(Yes, I know both the previous paragraphs are one-sentence each which is horrid prose, but just let that go for the sake of the point if you don’t mind.)

So, it is with that foregrounding that I consider, a second time, a conundrum brought about by inept association politics.  The previous time this happened—nearly two years ago before the 2016 meeting of ACPA-College Student Educators International—I stayed publicly silent individually while railing privately individually and as a member of the T* Circle collective.  I have been asking myself recently why I did not take more of a public stand individually at that time.  I had not wanted to admit this to myself or anyone else previously, but the reason is that I was personally hurt by what happened.  What I found personally wounding was not the decision to hold the conference in Montréal in spite of Canadian parliamentary consideration at the time of an amendment that would have criminalized public use of bathrooms by transgender and gender non-conforming (T/GNC) people.  No, what hurt my feelings (which sounds trite but if we valued people’s emotions and psyches would not be trite) was the way that the association’s leadership at the time defensively dismissed concerns, undermined legitimate criticism, and played Oppression Olympics regarding international members against T/GNC members of the association.  I allowed myself to be personally wounded by these statements and announcements—made worse by an inept private apology that was never publicized—because I had (mistakenly) thought of the association as a safe place, a home, a sanctuary where my being was valued.

In a very real way, I had “grown up” professionally in ACPA.  It was among the first, and for quite some time, the only place, that had recognized my scholarship as meaningful and valuable in a tangible way (through awards, presentation opportunities, publications).  My first professional leadership experiences happened in ACPA.  Those who offered mentoring and sponsorship opportunities were ACPA members, several of whom I had followed into ACPA after NAWE (National Association of Women in Education)1 had closed its doors.  It was within ACPA that I first came out as queer (lesbian at the time) and then trans* and had experienced welcome, acceptance, and affirmation.  I was told by many people that I was a big deal (a hard lesson in never believing your own hype) and have been pursued on a nearly annual basis over the last several years to accept a nomination to run for the presidency.2  The association’s response, from leaders who I knew and who had known me for much of my faculty career, felt like rejection.  I felt personally betrayed, wounded, and ashamed that I had invested so much in an organization that evidently seemed to value me so little when the rubber hit the road.

I decided to boycott the Montréal convention though maintaining my membership in ACPA.  It was a decision that hurt me and others within the association who were in attendance and who cared for me far more than it had any impact on the association.  This pain was brought starkly into view during the directorate meeting for the Coalition for Women’s Identities (CWI).  I was ending my two-year term as their Senior Scholar in Residence.  When sharing with them through video conference from my home how much it meant to me to be in that role, I broke down into tears, distraught that I was not with them, that so many commitments had been left undone because of the dehumanizing response by association leaders to its T/GNC members and T/GNC communities in Canada.  My absence was deeply painful to me, and I could see in their shared weeping, that several of them were pained by my absence as well.  Ultimately, I have no idea what real effect the boycott of a small number of T/GNC people and accomplices had on the association.  For the past two years, I have been unable to answer that question for myself.  Fortunately, no one has asked me that question as I would not have had an answer.

a friend. is someone who supports your breath.
nayyirah waheed, nejma. (2014)

Now the city is Houston, Texas and the associations are the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) and, again, ACPA.  What have I learned in the last two years?  Well, the biggest thing I have learned is that associations are not my friends—even if I have friends leading them.  I cannot and should not expect an association to do the work of friendship, to support my breath as the ever-brilliant nayyirah waheed writes in her poem quoted above.  Moreover, as leigh patel has discussed3, associations are institutions that are also formed in “vectors of oppression.”

I have also learned that maybe, just maybe, the collective absence of myself and other T/GNC folk and our accomplices from ACPA’s convention in Montréal was powerful, educative, and had catalytic validity.  I am hopeful of this because of what I have seen from ACPA this year in its statements (see here and here and here) about the decision to keep the 2018 convention in Houston despite the development and eventual passage of state legislation targeting undocumented immigrants and T/GNC people in public life.4

I have learned that if I really believe that “Individual and organizations can and do change” (Dr. Jamie Washington, Social Justice Training Institute) then withdrawing my voice from public and private conversations about institutional misses and abject failures to enact espoused values for equity and justice will not help bring my motivation for doing this work into being.

I have learned that the surrender of my being is the rent I pay for my service to these institutions that I demand live into the manifestation of their vision.  At this point in my career, my absence costs me nothing; it has no precarity attached and therefore my individual absence may be more of a “non-performative” (h/t to Sara Ahmed, On Being Included), a perfunctory and ineffectual proclamation that simply looks good.

I have learned that my presence is as powerful as my absence.  That by being present I can perhaps ignite some form of future catalytic change.  That presence and absence are both strategies of resistance.  That a present “no” (Ahmed, No5) can be a form of effective refusal.  Not only can I use both presence and absence in different ways, for different occasions, for different reasons, but the collective use of both presence and absence can be useful and mobilizing.

I have learned that I can show up for those who need my presence while being absent to those who would seek only to exploit my presence.  As Angelica blasts Alexander upon her return to the States from England upon learning of Alexander’s public confession of his betrayal of her sister, Eliza, I can also boldly and truthfully declare, “I’m not here for you,” (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton, the Musical).6

It is not just the go/not-go but also how I would perform my going or not-going that is important.  As I was nudged by leigh to consider adding to this post (and she’s brilliant so of course I am adding it), to frame these occurrences as merely go/not-go lacks the nuance necessary and is far too binarist.7  There is resistance and opposition that can be done in the showing up.  We see this in the example of the Freedom Riders who traveled to Mississippi to directly oppose Black voter disenfranchisement by doing voter registration and education drives, as well as the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its efforts to research with communities what they were experiencing regarding voter intimidation and then went there to support local opposition collaboratively (thanks to leigh for reminding me of SNCC’s approach; also check this article she recommended).

There are ways, therefore, for organizations to show up as a performance of present resistance and opposition to oppression.  However, absence can also perform catalytic change as part of a long-term strategy.  Such divestment of presence (physically, financially, otherwise) has been utilized as well.  Recall the divestiture demands of students on college campuses against South Africa and its apartheid government beginning in the 1980s until apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela was freed a decade later.  Consider the current BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement against Israeli government settler colonialism and apartheid policies targeting the Palestinian people.  These were and are long-standing, widespread movements that used absence (of time, resources, and human capacity) as a form of refusal, saying “no” to oppression and demanding change before the allowing renewed investment of time, resources, and human capacity.8

So, it is with these lessons in mind that I consider both my decision to go and how I would tangibly enact that presence/absence in the annual meetings of ASHE and ACPA in Houston this coming November and March, respectively.  (It must be noted that both NASPA and AERA held their 2017 spring meetings in San Antonio and I attended both.)

As I do so, I recognize that Texas state legislation and policies have been repressive and oppressive for a long time:

  • Texas is the state where draconian restrictions to access to safe abortions spurred legislator Wendy Davis to filibuster for umpteen-odd hours in 2013.
  • Texas is the state where Sandra Bland was stopped for a minor traffic infraction, arrested for being a loud Black woman who was not having it that day, and suspiciously died while being held under a money-bail bond.
  • Texas is the state where an anti-immigrant law is so bad even police chiefs oppose it.9
  • Texas is the state that is currently advancing legislation criminalizing the public use of bathrooms by T/GNC people.
  • Texas is the site of just one of the multiple murders of transwomen of color in the U.S., Kenne McFadden in 2017 (one of 15 transwomen of color to be murdered in the U.S. this year).
  • Texas is the state where enslaved Africans did not learn of their emancipation until two years after Lincoln signed the proclamation and following the end of the Civil War; this occasion is celebrated as Juneteenth.
  • Texas is one state whose indigenous residents were made into immigrants by U.S. imperialism and settler colonial illogics.10

Texas did not just become problematic when the state of California decided last month to add Texas to its list of places banned from the use of public funds.  Texas, recent statements to the contrary, did not just become a “nightmare” for minoritized social groups.  Texas is not now problematic because of defensive, reactionary statements by an association leader.  Texas is also not just another place where oppression is always already happening just as it is everywhere.  Texas, like Arizona several years ago, is a place where very specific forms of oppression and repression are being enacted.  Texas is a place where specific categories of people have been identified as being subject to dehumanizing treatment and the absence of governmental protection.

Out of the treasure of the heart, the mouth speaks.
King Solomon (later quoted by Jesus), Proverbs 4:23.

I do not call for other places where specific, intense, and heightened oppressive policies are being advanced to be ignored.  Rather, I reject any argument that justifies spending upwards of millions of dollars in such places that refuses to name the specific violences being advanced in those specific places.  If we are to truly uplift the power of the people, then we must acknowledge and confront the ways in which the people and their power are threatened and under attack in the places where we choose to convene.

As I have asserted recently, “Education itself is an identity project.”11  Educational spaces include schools, colleges and universities, as well as professional meeting spaces.  As such, any educational space that ignores the ways that identities are mobilized to both constrain and advance liberation is failing to live into its mission.

I refuse to surrender territory.
Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, 2014.

I do not look to any association to be the friend who supports my breath.  With that in mind, I have come to the difficult and uncomfortable decision to attend the ASHE and ACPA meetings that will take place in Houston, just as I had decided to attend both NASPA and AERA in San Antonio last March and April.

In these spaces, I intend to make my presence powerful—a thorn in the side of the stiff-necked and a support to those who are trying to breathe in a space where our breath is choked off.  I go for the early-career faculty and doctoral students who need to know that an elder12 is working alongside them.

I am not going to surrender this territory for my absence to be explained on my behalf.  I will say my “no” in person to oppressive illogics, to defensiveness and deflections, to false promises of accompliceship, to non-performative activism.

But I will no longer surrender the recognition of my being in doing so.  I do not have answers for what this will look like, but I am dedicated to figuring out how I can be in community alongside those who are currently experiencing the oppressive boot of the state.  Going there in support of justice and to ignite institutional transformation means nothing if it does not look something like the Freedom Riders headed to Mississippi in the 1960s.  In other words, it is not about showing up in a place and carrying about our business as usual.  It is about showing up to do the work that will benefit the community—that the community is asking to be done (alá SNCC).  It is spending one’s dollars among the oppressed.  It is communing in their space.  It is a deliberate intersectional and anti-essentialist coming together of the community of scholarship and the community of the everyday.

As my friend Susan Marine reminded me upon reading the first draft of this post13, Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the outer court of the temple and fiercely objected to how they had turned “[his] father’s house into a den of thieves.”  As she noted, dens of thieves come in multiple forms to steal money, dignity, and lives.  She further commented, “They [these dens of thieves] all require our fortitude, our presence when we can, to resist and to transform, to throw out and throw over.  But some of us, sometimes, have to be there.

So, this is my resolution, to be there to throw out and to throw over.  This is the labor of being for me in this moment.  It is not the only resolution for everyone in these spaces or at this time.  Being is labor for minoritized people every day, in every space in which they are not determining its structure and operation.  The labor of being does not stop in our absence.  It is often exacerbated with our presence.  The labor of being is an unequal weight.  So, nothing here should be used to browbeat or shame anyone else who may decide to be absent from either or both these meetings.  Remember, multiple strategies are necessary—both absence and presence are powerful, necessary strategies.  I think the key is the why and how you will enact it.  That, and no other reason, is why I am publishing this post.  What is your why?  Why are you present?  Why are you absent?  What will your make presence or absence perform?  Each of us must reckon with these questions.  Here is my reckoning.  I do not pretend it is flawless or impenetrable and I will listen to thoughtful critiques.  If it is helpful to you, I am glad.  If it is not, disregard and carry on.

In peace and solidarity,
D-L
July 24, 2017
Northern Colorado

Notes:

  1. This Wikipedia page is partially incorrect. NAWE did not “merge” with NASPA upon closing its doors in 2000. I was a member when it happened and know this to be untrue.
  2. I have refused these invitations continually to allow me to focus on parenting my son. I have also refused on the grounds that the association (nor ASHE which has also urged me to run for president) is not ready to have its first trans* president. The labor of being the first is MAJOR.  I am not sure I have the energy for it, nor am I sure that the membership and other leadership could handle it.  I may be wrong on the second count, but just thinking about the first wears me out.
  3. leigh’s work is grounded in this awareness of institutions and it is therefore present throughout her writings. However, I particularly recommend a reading of her 2016 article in Critical Ethnic Studies for specific discussion of organizations’ collective failures to define and enact philosophies of racial justice.
  4. I don’t point to this as an indication that I agree with this association’s (or any others’) decision to keep its conference in Houston. I do acknowledge that conference sites are chosen several years in advance, as much as 5 years ahead of time, at which point the specific things that the Texas state legislature has enacted this year were not yet in view. Nevertheless, it is possible to pull out as illustrated by the Association of American Law Schools.
  5. I strongly urge readers to bookmark Ahmed’s blog post and return to read it again and again. In fact, read it now and come back to this post after you’re done.
  6. All I wanted here was the retrieval link for the gif but WordPress is making it impossible for me to do that without posting the gif itself. Grrrrrrr. I retrieved this image from https:// s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/5d/dc/d3/5ddcd39977fe39c8c9097d06e7d65744.gif (eliminate the space before the first ‘s’ and you’ve got the link).
  7. I really think being a non-binary genderqueer person has a lot to do with my resistance to and intolerance of binaries. I’m actually quite sincere in that. Check out Dr. Z Nicolazzo’s brilliant work to imagine a trans* epistemology for more on this.
  8. Some of you may be thinking of the NCAA’s withdrawal of its basketball tournaments from North Carolina in response to the passage of HB2 as a similar action. I am wary of doing so. My wariness results in large measure from the association’s failure to call for any specific revisions to be made to the bill and then its all-too-quick (IMO) acceptance of the inept repeal of HB2.
  9. And the ACLU has issued a travel advisory as noted in the article linked up there. Now, police chiefs’ opposition is not my barometer, but dang, y’all.
  10. This is the case across the whole southwest, much of the mountain west and up the California coast. Consider this article about the U.S. before the Mexican-American War.
  11. Last week I was fortunate to be in conversation with Drs. Dan Tillapaugh and Z Nicolazzo for Dan’s class on research and identity. Here’s the link! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHNsCT_Z-3g
  12. It’s totally still weird to think of myself this way. Maybe an emerging elder or an uncle even. I’m not old enough for elder status and I’m still learning my dang self.
  13. Because I am a thoroughly acculturated academic, yes, I had this post peer-reviewed before final revisions and publication. I am grateful to these three dear friends, comrades, and kin for their time and reflective feedback: Drs. Leigh Patel, Susan Marine, and T.J. Jourian. They are badasses of the highest caliber and I am fortunate to be able to call on each of them.

 

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Remixing & Re-vision

My mother passed on to me a recipe for sweet potato pie that her mother, my grandmother Lucille, had likely had passed on to her by her mother, my great-grandmother Civvie. I have memories of my mom baking batches of these pies for both Thanksgiving and Christmas and giving them away as gifts for co-workers, neighbors, and relatives. For a month, our freezer would be filled with these sweet potato pies. As I got older and showed an interest in how to make this delectable creation, my mom brought me into the kitchen, directing me to strain the crushed pineapple, crack eggs, mix in flour. She eventually tested my cooking sensibilities – nothing was ever measured – by having me taste the batter to determine if it was ready yet and if not, what was needed: more brown sugar? more karo syrup? more cinnamon? more flour if it was too soupy? more milk if it was too stiff?

Once I got on my own, I called my mom and asked her for the recipe. I carefully wrote down the ingredients, her guesstimates as to how much of each was needed, her directions on the order in which to add the ingredients in the batter, and finally the proper oven setting and length of baking time. The first time I set out to bake the family sweet potato pie, I hit a homerun. Well, almost. The crust got burnt on a couple (then she told me the foil trick). Nevertheless, they were tasty. I would make them again, but not annually because it was a heck of a lot of work and there weren’t enough people in my life worthy of that kind of energy output. LOL – I’m just being honest.

Those sweet potato pies were glorious. Honestly I’ve never tasted anyone else’s recipe that even comes close to being as good as the Lazarus Family recipe (nope, not even Patti’s!). I want to make them again and really had an unction to do so this past holiday season. But I didn’t bake them this year. Why? Because about 7 years ago, I discovered I was allergic to eggs, pineapple, and cow-based dairy – key ingredients in the recipe [just trust me on the pineapple]. When I first got the lab tests back that showed this, the first thing I mourned for was this sweet potato pie. Ever since, I’ve been thinking of a way to alter the recipe to make it something I could eat and not get sick from (I now understand why I never felt quite right after my annual pie gorging as a kid). I’ve done this with other dishes: I make my macaroni and cheese without eggs and although I use 2% milk, I’ve found homeopathic aids that mute the dairy allergy response (yes it’s really an allergic response, not just lactose intolerance). I have doctored box cake recipes with egg substitutes made with tapioca and potato flour mixed with water. I’ve just cut pineapples out of my life and in recipes calling for it, I’ve substituted with oranges or kiwi or mango or something else instead. I have even discovered that enjoying wine or liquor while eating an egg-based dessert prevents the allergic response that usually comes (doesn’t work for pineapple).

Despite that, I’ve not yet remixed that sweet potato recipe. You may be wondering what’s holding me back? [You may also be wondering where the heck I’m going with this, but just be patient and hang on, lol.] It’s taken me a while to figure it out, but I think I just did today. If you’ll indulge me a bit longer, I’ll explain and tie it to some of the current questions, challenges, and conversations on my Twitter feed.

Some might say that the sweet potato pie isn’t the problem. The recipe is fine as is. I just can’t eat it. So, I should just let it go. Good recipe, just not for me. Leave the recipe alone.

Some might point to the ingredients in a way. If the pie is made with sour milk or rotten eggs, then a whole lot of people would be getting sick, not just me. If that’s the case, then – again – the pie’s recipe isn’t the problem, it’s the quality of the ingredients. If we’re working with good ingredients, then we return to the first conclusion: I just need to leave the pie alone and go eat something else. Like an apple crisp. [Good but just not the same.]

The real issue is that it’s supposed to be *my* family recipe. I can’t eat and enjoy (without putting my wellness at risk) something that is supposed to be for ME. It’s part of my family legacy; it’s my inheritance. The thing that was passed on to me with love and pride and joy. But that inheritance makes me sick. Literally. And changing the recipe to adapt it to my needs means it’s not THE LAZARUS FAMILY recipe anymore. Changing it – using crushed oranges instead of pineapple, the tapioca and water mix instead of the eggs, a sweetened coconut milk instead of cow’s milk – is more than a remix. That’s a whole new pie recipe. I will have re-visioned the recipe as something very – even, entirely – different than it was. Who knows what it will taste like. It may be awful. That scares me too. I think I have good cooking sensibilities (comes honestly from both dad and mom), so that might all work together just fine, but what a risk.

Do I stay with a recipe that makes me sick for the sake of honoring my forebears? Do I put it aside and dare to find a way to come up with something different that incorporates some of what was good and what I learned from that old recipe, but no longer really bears the stamp of my mom, my grandmother, my great-grandmother? Will their cooking wisdom be commuted onto this new pie recipe regardless because I am *still* their legacy?

Similar questions as this confront us about institutions of far greater social consequence than my sweet potato pie. Recently, especially Black Christians, are being asked hard questions of the religion and the God we claim to follow and worship (see Son of Baldwin here on the passing of Eddie Long and Dr. Jonathan Higgins on Kim Burrell); of higher education (see my blog posts here, here, and here and Craig Steven Wilder’s book Ebony and Ivy); of the U.S. political enterprise built as it is on settler colonialism, slavery, rape, theft despite its high-minded treatises on equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (see my blog posts here and here).  All these pieces confront us with the choice of remixing, transformation as remix, revolution and turning away from the legacy we have claimed as an essential inheritance necessary to bind us to the past as a bridge to the future.

We could say the problem lies not in the institutions themselves but in the people who are made sick by them. They should just leave, these folks would say. Folks have been saying that hence our current (under Obama) and ongoing (under the next administration) deportation, criminal injustice, and Christian fundamentalist terrorist crisis.

We could say that the problem lies in the quality of the ingredients alone. Get rid of the misogyny and fundamentalism and the Christianity can be saved. Excise the capitalist profit motive and the democracy can be saved. The connection between K12 and colleges and universities is simply spoiled and with refreshment, our educational system can be saved. Again, it’s not the recipe that’s the problem. All we need is a remix.

What will we lose if we turn away from these social institutions that have been handed down to us but which absolutely make us sick in ways that have material effects on individuals, whole communities, our nation, and which have ripple effects on the world at large? What will we continue to lose if we don’t?

What will we gain?

Re-visioning the things that have been handed to us requires courage, but it requires creativity, imagination. Our artists – poets, writers, musicians and songwriters – have been showing us the way. Are we ready to let go?

Am I ready for a new sweet potato pie recipe? To try and fail to arrive at something that tastes as yummy and try again until I get something that doesn’t make me sick?

Are we ready – for a new religion? a new education? a new form of government? Are we ready to try at something that might fail in the rhetorical power of what we have had but that doesn’t require our overlooking the sickness of some to enjoy?

We have decisions to make.

Just because you’re magic: A love letter to minoritized faculty in your first year

This fall begins my 16th academic year as a faculty member in the field of higher education and student affairs. I do so having attained promotion to the rank of full professor and serving in significant leadership roles in both my department and my profession. I have “made it.” Yet, as I have become known to say, I am #fullbutnotsatisfied. Attaining status and professional accolades is meaningless to me unless I can help to bring others alongside and after me. I am intent on doing what I can to help other minoritized faculty not only persist but thrive in this profession.

Toward that end, I am mindful of making evident the hidden rules of the academy, helping early career faculty to avoid fault lines, and using gatekeeper roles to both multiply the voices at the table but also expand the table’s capacity. So, I was provoked to consider what words of encouragement and caution I could offer to new racially minoritized faculty, as well as those with minoritized identities of sexuality and gender (both in addition to and apart from racial marginality), when I was contacted about a week ago by a mentee, who is a cisman with marginalized identities of both race and sexuality in his first year in a faculty role. My mentee had texted me after his first week in the classroom to share that one of his students, a cishet White man, had reached out after the first class session with a request to schedule a time to talk further so that this student might expand his awareness and knowledge, believing my mentee to possess special insights given his social identities. Immediately, alarm bells went off in my mind, but I have learned to be slow to offer unsolicited advice that can come across as paternalistic and undermining of others’ capacities to recognize dangers and their agency to make their own decisions about whether to move ahead. I probed what my younger colleague was thinking about this request and how he planned to respond. He shared that he was fine with meeting with the student, realizing that given the regional context of the institution, the student would not likely encounter anyone else like him. After reading his text, I simply replied, “Okay, just remember you have the right to set boundaries.”

My mentee shared that no one had ever said that to him before. He had never considered that was an option. I realized that no one told me that in my first year either. In fact, I was nearly tenured before I learned that lesson through the combination of hard experiences and wisdom from racially minoritized senior colleagues. Why did it take so long? Partly, lack of proximity to senior minoritized faculty. Partly, not knowing what questions to even ask until I had already had several years of experiences that confirmed that yes, there is a pattern here, and no, the problem was not me. This post then is a “love letter” to other minoritized faculty (across multiple dimensions of marginality) in an attempt to harness some of what I have learned over the last 15 years and what I hope to reflect and perfect in year 16 and beyond.

*****

Dear Colleague,

First, congratulations and welcome to the faculty ranks! You have already accomplished a significant feat by earning your doctorate and attaining a faculty position. You are now a member of a very privileged group and the opportunities and burdens of that privilege should not be taken lightly. Nevertheless, that privilege may yet be undermined by the relative visibility of the minoritized identities you hold. If sometimes you feel as though you are living two different lives – perhaps received with awe and respect in one space but greeted with disdain and rebuke in another – it is true, you are. Some days it may seem as though there must be some veil that falls from your face when you leave campus to carry on the mundane business of your daily life. In one life you are smiled at and called Dr. So-and-So. In this other life, you are cut down by disgusted double-takes and driving-while-Black, catcalled “hey girl” walking down the street, or “fucking sissy” coming out of a local bar, or simply some foul slur any given moment. These are your two lives and sometimes that second life doesn’t respect you enough to get out of the way of your first life and remain hidden. Some days, that second life will show up in the midst of an academic triumph. It is a singular achievement, living two lives at once while not succumbing to the incoherence of it all.

Living this dual-life requires some cautions, some encouragement, and some blessings. I offer these humbly, knowing that they may miss the mark, come too late, or be too early to be understood. Use what you can, throw away what misses the mark, save for later that which doesn’t make sense now. Let me know what you do with this and what lessons you have learned, so that I can learn from you.

I hope that you will set boundaries around your dual lives. No, I urge you to set boundaries. Although your life may inform your teaching, you do not have to teach your life. Your body is not a textbook. Your heart is not a 16-week curriculum for others’ to attain their learning outcomes through the toil of your devastations.

There are likely other minoritized faculty on your campus, senior faculty, who share your particular marginalities. However, they don’t necessarily understand you or see the world the same as you. The world was different (and yet the same) when they became faculty. The academy was different (and the same). They were different (and the same). The survival strategies they adopted may not be meant for you. Their worldview may not mesh with yours. Their persistence may have required compromises you are unwilling to make. They may not know what to do with you. They may be toxic. Be patient with them recognizing that their toxicity is the inevitable result of learning to swim in a toxic pool. Learn what lessons you can about the institution you have joined. But, please, keep your distance from the toxic ones.

Yes, you will have to be better than and do more than the others. You may have heard this already as you were growing up. It’s a common mantra of parents to children in racially minoritized households. If you have minoritized identities of sexuality and/or gender and are White, this may be a new and unwelcome expectation. Yes, it is unfair. It is still truth. The best anecdote to ambiguous standards and biased systems is excellence. Be excellent. This is not a call to assimilation, but rather to doing the work, consistently, thoroughly, and at such a high level of quality that your haters must be silenced. This is also not a call to loudly proclaim how hard you’re working to everyone in your department. They don’t deserve to know that. They don’t deserve to see you sweat. This leads to the next point:

Everybody has not earned authenticity from you. Ancient wisdom cautions casting your pearls before pigs. Pigs eat everything and process it all as waste. Don’t allow others to make waste of your transparency, your authenticity, or your vulnerability. Wear Dunbar’s mask, but don’t forget that it is a mask. I implore you to find spaces and people with whom you can take off the mask so that it neither suffocates nor adheres to you.

Yes, you belong here. You. Belong. Here. Even in 2016, you may be “the first” or “the only” one of your kind of “diversity” in your department. You will survive. You can thrive. Do professional and civic service that has clearly defined tasks, a specified term of service, and which can keep you grounded in the communities that birthed you. You are needed to be a “possibility model” (L. Cox) for someone else. All the while, I hope that you will grow, learn, and expand the borders of your mind. You are as limitless as you will allow yourself to be. You cannot be contained by the boxes others will attempt to put you in due to their small imaginations. And, having found just the right sized box, it can be tempting to snuggle down and stay there. I hope that you will instead continue to take risks, to scare yourself, to throw yourself off new cliffs in your research, teaching, and service trusting that your wings will grow on the way down.

Finally, be clear about your values and where you come from. Find people and spaces outside the academy whom you can trust to check you in love. And yes, as Jesse Williams has asserted, you are magic. Find the people who will remind you of your gifts and encourage you to walk in them even when you are afraid. Yet, as Brother Jesse also said, you are real. Honor your body and your heart. Take care of it. Love on it. Allow it to be loved on. You will not last if you do not. We need you to stick around for a long time. We are better with you than without you, but you must value your health and wellness over all else. Don’t let this work define you. Live a full, expansive life. Live the life your ancestors could not have dreamed of. The fact is that neither side of that dual-life I referenced earlier is real. They are both constructions of oppression, the flip sides of fetish and repulsion. Don’t buy into either. Create a life that can transport you beyond.

In love; in hope; in solidarity,

D-L

Safety, Learning, & Community

There has been so much to write about over the last couple of weeks. From the clear fact that merely going to college does not imbue one with critical consciousness (see the difference between why Nate Parker and Colin Kaepernick are trending) to what kind of spaces college campuses should be, I could have written multiple posts. Alas, BGSU’s first day of fall semester was last Monday the 22nd and I was a little busy last week with my paid post. So, I decided to write today about safety, learning, and faculty responsibility to support student learning. I did it through Storify because so much great content I’ve seen on this has come through my Twitter feed. Let’s up sharing it this way works as I hope it will. Clicking on the link below should take you to the Storify:

 

What’s this have to do with higher ed?

Howdy. Hey. Hi. Wassup.

I know it’s been ages and a half since my last blog post. Several folks have been nudging me – okay, it’s been a bit more urgent than a nudge – to start writing for my blog again. Frankly, my absence from this blog site has not been because there haven’t been issues I wanted to write in long form about. There have indeed been lots of them. I do have to confess that I have fallen in like with Twitter. I have come to enjoy the necessity of boiling down my ideas to 140 characters and when I have more to say than that, I have learned how to “thread” my tweets so that I can go on a “tweet storm” that satisfies that in-the-moment urge to get something out of my head and into the world for feedback and commentary. This is in large part the reason why I have posted nearly 16,000 tweets in the last year or so (I know small potatoes by comparison with others, but I think that’s a lot for someone who is not a nationally known personality).

The blog, by contrast, has felt more distant. In other words, I feel like there is less direct engagement with me through my blog posts than there has been via Twitter through a rant or even a single tweet. Perhaps some of that has something to do with the “celebrity” culture that Dr. Z Nicolazzo posted about on hir blog earlier today (8/11/2016). Perhaps the blog feeds some (definitely not all) folks’ desire to “consume” or “experience” me than to actually engage with me person to person. And that’s more than a little off-putting to me. Despite my strong introvert preferences, I really enjoy talking about ideas with people and I have found that more possible through Twitter than through my blog. Again, neither space is totally either singular thing, but the patterns do diverge between those two platforms.

Another issue that’s kept me off my blog – and this is fully my own internalized constraint – has been the question that I used to title this blog post: What’s this have to do with higher ed? This is actually a question I get fairly often from anonymous reviewers and one that’s currently besetting a manuscript that I’ve been asked to submit a revision of for a journal. I have an uncanny – some might call it annoying – ability to connect the dots across widely varying content, issues, people, topics. It’s an artifact of my ADHD, a gift as I like to think of it. However, also due to my ADHD, I have a really difficult time explaining those connections that are so apparent to me to other people. Hence why my reviewers are often puzzled and have to ask me to more clearly address how my argument/findings/recommendations/the topic itself is related to the field of higher education. On the blog, I feel a greater responsibility to make those connections visible to readers, to think through my arguments, to show the picture. Mind you, these are all rightfully expected responsibilities of any author. It’s like the instruction from my math teachers in school: “Show your work.”

Nevertheless, that work is work and I haven’t had that kind of time on my hands lately, especially not over the last year or so. However, as I am choosing to take the advice of a dear and treasured friend and just “rest” this coming year, I think I am ready to tackle that challenge. I’d like to begin in this post by sharing generally how I see things connecting, the patterns I am most interested in drawing, and those patterns which already exist that I would like to point out.

The arc of my scholarship over the last 15 years has certainly focused most specifically on (Black) student identity (development), experiences, and outcomes concerning race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, faith, religion, and spirituality. However, my interest in those topics has always been connected to and meant to inform institutional transformation and what I see as the role of higher education in a (espoused) democratic society. In other words, I fervently believe that the issues on which I have focused [1)how (racially minoritized) students experience their higher education environments and 2) how those environments press upon their meaning making of who they are, their relationships to others, and what that means for how they should show up in the world] affect the broader society those students will shape and the society they experience with others. I believe that higher education best fulfills its role as a public good (not just a private gain) when it prepares people to be actively engaged, critically thinking, critically conscious (and there “critically” serves two different but related purposes) citizens in a democratic society.

U.S. Census data show that 56% of the population “25 years and older” as of 2011 had at least an associate’s degree or some college experience; this includes the 30% who have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.  Consequently, higher education environments – across sectors – have a significant (potential) influence on shaping knowledge competency, maturation, and values in the country. How people in those environments – including students, faculty, and staff – dis/engage each other around issues of identity, relationship, community, and systems of oppression and privilege shows up in how those same people dis/engage each other around those topics beyond the campus commons. Here are just three examples:

  1. How we in higher education do (not) talk about gender in colleges and universities – not just the elite, private ones – shows up in public discussions and debates about HB2 in North Carolina.
  2. How higher education does (not) talk about privilege and power as systemic realities that create and reproduce what Stainback et al. (2010) call “founding effects” and “organizational inertia” shows up in debates about policing and the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC; h/t Michelle Alexander).
  3. How higher education does (not) address its historical connections to colonization and slavery and the continuing present material effects of that relationship shows up in the need for students to petition, strike, and protest by any means necessary the celebration of the vestiges of those relationships on their campuses and in the cities and states in which they live and study.

As a result, prison abolition, gender and toxic masculinity as lived and experienced “out in the world”, and the display of the Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds all become fodder for higher education analysis and discussion.  How we discuss terrorism, mass shootings, gun violence, mental health, and political candidates invocation of such rhetoric are all higher education issues because they all speak back/forward to how colleges and universities are (not) preparing people to be actively engaged, critically thinking, critically conscious citizens in a democratic society. In partnership with K12 education, which is the extent of formal education for 44% of the country (as captured by the Census so that proportion is likely higher), we must consider what we are meant to do as educators and educational communities, what is our role, how can we positively affect change in the issues I noted above and many, many others.

So, over this next academic year, you’ll see more of that kind of discussion in my blog. I hope you’ll take this as an invitation to actively join me whether you’re working in student affairs or not.

D-L’s blog: 2015 in review

Wow, I only wrote 5 blog posts in 2015 but those posts generated a LOT of visits and discussions. During this year, I was swamped by writing for publication in external venues (journal articles and books chapters). I’ve learned that I am not a person who can divide my attention infinitely and expect to be productive. So, focusing on different kinds of publications this year meant that my blog got less attention. Despite that, I’m really proud of what I wrote here this year and very appreciative of all of you who read, shared, commented, or otherwise helped to promote my ideas. Check out my stats and see for yourself.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,600 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

So, Sometimes I Preach, Too

I fellowship with a religious community of Episcopalians in Toledo, Ohio – Trinity Episcopal Church. We are in the midst of an interim period after our previous rector resigned mid-summer to pursue a new calling of God on her life (may she and her wife be blessed). Now, as we first search for an interim rector (a priest who is specially called to help churches in leadership transitions), some of our lay members have been called upon to offer the sermon during our Sunday worship services. It befell me to do this on Sunday of this week. I’ve had a number of people ask me to share my words more widely. I do so with no small amount of hesitation as these are not “my” words really, but rather what I believe to be the outcome of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. To any extent that these words bring life, the honor and glory goes to God alone. To any extent that these words bring pain and suffering, the accountability is mine alone to bear for clearly I have mishandled the message of God. Without further preamble and largely unedited except for adding hyperlinks to a couple of things that aren’t necessarily public knowledge, what follows is the message I shared with my faith community last Sunday. I hope it feeds your soul and provokes you to new action.

Sermon for September 13, 2015

Trinity Episcopal Church, Toledo

Good morning. I would like to begin by first reading into your hearing the Old Testament and Psalm appointed in Track 2 of the Revised Common Lectionary for today [September 13, 2015]. It was through these lessons along with James’ epistle and Mark’s gospel that the Spirit seemed to be speaking to me most clearly. I humbly offer these meditations to you today.

Isaiah 50: 4-9a

The Lord GOD has given me

the tongue of a teacher,

that I may know how to sustain

the weary with a word.

Morning by morning he wakens–

wakens my ear

to listen as those who are taught.

The Lord GOD has opened my ear,

and I was not rebellious,

I did not turn backward.

I gave my back to those who struck me,

and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

I did not hide my face

from insult and spitting.

The Lord GOD helps me;

therefore I have not been disgraced;

therefore I have set my face like flint,

and I know that I shall not be put to shame;

he who vindicates me is near.

Who will contend with me?

Let us stand up together.

Who are my adversaries?

Let them confront me.

It is the Lord GOD who helps me;

who will declare me guilty?

Psalm 116: 1-8

1          I love the LORD, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, *
because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.

2          The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me; *
I came to grief and sorrow.

3          Then I called upon the Name of the LORD: *
“O LORD, I pray you, save my life.”

4          Gracious is the LORD and righteous; *
our God is full of compassion.

5          The LORD watches over the innocent; *
I was brought very low, and he helped me.

6          Turn again to your rest, O my soul, *
for the LORD has treated you well.

7          For you have rescued my life from death, *
my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.

8          I will walk in the presence of the LORD *
in the land of the living.

Let the Lord add a blessing to the reading of his word. Amen.

As I read and meditated on each of these lessons from Isaiah, Psalm 116, James, and Mark’s Gospel, I believe that I see the Church as the subject and object of each lesson. When I say “the Church” in this context I mean both God’s Church universal, all of us who claim to be followers of Christ both within and beyond the Anglican Communion. I should pause here quickly to explain myself: We – and I do include myself in this – like to make distinctions amongst ourselves for the sake of our own egos and self-righteousness, but neither God nor those who watch us attend to them. Yet, while I believe this message has relevance nationally and internationally, I am also speaking to this West Mission Area of the Diocese of Ohio, as well as to all of us gathered under the sound of my voice as Trinity Episcopal Church, Toledo.

Let’s hear from that text in Isaiah again, but this time put the Church into the passage (Isaiah 50):

The Lord GOD has given the Church

the tongue of a teacher,

that the Church may know how to sustain

the weary with a word.

Morning by morning GOD wakens–

wakens the Church’s ear

to listen as those who are taught.

The Lord GOD has opened the Church’s ear,

and the Church was not rebellious,

the Church did not turn backward.

The Church gave their back to those who struck the Church,

and their cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

The Church did not hide their face

from insult and spitting.

The Lord GOD helps the Church;

therefore the Church have not been disgraced;

therefore the Church have set their face like flint,

and the Church know that they shall not be put to shame;

GOD who vindicates the Church is near.

Who will contend with the Church?

Let the Church stand up together.

Who are the Church’s adversaries?

Let them confront the Church.

It is the Lord GOD who helps the Church;

who will declare the Church guilty?

The Church has been given the tongue of a teacher, but we must remain attentive to listening and learning anew every day so that we know how to sustain the weary with a word. Who are they that are weary? God has never been most concerned about those who claim weariness from going to work every day, or having to sit in traffic and construction zones in their air-conditioned, leather-seated cars, or those who are tired already of political posturing and presidential campaigning.

No, the weary who need to be sustained with the words of the Church are those who are oppressed under the thumb of oppressive structures and systemic violence. These weary are Syrian refugees; they are sex workers; they are those who are unhoused; they are indigenous peoples across the globe; they are those impoverished by our greed, materialism, and capitalism; they are Black lives imprisoned and executed by overly aggressive policing. These who are weary are trans* people, who have endured the news twenty-three times this year of our kin being slaughtered in the streets:

  1. Papi Edwards
  2. Lamia Beard
  3. Ty Underwood
  4. Yasmin Vash Payne
  5. Taja Gabrielle DeJesus
  6. Penny Proud
  7. Bri Golec
  8. Kristina Grant Infiniti
  9. Sumaya Ysl
  10. Keyshia Blige
  11. Vanessa Santillan
  12. Mya Hall
  13. London Chanel
  14. Mercedes Williamson
  15. Ashton O’Hara
  16. Amber Monroe
  17. India Clarke
  18. C. Haggard
  19. Shade Schuler
  20. Kandis Capri
  21. Elisha Walker
  22. Tamara Dominguez
  23. Jasmine Collins

Made weary by their deaths and yet at times unable to mourn our dead because they have been misnamed and mispronouned, adding yet another violent erasure to the physical one that took them from us and another weariness to endure.

It is the voice of the weary who narrate Psalm 116. Here, I see the Church this time in the place of the Lord, because as St. Teresa of Avila wrote in the 16th century,

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Let’s hear Psalm 116 again with that understanding:

1          I love the CHURCH, because they have heard the voice of my supplication, *
because they have inclined their ear to me whenever I called upon them.

2          The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me; *
I came to grief and sorrow.

3          Then I called upon the Name of the CHURCH: *
“O CHURCH, I pray you, save my life.”

4          Gracious is the CHURCH and righteous; *
our CHURCH is full of compassion.

5          The CHURCH watches over the innocent; *
I was brought very low, and THE CHURCH helped me.

6          Turn again to your rest, O my soul, *
for the CHURCH has treated you well.

7          For THE CHURCH has rescued my life from death, *
my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.

8          I will walk in the presence of the CHURCH *
in the land of the living.

Would all those who are weary in this country, this city, be able to give this testimony? Can the Church say in truth that we have not turned our backs, that we have given our cheeks to those who slander the name of God? In essence, as Jesus asked his disciples in Mark’s gospel account, “Who do people say that [the Church] is?” Who do people say that Trinity is? [Feel free to insert the name of your congregation here.]

In answer, many of us may want to set ourselves apart from the likes of Kim Davis or Westboro Baptist Church.  Yet, to the world, if we call ourselves Christians, we and Kim Davis have more in common than we do different. To those who watch us, Trinity and Cedar Creek and Cornerstone and First Church and St. Paul’s are all cut from the same cloth. A cloth that either smothers or comforts, chokes or covers. But as James writes in the lesson from the epistle for today, we who are called to teach – and we have already learned from Isaiah that the Lord has given the Church the tongue of a teacher – are held to a higher standard. Indeed, we ought to be because we are God’s representatives on earth. If even but one part of the Church has rejected that morning call of Isaiah to wake and to listen and learn, then we are all guilty. We must not be so smug as to be content with our own progressivism, thinking ourselves safe from criticism. No, God calls us all to account for each other. The apostle writes, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. [People of God], this ought not to be so.” From the same church, people come to stay and people leave with bitterness in their mouths. People of Trinity, this ought not to be so. We must commit to the hard work of consistently clarifying who God is for a world in pain, standing in open opposition to those who, like the Pharisees and Sanhedrin of Jesus’ time, use the Name of God to inflict all sorts of misery and provoke to weariness the most weak and vulnerable among us.

To speak a word to sustain in the face of weariness is to deliberately and intentionally set oneself against what is easy, popular, or comfortable. As we walk this Via Media[1], let it not become a Via Wishy-Washy, let us not compromise delivering a truly sustaining word that is full of compassion, which rescues lives from death, dries tears and steadies feet to run. Let us not be ashamed of Christ’s call to give it all away for the sake of attempting to save our own lives.  Instead, let us rather set our faces as flint and dare to be criticized, to be ostracized, to lose members and income and buildings, while we allow the holy fire of the Spirit to compel us ever onward. To deny that this is necessary, vital, and yes even commanded by God is to be like Peter in today’s gospel lesson, holding on to our own security and comfort content to watch the world go to Hell in a handbasket.

To take our message to those who are weary, we must not just leave the building but also bring others with us into the building to receive help, strength, and encouragement to go on. To be spat upon and insulted, the Church, like Jesus our Savior, must be first willing to speak the Truth that inflicts discomfort on the comfortable and wounds those who are whole. Through our building and through our outstretched hands and uplifted voices, let us be CHRIST who is loved and walked alongside of. We must see ourselves as ONE with those who are oppressed and marginalized, not us and them, not church and unchurched, but all in need of the water of everlasting life. As the Church stands up to BE the Church, not just go to church, the Lord GOD will help us and vindicate us.

Let them who have ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.  Thanks be to GOD.

[1] This is an Anglican/Episcopal Church thing. You can read one perspective on it here.

Trans*forming A Mule

I

This is an essay about gender.

II

If we are to truly understand gender as socially constructed, we must first recognize that gender programming and performance (i.e., socialization) begins at birth and informs how we engage each other in our daily lives. Gender is more than the clothes we wear, the pitch of our voices, and much much more than our body morphology. Gender is informed by and intersected with race, sexuality, social class, and disability.

[Before I go any further, I should pause to acknowledge that the ideas of many others inform my thinking in this post. Some of those sources I will name as they come up, but most of which I won’t be able to, because they are so ingrained and entangled in my mind that I no longer can pull them apart to tell what came from who. Here is a list of those influences, in no particular order: bell hooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, the compilation This Bridge Called My Back edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Sarah Smith Rainey, Michele Wallace, discussions with Z Nicolazzo, Allan G. Johnson…]

III

Foreground yourself.

In the word processing program that I use, I can insert a picture and choose among various options for how that image should appear relative to the text or other images around it. If I set it as “foreground” then I am putting it in front of other text/images such that if they overlap, then what is foregrounded appears on top of the rest.

I have been told lately, “foreground yourself.” Essentially, among the overlapping roles I hold, pulls on my time, and needs for self-care, I have been strongly advised to put myself in front of all the rest. To see my needs first and foremost, on top of everything else. I heard that advice and was mystified about how to enact it.

This is gender in action, gender as performative (thank you, Judith Butler).

IV

I need…

Need, needs, needy, needing, and neediness are gendered. To be seen as “needy” is definitely gendered (as feminine which equals bad in case you were wondering). Neediness is a state of lack, of want for something that you do not have. It is weakness as it’s portrayed in pop culture. Those “in need” are usually portrayed as women and children. It’s central to why our society refuses to accept a man as being in need of public assistance. Men are defined as “not in need” but also as the ones whose “needs” must be met (by women and children).

To assert that *I* need and have needs and am in need is being subversive.  I am violating the gender norms assigned to me because I do not fit within the category “man.”

V

“All you/I need to do is stay Black and die.” I’ve heard this my whole life.

All I need to do is stay Black and die.

[I’ll leave for another blog post, perhaps, a critical race-poststructural analysis of the directive to “stay Black” grounded partially in the ways in which one can become not-Black, perhaps similar to Monique Wittig’s concept of lesbians as not-women.]

This was a proclamation of resistance when an I was the subject – denying anyone else’s right to force me to take any action I did not want to take: No, I don’t *need* to keep my hair long and straight to be sexually attractive. No, I don’t *need* to focus more on getting married than I do on my education and career. No, I don’t *need* to accept somebody denying my worth and value and authenticity just because “everybody has issues.” I rebuffed many an external constraint on my self-determination by flinging back that response with all the certitude and attitude my grown-ass womanish Black self could muster, as in “Excuse me?? No, all I neeeeeed to do is stay Black and die!” Yes, cue the neck roll, eye roll, and teeth sucking along with the implied dare to keep on talking.

VI

All you need to do is stay Black and die.

[And here, I could do a different blog post about how Blackness is surveilled and policed such that people who are deemed Black, stay Black, and die as Black in ways appropriate for Blackness. And in that post, I would give a shout-out to Michel Foucault.]

This was an indictment of my selfishness when a you was the subject. The speaker denied my assertion of my desire to do something other than what was being demanded of me in that moment so that I could perform to satisfy someone else’s needs that were more important than my own.

What was being communicated was some version of the following: No, you don’t need time for yourself really. No, all you need to do is stay within the respectable bubble of Black-womanness (i.e., don’t be queer or trans* or womanist or too educated or not educated enough) that has been erected to make your Black-womanness palatable to White folks and stay small enough to be subservient to others’ interests and wear your mask and die with it on. Oh and while you’re at it, you can also disappear and be of no consequence and leave no mark so that no one ever knows your pain, your need, your want, your desire so that you don’t infringe on those who are really important. And the I that is the dominating Other is watching you to make sure that if you step out of line and forget your programming that you will be brought back in line (thank you, Michel Foucault).

VII

This is still an essay about gender.

VIII

So, I engage in lengthy episodes of anxiety-ridden angst about whether it is permissible for me this time to put my needs, my neediness, and my need up front. This is about gender and my gender socialization and how I have been socialized NOT to EVER foreground myself. As Zora Neale Hurston’s character Nannie asserted in Their Eyes Were Watching God, the Black woman is the mule of the world, made to bear others’ burdens and fulfill others’ needs, not to have any of her own.

[Nanny]: “Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” (2.44) [Retrieved from http://www.shmoop.com/eyes-were-watching-god/race-quotes-2.html]

How many have gained their freedom, had their autonomy recognized, had their needs met by crossing over on the work of women of color (thank you Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa)? Like, everybody except women of color. Hello somebody…

IX

But I am not a Black woman, though I was raised to be one.

And so if I’m really going to show up as an AFAB (assigned female at birth), genderqueer, non-binary trans* and MOC (masculine of center), then doing so must mean doing more than wearing a badass suit and bow tie, unlearning the practiced (and unnatural) feminine pitch of my voice, and slinging a prosthetic phallis between my thighs in order to trans*form myself from the mule I was trained to be to become the person that I am. My gender identity and expression is not kink.

But it cannot mean picking up another’s load and then passing it off to a Black ciswoman to carry because I have deemed myself, as not a woman, to be higher than she.

This is the gender knot that must be unraveled (nod to Allan G. Johnson).

No, it must mean refusing to pick up someone else’s burden (to NOT be Simon the Cyrene for someone else’s crucifix), but to foreground myself, my needs, and my neediness as legitimate, valuable, necessary and NOT as a weakness to be squashed so that I can remain some kind of superhero (nod to Michele Wallace there, thank you). It must mean wresting the right to make my life matter for me and to me, to put myself first, to say that I need to do more than stay Black and die to be alive in this world.

This is about self-preservation being subversive and countercultural and militant and necessary (thank you, Audre Lorde).

X

This is an essay about gender. This is an essay about race. This is an essay about social class. This is an essay about trans*gression.

This is an essay about freedom.

Listening to Otis: The Necessity of Tenderness

[Written April 15, 2015]

A few days (or maybe several days) ago, my Twitter timeline included a post (deep apologies for no longer remembering who it was by) that referenced a quote from Dr. Cornel West: “…tenderness is what love feels like in private…” It moved me that day and must have inched its way down into my soul because it rose back up into my consciousness earlier this afternoon.

I meditated on that word, tenderness, until snatches of a song rose up in my soul as well…

It was the right time for me to listen to Otis Redding today. I played the song twice, let the chorus loop on repeat in my mind for quite some time. “Try a little tenderness…!”  The urgency of his voice makes it clear that this is a command, a demand even, not a wistful suggestion. I had been thinking about community and kinship when West’s quote rose up in my spirit today. In fact, community and kinship have been recurring themes that Z Nicolazzo and I have been exploring together of late. I wanted to dig deeper into this notion of how tenderness and kinship might be related, so I found the context for Cornel West’s quote in this essay, “A Love Supreme.” In talking about how we might fully engage the promise and possibilities of the Occupy Movement in 2011, Dr. West wrote the following:

We must recast old notions of empire, class, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and nature into new ways of thinking and being. Our movement is a precious, sublime, messy and funky form of incubation. Again like jazz, we must embody and enact a loving embrace of the art of our collaborative creations. We must embody a universal embrace of all those in the human family, and sentient beings, and consolidate an unstoppable fortitude in the face of systems of oppression and structures of domination. We will suffer, shudder and struggle together with smiles on our faces and a love supreme in our souls. Just as justice is what love looks like in public and tenderness is what love feels like in private, deep democratic revolution is what justice looks like in practice. (para. 3, emphasis added)

I have seen the first third of that last sentence a great deal, the second third only a couple of times, and I have never seen that last phrase quoted by others at all. I think it’s easy for those of us invested in social justice to focus on that first phrase. We are eager, thirsty, for justice. We want self-identified allies to show their love in tangible ways. Justice makes love tangible. Justice enacts human dignity. Justice brings transformation.

However, it’s that second phrase that has been rooting itself deep in my loins (as in the seat of physical strength and generative power) since I saw that tweet several days ago. Tenderness is what love feels like in private.

As a member of multiple marginalized communities, I notice that I expend a lot of energy external to those communities. Energy that is swallowed up in protesting, in education, in ranting, in recovery and healing. It is far easier I have noticed to use our community gathering time to vent and strategize and waste away in our exhaustion with struggle. After all, it is often other marginalized people who actually understand why we are so worn out and exhausted, angry and hurt. We can share without undue explanation, receive validation and support.

That validation and support is critical. However, moving beyond validation and support to building each other up through love’s tender embrace is also fundamental to healing and wholeness.  I appreciate that West’s essay here is inward-facing. He is addressing those within the movement, not those who are the objects of the movement’s resistance. We must carefully consider how we will be with and for each other in order to truly realize the radical vision of a “deep democratic revolution in practice.”

Tenderness is what love feels like in private.

Within communities of marginalized and oppressed people, we are well-acquainted with all the ways in which we are unlovable, ugly, and generally considered to be less than. Our mis-education, as Carter G. Woodson opined in 1935, has been thorough. As Reina Gossett shared in her interview with Rheem Brooks for Bluestockings Magazine, living out an abolitionist movement is not necessarily an action, but rather the persistent engagement in a “deep process of unlearning or learning again.” I strongly believe that this is why we need to consciously and doggedly practice tenderness among ourselves, in our private affinity spaces and community gatherings. Within the spaces we create with and for each other as marginalized and oppressed peoples, tenderness should be, must be the primary agenda.

When I think of tenderness, I am reminded of the careful, gentle touch of lovers, of a parent toward a child, of a child toward their aging parent. Tenderness is the soft touch, the sweet kiss that stirs the soul before it is felt upon the skin. Tenderness is the tone of voice that calls the name of its beloved and instantly brings calm. Tenderness is the hand held without a word needing to be spoken. Tenderness is holding close in the dark with just breath between bodies warm from shared energy. Tenderness. The gentle panting of a heaving chest that finally feels at home, loved, at peace. Tenderness has emotive power and is fierce in its quietness. It is no mistake that West chose the verb “feels” instead of “looks” when he talked about tenderness. Tenderness provokes an emotional response.

Tenderness is not for public consumption.

Contrary to what you might be envisioning now, I am not talking about sexual romance. I am talking about love as action, as imparted. How do we act out such a tenderness for and among ourselves within the private spaces of our marginalized communities?

I just said I wasn’t talking about sexual romance, but maybe I am talking about a different type of sexuality. Maybe it’s a sexuality that is not restricted to and which subsumes sexual romance. Perhaps, this is a communal sexuality focused on deep emotional intimacy and mutual valuing and investment. And despite our society’s religiously-informed body- and sex-shaming (condemnations of the flesh as inherently sinful), touch is also a part of showing tenderness to other people. I think touch is one of the first things that is withdrawn from bodies deemed undesirable. They are marked as untouchables. The experience of tenderness ought to be multisensory: seen, heard, felt – visual, aural, and tactile – and even smelled and tasted (I am remembering now the tenderness given and received in a loaf of home-baked bread). For crying out loud, touch each other with tenderness – because ours may be the only arms left to hold our socially unmentionable, publicly undesirable bodies.

Tenderness is what love feels like in private.

In as much as sexuality is multifaceted (emotional, romantic, and sexual), the communal sexuality that I am proposing is also multifaceted — it is epistemic, affective, and behavioral.

[My sexually conservative religious upbringing is screaming in my head, but I am going to press on.]

Thinking, feeling, and acting toward each other with tenderness within and across our multiple marginalities is fundamental to the unlearning and new learning that Gossett recommends. As Nicolazzo has written in an earlier blog post, we must practice a collective love (citing Lani Guinier). We cannot always simply love ourselves without being shown that love within and from our communities. In fact, I would argue that an intersectional ethic requires a commitment to a political (as opposed to a romantic/relational) polyamory*, in which marginalized people are able to practice this communal sexuality within and across multiple marginalities for the purposes of deep democratic revolution beginning from within.

So, listen to Otis. Let’s try a little tenderness.

*I am grateful to my doctoral student, Liane Ortis, whose dissertation study of polyamory in college environments is teaching me a great deal about polyamory and has reshaped my thinking.

An Up-Close View from the Middle at 30,000 Feet

They are already coming from my daughter. “They” being colleges and universities. Ever since the results of her PSAT scores came in last fall, my child’s email inbox has been filled with another imploring note from institutions far and near, of all stripes and pedigrees.  They are asking this soon-to-be-but-not-yet sixteen year old high school sophomore to consider their institution as the place where she should seek to spend the next 4 years of her life after high school. Many of these institutions also email me in hopes that I will use my parental influence to sway her decision (they do realize she’s a teenager, right?).

This is my only child. I get one experience with being on the parental end of the college search process. Since I was my mother’s only child, I also only had one view of this from the prospective student’s point of view as well. There was no older sibling to watch first. My mother, the next to last child and youngest girl, did not have the opportunity to complete college, attending only one semester at Hunter College before having to prematurely end her college education to stay home and help her widowed mother take care of her younger brother, who had both physical and psychiatric disabilities. My father, though possessing both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from North Carolina public universities, was not really part of my life at the time and I had no access to his knowledge about higher education. I had been helping to fill out our family’s FAFSA forms since I was in high school due to the opportunity extended to me to attend a private, independent all-girls Catholic high school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (I was born and raised in Harlem, north of Central Park, in the same burrough of New York City). I was a first-gen college student; one of the “privileged poor” as Dr. Anthony Abraham Jack, a researcher featured in this NYT article on first-gen students at elite colleges, names those first-gen students who attend private schools and therefore have a chance to get somewhat used to the massive class differences evident at elite institutions.

Although I am told not to worry about where my child will go to college, I am concerned because I know that as a young adult perceived to be an African American woman, she will be judged in the context of this White cishetpatriarchal society as inferior, less than, a collection of deficits to be overcome – despite her class schedule being filled with honors classes and maintaining an over 4.0 GPA. So, for my child, and others like her, it does matter where she goes, what institution’s name is listed on her resume as the place where she received her bachelor’s education. To deny that this does matter for some students and their families considering college is to accept the myth of meritocracy and deny the reality of systemic bias that continues to confront graduates from minority-serving institutions, community colleges, and small, regional public colleges. Yes, the conclusions drawn by Pascarella and Terenzini (How College Affects Students, 2005) based on the weight of hundreds of research studies suggest that the biggest differences lie between students in different educational programs (e.g., honors colleges, living-learning communities, summer bridge programs, etc.) at the same institution instead of between students in comparable educational programs at different institutions.

And yet, hiring managers and graduate school admissions committees don’t think of that research when they make assumptions about the quality of education at Spelman versus that at Mount Holyoke, or a graduate whose undergraduate career began at Terra State Community College versus the one whose college years were all spent at The Ohio State University’s main campus in Columbus.

So, I want to help my daughter, who I’ll refer to as “M” to preserve her confidentiality, to make the best decision for her and encourage her not to “undermatch” (see the NYT article linked above) based on false perceptions of her competence and ability to succeed.

I was a first-gen college student, but my daughter is not. M is the child of 3 parents across two households who possess 3 bachelor’s degrees and 4 advanced graduate degrees among them. I am an associate professor with tenure in a doctoral-level research institution teaching, of all ironies, in a higher education and student affairs department. Going to college is not just where I go to work, it is my work. More than anyone, I should know all the ins-and-outs of college admissions, all the tips and tricks for getting M’s application noticed, have all the access to the test prep strategies and essay writing tutors that my educational station and social class privilege should afford, right? Right? Wrong.

Yes, I do know a lot more about navigating college than my mom did when I was in high school. I have attained no small amount of cultural and social capital due to my education and profession. However, I am still wide-eyed and overwhelmed in much the same ways as I was when I was on the threshold of 16 and beginning to consider where I would go to college. The problem with that is that no one expects me to feel that way. M – who has been on college campuses since she was literally in the womb – and I have an up-close view of college life from the middle, stuck in the DMZ between first-gen status and the privileges accruing to generations of college legacies. I can step out from that place and look at all this happening from 30,000 feet in the air, with the benefit of a command of the college access and choice scholarship. But this is my kid. My only child. My only chance to do this well. Yes, we have a village and thank goodness for it – the same village that appeared when I was 16 is the same village (not the same people but the same presence of support and capacity) that will help M to enter this familiar-unfamiliarity on her own terms.

As I become the parent of a matriculating college student, I’ll continue to share this unique up-close view of the middle from 30,000 feet up. I hope you’ll join me at #MsCollegeSearch.