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,


Celebrating LGBT History

Follow along with me as I celebrate LGBT History Month with the icon videos produced by the Equality Forum. I’ve inserted the YouTube videos as well as given you links to the videos on Equality Forum’s website.

The overview video for the month:

Roberta Achtenberg: http://www.lgbthistorymonth.com/roberta-achtenberg

Gloria Anzaldua: http://www.lgbthistorymonth.com/gloria-anzaldua

Ann Bannon: http://www.lgbthistorymonth.com/ann-bannon

Katherine Lee Bates: http://www.lgbthistorymonth.com/katharine-lee-bates

(If I manage to figure out how to embed the videos on here so that they automatically update, I’ll do that…)

#higheredWed: Top 10 Don’ts for Diversity Workshops

This week’s #higheredWed blog post is about the diversity trainings and workshops that are going to be part of incoming students’ orientation experiences during their first few days on campus and mandatory elements of most trainings for new and returning residence life staffs. I’ve participated in a number of these trainings either as a student, RA, or professional staff member and have had to plan and facilitate a fair number as well. From my own experiences and conversations with friends and colleagues who facilitate these sessions, I’ve learned a number of pitfalls that seem to beset a lot of these trainings. I’m hoping this short list of cautions might make these important and necessary sessions better and more effective for all involved.

10. DON’T ASSUME KNOWLEDGE. Many of us who work in higher education and student affairs talk about issues of diversity, inclusion, and social justice on a regular basis. We are familiar with the terms, know the lingo, and are comfortable with the concepts regardless of whether we are of like-mind regarding how to implement them. However, as I was reminded this summer teaching the students in our university’s leadership scholars program, most other folks don’t share this familiarity with the language of social justice. Concepts such as pluralism, social justice, and inclusion, as well as distinctions between sex, gender, gender identity, and gender expression are not part of most folks’ everyday conversation. Take the time to explain what terms mean and how they are being used in the context of your institution.

9. DON’T FORGET TO MAKE CLEAR, REASONABLE LEARNING OUTCOMES. Start with the purpose of the session and your institutional context. Are you working with incoming first-year students on a residential campus who will need to learn how to live together effectively across lines of differences which may be unfamiliar to most of your students? What have been the major fault lines around diversity at your institution and in your local area in recent history (the last 5-10 years moreso than the past 25-30 years)? Are you training staff who will have to do educational programming and be prepared to mediate conflicts around issues of diversity? What are the specific foundational skills the RA staff need to effectively serve as first-responders and to build awareness and foundational knowledge through active and passive programming? For RA staffs, keep in mind that you’re asking them to do a lot of cognitive development and emotional maturity by putting them in the position of educating their peers and mediating conflicts about issues that they themselves may have only been introduced to a year ago. Meet them where they’re at, not where you need them to be; build the bride that will get them there. And then remember that people in your group, even that incoming class, may be at different places in their knowledge and understanding. Know what you need to accomplish with the group in this session and then plan to build on it later through successive workshops and programs.

8. DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE EMOTIONAL LABOR INVOLVED. For first-year students, this may be the first time they have ever been asked to think and talk about issues of race, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, social class, and/or religion and faith in a formal setting. For some students, their college experience may be their first real, extended engagement with others who don’t share their race, gender identity, sexuality, social class, ability, or religious beliefs. Remember what it felt like when you first had your paradigms about what you had been taught and had assumed to be “normal” challenged and upended. These conversations bring up feelings of confusion, frustration, anger, sadness, guilt, shame, doubt, fear, and anxiety. As Sherry Watt has discussed about difficult dialogues and privileged identity exploration, people’s egos are often threatened in the midst of these discussions. You must prepare for that and make room for it in your learning outcomes and as you plan structured experiences.

7. DON’T SHORTCHANGE TIME FOR REFLECTION. I remember being formally taught this in class with Dr. Bob Rodgers during my master’s program at The Ohio State University. I remember really learning the value and importance of applying this caution after failing to apply it more than once in diversity workshops and trainings. I would have the group of students, or staff, do an activity and only leave 15 minutes to process it when usually at least 45 minutes were needed. This goes along with #9 and #8. If you only have two hours, you can’t try to squeeze in 2 activities that are going to be not only cognitively challenging, but also emotionally fraught and expect to get through them both effectively and with people’s hearts and minds still intact. If you only have two hours and can’t extend the time, you probably have just enough time to do some kind of short introduction activity and one structured experience.

6. DON’T GIVE IN TO THE BLACK-WHITE BINARY. I think particularly in predominantly White universities in the U.S., race and ethnicity easily become the lightning rods for diversity workshops. Racial and ethnic diversity are typically the most easily visible differences within a group and because racism is embedded in the foundations of this country, race easily takes all the focus. Moreover, discussions about race, especially in certain parts of the U.S., become only about Blacks and Whites, while other racially marginalized groups are ignored. Latin@s, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Native American and indigenous peoples, and multiracial folks all share histories of racial segregation, exclusion, and discrimination in the U.S. Moreover, systems of oppression affect myriad people on the basis of other social identities other than and intersected with race (e.g., sex, gender, sexuality, ability, age, social class, language, nationality and immigration status, convictional belief systems, to name just a few). There is no value in running an oppression Olympics; there’s no prize for being the “most oppressed” group and every system of oppression is equally unjust, hurtful, damaging, and destructive to developing and sustaining inclusive, pluralistic communities. Helping students understand the dynamics of oppression generally also helps avoid the next don’t, #5…

5. DON’T FORGET THE INTERSECTIONS OF PRIVILEGE AND OPPRESSION. Another consequence of getting trapped in the black-white binary or only discussing racial oppression, is that the White folks get the message that they have not experienced any form of oppression and the people of color in the room tune out of the conversation. First of all, as my friend and social justice mentor, Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington says, “just because you are doesn’t mean you understand.” Everybody has a learning edge in these discussions; people of color are not inherently more sophisticated about how privilege and oppression work just because they may be more likely to be recognize and acknowledge the affect of racial oppression. Second, most everybody in your workshop or training session is the member of one or more groups who receive privilege (i.e., unearned advantages and conferred dominance ala Allan G. Johnson), including people of color. ALSO, most everybody in the room holds group membership in one or more groups who are targeted by systematic and structural oppression, including white folks. The result is that everybody has privilege that needs to be examined and challenged and everybody can probably connect an unfamiliar knowledge about one system of oppression to another system of oppression with which they are more familiar. You may have to help folks see their privilege by getting them to reflect on ways they are NOT privileged first. Being transparent about your own intersections of privilege and oppression as a facilitator can go along way toward helping everybody understand on a deeper level.

4. DON’T MAKE GETTING ALONG AND HAVING FUN THE ONLY GOALS. Educating for diversity and social justice and teaching people about privilege isn’t about labeling some people bigots and other people victims (see #5 above). It’s also not about challenging whether people are “nice” people who can “tolerate” difference. You can be a nice person, donate your time and money in the service of others, bake a mean apple pie, and show civility to everyone in the room and still collude and enable systems of oppression to hurt, harm, and demean others. Moreover, getting people not to use offensive language and to hang out together in diverse groups is not the end goal of social justice. Multiculturalism is not achieved because you’ve got mixed race friendship groups in your residence hall or the jocks came to the Safe Zone Workshop and signed the pledge to be allies. I would hope our goals in higher education would be a little higher. We need people who are able to recognize and challenge oppressive practices and systems, advocate and make change, and to do so while building and sustaining relationships across lines of difference by practicing building trust and rapport founded in the active belief that every person is worthy of dignity and respect. Just because people seem to “get along” doesn’t mean that they are committed to pursuing equity. And, yes, I’ll say it, using “celebrate diversity” paradigms that put the focus on type-cast food, music, dancing, and festivals while ignoring education about structural inequality won’t lead to substantive, enduring change for social justice.

3. DON’T CONFUSE BEING SAFE WITH BEING COMFORTABLE. Also related to #4 is this caution about safety and comfort. We talk a lot in student affairs about “safe spaces” and creating such spaces for learning to take place. But being safe doesn’t mean you’re going to be comfortable. In fact, if you’re really learning anything, you’re going to feel pretty damn uncomfortable at some point in the process. Learning provokes discomfort, especially when the learning concerns diversity and social justice (see #8). Safety is about creating an environment where people feel that it is going to be okay for them to be vulnerable, to feel afraid, to experience discomfort and know that’s not going to be mocked, held against them, or judged by another participant in the session or by the facilitator. Safe spaces, yes. Comfortable spaces? Let’s hope not.

2. DON’T FORGET TO TAKE TIME BEFORE AND AFTER TO PREP AND RECOVER. This one is for those of you facilitating these workshops and training sessions. Even if you’ve done these trainings for a dozen years or more, it’s better to take the time to get yourself in a space to function as a tutor, mentor, guide, and support for these conversations. As another friend and mentor, Dr. Kathy Obear has discussed, you need to manage your triggers. What are the things that set you off? Prepare yourself ahead of time to deal with that trigger effectively so that the learning goals for the session are wrecked because you didn’t have yourself in check in advance. And then, once it’s over, give yourself time to recover. After I’ve taught a class session or run a workshop about these issues, I have learned that I must take time before and after to get centered, to remind myself of who I am and what I know, and to allow myself to feel whatever hurt, pain, or offense may have been inflicted unintentionally during the course of the session by a participant or co-facilitator. And that reminds me, if you’re working with someone else and facilitating the session together, take some time – a good deal of time – beforehand doing prep together, sharing each other’s triggers, and developing strategies to help and support each other during the session. After, schedule a time to debrief the session and again, help and support each other’s recovery process.

And finally, the #1 DON’T for diversity workshops…

1. DON’T FORGET THAT THIS IS JUST ONE STEP IN A LIFELONG PROCESS. You’re not going to transform that group of green first-year students into powerhouse social justice activists in one session. That group of RAs is not going to be able to effectively develop a diverse community on their floor, design compelling and provocative educational programs, and resolve every conflict like a thirty-year veteran after your day-long training. This is step one, or step two, or step ten, but it’s just one step. Becoming competent with diversity and social justice is a lifelong process. I’m still on my journey. So are you. And so will they. Use this session to plant a seed, or water the baby shoots, or do some weeding, or prune the branches. And then trust that another experience will come along to keep the process going; trust that they will seek opportunities to grow and learn more.

Sounding Off about Coming Out

About a month ago, it seemed like folks were coming out left and right, first was Diana King – yes, she was FIRST – then came Anderson Cooper‘s almost-confessional like acknowledgement via Andrew Sullivan’s blog, then third was Frank Ocean. As I watched reactions via Facebook and Twitter, I had a blog post forming in my mind, but too many other things were hot and it seemed like everything worth saying had already been said. And then Sally Ride passed away a little over a week ago and “came out” in her obituary, acknowledging that she was leaving behind a woman partner of 27 years and it all started all over again.

In the last month, I’ve heard praise and celebration as well as criticism and frustration. One blogger , Cathering Lugg went so far as to tell White queers to get over themselves, suck up their White-middle-class privilege, and be visibly out as queer. Another blogger, Emily Manuel for Tiger Beatdown, chastised folks who didn’t think Anderson Cooper’s coming out was really news since it was commonly suspected already that he was gay, because it takes courage to come out and everyone journey toward coming out is different and it’s really quite heterosexist of people to require that queer people reveal their queerness when straight people don’t have to “come out” as straight. Various commentators on Facebook and Twitter forwarded and shared both of these perspectives and other iterations of them. However, I think there’s another perspective in this conversation that borrows from both seemingly oppositional perspectives and creates a third place to stand.

Let me share what informs my perspective on all this. First of all, I am queer (a masculine-of-center lesbian kind of queer) and didn’t come out to myself, let alone anybody else, authentically as queer until I was in my mid-30s. That means I spent most of my adult life as I’ve lived it so far passing as heterosexual.  Since then, I think I’ve been on a steady march of increasing transparency as I’ve gotten settled and clear on who I am, what that means for me, and steady in defending myself against the typical attacks and questions that always come when sharing that with folks who think they know more about me than I know about myself. Second, I am a student, teacher, and scholar of identity development. That means my knowledge base is built on established research literature as well as autobiographical and anecdotal evidence. Third, I engage in multiple networking circles, several of which are ever-expanding, so I am constantly confronting people who don’t know, assume, or think they know what my sexuality is. In other words, like most queer people, I live coming out as a daily experience and as an evolving process, not as a one-time event. When I first came out, I used to wish that there was some way I could just come out to everybody who I’d ever known, all at once and be done with it. But even if that worked and I didn’t keep running into people who knew-me-when (go back to “first of all”), there would be all these new people that I keep meeting everyday to whom I would have to decide how much my queerness is salient to who I am in relationship with that person in that moment.

It’s really quite exhausting. It’s also a lot more nuanced than what I usually see in average discussions about coming out.

Underneath most of these discussions has been the presumption that publicly, continually, and consistently coming out as queer is necessary for positive, healthy, and mature development as a queer person. An example of this is in Lugg’s blog post, where she equates silence about one’s sexuality to keeping a secret and secrets are akin to pathology. This way of thinking has been around for a long time and can be traced back at least to Vivienne Cass’ model of homosexual (that was the wording she used for that era) identity development  for gay men published in the 1980s. Coming out is stage 1 and a healthy gay identity is  not fully resolved until one actively engages in activism on behalf of LGBT issues at stage 6. This model has been heavily criticized as too linear and hierarchical and not reflective of the complexities of people’s lives or of coming out. Other theorists, like Anthony D’Augelli have pictured identity development for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals as more of a sequence of processes that are neither linear nor hierarchical, but which still include exiting a heterosexual identity as the first process and later includes the process of entering LGB activism.

The paradigm that one must come out to be psychologically and socially healthy and mature as a queer person isn’t really disrupted in identity development models until Ruth Fassinger’s work more recently. In her research, particularly in her studies of lesbian women, identity development includes two developmental processes, one intrapersonal the other interpersonal, that parallel each other. Intrapersonal and interpersonal development processes may be happening simultaneously, but could also happen off-cycle so-to-speak. Although coming out to oneself is necessary, coming out publicly may not be necessary for healthy identity development and resolution.

So, let’s go back to Diana, Anderson, Frank, and Sally. Diana and Anderson, based on their own words, seem to have come out in response to persistent questioning  about their sexuality by others who had already assumed they were queer. If you read both their statements, you’ll be struck perhaps as I was, by the similarity of the language they used. Both of them say that the reason they were finally openly saying that they were queers was because not saying so was giving people the impression that they were ashamed of their sexuality, thought it was wrong, or were deliberately hiding it for some other reason. Both Diana and Anderson deny any such feelings saying only that they felt it was “private” and for Diana, the added layer of concern about how fellow Jamaicans would react (more on this later). Although he was also responding to rumors and questions, Frank doesn’t take such an apologetic approach. Reading his open letter on tumblr really sounds more like he’s just sharing something with others who matter to him; there’s no defensiveness about the timing of his announcement or explanation of why he didn’t say anything before. Sally, we know now, never said anything publicly about her sexuality, but allowed her obituary to speak her truth for her. However, comments from her sister (who is also lesbian and is publicly out as one), suggest that Sally never consciously “hid” her sexuality – she was just really a “private” person.

Private – that word pops up a lot in these discussions and why shouldn’t it? Who I sleep with is my business isn’t it? Well, yes and no. I think it all turns on how people view their sexuality as part of their identity in the first place. If sexuality is just a matter of sexual behavior then by all means perhaps we all should keep it to ourselves! But if you view your sexuality as a core anchor for the self, as a lens through which you see and understand the world and want to be understood by it, then that’s another matter entirely. Sexuality as bedroom behavior behooves privacy. Sexuality as life rudder or philosophical standpoint behooves public acknowledgement.
How one moves from one to the other is a personal matter, possibly an issue of development, but not seeing one’s sexuality as bedroom-only relevant should not be assumed to also reflect an immature or less developed sexual identity.

A similar distinction is sometimes made for other social identity facets. I’ve known African Americans, for example, who have viewed their racial identity as a mere accident of melanin, as nothing more than skin complexion. I’ve known others who see their racial identity as a fundamental and orienting aspect of their personalities and worldviews. Students who I have interviewed have held both opinions (Stewart, 2002, 2009). I’ve heard women discuss their sex and gender identities in the same fashion.

Perhaps someone who views their identities as biological facts would be less likely to be politically active around those identities than someone who views their identities as worldview portals. Maybe. I haven’t done research around that and if you know of something out there, share it please.

There’s something else here though also. Lugg talks a lot about privilege in her post and I think that’s a really important factor to consider in this discussion. Just about everybody has at least one social identity (race, ethnicity, native language, citizenship status, sex, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, education, religion, ability/disability, age, body size, etc.) that is privileged in this society. And just about everybody has at least one social identity that is targeted, disadvantaged, or oppressed in this society. Allan G. Johnson, in the 2nd edition of his book Privilege, Power, and Difference, discusses the paradoxes of privilege. That one can be privileged in one facet of one’s identity and never recognize that privilege, especially if one has a salient identification with another social group that is oppressed. A member of an oppressed social group also may not recognize their oppression because it hasn’t personally affected their lives in a tangible way. How could that be relevant in this situation? Well, it’s possible that Sally Ride, for example, didn’t see her lesbian sexuality as oppressed. Despite the absence of the 1400 state and federal unearned advantages (i.e., privileges) that heterosexual couples face, Sally and her partner Tam, likely had the economic privilege to buffer against that. (Although it’s been touted heavily on Facebook, I seriously doubt that Tam is going to become destitute without Sally’s social security death benefit.) On the other hand, Anderson Cooper may be more aware of his targeted group membership as a gay man, thus fostering the perceived need for silence, than he is of his many privileges as white, male, and upper-class (see Beverly Tatum for a great discussion of identity awareness and privilege). And for Diana and Frank, who also have racially marginalized group memberships, the complications increase as one considers what it means to come out as a marginalized person within a group that is already marginalized. Diana was cautious. Frank appears not to be and maybe he didn’t come out enough, according to some.

This has gotten really long – sorry – so I’ll wrap it up. In a nutshell, having a public forum to come out is a privilege – most of us have to do it the old-fashioned way, one conversation at a time. But coming out is also a declaration of identity and how one sees the world. And it’s always, always risky. Whether someone has enough other privileges stored elsewhere to buffer against the risk, really can’t be determined by counting up privileged statuses. It’s not a math problem. As intersectionality theories of identity discuss, people’s identities aren’t additive and unitary. You can’t amass privilege the way you can amass wealth and losing privileged status is much easier than gaining it. The costs of both silence and transparency are more complex than either is given credit for. As a mentor and friend, Dr. Cynthia Dilliard has said, we’ve got big work to do.

Preparing Tomorrow’s Leaders Today

This summer I have had the pleasure of teaching a cohort of incoming first-year students at Bowling Green State University who are participating in the Sidney A. Ribeau President’s Leadership Academy (PLA). These twenty-five students are merit scholars, mostly from Ohio and Michigan (Detroit, in particular). This racially diverse group (mostly either Black or White) spends their very first summer at BGSU getting an introduction to college, taking classes in writing and communication, leadership, service-learning, and information technology and library skills. For the past four years, the summer session has also had a workshop series on diversity. This year, the diversity component is a class, four sessions of 90 minutes each, and is being graded along with the other classes they are taking.

This is my first year teaching in the summer program and I’m their instructor for the diversity course. My objectives are simple (or so I thought): to expose them to issues of difference and diversity beyond race; to help them see each other’s diversity and the ways that systematic privilege has differentiated their lives; and to set them on the path toward allyship and acting as leaders amongst their peers for promoting pluralism and social justice. We’ve completed two of four sessions and the twenty-five students in my class have taught me a great deal about how much they don’t know and haven’t been taught.

For instance, the terms privilege and oppression were themselves foreign concepts to many of them. They seemed surprised to consider that biracial and multiracial people don’t have to choose one race or the other and that race itself isn’t a biologically determined fact but a social construction – like gender. And then they didn’t know the difference between sex and gender – although this is hardly surprising since most adults don’t know that and the terms are consistently conflated in the public discourse, including survey items (see my forthcoming article in TRUTH magazine for a more extended discussion of this). We spent nearly forty-five minutes in Q&A expanding their dichotomous assumptions to include intersex and transgender people and ideas like androgyny so that they thought of sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation as continuums instead of binaries. Explanations begat more questions, which begat further explanations and further questions. Finally I had to just stop the discussion because I had to explain an assignment that’s due on Tuesday. And then that prompted more confusion.

Students weren’t confused because I was trying to force them into believing some kind of liberal ideology that didn’t reflect their realities. Each of them could name the social groups they were members of and, for the most part with the exception of social class, they knew whether those social groups were privileged or marginalized. There was no rejection of the concepts, no refusal even to recognize that groups they weren’t members of were marginalized. (Whether they believed that marginalization was unjust is a different issue that I didn’t have time to dig into – yet.) Most of them just had never had anybody talk with them about any of this before, in a class, before this summer. They aren’t just confronting these kinds of issues in my class either; the leadership class instructors are also delving into these issues as they introduce them to Astin’s Social Change Model of Leadership (here’s a book by Susan Komives based on the model) that PLA is based on.

All this got me thinking about when is the right time to start these conversations. I hesitate to make the argument that multicultural competence is one more thing that K-12 isn’t doing right and should be doing. Sorry, you won’t catch me beating up on K-12 educators. Yes, exposing young children to diversity and teaching them that they don’t have to be afraid of difference and they can stand up to bullying and unfair treatment can be taught in elementary, middle, and high schools. AND there are lots of good teachers out there who are doing just that in classrooms across the country (check out this great example of a school in Oakland, CA that introduces the concept of gender diversity, though not without controversy).

However, that’s not the end of the line and higher education has a duty and responsibility to continue students on that journey. Research has indicated that understanding diversity beyond superficial, dichotomous, value judgments requires both psychosocial maturity and cognitive complexity that is simply not present prior to college for most young adults (Baxter Magolda & King, 2005; Chickering & Reisser, 1993; King & Shuford, 1996). Moreover, groups like the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) assert the need to include knowledge and appreciation of diversity and skill with relating across lines of difference in their essential learning outcomes and a plethora of research demonstrates the positive growth and development associated with exposure to diversity-related experiences in college (Bowman, 2010; Denson, 2009; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006).

Yet, all too often whether to include any focused discussion on diversity, multicultural competence, and social justice is subject to debate and academics from different disciplines struggle to agree upon what constitutes appropriate language, pedagogy, and outcomes. Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague at another institution during which she explained that multicultural competence wasn’t a required part of the curriculum that was taught in the honors program there although it was included as a learning outcome. It seems that for some administrators and faculty in colleges and universities, diversity and multicultural competence are not seen as learning outcomes, but rather as recruitment goals and retention tools.

If we don’t deliberately equip college students – of all ages – with the multicultural awareness, multicultural knowledge, and multicultural skills needed to effectively live and work in an increasingly diverse global society, then we cannot say that we are preparing good leaders, or leaders at all. That equipping must begin early in their college experiences, yes, even their first semester on campus. Therefore, battling through the frustration, confusion, and blown lesson plans is worth it to help get at least this cohort of students a little further in the journey toward realizing a just society. Hopefully, some of this will stick and as they continue through their time at BGSU, they’ll build on the foundation we’ve laid this summer. Hopefully.


Baxter Magolda, M. B., & King, P. M. (2005). A developmental model for intercultural maturity. Journal of College Student Development, 46(6), 571-592.

Bowman, N. A. (2010). College diversity experiences and cognitive development: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 80, 4-33.

Chickering, A., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Denson, N. (2009). Do curricular and co-curricular diversity activities influence racial bias? A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 79, 805-838.

King, P.M., & Shuford, B. C. (1996). A multicultural review is a more cognitively complex view: Cognitive development and multicultural education. American Behavioral Scientist, 40(2), 153-164.

Pettigrew, T. G., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 751-783.

Telling a Whole History

**Prelude: I know we’re out of LGBT Pride Month (June) and the 43rd commemoration of the Stonewall riots is about two weeks old, but I think the issues raised in this post are still relevant and one of the biggest mistakes marginalized groups make is limiting our discussion of our history to its “proper” month, day, or season.**

“By institutionalizing memory, resisting the onset of oblivion, recalling the memory of tragedy that for long years remained hidden or unrecognized and by assigning its proper place in the human conscience, we respond to our duty to remember.” UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura

This quote begins an essay written by the Reverend Irene Monroe wherein she recounts her memories of the night and early morning hours of June 27-28, 1969 when police raided the Stonewall bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Stonewall is commemorated as the trigger of the LGBT rights movement in the U.S. and every June (and throughout the summer) through Pride celebrations across the nation and world. In the excerpt published in the Huffingpost’s Gay Voices column, Rev. Monroe recounts the intersection of race and sexuality that likely triggered the police raid at the Stonewall and the history of Black queers in New York City. Monroe summarizes the gentrification that pushed Black queers out of lower Manhattan in the early 20th century north to Harlem and the politics of respectability that informed the homophobia that pushed Black queers to the margins of social and cultural life after the Harlem Renaissance period of the 1920s through 1940s. Monroe remembers for us that Black and Latino patrons heavily frequented the Stonewall and that there was a family on her block in Brooklyn that had a son who they knew also frequented the Village on the weekends. When word came that the police, mostly White, had raided the bar and were beating on drag queens, mostly Black and Latino, Monroe’s Black neighborhood community was up in arms and ready to join the fight. The recognition that one of their own was likely being victimized propelled this crowd, ranging in ages from Monroe’s preteen years to middle-aged parents to make their way from Brooklyn to the unknown territory of lower Manhattan. They recognized that their struggles against police brutality as Black people were linked to the fight against police brutality experienced by gays and lesbians – and moreover, they realized that those communities were not mutually exclusive.

Monroe titles her essay “Dis-membering Stonewall” to shed light on the whitewashing of Stonewall that has taken place in the 43 years since those three days in June 1969. Although non-Whites are clearly present in many of the pictures from those nights in New York, Blacks and Latinos have been virtually absent in the historical canon of the origins of LGBT civil rights movement beginning with the Stonewall Riots. Monroe talks about remembering the same way that I did in my last blog post (Don’t Forget Me), as putting the pieces back together again. Instead of putting the pieces back together, Monroe argues that we’ve pulled the pieces apart, dismembering queer history by separating from that history the critical role that queer people of color (QPOC) played in it.

How does this dismembering happen? As someone who has always been fascinated by history and is about to embark later this summer on a historical research project, I find history to be profoundly relevant for navigating and understanding our present. I deeply believe in the West African Sankofa principle that teaches the importance of remembering one’s history as you move into the future. As philosopher George Santayana has said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” What do we have to do in order to wholly remember the past, to re-member it with all its parts? I think drawing on varied historical sources is helpful and important: relying on the written record leads to a history dominated by the voices of those with the privilege of being able to write or have their words recorded in print, of having those papers preserved, and cultural traditions that value the written word. Oral history is fundamentally important and must be sought out, particularly to include the voices of marginalized groups. Stories are passed down and across orally for various reasons: to protect the storytellers and listeners, to transmit the emotional content, musical elements, and community ethos of the events and people in the stories. Oral history is multidimensional, but a White-middle-class history that privileges the written narrative told from the perspective of one or just a few is more likely to be one-dimensional.

What are the consequences of dismembering and what do we do about it? Well, in short, the consequences of dis-membering history is that we are left with a history that is inauthentic and incomplete; a history that is not capable of helping us grow beyond our past, let alone prevent us from repeating it. The example of Stonewall is a powerful one in this regard. The dis-membering of QPOC voices from Stonewall’s history has helped to foment the supposed divide between people of color and working class folks and a LGBT community that has been represented as largely White and middle-class. Consequently, efforts to bridge across these communities have become increasingly popular and organizations that bridge the gap, like the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) play a critical role in helping us to re-member. Also important are efforts to tell history in different forms, including film projects like Before Stonewall that highlight the voices of QPOC, and the writing and sharing of oral histories like Monroe’s that democratize the telling and retelling of history through social media outlets.

Re-membering our history involves faith that these stories matter, hope that they will help lead us to a better future, and shows our love for the courage, bravery, and commitment of the elders that paved the way for us. Let us strive to re-member, to understand the importance of a whole-history that can pull a community together when the forces of injustice threaten to tear it apart.

Don’t Forget Me

Sorry for the late post; Sunday and Monday really got away from me. However, it’s important to me to be consistent and reliable with my blog posts, so I figured it would be better to get this one in tonight, than to wait to post it tomorrow.

Anyway, before I left on vacation last week, I read my issue of Equality magazine, published by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). I’m a member and monthly partner of HRC so I make sure I take the time to read each quarter’s publication. This Spring’s issue included an interview with Elizabeth Warren who is running for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts. I have been interested in her campaign for several reasons but mostly because my fiancé lives in Massachusetts and because of the questions and challenges about her claim to Native American ancestry by her Republican opponent Scott Brown.

Warren has been a long-time proponent of equal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community (one of the many reasons I like her and hope she wins the Senate seat in MA). Equality asked Warren to speak about what marriage equality in Massachusetts means to her and what its impact is. This was Warren’s response:

“It means we have some great families on our block. … It means that it’s both the profound statement and the simple statement. I love our block, and that’s how it should be. That’s what true marriage equality is about. I forget that some of the families in our neighborhood have two mommies and some have two daddies. And some have a mommy and a daddy and some have only one. … [emphasis added].” (p. 23)

Now, this is a great statement in many ways. Like I said earlier, I like Elizabeth Warren. I think her stances on consumer rights, LGBT equality, and many other issues are pretty much right in line with my own thinking. She’s someone I want to have in elected office in this country. I have faith in what she brings to the table; I think we need her voice. However, when I read this, I was immediately struck by the sentence that begins with the phrase “I forget.” She forgets that some of the families in her neighborhood are headed by same-gender couples? She forgets that some of them are gay fathers co-parenting and some are lesbian mother co-parents? She forgets this. Perhaps she means that it’s become so “normal,” such a part of her everyday life that she no longer notices it as odd or different or aberrant or even special. And that’s great if it’s true and I hope that one day, it’s such a part of everyday life, that LGBT people are so visible and so socially integrated, that it no longer resonates as special. Perhaps that’s what she was trying to say.

“I forget…” – that phrase is still problematic for me though. It reminds me of the many times that I have had White people tell me that they “forget” that I’m Black, that they no longer take notice of my racial identity, because I’m really just a person, a human being, just like them, so they can put my race aside and focus on what really matters – my humanity, the thing that makes us more alike than we are different. Often this forgetting is equated with fulfilling Martin Luther King’s dream that his four children would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. We might put this saying in the context of LGBT people by saying that we should judge people by the content of their character, not the nature of their sexual attractions and desires.

I’m all for not using race, sexuality, gender, faith, disability, or any other social identity as a means to judge someone’s worth, ability, value, or character. I am also in full support of the need to get know people as people by their character and integrity, beliefs, habits, dreams, goals, and potential. However, I refuse to believe that doing so means forgetting what may be defining aspects of someone’s identity as a member of a certain social group.

I don’t want my race to be forgotten and I don’t want my sexuality forgotten either. Who I am is tied in important ways to my social identities as African American and lesbian. As a Black lesbian, my experiences and beliefs and the way I move in the world, how the world perceives me, are very much about those social identities and several others. So you don’t do me any favors by forgetting that I am Black or by forgetting that I am a lesbian. You don’t fulfill King’s dream of judging me by the content of my character by forgetting that my character has been shaped by my experiences as a person with a race, gender, and sexuality that are marginalized in this society. Love doesn’t forget something that is so core to my existence in this world.

I don’t want Elizabeth Warren to forget that there are families on her block headed by same-gender couples. I want her to remember that and to remember what that means for how those families have to operate in their daily lives in ways that the heterosexual couples on her families don’t have to think about. The minute that Warren or anybody else forgets about other people’s sexuality or their race (or any other marginalized identity), their ability to effectively challenge heterosexual or racial privilege is compromised. Especially as a representative of the people in the U.S. Senate, I don’t just want Warren to remember those gay and lesbian couples and their families on her block and throughout the great commonwealth of Massachusetts; I need her to remember them. I need her to remember that the legislation she votes on will affect real people, people she knows and sees every day at the grocery store, as she walks her dogs, and on her way to the mailbox. I believe Warren is that kind of person, but saying that she forgets the sexuality of the people heading households on her block doesn’t inspire confidence in me.

Warren says toward the end of her interview with Equality magazine that the main lesson she learned growing up was “That we all had value and that when we recognize the humanity in others, we give voice to the humanity in ourselves” (p. 23). Agreed. Part of recognizing my humanity is remembering my sexuality and any other identity that shapes my experiences in this world. Re-membering, in the Hebrew sense of the word that one puts something back together again, doesn’t just recognize my whole humanity, it also allows those with privilege to re-member – to put back together again – how they have come to be who they are and how their social identities have shaped their experiences in the world. Whiteness and heterosexuality (and other privileged social identities) have gone unmarked in our society, allowing them to exist as the default option, as the norm, making it nearly impossible for people who carry those privileged identities to see the ways that their privilege has shaped their experiences. If you remember how that has happened for me on the wrong side of privilege, perhaps it will help you remember how that may have also happened for you as a beneficiary of privilege.

Maybe you think it shouldn’t be like that. Maybe you think we’d all be better off if we stopped noticing race, sexuality, gender, religion, or any other marker of difference. I would argue that it’s not the noticing that gives us grief, it’s the forgetting. Forgetting what has been put in the center, normalized, optimized, and privileged; forgetting what has been put on the margins, condemned, made aberrant, and undermined; forgetting, not noticing, has made diversity an ugly word instead of the beautiful gift that it is. So, do me a favor: When you see me, really see me, and remember all of what makes me who I am.