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.

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.

Labor and Labor Day

Today is Labor Day in the United States. A national holiday meant to celebrate the effective activism of workers, blue-collar workers, and labor unions who advocated for reasonable working conditions (5 day work week and weekends, the concept of shifts and 8 hour work days, restrictions on child labor, worker safety and protection laws, etc.). It’s come to be the unofficial end of summer, the end of wearing white shoes, pants, skirts, shorts (if you care about such things), and in some parts of the country Labor Day signals the beginning of another school year.

As I reflect on this Labor Day – on which I’ve done quite a little bit of work so far – I’d like to return to the original meaning and honoring those who stood picket lines, voted, went on strike, and in countless other ways brought me the opportunities that I and many other workers in the U.S. now enjoy. No, I didn’t build this. I didn’t make possible the existence of the career I have, nor did I create the infrastructures that will provide for my economic security once I retire. I am grateful for those whose blood, sweat, and tears (and that’s no hyperbole) did build it. To those who made it possible for me to grieve the loss of a weekend to work, who put the idea in my head that there’s something amiss when I’ve worked through vacation periods and holidays, who have taught me to aspire to working more effectively within a reasonable timeframe during the day – to all of my ancestors and elders who did build this, I say thank you.

All of these accomplishments are good and worth sustaining and protecting. They are also worth extending to the millions of workers in this country who do not have the privilege of these rights and gains. There are countless “pink”-collar workers (mostly service and retail industry employees) who are working on this Labor Day and who work almost every holiday and weekend throughout the year, so that the rest of us can “rest” and have “leisure” time. And then there are those who comprise our emergency workers (police, fire, hospital staff) whose hours are long, unpredictable, and sometimes full of danger to themselves and others. Utility workers who race to climb above the trees to make sure we don’t miss “the big game” but have schedules that blow their Circadian rhythms out of the water and may be jeopardizing their long-term health. There are millions who work without health insurance, who are hired with hours that are just below the cut-off for employers to provide mandatory insurance coverage. Most of those same millions are also working without any retirement benefits, who are solely hoping that politicians will figure out how to protect Social Security.

Side Note: You should listen to my mom talk about Social Security. She’s adamant that it’s not an “entitlement” program, but an earned benefit wrought through her decades of employment. I’m inclined to think she’s right – and not just because she’s my mom and she has an amazing way of usually being right about most things.

We have continued to have an entire labor sector that is “off-the-books,” folks who are working in dangerous, dirty, exhausting, and/or thankless jobs in our nation’s agriculture, construction, and textile industries who are invisible to the worker safety protocols offered by OSHA. Yes, many of those laborers are undocumented immigrants, but a whole lot of them are not. In my opinion, capitalism’s engines run based on the “invisible” work of these millions who work without protections, without holidays, without a consistent shift (12 hours might be nice, let alone 8).

We have legions of unemployed workers who don’t show up in the official stats because they’ve stopped looking for work – one can only take so much rejection for so long – or because they’re back in school trying to retool their skills so that they can qualify for a job. These aren’t people who are looking just to get a paycheck off the government dole, not mostly. These are folks who want to work – Americans who have been socialized to be autonomous, independent, and fiercely proud of remaining so. They would work if they could. And the full picture of our nation’s unemployment isn’t revealed until we break it down by industry and race and gender and then see that unemployment hits certain communities harder than others, including those who are transgendered, racially minoritized, and had previously worked in low-tech/high-labor industries.

Yes, let’s remember and honor those workers who brought us the leisure time we call Labor Day. And let’s remember and honor those workers who supply the means of our leisure, whose work remains unprotected, who fall outside the bounds of visible labor. We honor and remember them best by making sure that the workers’ rights won in the 20th century don’t become obsolete or another means of differentiating the haves from the have-nots in the 21st.

#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.

Racing the Olympics

Today’s opening ceremonies launch the 2012 London Olympics. For nearly two weeks, fanatic and occasional sports enthusiasts will watch the world’s best compete for the title of THE best athlete in their event and nationalists across the world will keep track of the medal count for their country’s athletes. It is heralded as a time when political squabbles take a backseat to international cooperation and camaraderie. Of course that’s not always the case and the Olympic Games have often served as a stage for political rivalries, David-Goliath dichotomies, and whether one way of life will win the day over another.

As a critical race theorist (CRT) (click here for a summary of CRT), I recognize the prevalence and pervasiveness of race and racism in daily life and so I have paid attention, or tracked, issues of race and racism in this year’s Olympic Games. For some reason though, issues of race haven’t been hard to notice at all. They’ve been practically screaming even before the games began this week. First was the controversy over London’s logo for the Olympics that has included concerns over insensitivity to people with epilepsy, whether the logo is part of an Illuminati conspiracy and concerning race, earlier iterations of the logo have been criticized (ironically) for both harkening to Nazi symbolism in one iteration and by Iran for covertly supporting the Zionist movement in another form. It’s also the 40th year since 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and murdered in Munich during the Opening Ceremonies of the games in what was clearly an ethno-religious hate crime and the IOC has refused to hold a moment of silence in remembrance of this horrific act that violated not only the spirit of the games but human dignity and equality. Most recently, on Thursday, it was reported that a Greek Olympic athlete, Voula Papachristou, a member of their track and field squad who was to compete in the triple jump, was expelled from the Olympics by her home country for a racist tweet that when translated read, “With so many Africans in Greece… At least the West Nile mosquitoes will eat home made food!!!”

Clearly that is a WTF moment.

Elsewhere, the presence of race and racism (and suspicions of it) are less obvious. Also this week, the Huffington Post reported that British weight-lifting Olympic athlete, Zoe Smith, was taunted via Twitter with bullying tweets disparaging her and her teammates for being female weight-lifters. Smith fired back with some truly excellent zingers and wrote further about it on her blog as reported here by Yahoo! News. So what’s this got to do with race, you wonder. Well, one of the tenets of CRT is a recognition of the intersections of racism with other forms of oppression. Zoe Smith appears to be a young woman of African descent, and although not unique to Black and other women of color, the hateful comments targeting her take on the same look as those that have been used to brutalize women of African descent in the U.S. and globally since Europe colonized Africa. I was reminded instantly of South African track athlete Caster Semenya, who was accused in 2009 of being a man for her very muscled body and undeniable dominance in the 800m event, supposedly not natural for someone born female. Semenya was ultimately required by the IAAF, the world athletics organization, to take a gender test to prove she was female. Although not as extreme as Semenya’s case, the bullying Smith endured is very reminiscent of the ways that pan-African women have long been de-sexed and made anti-feminine by White European standards of hegemonic femininity and heteronormative sexual desire.

Yet there is another way in which race plays a subtle, often overlooked role in the Olympic Games and in sports in general, through what bodies are on the playing field for any respective sport and which bodies are expected to win. Racialized expectations for performance outcomes in the Olympics have become trite: an African will win the long-distance running events, particularly one from Kenya or Ethiopia; the Chinese will do best in diving; the Central Europeans excel at gymnastics, while South Americans are the key threat in soccer on the world stage.

Meanwhile, for as much progress as has been made in racial equality and opportunity through athletics, we will still see most of the Black athletes on the track, the long jump, the soccer pitch (outside the US), and the basketball court, especially when they’re from the US (the football field is another place but that’s not an Olympic sport – yet). People of African descent and darker complexion will be noticeably far fewer on swimming, gymnastics, golf, and tennis teams, for example (with equally notable exceptions in 2012 like Gabby Douglas and John Orozco for the U.S. gymnastics squad, and Lia Neal, who is one of 3 Black swimmers on the U.S. swimming team). Latin@, Asian American, and Native American athletes are few and far between in the sports that get the most press coverage in the U.S.

Is this a problem? What difference does it make that there isn’t more racial diversity in our Olympic cycling, rowing, or lacrosse squads? Isn’t this just a matter of preference and talent? Well, putting the eugenics tone of the last question aside, I guess it doesn’t matter – unless we care about the intersections of racial and economic inequality. The marginalization of people of color from higher-income employment sectors depresses the economic mobility of people of color and their access to a wider variety of leisure activities, including sports. What I’ve noticed is that sports with a lower entry fee, so to speak, are the sports where you’re likely to see a higher proportion of people of color. When all you need is a ball, or a pair of sneakers, or both those things and a hoop, and when you can play anywhere – the middle of the street or somebody’s schoolyard, the sport is more economically accessible. If the sport you play requires not only pricey equipment, but also many acres of manicured grassy lawns, access to a natatorium (even public pools are few and far between in most economically challenged areas), an ice rink, gymnasium, long trails to ride, or a lake AND coaching supervision to prevent injury inherent in the sport (thinking about gymnastics especially), you’ve changed the complexion of the sport. Basically, the price to play structurally and systematically excludes significant numbers of people of color from playing the game on the basis of the ways that race and social class intersect. The result is fielding an US Olympics team that doesn’t reflect the total diversity of our multicultural, multi-ethnic nation, but does reflect the racial segregation that still marks our daily lives from Sunday morning at 11am (tip of the hat to MLK) to the playgrounds and backyards of our children’s lives.

One thing I know is that the ability to play together is fundamental to creating bonds of loyalty, mutual care and respect, and cooperation. We see it in groups of young children, the best of our intercollegiate athletics, and through the boardroom deals that begin on the golf course or squash court. Maybe we’re stuck in this quagmire in our nation because we don’t know how to play together and don’t seem to want to. What do we do about this? Honestly, I haven’t a clue. But another thing I know is that in order to get to an answer, we’ve got to start talking about the question.

Monday: Coming Out as both Risk and Privilege

On Being an Angry Black Woman

Yes, I am an Angry Black Woman and I’m not sorry for it. Last Monday, The Root featured an article from Clutch Magazine by Shayla Pierce titled, “Sorry to Disappoint You, But I’m Not an Angry Black Woman.” This immediately piqued my interest and I read both the short excerpt on The Root’s website and the full article online at Clutch Magazine with a fair bit of wary curiosity.

In the article, Pierce recounts an encounter with a waiter while having lunch at a restaurant. There was something amiss with her soup, a foreign body floating in the broth, and Pierce called the waiter over and asked for her soup to be replaced. Pierce says that the waiter then became very tense, asking her to calm down, and everything would be taken care of. Now Pierce doesn’t recall getting loud, being contentious, or doing anything that would have provoked such a defensive response on the part of waiter. In her estimation, the waiter responded to the stereotype of an Angry Black Woman, instead of to the dissatisfied customer who was in front of him, who happened to be a Black woman. I recognized this in my own life; I have been told usually by White women that they find me “intimidating” and even that they were “afraid” of me. Like Pierce, I am pretty sure I’ve never given a public display of rage or even a level of impatience that would justify that kind of reaction. Granted, I don’t mince words often and I enunciate when I speak so that I can be heard and understood clearly; I don’t let my voice rise at the end of a declarative sentence as though I were asking a question and I don’t get easily intimidated by someone cutting me off while I’m speaking. None of this has to do with me being “angry” and I think a lot of it comes from being born and raised in New York City, attending high school at an all-girls school (Convent of the Sacred Heart), and being socialized in Black rhetorical styles on the playground, at church, and foremost in my own house. All of this upbringing has shaped my personality such that I’m usually somewhat stern at first glance and speak clearly, directly, and don’t take anyone’s b.s. Guilty as charged.

However, Pierce’s key point was to assert a certain way of being as a Black woman. As the title indicates, she’s sorry to disappoint those who expect her to become enraged at the slightest provocation, the epitome of what I guess she thinks it means to be an Angry Black Woman. She says, not necessarily incorrectly, that the Angry Black Woman is a myth, a stereotype, and she proactively and assertively disputes the stereotype through deliberately refusing to display anger, especially when White people are present. I heard a mid-level student affairs professional, a Black woman, express a similar sentiment in a training I did last Monday. She confessed that sometimes, many times, she would hide her authentic reaction to a situation fearing that if she were to show up authentic in that moment that she would be seen as the Angry Black Woman and lose her credibility as a professional working with a staff of predominantly White people. Pierce also acknowledges that Black women’s anger is often dismissed, causing real, substantive issues to be ignored while folks focus on the display of anger being performed and judge it to be a farce.


Anger does make people awfully uncomfortable, especially when they and their actions are the target of that anger. When marginalized groups get angry about their oppression, dominant groups tend to get jittery. In the same vein, anger is not always the appropriate response to every situation. As Pierce recounts in her article, something floating in her soup that wasn’t on the menu wasn’t much cause for rage. However, there are many issues and situations in life where anger and rage are not only appropriate and justified but are demanded.

I find it interesting that anger has been used to negatively stereotype Black women, “saucy” Latina women, Asian women, indigenous women, lesbian women, PMSing women – do you see a trend here? Yup, they’re all WOMEN who are systematically oppressed because they do not fit into the ideal trope of hegemonic femininity. Women aren’t supposed to be angry apparently and when they are angry, it’s a farce, a ridiculous display of inappropriate emotion. Moreover, women aren’t supposed to clearly and directly express the changes they want to see in their lives and in the lives of those around them (I’d like a new bowl of soup please). Women must control themselves and not be intimidating (read strong) otherwise people (read people with power) won’t take them seriously (read won’t be able to see them as cute anymore).

Oh please.

Several years ago, I read a book by bell hooks* called Killing Rage. When I first saw the title, I thought killing was meant to be a verb and assumed the book was going to be about squelching rage. Consequently I read it with a fair amount of apprehension; this was meant to teach me how not to be angry and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that. But no, killing is being used as an adjective in the title and as a verb. Once I realized that, reading the book became very transformative for me. In her book, hooks justifies the need for what she calls a killing rage – a rage that is inspired by recognition of oppression and a passion for justice. This kind of rage should be stoked, not for the purpose of destructive violence, but rather to maintain one’s fire when you want to give up. But that’s just half the lesson of the book. hooks also documents the ways in which dominant systems try to squelch, or kill, the rage of marginalized groups for the purposes of maintaining the status quo. The first step to maintaining power and control is to diffuse people’s anger.

So, sometimes, when it’s warranted, I am an Angry Black Woman and I am not sorry for it. I am angry in response to systematic oppression and privilege, not because there’s a fly in my soup, Aldo’s doesn’t carry men’s size 6 in stock in Toledo, or even because somebody stepped on my foot in a crowded line outside the World of Coca-Cola. I am reclaiming the Angry Black Woman because her anger is useful and historically and presently justified as a fitting response to the killing and maiming of her sons and fathers, the raping of her daughters and sisters, the drying up of dreams like Langston Hughes’s raisin in the sun, and the constant threat of horror upon horror unleashed by an oppressive state.

I am not giving up my anger. As that participant said by the end of the training, it’s time to stop caring what everybody else thinks and show up authentic. Being angry doesn’t mean that I could be subject to psychotic rage at any given moment – that’s the stereotype, the farce that makes for high ratings on reality TV. Real anger, bell hooks’ killing rage, is fuel for action. Bayard Rustin didn’t school Martin Luther King, Jr. in nonviolent protest tactics because they weren’t angry, but because they knew how to use their anger as fuel, as motivation. Anger isn’t the absence of love, either. Both anger and love are rooted in passion, but moreso, anger is an outgrowth of loving something so much that you can’t stand to see it fail to fulfill its promise. Anger is also a sign of hope and faith that says you have not resigned yourself to the inevitability of the outcome. As Popeye used to say, “I can’t stands it no more!”

I think we all need to get angry so that we can all make change happen on behalf of justice.

Next time on #higheredWed, my response to the Penn State controversy.

*bell hooks intentionally does not capitalize the first letters in her name and so neither am I.