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

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

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

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

*****

Dear Colleague,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In love; in hope; in solidarity,

D-L

Trans*forming A Mule

I

This is an essay about gender.

II

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

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

III

Foreground yourself.

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

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

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

IV

I need…

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

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

V

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

All I need to do is stay Black and die.

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

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

VI

All you need to do is stay Black and die.

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

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

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

VII

This is still an essay about gender.

VIII

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

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

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

IX

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

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

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

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

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

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

X

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

This is an essay about freedom.