Race, Class and Gender Met in a Bar…

intersectionalityI want to be bell hooks when I grow up. I want to be such a bad ass scholar that I can write an essay for The Feminist Wire telling Sheryl Sandberg to get-on-my-level or sit down somewhere.


That essay is everything I need. Pieces like this written by formidable scholars are the motivation I need to fight my small battle in the arena of social justice. Just this weekend I was engaged in such a battle.

I posted the following on my Facebook wall: My mom witnessed a 10-year-old white boy peeing in his front yard in their suburban subdivision. He was hanging with his friend in front of his house, got up, walked to his front door and peed. He didn’t even pee with his back to the street; no, it was in profile. Now, if that 10-year-old boy had been black and a white neighbor saw that, what would’ve happened?

I knew when I posted that I would receive the obligatory let’s make light of the issue type of responses. Indeed, some people expressed their amusement. Some made jokes about enacting similar behavior. Some expressed their outrage. And one expressed her confusion with my anger.

I made explicit my issue: People called the cops on the black boys in the neighborhood for playing basketball AT THE BASKETBALL court in the neighborhood. In fact, they complained so much at the presence of black males (who lived in the neighborhood), the basketball court is now a skate park. If the white neighbors called the police on black boys playing basketball, imagine what would’ve happened if they’d been peeing in public. #IndecentExposure #PublicUrination #SexOffender You have only to look up statistics on juvenile arrest rates to see this reality. In fact, the National Council on Crime released a report about this in 2007.

Following this comment, one woman said it has nothing to do with race. Someone agreed and said she thought it was about cultural ideals and perhaps the people in the (middle class suburban) neighborhood. A different woman chimed in stating: I think the question concerns who can “pee” without consequence, and who can’t. I think it’s safe to assume that to some people, black youth behaving this way would be framed as bringing down the neighborhood and delinquency, and not just a non-threatening instance of “boys being boys”.

I made other random comments about white privilege, male privilege, etc. But my point seemed to be completely missed by most people responding. A friend sharing my outrage summed it up nicely to me in private conversation: This young boy’s behavior is representative of the myriad of ways he will continue to piss on things (and people) throughout his life.

The simple fact that he felt safe enough, empowered enough, entitled enough to urinate in plain view of neighbors is reflective of how social systems position white males in this country. Issues of power, privilege, race, class, and gender cannot be disaggregated and analyzed separately. The formers do not exist without the latter(s). Any discussion of privilege IS a discussion of race. A discussion of race IS a discussion of class. One must always factor in gender as a moderating variable capable of enhancing or suppressing one’s status. Is this not common knowledge?

I guess not.

Having a few days to digest this exchange, I am pushed to consider if this may be one of the reasons effective education reform has not emerged. We (read: people like Sandberg) attempt to fix problems not fully understood. Just as Ms. Sandberg cannot erase sexism through empowered (pseudo) feminism, one cannot erase educational inequality through pseudo democracy. What of poverty? Segregation? How can you propose ‘choice’ as a solution when almost half of public school children come from families for whom choice is a dream?

The convergence of race, class and gender are blatant in any public school classroom. Males are disciplined harsher than females. Black males receive the harshest discipline followed by black females and Latino males. Poor students are more likely to be enrolled in special education. Poor students of color are almost three times more likely than white students to be in special education. Poor students receive the least qualified and least experienced teachers. Expectations for female students are lower in math and science classes than for male students. Extracurricular funding is disproportionately given to male sports teams. 73% of classroom teachers are women. Only 8% of classroom teachers are ethnic minorities.

These data are not new. They tell an old story of white upper-class privilege. And the ending has yet to change. Whether you’re hawking books, peeing in the yard or trying to get an education, your road to success has already been paved. Whatever choice you have is socially constructed along with race, class and gender.


The Lost Argument: How Relying on Adjuncts Privatizes Knowledge

Despite having this blog for over a year, I’ve yet to comment on one of the largest threats to the professoriate and to the future of higher education at large: our increasing reliance on adjunct faculty. In a previous post, I referenced the website the Adjunct Project and perhaps mentioned that higher education is now comprised of anywhere between 66 and 76 percent adjuncts. This means that only 1/3 of our professors are tenure track (TT) or tenured. As any discourse about adjuncts communicates, this is problematic both for the adjuncts themselves and also for their students. The use of adjuncts deprofessionalizes the career, creates a rift between TT and adjuncts, expands the rift between private and public institutions, and belittles pedagogy as something doable part-time. The message sent to the public is that collegiate teaching is so easy, one can do it while being completely disconnected from the college and with credentials earned online!

This could not be more untrue. But that is not the purpose of this post. Many have argued that case more authentically and articulately than I ever could. I would like to complement the debate by presenting an argument not against the use of adjuncts, but for the use of full-time tenure track/tenured faculty. To do so, I must first outline what it is TT faculty do because contrary to general perception, TT faculty do not solely teach; they cultivate knowledge. We are called scholars for a reason.

To become a scholar, PhDs endure rigorous and extensive training. But this training is not teaching oriented, it is research oriented. We spend 5, 6, 7, or 8 years in two main endeavors: acquiring a breadth and depth of foundational knowledge and skills in a particular discipline, and applying such knowledge and skills in a new context/method with the goal of generating new knowledge. Graduate programs accomplish this through 3-4 years of coursework, annual conference attendance and participation, and 2-3 major research projects, the largest being the culminating dissertation which can range in length from 50 pages in the social sciences to 500 in the humanities. Data guiding such research can take 4 years to gather in some disciplines, while the publication process can take up to 2 years. The ocean of research is not something to be waded into. To make waves one must dive in head first.

And we are expected to make waves. Tenure and promotion in academia is closely tied to scholarly productivity. At major research institutions, faculty are expected to publish 1 peer-reviewed article per year prior to tenure. Given the long publication process, the expectations for time spent on research are high. They are extremely higher (and more objective) than expectations of teaching effectiveness. Ask any TT faculty what they worry about with respect to attaining tenure and I would guess that 9 times out of 10, their response will be about scholarship.

I say all of this to illuminate what is at stake when we require only teaching of our professors. If in fact 70% of professors in higher education are solely teaching, who is researching?

Until recent years the production of knowledge has been a joint endeavor between academia and what we call industry. To describe the partnership in most basic terms, academics develop theories and industry uses them. Research produced by full-time faculty informs policy and law development  across social institutions; decides public school curriculum; even mundane things like safety guidelines for your new oven are the result of labored research. With the erosion of full-time faculty comes the erosion of theoretically-driven cumulative knowledge. Sure the comparatively small number of PhDs working in industry can do their own research and devise theories thus eliminating the need for academic scholarship. But in privatizing the production of knowledge, the value of information becomes monetary thus affecting the ethics of the research process.

For example, if you have young children you may have been attune to a top news story 6 years ago about Baby Einstein products. Baby Einstein (owned by Disney) marketed their products to parents with claims that their toys were educational and increased children’s IQ by enhancing their vocabulary, processing skills and emotional development. Parents were purchasing these toys like hot cakes and the field followed suit. All of a sudden we were inundated with ‘educational’ toys and TV shows. Mothers were putting headphones around their tummy so the fetus could hear classical music and have a higher math IQ. Then, in November of 2007, the University of Washington published a piece in the journal, Pediatrics, stating that babies who watched the so-called educational videos had a significantly smaller vocabulary than those who had not watched the videos. 10 years earlier, Baby Einstein had released a statement saying “studies show that if these (language) neurons are not used, they may die. Through exposure to phonemes in seven languages, Baby Einstein contributes to increased brain capacity.”

This is a prime example of what happens when industry co-opts knowledge they did not produce and don’t have the training to understand. Guided by work conducted by Dr. Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington (yes, they were debunked by the very research they used to support their products), the creator of Baby Einstein, Julie Aigner-Clark strongly felt she was following findings in three published articles. I italicize three because any researcher worth her salt knows that information exists in a body of knowledge. One cannot hope to understand the complexities of language development by reading three articles from a single source. There was no consideration for research done on the effects of nonhuman teachers (e.g., TVs) and the fields of developmental psychology and neuroscience were completely ignored by Ms. Aigner-Clark. Disney was so keen on making money in the 4.8 billion dollars a year industry, they failed to do due diligence and contextualize findings in individual research reports. Unlike academic scholars, they were seeking confirmation for why their products would work instead of for whom and when they wouldn’t work.

This is what is at stake when we adopt business models in higher education; when we prioritize the bottom line over the big picture. The presence of adjuncts means the absence of epistemology. We’ve been so caught up (and rightfully so) in how the abuse and misuse of part-time instructors affects teaching quality, we’ve neglected to address how it affects knowledge quality. Scholars are trained to look for contradicting evidence so that our contributions to knowledge are valid and lasting. We are taught to be revolutionary and to refine knowledge, not to capitalize on it. Knowledge is not for sale.

No, I’m Not an Angry Black Woman; I’m Just Tired of Fighting

angry birdLast night I was on the phone with a good friend, mentor and colleague. I mentioned to her in passing how outraged I was that my landlord didn’t even ask to meet my house sitter. I said to her, “Wouldn’t you want to meet some random person who was going to be sleeping in your house?!?” Her response was, “See, this is what happens when you’re a woman of color in academia. When someone actually trusts you, you think something is wrong with them! We’re so used to being under attack.”

And we are.

After getting off the phone I thought about how ‘ready’ I always am. As a psychologist I should be more aware of a primary source of my daily exhaustion. Always being ‘on’, preparing to defend myself, my presence and my choices has resulted in Racial Battle Fatigue (RBF). The more I thought about it, the more I realized I carry all the symptoms: My shoulders are always tense to the point I have to remind myself to relax them at least three times an hour; I am always running through scripts in my head of what I am going to say if so and so says this in class or at the faculty meeting; my heart rate goes up and I start perspiring whenever a white colleague says the word ‘education’ in my presence. These behavioral, psychological and physiological responses are a consequence of the cumulative daily microaggressions I face as a young, single woman who had the nerve to situate her dark body in an historically white male dominated space.

One might think that in leaving work for the day my shoulders would relax, my mind could stop spinning and my body temperature could approach something non fever-inducing. But alas, the battle—the lifelong war in which my skin color and body parts oblige involuntary participation—is fought beyond the walls of academia.

Many of the points below will be familiar to women—especially women of color—with advanced degrees who must constantly explain to colleagues, supervisors, friends, family members, love interests and complete strangers…our existence.

I fight to defend my choice of:

  • Attire
  • Hair style
  • Makeup
  • Vehicle
  • Marriage status
  • Parental status
  • Romantic partners
  • Hobbies
  • Geographical location
  • Food
  • Lifestyle (e.g., living alone versus with roommates; traveling a lot versus staycations)
  • Profession
  • Educational institutions

Particularly when I’m at work, I fight to defend my choice of:

  • Scholarship
  • Course offerings
  • Mentors
  • Friends
  • Service to the college
  • Institution type
  • Academic discipline
  • Pedagogical methods
  • Technology in my office

Most of all, across contexts, I fight to defend the credibility of my words and the validity of my experiences. So yes, I may be ‘passionate’ or ‘intimidating’ or whatever other word you assign in an attempt to subjugate my difference. But at the end of the day, in the words of Miss Celie, “Dear God, I’m here.”