Earning My Stripes As An Intellectual Activist

via The Retriever Weekly (UMBC)

via The Retriever Weekly (UMBC)

Last night, I received an email from the Tennessee Anti-Racist Network thanking me for allowing the organization to use my blog post on a bystander intervention approach to anti-racism for their April 2013 conference theme.  This served as a counter-protest to a white supremacists rally:

American Renaissance (AmRen), a white supremacy group, plans to hold their annual racist conference at Montgomery Bell State Park Conference Center, near Dickson, Tennessee, April 5-7, 2013. 

[Download the post-conference recap here.]

This sounded like an important event, so of course I agreed to lend the idea as my way of supporting it.  Bystander intervention was developed as a community response (i.e., it is the community’s responsibility) to eliminate sexual violence.  At some point, other advocates have picked it up to fight other forms of bigotry and violence, including racism.  So, it certainly is not my original idea; but, I do take credit for my own perspective on it as laid out in my blog post, “A Call For Bystander Intervention To End Racism.”  At the time, I was finishing up my dissertation; so, the idea of having a blog post serve as an anti-racist conference’s theme was a welcome break from sitting alone in my apartment day in and day out (in the name of social science, of course!).

The email I received last night also included a request to continue using the theme of anti-racist bystander intervention for their upcoming counter-protest on October 12 in Murfreesboro, TN:

On October 12, League of the South, an extremist hate group will invade middle Tennessee and try to infect our home with false Southern Pride (aka white power).  They intend to demonstrate in Murfreesboro and Shelbyville.  We intend to get in their way.  They are already bullying and trying to intimidate Tennessee residents who are taking a stand against their racist group.  Don’t let these people invade OUR home and get away with this.

But, the organizer also gave me the heads up that they have faced some backlash — and, my name has come up:

From the Tennessee Anti Racist Network page:
“Be proactive. Do not be a bystander. Go to the Murfreesboro, TN, Anti Racist counter rally on October 12, and tell League of the South To Stop The Hate.  Information on this page adapted and taken from Eric Grollman at http://egrollman.com/?s=bystander+intervention

Eric Grollman is a professional Black homosexual feminist (his articles on those interests are on his website). He says he is a scholar whose “research centers on medical sociology and social psychology to investigate race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and sexualities, and the intersections among them.” He “examines the social factors that produce and maintain disparities in mental, physical, and sexual health” and “investigate(s) the effects prejudice and discrimination on marginalized groups’ health and well-being.” With meager credentials, these special interests must have been what got him a spot as Asst. Professor at the University of Richmond.

So, I suppose I am now on the white supremacists’ shit list.  I tweeted about this, and shared it on Facebook, receiving mostly praise (“you’ve arrived!” as indicated by making enemies, especially of the bigot variety).  A few folks expressed some concern: notify my university just to err on the side of caution for my safety (done); make sure I am taking care of myself internally to weather any more that may come of this (a work in progress).

The funny thing is, I just wrote a post yesterday on “playing it safe,” and that I am still doing other things that appear anything but safe and traditional.  I have been calling for greater intellectual activism — in my case, blogging — and, I suppose pissing off racist bigots counts for something.  This is at least a reminder to be careful what you wish for!

Now, back to being a good first-year professor with “meager credentials.”  I should know being a “professional Black homosexual feminist” will not guarantee job security.

An Update On My (Accessible, Inviting, and Less Impersonal) Office

Recently, I decided to “think out loud” (i.e., blog) about adopting a social justice informed approach to education.  Though I do not officially start at the University of Richmond until Aug. 1, and classes begin a few weeks later, I have been working in and on my new office.  I took suggestions for ways to decorate my office, which turned into a challenge to make the space more accessible and inviting.  Of course, I have to show you “before” and “after” pictures.

BEFORE

Before

The picture above features the initial setup.  As visitors come into my office, the first thing they would see is me behind a rather large desk.  I would hold meetings with students separated by the desk and the power that it conveys.  So, as I mentioned in the earlier post, my first change was to move the desk to take away its prominence in the office, hopefully downplaying the power-differential between my students and me.  But, I went beyond that, taking seriously the suggestions of my friends to make the office as accessible and warm as possible.

AFTER

New Office 1

and

New Office 2

Now, the floorspace in the middle of the office has been cleared, and now dons a cool looking area rug.  If I am at my desk, you will see my left side.  In the picture immediately above, you can see the cute little cafe table and chair set I bought at a thrift store.  I plan to hold my meetings here.  Physically, my visitor and I will be on equal ground.  There is no powerful desk between us, only a bronze colored cafe table.  Also in that corner of the office, I have added a small dry erase board (with a corkboard border), and a little table that features candies (the visible bowl) and safe sex items (i.e., condoms, dental dams, lube; in the bowl behind it).  The office now features a few posters, stickers, and magnets that make clear my commitment to social justice and, more importantly, to empowering my students to speak out against injustice (e.g., Audre Lorde: “Your silence will not protect you”).

Many of my colleagues have seen the new setup, and remarked that they liked it.  The true test will come as I begin meeting with students in the fall semester.  Stay tuned.

Why “Conditionally Accepted”?

logoI (don’t) love that some key terms among academics share an entirely different meaning beyond the ivory tower.  To academics, “R&R” has nothing to do with sleeping in or enjoying a cool glass of lemonade in a hammock.  Actually, the much sought after “revise and resubmit” is quite the opposite of the everyone else’s “rest and relaxation.”  The best (i.e., worst) one is “impact factor.”  Before graduate school, I would surmise that impact had something to do with having influence or creating change in the world.  Now, I realize it is a quantified measure (that is declining in accuracy) of your “impact” in your subfield; really, it is how many of your fellow researchers cite your work.  A researcher could land several articles in journals with high impact scores, but their work could have little impact beyond the walls of academe.

I am not sure that many outside of academia use the term “conditional acceptance.”  But, I did to describe my sense that others, particularly my family, accepted* me as a queer person — the asterisk there implies that some conditions may apply.  Today, I feel my immediate family has arrived at a place of acceptance.  Initially, I was relieved to find that my parents tolerated my sexual orientation, rather than disowning me or throwing me out.  They did little to change me, but, if it were up to them, I would be heterosexual.  With time, they saw that changing me was not an option, so it was them who had to adjust.  As I excelled in college, after taking a leap of faith in leaving a full scholarship in math with the hopes of one for any major (which I got), my parents found peace that I would be okay in this world after all.  In their words, since I had everything else in my life together, they learned to fully accept me as a queer man.

So, the question that lingered in my mind was whether they would still be struggling to accept me if conditions were different.  Would they still support me if certain fears came true — that I became HIV-positive, that I was the victim of a homophobic attack, that I completely transgressed gender norms?  I would like to say, by now, yes; but, at the time, their ability to fully accept me was conditional on being normal on all other counts.  Conditional acceptance.

Conditional Acceptance In Academia

As an academic, the only thing sweeter to one’s ears than “conditionally accepted” is “accepted” and then “in print”.  We try to answer every one of our anonymous peer reviewers’ questions, concerns, and critiques to get that conditional accept.  So, academics know the term well, which is why I chose it as a title for this blog.  We understand that acceptance is just a few changes away.  Sure, we will soften our language, nix references to “oppression” in the manuscript if it is the only thing in the way of our work going to print.

But, success and achievement in academia extend beyond tweaking our written work.  It goes beyond integrating our students’ feedback to improve our courses.  Academia, in some ways, is a total institution.  It makes demands on us for how we present ourselves (should we blog?), how we interact with others (should I downplay my feminist politics?), and how we spend our time outside of the 40 hours for which we are paid (wait until after tenure to have kids?).

These demands, however, are not experienced equally nor are they randomly distributed.  Though academia has made many great strides to become more diverse and inclusive, this is less reflected among senior faculty and university administration.  So, women, people of color, and first-generation students may be disproportionately reflected among the constrained: graduate students and tenure-track faculty.  We are more likely to be at these early stages in academic careers, not yet liberated by tenure.

But, that is just numbers.  After a long history of outright discrimination and exclusion, the academy is much better about hiring diverse faculty (especially in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender).  But, it lags in other regards.  Though scholars of color and women scholars are “especially encouraged to apply,” anti-racist and feminist scholarship and activism are not.  Research on race, ethnicity, and/or gender remains underrepresented in the mainstream of my field (sociology) and likely other fields.  And, given what seems to be the practice of deradicalizing scholars through professional socialization, you can certainly forget proactively seeking explicitly anti-racist and feminist initiatives.  Our job, as academia, does not appear to include changing the academy — well, at least not beyond moving academic fields through the traditional academic practice of peer-reviewed research.

You can get the job, so long as you pursue work of interest to the mainstream of your field.  And stay silent about oppression “out there” (and especially that within the ivory tower).  We will accept you as a colleague so long as you do not challenge us or ask us to change.

It’s Back!

logoLast year, as I embarked on the academic job market, I created a blog — Conditional Acceptance.  It was anonymous (I mentioned I was on the job market, right?).  Throughout the five previous years of graduate school, I had learned the harsh reality of academia.  It looked and felt nothing like the inclusive, diverse, egalitarian place I had imagined.  Though I came looking for a place to train me to be a better advocate, to more effectively argue for social change, I found one that was de-radicalizing.  My success in my sociology PhD program depended on my ability to adopt a distant, objective view of the social world.  From the start, I was told that the professional socialization of graduate training programs includes “beating the activist out of you”; and, even as I began to challenge this publicly at the end of my training, I was reminded that many scholars believe that “activism and academia don’t mix.

I quickly learned the game.  I knew to be very careful about what I wrote (i.e., blogging) and how I presented myself.  Funny — I got so good at it, when I asked an advisor for a nomination letter for a social action award for my work in the community, he asked “what service?”  But, with the combination of three years freed from teaching (thanks to a fellowship), and then my final year freed from any service to the department or community, graduate school started and ended miserably.  It finally dawned on me during a panel that the misery I had experienced for much of graduate school was the product of the dual-edge sword many academics from marginalized backgrounds face.  During the first half of graduate school, I was miserable because I did not fit in; I felt too angry, too militant, too queer, and so forth to be happy with my training.  During the second half, I had become quite successful — but, at the cost of my authenticity, my self.  It seemed as though I had to compromise some aspect of who I am, of my values and politics to achieve the things that are highly valued in academia.

Going on the job market seemed to intensify the tension between authenticity and success.  I knew that I would have to self-censor much more and to present myself as normatively as possible.  It was quickly becoming apparent that being a team player and demonstrating that I could be a great colleague required biting my tongue about injustices I witnessed or experienced first hand.  I was encouraged to hope for job offers at the top-ranked programs in my field, even if it meant moving to a place that would be rather inhospitable for a queer interracial couple (i.e., my partner and me).  What the field considered prestigious always seemed to trump concerns about my happiness, health, authenticity, connection to community, and family.

So, I (anonymously) started this blog to create an outlet for myself while I was on the job market.  But, after a few weeks, I felt that the project deserved much more attention than I could devote to it.  Since then, the thought of recreating has returned time and again.  But, I have dismissed it, feeling it is self-serving to devote energy to academics — a rather privileged group of people.  Recently, I have spoken with friends who are about to embark on the academic job market, and have tried to advise them about what lies ahead.  Unfortunately, I feel stories and voices like mine, and those like me, are not shared.  Too few are brave enough to risk tenure to share their stories.  Connections with more advanced students tend to die off once they get jobs, and younger students become apprehensive to bother them with questions and requests for advice.

I have decided to bring the blog back.  And, in the spirit of improving academia, I do so without hiding my name or face.  Through my research, teaching, and service to the academy and local communities, I aim to challenge inequality and unjust practices.  I feel committed to supporting fellow scholars who are conditionally accepted within academe so that they may be empowered in their own work.  For, we cannot fully address the inequalities beyond the ivory tower while it exists within it, as well.  I hope, through this space, that scholars will find validation, affirmation, and inspiration.  I hope to make clear that the challenges we face as individuals are often the reflection of larger problems within academia and society in general.

And, I hope you’ll keep reading, and even contribute to get this site kick-started!

Mission: A (More) Socially Just Approach To Education

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Finally!  After 10 years of higher education (including six of graduate training), my hard work has paid off.  The interchangeable titles of “Dr. Grollman,” “Professor Grollman,” and “Eric Anthony Grollman, Ph.D.” are official and still very pleasant to my ears and embattled ego (re: the beating that is graduate school).  With summer’s end quickly approaching, the time has come to get settled into my office at the University of Richmond, and finalize my course preps for the fall semester.  So, while far from “settled,” here it is:

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Or, what I should say is, that is how it looked earlier this week.  I posted this picture on Facebook to share my excitement.  This is the first time in my life — nearly 30 years — that I have an office to call my own.  Friends expressed congratulations and excitement.  But, some asked how I would actually decorate the office.  Sure, the bookshelves are filled and the technology is set up.  But, the walls are bare.

So, I started to wonder how I might decorate the office in a way that reflects me, my needs, my interests and aspirations, while also welcoming others.  As someone who is very open about being an activist at heart, this necessarily warrants the question of demonstrating my passion for social justice and advocacy, while navigating the real concerns of department and institutional politics (which are, at this early point, largely unknown to me).

Accessibility, Appreciation, & Affirmation

Since my Facebook connections had sparked these questions, and already offered some preliminary suggestions, I posed the following request for more specific suggestions:

Taking suggestions for decorating my office! Please?

Key details to know:

  • I want to push the envelope (no surprise) and refuse to be something I’m not;
  • I want to get tenure without any trouble;
  • I will be meeting with students from various backgrounds;
  • I want to signal to my queer, trans*, anti-racist, womanist, feminist, disabled, first-generation, poor, immigrant, and fat students that they have an ally in the department;
  • the office has green carpet, green walls, wood desk, bookcases, and door, and decent amount of natural sunlight.

And, the suggestions came pouring in:

  1. Hire an interior decorator who could navigate these conflicting needs.
  2. Become a member of the university’s Safe Zone program to signal that I am an ally to (and, in my case, a member of) LGBT communities.  This would come with a sticker featuring a rainbow-colored upside-down triangle and the words “Safe Zone” to affix to my door.
  3. Remember that the books stored in my office say a lot about me, as well.
  4. Purchase artwork or posters inspired by literature, culture, activism, etc.
  5. Purchase a corkboard to feature students’ work, cards and other gestures of appreciation from students, flyers for on-campus events, etc.  These would place more focus on the advocacy on campus today, rather than relying on imagery from past (e.g., portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King).
  6. Hang family photos.
  7. Place a candy jar on my desk.
  8. Purchase a lava lamp.

There was a light, almost humorous tone to the exchange overall.  But, these were genuine suggestions for ways to signal that I appreciate students from all backgrounds, and wish to welcome them into my office.  I have taken a position at a liberal arts college after all, so teaching and mentoring are central to my job.

The above list of suggestions was topped off by a well thought out, very detailed recommendation from a friend (Carrie Tilton-Jones) who is a strong, kind, bright advocate.  She noted that “the built and decorated environment speaks volumes and impacts behavior so much.”  She went on to give specific suggestions:

  • At least one chair without arms to accommodate fat individuals.
  • An aisle wide enough for folks who use mobility aids to get through – that’s 32″.
  • A cork board with flyers for student groups and events and/or pro-diversity stuff from the university itself would go a long way. Being willing to promote cool things students do not only shows an openness to whatever cause that group champions, but also gestures toward putting students first, which most universities conspicuously fail to do.
  • Also – big +1 on making it homey and personal. Hours under fluorescent lights listening to people with tons of privilege can flat suck the life out of you. A cozy office is a subtle way to flip the finger at the impersonality of institutions. Think about a lamp with an incandescent bulb, a rug, personal photos, a plant or two, a loveseat with a throw blanket over the back if you have room for it.
  • Plants will help with air quality; but if it’s an old building with iffy ventilation, you might think about an air purifier, too.

I was floored by my friend’s suggestions in a number of ways.  First, I had not realized that there were so many ways in which offices typically are not accessible and welcoming.  And, that there were so many things that I should consider if I am to take seriously my mission to make my office welcoming to all students.  Second, she nudged me a bit to recognize ways in which I am privileged, and thus do not have to consider certain additional concerns.  By default, the office has “enough” space; but, I had not taken extra steps to ensure that it is accessible all around.  Third — the thing that kept me up a bit last night — was how the office may feel very uninviting, impersonal, and even oppressive.  (That was hard for me to write — that I may oppress some of my students, even if that only means unintentionally contributing to the overall climate of the institution.)

Toward A Socially Just Education

So, what started as a lighthearted request for decoration tips has led me to think seriously about how I can commit to a social justice-informed approach to teaching and mentoring.  I have read (and loved) Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and keep telling myself to purchase bell hook’s Teaching to Transgress.  I have given some thought to what I have appreciated from my own education (and what I did not).  But, now sitting in the professor’s seat, I was beginning to slip away from a serious commitment to a socially just approach to education.

The first order of business was to think critically about the setup of my office.  Sure, putting up pictures, posters, and flyers is a good start.  But, I realized that the actual arrangement of the major furniture may not convey the climate of access, appreciation, and affirmation that I hope for.  Somehow, I had forgotten about the awesome meeting I had with the dean when I interviewed for the position at UR.  The Dean – now that is intimidating for a prospective assistant professor who is really just a nervous, awkward graduate student in the midst of dissertating.  But, the dean’s warm, inviting presence put me at ease somewhat.  She invited me to have a seat so that we could talk.  As I entered her spacious office, I was surprised to see that a table with four chairs was at the center of the room.  Her desk was off to the side of the room.  We sat at the table, face to face, uninterrupted by a huge wooden desk that enshrined her while leaving me open and vulnerable.  I felt so at ease because, structurally and interpersonally, she made every possible effort to remove the power difference between us.

So, here is where I am heading with the new, more inviting setup:

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I have cleared the floorspace in the center of the office.  And, my workspace is no longer facing the door, taking away the intimidating visual of facing forward to anyone who enters.  And, soon, I will purchase a small table to create the corner meeting area (see the two chairs on the left).  As best as possible, I hope to recreate what the dean has in her office (and what I have seen other professors and administrators have).  From my experience, I suspect that this will be less intimidating to my students.  I would also like to purchase a rug to break up the brown (furniture) on green (carpet) on green (walls) color scheme.  If space allows, I could move the meeting table to the center of the office, putting in its current position a small couch.

But, the office is just a start.  As I continue to prepare my courses, I need to be more explicitly drawing on principles of social justice.  While educating my students about the particular topic, I have in mind as my secondary goals empowering and affirming my students, and encouraging them to connect their lives and communities to course materials and vice versa.

Some Lingering Reservations

As I have already mentioned, I do feel slight ambivalence about these decisions and changes.  While I do not want a boring office that merely serves as a work space, I also do not want to jeopardize my relationships with my colleagues and students.  Getting tenure and having a positive rapport with my fellow members of this academic community are more important to me than shocking or upsetting others in the name of social justice.  But, as many know, there may be a fine line, and too often the threshold comes close to demanding silence and assimilation.

Beyond those concerns, I also worry about stripping away the hierarchy between my students and me so much that some may either take me less seriously or even attempt to take advantage of me.  This concern is heightened first because I am a brown queer pre-tenure professor, and second because many students are simply accustomed to these rigid power dynamics.  While aiming to empower my students, I am not comfortable being on a first-name basis with them; I would consider calling my students Mx./Miss/Mrs./Mr. [last name] before letting them refer to me by my first.  I am not looking to become friends with my students.  So, I will have to figure out how to limit the things that disempower or belittle my students, while maintaining professional boundaries wherein they respect me as a teacher and mentor (rather than as a peer or friend).

So, as this will likely be a journey of sorts, I have decided to give into chronicling my life as an assistant professor at a liberal arts university.  As outspoken as I am, I tend to forgo public discussions of in-house matters for fear of any professional consequences.  (Call it what it is — getting tenure!)  But, I feel that I can argue that figuring these kinds of things out contributes to education and academe.  I certainly would like to hear others’ thoughts, and would like to think I may inspire other professors and teachers to think seriously about pursuing a socially just approach to education.

Additional Resources

First, what came to mind as I read my friend’s awesome suggestions was Dr. Tristan Bridge’s blog, Inequality by (Interior) Design.  His blog post on “Teaching Privilege without Perpetuating Privilege” taps into many of the issues I have brought up, including classroom dynamics.

I also appreciate the perspective of “John” (a pseudonym) at Memoirs of a SLACer.  (That “John” does not give a real identity makes me wonder whether I should be more cautious in my own blogging, even at a liberal arts college.  But, in my case, I was already blogging, and pretty open about it, when I was interviewed and offered the position at UR.)  “John” has some interesting posts on getting tenure, lectures, class discussion, etc. at liberal arts institutions.

I welcome other suggested resources, as well!

It’s Time To Talk About Fatphobia

DFP SuitAs soon as my partner asked, “are you sure you want to wear that?”, I knew the body image issues would come flowing out of me.  Up to that point, I had kept them at a controllable level — like water at a slow boil, contained within the pot.  We were getting ready for our friends’ wedding.  Getting dressed up is usually a bit of an emotional roller coaster for me, so I knew to start the process off with a good sassy tune to perk up my mood.  And, if I get my look right in the first attempt, there is a good chance I am out of the door lookin’ cute and feelin’ cute.  So, when my partner raised concerns that my vest and slacks did not match, I knew that having to reevaluate would disrupt this very delicate balance of self-esteem and body image issues.  Moments later, I went back and forth between saying “I hate my body” and “fuck this fatphobic society!”

I have been fat most of my life, probably starting around age 7 or 8.  As a consequence of our society’s emphasis on thinness and, particularly for men, muscular physique, I have struggled with hating my body most of my life.  But, only in the past year or so have I grown critical of society’s prejudice toward fat people (fatphobia).  So, with this latest episode of internalized fatphobia, ending with my partner saying, “I really hate when you get like that,” I knew the time was coming to talk about fatphobia, at least with myself.

Fat Consciousness

In recent years, I have made (some) peace with my weight.  I would rather devote my energy on exercising my mind than my body, though I do know that exercising both is beneficial, and I cannot (and don’t) completely ignore my body.  I became assured enough to counter concerns raised about my weight from family members with, “it’s not me who has a problem with my weight.”  But, I am a far cry from being a proud fat person.  Unfortunately, I still retain enough of society’s anti-fat prejudice that thoughts too embarrassing to share publicly cross my mind, like “oh, I can just starve myself for a week to drop a few pounds.”  I am smart enough to snap myself out of it, but it concerns me that such thoughts still cross my mind every once in a while.

Why not be proud?  I did the heavy soul-searching, and drew on my own strength and the support of others like me to become a proud queer man.  The days of considering taking my own life as a consequence of society’s vehement homophobia were limited to my adolescence.  And, I have never hated myself for being a person of color, or even multiracial; my parents instilled a sense of racial pride and awareness from my birth.  So, why then, do I let fatphobia get to me?

One major issue has been the delayed consciousness of fatphobia.  I, like the rest of society, am only recently beginning to notice that fat people are frequent targets of prejudice and discrimination.  This is more than “innocent” teasing in the school yard.  Earlier this week, an evolutionary psychologist posted an awful comment on Twitter (see image below):  “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.”

Fortunately (for him), his stupidity of openly expressing his fatphobic prejudice will have little bearing on his career:

What Geoffrey Miller, a University of New Mexico professor who is a visiting professor at NYU, said on Sunday on his personal Twitter account was regrettable.  Professor Miller apologized for the Tweet and deleted it. NYU considers the matter closed.

But, the audacity to end his tweet with “#truth” — wow.  Actually, that is not true.  Several PhDs and soon-to-be PhDs have proudly submitted their names and images to a growing list of fat PhDs.

And, to add my own #truth, my fat behind sat in my chair for long hours to start and finish my dissertation (on top of applying for jobs) in a year.  To brag a little, I put my committee’s concerns to rest that I wouldn’t finish and/or wouldn’t get a job, finishing graduate school in 6 years (one year less than the typical minimum, and two less than average).  My decision to eat (rather than lack of decision or willpower not to eat) is irrelevant to my decision to work.  (I am actually a little fatter because of working on my dissertation, which is true for many people of all shapes and sizes.)  More importantly, it is high time to put to rest the stereotype that fat people are fat because they are lazy.

PhD Graduation, IU ('13)

PhD Graduation, IU (’13)

Fatphobia As A System Of Oppression (?)

I suspect a second reason that there is a delay in recognizing fatphobia is hesitation to define it as oppression.  Sure, we know that fat people are the targets of prejudice.  Increasingly, we are recognizing that fatphobic prejudice seems to translate into behaviors and, sometimes, even policies and practices.  Yup, with pervasive unfair treatment against fat people, this constitutes a form of discriminationfatphobic discrimination.  And, this discrimination has real consequences for the health, well-being, and life chances of fat people.

Beyond interpersonal interactions, there is a constant barrage of negative images in the media, coupled with the medical institution‘s obsession with obesity as a health problem.  One of the most appalling things I saw in medical research was viewing positive body image in fat women (as though they are delusional) as a problem, specifically as a hindrance to them losing weight.  Certainly perception of one’s body, specifically one’s weight, is a concern in terms of anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders.  However, I find it troubling to view comfort with one’s body, or even fat pride, as a problem.  For now, until we fully tease out how much of the poor health faced by fat people is the consequence of fatphobia, I remain skeptical of the automatic conflation of fatness with poor health.

But, does fatphobia constitute a system of oppression?  In simply raising the question, the “oppression olympics” come to mind.  There is no question that the history of prejudice, discrimination, and violence faced by women and people of color are what define sexism and racism as systems of a oppression.  More recent consideration has been given to homophobia and heterosexism, as well, which actually discounts just how old and pervasive they are.  But, to my knowledge, fat people have never been enslaved or formally excluded from important social institutions.

What further complicates this question is how wrapped up fatphobia is with gender (and sexism) and other identities (and systems of oppression).  I do not mean to suggest that attending to these important intersections is bad or even problematic; rather, as an outsider, much of what I have seen around anti-fatphobia activism and scholarship has donned the face of white cisgender women (for now) (but hopefully I am wrong).

Fatphobia As A System Of Oppression!

But, I stop there.  To the extent that fatphobia exists both as pervasive antipathy toward and discrimination against fat people, it counts as a system of oppression in my book.  One that deserves no less attention than sexism, transphobia, racism, homophobia, and classism.  More work is needed to document how widespread such prejudice and discrimination is, and to eliminate it (e.g., education, changing laws and policies, changing practices).  In particular, more research is needed to assess the social experience of being fat (and the extent to which this shapes one’s health), not merely obesity as a “health problem.”  And, more energy should be devoted to developing a fat consciousness and, ideally, fat pride.

It is a shame that, on top of all of the external hostility and unfair treatment, so many fat people harbor internalized fatphobia; unlike Black pride, grrl power, or LGBT pride, we, as fat people, do society’s dirty work to hate our own bodies (and even other fat people).  Okay folks!  It is time we start talking about (and working to eliminate) fatphobia.

On “Teaching While Gay”

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently featured an interesting article by Domenick Scudera on “teaching while gay.”  Scudera raises the question (or concern, really) to queer professors how to navigate one’s own experiences and views and those of students who may “oppose” homosexuality:

If there are students who oppose homosexuality, those students should feel safe within the confines of our classroom to express their opinions in a respectful way. But how would that make me feel? Would I feel safe?

Further:

More important, am I harming my gay students? I believe it is helpful to them, in a safe environment, to hear the arguments against homosexuality. They will encounter those same arguments in the “real” world, as I have. I want them to be prepared. Polls tell us that homophobia persists in our country. It is reasonable to assume that some students in my classroom hold such negative beliefs about homosexuality. They might be reticent to express their feelings in the classroom. Do I have a responsibility to create an atmosphere to bring those thoughts forward?

He suggests that, unlike racist, misogynistic, or anti-Semitic views that students may express — which he would shut down immediately, without question — he tends to entertain homophobic views expressed by students.  He even plays “devil’s advocate” when students raise pro-LGBT views in class discussions.  But, there are lingering questions of a responsibility to create a safe classroom environment, which seems to push against the responsibility to respect free speech (and thought).

My Take

My initial thought on this is when are there debates in college classrooms on homosexuality — I suppose simply on how students feel about it, the morality of same-sex sexuality and relationships, etc?  Because the debates are so wrapped up in religious doctrine, I cannot think of any non-theology classrooms where a comment such as, “well, I’m against homosexuality” is relevant to a class discussion.

If my read is accurate, then this should not be much of a dilemma.  Students’ comments that are either tangential or irrelevant to the class discussion, particularly that are simply expressions of prejudice or hatred, should not be tolerated.  We, as educators, have a responsibility to create classroom spaces that are free from intolerance.  Yes, even though students are exposed still in the “real world,” our responsibility is just the classroom; and, why not provide at least that one space as a place where students, queer and straight alike, do not have to hear, “the Bible says it’s a sin”?

My view is, in general, if it does not draw on course materials, or challenge them, the comment is a tangent at best.  This goes, too, for thinly veiled expressions of bias that give a passing reference to course materials.  For example, once, on an exam, a student of mine lost points and asked me why.  The provided answer briefly noted what an article covered, and then went on to oppose homosexuality.  The question, I believe, asked to draw on queer theory to either make sense of the article, or explain why it does not fit with the theory.   So, there was no room for students to weigh the merits of same-sex relationships!

A second question is why homosexuality is even addressed as something to be debated.  Why treat it as an issue by which no one is personally affected?  Why, in light of pro-LGBT views, play “devil’s advocate”?  (Again, simply saying, “I’m all for gay marriage,” is still likely tangential at best, unless professors are holding debates on whether to legalize it.)

This is a component of my larger concern of what is lost by approaching teaching from a distance, as though one is merely an “objective” professor with no personal ties to the course content.  What is missed by letting the course texts discuss the lives of LGBT people, but essentially keeping the professor’s sexual identity and experiences as a gay person in the closet?  Certainly, I am aware of the presumption of bias, that students tend to misread queer professors as advancing “the gay agenda” in the classroom; and “real” activism by LGB professors comes at a cost in academia in general.  And, it may be the case that they, like women and people of color, are assumed to be less competent by students, as well.  And, there may be concerns for one’s safety and job security.  This should not be read as encouragement to express one’s own ideology.  But, I still struggle with understanding why so many professors teach as though they are robots with no present, no future, no sort of personal history and experiences.

There are no easy answers.  And, of course, much of this varies based on the particular institution (especially religious vs. secular), type of course, and the professors own level of comfort.  But, even short of outing oneself, there are ways to minimize the expression of homophobia and transphobia in the classroom.  And, these strategies may even challenge students’ views in general.  Maybe “debates about homosexuality” should be avoid to get away from explicitly inviting opposition.  Offer, or create (with one’s students), a set of guidelines for classroom discussion that makes clear that prejudice and mean-spiritedness will not be tolerated.  Encourage students to exercise their skills to use, extend, or challenge course material, sprinkled with other forms of knowledge, in a way that their own personal opinion does not serve as their primary point in speaking during discussion.

Either way, I hope that Scudera is right in his hope for the future:

Fifty years in the future, this will no longer be an issue. If we believe the pundits, same-sex marriage in America is inevitable, and with it may come widespread acceptance of the LGBT community. In 2063, a professor like me, teaching a course like the “Common Intellectual Experience,” will not have to pause when preparing to teach a book like Fun Home to his students.

A Recap Of The “Post-Racism” Blog Debate

Many sociologists and other scholars have entered the blogosphere, offering ideas and perspectives found within a minute’s search on the internet — knowledge that is often locked behind pay-walls for academic journals and the doors of universities.  While academic research and teaching continue, for those are the primary duties of academics, blogging can serve to extend or clarify ongoing conversations, or even create new spaces for exchange.  However, most of us maintain our own blogs, rarely engaging or referencing one another.

But, scholar-blog exchanges do occur.  One such discussion, still ongoing today, regards the persistence of racism in America today.  See the conversation, in chronological order, below:

  1. Fabio Rojas (tenured sociology professor at Indiana University) sparked debate by suggesting that “post-racist” better describes America today than does “post-racial.”  That is, we are not beyond race; rather, we have made great strides in moving beyond (traditional) racism: https://orgtheory.wordpress.com/2013/01/18/post-racist-not-post-racial [January 18, 2013]
  2. Tressie McMillan Cottom (PhD candidate at Emory University) responded to argue that racism does, in fact, persist, particularly in various importance social institutions (e.g., workplaces, the criminal justice system): http://tressiemc.com/2013/01/18/there-is-no-race-in-organizations/ [January 18, 2013]
  3. Eric Anthony Grollman (PhD candidate at Indiana University) responded to Fabio within a discussion that the New York Times “Room for Debate” discussion on Black scholars’ obligation (or not) to talk about race and racism misses the institutional constraints that prevent many from speaking up: http://conditionallyaccepted.com/2013/02/07/black-scholars/ [February 7, 2013]
  4. Fabio responded directly to Eric (me) to clarify that progress toward racial equality has, indeed, been made in some aspects of society: http://orgtheory.wordpress.com/2013/02/14/response-to-eric-grollman-on-race/ [February 14, 2013]
  5. Tressie responded to Fabio’s response, arguing that the US is not as far along in improving racial and ethnic relations as it hopes and purports to be: http://tressiemc.com/2013/02/14/whos-afraid-of-post-racist/ [February 14, 2013]
  6. Eric reflects on the constraints he feels engaging publicly with a tenured professor as a graduate student: http://conditionallyaccepted.com/2013/02/16/extend-race-debate/ [February 16, 2013]
  7. Eric adds to the conversation the point that emotions (particularly those of people of color) become the focal point of debates on racism as a means to derail the entire discussion (re: Fabio’s attention to Eric’s “outrage”): http://conditionallyaccepted.com/2013/02/19/racism-anger-guilt/ [February 19, 2013]
  8. Jason Orne (PhD candidate at University of Wisconsin-Madison) joins the ongoing debate, clarifying the utility of the concept of “post-racism” (even if it does not reflect reality) and highlighting some of the challenges to talking frankly about racism: http://queermetropolis.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/the-post-racist-debate/ [February 20, 2013]
  9. Fabio offered an example of declines on overt expressions of racial prejudice to provide further clarification: http://orgtheory.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/measuring-the-post-racist-society-the-eclipse-of-explicit-racist-talk/ [February 21, 2013]
  10. And, Tressie comments that Fabio’s demonstration relies on a weak means of providing evidence that we have moved beyond traditional racism: http://tressiemc.com/2013/02/22/1194/ [February 22, 2013]
  11. Eric reflects further on interpersonal barriers to discussing race that have been touched on throughout the ongoing debate: http://conditionallyaccepted.com/2013/02/22/barriers-racism/ [February 22, 2013]
  12. Eric calls for a “bystander intervention” approach to fighting racism, wherein racism is a community issue, and anti-racism is a community responsibility: http://egrollman.com/2013/02/27/bystander-intervention-racism/ [February 27, 2013]
  13. The conversation concludes with a post by Eric making a plea to believe and support (fellow) people of color who express that they have been victimized by racism: http://conditionallyaccepted.com/2013/03/05/doubting-denying/ [March 5, 2013]

More On Barriers To Meaningful Conversations On Racism

In an ongoing blogosphere debate among four sociologists (including me) on the persistence of racism in America, one issue has been sporadically addressed: barriers to frank, meaningful conversations about race and racism.

Referencing a New York Times “Room for Debate” discussion on Black scholars’ obligation to talk openly about race, I stressed that certain institutional barriers hinder our ability to do so.  In particular, due to the low-status of graduate students in the academy, and the fears of professional consequences for pre-tenure professors, many academics are silenced as a necessary means to professional survival.

Sprinkled throughout other parts of the ongoing debate have been references to interpersonal barriers to talking about race, as well.  Though they have been touched on to some degree, I wish to make explicit two interpersonal barriers that hinder our ability to have meaningful exchanges about the continuing significance of race and racism: (hyper)personalization and depersonalization.

(Hyper)personalization

Before I begin, I will note that by personalization, I mean to take or make something related to oneself (i.e., “take things personally”).  We are mere humans who have only one perspective from which to view and experience the world — our own.  So, we cannot help but to personalize the everyday interactions with have with others.  In fact, with so many things to achieve in one day, we are driven to maximize those things that relate to us in some way, and minimize those that seem irrelevant to us.

One aspect of personalization that often serves as a barrier to open dialogue about race and racism is hyperpersonalization, or making or taking things so personally than a broader conversation is blocked.  One major example of this is when one perceives a (generally) broad conversation as a statement about oneself or one’s views or actions.  I can think of many examples from conversations I have witnessed or of which I have been a part wherein a white person feels as though they have been accused of being racist.

In fact, from the initiation of the conversation, many white people anxiously navigate the question whether they may be racists.  In various blog posts, I have referred to this as the “racist hot-potato” or “who’s a racist?” game.  Too often, white people feel constrained in dialogue about race, or aim to avoid it all together, because they fear the label of “racist.”  Unfortunately, their resultant behavior or even open admission to this fear does not help their case against the charge of racism.  Taking the mere fact that racism is being discussed as a personal indictment of racial prejudice shuts too many meaningful conversations down before they even begin.

Ironically, the other side of the coin of hyperpersonalization is the ugly charge, often made by whites about people of color, that one makes or takes things too personally, thus forcing unnecessary attention to (than away from) race and racism.  The “Derailment Bingo” card that Jason Orne included in his recent blog post has great examples of this means of shutting down a conversation about oppression:

Depersonalization

The opposite extreme of hyperpersonalization, then, is depersonalization, or making or taking things completely unrelated to oneself.  Unfortunately, this comes too easily for white people because their racial privilege blinds them to the infinite ways in which race and racism shape (i.e., benefit) their lives.  For many reasons, it is simply difficult for whites to see race — their own, others’, and racism writ large:

  • The numerous, subtle, and taken-for-granted privileges afforded to whites are hardly ever announced as such.  “Sir, you have received this unproblematic dining experience because you are white.”  As a multiracial person, sometimes read as (completely) white by others, I have benefited from presumably pleasant, unproblematic experiences that may have been the product of white privilege/the absence of racial discrimination.
  • Today, some degree of racial prejudice operates in our minds unconsciously.  Thus, the aforementioned white privileges are often given in the absence of conscious, intentional racist motivations.
  • Presumably, most whites pride themselves on being good people.  So, short of actively promoting racism, knowingly benefiting from racial privilege, or discriminating against people of color, there is little need to assess one’s own racial biases and actions.

Given the ease with which one can distance oneself from racism “out there,” one remains uncritical of one’s own views and actions.  It remains easy to speak as though one is objective in dialogue about racism.  A consequence of this, then, is a mismatch between frames used in conversation.

For example, I may speak from personal experiences of racial discrimination and slights.  To have those experiences, or my perspective (which is informed by those experiences), met with an alternative, “objective” perspective can lead me to feel that the validity or significance of my experiences has been challenged or dismissed.  Interestingly, the denial of racial minorities’ personal experiences with racism has been defined as racist microaggressions themselves.  (So, too, has been the denial of one’s own racial bias.)

Even short of dismissing another person’s experiences, depersonalization also reflects how whites may approach a conversation on racism relative to that of people of color.  Given the persistent stereotypes, myths, and bias related to race, I cannot help but feel the urgency of life or death, freedom or bondage in every conversation about racism.  Though a bit to optimistic, I feel compelled to convince others to acknowledge the history and present reality of racism in America, for doing so could literally mean changing the course of future events; allowing uncritical views on race could mean death.  So, I am frustrated when I encounter whites who approach such conversations with little interest (or the arrogant attitude that it is my job to convince them of its importance), or, worse, a playful round of “devil’s advocate.”  Racism is no game.  And, it certainly isn’t fun.

A Sociologically-Informed Conversation

A useful approach, then, is a healthy balance of personalizing and depersonalizing conversations on race and racism.  Or, to clarify, we may find more meaningful discussions through a sociological perspective: recognizing our personal experiences and biographies are shaped and constrained by larger social forces (e.g., racism).  It is useful to bring our own perspective and experiences to bear in a conversation, but to rely on them alone misses the structural and historical aspects of racism.  It is useful to think structurally and historically about race and racism, but not devoid of actual people and their experiences.

Further, I echo Jason’s sentiment that these conversations must be initiated and continued by both people of color and whites.  It is exhausting for racial and ethnic minorities to constantly have these conversations, in part, because they often have to start from the beginning, Race 101 — defining race and arguing its continuing significance.  Too many whites think and talk about race only in the presence of people of color, or reserve talking about racism for conversations with friends and colleagues of color.  But, racial and ethnic minorities cannot bear the burden of talking about racism alone due to the numerous interpersonal and institutional constraints that I and the other bloggers have pointed out.

What may help whites is moving beyond the personal indictment of racism.  As Jay Smooth, radio host and anti-racist activist, noted in a 2011 talk, the myth of the racist/non-racist duality shuts down conversations on race and racism, and gives the false assurance that one’s work is done by not being racist.  Racism is a social system; it shapes and constraints every aspect of social life.  Non-participation is not a possibility.

Thus, in being totally, unapologetically frank about this, either you actively resist racism (i.e., anti-racist) or you are complicit in its persistence (i.e., racist).  In his talk, Jay notes that one cannot merely select non-racism as a lifelong, static trait in 2008; just like being a clean person, the status of an anti-racist reflects the lifelong, active effort to challenge racism and racial inequality.

No matter how much whites engage in anti-racist work, they can never completely eliminate white privilege from their lives; thus, the question, “who’s a racist?” is moot.  A more fruitful perspective is one that focuses both on the structural manifestations of racism, as well as individuals’ beliefs (i.e., prejudice) and behaviors (i.e., discrimination) that justify and support them.

Closing Thoughts

This, of course, is not necessarily an easy nor full-proof strategy.  Talking about race and racism is challenging, no matter how critical, mindful, forgiving, and understanding our approach.  And, even among sociologists, it is easy for some to hide behind science to avoid talking about it personally, or even use it, albeit selectively, to prove racism no longer exists or has declined in significance.

But, it is crucial for further progress toward racial equality that we are able to have these difficult conversations.  For as Jay noted, we must not mistake our silence about racism as evidence of our success in eradicating it.  If anything, a day where we do talk freely and peacefully about race and racism would be a real sign of progress.

Finally, check out Jay Smooth’s advice for calling out racist words and behaviors (hint, first distinguish calling out people’s racist actions from calling out racist people — the latter is sure to derail the conversation).

The Debate On Race Was Extended; Or, “Be Careful What You Wish For!”

In a recent post, I called for extending the New York Times Room For Debate, “Do Black Intellectuals Need to Talk About Race?“  My key concern was that due to various institutional constraints, the question is moot for some; the potential professional (and personal) consequences are so high, that silence may be necessary for one’s survival.

But, now feeling a little braver because I am close to the end of my status as a lifetime student, I did talk about race in the academy.  In fact, I felt comfortable enough to call attention to a blog post on race by Fabio Rojas, a professor in my department at Indiana University.  But, I have only started the long process of rebuilding my confidence, particularly in my perspective (i.e., my voice),  after years of being torn down and remade in graduate school.  So, I still braced for the sky to fall after I clicked “publish,” releasing the blog post to the worldwide web.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Late Wednesday night, I saw an email notification that I had a comment on my recent blog post — a pingback from Fabio’s blog, orgtheory.net.  It was a new blog post by him: “Response To Eric Grollman On Race.”  Oh My Goddess,” I thought.  “I am going to get kicked out of graduate school!”  I read Fabio’s response, feeling a wave of different emotions.  Obviously, panic.  Then, a sense of worry that I had been too harsh, or even unfair by referencing his ethnic identity and prior scholarship.  Finally, excitement, pride, relief, and hope.  In January, I expressed my anger and disappointment to my friends, but felt powerless to do or say anything.  Now, in mid-February, a professor in my department, on his popular blog, was responding directly to me.  By August, MSNBC will be moving my social and political commentary show, Tell The Truths, to Wednesday evenings.  (It is okay to dream, isn’t it?)

I watched to see what sort of comments Fabio’s response would receive, fearing others would chime in to disagree with or criticize my perspective.  To my surprise, a third scholar-bloggerTressie McMillan Cottom, joined the debate with a second response to Fabio (see her first here).  Though I did not start the conversation, I am proud to be part of the very debate I called to extend.  Indeed, this is not the first debate about racism after the re-election of President Barack Obama, nor the first distinguishing “post-racial” from “post-racist.”

Tell The Truths

My PhD in sociology, or at least being months from officially receiving it, is not the sole source of my new (renewed, actually) sense of confidence to speak up and speak out.  I devoted some of the little free time I have these days to reading the works of Frederick Douglas, Audre Lorde, Keith Boykin, and Patricia Hill Collins.  These are scholars and advocates who used their voices to make visible the lives of and conditions faced by oppressed people.  They did not wait for permission to speak, and, in many ways, had to fight to do so.  And, rather than seeking large samples and fancy methodological approaches to appeal to the fickle standards of “objective” science, they used their own lives as “proof” of the everyday realities of oppression.

I see in my rigorous academic training both an opportunity and an obligation to speak out.  Collins speaks about “telling the truth” in both her book, Intellectual Activism and a short article in Contexts magazine.  She proposes this, for scholars with social justice motivations, in two ways.  First, by “speaking truth to power”:

This form of truth telling uses the power of ideas to confront existing power relations.  On a metaphorical level, speaking the truth to power invokes images of changing the very foundations of social hierarchy where the less powerful take on the ideas and practices of the powerful, often armed solely with their ideas. One can imagine this process through the David and Goliath story of the weak standing up to the strong, armed only with a slingshot (as relying solely on the power of one’s ideas seems to be) (p. 37).

For many scholars, including myself, this primarily entails devoting our scholarship to changing how and on what other scholars do their research.  For Collins, this has been done phenomenally through advancing intersectionality, a theoretical framework that calls for attending to the intersections among systems of oppression (racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism).  I have attempted to advance this framework in my own research on the health consequences of discrimination.

This is important work that ultimately transforms science and, hopefully, the potential social change that can result from research.  But, those conversations remain among scholars.  And, there is a very long time between project conception to publication, publication to use by other researchers (i.e., citations), and then to any impact that work will have beyond the academy.  Still, much published research remains unavailable outside of academia and, even if it was freely accessible, I am doubtful that non-academics care to read the latest issue of an academic journal.

As such, Collins proposes a second form of truth-telling – “speak[ing] the truth directly to the people”:

In contrast to directing energy to those in power, a focus that inadvertently bolsters the belief that elites are the only social actors who count, those who speak the truth to the people talk directly to the masses (p. 38).

This means more than teaching large classes of undergraduate students.  It means making accessible the resources (including ideas, perspectives, and data) to “ordinary, everyday people” to “assist them in their everyday lives” (p. 38).  I have attempted this by providing my perspective and findings from prior research to community groups with which I have worked.  I have offered advice to family and friends who have sought to challenge workplace discrimination and unfair labor practices.  And, as often as I can, I blog here and for the Kinsey Institute (KinseyConfidential.org).  But, also as Collins notes, I feel obligated to let family, friends, and the broader public speak to me, as well:

I believe that our analyses of important social issues are strengthened when we engage in dialogues, and speak with people and not at them (p. 41).

As such, rather than viewing my “expert” knowledge and perspective as Truth, I allow others’ experiences and perspectives to inform, challenge, and validate my work as a scholar.  (As an aside, I am often frustrated that my work as a social scientist demands that I spend hours looking at numbers — that represent individuals — in isolation.)

Fabio has written some on this sort of work in sociology, often called “public sociology,” and the challenges and constraints posed against such efforts.

A Response To Fabio’s Response To My Response

Fabio noted my outrage about his suggestion that we live in a “post-racist” society, and offered the following thoughts in response:

  • Recognizing progress is not logically equivalent to saying that racism is absent in our society.
  • It is important to recognize the drastic reduction in racist practices in American society for political and scientific reasons. Politically, we should reward good behavior. We should praise people when they stop engaging in overtly racist actions or passing race based law and policy. If we say “nothing has changed,” then people may say  “why should I change? Nothing will make people happy.” Sociologically, it is simply erroneous to equate the era of Jim Crow with the era of Obama. African Americans and other minorities have changed in many remarkable ways. People of color make more money, get better jobs, get more education, are healthier, and have benefited enormously because of the Civil Rights movement. To deny that is folly.
  • Before you get outraged again, I do not deny relative differences remain, which are often substantial. But once again, we must still recognize progress in absolute terms. And I’ll take large absolute improvements over changes in relative differences any day.
  • Eric raises the issue of racial privilege and subtle forms of discrimination. I completely agree! Nowhere did I deny that these remain. But that comment itself shows how much things have changes. The cost of outright racism is now so high that it must go “underground.” That’s an improvement!
  • On one point, I would agree with the skeptics who believe that racism is just as bad, possibly worse, than it was at the end of the Civil Rights era. People of color are subject to mass incarceration (again). In many ways, being stuck under the thumbs of an oppressive White majority in the South in 1920 isn’t so much different than being put in jail for non-violent drug charges. I’d also add that we should consider immigration law as one massive attempt to keep out ethnic outsiders as well. And of course, I haven’t mentioned the harassment that many people of Arabic descent have experienced post 9/11.
  • Finally, I stand by my comment that it is good that we can talk about race. This is a *massive* cultural change. Remember, if you can name it, you can own it.

There are a few things I wish to say in response to Fabio:

  • First, I wish to clarify that, in disagreeing with the existence of “post-racism,” I do not disagree with the very real changes that have occurred in the US.  That three sociologists of color, one a tenured professor at a top university and two PhD students, are having this public discussion about racial and ethnic relations is evidence itself of the massive changes even in the past 50 years and beyond.  But, the major changes we have seen do not suggest the complete erasure of racism in America.
  • Second, I share some of the concern that a few others have made in comments to his response and original blog post that the shift form overt, Jim Crow-era racism to subtle, “color-blind” racism is change, but not necessarily progress.  If anything, it is now harder to talk about racism because, for example, racist discrimination is thinly veiled as something non-racial.  Racial and ethnic minorities’ real experiences of racist discrimination are viewed skeptically, or even dismissed as paranoia, hypervigilance, or playing “the race card.”  Even in academic research, despite the real evidence of differential treatment (e.g., Devah Pager’s work), so many scholars do work on “perceived” discrimination.
  • Third, I point to the underlying motivations to declare the US “post-racial” as evidence of a lingering problem in racial and ethnic relations.  Why is (white) America so anxious to declare racism dead?  Though these desires existed before 2007, they seemed to solidify with the election of President Obama.  Now that one (half) Black man has been elected twice into the nation’s most powerful position, many whites see crystal clear evidence that racial discrimination no longer exists.  Thus, we lack a collective understanding of racism that looks beyond the individual level.  I am pessimistic about the prospects of seeing another Black president any time soon.
  • Fourth, I stress (again) that racism operates through institutional practices.  Tressie wrote more about this in her first post, as well: “Central to my theorizing and empirical work is that organizations reproduce racial, gender, and class inequality”; and, she wrote a more extensive response (with great examples) in her second post.  This, of course, is only one aspect of the understanding of racism as a social institution in its own right.
  • Related to my third point, I am ambivalent about Fabio’s call to “reward good behavior,” specifically that we should “praise [white] people when they stop engaging in overtly racist actions or passing race based law and policy.”  White America did not willingly give people of color anything: not freedom from enslavement; not full citizenship and humanity; not equal protection under the law; not the right to participate in elections and politics; not equal opportunities and access to important institutions; not freedom from violence and discrimination; and, not programs to redress the persistent economic, psychological, and spiritual damage caused by the legacy of racism in America.  We have had the noble help and support of white anti-racist activists, liberals, allies, and friends throughout history.  However, whites, as a group, have not given us our free, equal status.  Many, many, many people of color have fought tirelessly for equality.  Few whites have actively fought racism.  The supposed absence of whites’ racism is not equivalent to white anti-racism.  I do agree that it is important to note progress, where progress has been made — something to which people of all races and ethnicities have contributed.  But, I do not feel compelled to assuage white guilt, nor to feed into whites’ savor complex.  The act of thanking or congratulating a white person for not discriminating against me or being open-minded enough to treat me as an equal (without claiming to be blind to my brown skin) would be completely degrading.
  • Finally, thank you, Fabio, for the response, and for continuing this debate on race and racism.  I have seen a spike in site visitors, likely many of your own who are curious about this “outraged” Eric Anthony Grollman.

I look forward to continued dialogue around race, ethnicity, racism, and xenophobia!