Bringing in the Political Self: Teaching in the Era of Trump

Katie L. Acosta, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University where she teaches courses on race & ethnicity, sexuality, gender and the family. In this post, Dr. Acosta reflects on teaching and academic freedom under the Trump Administration. 

I recently attended a meeting designed to explain the boundaries of academic freedom to faculty members and to brainstorm best practices for creating a non-hostile classroom environment that presents students with a balanced picture of contemporary political happenings. “Try not to make statements that directly disparage a political candidate,” we were instructed. “Consider focusing on policy issues rather than personal characteristics. Consider avoiding clothing or paraphernalia in the classroom that directly support a particular political candidate. You don’t want to wear anything that might appear antagonistic to students who may not share your point of view…”

This is where we are in higher education under a Trump administration.  I’m supposed to teach my students about their social world, about Racism, Gender, Sexuality and the Family – while remaining neutral on the hostile and deeply-offensive statements that our president has made during his campaign and since he was elected.  But herein lies the problem, my political ideologies are shaped by my sociological lens and my sociological lens is shaped by my personal experience. These three things do not, nor have they ever, existed in separate spheres for me. Arguably this is what makes me a good professor, or at least it is what fuels my passion for what I do.

Sitting in this meeting hearing the suggestions being made brought me back a few years to the morning after Trayvon Martin was killed. That morning, I was scheduled to be in my Introduction to Sociology undergraduate classroom teaching about racial bias. I remember my heart racing as I scoured through social media learning the details of this awful tragedy. I desperately wanted to cry, but instead I pulled myself together and walked downstairs to teach. I had decided I would avoid the topic entirely. I was certainly not in any position to have a “balanced” conversation about it with my students. Avoiding the topic was the only way that I knew how to keep myself from feeling my pain.  Inevitably, however, ten minutes into the lecture a student raised their hand and wanted to discuss the events. Most of the class still did not know who Trayvon Martin was. And as this student explained the events that transpired, I remember looking at their mostly blank, white faces, first with perplexity and then with anger.

I began to feel myself shaking behind the podium. How could so many students have such blank stares hearing about this boy’s death? My rage regarding this incident is deeply personal. As a mother of a black teenage boy, I imagined my son walking at night with a bag of skittles. But, my rage was also fueled by my sociological understanding of this incident as part of a larger systemic problem in our society – of this country’s fear of Black men and boys and of this country’s failure, time and again, to give them the benefit of the doubt during these encounters.

Channeling my sociological lens and harnessing my personally-driven passion helps me bring intellectual material to life for my students. It allows me to make their learning about more than just words on a page, key terms, or lecture notes. It allows me to make their learning about something real, tangible, and consequential. How do we get our students to understand the consequences of political happenings without letting them see why we are invested in these issues? I would never want a student to feel alienated in my classroom, but I have no interest in perpetuating an idea of myself as a disembodied worker whose personal life and work life don’t intersect. I can’t think of a single Sociologist that I respect who maintains these artificially separated worlds.

Keeping our political selves out of the classroom also presumes that our bodies do not advertise this self.  I am an Afro-Latina queer cis woman. Don’t these identities speak for me even if I don’t? How many of my students believe they know my political leanings before I ever open my mouth? And if my students do make assumptions about my politics, then why not make my political ideologies clear in the interest of transparency?

I spent the first few weeks of this semester stumblingly awkwardly over how to teach my courses without being too political. But I don’t believe it’s done me or my students a bit of good. Instead, it’s flattened my delivery and robbed me of the passion that used to come with every lecture I delivered. So now, I’m going to take a different approach. Our democratic system as it currently stands is the most illustrative example I could possibly come up with for the prevalence of racism in the United States.

Rather than ignoring political happenings, I can draw connections between sociological theories about racism and our contemporary reality. Only in a country that refuses to take an honest and direct look at the deep-seated racism that plagues it, can we have fertile ground for the Trump phenomenon to flourish. And only in a democracy that is largely run by white men who refuse to acknowledge their privilege do we see such willingness to overlook the racist, Islamaphobic, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic actions and policies of Trump’s cabinet picks.

While this is something that I do not have control over, I do have the opportunity to ensure that the next generation doesn’t so thoroughly miss the boat when it comes to understanding the covert and overt ways that racism exists and persists in our country.  I will continue to encourage my students to engage in respectful dialogue with me and one another on the many issues we currently face not with a forced or feigned sense of neutrality but with the promise of respect, integrity and in the spirit of understanding.  For creating this environment in my classroom, I apologize to no one.

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Mixed Feelings about the Women’s March on Washington: Coming of Age in White Spaces as a Dark-Skinned Black Woman

This week’s post is a reflection on the marches that occurred over the weekend from a Doctoral Candidate in a social scientific PhD program in the United States. 

As I watch fellow women march in their respective cities, I am swept up in a mix of emotions: pride, encouragement, but most surprisingly to me: envy. I covet what these women have: identification as a woman; but mostly confirmation as a woman. As I reflect more, I think the show of solidarity by women across the globe highlights the loneliness I have experienced in my search for womanhood.

My formative experiences were shaped by my white peers. My adolescence was predominantly white, made up of predominantly white schools, and in predominantly white classrooms. My friends were white. My classmates were white. And thus, I came of age in an environment that valued whiteness over everything else. Including my experiences as a black woman.

Due to constant reminders from my family and friends, I knew I was black (And I knew I was a woman due to the way I conceptualized myself). I still know these things.  But, my womanhood has always been secondary to my blackness.  Whenever I was treated unequally, I chalked it up to racism. When there was no one who was interested in dating me, I chalked it up to racism. I’ve always been treated as black. But, I’ve never been treated as a black woman.

How this relates to my feelings about various Women’s Marches is still something I’m trying to work out. But, my initial thoughts are this: In every formative interaction, my blackness has superseded every womanly quality I have.

Now, at 29 – as I am finally coming into what I view as womanhood – I am still trying to reconcile what about womanhood makes me feel so disconnected from my peers. Those who I am supposed to feel a kinship with. I believe that answer can be found in the fact that as a black woman coming of age in white spaces, I experienced constant de-gendering. I must now struggle to find – and interpret – my womanhood, and what it means for myself. Thus – couched in a time when womanhood seems to be fiercely embraced, rallied around, and protested for – I find myself lost.

I often wonder if there are other people like me. People who are still searching for their womanhood amidst their ethnicity. Those who feel disconnected from other women who have found it – or who have never had to search for it in the first place.

I feel it must be difficult. And lonely.

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Systemic Racism & Why I don’t want kids

In this guest post, David Springer reflects on the ways experiencing and studying systemic racism influence preferences for having or not having children.  David Springer is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago who studies race, ethnicity & gender and African American experience. 

At this point in my life, I’ve ended many different friendships and relationships because of racism. It’s a normal part of my life. Often, these incidents begin with comments like “You’re really ________ for a black guy” or “I like you, you’re not like other black people!” I turn 30 in about 2 months, and I don’t have the energy to explain to people why that’s offensive. I certainly don’t have time to explain why I or other black people are upset over Trayvon Martin’s death or his murderer’s acquittal, the Ferguson protests and the Baltimore uprisings. Over the past few years, I’ve come to learn that a big part of experiencing racism is about experiencing loss. It can involve losing access to resources (if you even had access in the first place), losing your humanity, losing your life (literally), and losing relationships. I thought I knew how to handle the latter until this past week.

I ended a completely functional, stable, 2-year relationship with a woman I loved because of racism. She is Asian-American and I’m black, but it wasn’t because of a microaggression. It wasn’t because she thought #BlackLivesMatter protesters were just rabble rousers or because she thought black people would be fine if we just pulled our pants up and stopped “acting ghetto.” In fact, in 2 years, we argued about something race related exactly one time. We ended our relationship because I came to the realization that I don’t want children, and she does. That, in and of itself, is not explicitly related to race. People end relationships all the time because they disagree on whether or not to have children. However, I’d venture to guess that most people who say they don’t want kids don’t cite racism as the reason. For me, racism has everything to do with why I don’t want to bring children into this world.

With the #BlackLivesMatter Movement in full swing and the seemingly endless stream of stories of violence against black people, racism continues to permeate our daily lives. On a personal level, I’m confronted with racism in my everyday life in ways I’ve written about before. I’m also a race scholar, so systemic racial inequality also shapes my worldview. My own research focuses on the ways race shapes the lives of even the most successful, middle class blacks in this “post-racial” society. Between my own personal experiences, an understanding of institutional inequality, and an awareness of how that inequality literally kills black men, women and children every day, you get what scholars refer to as “racial battle fatigue.”

Racial battle fatigue refers to the stress people of color experience when exposed to discrimination. This stress can be psychological (frustration, defensiveness, apathy, anxiety, hopelessness), physiological (headaches, high blood pressure, shortness of breath, sleep disturbances, etc.), or emotional-behavioral (stereotype threat, impatience, increased smoking, alcohol, or drug use, and poor job or school performance). For me, chronic exposure to racism tends to manifest itself though a deep sense of anxiety and hopelessness. Though I know that progress has been made since the Civil Rights Movement and that my own success is a symbol of that progress, I’m also aware of how much that progress has stalled or regressed. On one hand, Census data suggests that black folks are generally less poor than they were before that era. That data also suggests that more of us are going to college and getting bachelor’s degrees, and that the black middle class has grown. Black success, at least on an individual level, is highly visible in our society. President Obama, as many have discussed before, is the most obvious example of this progress.

On the other hand, this racial progress coexists with racial disparities in income, wealth, poverty, unemployment, incarceration rates, housing and education. If black America were a country to itself, it would trail behind white America in virtually every measure of social mobility and life chances. It would have a worse infant mortality rate than many “3rd World” countries, a lower life expectancy than Mexico, a higher homicide rate (per-100,000) than the Ivory Coast, Sudan, or Haiti, and the highest rate of incarceration on the planet. While legally sanctioned discrimination has subsided over time, even successful blacks deal with racism in their neighborhoods, public spaces, stores, and the workplaces. Every day there is a new story of a black person being verbally harassed, followed in stores, harassed by security personnel, or killed by police and vigilantes. At this point, these kinds of stories are expected. I go through a range of emotions when I see these stories – anger, disgust, sadness, etc. But I’m never surprised by any of it. And from where I sit, I don’t have much evidence that it will stop. If Dr. King and the Civil Rights Generation could not stop it, what hope do we have?

I understand that this isn’t a 100% rational reaction. There are many people who are fighting for black lives. And that fight is not always for naught, as the students of Mizzou showed us this past week. Things like this provide some hope, but that hope is quickly tempered by how people reacted to those protests – death threats, terrorism, and general hostility. Which brings me back to having children. When I’m aware of the many ways racism hurts and kills black folks in this country, how can I justify bringing a child into this world? How do I handle the inevitable day when my child gets called a nigger or some other epithet? We live in a world where that’s a virtually a guarantee. So how do I explain that to them? And do I try to give them hope that it will get better, even when I know that probably isn’t true? Do I just “keep it real,” and shatter their innocence? These are the kinds of things my ex-girlfriend and I had to think about. How were we supposed to explain to a child that the police, who they will be taught to see as the good guys and heroes, are often hostile and hateful towards black people? I didn’t really interact much with the police outside of a D.A.R.E. talk here and there, but I can remember knowing very early in life that police didn’t like black people. And when kids are taught that people who hurt people go to jail, how do we explain that when white people hurt us, they’re more likely to avoid punishment? How do I help that child avoid the pain I felt the first time a girl’s parents rejected me because I was black?

These questions are what drive my preference to not have children. Since I was in an interracial relationship, I had to think long and hard about how race might affect a child’s life. And since my ex wasn’t black, many of the child’s experiences would be tied directly to me, especially if that child looked more like me than her. Of course being/looking Asian comes with many of the same problems and discrimination, as well as some unique experiences (“Where are you really from?”). But anti-black racism is, as critical race theorists often argue, a cornerstone of American society. And black people are often viewed as inferior to Asians on cultural grounds. And since I’m the darker one in the relationship, I am aware that the more the child looks like me, the more likely they are to experience discrimination in their neighborhoods, in stores, at school, and at the hands of police officers. Again, I know that isn’t a 100% rational thought. And it wouldn’t be my fault if my child experienced racism. But it would feel like it was, and I’m not sure how I’d be able to deal with that as a parent, let alone how to talk to a child about it.

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What should I do when I’m walking behind or passing a white woman late at night on the street?

In this guest post, David Springer reflects on navigating race and gender intersections in public spaces as a black man and a feminist committed to pursuing racial and gender equality.  David Springer is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago, this is his first blog.  

Ever since I started talking to women about street harassment, I’ve tried to be more conscious of my presence as a man in settings where women are often made to feel unsafe. I have become especially conscious of this dynamic when I’m walking around or behind women late at night. A friend of mine once suggested that he crosses the street in these types of situations to avoid making the woman feel uncomfortable (he was Latino). I’ve done this a handful of times since then and will continue to do so, provided I’m not thrown too far off my original route.

But I still have some mixed feelings about this suggestion. For a while now, moments like these have exposed a rift in my mind. On one side of this rift is my militant/anti-racist/black nationalist self. This is the side of me committed to racial justice for all people of color, and especially for black men. It’s the side of me that’s been cultivated since I sat and watched Spike Lee’s Malcolm X with my family when I was 6 or 7 years old. On the other side of the rift is an intersectional feminist attempting to use their position of (male) privilege as a megaphone to help spread the voices of women who are harmed by sexism and misogyny on a daily basis. These overlapping but distinct parts of my consciousness crash into one another whenever a woman reacts fearfully to my presence.

An example of this came one night when I was in college. A group of friends and I – all African-American – were heading back to our dorms after dinner at the dining hall. As we were walking, an Asian woman walked briskly out of another building in front of us with her head down. At first, I wasn’t sure if she was simply lost in thought, or if she was nervous about our presence. I got my answer when one of my friends politely asked “How you doin’?” She jumped as if she had heard gunshots, and walked away from us even faster.

We laughed at the incident. By this point in our lives, we’d come to expect people to be afraid of us, even on the campus we called home for four years. One of my first nights at college, some friends and I headed to a gas station across the street from our dorms for a late-night snack. As one of my friends – a 6’4″, dark-skinned black man – reached for the door handle, an older white woman rushed to the door, locked it, and shook her head “No,” signaling that either they were closed or that she didn’t want us in her store. We laughed then, too.

The militant black side of me views these kinds of incidents as blatant acts of racism. What else could they be? Black men in America are among the most criminalized in the world. Black men are 6 times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, and make up a disproportionate number of those who are stopped, searched, arrested, and jailed for drug-related offenses, despite studies suggesting that they use and sell drugs at rates remarkably similar to whites. Black men have long been assumed to be criminals or inherently threatening to our society, and are often profiled as such. Throughout history, we’ve often been assumed to be particularly threatening to white (and other non-black) women. Many lynchings in the American South and elsewhere took place after allegations that a black man had “improper relations” with a white woman. This often included criminal acts like rape or harassment, but even sleeping with or flirting with a white woman was sometimes grounds for death.

Today, we – as black men – often find ourselves being shunned and avoided by those who assume that we pose some sort of threat to them. This is especially the case for those of us who must navigate predominantly white/non-black spaces. When a woman crosses the street to avoid us, walks faster as we approach, or rushes to lock their door as we pass by, it reminds us that we’re often viewed as a threat to both society in general and to women in particular, even if we’re middle class, college-educated professionals.

So, should I cross the street when a woman walks past me late at night? My militant side says “No!” After all, I already spend too much time as it is managing the emotions of whites around me to make sure they’re comfortable. For example, black professors around the country must often manage the emotions of whites in the classroom when we discuss issues of white privilege and racism. We must navigate and manage the expectations of whites in college settings, at work, in our neighborhoods, in restaurants and in movie theaters. The stress this causes – known as “racial battle fatigue” – is highly associated with negative health outcomes. In other words, constantly dealing with racism in different settings is literally detrimental to our health. Given how much of a burden this places on the shoulders of black men, I reject the idea that I should have to cross the street to accommodate women’s aversion to black men.

Right?

But the feminist in me sees these events a little differently. A substantial amount of the violence and harassment that women face comes at the hand of boys and men of all races. I like to think of myself as a “nice guy,” despite the fact that many men on the Internet have given the term a bad name. But whether I’m the nicest, most feminist guy on the planet or a misogynistic serial killer – I must ask how any random woman on the street will know that? Many simply see a man. Moreover, domestic violence, sexual assault, street harassment and other forms of violence against women are at chronic levels in our society. You’d be hard pressed to find a woman in this country who hasn’t been verbally or physically abused, harassed, or sexually assaulted by a man somewhere, regardless of race, class, or sexuality. It’s not just black men who do things like this, despite what some may imply. ALL kinds of men harass women, and in those moments, women can’t be sure whether or not I’m one of those men.

Most of the women I’ve talked to have experienced verbal harassment, unwanted touching, or been outright assaulted by men. As feminists have brought attention to this issue over the years, I’ve come to re-evaluate some of my interactions on the street with women.

The woman who jumped as my friend greeted her? Maybe she had recently been harassed or assaulted by men like us. Or maybe she was being racist. Maybe both. I’m less inclined to give the store clerk the benefit of a doubt, as she very well could have just told us they had closed for the night. Store clerk jerks aside, men do pose a substantial threat to women in a variety of ways, and it’s important for us to do what we can to help women feel the same level of comfort that we do when we’re in most public spaces.

So, when a woman – white, black, Asian or otherwise – crosses the street to avoid me, avoids eye contact, or simply tenses up around me, I should acknowledge that she’s doing so as a form of self-preservation. I can empathize with that, as I react the same way when I encounter police officers or security guards. Whatever the circumstances, conversations around street harassment and violence against women aren’t about me, per se, or even about men as a whole. After all, many men aren’t abusers or rapists. But that fact doesn’t help women feel any safer, just as I don’t feel safer around unfamiliar police officers knowing that there are “good cops” out there. Women’s actions in these instances are reactions a perpetual pattern of harassment by men, black or otherwise. Put another way, #notallmen are harassers, rapists, or abusers, but #yesallwomen have experienced these different forms of violence at the hands of men.

So, which side of me is right? The Black Nationalist in me has a point – I shouldn’t have to tap-dance around other’s people’s racism just to make them feel comfortable. And I have a right to exist in public spaces without being criminalized. But as a black man, I also understand what’s it’s like to feel as though you are putting yourself in danger simply for existing in public. The stories of Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till and countless other black men remind us that we’re often one bad interaction or misunderstanding away from violence or death. Women experience something similar on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that women and black men should play “Oppression Olympics” when it comes to this subject, or to erase the nuanced ways in which black men and women experience violence in public spaces at the hands of police officers or even one another. And it certainly isn’t to suggest that all women experience violence and brutality in the same ways. Rather, it is to highlight one of the conundrums of trying to support women as they fight back against violence and street harassment while also trying to counter violence against black men.

I know that street harassment isn’t okay, but it’s also not okay to assume a man is dangerous because he’s black. Black men are by no means the only group that engages in this kind of reprehensible behavior, but that fact shouldn’t be used to dismiss the experiences of women across the world.

So, what’s the answer? What should I do when I’m walking behind or passing a woman late at night on the street?

I still have no idea.

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Why #BlackLivesMatter Matters

In this guest post, Dr. Betsy Lucal reflects on the importance of #blacklivvesmatter.  Dr. Betsy Lucal teaches sociology and women’s and gender studies at Indiana University South Bend. This is her first blog.

 

When I heard this morning that Hillary Clinton went to Iowa and said, “All lives matter,” I knew I could be silent no longer. When I heard Bernie Sanders on NPR insisting that “lives matter,” I knew I had to speak up.

To insist that all lives matter, to refuse to say–unequivocally–that BLACK LIVES MATTER is to deny the specificity of the pain African Americans feel right now. It is to deny the specificity of the pain African Americans have felt for centuries.

To insist that all lives matter is, for me, the most blatant statement of white privilege that someone could utter right here, right now. To refuse to say–explicitly, specifically–that BLACK LIVES MATTER is to deny history, to ignore the present, and to accept a future where black lives continue not to matter.

When I heard about the massacre in Charleston, I was angry, sad, outraged, embarrassed… But I was not surprised. And, that, too, is a reflection of white privilege. That, too, is a reflection of just how much black lives have not mattered, do not matter, and cannot matter in a white-dominated, white-centered, white-identified society like ours.

Writing in The New York Times, philosopher Shannon Sullivan explained: “America is fundamentally shaped by white domination, and as such it does not care about the lives of black people, period. It never has, it doesn’t now and it makes me wonder about whether it ever will.” That statement has been part of the signature on my emails since the moment I read it. Until then, I had not seen this truth rendered so eloquently, so brutally, so honestly.

Thinking about the deaths of Cynthia Hurd, Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson and Daniel Simmons, Sr. makes me sick to my stomach. It makes me want to cry. It makes me want to wail and scream and fall into a pit of despair.

But then I heard about how Bible study began again last night at Emanuel AME, just a week after their deaths. I heard a member of the church talk about how the AME church welcomes everyone. I hear black folks saying, yet again, that we must not give up; that we must not give in to hate. And I know that despair is not the answer. Honesty is.

And honesty requires a long, hard look at the past, present and future of race in the United States. Honesty requires us to consider how Charleston is both the home of this church and the home of slave auctions. You see, I visited Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church once. I beheld the beauty of this place where people have worshipped since 1816. As soon as I heard about the murders and where they took place, I thought, “I’ve been there.” As soon as I saw pictures of the outside of the building, my heart sank again. I had been there. And, as I recalled standing there, looking around at the beautiful space, I couldn’t help but think about the location that was next on that tour of Charleston.

From Emanuel AME, we went to the site of Charleston’s pre-Civil War slave auctions. We stood on a street corner and heard about how Africans had once been auctioned at that very spot.

It is because of that history that we must—if we mean it—say BLACK LIVES MATTER. Given that history, given that legacy, given the countless deaths of black people at the hands of white people, we must be willing to say BLACK LIVES MATTER. If anything is ever going to change, we must understand why saying BLACK LIVES MATTER is a necessity right now.

We must say this not because other lives do not matter. We must say this because our actions have shown generations of Black folks that their lives do not matter, that their pain does not count, that the lives taken from them deserved to be lost.

Africans who died on slave ships bound for the United States, Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, John Crawford… The list grows ever, sickeningly, longer. These lives were not “lost”; they were taken. All of these lives were taken for no reason other than the belief that white people are better, more deserving, more important, more worthy.

Saying BLACK LIVES MATTER is not enough. Not by a long shot. We must act as if BLACK LIVES MATTER. And unless we do, we must accept that saying all lives matter will never be enough. Because it only reminds us that they don’t.

For more information on #blacklivesmatter see http://blacklivesmatter.com.  

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