Forbidden Knowledge, Collective Action, and Marginalization in Academia

I recently attended the Eastern Sociological Society annual meeting to present a paper. That paper was proposing an Africana Sociology that would use African epistemology and social thought to reimagine the sociological enterprise. My primary task at the conference was to gauge interest in such a topic so that I could get a feel for how scientifically useful/well received (interesting how those things are often the same) the project could be if I expanded it into a dissertation project. Lucky for me and my future career it was well received and in that I was very happy. My other purpose for being there was to find a reason to stay in sociology. That task wasn’t fully conscious for me until after the conference but was driven by the many bad experiences me and my peers have had in academia thus far. As I talked with people and watched presentations I realized for myself  that in 2014 the fact that we’re still being abused in academia is often related to the fact that we often aren’t speaking up as much as we should and in many places POC academics aren’t organized enough to protect themselves over the long term.

The major experience that triggered these thoughts for me was a session that had two scholars detail the experience of marginalization that POC scholars experience. The first one concluded that in many ways racism and racial aggressions are very real for POC faculty and that those experiences to contribute to high levels of mental stress and alienation. The other talk hit closer to home for me where the scholar talked about her experience as a graduate student in the last 70’s I believe. What struck me was that it sounded EXACTLY like my experiences and that of others I know. For whatever material progress we’ve made in increasing POC percentages of the academic community, we as students in the trenches don’t seem to have it any easier than our predecessors did 40 years ago. How can that be? Shouldn’t we have it easier because others have gone through it already and know what’s it like?

From those questions I talked with many of the older black sociologists and let me tell you, sociologists know how to gossip and pass information. I learned about departments where they are purposefully sabotaging POC faculty, places where sexual and hate crimes have been committed without consequence, and places where POC grad students are under siege. In addition I found out about people and programs which are the exact opposite which serve as safe spaces for POCs and other marginalized people. My response was first thankfulness for the information, but then it turned to “why don’t I know this already?”

If you were describing your city to a newcomer you would likely tell them to be careful of being out at night for instance because they might get robbed. Let’s suppose that you knew exactly were all the thieves existed in the city, wouldn’t you tell that person that information? Wouldn’t you feel liable if you didn’t tell them that information, they went into one of those areas and got robbed? This is our problem in academia today. We write blog posts, articles, and give presentations about situations where people are marginalized often without mentioning any of the perpetrators by name. As people new to academia we hear these stories and want to be cautious but have no idea where these danger zones exist. We feel around in the dark until we find a flashlight or get sneaked attacked and many of us don’t survive those attacks.  This is one of the key problems we have today; we speak up about oppression more, but we aren’t calling out our abusers so others can avoid them or prepare themselves….and it’s costing people their health, spirits, and careers.

Why don’t we call people out? The most obvious reason is retaliation. On one hand we know that we have a responsibility to speak up for ourselves and peers as marginalized people but we also know if we ever dared call out as an example a white male professor for his racism that he often has the power to end us. The power of privilege in academia, especially the social sciences, is immense. The power to fail a student on the qualifying exams, vote against tenure for an “unprofessional” scholar, turn down a paper from someone conducting “mesearch”, or make a tenured faculty’s life so miserable that they quit is what is used to make sure that we don’t break the silence on who is perpetuating bias and abuse against us and our peers.

african-american-man-taped-mouth-300This forbidden knowledge that is often spread through gossip, like I heard, is powerful too and we need to begin using it to defend ourselves. Our fear of retaliation from our privileged peers is anchored in the fact that all too often marginalized scholars aren’t organized enough politically to survive in the long term. We are often one of -insert single digit number- marginal people in a department and thus have few people to support us if things go south. They count on us to feel powerless because we are alone in our institutions. This means that even if they can’t openly attack us, they can be assured in the war of attrition between their bigotry and our mental health, that we will eventually lose. Our only way out is to not to only look to our individual institutions for support but reach out to others elsewhere. There are many people who are doing just this, but there are also many others who are stuck in corners by themselves. Publication2

As marginalized scholars we have to organize ourselves to transmit this forbidden knowledge about abuse and ways of resisting to the next generation of scholars and those who are currently isolated. This form of organization must be robust and consistent in seeking out students especially so that they have the early career support they need to survive. Our already existing organizations need to do better in supporting scholars who want to speak up and fight back and not simply give them a shoulder to cry on. We need a stronger community of scholars who realize that if the information we have doesn’t reach those who need it, it might as well not be there. And lastly we need to realize that we are still only conditionally accepted in academia and often that acceptance is temporary. We can’t keep affording to be polite in the face of attacks against us because contrary to the myth of perpetual/inevitable social progress, things can get worse and that is a future I’d rather avoid. Although the idea of open resistance is dangerous in many ways for us individually, it may be more dangerous for ALL of us in the long-term to not do so.

In reflecting on what I wrote above, I see how important things like Conditionally Accepted’s list of resources and other resources really are to all of our continued survival and progress in academia. We have to embrace the concept of collective action and seriously invest in organizations that already exist to support us. Knowing what I know about how sociology and other academic disciplines work, I want to make sure the next set of scholars know where they can access information, affirmation of their experiences, and support. Nobody should have to feel around in the dark when we have so many flashlights to shine the light on things. cropped-rebel-researcer-logo.jpg


6 thoughts on “Forbidden Knowledge, Collective Action, and Marginalization in Academia

    1. Thanks! My real concern is how likely is it that we’re going to put this into active use. i want to find ways to integrate these insights into my work going forward so that we can really start making change in the spaces we inhabit.


  1. Refuge … exhale… Thank you for creating this space and for putting a name to the pain we’re experiencing… I’m ready to write about what’s been going on. Thank you for providing a forum where people will hear me and learn from my experiences as I learn from theirs and find out where the danger lurks!


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