Monday, September 30th 2013

Numbness, Vulnerability, Oppression, Privilege on the Tenure Track

In my early reflections on this year’s Purdue Pre-Tenure Conference for Women, I’ve been thinking a lot about this Louis C.K. interview I watched last week:


And this Brene Brown TED talk we watched at the conference Friday:

I have to fight with myself to not numb out with food or social media or television. And I have to fight with myself to be a bit vulnerable in front of others in an academic climate that doesn’t always celebrate people being their authentic selves.

I guess I can’t help but wonder something about these two things. I wonder how much my privilege as a white, middle class person with Ivy League degrees and a tenure-track job makes it easier to operate against that pull towards numbing out, and how much this privilege makes it easier for me to show vulnerability. Stereotype threat – the fear that one is about to confirm a stereotype associated with their identity – certainly looms above me, as a woman, when I show vulnerability. I know too, as I get older, that shows of emotion or vulnerability make me more likely to be cast aside or viewed as hysterical, because once I am less sexually objectified I will become more invisible, which won’t diminish if I choose to be compliant and motherly.

But my whiteness, and the fact that I am in a tenure-track rather than postdoc or contingent faculty position, gives me a lot of room to express my full range of emotions, with fewer stereotype threat repercussions. Think about how much safer it is for me to express my anger, compared to a black woman or man. Or the ease with which I can cancel a class because of a sick child, compared to a contingent faculty member.

Being white and middle class and straight and having a stable job, but also being a woman, and being explicitly in the “probationary period” of my job, creates a very interesting mix of oppressive and privileged experiences. And I can only hope that those of us with those nice privileges can continue to think about what it means to be an ally to those who don’t.

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