On Truth and Subjectivity

Failing to value and respect the types of data that minoritized scholars are collecting -- and the ways we are collecting them -- is a form of silencing us, writes Jackson Wright Shultz.

August 5, 2016

I write my truth.

In fact, my entire goal as a writer and author is to open a bit of my world to others. Many written works about my communities have been distorted or fictionalized, even by sources claiming to provide honest exposés. So when I write about trans communities, I write exclusively nonfiction.

As a nonfiction writer, I attempt to balance the risk of being overly tedious in my writing with the rewards of painting accurate depictions of my communities. True, the rewards are subtle and often come in the form of quiet head nods from the communities that I try to represent. But in a world of sensationalized stories rooted in misconceptions of what it means to be transgender, even the slightest appreciation from other trans and nonbinary individuals is the highest praise.

I write the truths apparent to my communities.

And so do many other minoritized activists and scholars. Yet even when we write about our own lived experiences with discrimination, we are frequently told (even in academic spaces that imagine themselves as accepting) that we are wrong, mistaken, lying, attention seeking or otherwise overly subjective. Want proof? Read the comments section of just about any blog written by minoritized scholars or the types of email sent to women scholars who write about issues like gender and race. I guarantee you will find comments that attempt to correct our supposed misunderstandings of our own experiences, at best, and strip us of our very humanity, at worst.

This notion of subjectivity is the crux of the matter. By virtue of being LGBTQI activists, scholars of color, scholars with disabilities and so on, minority researchers embody a group that is viewed as inherently subjective. In theory, I have no problem with that: subjectivity is incredibly valuable. Acknowledging subjectivity allows researchers to recognize that no one is above bias, and rather than running from our prejudices and partialities, we can confront them head-on. Valuing subjectivity allows us to use methodologies like autoethnography that let us situate our experiences in a broader cultural context. Our subjectivity permits us to delve into a level of research within our communities and cultures that outsiders to our communities would find difficult or impossible to access.

But unfortunately, as a minoritized scholar, my presumed subjectivity has real-world consequences. It affects the types of research I am allowed to conduct. It affects whether my research will be considered empirical, useful and valid. It affects how hard I will have to fight to get approval to carry out my research by the Institutional Review Board. It means that to engage in qualitative methodologies, I have to risk the double jeopardy of conducting subjective research as a supposedly subjective scholar and dealing with the fallout should I attempt to publish research considered by many to be -- as an adviser in my doctoral program put it --“wishy-washy.” It means that the work we do in our own communities may be appropriated by other scholars seen as more objective than ourselves.

Such issues are much more than minor inconveniences. Failing to value and respect the types of data that minoritized scholars are collecting -- and the ways we are collecting them -- is a form of silencing us. When we pioneer methodologies or bring to light cultural knowledge previously or currently rejected as subjective in academic spaces, we are adding our voices to the conversation in the most authentic ways we can. So when our courses are decried as racist toward white students, or when peer-review publications, IRBs and advisers scorn our efforts, or when we are told our writing style does not follow standard (read: white cis masculinist) convention, we are being silenced on a systemic level. Simultaneously, we are being stripped of our authenticity.

I write truths that outsiders to my communities do not see.

I do this in an effort to educate outsiders, yet my labors are often futile. Because outsiders have never witnessed our real-life experiences, they frequently believe that these realities simply cannot be factual. This is a trend I find frightening, as it is rooted in the devaluation of the other. It is rooted in a culture that does not believe survivors of rape and incest are telling the truth about being sexually assaulted. It is rooted in a culture that does not believe people of color when they say they experience violence at the hands of the police. It is rooted in a culture that does not believe trans people are who we say we are.

I write uncomfortable truths.

As academics, we encourage our students to think critically but have difficulty turning that lens upon ourselves. We do not want to consider that our systemic devaluation of subjective research may be rooted in something more than general preference. We don’t want to admit that we are comfortable judging the merit of p values but live in fear of what we cannot easily quantify. We have difficulty accepting that, however inadvertently, we have created an institutional culture that devalues the work of minoritized scholars when we dream ourselves and our colleges to be committed to diversity and pluralism.

If I am going to survive as a scholar activist, I have to believe that this culture is malleable. It’s a culture that we can change from both inside and outside academe. Within the academy, we have a responsibility to take a long and hard look at which bodies we value and which ones we don’t, and ask ourselves why that is. We have to ask ourselves what types of work are worthy of pay, of promotion and of tenure. We have to question what wonderful knowledge we are refusing to publish because it didn’t involve multiple linear regression. We have to ask if we are refusing to further knowledge simply because we don’t agree with how it was collected -- even when that collection was ethical. If and when our responses do not align with the current structural realities of our institutions, we have to ask ourselves what we can do to change these patterns.

I take risks to write these truths.

I know that writing in such public forums could adversely impact my career. I have learned that I have many privileges that afford me the option of being out as a trans academic. I have accepted that, simply by virtue of who I am, writing about my own communities will always be considered subjective. I recognize that until we have massively reformed our valuation of methodological practices, my status as a researcher and the research that I conduct will be considered suspect and subject to additional scrutiny. I know that, on such a systemic level, rethinking which types of research matter and are worthy of publication will be a long, slow process.

But still, I write my truth.

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Jackson Wright Shultz is an activist, educator and the author of Trans/Portraits: Voices From Transgender Communities. As the education director for the Trans Education, Activism, Community & Health (TEACH) Alliance, he has spoken throughout the country on contemporary issues in transgender communities. When not working with the TEACH Alliance, Shultz teaches composition and creative writing courses at New England College. He is an alumnus of Washington State University and Dartmouth College, and a current doctoral student at New England College.


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