In April 2015, I spoke on a panel on intellectual activism during the Parren Mitchell Symposium at the University of Maryland. That is the professional turf of Patricia Hill Collins -- foremother of black feminist theory and author of On Intellectual Activism -- so you know it was a significant event. One of the many impactful moments was a comment from fellow panelist Brittney Cooper:
“I think that there’s far too much intellectual cowardice in the academy … folks see injustices going down, and they won’t say anything about it … We want folks to stand up for us, but we’re always calculating that it’s too risky for us to stand with somebody else. I think that that’s a problem.”
Cooper also described the ways in which she and other Crunk Feminist Collective bloggers supported women of color scholars who come under attack by hate groups, the public, media, politicians and even fellow academics. Such attacks are an inevitable occupational hazard for many women of color in the academy because of the critical nature of their scholarship, teaching, public writing and advocacy. While those intellectuals take risks to challenge the status quo in the ivory tower and beyond, they are often surrounded by colleagues who become bystanders (or even perpetrators) when the hate mail, threats, online harassment and calls for termination come in.
Cooper’s comments about “intellectual cowardice” struck me. Indeed, fear has been central to my academic training and career. As a graduate student, I worried that I would lose the approval of fair-weather mentors and therefore be delayed in my advancement, forced to quit or not be granted the best professional opportunities. As a tenure-track professor, I have frequently wrestled with the tension between ensuring job security and fighting for my well-being vis-à-vis efforts to liberate racial, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities. Although I bucked tradition in myriad ways, my default state has been fear and self-doubt -- safe, yet soul crushing.
Ironically, by its very nature, academe is a profession of risk taking and boundary breaking. Yet professors regularly train their graduate students to become just like them (because most things worked well for them). Senior colleagues regularly advise tenure-track colleagues against “rocking the boat” to avoid jeopardizing their eligibility for tenure and promotion. Perhaps most frustrating is watching many of those people with the most power and security (e.g., tenured professors and administrators) desperately cling to what is they deem safe (for themselves).
“But Some of Us are Brave”
In naming the norm of cowardice in academe, we should also acknowledge its antithesis: academic bravery. Academic bravery challenges the status quo, crosses boundaries and breaks new ground. In essence, being a brave academic entails refusing to prioritize self-serving interests at the expense of knowledge production and social justice. Rather than avoiding risky endeavors to protect one’s position and status, a brave academic uses her position, status and expertise to effectively advance knowledge and equity, despite the risks.
In an otherwise risk-averse profession, I have consistently witnessed incredible courage in colleagues whom I considered to be among the most vulnerable: women of color. In my 2016 essay on The Feminist Wire “Black Feminism Will Save My Life,” I wrote something of an ode to a just a handful of the entrepreneurial, brave and innovative black women academics who have inspired me as a budding black feminist scholar activist. I frequently find myself asking, “Wait, we can do that?” as I hear news of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s latest book(s), media appearances and high-profile elected and appointed positions. I anxiously await seeing Christen Smith’s #CiteBlackWomen project grow into a full-fledged academic movement. And countless other women of color academics have taken incredible risks in pursuit of knowledge and justice, despite having relatively little power and status in higher education.
To publicly document and celebrate the bravery of women of color academics, I co-edited an anthology with my friend and fellow “Conditionally Accepted” blogger, Manya C. Whitaker. In our edited volume, Counternarratives From Women of Color Academics: Bravery, Vulnerability, and Resistance (Routledge 2019), Whitaker and I bear witness to the ways in which American Indian, Asian, Latina and black women take risks in their work as scholars and scholar activists. These 28 women intellectuals grace the pages of the edited volume with testimonials and testimonios of thriving (not merely surviving) in oppressive academic institutions, of defining professional success on their own terms and of leveraging their positions in the academy to advocate for racial justice and gender equality.
Many of our contributors share awe-inspiring stories of speaking truth to power while having little, if any, power of their own. For example, Tayler J. Mathews details her unwavering determination to hold her graduate institution accountable when she felt that it failed to take seriously her formal report of sexual harassment. She filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education even as she felt faculty members retaliated against her for speaking up.
Matthews notes, “Although you may feel afraid because of the circumstances you are encountering, I am convinced that fear does not have to immobilize you. Fear is normal.” This assurance to readers highlights that this project -- to recognize and celebrate brave women of color academics -- is not to suggest that they do not (or should not) simultaneously experience fear. Rather, they consistently make the choice to let fear mobilize, not paralyze, them.
Our contributors’ essays are not reckless or impulsive. Their narratives explicitly describe their thought processes as they approached risk, highlighting the calculations they made, the precautions they took and the allies, co-conspirators and mentors whom they relied upon for support. For example, Roxanna Harlow’s essay on leaving a tenured faculty position to start a nonprofit (Higher Learning Inc.) offers a useful road map for academics to gradually develop their own businesses and organizations.
To our surprise, our definition of bravery was challenged in the process of editing this anthology. Our understanding of bravery expanded to recognize and celebrate collective acts of bravery, not just those of an individual alone. For example, Janelle M. Silva’s heartfelt essay describes the mutually supportive relationships she built with student activists, together working to promote diversity and inclusion on their campus. Our contributors also opened our eyes to the ways in which being vulnerable is a form of bravery -- in particular, by refusing to conform to academe’s emotional norm of stoicism and faux objectivity. We learned that embracing one’s vulnerabilities is perhaps one of the bravest things you can do.
Academic Bravery in an Era of Fear
If our profession is to survive in these uncertain times, adopting an ethos of academic bravery is crucial. Government support for colleges and universities continues to decline while the number of Ph.D.s in underpaid contingent positions keeps rising. Public faith in higher education has begun to wane, perhaps the intended consequence of heightened attacks on scholars’ academic freedom and free speech.
We cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand as our institutions are under assault. The women of color who shared their stories in our anthology are true models for what it means to be a brave academic in an era of fear. We must learn from them, celebrate them and then follow them into a future of academic bravery.