Navigating the Dialectic of Privilege and Oppression

Jennifer M. Gómez writes of her tendency as a new faculty member of color to highlight the systemic wrongs she's experienced while ignoring the potential for change her position now allows.

September 13, 2019

“If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.” -- Audre Lorde

As the new school year begins, many of us are starting new roles as tenure-track assistant professors. There are multiple ways to be oppressed and disempowered as a junior scholar of color. But at the same time, life in a coveted tenure-track faculty position is also a position of relative privilege and power, perhaps especially over students’ grades and even career trajectories. It is this dialectic of oppression/privilege that I am preparing to navigate as a new junior faculty of color this year.

As a black woman academic with a specialty in the impact of violence on marginalized youth, I have become well versed in identifying the ways in which academe discriminates against people like me. They include: 1) experiencing discrimination on the job market, 2) receiving peer reviews with sprinkles of bias, 3) enduring the barrage of condescension from faculty members and students, 4) being sexualized and exoticized by other scholars, and 5) feeling isolated in battles for true diversity and equality in research.

What I find far less comfortable is my increasing awareness of the power and privilege that I also have and the responsibility that this privilege engenders.

Sitting in awareness of my own unearned privilege makes me skittish. And defensive. I, like everyone, am not unidimensional. Just as black feminist resistance is found in spaces of oppression, I find certain elements of privilege uncomfortable to acknowledge in the midst of my marginalization.

And so the dialectic goes:

I am light skinned, but I am black. I hold a Ph.D., but I am an early career scholar. I am a faculty member at an institution I love, but I had to do a postdoc first despite my qualifications. I have tangible soft power interpersonally but very little hard power structurally. I am highly respected where I work, but I still get talked down to by colleagues who don’t know me. I am empathized with when I express concern of being painted as the one who will fix all diversity-related problems, but I am consistently asked to do service not requested from other colleagues.

My instinct is to abdicate all responsibility that my newfound power and privilege affords me, while lying in the cut of the oppression. That is, a part of me would prefer to highlight the systemic wrongs I experience while ignoring all the potential for systemic change that my privilege allows me.

Upon reflection, I realize I owe much to myself, my field, my department, my research institute, my students and my colleagues. It is incumbent upon me to live and learn within my dialectic of oppression and privilege. Indeed, the onus is on me to be open to navigating the academic world with a deep understanding of my ever-shifting power and privilege.

Doing so is perhaps made more possible -- and more uncomfortable -- by what my privilege affords me the ability to do. From the privileges in the dialectic I’ve just described to my former career as a ballet dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem and my upper-middle-class background, I am able to fit, in some ways, within the elite ivory tower. For instance, I can successfully advocate both publicly and behind the scenes for inclusivity in a way in which I can be heard. I can help create spaces in my laboratory, departmental discussions and colloquia where inclusion of diverse thoughts and perspectives is normalized.

Although I can never be the hero who can make everything better for everyone all the time, I know that, because of my position as a faculty member, there is hope for systemic change.

Together, my colleagues, my students and I can use the tools at our disposal -- accountability circles, racial healing collectives, radical intergroup coalitions and the like -- to make academe more inclusive. And I myself can co-create spaces for accountability, forgiveness and healing that will encourage others to persevere through the challenges of navigating an academic system that alternates between accepting and disrespecting marginalized scholars.

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Jennifer M. Gómez is an assistant professor at Wayne State University in the department of psychology and Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child & Family Development. She is the co-editor of an upcoming special issue of Journal of Trauma & Dissociation: Discrimination, Violence & Healing in Marginalized Communities (deadline for submissions: Dec. 1, 2019).


Jennifer M. Gómez

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