author – activist – faculty – mom
This past Tuesday, I was one of many black women who took to social media to push back against racism and sexism. It all started when Fox TV creep Bill O’Reilly sought to undermine the powerful anti-Trump message of black Congresswoman Maxine Waters by insulting her hair. Later that day, U.S. Press Secretary Sean Spicer demanded that African American veteran journalist April Ryan “stop shaking her head” in response to an answer he gave. Waters and Ryan both had their own sharp responses. And this level of disrespect inspired activist Brittany Packnett, VP of Teach for America to fire back via social media, starting the Twitter hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork. She called out the everyday racism and sexism that we, as black women face, and invited us to share our experiences. Soon, the hashtag was trending. I thought I was late to the party, but Tuesday night, I rattled off a couple of tweets about how this affects my life as a teacher and a writer.
Three days later, it’d been liked over three thousand time, and retweeted over a thousand. The tweet appeared in HuffingtonPost, MTV news, and Mashable. But it also led to some interesting trolling and conversation.
First were the people who just insulted me. But then there were people, both positive and negative, who said I should tell people I am a professor.
The positive (mostly black) folks suggested that I should proudly lead with it. The negative (mostly white) folks were essentially negating my suggestion that racism and or sexism was at work here, and blaming me for the responses I got.
When someone asks me what I do, I answer with a verb, “I teach.” To say “I am a professor” feels like a declaration of status. Like if you asked someone what they did, and they could have said “I’m in tech,” but instead chose to say “I’m a VP.” It feels pretentious to me.
It ‘s also not true. I’m not a professor. I’m a lecturer, part of the permanent underclass at colleges and universities. There are many names for this category of worker in academia: adjunct, temporary, etc. What it means is that we do much of the same work as tenure track faculty, but we get paid much less, have fewer benefits, much less job security and much less access to funding and other career advancement resources. Our underclass status is permanent, because once we enter a university system in this category, there is little or no chance for us to move onto the other track. We may find ourselves with higher degrees, more experience or better evaluations than those who outrank us. It doesn’t matter. The system is designed to keep us in our lane. Those who defend the academic labor status quo can offer many explanations to justify this massive inequality. However, any attempt to find merit-based justifications don’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s simple: in order to keep salaries high for the top faculty and administrators, undergraduate education needs to be carried out by low-paid faculty labor. And in an uncertain job market and a difficult economy, there are always workers who will accept exploited labor conditions. I’m fortunate to have a union, so my situation is better than many.
But back to #BlackWomenAtWork. What should I tell people when they ask what I do? “I’m a lecturer?” I didn’t know what a lecturer was before I became one. If someone had said that to me, I would think they meant motivational speaker or something. I could say “I’m on the faculty at UC Berkeley.” Again, it sounds like a status declaration, and it’s a mouthful. So I just say “I teach.”
And as a union worker, part of that decision is about declaring solidarity with all teachers. When I complain about being mistaken for teachers of a lower status, I made it clear that I don’t agree with the status hierarchy, yet I was criticizing the inability of some people to imagine a black woman at the top of a status hierarchy.
But my critics on twitter have one thing right: in my everyday interactions, I’m not going to lead with my UC Berkeley credentials. This, I think, is the most complex piece here about class and education. My daughter goes to a very working class public school. While the school is committed to making sure all of their students are college bound, many of their parents are not college educated. In a classist society, more wealthy people are presumed to be smarter, and school systems are notorious for failing poor and working class young people. And not just failing them, traumatizing them. Most students, even many middle-class students, carry traumas from school that they’re not smart enough. So to say that I teach at an elite university, even an elite public one, feels like an intellectual declaration of war when I first meet someone. So I say I teach.
I also don’t say “I’m a novelist” when I first meet people, unless I’m among writers, although I do aspire to out-earn my teaching with my writing someday.
But even in my fiction, I’m still concerned with working people. My debut series of feminist heist novels, Justice Hustlers, focuses on a group of sex workers who run a women’s health clinic. In the first book, UPTOWN THIEF (2016), they conspired to heist a billionaire. In the second book, THE BOSS (5/30/17) they are supporting the unionization efforts of a group of exotic dancers whose chain of strip clubs is being run by the mob. But the book is also about black women and upward mobility. The protagonist, Tyesha, is facing many levels of backlash with her rise from poverty on Chicago’s Southside to her professional career in New York.
I feel a strong connection to Tyesha’s struggle as an upwardly mobile black woman. Our personal successes are hard-won, but they are bittersweet, because the economy is only designed for a few of us to be able to move up. Economic stability and prosperity are out of reach for many worldwide, but a small percentage of those who move up can be identified as success stories. The myth is that they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, but generally they are able to take advantage of tiny windows of opportunity when they open up. My mother, for example, was raised poor, and was only able to go to college through the GI Bill, because her father was in the service.
My own current life is a mix of different class realities. My family rents rather than owning our home. Up until recently, we didn’t have a reliable car. Yet, as I move up from the working class, I’m not interested in casting my lot anywhere else. So I say “I teach.” And because I’m black and female, that will conjure a picture for many that looks more like childcare and less like guiding young adult leaders.
In contexts when I’m feeling particularly like being specific, I say “I teach college.” I like the ring of that. It reflects the mix of class realities of my life. But mostly I say “I teach,” because I stand in solidarity with all teachers. With all workers. And particularly with all black women, who get so much push back when we assert our collective brilliance, power, and fierceness anywhere in the world, and particularly at work.