The Very Serious Function of Racism in Academia

I feel so hurt and I feel so scared.

I feel hurt because in my professional life I have encountered awful experiences of racism as of late. I feel scared because if I share these experiences, people may hurt me further. They may gaslight me and say I exaggerate. They may stereotype me as the angry queer academic of color, when my anger, a justified anger, stems from having experienced racism. I feel sad, too, because I wish I could share specifics about what has happened on this blog like I often do, but right now, my fear of retribution – that someone will find this blog and attack me for my sharing – makes me unwilling to provide specifics.

This processing takes up time. Experiencing the racism, then processing it, seeking social support about it, healing from it – all these steps take up time. Time that I could use to mentor students, learn more therapy techniques, produce more research. Toni Morrison once wrote that “the function, the very serious function of racism is distraction.” Distraction: as I sit and write this post, I wonder how much more I could contribute to the world’s healing if I did not need to spend as much time healing myself.

very serious function of racism toni morrison quote from goodreads

The full Toni Morrison quote, from Goodreads. I love it.

When I feel hurt and scared, I have to remind myself why I decided to pursue my path. I did not choose to pursue a graduate degree in Psychology because I want to see my name in prestigious journals and on big grants, nor did I pursue this degree so that every single person in my program or field would like me though even writing that scares me because if someone in my professional life sees that they would interpret that as me not caring about collegiality, when my feeling pertains more to staying true to my values even if that offends people who hold racist or oppressive viewpoints. I chose this path because I want to help others help themselves, whether that happens through the therapy I give or the mentoring I provide or the research I conduct. I have always aspired to work as a psychologist so I can spend my time making a difference in the world, not so I could spend my time pleading with people to stop discriminating against me. When I remind myself of my purpose, I feel a renewed energy, a commitment that I will not give up on my journey as a healer, no matter who tries to stop me.

I wish I could say I do not feel afraid. But I do feel afraid, and I will do what I came to do anyway. I am most afraid that I myself will internalize and perpetuate the nasty ways people with more power have treated me. Audre Lorde once wrote that “the true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.” With this in mind, I will keep doing my best to practice compassion and gentleness and not abuse. I will continue reading about feminist mentoring styles and therapy, I will invite students and clients to share feedback with me without getting defensive, and I will always examine the ways in which I may participate in oppression, even without intent.

I feel hurt and scared. I know, though, that I am not alone. Unfortunately, so many others experience discrimination in work and in life. However, many of these people have shown so much courage as of late, ranging from those discussing trauma in graduate school generally to specific forms of abuse such as the sexual harassment case at Dartmouth. I hope that one day I will have the courage to join their voices, and until then, I will do my best to act as a supportive and justice-minded presence in the background, behind the scenes. When we join forces and raise our voices against oppression, I feel hope that we will change the world.

pachinko min jin lee bad man and power quote from goodreads

A quote that expresses how I feel beautifully, about how we should wield our power with caution and gentleness. Screenshot from Goodreads.

Any words of wisdom, support, solidarity, etc. from those who have experienced similar situations would be appreciated. Or, thoughts and feelings in general about discrimination, racism, and oppression. Though this semester has been off to a rough start, I feel so grateful for my close friends, my mentors, and the community I have outside of my graduate program who have given me so much compassion and strength during these trying times. Until next post.



Filed under Personal, Society

6 responses to “The Very Serious Function of Racism in Academia

  1. You’re a gentle soul, Thomas, and you’re dealing with the racism in your life in gentle ways. I understand that this is you, and I admire your determination to win on your own terms. Nevertheless, I truly believe that racism is also a form of bullying, and you are allowed to feel angry about that.

    Even if you don’t show the anger to /them/, embrace it for yourself. Use it to strengthen your belief in yourself. Use it to strengthen your courage when the dark times hit.

    I truly hope that one day, it won’t be necessary to feel either anger or hurt at the words and actions of a few weak and cowardly bullies. Be strong. -hugs-

  2. They try to box me up, box me in, box me out. As a “boxer,” they’re in *their* box trying to unbox themselves. This is internalized capitalism, reflecting scarcity and grabbing hold of the -isms… racism, classism, etc., to put others down, often unconsciously because it’s so internalized.

    I feel like an important distinction that helps me is to separate the person from the ideology, even if it’s a small consolation, it makes me less bitter to know that what i’m up against is much bigger than 1 person, but is the result of hundreds of years of glorified exploitation and that has its own momentum and like you said, that only a mass movement can begin to replace albeit with both losses and victories.

    Obvious but not obvious, being boxed sucks for everyone, even if it’s white working class ppl tearing down black folks instead of uniting against landlords. Where are the points of unity? I feel like taking a few steps back is a worthwhile approach to consider, one I think Sandra Kim has outlined very well for nonprofit-but-not-academia contexts to create space for humanity in ordinarily life-compartmentalizing/silencing norms by struggling foremost for a shared process (

    Love your work Thomas. Your words and cultivated kindness have helped me heal significantly. Continue on your path! 🌊🌊🌕 -Alex

  3. you’ve probably heard that quote about how courage isn’t the absence of fear but the judgment that something is more important – so I would argue that this post itself, as well as others you’ve written, demonstrate an abundance of courage. the courage to speak out against systemic injustice, to stand your ground when others try to invalidate your experiences and your worth, to stay vulnerable and kind in a world that can make it so hard to be.

    each new article you post inspires me to follow your example and speak out when I see discrimination and prejudice in my everyday life, and in that way you’re already making a huge difference in the world. I hate that we live in a society that makes these experiences so common, but I love that so many people dare to challenge the heart of the issue. thank you for continuing to write about your truth ❤

  4. I’m sorry that all of this is happening to you.

    You’re right that someone can easily find your blog. If it’s linked to any other social media sites with your name, it won’t take long for someone to see it. I don’t mean to scare you but you probably knew that already. I hope you won’t delete your blog though.

    I’m struggling to come up with some ways to help you. Do you have a mentor(s) at your workplace or in a similar profession that you can go to for advice? You may also have to stay more in tuned with the office politics. I hope you have a good network of peers. Who are the people you can count on? Who can you trust to provide you with some good information? Who can support you, defend you, fight for you, if things take a turn for the worse? Lean on your network for support, information and advice. If you have any political capital – now is the time to use it.

  5. I’m so sorry. You are being courageous in even sharing what you have shared here, in being your own brilliant authentic self and in being a quiet voice for good in the world. It is frightening to stand up and shout things and you should make sure you’re safe before you do so: you don’t feel safe, so don’t get up and shout.

    You do a LOT for intersectionality and tolerance, you really do. And that’s enough.

    I have no (OK, few) experiences of racism as I am privileged there; I have experience of sexism and sometimes I’ve been too fucking scared to do a thing, and sometimes I’ve spoken up loudly and sometimes I’ve gently challenged things. All specific to the situation. I do recall that when I was spat obscenities at as I walked, in a long black coat and beanie hat beside two hijabi sisters, I was profoundly embarrassed that someone who looked like me could do that. I turned and apologised to the two ladies and they said not to. But I was bloody ashamed.

  6. Racism manifests itself in varied dimensions….some blatant…some subtle…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s