Years ago, at my first job interview I was asked which aspect of race, class, gender, and sexuality I paid the least attention to in my teaching and research. I was not prepared for this question. My go-to answer, probably like most candidates’ answers, was that I really worked to be sure that I covered all of these aspects in my teaching. Each time I named one, I would second-guess that answer and talk myself out of it--my rambling process made awkwardly verbal. Race was central. So was gender. Class cannot be separated from race. I think I finally settled on sexuality, but I didn’t really have a good explanation for why. I could say out loud that I didn't focus on sexuality because I was not ready to be "out."
There were many reasons I did not get that job. One of those reasons could have been my lack of development as a scholar. I had not yet written my dissertation. I was still trying to figure out exactly what I should concentrate my work on, exactly which sub-field I should seek employment in. I was also naïve about politics and appearances. Because I was a white woman seeking a position in African American studies, I was immediately discounted by most of the students and potential colleagues that I met. The political climate--and the students' raw need for a professor of color--created a pretty tense situation, and understandably so. My intersectional approach, my commitment to diversity and social justice, my excellent teaching record, my published book and many conference presentations, the respect I had earned among my colleagues at my home institution--none of these mattered.
I was only what my appearance reflected, and my discount-store suit, untamed frizzy hair, and overall lack of polish didn't help. As much as I wanted a job, I knew that this job was not for me (and I was right; it was a failed search). I could not be the person they wanted and, in fact, each constituency--the students, the faculty, the administration--wanted a different person. The students wanted a black person who could understand where students of color were coming from. The faculty wanted a scholar who understood intersectionality within and beyond African American studies. And the administration wanted a person of color that they could parade around as a symbol of diversity. I was only one of these people, and I wanted my work to speak for itself.
Through my work, I have matured as a scholar and have come into my own; I feel (mostly) confident, especially in my abilities as a teacher, and especially in my interdisciplinary/intersectional approach. My work has grown from my educational foundations in American studies, women's studies, and comparative ethnic studies, and has given me the tools to write about Hip-Hop, literature, television, pedagogy, and so much more. I have also had the privilege to reconcile my personal and political interests through my work related to my book, Women and Fitness in American Culture, and my current research project about young adult dystopia.
I have found that my specialization is in the connections between and among all of the areas that I (am forced to) work in, but it is not easy to navigate the spaces between and among. As I have continued to teach, research, and write about race, class, gender and sexuality, this interview question--and my inability to answer it--has been at the back of my mind and I have worked hard to be sure that I am doing justice to each tenant of intersectionality, especially in their interlocking/intersecting/overlapping. This is not easy work. But it is work that I am passionate about.
The sexuality aspect of my work has not developed at the same rate as the race, class, or gender components. My radical ideas about sexuality have mostly stayed at the fringes of my work and the edges of my life. I have been afraid to engage with sexuality as a component of intersectionality for a variety of reasons, mostly because it is difficult to come out as something specific when I am still struggling to understand myself. I have not engaged this vector of intersectionality because I have the privilege to ignore it.
Just like my whiteness dictated how I was perceived as a candidate for a job teaching about race, my assumed heterosexuality means that I don't have to worry about being judged, belittled, or dismissed because my gender and sexuality are queer. I can stay silent and let people assume what they want to. Many times in the past people have assumed I am a lesbian (or so I have been told). I don't wear a wedding ring. I teach women's studies. I talk about my dog but not my partner/husband. I must be a lesbian, right?
But the beauty of the work that I do is that I have the freedom to explore my personal and scholarly interests from a variety of angles. I can rework the pieces and fill in the gaps. Recently I decided—for personal and professional reasons—that I need to bolster that sexuality piece of the puzzle. So, being the academic nerd that I am, I selected a number of books and started my own little reading/research/writing project.
I find time to read these books in the spaces in between my other work and they have already begun to inform my teaching and my thinking. They have already helped me to know myself better, to feel more confident in who I am, to feel less shame is being queer. So, when I have some spaces, I will share some of these books and the interesting intersections they push and pull. I am not sure exactly where this project will lead, but I am excited for the ride.