Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Woman of Color's Reflections on the 2015 American Sociological Association Meeting #ASA15

by Sharon H Chang

Words never suffice, but if I had to describe what I do in one word it would be "writer". That one strand of six letters does me best, right now anyway, because I wear a lot of writer hats and other labels just don't solo-suit. I write as a blogger. I write as an editorialist. I write as a critic and commentator. But I also write as a journalist. I write as a researcher. And I write as an independent scholar and book author (i.e. not affiliated to any specific college or university).

As the latter I've gone to several academic conferences over the last couple years. The most recent being the American Sociological Association (ASA) Meeting in Chicago, August 22-25. The ASA Meeting is by far the biggest conference I've attended to-date. It's huge, HUGE, representing around 600 program sessions, 3,000 research papers and 4,600 presenters. The scope is overwhelming, enormous, gargantuan. It's a place where a lot of big name sociologists as well as up-and-coming sociologists present their research for the first time. It's prestigious, internationally attended, and sort of a "gold standard" for folks in that field. Which certainly shows how massive the field of sociology is.

So. What was it like for a feminist of color, multi-hat, independent "writer" (who writes on systemic racism, mixed race, the Asian American diaspora, and is unattached to academia) to go to this annual academic ASA Meeting for the first time? Well. I'll tell you...

It wasn't that different from every day life.

Same game. Same boundaries. Same rules.

I saw what I see everywhere else. White supremacy. Dodging conversations about white supremacy. Radical thinkers in the margins, or not there at all. One sociologist who I had just met (and was drunk) asked me to help get them access to the Asian American community for their research. Another researcher asked, when they found out I was independent, why I was there at all. I watched a male scholar sneer about "feminism" at dinner. I barely heard anyone mention #BlackLivesMatter. When I went to a major session on U.S. racism and  "the coming white minority" there was, maybe, one other Asian person in the room. When I searched the online program for sessions on Asian Americans, of which there were many, the bulk were on international and immigrant Asians. Of thousands of sessions and papers I could count on two hands the number addressing mixed race issues.

It wasn't that different from every day life. 
Same game. Same boundaries. Same rules.

I saw suits, ties, white-collared shirts, crisp floral print dresses, expensive handbags, blouses and pumps. I listened to PhDs, the elite educated who represent a microscopic 1.6 percent of the nation's population, talk in numbers and statistics -- not stories -- about the oppressed, the deported, the incarcerated, the brutalized. I listened to these elite talk about the disenfranchised in hotels where rooms cost around 200 dollars a night and a 6 ounce glass of wine at the bar costs 16 dollars or more. Meanwhile almost every single hotel worker I saw, excluding the front desk, was a person of color and half said hello to me in accented English. Both times I rode cabs the drivers were immigrants. One told me when he first came to America with his wife and son and 65 dollars in his pocket after fleeing civil war in his home country, US police pulled him over twice in three days and searched his car both times.

On the flip side I heard too often from scholars themselves that academic reviewers/gatekeepers (for things like theses, dissertations, journal articles, books, etc.) had questioned, stalled, or completely blocked much-needed research on oppression. So much so that the scholars gave up and never did the project. I also heard that sociologists-in-training are pushed to take classes in quantitative analysis (i.e. surveys, numbers, statistics) but that classes in qualitative analysis (i.e. interviewing, oral histories, storytelling) are highly devalued and barely exist. I asked many young tenure-track professors how they liked their faculty positions at various colleges and universities across the nation. Two thirds took pause then answered, "Fine," or, "It's good," politely with a flat expression.

I listened to really smart people talk about really smart things but could barely pay attention because there was no passion. I listened to a lot of big, smart, fancy words about big things that every day people face and couldn't help thinking about civil rights and inaccessibility; about class domination through rhetoric, language, academize. I wondered, why would we train our brightest to speak on sweeping social issues in a way that only 1.6 percent of the population can understand? I worried about the distance of elite sociology from the people. The mathematical prowess it takes to generate sociological surveys and stats was definitely impressive, but where were the stories of people's real lived lives? The real social reality. You can't measure the infinite value of a person's agency and expertise in their own story of oppression.

It was an important motivating reminder that there is still a big fight to be fought...and one of the most vital parts of undoing is not letting barriers stop us wherever we are

I don't want to end on a super downer note. That wouldn't be fair at all. I met incredible thinkers who have produced, and continue to produce, incredible work. I was inspired by them, rejuvenated, re-energized, revitalized. It's always good to know there are others out there fighting the fight in the ways they can. Am I glad I went to the ASA Meeting? Definitely yes. I learned a lot and met great people. Did I find it a safe space as an unconventional scholar, independent writer, activist, and feminist of color? No. Did I feel free to speak from my heart and as the person I really am? No. Was I on guard? Yes. Wouldn't that sort of preclude me going again? No. I would totally go again. Like I said, not that different from every day life. It wasn't a smooth road and there was lots of crap in the way yet there were still kernels of truth and diamonds in the rough. Finding special others to work with and rise in solidarity with, was absolute magic. And it was an important motivating reminder that there is still a big fight to be fought, the systemic oppressions we work to undo pervade everywhere, and one of the most vital parts of that undoing is not letting those barriers stop us wherever we are.

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