Academic Musings, Gender, Race & Ethnicity

Pathologizing Black Folks is America’s Religion, Or: A Few Thoughts on Roxane Gay’s ‘Bad Feminist’

I spend nearly everyday writing and reading about global and local configurations of white supremacy and anti-blackness, with a special emphasis on the U.S. and France. This subject is the topic of Resurrecting Slavery, one of two books I am completing this year while on leave with a Career Enhancement Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

I made a decision to use this year to begin a conscious process of decolonizing my scholarship. This is a process that I began a few years ago, inadvertently, as I increasingly embarked upon a journey of mindfulness and well-being. As I prioritized my own self-awareness, I also found it necessary to liberate myself from harmful things in my personal and professional life, including and especially unexamined dynamics of white supremacy, anti-blackness, heteropatriarchy and other forms of insanity that pervade the power structures within which we are all conditioned.

For me, decolonizing myself from these forces means becoming increasingly aware of my own ignorance as well as the power relations that shaped and produced that ignorance. Decolonizing my scholarship means increasingly coming to see so much of what I have been socialized not to see. This is all difficult, emotionally challenging work that also requires me to accept things about myself and my socialization that I would rather not acknowledge, while also speaking difficult truths that, by their very nature, offend people in positions of power.

And so, it was with this intention that I decided to expand my intellectual horizons and read more widely and deeply within and outside my field(s). I was especially interested in gaining a better understanding of the history of anti-racist (and racist) thought within sociology and the social sciences more broadly. I also wanted to engage feminist, black feminist, intersectional and critical race theories — schools of thought that had been downplayed or downright ignored in most of my professional training in elite white settings.

What all of this reading has shown me is that there are exceedingly few books written about race, ethnicity and/or gender that do not make me want to throw up. I say this with all humility — and as someone who is writing a couple of books that will probably make someone else want to throw up. When I say that most of what I read about racism and sexism makes me sick, what I mean to do is draw attention to the actual, lived conditions of knowledge production that a queer woman of color is, by the nature of this work, forced to contend with. For the reality of my work means that I must engage with “theorizations” and descriptions of social realities that take, as their premise, my inferiority and/or the inferiority of others who are ascribed non-white, non-male, non-able-bodied, non-heteronormative status by hegemonic notions which were themselves produced by historical processes of violence and immorality on the part of people with power seeking to consolidate that power through the imposition of narrow, abhorrent definitions of worthiness and humanity.

As all of us are wherever we are in our own imperfect processes of decolonization, we inevitably produce work that reflects the blind-spots we possess at any given point in time. And, given that most of the scholarship produced about inequality is written by people who have not committed themselves to a public or private process of decolonization, I find myself reading the work of colonized minds.

Perhaps the saddest thing of all, however, is that unprocessed and undertheorized colonization persists even in the work of well-meaning, ‘liberal’, anti-racist, queer and/or feminist scholars. That is, even some of our most thoughtful, well-read and down-for-the-cause thinkers — including people of color — are nonetheless producing work that makes it very clear that they (we?) have yet to fully embrace an appraisal of black and brown life that has been decolonized from white supremacy, from anti-blackness, from the varied and intertwined forms of insanity that have produced the ‘modern’ societies in which we all live, work and try to survive today.

I say all of this as a very long and labored preamble to the on-going reactions I am having as I try to make my way through Roxane Gay’s widely lauded Bad Feminist. In the text, she makes it very clear that she “embraces” the possibility of being a “bad feminist” because she is human, because she knows she is imperfect and is simply trying to understand the world in which she lives. And I have to say, there are many things I admire about her writing – including the care and courage with which she tells her own stories, the telling of which requires a willingness to be vulnerable about things that are very difficult to reveal.

There is a danger, however, in buying into individualistic notions of imperfection without also grounding our analysis of self and society in a historically and sociologically informed understanding of the power relations that have produced the world into which we were born as well as the world we all contribute to constructing in our everyday lives. And this danger, I think, is on display in Gay’s text, especially insofar as she tries (or fails) to connect her own experiences to broader questions of race and inequality.

Continue reading “Pathologizing Black Folks is America’s Religion, Or: A Few Thoughts on Roxane Gay’s ‘Bad Feminist’”

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Academic Musings, Life Musings

3 Lessons We Can Learn from Overcommitment

MeThis semester, I’m learning quite a lot about over-commitment. Over the past month or so, I gave three talks across the country while trying to find time to teach, run the Race, Ethnicity and Inequality workshop at SBU, mentor undergrads and graduate students, fulfill treasurer duties for SREM, handle service obligations, write peer reviews and make progress on several papers and the book project. Oh, and then there’s also the writing group I’m part of, and, gosh, everything else. Finances. Self-care. Family. Social life. Romance. Unexpected crises. SLEEP. Or rather, insomnia. I got very, very little sleep during the entire months of February and March. When I started feeling the ill effects on my health, I realized it was time to take a step back and recommit to my well-being.

Continue reading “3 Lessons We Can Learn from Overcommitment”

Academic Musings, Life Musings, Spiritual Musings

My News

Last fall, I participated in the unbelievably fantastic Faculty Success Program, organized by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. FSP was developed by Dr. Kerry-Ann Rockquemore, a brilliant sociologist who quit her tenured job to commit herself full-time to the NCFDD and, in so doing, provide life-changing tools to harried professors seeking to improve their productivity and work/life balance. While the center works to support academics of all stripes, its resources and programs are particularly useful to first generation academics, women and people of color — all of whom are often excluded from informal networks and know-how that are crucial for thriving in academia.

A friend of mine participated last year and told me that FSP changed her life.  She felt more productive, linked into to professional networks and focused on her research and writing goals.  On the basis of her testimonial – as well as the experiences of other colleagues I know and respect – I wrote a grant to fund my participation in their semester-long “bootcamp” for academics.  I knew I would not be teaching in the fall and was hopeful that the program’s structure, systems of accountability and professional development tools would help me make the most of my “time off”.  Continue reading “My News”

Academic Musings, Life Musings

On Being Openly Bisexual in Academia

2013-11-21 11.10.55

The first time I came out to my undergrads was during a unit on the sociological concept of “stigma” in one of my theory courses. In discussing Goffman’s understanding of stigma as a “discrediting” attribute, I told the story of how my 90 year old godmother responded when I told her I date men and women.  “I’m so, so sorry to hear that,” she replied, as though I’d been diagnosed with the plague.

When I finished my lecture, a student came to the front of the classroom and expressed gratitude for my coming out story. I thanked her for reaching out and asked why she was moved. “Well, we look up to teachers,” she said, “and it’s really important for people in positions of authority to help reduce the stigma.”

People in positions of authority.  I let the phrase float in the ether of my mind.  Did my being in a “position of authority” mean that I had a duty to come out?  I didn’t think so.  And, I didn’t see my being honest and authentic about my experience as a conscious effort to reduce stigma. Including the story about my godmother’s disappointment was an effort to demonstrate how many of us are stigmatized by loved ones because of our sexuality.  But this student’s simple declaration of gratitude helped me understand the impact of owning our personal identities in our professional lives.

Part of my pedagogy is to teach students to connect sociological theorists with concrete lived experiences — both their own as well as the biographical details of the intellectuals themselves.  No doubt, this perspective was shaped by my work with sociologists of ideas during my graduate studies at Harvard.  But a commitment to uniting the personal with the professional, the intellectual with the existential mostly derives from the pivotal influence of black feminist scholars who have given me the courage to draw on intersectional and post-intersectional frameworks to produce theory from the fabric of my queer, black, working-class-born, middle-class-bred, single-mother-raised, particular and peculiar existence.

Coming out as bisexual in academia has been a long process for me. When I fell in love with a woman in my early twenties, I found myself surrounded by fellow graduate students and colleagues at an academic conference.  I wanted to sing about my new love from the rooftops.  And yet, when we were together, I was too paranoid to hold her hand as we walked across campus.  Insecure about my sexuality and lacking a queer support network, I danced in and out of the closet, at turns brave, uncomfortable, liberated and ashamed.

As a woman who mostly partnered with men, many (though not all) colleagues and students assumed I was straight. Sharing my bisexuality was something I would only do on occasion — haphazardly. Over the years, I began to realize how much I benefited from heterosexual privilege in the profession — and it disturbed my spirit.   When, in my 30s, I found myself single for the first time in many years — and dating women again — I saw clearly that being open about my sexuality was the only healthy option for my well-being.

There was just one little problem: I didn’t have any bisexual role models within academia.  Not a one.  While I knew of many openly gay and lesbian professors, I personally could not name a living, breathing, bisexual academic in my social network. Bisexual profs may be legion, but I’d personally never met a colleague who publicly proclaimed the label.  And to be fair, I didn’t exactly search high and dry. If I attended conferences dedicated to sexuality or joined more groups for LGBT sociologists, I’m sure I would have met more bisexual colleagues.  But the other part of the story is that “bisexual” may not be a particularly popular label for non-straight-identifying folk to claim. Some decry what they see as the “sexual binary” inherent in the term and prefer to see themselves as “queer”. The bottom line is that I looked around and found myself on a bisexual academic island. What’s a Ph.D.-having-bi-woman-of-color to do?

Eventually, I put on my big girl panties.  Of course I would have to be the change I wished to see. I only wanted to date women who were open about their sexuality, in their private and public lives – so I knew I had to embody those same values.  I was already out to close family and friends, including some other academics, but I still allowed most folks to impose an assumed heterosexuality. And so I began by recognizing that I wanted to kick my “openness” into a higher gear.   To do this, I knew I needed to build a queer support network both within and outside the straight-ivory-tower. While I didn’t know any openly bi profs, I made a conscious decision to connect with queer women of color.  Just knowing having other women within the profession to talk to about my concerns made all the difference.  One of my most inspiring mentors is a senior scholar who happens to be woman of color married to another woman.  Chit-chatting with her over the years about sexuality, race, gender and spirituality within the profession has nurtured my spirit. Also?  She successfully earned tenure.  Pow!

Next, I began to openly discuss bisexuality via social media — primarily here on this blog and especially on Twitter.  Being open in this way also facilitated building new connections with other queer academics, some of whom reached out to me – privately and publicly – sharing their own bi-sexual and queer identities.  A few told me that they found my openness inspirational.  For me, simply knowing that I was not alone was powerful and profoundly affirming. Real talk? You get what you give. I realized that if I wanted to connect with more openly bisexual academics, I had to be an openly bisexual academic.  

The truth is that in academia, just as in other professions, straight colleagues often talk about their private lives publicly, signaling their sexuality in a matter-of-fact-way that people rarely question. No one bats an eye when straight men wax poetic about “My wife and I..” or straight women refer to their husbands .. or single straight colleagues talk about their heterosexual dating experiences. As I began to date women more often, I also found myself referring to my sexuality spontaneously in water-cooler conversations at work.  In responses to questions and conversations, I’d say things like:

“Well, I date men and women..”

“I’m actually bisexual..”

“The woman I’m seeing..”

And the reality of the thing is just about every time I’ve referred to my sexuality, the revelation has been met with either:

1) profound indifference

2) slight puzzlement and surprise or

3) an unusual and slightly disturbing amount of enthusiasm [as in: “Oh my gahwd, that’s fantastic!“]

Regardless of how other academics may feel privately, publicly they’ve been nothing but affirming and accepting. Well, for the most part.

One of my straight academic friends, concerned for my professional success, warned me to stay mum about my sexuality.  This person feared that I might be negatively “judged” for being open.  And their concerns are not unfounded. Of course we know that homophobia exists.  There are always risks to living life authentically. And yet, as other academic mentors told me, the rewards of living in accordance with our highest values outweigh the costs. In truth, accepting heterosexual privilege and hiding my sexuality are simply not choices I am capable of making at this point in my life.  Ten years ago?  Yes.  Now? Not a chance. And it makes all the difference that I know other queer men and women of color who have found a place for their authentic lives inside of academia.  Their personal courage inspires me even more than their intellectual production.

If you are bisexual in academia  (or simply think of yourself as a human being who dates other human beings regardless of their gender identity), here are a few last insights into how our experience is distinct from that of our gay and lesbian allies:

1. Many people do not understand what bisexuality even means.

In LGBT-land, the L and the G are, for sure, far better known than the B and the T.  Or, as one straight white guy mansplained me at a bar one evening: “You’re a minority within a minority within a minority!” No fucking kidding. You may be the only openly bisexual person your colleagues know.  Which means that you need to be ready for odd-ball questions — questions that most colleagues mercifully keep to themselves. Bisexual awareness is rising, but we’re still a little snippet of the human population.  And bisexuality carries with it distinct stigmas that are sometimes imposed from within the queer community itself (e.g. “The Confused Bisexual” stereotype and other forms of bi-phobia)  . .

Once I made peace with not giving a flying fuck what folks think about my orientation, inside or outside of academia, it became much easier for me to be unassumingly and unapologetically open at appropriate times within professional settings.  This doesn’t mean that I introduce myself as “Dr. Bisexual” at academic conferences, but it does mean that I have no qualms about saying I’m bi when talking about identity politics, oppression, family dynamics, gender, power and sexuality.  

2. You may start your job with a partner of one gender and then switch a few months or years down the line.

When I started my job, I brought a male (academic) partner with me. Our eventual breakup was epic and embarrassing. Two years later? My partner is a woman. #kanyeshrug  As an openly bisexual person, you need to be comfortable publicly owning and asserting the reality that you date men and women, which means . . .

3. Colleagues never know what pronoun to use when they hear that you are dating.

Well that keeps life interesting, doesn’t it?

The bottom line?  In my experience: no one really gives a shit.

Over the years – and especially in the past 12 months – I’ve casually informed mentors, former dissertation committee members, old friends from graduate school and just random people on the streets that I’m bisexual. Now, granted, I have lived and worked in towns and institutions that are bastions of liberal/progressive politics.  And yet, the reality is, even in these spaces, I was concerned, in my early 20s, that it would be problematic to own my bisexuality in academia. Thirty-two-year-old-me is here to tell my twenty-two-year-old-self that, for the most part? No one gives a shit.  Really.  No one gives a shit.  People have their own lives, private crises, intimate joys, families, friends and work – lots of fucking work – to occupy themselves.  And those who do give a shit? Last I checked, the earth is still spinning on its axis. Life goes on.

Coming out about my spirituality within academic circles a few years ago meant that I could not help but commit myself to a life lived authentically. What I have gained, in owning my bisexuality in my private and public lives, is not a gold star and certainly not the approval of my socially conservative godmother.  What my transparency has earned me is my own self-respect and self-love, the priceless feeling of being in alignment with my own values — and, every now and then — the simple gratitude of a student who thanks me for being the only openly queer and/or bisexual professor that they know.

Academic Musings, Gender, Politics, Race & Ethnicity

Spirituality, Rape Culture & the Denigration of Harriet Tubman

change.orgYou may have heard the recent story of Russell Simmons’ endorsement and marketing of a “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape”, an astoundingly awful attempt at satire which instantly drew the formidable ire of concerned citizens across social media.   The video is appalling for more reasons than I can summarize here — the contribution to rape culture, the denigration of Harriet Tubman’s monumental heroism, the disrespect of women broadly, African American women in particular and the enslaved ancestors of diasporic people everywhere. Truly, I could go on and on.  It was that horrific.

On August 14th 2013, the same night that the video was released on Youtube, I authored a Change.org petition which gathered over 1,000 signatures in less than 24 hours, demanding that Simmons remove and apologize for the video. After pressure from many corners, including the NAACP, Simmons did in fact pull the video and issue a (highly problematic) apology. The petition was covered in more than 100 media & online outlets. You can read about the video and the campaign against it on MSNBC, Washington Post and, even the Daily Mail.

I also did an interview with emPower Magazine that you can read here.

While I alluded to compassion and spirituality in the interview, I didn’t delve into the relationship between my outrage and my spiritual practice.  In fact, my views on the importance of respecting our ancestors are inspired, in part, by Thich Nhat Hanh’s work on being a Buddhist and a person of color.  In his fabulous book “We are One: Honoring Our Diversity, Celebrating our Connection”, he reflects on the significance of embracing not only our cultural heritage, but also our ancestry.  This is also a theme he develops in this speech, given from Plum Village in 1997: “We Are the Continuation of Our Ancestors“.  He states, in part:

“I always feel that I am the continuation of my ancestors. Every day I practice touching my ancestors. In my country every home has an altar for ancestors, blood ancestors and spiritual ancestors. An altar is just a table, but it is very important. You place that table in the central part of your house and you focus your attention on the table as the point of contact between you and your ancestors. Usually every morning we come and offer some incense to our ancestors. Our ancestors do not need to smell incense, but we want to light a stick of incense to our ancestors because the practice of lighting incense focuses our attention on the presence of our ancestors. During the time you strike the match, you light the stick of incense, you offer the incense on the table, you have an opportunity to touch your ancestors within yourself. You realize that your ancestors are always alive in you because you are the continuation of your ancestors.”

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I do not have an altar for my ancestors in my home.. or anywhere else.  But consciously honoring and remembering my inherent connection to all those who came before me has become, over the years, an increasingly important part of how I recognize and celebrate the Divine.  As Thich Nhat Hanh states – the point is to focus attention on the presence of our ancestors.  To honor our ancestors is to also honor the Self.  Doing so requires our loving awareness.

That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to be a descendant of slaves to find offense in the video Russell Simmons’ media venture produced. There are many folks of diverse backgrounds – including white Americans – who shared my outrage and discontent.  Truthfully, all it takes is wisdom, insight and compassion to respect the dignity of other human beings, those who are living now, and those who have passed on.

The challenge, I think, for all of us — and the vital importance of humanistic principles and enlightened spirituality — is to overcome the limitations of our experience and the boundaries we erect between “us” and “them”.  In so doing, we consciously embrace our solidarity with the whole of humanity, past and present.  When we demean each other, it is because we have a broken and incomplete understanding of ourselves.  When we think we are defined by our ego – the limited idea of who we think we are – we are inexorably led to have a limited idea of the “others” we identify with.  As conscious, compassionate people dedicated to making this world a more loving place, we must commit to living beyond our ego and our conditioning.

What does this have to do with Russell Simmons and his video?  Well, first of all, I won’t even really touch the ridiculous contradictions inherent in the fact that he frames himself as a spokesperson for enlightenment, writing books on spirituality and tweeting about the Bhagavad Gita — while also calling the “comedic” portrayal of the rape of an enslaved American hero “the funniest thing” he’s ever seen.   The point I’m making here is that fundamentally, Simmons’ misstep revealed a lack of awareness – an inability, in that particular moment, to fully recognize and honor the humanity of women generally, Harriet Tubman in particular, his own enslaved ancestors and survivors of sexual assault and rape.  In one fell swoop, he denigrated a huge swath of humanity — and that kind of denigration can only happen when we allow ourselves to lapse into ignorance — ignorance about who we really are.  If Russell Simmons had truly been in touch with the fullness of his own humanity, the incredible power of his own divinity, the enlightened consciousness of his interconnection with all living Beings, past and present, he could not have acted from such a place of profound disrespect.

I say this not as someone who knows Russell Simmons personally, but rather as someone who knows human nature, beginning with my own.  I know that it is only possible for me to disrespect someone else when I am ignorant.  And I also know that it is possible to grow in awareness and love, for myself and others, if my heart’s intention is to do so.  For that reason, I sincerely hope that Russell Simmons – and indeed, all of us – use this moment to pause and reflect on how we can rise in consciousness.

In the updates to the petition, I included a number of resources for folks who want to learn more about the history of women, slavery, sexual trauma and violence against African-Americans.  This was not just for his benefit – but mine as well.  We all have a lot to learn about these issues.  But I must say . . . book knowledge can only go so far.  And lots of folks with less education, less life experience and less exposure to social and cultural capital than Russell Simmons knew that video was in incredibly poor taste.

Beyond building knowledge, I also encouraged Simmons to engage in face-to-face discussion and dialogue with women and men who have survived rape.  I know in my own experience, these kinds of conversations have been life changing.  Having people trust me enough to share their stories of surviving and overcoming sexual assault has been an incredible gift that pushed me to grow and become more compassionate and thoughtful about a social reality that affects nearly 1 in 3 women.  The fact is, I have loved women who have been raped.  And I have loved men who have experienced sexual trauma.  We are all connected to survivors of rape, whether in our immediate circles or in our family trees.  We must all do more to practice love and care in how we think about this issue.

In terms of moving forward, I include below a list of some of the suggested readings produced in consultation with black women scholars (especially Dr. Koritha Mitchell (@ProfKori) and Dr. Christina Sharpe (@hystericalblkns).  These are just a few excellent sources we have in scholarship on women, race, slavery, sexual assault and post-slavery violence against blacks.

– Angela Davis (1972) “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves”

-Crystal Feimster (2011): “Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching”

-Saidiya Hartman (1996): “Seduction and the Ruses of Power”

-Koritha Mitchell (2012): “Living with Lynching:African American Lynching Plays, Performance and Citizenship”

-Dorothy Roberts (1997): “Killing the black body : Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty

-Christina Sharpe (2010): “Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects”

Additionally, you might consider reading Ida B. Wells’ pamphlets as well as “Six Women Slave Narratives”.

Finally, I should say that this is all a bit surreal for me, given that 1) I’ve never done a change.org petition before and 2) the actual subject of my scholarship is the way in which folks throughout the diaspora interpret the history and legacies of Atlantic slavery.  Right now I’m working on a book that takes stock of recent commemorative movements in France that have drawn greater attention to French involvement in the slave trade while also transforming the contemporary meanings of blackness in French politics and culture.  Some of my work also explores how African-Americans imagine the history of slavery.  You can read more about these projects here.

Interestingly, I didn’t begin this line of work with strong opinions about whether or how the history of slavery should be represented.  When I went to Paris years ago to interview activists, officials and ordinary people of African descent, I did so with a very open mind about the relative merits of various ways of relating (or not relating) to the past.  In fact, I still do make a practice of understanding – with some degree of detachment – the various frames people use for underscoring the relevance or irrelevance of slavery in our contemporary moment.  As a social scientist, my job is to unpack not only the different perspectives articulated by social actors, but also the conditions of possibility that shape those perspectives as well as the broader consequences of those views for the way folks see themselves in relationship to society.  In order to do a good job of that, I need to be attentive to how my own positionality shapes my scholarship — but I cannot be overly invested in a particular view.

When I began this work, I was not deeply spiritual, nor was I particularly interested in honoring my ancestors.  But I was deeply interested in exploring how other people in the diaspora grappled with the intersecting stigmas of contemporary anti-black racism and the historical legacies of chattel slavery.  As I had not yet come to fully embrace any particular stance, I wanted to use my fieldwork in France to not only generate scholarship about contemporary French politics and practices of blackness in Europe, but also to produce knowledge about the range of logics people draw upon when trying to make sense of history and its impact on the present.  In the process, I eventually came to define and embrace my own views on this question, even as I held firm to my desire to understand and respect the perspectives of the people I interviewed, even – and especially – when I disagree with their claims.

In any case, when I started my fieldwork in 2008 – as an observer in a foreign country with the pretense of detachment – I would never have predicted that I’d one day start a petition to protect the memory of an enslaved American heroine, or write blog posts about the spiritual importance of honoring our ancestors.  How interesting it is to come full circle in this way.

Academic Musings, Spiritual Musings

The Nondual Academic: Timeless Being.. or Tenure-Track?

“One has to work in the world; naturally, carry on your worldly affairs, but understand that which has come about by itself -that is, this body, mind and consciousness–has appeared in spite of the fact that nobody has asked for it. I did not ask for it; it has come upon me in my original state which is timeless, spaceless, and without attributes. So that whatever has happened is doing this business in the world. The life force and the mind are operating, but the mind will tempt you to believe that it is “you.” Therefore, understand always that you are the timeless, spaceless witness. And even if the mind tells you that you are the one who is acting, don’t believe the mind. Always keep your identity separate from that which is doing the working, thinking and talking.” –

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, “The Ultimate Medicine: Dialogues with a Realized Master”

* * *

This is the fourth in a 12 week series of essays on doing academic work from a nondual, spiritual perspective. The idea is to open up a new conversation about academia and the ego. Most Sundays, I’ll share my reflections on a variety of topics related to writing, researching, teaching and mentoring in the light of teachings from Hinduism, Buddhism and Christian mysticism as well as my own experiences.

***

My life is not quite turning out as I thought it would. Prioritizing my spirituality wasn’t really at the top of my agenda when I finished graduate school a year and a half ago. I had a conventional idea of success. After the Ph.D., I thought I would singlemindedly focus my energies on research, publications, gaining my colleagues’ respect, perhaps even starting a family. I wanted to leave my humble mark on the world, gain recognition, make my mother proud, be a “credit to the race”, give back to my communities, build some wealth, win some prizes, become a prominent sociologist and a public intellectual. Oh yeah, and a wife and maybe a mother and blah blah blah.

And to a certain extent, some things have gone according to plan. I landed a fab job in a supportive department. I’ve won some prizes – most recently the APSA’s Georges-Lavau award for the best dissertation on contemporary French politics. I have had a steady publication record. My research program has developed. I’m not a total disaster.

And yet, I never anticipated that I would have an encounter with God that would swallow me -and my ambitions- whole. I always wanted to be “somebody” — I did not know I would come to recognize my self as Timeless Being.. that I would come to know that I am literally no “body”.

Living as “Timeless Being” is quite at odds with most everyone’s idea of the tenure-track. Junior faculty are almost always future-oriented — preoccupied with establishing a professional reputation and securing semi-permanent employment. Increasingly, I have found myself struggling to reconcile these two very different ways of viewing life — one anchored in the present-moment, one tied to a professional future.

Along the way, I’ve felt at turns liberated and appalled by two paradoxical sentiments. On the one hand, I feel liberated as I’ve come to care more about my spiritual life than anything else. On the other hand, I’ve been appalled to see that my ego still worries and despairs over the fate of my professional life — not to mention my material existence. I worry over what the future holds if I really surrender to the full embrace of my spiritual path. What will happen to me if I really offer up everything — the fate of my work, my projects, my income — to the Supreme? My inner wisdom knows that I have nothing to fear. And yet, the old egoic grasping, the doubts arise. To my chagrin, my attachment to professional success continues to manifest in my experience. Are these lingering ambitions standing in the way of my full reliance on God?

This fundamental question — of how to live in the world as your worldly desires wane — is quite common for people on a whole variety of spiritual paths. Mooji has a great teaching on this topic that you can check out here. His basic insight – echoed in the quote by Nisargadatta above – is that, despite appearances to the contrary, we are not the “operators” of our own lives. The sense of doership is itself an illusion. (This is a tricky subject, given the emphasis I place on agency in my social theorizing – a topic for another day). In any case, the basic teaching of nonduality (that we are one with all there is) asserts that Consciousness/God – indeed, the entire Universe – acts through ‘us’. Fully realizing this truth requires giving up all of our concerns – including our need to know how the future will work out – to the Supreme. It means realizing that personal ambitions are the egoic projections of the mind — they do not define who we really are. From this perspective, what ultimately matters is surrendering to God’s divine will, allowing the flow of life to have its way with us, as Spirit sees fit.

It’s a terribly frightening predicament for the ego — the small ‘self’ — because it frets over how to provide for our material existence, how to strategize for success. But the ego-mind doesn’t exist (Mooji likes to say that “the ego is a ghost afraid of dying”) and since it doesn’t exist, it obviously is not in control of our lives. And if it isn’t in control, what is? Ah.. the Beingness. God Herself. So the process is one of allowing egoic ambitions, striving & anxieties to increasingly give way to faith & total reliance on the All-There-Is. And the vexing truth is that this is not something one can try to do — it simply happens naturally in the process of awakening.

So where does that leave me? I haven’t the faintest idea. But, I wanted to share these ruminations with you, as this is the primary concern I face at intersection of my professional life and my spiritual practice. These days, my intention is to simply allow Consciousness to guide me in whatever direction It sees fit. We’ll see how it goes.

Academic Musings, Life Musings, Spiritual Musings

The Nondual Academic: Revolutionary Self Love

This is the 3rd post in a 12 week series of essays on doing academic work from a nondual, spiritual perspective.  The idea is to open up a new conversation about academia, social responsibility, compassion and the ego.  Most Sundays, I’ll share my reflections on a variety of topics related to writing, researching, teaching and mentoring in the light of teachings from Hinduism, Buddhism and Christian mysticism as well as my own experiences

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Today’s post is about self care and self love.  It’s inspired, in part, by the FeministWire’s recent forum on Black Academic Women’s Health.  This isn’t a side issue without academic relevance: it’s fundamental.  Loving, accepting and caring for the Self is a prerequisite for my being able to show up in the world (and in my classrooms) with equanimity, peace of mind and strength.

To love one’s Self beyond the ego is a revolutionary act.  In the video, I share some of my tools and techniques for self-care as well as the nondual spiritual perspective that informs these “rituals of love”.  I cover everything from skin-care, hair-care, aromatherapy, body image, exfoliation, self-massage, make-up, meditation, supplements, working out, the whole nine yards.  I also touch on a common (and serious) physical ailment among many academics and working professionals: Repetitive Strain Injury.

I’m not so happy about how often my eyes roll back in my head, looking like I need a close encounter with the Exorcist, but hey, it is what it is. The really cool thing? You get to see me in a do-rag. (If you want to skip the beauty segment and hear my rant reflections on body image, spirituality and well-being, jump to 20:52.)

Some takeaways:

  • SELF LOVE BEGINS WITH SELF ACCEPTANCE: “Your body is the cloak God slipped into in order to know Itself.”
  • SELF MASSAGE IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT – I cannot recommend the Theracane more highly.  I’ve used it since graduate school to help with daily aches and pains from typing when getting a massage from a professional, or a lover/friend isn’t possible.  Yes, it looks like a sex toy and/or a torture device, but your back, neck and shoulders will be forever grateful.
  • SELF CARE DOES NOT HAVE TO BE EXPENSIVE OR TIME INTENSIVE: Many products I use cost $1-$5.  It takes me about 30 seconds to do my hair everyday and another 30 seconds to do my makeup.  ONE MINUTE.
  • SELF LOVE IS THE BUILDING BLOCK FOR LOVING OTHERS: “You find that there’s a beauty and a Godliness and a divinity and a sexiness and a sensuality and a gorgeousness about every kind of body.  Disabled bodies, broken bodies, big bodies, skinny bodies, big bellied bodies, flat chested bodies.  Look at the diversity of how God likes to cloak Herself.  It’s fucking awesome.  It’s amazing.  And so if you can show up in the world having laid the foundations of self acceptance, self love — projecting that same level of acceptance and okayness to everyone you encounter . . . can you imagine the kind of love we can all make together?”


As I say in the video, I feel pretty strongly that it’s absolutely pointless to go to the gym unless you fucking love yourself first.  Before you love yourself  you have to accept yourself.  In order to accept yourself, you must see yourself. So here’s a practice I developed to experience increased body acceptance, awareness and appreciation.

Body Love Ritual 

  1. Find a quiet, private, safe place.
  2. Take a chair and put it in front of a full length mirror.
  3. Get naked.
  4. Stand in front of the mirror.  Pay attention to your breath.  Without forcing, simply focus your attention on the inhale and exhale.
  5. Look at yourself.  Behold every inch of your body.  Observe the thoughts, critical and kind, that come to mind.  Let them be.  Don’t try to change them.  Just pay attention.
  6. Now sit down in the chair.  Keep looking.  How do you feel now?  Let your eyes roam from your toes to the top of your head.
  7. Now imagine your body is the Buddha’s body.  Or the Christ’s.  Keep breathing.
  8. Imagine God decided to craft flesh that looks exactly like yours. Let yourself absorb the reality that your body is already divine.
  9. Sit and breathe in the realization of your own divine perfection.  Revel in the awe at the fact that every atom in your body originated in the Big Bang.  Imagine everything in the universe that had to happen in order for this body to exist.
  10. When you’re ready, do something nice for your body (moisturize, stretch/yoga, self-massage) and put your clothes back on (or not . . .)