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Numbness, Vulnerability, Oppression, Privilege on the Tenure Track

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In my early reflections on this year’s Purdue Pre-Tenure Conference for Women, I’ve been thinking a lot about this Louis C.K. interview I watched last week:

And this Brene Brown TED talk we watched at the conference Friday:

I have to fight with myself to not numb out with food or social media or television. And I have to fight with myself to be a bit vulnerable in front of others in an academic climate that doesn’t always celebrate people being their authentic selves.

I guess I can’t help but wonder something about these two things. I wonder how much my privilege as a white, middle class person with Ivy League degrees and a tenure-track job makes it easier to operate against that pull towards numbing out, and how much this privilege makes it easier for me to show vulnerability. Stereotype threat – the fear that one is about to confirm a stereotype associated with their identity – certainly looms above me, as a woman, when I show vulnerability. I know too, as I get older, that shows of emotion or vulnerability make me more likely to be cast aside or viewed as hysterical, because once I am less sexually objectified I will become more invisible, which won’t diminish if I choose to be compliant and motherly.

But my whiteness, and the fact that I am in a tenure-track rather than postdoc or contingent faculty position, gives me a lot of room to express my full range of emotions, with fewer stereotype threat repercussions. Think about how much safer it is for me to express my anger, compared to a black woman or man. Or the ease with which I can cancel a class because of a sick child, compared to a contingent faculty member.

Being white and middle class and straight and having a stable job, but also being a woman, and being explicitly in the “probationary period” of my job, creates a very interesting mix of oppressive and privileged experiences. And I can only hope that those of us with those nice privileges can continue to think about what it means to be an ally to those who don’t.

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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