Most of us are outsiders in one way or another. We are seen and felt as different than those around us. As not belonging. To be an academic outsider is to be separated from other academics, and from university life more generally, by our lived experiences. Our lives do not mirror those for whom the walls of the academy were built. Academia, the world of intellectual exchange, should be a safe space, but make no mistake: The academy is what Elijah Anderson calls a white space. A white workplace, where racialized, gendered, and sexual outsiders are constantly reminded that our presence in the academy is contingent and in constant flux.
Every time we're rejected, treated differently, or dismissed, whether by our families, our communities, or our social institutions, we're being told that we're unloved and unworthy. When states and cities don't invest in public schools, when managers treat their workers with suspicion, when authority figures discount our experiences because of our race, our gender, or our sexuality, we're being told that we do not deserve their investments of time, money, and attention. Whether we're talking about relationships, family, or society writ large, the experience of being loved is rooted in recognition and resources. Being denied those resources and recognition marks us as unloved, the essence of what it means to be an outsider. These same denials of worth and recognition can be seen in the academy.
Being excluded in the academy is as an active and ongoing process, not a one-time event. It is not (solely) due to lack of information, knowledge, or cultural capital about the "hidden curriculum." The active exclusion of racialized and gendered outsiders is systemic, structuring all aspects of academic life, from our interactions with others, to the materials we teach, and the system of rewards that punctuate careers. This form of active exclusion means that marginalized outsiders are denied academic citizenship, that is, the legal rights and responsibilities of, as well as full acceptance and inclusion into, academic life. Full citizenship means having your voice valued, sought out, heard, and respected in decision-making processes. For marginalized outsiders, academic citizenship is conditional.
Motherhood and being from a first-gen and/or working class background are just two of the many characteristics that mark a person as having strayed from the "ideal worker" of academia. They also are markers that point to a life of precarity —financially, scholarly, emotionally and intellectually—even after achieving that elusive tenure-track job. Yet living in precarity is not an individual choice nor is it the fault of someone's own behavior. The very practices and cultural assumptions that underly how we think about work, including academic work, excludes mothers. So, too, do academic inequities persist, in part, because not everyone enters the academy with the same resources or hurdles and because not all tenure-track positions come with the same resources. Precarity, especially racialized precarity, is bound up in the very structure of academia.
The COVID-19 pandemic collapsed any sense of boundary between work and home life. Instead, it has demanded that mothers and other types of caregivers work overlapping shifts. Each and every responsibility demands attention at the same time. The roles overlap, bleeding together and leaving caregivers unable to really do any job well. Despite well-meaning advice from universities on how to address so-called "productivity gaps" due to COVID, inequities will continue and deepen because the advice is often based on individual effort. But this should not be surprising, as the academy is operating exactly as it was intended: to privilege the few for whom it was built. It's never been plausible to expect people with caregiving responsibilities and who deal with gendered racism in the workplace to match the "scholarly productivity" of those who don't. To expect the same outcomes despite different obstacles is the opposite of equity.
Academic justice is a system where all members of the academy—from undergraduates and graduate students to postdocs, lecturers and tenure-stream faculty—have the opportunity to fully partake in an academic life free from microaggressions, discrimination, and racist and sexist abuse; one filled with support and acknowledgment of the value and worth of our ideas, research, and backgrounds; and one that provides living wages, health care, and resources for our labor. Academic justice means that everyone is granted rights and seen as worthy; no one's citizenship is conditional. To achieve it requires centering academic life around the principles of what Zakiya Luna and Whitney N. Laster Pirtle call Black Feminist Sociology (BFS), which involves trusting Black women, attending to joy, remaining mindful of ethics, and remembering "that knowledge is a collective process" that requires uplifting one another.