The following piece gives notes on the autoethnography by Criminal Justice PhD students Kwan-Lamar Blount-Hill and Victor St. John, which was the *winner* of the “Best Article Award” by the Awards Committee of the American Society of Criminology Divison on Critical Criminology and Social Justice. This piece voices their shared experience in traditionally non-minority institutions. Click here to view the full article, originally published January 23, 2017.
Autoethnography is still somewhat avant garde in the field of criminology and criminal justice. The notion of a researcher “studying” her or his personal experience and history engenders some skepticism as to a works’ objectivity and, therefore, its value. What this misunderstands is the realization that there is value in the subjective. We, as scientists, also prize objectivity as valuable, but our work has been premised on the idea that subjective perceptions matter. Kwan has focused his study on perceptions of government legitimacy, how the perception of injustice is enough to cultivate cynicism, encourage disobedience, and spark rebellion. Victor has concentrated on how inmate perceptions of architectural features impact their receptivity to treatment, from conscious decision-making to subconscious processes to biochemical reactions at the cellular level. Women and men much more accomplished than us have built long-lasting careers on similar arguments.
“Manufactured ‘Mismatch’” uses autoethnogaphy to explore perception and, in that regard, we believe achieved its goal. In it, we accurately captured our felt experience and argued that it represented a state of feeling that might very well be shared beyond us. Examining our subjective perceptions, we came to understand perceived “mismatch” between us and our environment through the lens of cultural incongruence, where two cultures differ such that coming together causes stress, strain or all-out clash. The two cultures we identified as being, in our cases, at least partially incongruent were “Black culture” and the “culture of criminology and criminal justice.” Exploring the coming together of these two is already made difficult by the paucity of Black academics in the field, specifically coming from majority non-minority institutions. Having no outside resources to assist, we concluded that in-depth study of this population would be impossible for us. It so happens that both of us belong to this demographic and, at any rate, do not our perceptions matter too?
Our hypothesis was that Black culture and the culture of academic criminology might clash on several points. First, we hypothesized that Blacks would see themselves more likely to criticize mainstream institutions than other academics in the field, causing some friction with institutionalists. We hypothesized that Blacks would likely feel more religious or faith-oriented than their colleagues, causing friction with those who espouse faith-free intellectualism. We hypothesized that Blacks would perceive the academy as a much more intimate space, clashing with those see it in the nature of a transactional workplace environment. Finally, we hypothesized that Blacks would feel more inclined to see themselves as members of a collective, rather than emphasize their individual success, of course, clashing with those who feel otherwise. We separately examined our own experiences and perceptions of them, using a combination of record review and recollection to determine whether our hypotheses were supported. We found that they were. Our final hypothesis was that these felt differences would cause cultural mismatch, and that cultural mismatch might be the cause of Black academic struggles, as opposed to the intellectual mismatch that has historically been offered as an explanation.
Autoethnography is valuable because it allows for deep dives into researcher perceptions that create the potential for avenues of further study and, hopefully, for further action. By no means would we argue that our study proves the existence of anything but our own personal feelings about our experience. What we would argue is that it supplies a worthy reason to engage in further study on the topic. This is particularly the case for those who profess to have genuine concern in mitigating these tensions by creating spaces where friction is not quite so palpable or by creating systems that can guide Black students, and others, through it.
Again, autoethnography creates the potential for avenues of further study and further action, though we did not anticipate the many ways it would. One such way was by revealing and explaining our feelings about our experience to colleagues who had not understood them. By writing our thoughts on the page, in the tempered language of scholarship, and allowing other academics to engage with it outside of the tense environment of direct confrontation, we allowed others the time and space to digest our message. We opened the door for later discussions that needed to be had, but were not on track to happen otherwise. Most impactful, thus far, the work generated an invitation to meet privately with a colleague of ours to explore questions that had not been fully explained in our piece. The invitation was a courageous move on the part of a non-Black faculty member who was brave enough to wade into the waters of racial tension and to hold her own. She commended our work, yes, but also challenged us on the conclusions we drew from our perceptual experiences.
As scientists, we have a duty to forthrightly reexamine our interpretations when they are called into question. So, then, we want to take a moment to engage in some reexamination. Having done some of that, we have arrived at a number of additional conclusions. These are, again, based on our own perceptions and are in need of validation through further study. However, our description of incongruence appeared to emphasize how academic culture clashed with Black culture without adequately accounting for the position on the opposite side. We seek to address that here.
Taking our assumption of greater Black cynicism toward mainstream institutions into further consideration, we must admit that this might present a challenge even to those academic institutions that want to be more welcoming. This cultural phenomenon means that Black academics may often come into an institutional situation prepped for unfair treatment. The expectation is not unwarranted – we trust we need not go into the litany of ways that American societal institutions have engaged in discrimination and structural violence towards Blacks over the centuries. Black cynicism can be viewed as a protective adaptation of the culture, though one that leads to Black academics potentially misinterpreting personality disagreements as disagreements about race.
The situation is made more complicated in that some seemingly personal disagreements are actually about race, and our colleagues inability to see this when it happens only adds to our hypersensitivity around the subject and increases our interpretation through a racial lens. Moreover, in our colorblind society, racial tensions are often due to unintentional affronts. Non-Black colleagues will complain that their intentions were not malicious or ill, seeming somehow not to understand that, in the context of a societal arrangement which necessarily disadvantages Blacks, unintentional but ignorant attitudes and actions that perpetuate disadvantage and isolation are as harmful as intentional ones. That great misunderstanding only confirms Black skepticism of institutional environments and further racializes their interpretive lenses.
To further complicate matters, those non-Black colleagues who both understand the inherent challenge of Black success in mainstream institutions – success often coming from the backdrop of multi-generational, socio-structural disadvantage – and who want to be sensitive to those challenges may nonetheless find a mistake of theirs, or a personal disagreement, or a misunderstanding, suddenly characterized as a racial issue by their Black counterparts. When Black academics begin seeing professional interactions along racial – instead of interpersonal – lines, any one-on-one conflict can be transmuted into a battle of the races. Previous experience with racial discrimination or insensitivity reinforces the salience of a racialized perspective, which may then filter truly non-racial encounters through a racialized lens, further reinforcing its salience and possibly creating racial conflict from an interaction where none was originally intended – a cycle manufacturing mismatch.
Other aspects of Black culture beyond cynicism may also drive this. Black collectivism is a prime feature of the culture. For a people who have been oppressed en masse, individual experiences may become so similar that victory and tragedy are seen as shared. We can attest to this. As each other’s only Black male contacts in our doctoral program and then connecting on a shared perception of loneliness, we are now both intimately invested in our collective success. We see a challenge to one as a challenge to both. When Kwan perceives a problem of his as due to his race, we are both mobilized to respond. If Victor encounters a problem, racial or not, to the degree that it may stymie his success, it is still a challenge to us both. Our collective is not made up of just us. More than most of our colleagues, we are sure, our families are dependent on our success, not merely as a point of pride, but as a necessary step toward the family’s unitary economic and social stability. Still more, each time we walk into a classroom, we not only feel the responsibility of a professor to his students, but a responsibility to every Black face in the classroom to demonstrate Black potential and, to every non-Black face, the responsibility of demonstrating Black capability. We feel that we are not just ourselves, we are us all.
That weight may be, in some estimations, unwieldy, unwise and unjustified, but, to us, it is also undeniable and unavoidable. We feel personally proud of Black achievement and disappointed at Black failure because we are not spectators, but that achievement or failure is our own. And for those who point out the problems with such an approach, we retort that it was not one entirely of our own creation. American has consistently dealt with Blacks as if we were one writhing monolith. A rebellion on one plantation elicited punishment within several. Resistance to Jim Crow in one place sparked retaliation in several others. A policeman’s bad experience with one Black person leads to his rough treatment of others. Academics themselves have been guilty of conflating individuals into singularity – our paper explored how perceptions of historical religious ignorance and bigotry have made Black religiosity a mark of unsophistication and anti-intellectualism. Forced into one collective Black box, we cannot be blamed for responding in kind, as we are, for ill or good, all connected. Perhaps unfortunately, this may mean that a sensation misinterpreted as pain in one corner of the Black communal body often reverberates throughout, multiplying its intensity and the nature of the response.
Black cynicism and the adoption of vicarious experience as our own is a recipe for perceiving racial incivility in every corner. Interestingly, the professor we had the opportunity to speak with challenged one of our responses to perceived incongruence. She noted that we had developed a pattern of avoiding the institution due to our discomfort. Upon reflection, we must admit that truth. To paraphrase her point, our abandonment relinquished our claim to a place where we, in fact, belonged and our absence made it difficult for those who actually cared to determine how best to make that space more inclusive. Standing up to decry the isolation that drove us away might be seen as courageous, but fleeing the scene to complain from the outskirts was decidedly not. For this, we must take responsibility.
We would add, though, that many of our colleagues – even those who are well-meaning – have often taken a similar approach, avoiding depth of contact with us in order not to risk unwittingly hitting some racial landmine. Unwillingness to traverse into uncomfortable territory is not tenable for us, but equally untenable for non-Black others. Both harm the prospects for our field’s advancement beyond the “problem of the color-line.” We commit to doing our part in bridging the gap by seeking not to bring distrust where it is not deserved, by discerning the personal from the racial (inasmuch as these can be separated), and by being present. But we must demand, then, that others be willing to acknowledge the realities that breed distrust, and commit to being proactive and helping us to overcome not only our perceptual biases, but, more importantly, the oppressive structures that produce them
One way to do that is to take advantage of another aspect of Black culture that we explored – the search for personal connection. This will make many of our colleagues uncomfortable we are sure. However, when any academic stops to think how much of her or his own success is due to friendships and social ties with others, one must see that personal connection in the profession is not so foreign a concept. We merely suggest that, for those who care, the extra step to achieve closer bonds with Black counterparts on their terms may bring outsized dividends. We have a ready example: At the outset of writing this post, our thought was simply to amplify the message of our original piece. After a conversation with the professor, who we both felt truly cared about us – even if we do not always agree with her counsel – was able to change the tenor of this discussion.
There is no single person in the United States that has not benefitted from the contribution of Black American people, even if only indirectly through recent immigration to a country whose present opportunity is built on previous, forced Black labor. We will decline to say that this necessarily creates a debt, but one might see how Black individuals may walk into institutional situations feeling something to that effect. For our part, we have little patience for those who would benefit from this system and feel no impetus to make it more equitable and more just, even if that means taking a few extra steps to connect to a Black colleague and to make them feel a part. At the same time, our very presence in academia is owed not just to Black labors, but to the work and fierce advocacy of many who look nothing like us. If a debt is owed, it is a reciprocal one. How to completely resolve the issue of inclusiveness is a subject for another paper and another day, when we have done the necessary study and contemplation to offer answers more confidently. What is clear is that the oft-recommended – but seldom done – resolution of open and honest communication rooted in a relationship of care and trust must be a first step. The second must be open and honest connection rooted in that same type of relationship. And a third must be partnership and collective effort, again, in the context of care and trust. If autoethnography has done nothing more than to help us demonstrate the effectiveness of this path, it has been a worthy endeavor and a worthwhile contribution to science.