Blogging as a Woman of Colour Sociologist

Blogging and survival as a woman of colour sociologistThis is the story of my blog, and why blogging became a strategy to make sense of my career and my life as an Other – a woman of colour, the “non-academic” sociologist.

I started my blog in September 2011. This inauspicious date is not coincidentally aligned with the 10 year anniversary of the September 2001 attacks in the USA. Back in 2001, I was just beginning my PhD and had been trying to recruit Turkish-Australian women for my dissertation, with little success. I wanted to extend my Honours thesis, which focused on heterosexual Latin American women in Australia. A small aspect of that study had lingered, with respect to otherness: the Latin women, who had experienced much racism, expressed high support for  multiculturalism. They had many friends from various backgrounds, and some had boyfriends of diverse origins (though Latin American men were a preference). One group they would not date was Muslim men, and many referenced Turkish men specifically due to negative gender stereotypes surrounding Turkish men in the Western suburbs of Melbourne, where most of the women lived.

Given the Latin women’s experiences of racism by Anglo-Australians, this intrigued me, as it suggested what I came to term as hierarchies of otherness. 

Hierarchies of otherness

Latin American Summer Festival women sitting 2015
Melbourne Latin Summer Festival

Society places Anglo-Australians at the top of the social hierarchy in Australia; the women I interviewed, as Latin women of colour, were near the bottom. The women referenced the lack of respect shown to all migrants and even more so towards Indigenous people (both collectives were identified as being near the bottom of the social hierarchy). Still, the women were inclusive in their friendships, including having Turkish women friends, but they seemed to place Turkish and Muslim men near the deepest part of the hierarchy of otherness.

For my PhD, I wanted to explore this by interviewing another group of Latin Australian women, as well as wanting to hear directly from Turkish women to see if they identified similar hierarchies of otherness and to capture their unique experiences of gender and race. Well, the latter proved a problem. I wanted to speak with second-generation women and most listed groups for Turkish Australians were for first-generation migrants. The student clubs for Turkish Aussies did not seem interested in participating in my study.

When the September 11 attacks occurred, this all changed in a matter of days. The student groups rang me back and put me in touch with other groups of young Turkish women. I completed most of my interviews within a couple of months. Though there were important differences between the Turkish and Latin women, especially with respect to religion and sexuality, the common theme was the struggle to claim an Australian identity against a profound sense of social exclusion at the hands and deeds of Anglo-Australians.

For the record: these two cohorts did talk about hierarchies of otherness; all identified that Indigenous Australians received the most unfair treatment; most identified Muslims were characterised as “Other;” but the Turkish women did not refer to Latin men in any way. This is likely because Latin Australians have a low profile in Australia (due to relatively low numbers), so they may not be on Turkish women’s horizon, nor to most other ethnic groups, for that matter. Muslims were already stigmatised and even more so after September 11, so unsurprisingly perhaps, they remained a reference point on the hierarchy of otherness for Latin women.

Viva Victoria Festival - Turkish stand
Viva Victoria Festival

The year 2001 was significant for many personal reasons, but one of the experiences that shaped me was conducting my research speaking to Turkish women about how racism and exclusion impacted them in the wake of the September attacks.

Being a first-year postgraduate student in sociology, my political consciousness expanded swiftly. Having always followed so-called ‘left’ politics, my sense of social justice rapidly altered seeing the way in which the attacks shaped media and political discourse. These attacks gave mileage to the Liberal Government, then led by Prime Minister John Howard, who used scaremongering on terrorism to excise Australian land and begin what is now a 15-year campaign against asylum seekers.

When I completed my PhD three years later, the political landscape had worsened. Hierarchies of otherness were more pronounced than ever on the national stage.

Leaving academia

Scholar's Rock. Ancient Chinese art. Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos
Scholar ‘s Rock (17th Century Base). Yingde Guandong province. Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria

I tried to make a ‘full-time’ career in academia happen out of a casual contract in one research-intensive university (paid only for my contact hours even though I wrote a course from scratch). At the same time, I had a part-time contract at another university (that was very difficult to negotiate). I was poor, unhappy and scared about my future. In 2006, I made the decision to leave academia – something that many of my academic colleagues have never forgiven nor supported. I went into policy work and worked on issues of political violence, intercultural communication, migration and refugee policy, and social modelling.

Leaving academia was one of the best decisions of my life. Yet it left me alienated from my former community of sociologists. Experiencing acute professional isolation, I noticed immediately that our peak professional association only concerned itself with academic sociology careers and interests. I hear this is changing and look forward to seeing this bear out; however, back in 2006, there was nothing for sociologists working beyond academia. I founded the Applied Sociology group in 2007, and two years later I launched Sociology at Work.

The latter is how I eventually found my way here, to the Other Sociologist, and the world of blogging and social media… but the pathway was less than linear.

My early life as a diarist

Baby Other Sociologist dreams of being a writer. Ends up as sociologist blogger. Mission accomplished!
Baby Other Sociologist dreams of being a writer. Ends up as sociologist & blogger

I kept a daily journal since I was eight years old. In Grade 4, my primary school teacher used little home-made exercise books to encourage us to be creative; she also read our entries and wrote back to us. I’d always said I wanted to be a writer, even when I was little. Journaling was the perfect way to practice. I also wrote poetry and stories throughout high school and shared these with friends at school. Additionally, I was a prolific letter writer in my youth.

Eventually, however, the only thing I kept as an adult was the journals. I filled countless books with my thoughts. I wrote every night for a couple of hours just before I fell asleep, usually with a pen in hand. This helped me process not just daily events, but also my emotions and traumatic experiences, from extreme violence to racism to sexual harassment. I kept this up throughout my time as a postgraduate student as well as when I left academia and needed to processes what it was like to be rudderless, without peer support, being one of only five sociologists in my organisation, and the only junior woman of colour among them.

Sociology at Work (S@W) was born in 2009 to help other sociologists like myself, who were navigating careers without colleagues who are trained to think like them. Initially aided by a small group of colleagues from the Applied Sociology group, we wrote and edited articles from applied sociologists in different parts of the world. After the first year, the group moved on and I have kept it up alone ever since (but consequently bowed out of the Applied Sociology group).

Beginning a website for S@W meant getting on social media to promote our work. Back then I hated the idea of Facebook, let alone blogging. In the first years, I tended to reproduce content that people sent to me on S@W – please promote my conference; tell people about my article/book/thing. I only used Facebook and Twitter to promote the posts on S@W. Pretty soon, however, it became apparent that all the material being sent to me was spruiking academic wares, with zero awareness or interest in applied sociology. For the most part, applied researchers can’t afford to go to academic conferences, which are timed around the academic year. Plus the academic conference programs speak solely to academic issues. The books, articles and other bits and pieces that academics produce render applied sociology invisible. So – no – I decided that I had to start producing the type of content that was meaningful to applied sociologists.

There in lied the conundrum. How did I know what applied sociologists wanted? I only knew what I was hungry to read.

My life as a blogger

My blogging habit includes searching for Canberra's best all day breakfast
My blogging habit includes searching for Canberra’s best all day breakfast

I consumed sociology blogs and social media accounts for a couple of years, producing sporadic content on S@W as I tried to figure out what to do next. Again, these were filled with academic ideas and voices. The triumphs, concerns and views of sociological blogging back then were coloured by the ivory tower, a place that had only shown me disdain or disinterest since I left.

The more academic sociology blogs I read, I had two distinct, simultaneous experiences. On the one had, reading other blogs helped me feel less alone, because I could read sociology on my time off as I went from one assignment to another in my paid work. I travelled a lot and it felt good to read and think about sociology outside the research I did.

On the other hand, I felt frustrated. Back then, the most widely shared blogs were written almost exclusively by White sociologists (then mostly Americans and a handful of British academics). Whenever these relatively higher-profile White sociologists wrote about race, they often wrote from a place of White privilege, even when critiquing White privilege. It’s not that sociologists of colour weren’t blogging – it’s that it took me awhile to find them. Getting on Tumblr was a great help. Still – Australian voices of colour in sociology were lacking at the time.

So I started to read more broadly about blogging. I did a lot of research about how to use social media more effectively. At the same time, I had started to feel a sense that it was time to leave my job in public service. I had loved what I’d accomplished but so much of what happened to me had drained me. I needed to find new meaning. The journaling that had helped me process my life was no longer productive. Where once it helped me to feel as if I better understood the injustices I had endured, my diaries were no longer having this effect. My voice simply echoed back at me on pages and pages of ink. I did not feel better. I felt disconnected from my friends and many of my colleagues.

And so, less than one month after I officially quit my first applied research role, I started this blog, The Other Sociologist, named after the experience of being minimised as savage; vilified, exoticised and unfavourably reduced in social status in comparison to a dominant group, just for being different. The idea of this blog was then, as it is now, to seek empowerment in witnessing and critically examining experiences of otherness. As I said earlier, the impetus for this blog was the 10-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The political landscape was even more appalling in 2011 than ten years prior. I was different too, and not just because I was older and more experienced as a sociologist.

The private diaries that had thus far kept me alive and well were no longer having a positive effect. I decided to channel all my energies into blogging and social media, making public my struggle, albeit, focused on external events. I made a conscious commitment to plunge fully into the world of blogging and social media where I am now prolific in my activism. Soon, I stopped journaling altogether.

So here I am, almost five years later, more seasoned and very public in my social activism, all thanks to this little blog.

The Others like us

Blogging is a transformative experience and an excellent vehicle for thinking critically about social justice. I have learned a lot since I started this blog. I use other social media to write daily, but this blog is special. I am selective about what I publish, favouring this platform to make sense of public issues that reflect my personal politics. Here is where I best put into practice the type of critical and reflexive applied sociology that I want to read. I write in long-form, an art that is not especially conducive to high click-rates, but one to which I am deeply committed. I write about research in a way that honours my own experience as a woman of colour. I write about issues that lead me to be trolled constantly (more so on social media than here where I have better control over comments due to my strict moderation policy).

This is another liminal time for me as I gather strength to make more difficult choices. Sexism and racism are firm features of my life that are adversely affecting my health and wellbeing. Amidst these never-ending ups and downs, fighting the tower as a woman of colour—I am grateful to have finally started connecting with other women of colour in academia and beyond, who are close to my field. I hope to find more who are also applied sociologists, fighting systems that barely acknowledge our existence, and actively stand against our progress.

This blog remains, as ever, a public testament that people like us, The Others, and our experiences of otherness, matter.

The Other - our experiences of otherness matter
The Other – our experiences of otherness matter

Note

This blog post is inspired by the WordPress Learning the Fundamentals Course “Who I Am and Why I’m Here” challenge and WordPress Daily Inspiration. In an attempt to overcome the institutional racism and sexism I face in my daily life, I aim to bring more posts on what it’s like to be a woman of colour writing, working and volunteering in equity and diversity advocacy and other things in between. 

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