After watching the Netflix series about academia, The Chair, I’ve been thinking about its many connections to teaching as a calling that is imbued with a vivid sense of purpose. Series executive producer Amanda Peet, in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, spoke about how impressed she was with the deep sense of calling she found in the faculty with whom she spoke as she developed the script. For me though, I was most engaged with the capacity of the women characters in the series to maintain that sense of calling amid the difficult racial and gender dynamics that they experienced with some of their white, male colleagues. These relationships—full of invalidations, microaggressions, bias, racial and gender discrimination, and harassment—were depicted in a realistic way that, frankly, made me squirm with anger and discomfort at times. As depicted in the series, their sense of conviction about the deeper meaning and purpose of their work helped them to both resist and navigate through the very real obstacles.
As mentors, we owe it to our students—especially those who are negotiating issues of race, gender, sexuality, or other minoritized status—to help them maintain that sense of meaning and purpose for their lives amidst the destructive energies of dismissal and discrimination that they will encounter in their calling. We need to help them learn to think strategically about the ways they can navigate the, unfortunately, inevitable struggles that exist in patriarchal, heteronormative, and white dominated institutions and cultures in order to maintain their sense of purpose and calling, as well as their mental, spiritual, and physical health. Thus, in the process of helping them discern a calling, we need to help them understand how to live authentically in that calling without hiding their difference from the accepted cultural norm.
In my own my vocational calling as a scholar of theology, teacher, and dean, understanding more fully the normative forces that pushed against me and pressured me to conform to a dominant culture and expression helped me to find ways to push back. The activism of resistance against such pressures to conceal, repress or cover many expressions of my identity helped me to maintain the convictions of my calling. I suggest that helping students from minoritized communities to understand the pressures to cover themselves that they will likely experience, as well as developing strategies to combat it, can provide them with tools to live more authentically in the vocational work to which they feel called.
Kenji Yoshino proposes a helpful understanding of oppressive normative dynamics from the perspective of race, xenophobia, gender, and sexuality in his work, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights. He argues that the civil rights battles of the present moment are rooted in discrimination against behavior and cultural expression that goes against dominant white and patriarchal norms. In an earlier time, bias and discrimination targeted specific groups; now, rather than directed at an entire group, discrimination is focused on those group members who refuse to assimilate to the dominant white and patriarchal culture: “This new form of discrimination targets minority cultures rather than minority persons. Outsiders are included, but only if we behave like insiders—that is, only if we cover” (pgs. 21-22). For Yoshino, pushing against the demands made on minority persons to cover is the civil rights fight that needs to be fought in this historical moment.
In this work he integrates an analysis of legal cases and the history of the LGBTIQ liberation movements with his own personal experience as a queer person of color who has lived in both American and Japanese cultures. He understood the story of his own struggle to find his gay identity as movements from a desire to be straight before he came out (conversion), a desire to conceal his identity after he came out (passing), and a need to mute his sexuality to protect himself from discrimination (covering). In these movements he also understood the historical journey of LGBTIQ community. This awareness became a significant force in his journey to understand how he might live more authentically in his personal and professional life: “I knew I would live with these three terms—‘conversion,’ ‘passing,’ and ‘covering’—for some time. They described not only a set of performances on my part, but also a set of demands society had made of me to minimize my gayness” (pgs. 18-19).
For more on Yoshino’s idea of “covering,” see “Covering to Fit In and Get Ahead.”
As I have navigated my own vocational journey as a queer woman scholar of theology, the pressures of covering demands have been some of the most challenging realities with which to cope. I came out as a lesbian woman in 1984 while already professionally engaged in the world of religion. I never struggled with the desire for conversion that Yoshino did, and there was never an issue of trying to pass. My non-traditional appearance would always have people reading my sexual orientation as not-heterosexual. Even though I was out in the professional world of theology the covering demands were persistent. I was told many times that my writings and my refusal to live in a “glass closet” would always create obstacle for me. While this proved to be true in many ways—which I anticipated— I sought out professional environments where these obstacles could be minimized. I learned to deal with covering demands through trial and error. It is vocationally meaningful to me to help others resist those demands more effectively.
Yoshino models an intersectional way for students from minoritized communities to understand the demands made on them—both subtle and overt—that require conformity to the dominant culture. Bringing this critical awareness to the persons and institutions with whom they will be living out the work of their calling can help them to create the actions of resistance that can help them navigate the systems of power in which they will be operating. When they can bring this critical understanding to their own efforts of self-care, and combine it with a community of support, they can have powerful tools to protect the integrity of themselves as they live lives that are meaningful to them.
Resisting the demands of covering our authentic identities can bear a cost in mental, spiritual, and physical health, as well as opportunities and advancement. As we navigate those barriers drawing on the meaning and purpose that drive us, like the women of The Chair, we can find our renewed commitment to maintain our calling. When we help our students do the same, we empower them to resist the forces that could undermine their hard-won sense of vocational self.
Kathleen T. Talvacchia is a contextual theologian with interest in practical theology, Christian practices of marginalized communities, and Queer theology. She was previously at Union Theological Seminary and New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science. Most recently she authored Embracing Disruptive Coherence: Coming Out as Erotic Ethical Practice (2019) and co-edited Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (2015). While one part of her would love for vocational journeying to include a predictable map, her better-self rolls with and revels in the messy, unpredictable energy of Divine Wisdom. For other blog posts by Kathy, click here.