Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Why "Seeing" Isn't Always Believing in Higher Education (Pecha Kucha Session)
For those who follow along on this blog, you know I have been preoccupied with mirrors as a metaphor as of late.
For those who know me, you know I am trying to overcome my own insecurities around public speaking.
For those who have done Pecha Kucha sessions, y'all know the extreme difficulty of presenting these session.
Combine all of these things together, and you get my most recent Pecha Kulcha session for the Midwest First-Year Conference, which I presented Friday, 23 September at Northern Illinois University. For folks who may not know, Pecha Kucha sessions are quick presentations of 20 images, and the presenter can only talk for 20 seconds per image. As someone who loves hir words, this is a challenge for me. However, I wanted to try and see if I could condense information without losing content and richness. Here is my attempt...
As I have come to do, I am sharing this talk, with corresponding slides, as a way to increase dialogue about topics I think are vital to the field of education, particularly higher education. I look forward to hearing folks' feedback!
Good afternoon. My name is Z Nicolazzo, and I am an assistant professor in the adult and higher education program here at NIU. My research focuses on transgender, or trans*, collegians, and I want to talk a for a little bit today about the deceptive idea that “seeing is believing.”
Many of you in the room work alongside first year students. I used to do this as well. In fact, I got my start in student leadership as an Orientation Advisor at Roger Williams University, where I completed my undergraduate degree many years ago. This is also how I developed my passion for student affairs.
When working with first year students, we often use metaphors that signal belonging and place. We talk about students as a unified “student body.” We also suggest our campuses are “one community” or “one family.” In terms of the queer students with whom I work, there is often talk about college as a chance to come out.
But what about those students who are not expected as a part of the “student body”? What about those of us whose identities are not visible, or go unrecognized (either maliciously or otherwise) by others? And what about those of us for whom it is not safe to be “out”?
These are the students who I want to speak about today. So often in student affairs, we talk about “meeting students where they are at.” Well, what if we don’t know where they are at because their showing up or being “out” is unsafe and/or goes unrecognized? Because “seeing” isn’t always believing.
It is my belief that in student affairs, we succumb to what I have started to call the hegemony of visibility. Put another way, we as educators far too often wait for students to come out or make themselves visible to us before we begin constructing equitable and just college environments.
And when we rely on this hegemony of visibility, we privilege the narratives, experiences, and voices of those with dominant identities. When talking about queer and trans* youth, this means all we “see” is White, cisgender, able-bodied queerness, or those who have less barriers to being “out and proud.”
The hegemony of visibility is predicated on the replication of systemic oppression. Put another way, because being out is often unsafe for people with multiple marginalized identities or those of us who are between identities, like non-binary folks, those of us who become educators are often folks who are safer being out.
Moreover, those of us who “don’t fit” the notion of being a part of the “student body” are policed out of education. For example, Monica Jones, a student at Arizona State University, was arrested on the erroneous charge of “manifesting prostitution,” which is often discussed as “walking while trans*.”
So you may be asking, “What does this have to do with mirrors?” Simply put, students are not always a reflection of our conventional beliefs of race, gender, sexuality, ability, and various other identities. Seeing is not always believing. Being out or visible is a privilege that is not equally distributed across populations.
This thinking brings with it many questions. What does that mean for our work with first year students? How does this change the way we welcome students to college campuses? What does this mean for interacting with students, or creating programming and constructing college environments?
Thankfully, we have resources that can help us answer these questions. Dean Spade, a critical legal scholar, talks about trickle up activism. I have translated this to higher education environments to think about the work we must do as educators for those who are most vulnerable.
Trickle up activism, or what I have called trickle up education, means framing all education we do for those who are most on the margins. This may mean constructing programming and educational initiatives for those we do not “see” and those who may be unable to gain access to our campuses.
In centering those who are most vulnerable, we create educational environments, and invest in educational epistemologies, that see liberation as a collective process. Because that which works to liberate those who are most on the margins will garner rights that trickle up to more privileged populations.
The first step in doing trickle up education is to begin to unlearn the gender binary discourse that saturates our campuses. How we deconstruct programs, environments, policies, and the very way we think, which is largely framed through the false notion that gender is, and can only be, a binary between men and women.
To unlearn this gender binary discourse, I suggest we invest in what I have termed an epistemology of love where we open our minds to who people are and who they may become. We must also stop assuming who we see is all of who someone is or who they can or may desire to become.
When we hold our spaces, our minds, and our hearts open to other people and all our complex possibilities, we do the work of liberation. We trade in one conventional mirrored view for embracing various possible unknown or unknowable futures. We recognize that “seeing” isn’t always believing. We resist the hegemony of visibility.
We have a unique opportunity with first year students. We have a chance to develop more complex and nuanced campus environments and discourses that encourage identity exploration, compassion, and individual and group resilience. We can do this if we resist the idea that students are just as we think we see them.
I appreciate your time this afternoon. I know you have had long days. However, I would like you to do one more thing: please join me in about twenty seconds of reflection for those trans* people, largely trans* women of color, who continue to be targeted and killed for their gender and race.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.