Subversives in the Academy

For many women of colour, life in academia feels like a constant fight. As Dr. Rita Dhamoon writes, racism is a workload issue. So, when do we sit down and when do we fight back? And how do we keep fighting in the face of such intractible systemic hostility? In this episode of Academic Aunties, we talk to Dr. Debra Thompson (Associate Professor of Political Science and Canada Research Chair in Racial Inequality in Democratic Societies at McGill University) about the necessity of the fight, the value of stealing your time back, how creating subversives can drive change, and the importance of armour to survive the neoliberal academy. 

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Debra Thompson 0:00

I got a job in the public service of Canada. I hated it. You know, I hated my life. I just like woke up and like put my head in my hands and thought like, “Oh my God, I hate my life. I cannot believe this is what I am going to do for the next 50 years.” The guy in the cubicle next to me, his screensaver was a countdown to his retirement. And like, it wasn’t close. It was like 17 years, 10 months, six days.

Ethel Tungohan 0:34

I’m Dr. Ethel Tungohan, an assistant professor of politics at York University. This is Academic Aunties. Lately, I have been feeling depleted, disillusioned and angry. The past few weeks, nay, months have been challenging, because I am confronted daily with just how inhumane, how unkind, and how hostile academia can be, especially for women of color. We are expected to research to teach and do service similar to other professors. But we are also expected to do so much more. From providing a lot of emotional labor, to being asked to be the voice of diversity, to proving that we make our institutions more progressive for being different, but that we are not too different to be threatening. As my beloved friend and colleague, Dr. Rita Dhamoon says, racism is a workload issue. In truth, I sometimes wonder, when do I sit down? And when do I fight back? How can I keep fighting for change? Knowing that the neoliberal academy is at the heart of it, racist and sexist? How do we keep plugging along knowing that the fight is, in many ways, never ending, and sometimes even futile? To answer these questions, I talked to my good friend, Dr. Debra Thompson, that is auntie Deb for you.

Yay! We have Deb, Auntie Deb. Do you want to introduce yourself?

Debra Thompson 2:14

Yeah. Hi, everyone. My name is Deb Thompson. I’m an associate professor of political science at McGill University. I’m also a Canada Research Chair in racial inequality in democratic societies. And I’m one of Ethel’s great old friends.

Ethel Tungohan 2:31

Yeah. So how long have we known each other now?

Debra Thompson 2:34

I was trying to do the math earlier. 2006? I feel like is when you started your PhD? I started in 2005.

Ethel Tungohan 2:43

So 15 years? Did I do the math right?

Debra Thompson 2:45

Yeah, good for us.

Ethel Tungohan 2:47

What were some of the things about the graduate program, if you can remember, that was just kind of weird to you, right? Like, because there are norms. Everything?

Debra Thompson 2:59

So I think I, you know, I thought about this a lot. And like, I knew nothing about doing a PhD while I was doing a PhD. And I think this is really common among, you know, students of color and first gen students. And, you know, I was both of those things. And so, you know, I had no idea about the job market. I had no idea about publishing, I didn’t know what CPSA was, I remember our friends talking about going to CPSA and Congress, and I was like, okay, that, that sounds fun. Is that something that you do for fun? You know, I had no idea what was, you know, what this industry entails? I really had no idea about any of it.

Ethel Tungohan 3:46

You came in, probably with the same base knowledge as me: zero. What were some of your tactics in terms of trying to learn all of these things, the hidden curriculum that some of our peers whose parents are professors knew already?

Debra Thompson 4:04

Yeah. I mean, I think the best thing that I did, honestly, was anytime I got anyone, you know, a professor during their office hours, or anyone at conferences, I would kind of corner them and say, you know, what did you wish you knew when you were in my position, and I had a little notebook, and I would like, write it down. And at the end I had this notebook of like, really, really helpful advice. So that’s kind of that was, that was one really important thing. The other thing was that you know, I take advice, you know, I really do I absorb it, like, like a sponge. And so when people gave me advice, I frequently we would pay like very, very close attention. I wrote it down. I paid heed to it. And I would follow it, you know, as much as possible, except when people told me not to worry, you know, Because a lot of people will be like, well, like people were like, you’re smart, you’ll be fine. And I was like, “You don’t know that white perso”. You know, like, in what world have Black people ever just like been able to be mediocre and have been fine,

Ethel Tungohan 5:13

Going back to kind of the advice that you’ve been given and you kind of listening and taking notes, but also recognizing that some of the advice is better suited for white folks, as opposed to Black folks? How did you kind of sift through that? Were there people whose advice you took more seriously than others? Or were you kind of pairing that with lived experience as well? Like, let’s talk about being Black in the academy and being Black in grad school? Because you were the only one!

Debra Thompson 5:40

I was. Yeah, you know, and our Ph. D. program was huge, right? There were like 150 PhD students at any given time. Let me give you the optimistic version. The first optimistic version is like, you know, I work in in race and ethnic politics. I particularly now am invested in Black politics. And for a lot of Black people in the academy and in political science, like, our goal is to get more of us in the academy. Right? And so that means that my networks are really strong. That means that these like debates that shap disciplinary norms don’t factor into the the worth and value that we we give scholarship in the same way, you know. So like, most our REP scholarship is quantitative, right, and I don’t do quantitative work at all. And yet, like, these are Black folks who are still like, my biggest fans, and have worked really hard to to give me opportunities. So it’s kind of like one part of it. The other part of is I wanted, like, just have like, a word of caution, because, you know, in, in Black families, we have a saying, and it’s, you know, not all, not all skin folk are kinfolk, you know? Most frequently the people who have done me harm have been women, frankly, who claim to be women of color who aren’t, and we can talk about those, like, really tricky definitions, who, like have these, like really weird territorial understandings of research and their identities and how they present themselves in the world, and, you know, have seen me for varying reasons, like as threatening, and have really tried to sabotage my career, right? So like, you know, so I want to, like, put those two things side by side, because I’m not, I don’t want to tell your audience that, you know, to trust all people who claim to be people of color, because like, that has not been the case. All I can say is, you know, use your judgment, be discerning. You know, I think that, that how we treat people who have less clout from us is a good indication of, you know, how we we treat people generally speaking, right? Like, you can tell a lot about people by the way they treated custodial staff, and, you know, so that’s what I pay attention to.

Ethel Tungohan 8:04

So I guess that’s also one thing I wanted to talk to you about. So lately, I’ve kind of been thinking about the neoliberal academy and how it’s supposedly a space where great ideas flourish, where, you know, ideas concerning social justice, and norms concerning social justice flourish. And yet, there seems to be a disconnect between the ideas that we talk about, and the practices of these institutions. And you yourself alluded to how you’ve been burned by people within these institutions. And this is a hard ask, right. But I guess I just wanted to hear your reflections on when do we fight back? When do we step back? And how do you know when to do either one?

Debra Thompson 9:04

Yeah, I mean, so let’s take this from the beginning, because I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Like how do we conceptualize universities, right, because universities are, right, they purport to be the spaces where, you know, ideas are debated, right, that the places where research is done, but universities are also a lot more than that. Right? They are corporations. They are bureaucracies, incredible bureaucracies right? Second only to the government, they are communities, right, that are oriented towards social justice. They are brands, they are, you know, cogs in the wheel of neoliberalism and capitalism. They are a lot of things and they are, you know, as I think we know, like the upholders of like white supremacy and patriarchy and heteronormativity right? They are there all of these things at the same time.

The way that I think about the university is I think of the university and the various universities where I’ve worked. And as you know, I’ve worked at several, as being like structures of domination. And they’re like any other structure of domination, in that we all participate in them. We don’t have like much of a choice in that way. You know, I think a lot about what Joel Olson wrote, he wrote a book called the Abolition of White Democracy years and years ago, and he passed away actually, slightly just after he wrote the book. And one of the things he wrote in his preface is like, what, what do I do with my time on this earth to destroy white supremacy? Right, like, how do I destroy white supremacy while I’m here, given the short time we all have? And so you know, I don’t think that, you know, we can ask the same question at the university, right? Like, the question isn’t, how can we destroy universities? Or how can we destroy higher education while we’re here? The question is like that that’s posed by, you know, Moten and Harney, in the Undercommons, like how do we become subversives? Like within the structure, this structure of domination, how do we become fugitives? My goal has always been to, to try to become a subversive, even as like, you know, in other ways I understand that I am complicit in in this structure of domination, right? Like God, I used to work in a private university in the United States where our tuition was $55,000 a year.

As a Canadian, I’m like, what?

I know, it’s wild. Right? It was morally morally correct, right? Absolutely. You know, and so we are part of this system that is much more about the consolidation of wealth than about social mobility. And so like, what are we going to do to be subversive while we’re here? Like, I think there’s a lot of ways right, like, I listened to the podcast that you had when you had Nisha and Mariam on it. And it was great. It was a great podcast. And, you know, you talked about the burden of overwork, which I recognize, but I also want to put out there that like, time theft is my favorite kind of collective action. Right? Like, steal your time back.

Ethel Tungohan:

How? Do you say no? Or how do you say no?

Debra Thompson:

No, I say no, a lot. I don’t work more than eight hours a day. I don’t work on weekends, if I can help it, in part because like, this is a job. Right? This is a job. This is not my identity. This you know, I this I think this comes as well from like switching employers fairly often because the university is my employer. Right? I remember I had this like, very clear moment when I was working at Ohio University, which was terrible for the record. And the student came in and asked me something about like, if I was going to contribute to like the Ohio University fundraising campaign. I was like, do you understand the way like employer employee relationships work? Like, no, I’m not giving my employer money. They should be paying me more money, like, you know, like, no.

So yeah, like time theft, steal your time back. Create, like little radicals in our students as much as possible. Right? Whenever when I was working in the US, one of the things I would do is like, at any time, I could talk to student athletes, I would be like, yes. Let me talk to student athletes. Let’s talk about unionizing. Right, let’s talk about how much money the University of Oregon is making off the back of unpaid Black people. Because look, like, our end game…we study race politics, I study race politics, you study, you know, migrant politics. Like I want, I don’t want to do this, right? I want to be out of a job, right? I don’t want to live in an anti Black world. Right? I don’t want to live in a world that is characterized by white supremacy and heteronormativity. And patriarchy, I want to live in a world that is like egalitarian. Really, right? And so like, my best case scenario, is I am not needed anymore.

Ethel Tungohan:

Let’s talk about pushback, right? Because certainly, if we, I mean, I can tell my employer, okay, well, my goal is actually to abolish this and they’d be like, no, our goal is to sustain this. Right. And so, knowing a little bit about your, you know, movement through these different institutions, and also some of the pushback that you’ve received and becoming, you know, the person who complains and becoming, you know, through being one of the only if not the only Black professors, becoming the site of a lot of, you know, white anger. How do you kind of maintain your health while also pushing back? I mean, when do you sit down? And when do you push back?

Debra Thompson:

So I have a couple things to say about that. One is that I think that a lot of people think like, when I get tenure, I will, you know, do X, Y, Zed, X, Y, Zee for the Americans listening, you know, and when I get a job, I will be better positioned to do this. And like, yes and no, right, like, because I think it reminds me a lot of like, New Year’s, you know, like, every New Year’s, we’re like, this year, I will go to the gym every day. And it’s like, y’all, you know, if you weren’t doing it on November 15, you’re not going to do it on January, 15, right? Like, people, people don’t like substantially change, right? And so like, if you’re going to have this commitment, you know, like, people grow, and I feel like I’ve grown a lot. I feel like I’ve learned a lot in during my time in the academy. But I feel like people who are waiting to have security to take those risks, like, if you’re not going to take it, now you’re not going to take it then right?

That said, there is something powerful about being the only one when you get to be in my position, right? So when you’re…like, I’m an associate professor, I’m a CRC. And all of a sudden, universities turn around, they’re like, “Huh, we don’t we don’t have any Black folks,” you know, like, “Oh, my God, but but we have Deb, and she’s the only one. And Holy shit, we can’t lose, you know, we can’t lose her yet, right.” And all of a sudden, I have like, much, much, much more power than I did when I was a grad student when I was a postdoc when I was a junior faculty. And like, the irony is, I wouldn’t be the only one if universities would not systematically push out people of color, right? Like we get filtered out of undergrad, we get, we don’t get into grad schools, we don’t make it through grad school. We don’t get postdocs, we don’t get tenured tenure track positions, we don’t get tenure. And then all of a sudden, people are fucking surprised when like, we’re the only ones in the room. Like, like, like it’s structural, it’s structural. So you know, so that being said, like, there, there is an incredible power to being the only one, especially in a moment when people in these environments are really, really worried about appearing to be racist.

So that’s kind of like one one part of it. The other part of it is like this, this is a job. This is a job. And like all of the the moral credentialing, all of the and not all of the struggle, right? But all of the ways in which we seek love from institutions that are fundamentally incapable of loving us back is part of the trick of neoliberalism. And I’m not doing it anymore.

Ethel Tungohan:

This is resonating so deeply, because we do want the institution to love us back. Right? This is why we try to go over and beyond what’s required of us, right? Then you’re saying, nope, nope, no more?

Debra Thompson:

No, I don’t, you know, like, I, you know, I care about a lot of things. I care about my students deeply. I care about my colleagues, I care about my friends, I love my children more than life itself. But like, I do not, like I refuse to care about, like, white supremacy in a way that like tricks me into protecting it.

Ethel Tungohan:

So how do these tricks manifest? I mean, what are some of the ways you’ve been tricked?

Debra Thompson:

Who Haha, so many, like buying into the brand? You know, I, we had a discussion a few months back about like honorifics and like, you know, we disagreed on that, but like even buying into that this honorific is worth anything other than, you know, creating other than a mechanism to create divisions between, you know, the working class and the white collar class. I don’t buy that. The ways which you know, the mistakes I’ve made God like the the ways in which information is currency, and it’s possible to accrue debt. Right, the toxicity and ubiquity of the rumor mill. The ways that like white supremacy manifest not just in individual behaviors, even though like there have een, you know, saboteurs but also the ways that like, rules and policies and processes value precisely those things which are exclusive. And like what I mean by that is, like, we know so for example, we value prestige in the academy. We love it when people from Harvard, Yale, Princeton apply to our jobs, right? Like how many how many black students do you think Harvard admits a year into its [political science] PhD program? Right? Like one maybe. So those things that we value are precisely the same things that are likely to like to exclude us. Right? And then again, we wonder why the pools aren’t diverse, right? Yeah, I mean, I mean, like all of the hidden norms going back to our initial conversation about the hidden curriculum. The ubiquitous nature of like, conflict avoidance, oh my God, conflict avoidance.

Ethel Tungohan:

Absolutely. Because then you’re being kind of, you know, there’s different scripts, right. And I’ve had to learn this a lot. And in the academy, you can’t ever just say what’s wrong. It has to be kind of lumped into

Debra Thompson:

It’s like grading you got to have it like a compliment sandwich. Right, you say something nice, and then you say like, a softly like a, you know, a soft pedaled criticism, and then you say something nice.

Ethel Tungohan:


Debra Thompson:

Right. Yeah.

Ethel Tungohan:

You know, this is not something I’ve ever, ever learned. Right? Like, because, you know, in my family, if you have an issue, you just say it, but then if you just say it in these spaces, then you’re read, especially if you’re, if you’re a woman of color, you’re read as angry, you’re read as irrational.

Debra Thompson:

Yeah, I get read as kind of being like too, Americanized, actually, now now? Yes, yes. Because it’s like, you know, Canadians are so polite. And so indirect, right. And just like kind of saying, what the problem is, is not appreciated.

Ethel Tungohan:

That’s interesting. So in the States, when you were there, were you read as being like, like, how were these different readings of you?

Debra Thompson:

I got read as being angry black woman, I think a lot. It depended on the place, you know, depending on the place, because, you know…I worked in an African American Studies Department at one point, right. And so that had its own issues. We, you know, we should talk at some point about the ways in which, you know, Black Studies, African American Studies, even like women and gender studies are often set up to fail, right? Like and at Oregon, the, you know, speak, going back to the question of aunties and uncles, right. Like, I had some really good white allies at Oregon. And those were people who would like to step in and take labor from me, you know, who would step in and prevent labor from being put on me. Who would amplify my voice. Who would call people out. Right? And these were like, white folks who, who kind of knew the score. And that’s like, that’s the definition of like, good white allies, right, like when you put yourself in danger for others. And then I think the definition of cowardly white allies is when you don’t.

Ethel Tungohan:

Yeah, and let’s talk a little bit about that, because I think allyship is such an important conversation to be had, right? So, you know, allyship isn’t just kind of messaging you afterwards to say, Yeah, I agree with you, it’s actually taking a hit. And by taking a hit, you mean…

Debra Thompson:

What I mean? I mean, when when people like, actively, like kind of like put themselves in harm’s way, like and I actually had this happen in Oregon, where like I had said something about…like, there’s a PhD student in my program, who had expressed something had happened to her. I don’t want to, you know, yeah, divulge, any information, right? But like, something had happened to her. And she had expressed like, an incredible discomfort to me as like, the only other woman of color. And I kind of relayed that in the faculty meeting. And a number of people in the faculty were like, “Well, well, well, let’s not extrapolate.” And I had colleagues who were like, “Well, wait a minute, what I just heard happen, was that a student of color came to Deb and told her, you know, that she was concerned about XYZ. And then Deb told us, and then you dismissed her, like, Deb as the only woman of color like I, you know, and I think that we need to take these concerns seriously.” Right? And the people who did that, like they weren’t in any more or less powerful positions than me, right. Like they could be seen as combative in doing that. And yet, they still did. Right?

Ethel Tungohan:

That’s beautiful. Because I think that’s what allyship is. I think allyship is basically speaking up, amplifying, and also facing the backlash if needed, and not having the people of color just kind of be in the line of fire. Right?

Debra Thompson:

Yeah. And I think, you know, like, I do a lot of talks to government agencies and NGOs and whatnot about like anti racism. And I think that part of the challenge is like, people in Canada in particular are like so uncomfortable around these conversations. And the only way to get good at this is to practice.

Ethel Tungohan:

How do you keep kind of fighting knowing that there’s no guarantee? Right? Cuz I mean, a part of me is like, Hey, you know, in this conversation I’m like, well, it’s white supremacists. I’m just gonna ostrich, you know, yeah, watch Netflix. Right? Like, get manicures.

Debra Thompson:

Totally. Yeah, I mean, doing nothing is always easier. So like my logic and this, okay, this is and this is gonna sound maybe silly to people who are listening. So my apologies, right, but like, you know, this is like the easiest job I’ve ever had. Like, honest to God, like I, you know, I worked at McDonald’s when I was 15. I went home like, smelling like fucking hamburgers, like dogs would follow me home after like a 12 hour shift, right? I worked at a grocery store. You know, when I was when I was 17. I had three jobs in my undergrad because I was so fucking poor. This is sitting in my office, they pay me to think, they pay me to write, they pay me to teach like future generations how to be decent people. Fucking easy. Right? And so the only thing that makes this job morally salvageable is the fight.

Ethel Tungohan:

I really love this. I feel like it’s a call to arms. And I also think, you know, it reminds me of this conversation. I was having over WhatsApp with a few friends who, you know, my grandmother Josefina, you know, and Teresa they grew up under World War Two Japanese occupation. And honestly, sometimes I like, get so agitated about these bullshit fights in the white supremacy, machinations machination stuff universities, right. But on the other hand, you’re right, like my grandmothers would be like, “Really?”

Debra Thompson:

I mean, and that’s not to say like what we do, like it’s not worthwhile, right? Like, like my goal, and I think that many people in my network have the same goal, including some of my my best favorite white allies. Like my goal is to get more of us in the academy, right? Like, and that in itself is important. And like, it’s not to say, like, you know, my students, I just finished teaching this great honors seminar on the politics of race. And like, a bunch of my students were like, you were the first like, woman of color, like I’ve had as a professor. And that was really meaningful, right? And so like, representation is not everything. But it is it is something right in the ways in which we are able to change like, people’s people’s worldviews like that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Ethel Tungohan:

Yeah, and I really kind of like how you talked about the importance of representation. Our presence matters. Certainly, I’ve received emails from students being like, you know, what, you are my only Filipina prof ever, right? Yeah. And I’m like, Oh, thank you, you know, and I kind of I feel, I feel I feel all the feels when I receive emails like that love those emails actually, like, because then, you know, you know, that you’re making an impact, but you’re also seeing it’s also about the larger structural fight. So it can’t just be but it can’t just be one or the other. Right?

Debra Thompson:

Yeah, it can’t, you know, and also, you know, while universities are busy trying to recruit and retain Black faculty, you know, I don’t know where they’re going to get them from, because, again, we have been systematically pushed out of graduate programs for generations, right. Like, I think it’s important to think about, like, the environment in which we are recruiting all these new black faculty, all these new indigenous faculty, all these people of color into, you know, we are recruiting people into these environments that are frequently like really, really toxic without any of the tools, you know, to, to effectively combat that toxicity without any of the power to combat that toxicity. Like what are we what are we bringing folks into? We need to be really careful and really cognizant about you know, how we can support junior faculty. How we can support our graduate students you know, how we can prepare them if you know if they want to be in here. Like how we can help build their their armor?

Ethel Tungohan:

What is the armor? I don’t know what the armor is,

Debra Thompson:

The armor is like, you know, when you go into battle, like you have armor, right? You have weapons and you have protection, right? And, like, make no mistake, man, like, like love is a battlefield but so is the academy, right? So like, you can’t go into meetings without your armor. Right? And sometimes that manifests as over preparation, right? Like, and this is like, endemic in it for people of color where like, you know, you you go to your conference panel and you have your like 12 pages of single spaced notes and like the white guy beside you is fucking winging it, right? Because, right, because like, oh, they’re so brilliant.

Ethel Tungohan:


Debra Thompson:

So sometimes your armor is being over prepared. Sometimes your armor is having good white allies that you can call upon, right? Sometimes armor is having my people in the audience who will give you questions and you have done this for me. right? Sometimes your armor is knowing like the situations and having you know people on the inside who can tell you what the real deal is. You know but you like you go in prepared in various ways because like we because we’re in a fight, right we’re in a fight against white supremacy. And white supremacy is like a formidable opponent.

Ethel Tungohan:

After my conversation with Deb, I realize that being a subversive in the academy, creating fugitives who disrupt systems and push for change is key. Fighting for more representation is important. But fighting for structural transformation is equally important. That is our job. But you should also remember that this is still a workplace, and we shouldn’t be tricked into letting the fight consume us.

And that’s it for this episode of Academic Aunties. I want to thank her guest, . Auntie Deb Thompson. I love her so much and so appreciate her wisdom and her friendship. This podcast was hosted by me Dr. Ethel Tungohan and produced by Wayne Chu. If you like the show, rate, and subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have time, leave us a review. They really help. Until next time, take care, be kind to yourself and don’t be an asshole.