#WOCAcademicRealTalk “On the Art of Saying ‘No'”: Attending Academic Parties (or Not)

Another title for this piece could be: “On Class, Race and Academia” OR “How I Brought Lumpia to a Departmental Party and Got Pissed.”

Some of you have started the academic year already. We just started last week. In addition to classes, what else happens in the fall? A whole bunch of academic parties.

If you’re a graduate student, your fellow students may be hosting “welcome back” parties in their homes. If you’re a first year graduate student, you’ll find that some of your colleagues are especially enthusiastic about making these kinds of events happen.

If you’re a faculty member, a bunch of academic units are likely to be organizing “welcome back” receptions, sometimes on campus, many times at someone’s house, and you’re getting invites.

What do you say?

From my perspective, your default answer needs to be NO.

It may be worth it and necessary to attend some of these events but most of the time, they’re simply not worth the time, money and emotional distress.

Let me tell you a story. But let me warn you. This is a #WOCAcademicRealTalk blog post and I cuss like a mother-fucking sailor. That’s my working class pops’ influence, so if you can’t hang then scroll on.
Before I get to the story, lemme say this: academia is white (we all know that) but its also straight up bougie.

Showing up to an academic function with the bottle of Henny you bought at Costco or the 6-pack of Coors Light that you got at your local 7-11 (something you might do for a family party or when kickin it with your homies or your co-workers when you don’t work in academia) just ain’t the bidness. You best show up with shit you bought at Trader Joes or Whole foods (in their recyclable bags no less) or don’t show up at all. And that bag better be filled with good wine, cheese and crackers. No. Not that Sweet Red Barefoot brand wine. No, not the pre-sliced cheddar (even if it is sharp) or cuz you’re feeling fancy, Muenster. No, not Wheat Thins or Ritz (even if they’re whole grain). Put that shit back. Pick up a Food & Wine magazine real quick and school yourself fast. Believe it or not, I actually subscribed to a Food & Wine Magazine and the New Yorker my first year teaching at Rutgers University because I was freaking out about having to socialize with so many bougie white academics. I grew up in a community that was a majority people of color and blue-collar/lower-middle class. Even though I eventually earned my bachelor’s degree at UC Santa Barbara (talk about bougie and white), my social circles continued to be mainly people of color who were blue-collar/lower-middle class. This continued to be true through graduate school at UC Berkeley. Sure I had random-ass jobs where I would have to interact with white folk as co-workers or as customers along the way, but the Rutgers job was my first real job. And I was on the tenure-track.

Now back to my story: one of the most traumatizing experiences I have had in my academic career was in my first year of graduate school when one of the dudes in my PhD cohort (Stanford grad, white guy, from New York and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Queens, Harlem or Washington Heights) said he was hosting a “Port Party.” I’m thinking wtf is that? He lives by the Berkeley marina or something (i.e. at a port?) and he’s inviting us to his house boat? He thinks it will be cute if we dress in nautical-themed clothes and eat seafood cuz we’re close to the bay? I was completely bewildered. I didn’t ask anybody about it (after all, I was only one of two who attended a public university at the undergraduate level, and of the two of us, only I had transferred to a 4-year from a community college). I just didn’t go. Found out later he was talking about some old bottle of port wine his trust-fund ass wanted to share with us. Ugh. I pretty much never went to any departmental parties during grad school after that and have only very reluctantly attended the ever popular Berkeley parties at the yearly American Sociological Association meetings since I finished. It’s annoying AF to watch overly ambitious grad students from UCB and other places try to kiss ass with UCB alums who are now faculty, or observe alums try to one up each other. All I really wanna do is get drunk and commiserate about academic life with the few friends, generally people of color or working-class white folk, I made. Not surprisingly, I’m one of the people that never gets the invite to those parties anyways. I always need to ask someone else what the secret info is but whatevs. Fuck Berkeley. Yeah I had some support and managed to get my PhD there but it was pretty much hell.

So, one thing I did, a kind of  “act of resistance” on my part (thru food) was to attend the graduation party the year I graduated. I decided to go HAM and bring something totally ethnic: Pancit and lumpia. I knew it would either be novel and appreciated by the worldly-feeling bougie white folk in the department who have some familiarity with Filipino food or just totally foreign to the whiter than white folk. I guess I gave Berkeley people far too much credit cuz I thought it would be a hit. They are just so damn white. I had to explain it. Break down the ingredients, talk a little about the Philippines (how we’re the “Latinos of Asia” wink-wink-nudge-nudge Anthony Ocampo) that sort of thing. Meanwhile I’m thinking to myself, are you fucking serious??? Filipinos are one of the top ethnic groups in Alameda-fucking-County (of which the city of Berkeley is part) and the state of California more broadly. Don’t you fucking know us??? Haven’t you at least had a fucking Pinay nurse wipe your ass over at Alta Bates and actually engaged with them as people??? Haven’t you exchanged words with the airport security folks at SFO??? It’s like friggin Ninoy Aquino International Airport up in there. Really??? I mean, really??? Oh and you’re an expert on race and stratification? Get the fuck outta here. Smh.

Now what is the moral of the story: say NO to academic parties.

As graduate students, it IS vital that you build community with people at your institution. I couldn’t have survived Berkeley without a few key colleagues that I trusted and loved. But I didn’t meet them at some random party. I met them while doing course work. In class I carefully observed, listened to, and assessed other students and when I recognized an ally, I approached them individually and invested time in building with them. I wasn’t alone after that. You don’t need to attend those parties. Trust me, the folks who are all about that life, are sometimes the ones who just don’t make it (it’s true of “Port Party.” He dropped in year 2). Maybe they’re accustomed to the schmoozing and hobnobbing that can get you ahead in other professions (not that it isn’t true in academia) but at the end of the day, what will matter is that you finish that dissertation. That’s it. Tbh, I would even avoid departmental colloquia because I simply couldn’t tolerate how other graduate students would use the Q&A sections to grandstand. Uh, no. It’s not about you, boo. And you know what? Even though I was often intimidated by those folks–their confidence, their seeming command of key theoretical debates in the field, etc. etc. They didn’t finish either.

Now tenure-track faculty: what to do? I still say no. Trust me. Enough faculty of color who have been denied tenure or promotion will tell you this: you can be friendly AF and socialize with your white academic colleagues on campus, in their homes and even in yours and they will still say that you simply aren’t “a fit” (wtf does THAT mean?) even when your academic record clearly shows that you deserve tenure and promotion. You can try to dress the part. You can try to act the part. In fact, you may even be one of those people of color who is perfectly comfortably in their settings due to your class privilege or how you grew up. But as my pops used to say: “No matter what you try to do, you will ALWAYS be Filipino. You can’t wash off that brown.” Now, there are times when you have to suck it up an attend these events. I would say that you should start with the on-campus events. There, everyone will have a name tag (so introductions aren’t so awkward) and since they often draw from across the university, you may find potential friends and allies from other units. Connect and build with them fast. Your well-being as a person and as a tenure-track faculty member will depend on it. Remember, tenure is not only determined by your department. It goes to other levels and it helps to have friends in other places. If you have to say yes, say yes to events that are sponsored wholly or in part by student affairs units. While universities don’t often hire and retain faculty of color on a permanent basis, many student affairs units are staffed with people of color. These folks typically have solid politics and some serious institutional memory. They can be a wonderful resource to you but more than that, they will be friends for life. Those departmental events? If you can’t use the “Oh, I have other plans,” “Sorry, I/my child am/is ill,” excuses anymore, then what I used to do was arrive just on time (or early…no POC time) and bounce early or make my way to the corner and chit-chat with the administrative staff (who are always women, have been dumped on by your senior colleagues, would welcome a faculty member they can relate to, and may be people you can better relate to anyways…btw they can be important allies too). Otherwise, I treated academic social events (on- or off-campus) as a kind of institutional ethnography, a means of better understanding the beast that is your institution and mapping out strategies for surviving and thriving.