Presenting Selves: Race, Social Class, Gender and Intersectionality in Ethnography

This should have been, if not easy, then certainly not a disaster.

When I was in admissions I killed my peers in productivity because I spoke the same language as our students. While my history of poverty was comparatively shallow, it was not non-existent. I’ve used the oven to a heat a home and washed clothes in a bathtub. And although I had not had children young or been in the welfare system, I had lived the normative black working class southern tradition of fictive kinship, gendered work groups, and ad-hoc social networks to help raise families, network jobs, and share information and resources. I have play cousins and aunties and “sisters” that aren’t.

Smart, I was also not a stellar student. I was above average but in an average kind of way. My parents had gone to college but, as products of their generation, we only had graduates of historically black colleges in my networks. The skills they had acquired for navigating the college milieu of my slightly higher social class status culture by the time I was in high school were different than the skills I needed. When Oglethorpe and Princeton came recruiting I took the free ride to an in-state, low ranked public college because I did not know the real difference.

I was not the student enrolling in our nine month beauty college but I was not my colleagues for whom the taken-for-granted assumptions of the college experience were designed.

One of my greatest skills was talking finance in terms my students could understand. I knew to bring up concerns about credit worthiness, for instance. Black people where I’m from don’t talk family business in the streets. Money, or the lack thereof, is family business. In particular, talking about credit is to de facto reveal information our culture codes as moral behaviors. What you own versus what you lease (a house versus an apartment versus a trailer) or what accounts you have and do not have (Fingerhut versus Visa) or on what accounts you defaulted versus what you kept current (school loans versus car payments) are all rife with moral assumptions and possible judgments about who you are as a person.

I had to anticipate the concerns of my students and assume the role of advocate to ask questions that were roadblocks to enrolling but that did not compromise their value system of never asking questions. I explained subsidized and unsubsidized federal student loans with analogies of renting to own furniture or buying a car. Textbook student loan counseling draws on the vocabulary of markets. My students rarely had experiential knowledge of interest rates, portfolios, and the like from managing 401ks or “playing stocks”.

Students would often wait hours to see me when a colleague was available. I was fairly good at that job.

So, interviewing for-profit students in Black Mecca should not have been difficult. But, my first interview was a disaster. We were similar in age. We were both black and women. She was much better dressed than was I. And five minutes into the interview her anger and contempt for my questions was palatable. What had gone so wrong?

I would like to say that I figured out the issue, course corrected and internalized the lessons as I moved forward in my project. I did not. I lucked up on a line of discourse that ultimately diffused the situation and made for a useful, if not stellar, interview. I was so shook by the experience however that I skulked off and did not do another for weeks. It was a graduate school colleague who finally pushed me towards reflection. The lesson was instructive of how assumptions about race, class and gender alone and in some myriad of combinations is not the same as an intersectional epistemology. We talk often in ethnographic work about the importance of interrogating the researcher and contextualizing the fullness of complex subjects. We usually do this by working one side of the equation at a time: we interrogate the researcher or the subject; race or class; analytical categories or intersectionality.

My first interview and subsequent reflection led me to interrogate the intersectionality of both researcher and subject across mutually constituted dialectic spaces of discourse. I presented myself as who I understand myself to be: a black urban woman of transitional class status of a certain generation, complete with the language, dress, style, and status culture each of those identities entails. It was clear that my subject saw a similarly raced and gendered person employing tools consistent with a specific social class different from her own. Further, the similarity in our biographies, which I had considered a bridge, only highlighted for the subject the starkness of our relative differences in educational choices, options, and outcomes. My bridge was a for her a wall. I was not unlike the privileged institution I represented: in the same geographical space but light years away in social space.

If I don’t understand nobody I think I understand a certain generation and class of black Southern women. I had interrogated my position as a researcher but I had not fully interrogated my presentation of a self to my interviewees. I did not think I needed to. I attribute a lot of that to the duality of my identity as a scholar and graduate student. I am in a place that is privileged in ways I still cannot fully fathom. Emory likes to comment on how much Georgian stone was used to construct our campus facilities. To me, ours is literally one of the whitest places I’ve ever seen in my life. White columns, white stone, white floors to match and an institutional history steeped in the construct of whiteness in not just the U.S. South but Georgia.

I am in such a place but I never considered myself of such a place. In many ways, I can never be. I successfully pass through the obstacle course of graduate school but I will never be a product of its social reproduction of a certain class of scholars. I get that and am amazingly fine with it.

But my first research respondent? To her I was Emory in ways that were incongruent with my inchoate understanding of what a black scholar in an elite space is to other people. As my colleague would later say to me, “of course she’s angry, Tressie. She should be angry with life, with reflecting on shit she’d rather not reflect on. That she can be appropriately angry with you is a gift. The anger is the finding.”

Not only was an outsider questioning her decisions, but to my respondent I was also safe enough to be angry with. Her emotional defensiveness was, in a way, a reflection of the bridge I’d assumed to have. It was just a bridge that led to a different space than I had assumed to transverse. The resulting data were not nice but they were real. For a qualitative researcher that is ideal but for the person it can be emotional.

I admit that I made a mistake often attributed to researchers from an ethnic outgroup. I had assumed conditions of my status culture membership that could not be assumed. I may ground my own identity in race and gender and geography in ways wholly unacceptable to someone sharing the same space I think I inhabit. It is not which identities in what combination I bring to the research setting that inform the ethnographic dance but the unique combination of those identities relative to the perceptions of the research respondents. Even then, the discursive space we create during interviews is not static. It is a unique product of a unique set of conditions that are constantly being negotiated even as we exist within them. My next interview was good but different in ways specific to racialized gendered performances. He was a black man and I am a black woman. In Atlanta. Those roles hold specific meanings in ways that I had to negotiate to get to a space of dialogue. But it was not an angry negotiation, although it was exhausting. In each interview, I’ve had a similar presentation of selves emerge specific to the conditions and important, I think, to the data collected.

I have read incredible work about the importance of intersectionality in ethnographic research but little that fully explains my own experiences. It’s not so surprising for a sociologist. Mine is a discipline that resists studying within group differences. White must always be the referent for it to be “science”. I continue to mediate on what it means to research in accordance with the oft-quoted but rarely fully understood aphorism that black people are not a monolith.  I am a fan of the idea that in a democracy we should all be equally uncomfortable. I’ve come to amend that idea for my work. In ethnography we should probably all be equally reflective.

10 thoughts on “Presenting Selves: Race, Social Class, Gender and Intersectionality in Ethnography

  1. Thank you for sharing this reflection. I deeply appreciated when you claimed “Mine is a discipline that resists studying within group differences.” Like others who have had to communicate across ethnic identities that seem a monolith (category: white) (marriage of olive-skinned Greek-Romanian Orthodox recent immigrant and lighter-skinned Irish-French Canadian Roman Catholic additional generation immigrant families in a Jewish neighborhood) I have puzzled at the un-reflexive nature of presentations of data generation. My discipline is not sociology, but communication. How do we share the ways our institutional placement in addition to our racial, ethnic, gender, religious, sexuality, and class statuses exist in each interview or moment in the field? What happens when some of the statuses change? How does that affect our work? How are we perceived? What personal artifacts and language codes do we use to align with interviewees to create rapport? All of these things make me curious. Why is it that when sharing research at conferences, the moment my researcher colleagues from universities see the phrase “community college” on my name tag, their eyes dart away, their postures shift back ever so slightly? Time to use another code. Time to decide: do I care enough to bridge the distance they perceive? Try a new line? Or do I say screw it, their loss and grow defiant and bold? Either way, back stage, I’m changed. What you have elegantly presented here shows an awareness of what institutional membership ascription can do to trump other potentially identity-aligning aspects of your self. How can you “be” in relation to her, when she sees in you both so much similarity and a key difference? How do you relate, feel, and act? You are both a researcher and a human. Negotiating that relationship will be a life’s work I suppose. It hasn’t gotten easier for me, and I’m nearly 10 years out from school. The “equally uncomfortable” stance is shared.

    1. Rebecca, thank you for reading. Your comment pretty much sums up what i hope to achieve in a more “academic” version of these experiences. You are way out ahead of my ability to parse the meaning of what I hope to achieve with that.

      The dance we did at the edges of insider/outsider was…amazing, if difficult. And I don’t point it out in the post because my blog is not a research article but this pattern held to some degree across interviews with black women but not white men or white women. There was some other weirdness specific to gender in interviews with black men, which I mention in passing in the post.

      You say you are changed backstage either way. That’s it perfectly. Either way it changes you.

  2. I’d be curious to know how the subjects of these interviews were chosen. Were they paid? What were they told was the purpose of the interview? Did they feel like they were making a valuable contribution to meaningful research or did they feel like scientific subjects under the microscope? Was the interview staged in a conversational manner or an interrogation? Did the language of the interview seem inclusive or off-putting?
    It’s really hard to figure out what went wrong here.

  3. I’m not a sociologist or a researcher, I’m a painter and illustrator and I’ve taught at the Tech College level for 36 years. When I was in college I read a book that had a profound effect on me: Paolo Freire” “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. To crib a sentence from Wikipedia this was the theme that struck me:

    “In the book Freire calls traditional pedagogy the “banking model” because it treats the student as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge, like a piggy bank. However, he argues for pedagogy to treat the learner as a co-creator of knowledge.”

    Why shouldn’t research be conducted in the same way? I teach in a very diverse school, average age approaching 30, most are the first in their family to attend college, and a multi-ethnic,multi-racial and international student body. I have practiced Freire’s idea every day of my teaching life. I’m just suggesting that the problem might be that the interview subjects had no feeling of ownership of the outcome of this research.

  4. Hi Tressie,
    Thank you for an amazing piece on ethnographic interviewing and self-presentation. You might find the work of oral historian Allesandro Portelli helpful in this regard as you move forward. His most recent work “They Say in Harlan County” is filled with the intimate details of such oral history work. If it’s any consolation, I made the same mistake in my own work on New Mexico. My best interviews were often with those that I thought were the most distant from me in social/class outlook (Me: PhD student from top uni and college, East Coast educated, white male interview subjects: Native American or Hispano: working class or first generation college, state schools or cc, lifelong New Mexicans). In those interviews I worked hard on my self-presentation and was very careful. My worst interviews were with other well-educated white men who were east coast transplants. In these, I put less work into it because I figured I “knew them” and they “knew me;” I was wrong.

  5. I feel this in my writings and even sometimes my social media presence. I’m not currently in the academy, but building on work I did while I was there. When I was taking stands for folks from my own memories and my own pain, but not necessarily the pain and memories of the people I felt I was and am helping. I’m learning more that my story may just stand alone as a story and that people may find strength, healing and the greater good is advanced in reading and presenting it as a story and not as a crusade.

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