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The “Liberal” Ivory Tower Often Discriminates Against Women of Color

Academia allegedly encourages meritocracy and the creation of objective knowledge – values that should make race and gender identities irrelevant. But women of color too frequently find themselves “presumed incompetent” as professors.

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Academia allegedly champions meritocracy and prizes the creation of neutral and objective knowledge for the betterment of society – values that are supposed to make race and gender identities irrelevant. But women of color too frequently find themselves “presumed incompetent” as scholars and teachers.

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia:

As editors who are also women faculty of color, we produced this volume to provide a framework for understanding the contradictory culture of academia. On the one hand, the university champions meritocracy, encourages free expression and the search for truth, and prizes the creation of neutral and objective knowledge for the betterment of society – values that are supposed to make race and gender identities irrelevant. On the other hand, women of color too frequently find themselves “presumed incompetent” as scholars, teachers and participants in academic governance. The essays collected in this volume examine the ways that higher education reflects and reproduces – yet also sometimes subverts – the social hierarchies that pervade American society, including race, gender, class and sexuality.

The United States continues to be a nation profoundly marked by racial, gender and economic inequality. The US has among the highest levels of income inequality in the developed world and the lowest rates of upward mobility (Massey 2008; Herz 2006; Scott and Leonhardt 2005; Keister 2000; Schor 1992). Notwithstanding the accomplishments of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, white women and people of color continue to experience covert and unconscious bias in the job market that depresses earnings and restricts social mobility (Tsang and Dietz 2001; Castilla 2008; Lempert 2010). Recent studies confirm pervasive bias against people of color in employment, housing, credit and consumer markets (Massey 2008; Pager and Shepherd 2008).

Despite this evidence of persistent inequality, the belief in meritocracy and the narrative of upward mobility through hard work and self-sacrifice continue to serve as defining national myths (Delgado 2007; Hochschild 1996). Higher education, in particular, is widely regarded as the ticket to social advancement. Higher education exerts a powerful pull on the American imagination. Armed with studies showing that college graduates have far higher incomes than those who only hold a high school diploma or less, policy makers frequently exhort young people to earn a college degree (Gates Foundation 2010). Education and non-degree training programs are similarly urged upon older workers as a solution to unemployment and underemployment. And education is not only an individual advancement strategy.

An educated, skilled workforce, we are told, is essential to sustain corporate investment in US research and development and prevent capital flight in a fully globalized economy. Thus, higher education is deemed essential in the United States for economic advancement and success, both individual and national (Lewin 2010b).

However, a large body of social science research indicates that higher education is not immune from the inequities that plague the rest of American society. Most of this research focuses on the experiences and outcomes of college and university students and indicates that Latino/a, African-American and Native American students have lower rates of college enrollment and retention than white students. The National Center for Education Statistics, for example, reports that in 2001 to 2002, Asians/Pacific Islanders had the highest six-year graduation rate, followed by whites, Hispanics, blacks and American Indians/Alaska Natives. Approximately 67 percent of Asians/Pacific Islanders, compared with 60 percent of whites, 48 percent of Hispanics, 42 percent of blacks, and 40 percent of American Indians/Alaska Natives graduated with a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent within six years (National Center for Education Statistics 2010). Underrepresented students of color also report higher levels of stress and anxiety, caused partly by straitened economic circumstances and partly by the alienating environment of predominantly white institutions (Schwitzer et al. 1999). For many students from a working-class or impoverished background, whether they are students of color or not, college and graduate school is a mystifying – even hostile – place, full of opaque cultural codes and academic challenges for which they are poorly prepared (Terenzini, Cabrera, and Bernal 2001). Finally, for students of color, racism in the form of daily “microaggressions” is another constant concern (Solorzano, Ceja, and Yosso 2000). As psychologist Claude Steele’s research indicates, for instance, even the fear that one will be judged according to extant stereotypes can depress academic performance (Steele 1997).

Although full-time, tenure-track faculty at US colleges and universities have been less well studied, at first glance they would seem to have little to complain about. These academic workers have reached the top of the privilege and status hierarchy. Although the ivory tower itself is under assault from the same economic and social pressures that have made so many American jobs increasingly precarious – an issue to which we return later – by all external measures, full-time faculty enjoy levels of autonomy, prestige and economic reward that are unusual indeed.

This book demonstrates, however, that the women of color who have managed to enter the rarefied halls of academe as full-time faculty find themselves in a peculiar situation. Despite their undeniable privilege, women of color faculty members are entrenched in byzantine patterns of race, gender and class hierarchy that confound popular narratives about meritocracy. Far from being above the fray, faculty at institutions of higher education are immersed in the daunting inequities and painful struggles taking place throughout an increasingly multicultural America.

For many women of color on college and university campuses, the problems begin with numerical representation. While the nation’s student population is becoming increasingly diverse, the overwhelming majority of full-time faculty positions continue to be filled by white men and women. From 1997 to 2007, for example, the percentage of students of color enrolled in US colleges and universities climbed from 25 to 30 percent (Ryu 2010). However, the percentage of full-time faculty positions held by people of color increased only slightly – from 13 percent in 1997 to 17 percent in 2007 (Ryu 2010). Women of color, in particular, continue to be underrepresented.

In 2007, women of color held only 7.5 percent of full-time faculty positions. Moreover, the percentage of women of color declined steadily with rising academic rank. Women of color comprised 10.4 percent of instructors and lecturers, 9.9 percent of assistant professors, 6.6 percent of associate professors and only 3.4 percent of full professors (Ryu 2010). In addition to being concentrated in the lower academic ranks, women of color are also overrepresented in less prestigious academic institutions, such as community colleges (Jayakumar et al. 2009; National Center for Education Statistics 2009).

These statistics, however, tell only part of the story. Although quantitative data and statistical measurements are crucial in understanding the experiences of women of color in academia, we have made the choice in this volume to focus instead on personal stories and qualitative empirical data, such as surveys and interviews.

In our view, qualitative research is particularly important in the investigation of social hierarchies. As feminist scholars and those in the critical race theory tradition have established, personal stories may bridge the epistemological gap that frequently appears between the lives of people with a particular privilege and those who lack that privilege (Delgado 1989; Montoya 1994). Storytelling by individuals, when done well, packs an emotional punch and provides the psychological detail necessary to understand a person with very different life experiences (Delgado 1989). Qualitative empirical research, in similar fashion, creates a frame in which to interpret the quantitative data. The narratives collected in this volume reveal that not only the demographics but the culture of academia is distinctly white, heterosexual and middle and upper-middle class. Those who differ from this norm find themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, “presumed incompetent” by students, colleagues and administrators.

The essays collected in this volume explore the presumption of incompetence through a series of interrelated themes that place the contradictory predicament of women of color faculty in a larger historical and cultural perspective. One of these themes is the negotiation of identity in the academic world – the privileges and challenges that arise from the intersections of race, gender, class and other claimed and assigned identities. These essays illustrate what critical race theorists have called “working identity” (Carbado and Gulati 2000b; Houh 2006; Onwuachi-Willig 2007; Yoshino 2006). Social identities are not static but emerge in the context of interaction. And in the field of everyday interaction, identity performances may clash with stereotypes and expectations held by others (Carbado and Gulati 2000b).

Thus, students want their black women professors to be more “motherly.” White faculty may feel comfortable learning salsa with their Latina colleague or treating her like the maid, nanny or secretary who ministers to their personal needs. Yet faculty and students of all ethnicities and genders may feel threatened when their colored female colleague acts like a serious intellectual rather than a mascot, cheerleader or seductress (Pleck 1990). When an academic woman of color’s behavior thwarts expectations, the result may be what Peggy Davis calls microaggressions (P. Davis 1989): subtle or blatant attempts at punishing the unexpected behavior. These pages are filled with stories of microaggressions and responses to them, including attempts by the person disciplined to accommodate, resist or perform a kind of jiu-jitsu with others’ demands. In the process, the faculty member in question may find herself embracing a new identity, clinging tenaciously to an old one or some combination of both (Carbado and Gulati 2000b). Or the result may be a subtle and complicated palimpsest of identity as new identifications are written over old ones.

These identity performances take place against a backdrop of institutional privilege and subordination. The obvious dimensions of structural injustice include race, gender, class and sexuality (and we could add disability, not represented in this volume). The contributors to this book find themselves disciplined by colleagues, students or administrators whenever their assigned and/or claimed identities do not match cultural stereotypes. As the cognitive psychology literature explains, unconscious bias plays a part in the way teachers and students are perceived by others (Chang and Davis 2010). Given a climate of shared cultural stereotypes and images, it is not surprising that although each of these stories is unique, the authors also describe strikingly similar barriers to their success.

However, just as every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way (as Tolstoy wrote), each workplace structured by caste has unique features. In the academic workplace, judgments of worth tend to be extremely subjective. Reputation is the coin of the realm, and reputations are built not only by objective accomplishments but through images and sometimes outright fantasies – individual or collective – that cling to the nature of the work and the person being evaluated. Academic judgments, then, are especially susceptible to unconscious bias, although the precise forms this bias takes varies from one institution to another.

This point brings us to a second theme that connects these essays: the link between agency and structure, the individual and the collective. As feminist consciousness raising groups recognized long ago, the personal is political. Predominantly white and male employment and educational institutions systematically disfavor women of color, not solely through individual bias but as part of larger systems of education, employment, media and other civil society institutions that perpetuate and extend the privileges created by group subordination. It is important, then, to read even the most seemingly personal stories in this collection as symptomatic of a larger, structural problem, rather than solely the issues of any one woman or department, college or campus.

A third theme raised in many of the essays in this volume is the nature of academic culture itself. Academia, as a legion of satirical novels has pointed out, has its own culture in which certain faculty qualities and attitudes – brilliance, rigor, seriousness, rationality, objectivity – are greatly prized. The origin of academia’s reverence for these qualities can be traced back to the birth of the scientific method. As scholars of the university have noted, the campus has had a long love affair with science or, perhaps more accurately, with the idea of science. Within the pecking order of the university, the most valued pursuits are those that most easily claim rigor, objectivity, and, these days, technocratic mastery. Thus, there has been a long struggle between the sciences and the humanities, and within the sciences, between the “hard” and “soft” ones. The qualities that are valued in scholarly endeavor are also esteemed in professional life. Research universities are more prestigious than teaching ones; research is valued over teaching at nearly all universities, and teaching is valued more than community service (Wisniewski, Ducharme, and Agne 1989). Among researchers and scholars, the romance of the brilliant, lonely genius in pursuit of truth – even if the heavens should fall – still lingers around promotion reviews.

These revered characteristics, however, are not only associated with the hard sciences. They are also traditionally linked with masculinity and are understood as the opposite of femininity. For instance, rationality is prized at the expense of recognizing – or being able to deal with – emotion (Harris and Shultz 1993). On every campus, tasks associated with femininity – such as teaching – are valued less than those associated with masculinity, and the most prestigious disciplines are those with the fewest women. This means not only that people with female bodies or feminine self-presentations are likely to be excluded from certain disciplines or understood as inferior. It also means that the disciplines themselves – forms of knowledge and the methods of producing them – are understood and pursued in gendered terms (McCloskey 1998; Keller 1983; Resnik 1989-90). Methods of knowledge production that do not fit the model of the brilliant genius who works alone and possesses learning inaccessible to the masses, such as participatory action research, are marginalized or actively denigrated. And methods of knowledge production that challenge the idea of value-free academic inquiry are bitterly attacked. For instance, in the 1980s in the discipline of law, a storytelling movement pursued by critical race theorists drew harsh (one might say hysterical) criticism because of its departure from the norms of objectivity and neutrality (Farber and Sherry 1993).

Racial hierarchy also pervades the history of academic culture, although its influence is harder to see. Scholars in the hard sciences often protest that their work is value neutral and politics-free and, therefore, that questions of social hierarchy and caste are irrelevant. The history of science, however, shows this is not the case. One need not take up the extreme claim that there is no such thing as objective truth to see that cultural, social and political interests shape what people investigate and, therefore, what they find (Blackburn 2005). For example, from their inception, Western scholarly disciplines as distinct as geology, botany and tropical medicine flourished, to a great degree, in service of Europe’s colonial enterprise. These disciplines enabled Europeans to exploit the mineral riches of the colonies, profitably cultivate tropical cash crops in far-flung colonial plantations, and protect the colonizers from the ravages of tropical disease (McNeill 2010; McClellan 2010; Brockway 2002; Drayton 2000). Meanwhile, the so-called natives were pronounced uncivilized and stripped of their natural resources in the name of scientific conservation or sustainable resource extraction (Drayton 2000; Harding 1998). This, of course, does not make tropical medicine and botany false. It does mean, however, that political interest shapes scientific knowledge in subtle and occasionally blatant ways.

Again, the issue is not only the use of scientific knowledge for political ends. Nor is it only the exclusion of people of color from the ranks of those engaged in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. What is insidiously troubling about Western intellectual culture is its espousal of “value-free science” to mask the ways that the idea of pure and interest-free truth has been and continues to be used to perpetuate unjust social hierarchies. Perhaps the most obvious example is the scientific literature on race. Stephen Jay Gould, in his book The Mismeasure of Man, skillfully shows how leading scientists in the late 19th century produced scholarship that was woefully deficient, even by its own standards, yet remained highly regarded because it confirmed the prejudices Anglo-Europeans held about white supremacy and black inferiority (Gould 1981).

As we move further into the 21st century, these debates about whether and under what conditions knowledge can be value free may be overshadowed by changes in the institution of the university itself. Many scholars argue that American colleges and universities today, influenced by neoliberal ideology and struggling with financial burdens, have embraced corporatization (Nussbaum 2010; Slaughter and Rhoades 2004; Washburn 2006; C. Nelson 2010; Nelson and Watt 2004; Giroux 2009; Saunders 2010; Johnson, Kavanagh, and Mattson 2003; Bok 2003). Features of this corporatization include closer and more explicit partnerships, especially in the hard sciences, with private industry, the adoption of business models for university governance (including the move to abolish tenure), instead of traditional shared governance, and a focus on short-term financial returns, which privileges revenue-generating ventures in business, science and engineering, over disciplines like the humanities and the arts that do not generally generate profit.

The corporatization of the university has also facilitated a marked shift in the academic labor market away from full-time, tenure-track positions and toward contingent labor, including greater reliance on adjunct and part-time faculty and graduate students for teaching. Data collected by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) from the period including the 2008 recession reveal a telling pattern in full-time appointments: the total number of faculty members grew, but most of the new appointments were in non-tenure-track positions. Just in the two years between 2007 and 2009, the growth in full-time, non-tenure-track and part-time faculty positions outstripped the increase in tenure-track jobs (American Association of University Professors 2010-11). According to federal data analyzed by the AAUP, graduate student employees and faculty members serving in contingent appointments made up more than 75 percent of the total instructional staff in 2009. These trends suggest that the market for full-time, tenure-track academic work may become a winner-take-all market, with a handful of academic superstars at the top and an enormous underclass for whom academia is a classic “bad job,” featuring low pay, few or no benefits and low job security or input into shaping the rules that govern one’s working life. The data also suggest that women of color are likely to be disproportionately represented at the bottom, exacerbating the presumption of incompetence.

The advancing corporatization of the academy also presages a number of cultural changes that may adversely affect women faculty of color. Colleges reportedly are coming to treat their students more and more like customers, and arguably students have adopted that attitude for themselves, coming to higher education to buy the commodity of credentials, rather than to learn (of course, it is not clear there ever was a golden age when most students did come to learn!) (Giroux 2009; Saunders 2010). It is possible that this shift will also exacerbate the presumption of incompetence by encouraging the disciplining (through poor evaluations or microaggressions) of faculty members whose identities, authority, insights, pedagogical approaches and/or failure to conform to stereotyped expectations challenge entrenched racial, gender, class or other hierarchies. If academic women become service workers who must please, rather than educate, their students, their career advancement will likely be determined to a greater extent than before by their ratings on “customer service” evaluations.

A 2009 study conducted by researchers at the universities of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,

British Columbia, Michigan and Washington and at the US Military Academy at West Point highlights the pitfalls of this service worker model. The researchers found that volunteers who viewed videos featuring a black male, a white female or a white male playing the role of a bookstore employee assisting a customer consistently rated the performance of the white male as superior even though the actors in the video read the same script, performed the same tasks and were filmed in the same location. This preference for white males was exhibited by white men and women viewers as well as viewers of color of both sexes. Surveys of patient satisfaction with the performance of doctors and customer satisfaction with country clubs belonging to a large hospitality company revealed the same bias (Hekman et al. 2010). The results of this study bode ill for female academics of color.

A fourth theme in these essays is mechanisms for change. The restrictiveness of American academic culture has its origins in the history of American education. The nation’s most prestigious universities were not established to educate women, people of color or the working class. On the contrary, they were designed to serve the interests of wealthy white men (Karabel 2006; Saunders 2010). Not until the decades following the Second World War did social movements, federal legislation, judicial decisions and presidential decrees pry open the doors of the nation’s universities to large numbers of women, people of color and members of the working class (Brubacher and Rudy 1997). While many of the formal barriers have been lifted, academic institutions remain, at their core, profoundly inhospitable to the experiences and points of view of those formerly excluded. The Third World Feminist movement of the 1970s on college campuses around the country succeeded in planting women’s studies and ethnic studies departments where there had been none (Hu-DeHart 1993; Sandoval 2000). Yet, in the end, the values that animated the founding of these departments were at least partly eclipsed by the larger culture of the university.

Regrettably, the culture of academia overall remains not only remarkably blind to its own flaws, but deeply invested in a thoroughgoing denial. Most faculty of color on predominantly white campuses, if they have worked for more than a year or so, are familiar with the committee appointed to investigate diversity concerns. Such committees tend to spring up like mushrooms after a rain in the wake of racist incidents and create files of paper that are then stored until the next scandal. The culture of academia, ultimately, is impervious to change because its power structure is designed to reproduce itself. Here we return to our first theme: the links among race, gender, sexuality and class. When the people in power receive a mandate to search out excellence, the first place they look is to people like themselves, and too often that is also where the search ends. Social science literature, for instance, abounds with studies demonstrating that “employers assign higher subjective ratings to male or white employees than they do to women or minorities with comparable work records” (Merritt and Reskin 1997, 229 n. 98).

In addition to underscoring the need for meaningful structural change, these essays highlight the need for individual women of color to recognize and honor the connections among body, mind, culture and spirit – connections that are denied by the rationalist and masculine-dominated culture of the academy – to survive and thrive in a hostile academic environment. The women who tell their stories in this collection individually and collectively experience physiological and psychic effects from being presumed incompetent. Mounting public health evidence suggests that chronic stress – like the pressure of being continually misperceived or belittled or having to fight off microaggressions – can result in higher levels of hypertension, cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease (Lewis 2006; Lepore 2006; Peters 2006). At a subtler level, the antiracist psychiatrist Frantz Fanon wrote decades ago about the psychic strain white supremacy places on people of color (Fanon 1967). More recently, Patricia Williams has described the effects of constant racist belittling as “spirit-murder” (P. Williams 1991).

Within academic culture with its masculine bent, there is no easy way to articulate or deal with the emotional, the psychic or the spiritual. Many of the authors in this collection, however, have developed resources for naming their wounds and healing them, including friendship, alliances and poetry. Similarly, some of the authors in this collection have found ways of combating the relentless individualism of academic culture to reclaim community and solidarity in their professional and personal lives.

Copyright of the University Press of Colorado. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher.

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