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On Moving Past the White-Washed Academy

Category: Academia

On Moving Past the White-Washed Academy

The first time I went on the job market I became acutely aware of the unique space faculty members of color inhabit within it. I had spent years preparing for that first tenure-track job; taken all the right classes, focused on publishing and followed the rules of networking. I had done everything within my power to improve my marketability and when I started getting calls about campus interviews I learned everything there was to learn about each institution. I immediately started to envision my future in X or Y city, planning, dreaming, and preparing (always preparing). A lot about that year I spent on the job market is now a blur, but one experience will always stick out.
I had been invited to a campus visit at an institution that I believed would be my dream job. I made the plans to fly out soon thereafter and I spent the entire flight reading the published work of each department member. I got off the plane and walked across the airport terminal to meet the department chair. We exchanged a warm hello and shook hands. As we started to walk out of the airport toward the car, the chair said … “The provost just told us that we can only do hires that are directly beneficial to the University’s mission. We are allowed to interview but I’m not sure we will be allowed to hire.” I stopped, unsure of what to say next. Apparently, my silence compelled the chair to say more, “Although” the chair continues … “it’s in the University’s interest to hire faculty members of color.” I was in the first 5 minutes of a two-day interview and was already being seen for my brownness rather than my scholarship.
I could go on and on about my experiences with racism, sexism and homophobia in the academy. But lots of people have written about this. What I see less of is engagement in reflexivity. How are institutions for higher learning contributing to reproducing racial inequality? These are just some of the ways I’ve observed.

1) Higher education administrators are constantly talking about the need to recruit and retain faculty members of color. It’s a tired song and dance at this point. Tired because the motivation behind it is completely misguided. Universities want to talk about recruiting faculty members of color because they want to cultivate the public image that they care about diversity. But they seem to care more about the image than the actual diversity. And herein lies the problem. Rarely are efforts to hire a more racially diverse faculty driven by a genuine belief that a more racially diverse faculty would improve learning outcomes or strengthen the integrity of these institutions. If universities are ever going to improve the poor representation of faculty members of color in the academy, they need to go beyond a focus on what “diversity” will do for the university. They need to start looking at improving racial diversity as necessary in and of itself, irrespective, of whether it comes with increased revenue for an institution or better brochures.

2) Institutions interested in increasing their number of racially diverse faculty would benefit from looking inward at their administrations. How racially diverse are these administrative positions? University administrators can’t just sit around mystified by the hate crimes that occur at their predominantly white institutions and writing generic statements about their commitment to racial inclusivity without actually making changes at the leadership level. If universities are going to work on white supremacy in the academy they need to start shaking things up at the top. Otherwise, they send a clear message “X institution wants to have more faculty members of color but they don’t want more administrators of color because they are invested in preserving white, male privilege at the highest levels of university leadership.” And while administrators are taking the time to shake things up, they may benefit from taking a good long look at who their buildings are named after. Are the libraries and academic buildings named after former slave owners, white supremacists or those historically known to support racial segregation? Do. Better.

3) Recruiting a more racially diverse faculty is just one part of the equation, the other is retaining the faculty. Universities need to stop expecting racial minority faculty to do all of the race work at their institutions. These faculty members deserve the same professional courtesy that higher education offers white faculty members – the autonomy to teach, conduct research and contribute to the service at their institutions without being pigeon holed into certain kinds of responsibilities. I’m pretty tired of hearing administrators say that they want me to lead x, y or z diversity initiative “not because I’m black but because I’m so good at it.” This is condescending and patronizing. I know I am good at my job. But I also know that the care and devotion that I put into my racial literacy is driven by my racial minority status in a white academy. So don’t kid yourself, administrators, into thinking that you are tasking me with the race work because “I’m so good at it.” That only makes you feel better. I know that my being good at these tasks is directly tied to my marginalized status. I don’t have the privilege of being as racially illiterate as my white, largely male colleagues. Racial literacy keeps me alive in the academy.

4) On a related note, all that race work that administrators keep asking us to do … We need to start having honest dialogue about how that work is devalued and how it perpetuates racial disparities among faculty. I have watched too many talented women colleagues of color get denied tenure for not publishing enough, but those same colleagues did so much heavy lifting in the area of service to their institutions. They are the ones who run the “diversity and equity centers” and serve as the faculty mentor for the undergraduate students of color groups, and sit on all of the search committees so they can remind the rest of you to take a good look at the CVs of nonwhite candidates rather than just zeroing in on the applications from your colleagues’ newly-minted PhDs or those from your alma mater. All of this race work that is primarily done by women of color is devalued. So much so, that many well-meaning academics advise junior faculty members of color to avoid this work at all costs. But maybe it’s time we stop advising faculty members of color to avoid this kind of service work and instead start holding administrators accountable for valuing it. When we advise faculty members to avoid this work, we leave them vulnerable to getting labeled not team players. More importantly, many of us care about the work especially if it means supporting students of color at predominately white institutions.

5) Lastly, institutions need to get ahead of addressing issues of racial disparity in the academy rather than trying to provide band-aid fixes for these disparities when problems erupt. For instance, administrators are often only interested in creating tenure-track lines and leadership positions for faculty members of color when race relations are falling apart in publicly embarrassing ways at their institutions. Only then, do these institutions start investing in the race and ethnic studies programs or multicultural student programming, and even then, they less often invest in administrative programs that can truly bring about institutional change. In essence, administrators have gotten quite comfortable keeping their institutions as white-washed as possible until there is a “race problem” and then they want to hire racial minorities to clean it up. Let me make this crystal clear… to the white academy where I am an outsider…. I. SEE. YOU. And to the department chair who wanted to assure me that my chances of getting hired were strong because I’m black… I am not your maid. I will not be cleaning up your house.