We are not Replaceable

This talk was given at the American Sociological Association meetings in 2019 in New York City

My mother called me one day, during my first semester of graduate school.  She was curious about this mysterious world of academia that I had committed myself to. She wanted to know how it was going. “Are there other Latino people there?” she asked. “Only the people who come in at night to clean the offices” I said to her. I entered graduate school in 2003.  At the time, there were no other Latinx or Black students in my graduate program. I was the only one.

About two months later I got a phone call from a family member.  They had received notification from the then Immigration and Naturalization Services (now Homeland Security). The notification was denying this family member’s green card application.  I remember being intensely upset as I read the letter over and over again.  “We will fix this … We will find you another path to citizenship” I said. My loved one became undocumented that day. 16 years later … they still are.

I share these two stories because they point to two of the major barriers which I have observed to diversity and inclusion efforts within the academy. One barrier is belonging and the other is isolation. Belonging, or lack thereof, is a barrier because the academy gifts minoritize individuals the same message repatedly —  that people that look like me, serve people that look like them.   I heard that message clearly, in my first days of graduate school. I didn’t belong. The second barrier is isolation, because I’ve carried the emotional weight of having my loved one’s dreams of citizenship shattered with me every day that I’ve traveled the journey of the academy. Every. Single. Day. I’ve carried it and I’ve done so largely alone. Alone because I was done with graduate school before I had deepened my social networks in the academy enough to meet others who understood the emotional weight I carried.  It was years before I found others who understood what it felt like to straddle these two identities — the identity of an academic of color and the identity of a daughter of immigrants.    

I also share these two stories because I think it’s important that in thinking about diversity and inclusion efforts, we remember the emotional weight people of color in the academy experience. REALLY remember. I’m stressing the really, here, intentionally because I know many well-intentioned colleagues who in the abstract know that people of color are uniquely marginalized within the academy but who don’t understand what it means to walk around the academy carrying that emotional weight day in and day out. 

They couldn’t possibly grasp what it means for my body to travel to this conference acutely aware of ICE agents at airports, train and bus stations and on every street I walk down. They couldn’t possibly grasp this emotional weight because if they did, they would not look me in the face and ask me to lead a “race workshop” for the department so that my white colleagues can learn about how to be more racially sensitive. Or to spearhead the diversity initiative at my university because I’d be SO good at it. Or to initiate a recruitment plan to racially diversify the graduate student population because graduate students love me. They wouldn’t ask me to do these things because they would know that my arms are overflowing with carrying my emotional weight and so it is unjust for me to be asked to fix these race equity problems in higher education. Race equity problems that white people have benefited from at my expense. White folks in positions of leadership in the academy need to do their own race work and compensate academics of color generously for their labor whenever they ask us for our help.

But since I am asked repeatedly about diversity and inclusion in higher education, I should say this, not because it is popular but because it isn’t…

Higher education is just another vehicle for preserving and disseminating white supremacy. As sociologists, we talk and write about white supremacy within society at large but we fail to acknowledge how it is reproduced in our own institutions. 

Institutions need to stop approaching diversity and inclusion efforts as add-ons if and when their budgets allow for it. Diversity and inclusion efforts should not be seen as an afterthought to be carried out when time and money permits. These efforts are essential to the dismantling of the power structures that reproduce oppression.  If we could effectively make the case for diversity and inclusion efforts as financially lucrative for universities, they’d move heaven and earth to create new initiatives. This to say, that institutions don’t prioritize diversity and inclusion efforts because they don’t value what it offers them.

We also really need to take a hard look at all of the ways we reproduce coloniality within the academy.  Mary Romero’s Presidential Address at the American Sociological Association 2019 meeting is a great place to start (if you missed it, it will eventually be published in ASR). But also, lets consider how we reproduce coloniality through the publication hierarchy in our journals, job hiring practices, tenure and promotion processes and in the kind of labor we reward publicly — or rather that which we devalue—within the academy.  Some have pointed to these power structures as tools of white supremacy.  I couldn’t agree more, but they are also tools of coloniality. Coloniality because the violence done when we ask folks of color to interrupt their research and teaching goals in order to support the agendas of primarily white men in power, that violence stifles our intellectual growth. Coloniality — because that violence transforms us into puppets for the administration and squashes the unique vitality that our experiences can offer the academy. Coloniality — because that violence treats us as replaceable rather than the lucky few who have been able to overcome the many obstacles to diversity and inclusion within the academy in order to earn our seat of belonging.

As a final thought, I should say that two years ago I earned tenure at my university. Since then I’ve spent more time than I care to admit searching for other latinx women who have previously been tenured in my department. I can’t find a single one. In fact, the last time anyone remembers a Latinx scholar being employed in my department was in the 1970s — before I was even born. Academia! we are not replaceable.

Comments (3)

  • R.

    31 August, 2019
    Thank you, 1000x times.
  • Angie Hattery

    3 September, 2019 always, a SMOKER!!! Thank you.....beyond words.
  • Anon

    17 September, 2019
    Thanks for writing about this. It's vital that your words be heard. I also think you may enjoy the discourse and works of Rachel Cargle, Shishi Rose, and Zahira Kelly-Cabrera. They often discuss a lot of what you have mentioned and more. You and them inspire me so much and honestly this kind of work shouldn't be overlooked. May the weight you carry become lighter with the support of people fighting FOR you, instead of making you fight the good fight. May you find academics of color who REALLY get it, and who will make you feel seen and at ease because feeling isolated and alone is rough and you deserve so much better, this world straight up doesn't deserve the work nonbinary, gnc, and women of color especially at the latinx and black intersection do constantly.