Where are We Safe?

Category: Academia

Last month, I attended the Sociologists for Women in Society conference in Denver, CO. My colleagues and I gathered and discussed the current conditions at our respective institutions. We discussed racism, microaggressions, gender inequities in pay and workload distribution. We vented, we raged, we continue … “Where are we safe?” A fellow Latinx colleague asked. I nodded in painful agreement. 

I’ve gone back to this question so many times since that day. Obviously, no work environment is perfect, but safety shouldn’t be that big of an ask.  Safety for me is the right to work in an environment where I am not physically, verbally, or emotionally assaulted by colleagues, students, administrators or staff. Ten years as a university professor has taught me that, in actuality, my safety is a very big ask.

My first-year teaching at a predominately white institution, I had a disgruntled white student come to me during office hours with concerns about the grade he had received on an assignment. I went over my comments with the student who continued to contest his grade. The more I stood firm in my decision, the louder he got. His face got visibly red. His voice was loud enough that it crescendo down the hallway. I asked him to lower his voice, reminded him that this was my office and if he continued to use such a tone with me, I would have to ask him to leave. This angered him further. “Yes. I get it”, he said, you are the one with all the power here”. His tone was mocking, and his voice elevated as he completed the statement. I asked him to leave.

Later that day when I’d recovered from the shock of what felt like an assault, I reached out to a white woman senior colleague. I explained the situation and asked what I should do. She looked at me and said: “Give the student a chance to redo the assignment for a higher grade”. I started to protest. “No!” I said. “I stand by the grade he earned. Besides, if I give him the opportunity to redo the assignment, it’s only fair that I extend the same courtesy to others who did not complain”.  My voice started to get panicky just thinking about what it would mean for me to allow a rewrite. Then my voice got angry as I reminded my colleague that this student disrespected me in my office and did not leave until I threatened to call campus safety. The colleague looked me in the face and said something I will never forget:

She said, “These students look at you and they see their nannies and their maids. They are not used to having people who look like you be in positions of power over them. This is going to happen to you a lot. You need to choose your battles. You can’t find them all”.  Its been 10 years since I was given that piece of advice. It’s the most difficult truth about the academy I’ve ever been gifted.

I’ve taught many students since that semester. At this point, I have six years of experience teaching at a majority minority-serving institution.  I’d hoped things would get better if I was no longer at an elite predominately white-serving institution.  I was wrong. I am reminded again and again that the academy sees me as a woman of color first before anything else. I’ve learned that others see women of color faculty as interchangeable. I know this because I have on more than one occasion watched awkward colleagues confuse me for another brown curly-haired academic. You can count us on one hand but somehow folks still can’t tell us apart.

On my current college campus, I am repeatedly mistaken for an undergraduate student. Even when all signs point to the contrary, my predominately white academic colleagues look at me and do not see a peer. They do not see a colleague. I’m not sure they see me at all.

Don’t get me wrong, there was a time in my life when I was a whole lot like the undergraduate students I now serve.  Twenty years ago, I was a working-class, first-generation, single, Latina mother who worked full-time and completed my undergraduate degree at night. But all these years later, no matter how many letters are behind my name, no matter how many promotions, no matter how much I publish, the academy still sees who I was twenty years ago.  I can’t help but be disrespected by this. It is not a compliment that my colleagues see me as “young enough to be a student”. It’s disrespectful. Disrespectful, because I gave up so much more than I ever thought I could in order to get a seat in this ivory tower. And every time someone confuses me for a student, they remind me that I don’t belong.

To my colleague who asked last month “Where are we safe?”, my answer is, within the academy, absolutely nowhere.