The Academic Feminist: Women of Color, Racism and Resilience in Academia

Welcome back, Academic Feminists! Today, I am proud to present an interview
with8695 Carmen G. González, professor of law at Seattle University School of Law, who, together with co-editors Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, and Angela P. Harris, recently released the collection,
Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. In what will surely become an invaluable resource for women of color in academia and their allies, Presumed Incompetent features 30 essays from individuals from a variety of disciplines, academic standings, ethnic and racial backgrounds, and geographic contexts.  The racist, sexist, and heteronormative environments recounted in the essays of the collection are at once shocking and horribly predictable; a reminder that, despite the gains made by white women and men and women of color in academia over the past few decades, we still have a very long way to go.  It is a privilege to be able to bring you insight into the making of this brave and brilliant collection.

Many of the contributors to Presumed Incompetent paint very graphic pictures of the way that racism in academia “achieves a violence that is psychological, embodied, and cultural.” And yet the theme of resilience echoes strongly throughout the text. Can you speak to the importance of that theme in the collection? 

Despite the harsh realities that women of color confront in their professional lives, the ultimate lesson of Presumed Incompetent is resilience. Researchers who work with trauma define resilience as the ability to recover from stress or adversity and to protect oneself from harm. Our goal as editors was to empower women of color and allies by providing tools and strategies to overcome the challenges described in this volume. One of the book’s distinguishing features is its solution-oriented approach.

The strategies in the book can be grouped into three categories: personal, collective, and institutional.   The individual strategies are designed to help women of color maintain physical and psychological health while grappling with the subtle and not-so-subtle racism, sexism, heteronormativity, and class bias of the academic workplace.  These strategies include self-care (yoga, poetry, journaling), nurturing personal relationships with friends and family outside the university, and maintaining a healthy separation between home and work, the public self and private self.

The collective strategies involve building supportive alliances with like-minded colleagues. Strong alliances, such as cross-generational mentoring relationships and peer networks, provide not only emotional support, but also vital information about salary, benefits, institutional politics, and navigating the tenure and promotion process.  They also create opportunities for collective action to challenge workplace subordination.  Presumed Incompetent is filled with triumphs of community-building and solidarity both within and across identity categories, and provides insights on how to overcome the institutional barriers to collective action.

Although individual and group strategies are critical for survival in the academic workplace, because the obstacles encountered by women of color in academia are structural rather than individual, much of the book’s final chapter is devoted to transforming institutional practices.  Presumed Incompetent provides concrete recommendations for women of color, allies, and academic leaders (such as department chairs, deans, provosts, and university presidents) about best practices to enhance the hiring, promotion, retention of female faculty of color.  These recommendations seek to promote a genuinely welcoming campus climate that truly integrates (and does not merely tolerate) women of color. 

Although this book is quite comprehensive, you include a section in the introduction on the “silences” in the text. I also noticed that many of the contributors (with the exception of a notable few), have very secure academic positions. Was it difficult to attract “junior” scholars in particular?

Most of the personal narratives in Presumed Incompetent were written by tenured faculty because it would be career-threatening for an untenured professor to publish a candid account of bias against historically underrepresented groups in her university.

However, there are empirical studies (surveys, interviews) published in Presumed Incompetent in which the voices of junior faculty are represented. One of the most startling discoveries for us as editors was that both junior and senior faculty described remarkably similar experiences of workplace hostility.  In other words, we did not see much improvement from one generation to the next. This is consistent with recent reports concluding that discrimination in higher education has not diminished in the last two decades.

But it is not only junior faculty who hesitated to contribute to the volume.  Many tenured women of color told us their stories at conferences and other gatherings and even submitted draft essays, but then panicked and decided not to publish their stories at this time. The reasons, described in the section on silences to which you refer, are complex and disturbing.  Some women were so devastated by the presumption of incompetence that they felt too wounded to write about their experiences until they had more time to heal.  Others, including tenured full professors, deans, and provosts, informed us that they would be penalized for telling the truth about the hostile climate that women of color encounter in academia and would lose the tenuous credibility that they had worked so hard to achieve.  Other women informed us that faculty of color in their universities were complicit in the perpetuation of workplace subordination and they did not feel comfortable denouncing oppressors who were themselves people of color. Finally, several women reported that they had been warned by trusted mentors that publishing an essay based on personal experience would be regarded as “un-intellectual” and would subject them to personal and professional ridicule.  It seems that feminist theory and critical race theory have not fully succeeded in imparting the message that the personal is political and that personal narratives can often illuminate the day-to-day operation of social hierarchies in a way that statistical studies cannot.

But the silences in Presumed Incompetent only magnify the importance of the stories that are told as timely, courageous, and valuable contributions to our knowledge about the current state of higher education.  Presumed Incompetent is nearly 600 pages long, but it is only the very tip of the iceberg.  There is so much more that needs to be written.

One of the things I liked most about this book was its practical advice, and, as a white woman with ties to academia, I especially appreciated advice for allies. What are some of the ways that students – both white students and students of color – can be allies to women of color professors and administrators?

Students, both white and of color, can create an environment that is welcoming to traditionally underrepresented professors.  One of the most important things students can do is to take responsibility for educating themselves and their classmates about race, gender, class, and heteronormative bias in higher education and in society at large.

For example, studies show that students consistently underestimate the credentials and academic rank of female and minority professors, and presume that female faculty of color are less talented and less qualified than their white male counterparts. Students (and other allies) need to be aware of these patterns and to intervene when they hear others speak of women of color in ways that are demeaning or that reinforce race and gender stereotypes.  Students who have educated themselves about the operations of privilege in our society can educate others. Speaking up when you witness injustice in public or in private is an essential element of serving as an ally.

Students can also demand that universities hire, promote and retain women of color, and can offer to serve as student representatives on hiring committees. They can write letters of support for women of color who are being evaluated for promotion or tenure.  They can protest discriminatory practices.   For example, after Presumed Incompetent was published, I received a call from a woman of color who was appealing tenure denial.  She had a very strong record, but there were egregious procedural irregularities in her case.  She ultimately prevailed in her appeal and was granted tenure. One of the reasons she prevailed is that students mobilized to support her. They signed petitions, wrote letters to the university, met with university officials, and mounted a social media campaign on her behalf. Students can wield great influence when they act collectively.  But the work of dismantling social hierarchies requires reflection about the ways in which one is privileged and subordinated and about how these hierarchies operate in daily life.  One of the essays in Presumed Incompetent titled “Notes toward Racial and Gender Justice Ally Practice in Legal Academia” is filled with insights about the roles that students can play in transforming the academic workplace.

Based on all of work represented in the book, as well as your own experience in academia, what one piece of advice would you give a young woman of color embarking on an academic career today (besides buy this incredible book!)?

The one piece of advice I would give a young woman of color embarking on an academic career is to remember, when times are tough, that your presence and your insights are desperately needed.  Academia is a training ground for civic-minded and critically engaged citizens, and what you teach in the classroom can raise the consciousness of students, both white and of color, about oppression and social justice in the United States and globally. Thirty percent of the nation’s college and university students are of color, and the next generation will be majority minority.  These students need professors who can relate to their experiences and nurture their talents because too many students of color experience alienation in predominantly white universities, underperform, and drop out. Your scholarship will enable you to reach and influence a far larger audience than anything you do in the classroom, and you owe it to yourself and your community to make sure that your unique voice is not silenced. And yes, read this book so that you will be well-prepared for the challenges ahead of you.   You are not alone.  There is a wealth of experience in dealing with these challenges and no need for you to re-invent the wheel.

Extra Credit!

You can find links to reviews of Presumed Incompetent, as well as information about ordering the book, on Utah State University’s Presumed Incompetent website. Presumed Incompetent also has a Facebook page where additional articles on race, gender, sexuality, and class in academia as well as information about upcoming presentations and radio interviews with Presumed Incompetent editors and authors, are posted. And, as always, you can recommend a future Academic Feminist interviewee here, and follow the Academic Feminist on twitter @gwendolynb.

Scholarly queer feminist working to bridge the academic/online divide.

Read more about Gwendolyn

Join the Conversation