What We Talk About When We Talk About Race

I came to work at a California Community College during an exciting time. In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown began allocations of $100 million annually to address equity at community colleges across the state. When I showed up at my first set of meetings last year, we had a keynote on systemic racism in American education. Each campus now has a Student Equity Committee deciding how to use our funds and looking at research-based plans on how to correct institutional mistreatment of historically disadvantaged populations. Having been in higher ed at a liberal arts college (undergrad), an R1 (grad), and now a CC (faculty) I can say that I have never seen such institutional attention paid to equity. Rather than a hollow diversity celebration, it seems that California Community Colleges are both acknowledging and addressing (with funds!) their abysmal histories of exclusion.

Barbara Bitters provides some useful terminology to get at what is meant by educational equity:

“The educational policies, practices, and programs necessary to: (a) eliminate educational barriers based on gender, race/ethnicity, national origin, color, disability, age, or other protected group status; and (b) provide equal educational opportunities and ensure that historically underserved or underrepresented populations meet the same rigorous standards for academic performance expected of all children and youth.”

I felt a real sense of hope that my career took a turn in the CC direction just as this funding became available in the state. My research area is assimilationist policies of the US government at off-reservation boarding schools for Native Americans, and my teacherly commitments are steeped in anti-racist praxis. I joined the equity committee and have been largely optimistic about the early responsiveness of colleagues to race-based discussions.

Then I went to a statewide equity conference.

Maybe it’s my Gender Studies, Black Studies, Native American/Indigenous Studies background, but as a white woman, I generally acknowledge that I should not be the central voice in discussions of racial inequity. Last weekend I sat in a room of 4 equity committees from different regions as we worked with a presenter from the Penn Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. The session was called “Facilitating Conversations about Race” and then, all of sudden, we were having a difficult conversation about race. We could not get to the level of thinking through why these conversations are difficult because we were completely derailed by racist comments that needed to be immediately addressed.

Let me give you a sense of the room- 3 out of 4 committees were largely white and composed of upper level administrators, faculty, and institutional researchers. One committee was made up entirely of faculty, student-services staff, and administrators who self-identified as people of color. This college had deliberately and powerfully placed folks of color at the center of the equity decision-making process. We should all be this college.

Why? Here’s why. The committees composed largely of white faculty and administrators took up most of the talking space in the room. I watched as colleagues insisted that they have no students or faculty of color on their campuses to whom they could turn for guidance on race/ethnicity issues (btw, pretty much impossible in CA). One researcher said, “even our black and Latino students act white!” A member of a different committee lamented that they could not have conversations about race on their campus because there was this one angry woman of color who always made it about blame and didn’t use the right tone. She said “we are all hoping this person will leave so we can have a civil conversation.” She actually said that. No self-awareness whatsoever.  I had to deploy all 4 types of Dr. Stacey Patton’s collegial side-eye.

Here’s the thing. This. is. the. equity. committee. These are the people tasked with addressing systemic racism on their campuses. But I don’t know if many even had a working definition of systemic racism, let alone a sense of their complicity with systems of oppression. They got called out, and it appeared this was a new experience for most people there. Folks scrambled defensively to restate their problematic point, again, and again, and again. We didn’t get very far. I have an impulse towards empathy- to say that they were learning, and therefore needed to be able to make mistakes. But I have decided that this is the wrong impulse. How long can higher ed leaders claim that they just didn’t know that they were saying something wrong? We have the internet, and decades of scholarship on white privilege. There is no excuse.

Here is my plea. If you are a white person. If you are in a position of institutional power (teacher, scholar, administrator, student services provider. etc.). Please do your homework. I fall short in my own accounting of my privilege all the time, and I have absolutely been that clueless and damaging white voice. I have been and I will be again. But do the work. And if you’re on the equity committee, do extra work. Do all the work.

Here are some places to start/continue:*

Discussions of Educational Inequity

Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia

Why I No Longer Eat Watermelon, Or How a Racist Email Caused Me to Leave Graduate School

Indigenous feminist and undergraduate philosopher Erica Violet Lee’s brilliant blog 

Diversity is Dead, and Whiteness Killed It

Resources for Teaching

Asao Inoue’s book Race and Writing Assessment 

bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress 

Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Resources for Facilitating Discussions on Race and Ethnicity

4 Agreements for Courageous Conversations about Race

Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

Shelly Tochluk’s Witness Whiteness book and companion site 

Dear White People, 2014 film

Intent Vs. Impact

*This list is very preliminary/filled with gaps as I have focused on resources that have been particularly useful for me and are in the forefront of my mind. Feel free to supplement in comments with resources that have been helpful to you.

IT IS TIME: My personal journey from harassee to guardian

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Rebecca Rogers Ackermann, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cape Town. Dr. Ackermann’s story accompanies this article, out today in Science.

When I was 15, my high school history teacher asked me out on a date (I declined). In first year as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I had a graduate student tutor invite me to a party at his flat, and when I (fortunately, and to the tutor’s surprise) showed up with a friend there was no one else there. When I was near graduation the Dean ‘joked’ about how he had assumed I was just there for an “MRS degree”. In second year graduate school at University of Arizona, I went to the office hours of a professor I was taking a course from. He asked me to close the door, then aggressively propositioned me. That same year, my supervisor at that institution grabbed my ass at a conference event. I moved to Washington University in St Louis for my PhD, where I was lucky to have really great, completely professional relationships with my advisors. Then I went into the field. For the very first time I had the pleasure of handling and studying hominin fossils. When photographing a famous one, the professor responsible for access starting photographing me from behind, and commenting on the “light streaming through my golden hair.” As I quickly gathered my things to leave, he blocked the doorway and gave me a juicy ‘goodbye’ kiss. Back in St Louis, a peer of mine told me that at a bar the previous night one of the evolutionary biology professors had engaged in a conversation with the other (male) graduate students about whether they would have sex with me if my husband were watching. Just a few years ago at a conference, a senior male colleague told me out of the blue that I was “too good looking for my own good.” This is just a sampling of the things that have happened to me in my post-pubescent life that might be construed as sexually inappropriate or sexual harassment. I am certain many people in my field can make a comparable list of their own.

Why didn’t I report any of these incidents? Or confront the deliverers? I have been thinking about this a lot these days in the wake of all of the revelations in science, and given that this question is frequently posed to me and others. Continue reading

Off the beaten tenure track

Last week, I got an email from a friend suggesting that my husband (who adjuncts) apply to a tenure track position two and a half hours away. Even though I am happy in my full-time, non-tenure track position here, my (tenured) friend still saw this as an option. Why?

“Because tenure-track trumps all,” my husband said, and he’s right. Even with the stress, workload, and uncertainty faced by my TT friends and colleagues, it’s clear most see NTT as an unacceptable option. Yet despite the shadow cast on anything except tenure-track jobs, three years ago I chose a non-tenure track over a tenure-track job offer. Today, as I work to juggle being the family breadwinner with taking care of a newborn, I still think this was the best decision for myself and for my family.

As criticism of the percent of faculty who are adjuncts grow, I expect to see universities increase the number of faculty who are full-time, but not on the tenure track. This is not as bad as it sounds. Before I explain why it’s worked for me, let me add this caveat: My R-2 university has a long-standing NTT structure, one that includes a union, a benefits package equal to TT faculty, and the opportunity for promotion. The structure of the university’s NTT positions promotes permanence. So, this is not an part-time adjunct or “instructor” position.

In this position, I am expected to teach a solid number of students, with a focus on general education courses, and to teach well. I get paid less. I am not required to do research, but I can continue to research and publish if I choose to. However, I can’t expect to receive workload reductions in exchange for being research active. I cannot get tenure, so although there is a 9-year “post-reappointment” zone, my job is less secure than tenured faculty. Continue reading

Show me the money: Sexual misconduct after the headlines

Jason Lieb. Christian Ott. Geoff Marcy. Timothy Slater.

Four well-respected scientists, recently outed as having had repeated sexual misconduct violations, often at multiple institutions. Four names that have come out in just a short time, and one wonders who’s next. Because we all know there will be another name. And another name. And another name.

And what about the names we don’t know? The missing stairs? Calling attention to these cases often comes at an incredible personal cost to the women filing reports. That cost — to personal health and safety, to careers, to well-being and livelihoods — is rarely if ever balanced by the repercussions for the person committed the misconduct in the first place. Can we blame women for not coming forward when coming forward is personally risky and has a low likelihood of making a difference?

I’d like to think that this is changing. That the Liebs, Otts, Marcys, and Slaters are sending a message. That the NSF’s recent statement of non-tolerance for harassment will scare universities into doing what Title IX apparently failed to do — prevent sexual misconduct. Continue reading

Being a shadow advisor

My department has several wonderful faculty, working in a variety of areas, producing great work and supporting their students. There are also a handful of faculty who are not as great: toxic toward their students, condescending, generally hard to work with. As luck would have it, they are all in the same subfield, which I happen to have an expertise in, too. From my perspective, this has been a rather sad discovery: on paper, this is a great career opportunity. I am at a place with multiple famous researchers, who have work that clearly and obviously interfaces with my own, and who would be great people to talk and work with. However, it became clear early on that they are anything but great to talk to, so I have been keeping one-on-one interactions to a minimum and instead have opted for large group meetings and presentations, so I still get the feedback on my work that I require. I’ve also been cultivating interactions with others on and off campus. I feel like I’ve been fairly successful at that, so it’s not what I want to concentrate on in this post.

I feel particularly bad for these professors’ students. Over the time that I have been here, several of them have reached out to me. Some simply looking for a sympathetic ear, someone who can help them navigate their difficult relationship with their advisor. Others needing a confidence boost, after being repeatedly told by an advisor that they were not good enough. With some, I have also begun a more substantive advising relationship, since I have expertise in their areas of research. And this is where it gets tricky: some of these professors are also isolationists–they have told their students that they shouldn’t talk to anyone other than them. So, I have been meeting with students “off the books,” because I want to help, but this entire situation is clearly unhealthy. Continue reading

Is a PhD a good investment? A cost-benefit analysis

Today’s guest post is by NeuroPostDoc. NeuroPostDoc is a recent Ph.D. moving cross-country to continue her research on human cognition using neuroimaging. She previously wrote about teaching while dissertating for TSW.

Much handwringing has occurred recently on the topic of compensation in academia, in particular for graduate students whose stipends are legendarily meager. Often this discussion fractionates into two equally histrionic sides: “underpayment of graduate students is a grievous undervaluing of intellectual labor,” versus “grad students who complain about stipends are entitled whiners who should have known what they were getting into.” While I was writing my dissertation I vacillated wildly between these two views (and all the more moderate ones in between) on a near-daily basis, and concluded that nearly all of it is a matter of perspective. But since the extremes are illustrative, here I will argue both sides and let the reader decide which account speaks more to them.

1. Underpayment of graduate students is a grievous undervaluing of intellectual labor Continue reading

Putting the Care in Career

“I need a wife.” In a meeting last week, my female colleague says this to me. “I need a wife.” She is a divorced mom of two sharing parenting responsibilities amicably but not equitably with her ex. She sent her son off on a camping trip with school and he returned to his dad’s house with a suitcase full of dirty laundry. Even though her son stayed with Dad for a few days, the laundry ended up coming home to Mom still caked with grime, still stuffed in a suitcase. My colleague is understandably perturbed by this and she has to make a choice. Does she spend her time and emotional energy doing the laundry, feeling pissed off? Or does she spend her time and emotional energy explaining to her former partner what 50% of the parenting responsibilities actually means? Either way the burden of care is hers. When she says she needs a wife, I can relate. What would it be like to have someone at home with a lifetime of socialization on how to perform the labor of care? For the academic women all around me, this is the dream.

Continue reading