Sunday, December 09, 2012

What "Presumed Incompetent" Looks Like

Presumed Incompetent:  The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia
Utah State University Press, 2012
A Latino faculty member just received news that his daughter has been accepted to Harvard. He is so excited, he tells a fellow colleague. The colleague replies: “That’s great. I guess Harvard has special programs for Hispanics.”

A Chicana faculty member, who does not have tenure yet, points out that other faculty in the English department are not including minority literature in their courses. She is told: “That is why we hired you.” She decides to refrain from future comments.

At an administrative meeting, two presentations occur: one concerns the hiring of women. "Diversity" is in the title but the hiring of minorities or strategies in changing campus culture regarding race and class is not part of the conversation. The second presentation discusses projected percentages revealing that by 2020, there will be a 19.4% jump in Latinos graduating from high school. There is no discussion in making connections regarding both presentations: the growing Latino population in the classroom, exploring cultural, racial, or class bias regarding hiring in predominantly white institutions, or the importance of including the more specific descriptor "women of color" when discussing women and hiring.

One April afternoon, a Chicana undergraduate is at a gathering on campus. She is a junior and contemplating graduate school. This is what she tells a faculty administrator who is at the reception for undergraduate students. The administrator replies: “You probably won’t get in. We give you people scholarships at the undergraduate level, but don’t expect them at the graduate level.”

A graduate who recently received her PhD is on the job market. She is on an on-campus job interview. The first morning, she is escorted to campus by a senior faculty member who says, "You could get a job anywhere. You have the last name, you are the right minority. Why come here?"

These five examples are not unusual. They happen every day at universities throughout the United States. To many, it is difficult to believe that in 2012, we are far from any kind of "post-racial society." These examples may seem unbelievable. Unfortunately, these exchanges and assumptions are the norm rather than the exception.

Enter Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs (Latin American Studies Director at Seattle University), Yolanda Flores Niemann (Senior Vice Provost at the University of North Texas), Carmen G. González (Professor of law at Seattle University School of Law), and Angela P. Harris (Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis School of Law). These four women of color have spent years collecting data and testimonies (quantitative and qualitative) from women of color in academia across the country.

Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs

Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia is a 570-page “must read” for everyone in and outside of academia. In the Introduction, Harris and González write: “This book demonstrates . . . that the women of color who have managed to enter the rarified halls of academe as full-time faculty find themselves in a peculiar situation. Despite their undeniable privilege, women of color faculty members are entrenched in Byzantine patterns of race, gender, and class hierarchy that confound popular narratives about meritocracy. Far from being above the fray, faculty at institutions of higher education are immersed in the daunting inequities and painful struggles taking place throughout an increasingly multicultural America.

Yolanda Flores Niemann
For many women of color on college and university campuses, the problems begin with numerical representations. While the nation’s student population is becoming increasingly diverse, the overwhelming majority of full-time faculty positions continue to be filled by white men and women. From 1997 to 2007, for example, the percentage of students of color enrolled in US colleges and universities climbed from 25 to 30 percent (Ryu 2010). However, the percentage of full-time faculty positions held by people of color increased only slightly—from 13 percent in 1997 to 17 percent in 2007 (Ryu 2010). Women of color, in particular, continue to be underrepresented . . . The narratives collected in this volume reveal that not only the demographics but the culture of academia is distinctly white, heterosexual, and middle- and upper-middle-class. Those who differ from the norm find themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, “presumed incompetent” by students, colleagues, and administrators (2-3).”

To combine empirical/quantitative data with qualitative research (the testimonies which frame and fully develop and “bridge the epistemological gap that frequently appears between the lives of people with a particular privilege and those who lack that privilege”) makes this an exhaustive record of inequities
that mirror our national struggles with race, gender, sexuality.  The inclusion of instructive strategies and directives to change these destructive narratives makes this text a must-read for all academics at every level. And for faculty of color, there are lessons to be learned such as recognizing how easy it can be to re-inscribe the hierarchies of “privilege” which replicate the abuse cycle both within oneself and toward other faculty of color.
Carmen G. González
These chapters include illustrations of some of the most demeaning and injurious behaviors that occur daily in academia. But, as earlier indicated, this book is not about simply revealing what women of color endure. It is also about their resilience and survival tactics.

The text also provides "lessons" for all faculty and administrators to consider. Chapter 30, for example, is entitled “Lessons From the Experiences of Women of Color Working in Academia” and is directed toward administrators/faculty to encourage improved campus climate. In one section, #13 instructs “Do Not Define white Women as the De Facto Norm for All Women by Using the Phrase, ‘Women and People of Color’ or ‘Women and Minorities' . . . Women of color are women; they are also people of color; they are also minorities. The use of the phrases 'women and people of color' and 'women and minorities' makes women of color invisible while defining white women as the de facto norm. The use of these phrases minimizes the intersectional realities that both link and separate white women, men of color, and women of color . . . (459)."

Angela P. Harris
This section relates to the presentation on hiring “women” I noted at the beginning of this blog. It also connects with our own tendency (due to the way society shapes narratives) to think "generally" instead of "specifically" in relation to all individuals. Terms like “post racial” or “color blind” do not help but hinder any progress toward understanding the very nuanced or distinct issues among and between intersecting groups.

There are also "Recommendations for Women of Color and Allies." In the section "Know how merit and qualifications are defined," Yolanda Flores Niemann writes, "When you serve on student-admission, faculty, or administrator search committees, ensure that the group is looking beyond candidate test scores and schools where degrees were received. Do your best to steer the discussion away from pedigree or elitist backgrounds. Speak up when people are judged negatively on the basis of perceived lower-social-class background (463)." This can be difficult without allies, especially when the school and its administrators are leaning heavily toward a meritocracy. Allies, especially, can help in this regard during closed-door meetings when disingenuous comments are made regarding a person's credentials, denigrating where the faculty member's latest publication has been published, or even where that person lives.

Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muh writes: “The essays presented here are about surviving and even thriving in what are often foreign and hostile environments, no matter what rank these working-class women and women of color have achieved. Most of the women represented in this collection have, in fact, soared, thrived, and succeeded with very few resources and courageously wanted to make the process of navigating the academic world democratically transparent, not only so that others might succeed but to reveal that other women who did or did not triumph in academia were part of some negative force that was national and existed in most institutions of higher learning, even in the twenty-first century (503)."

Felicidades to the editors and the brave academics who have so generously and fearlessly offered their stories to this collection. Read this book! It is an important one. And if you are not an academic—it is important for you as well because it reflects what can happen in every workplace throughout the U.S. As well, if you are a parent, it will give you a glimpse into school systems and the contradictions inherent in schools that declare a mission of equity and diversity without actually providing concrete steps to move from a patriarchal white meritocracy to what the mission describes.

Sending you, dear La Bloga readers good wishes for a very good week! Abrazos!

1 comment:

Adrian said...

This is an amazing perspective that I had not yet really thought about. The short testimonials in this blog entry are very telling. I tell people in my circles that is up to each of us Latinos to make and be the change we want to see. If we raise ourselves up economically, we will earn power and respect in this country. Only then can we effect change in numbers and earn our rightful place as politicians, educators, and business and community leaders. I think it is happening, but it is slow like molasses. Thanks for sharing!