Oso Raro recently had a post on teaching, experience, and racial identities in the academic world. This, along with my own entry on diversity in hiring, had me thinking about the role(s) of minority faculty who teach on race in the U.S.
Since arriving at Big Midwestern University, several Latino/a graduate students have stopped by my office to talk about their futures in the academic world. While they still have a long way to go before they become professors, they expressed an ambivalence about their expected place at universities and colleges. Many of their peers and some professors don’t view their academic pursuits in the same way as other students studying [white] topics. Although they are working just as hard (if not harder) than their colleagues, many people assume that their knowledge and ideas about Latino/a Studies are “naturally” derived from their racial identity and experiences. They have felt a pressure to enact other people's assumptions about Latino/a identity even as their intellectual creativity has been ignored. They are called upon to be the living embodiment of Latino/a oppression so that others can know.
I wish that I had some solid advice for these students. Alas, though, their estimation about minorities in the academic world is fairly accurate. My experience at my former Texas institution demonstrated the disinterest (and even hostility) that still exists for minority scholars/scholarship within certain academic enclaves. During a department meeting, the classes that I and others (Others?) taught on race and gender were dismissed by one memorable colleague as “boutique classes” that distracted from the “real” [read: white, straight, male] history of the nation. For him and his friends, such classes were a frivolous waste of precious classroom space. Our presence in the university was a product of wrong-headed affirmative action programs and political correctness run amok. Another colleague made this explicit by saying to me that hiring in Latino studies was "just an excuse to add more brown faces to the department."
Such talk left me wondering how those Texas colleagues fantasized about me. Stereotypes about my perceived racial identity must have intermingled with equal stereotypes about my sexual orientation in their daydreams about my classroom. By the way they discussed my classes on sex and race, I figured that they imagined that most of my time at the lectern was spent in drag, wearing a long billowy skirt, whirling in a circle while I played the castanets. Then, after I finished with the ritual dance of my people (gay or Latino (take your pick)), we all ate tacos together and drank tequila. While I might actually enjoy that type of class, it’s not really how I choose to teach – most days.
African Americans, Latino/as, and Asian Americans in the humanities often have to walk a complicated tightrope between expectations about their racial identity and their academic scholarship. Many (Most? All?) departments depend upon positions focused on minority scholarship as the major (only?) method to increase the racial diversity of the faculty. Minority scholars are therefore viewed with suspicion if they are seen as not sufficiently “academic” enough and “distanced” from their subject matter. If minority faculty advocate for increasing the role of Latino/a Studies or African-American Studies, they are seen as “pushing an agenda” or simply wanting to hire their friends. The intellectual value that comes from a more diverse faculty is not seriously considered (much less the need to reinvent the way that we all teach U.S. history at the university level).
Yet, minority scholars are caught by equal pressure from the other side. At times, minority scholars have to prove that they have as “authentic” a racial identity as the people that they study. Certain white faculty position themselves as the arbiters of that authenticity. Since joining the academic world, I have been astounded at the number of white faculty (most of whom considered themselves “liberal”) who were willing to pass judgment on whether certain African American colleagues had “legitimate” claim to hip-hop styles based on their perceived economic class. With tremendous authority (but almost no knowledge), they felt certain that they could tell which of their colleagues had known “real” struggle and which had not. Likewise, I have heard other colleagues try to determine if certain Latino/as were sufficiently invested in a metaphorical salsa (either the dance or the food). Did the Latino/a faculty add enough zesty spices to the academic pot to warrant their continued employment?
From my own experience, I have numerous stories about my expected/ perceived/ desired racial identity being drawn into my professional position(s). The loveliest of my former Texas colleagues, for instance, accused me of being too identified with Latino/a students during my first year evaluation. They alleged that I catered to Latino/as and didn’t care enough about Anglo students.
For the record, not a single colleague ever came to observe my classes first-hand or ever spoke with any of my students in my entire time in Texas. In other words, they had no real evidence that Latino/as were getting better service in my classes. That didn’t matter. It sounded plausible enough that a Latino historian probably favored his Latino/a students that it made it into my official tenure file as something that I needed to work on (!).
Perhaps they felt threatened because they imagined that my classes were about “insider” knowledge to which they could never be apart. If I was teaching Latino/a History and receiving positive student evaluations for it, they reasoned, I must have been secretly conspiring with my race. It was surely a plot to take Anglo jobs and (possibly) replant their gardens (Also for the record, my classes on Latino/a History have never been filled with exclusively Latino/a students).
That wouldn’t be the only incident in my fledgling academic career. In other moments, some of my colleagues have questioned whether I am Latino enough given my mixed ancestry (Note to new readers: My father was Mex Amer and my mother was Irish Amer). My entire life in New Mexico, this was never raised as an issue by the Latinos who surrounded me (like, you know, half my family). Some white faculty, however, want to be sure that they got the “real deal.” Being “mixed” is suspect to them. It seems the power of whiteness grants them the unquestioned ability to decide the appropriate measure of everybody else’s racial performance. This is ironic given that Mexican identity has historically been imagined as mestizo.
These types of identity concerns would not be expressed to a scholar working on medieval Italian history. Nobody wonders if they are catering to students who are of Southern European extraction. Nor are they asked if they are “medieval enough.” It might be more interesting if we did hold them up to that type of criteria. Not wearing a hair shirt? Do you like to take baths? Have you never suffered from the plague? Clearly you aren’t a fully legitimate medieval scholar.
What is astounding about all of this is that it has nothing to do with our actual jobs. It is obvious (or should be) that identifying as Latino/a does not mean that one is ready to step into a classroom and instantly start teaching Latino/a history. It takes years of studying, reading, and thinking. True, being identified as Latino/a might predispose somebody to take up that challenge because of their experiences in our society. One’s experiences might also give one a political and intellectual perspective in writing that history. That, though, is hardly the end of the story.