Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Enough Minorities, Minority Enough (Part II)

One of the things about being a minority faculty member that is not discussed a great deal is the amount of isolation that one experiences. Most scholars are usually at the whim of the job market when it comes to deciding where to live in the U.S. (or even earlier when they are at the whim of which university admits them to graduate school).

Because universities, particularly those in small towns, are often segregated from communities of color, becoming a professor frequently involves leaving the community where one grows up. Moreover, one’s audience in the academic world is most often composed of a white majority.

As I mentioned previously, humanities departments tend to use minority-research positions as the only means to build diversity. It is not at all unusual, therefore, that a Latino/a Studies scholar will also be the only Latino/a in the department (likewise for Afro-Am). In some small liberal arts colleges, that might even be the only one in the whole college division – or even the only person of color. An implicit (and sometimes explicit) expectation of these scholars is that they will work to make the few minority students on these campuses feel less isolated by becoming a universal mentor.

It is small wonder that so many minority scholars often report feeling exhausted and over-extended. I don’t think that it is an exaggeration to say that I did quadruple the number of campus talks that my colleagues did at my former Texas institution. It was almost always Latino or queer student groups that asked me to be part of their programming. Part of the reason that I got roped into this was because I have hard time saying “no” to anybody (Just ask my last few dates). Another major part, though, was that I felt a personal and political commitment to work with students who were trying to change the atmosphere on the campus. In a non-white majority state, it was shocking that minority students represented less than ten percent of that Texas institution’s student body.

Being the “only” (or at least the only willing to work with students (more on that in another post)) puts faculty in difficult spots. They are doing a solid amount of work by being engaged with students, but it is work that will not be valued for tenure and promotion at most research universities. It also makes fuzzy the line between an individual’s identity and their scholarly research.

Yet, faculty of color are frequently expected to become the central reference for every issue facing people of their same identity. Most people, who are secure in their own sense of identity and politics, try to take advantage of that powerful position to create change or support others pursuing change. If one isn’t careful, though, it can also really twist you psychologically.

I have seen some Latino/a colleagues become warped as they try meet other people’s expectations about Latinos. In their efforts to conform to the identity that is projected onto them, they contort themselves into a “Super Latino.” They lose sight of their research and simply become the "campus Latino," a ready-made spokesperson who exists only to give "the Latino point of view" to anybody who asks. One problem with this is that they often lose track of the fact that no individual could ever fulfill that role. There has never been a singular "Latino point of view." The Latino/a community is filled with contradictions and wide ranging experiences. These "Super Latinos," however, discount their own experiences that shows this to be true and become a self-proclaimed embodiment of the community.

In many ways, they are the academic version of the singing mariachis in the Taco Bell commercial (God, why? Why?? Please, no more.). They serve Anglos what they expect to see and are rewarded by being to asked to perform for them (Though they haven't yet mastered the talent of making the sound of a cracking whip with their wink). One can always find these individuals at conferences, roaming about in their size-six huaraches, with beans almost literally falling out of their pockets. They are rarely presenting their research, but are ready to critique everybody else's.

These same individuals attempt to enforce those standards of “Latinoness” onto their colleagues and (especially) their grad students. Because their career has devolved to merely being a projection of Latinoness, it is in their best interest to ensure that their version of Latinoness is validated. Some time ago, one Latino grad student shared a story with me about meeting a Latina professor at another university. When he demurred from claiming to be a modern “Aztec warrior” (Who knew people were still pushing that?), she questioned whether he was really committed to social justice or even Latino scholarship.

In my own case, I have certainly encountered a few Latino/a scholars who expected me to be apologetic or embarrassed for not having been raised in a bilingual household. Since my mother was Irish American, there was no Spanish language for her to pass on to us. My father’s parents succumbed to institutional pressures in New Mexico that demanded that they not pass on Spanish to their children. The U.S. then, as now, wrongly imagined being bilingual as a hindrance. Indeed, Latino/a children of my father’s generation were punished in New Mexico’s public schools for speaking Spanish (N.B. to America: being monolingual does not keep the U.S. unified as a nation. It’s just leaving us isolated and backward). My father, as a result, had only marginal Spanish skills to pass along to his own children.

When faced with this critique about childhood, I am not sure what people expecting me to do. Am I supposed to build a time machine, travel back to the time before World War II, and convince my grandparents to make another decision in my father’s upbringing? If I had that power, why not simply stop the United States’ 1846 invasion of New Mexico in the first place?

Obviously, knowledge of Spanish is critically important for my research on Latino/as in the U.S. I have had to learn it, though, in the same ways that non-Latinos have to learn it. It is also a struggle at times as I seem to have no natural aptitude for languages (We won’t even discuss my disastrous flirtation with Russian). I think of not being raised bilingual in much the same way as I think about having been circumcised. It wasn't really my choice or preference, but you've got work with what you got. No use in crying over things that are impossible to undo.

I am not apologetic about things that were beyond my control. Nor am I willing to concede that it somehow lessens my own sense of Latino/a identity. Indeed, the loss of Spanish fluency has been part of many Latino/as’ experiences in this nation. To paraphrase an old joke from Cheech Marin (who grew up speaking mostly English himself), Chicanos are Mexicans who get “B’s” in Spanish class.

My grandparents, like many Latino families, were promised that if they adopted English-only their children would not face discrimination in the U.S. It turns out that was a lie. My father faced numerous incidents of racism and, alas, he had only one language with which to curse about it. My grandfather frequently expressed his regret about and mourned his children's lack of Spanish skills. All of that was a "Latino" experience (but not the only Latino experience).

Latino/a and other scholars are frequently forced to conform to the expectations of their white colleagues about their identity. It is therefore disheartening when we see Latino/as imposing their own definitions of their identity onto one another. This only serves to contain and reduce Latino/a experiences and ignores the greater diversity of own community. It lessens our ability to understand the complexity of Latino/a responses and strategies for finding a place in the U.S.


Mel said...

I hadn't seen the Taco Hell commercial. I'm not sure I want to thank you for that image.

Here in Maine the suppressed language was French. A close friend's parents would get beaten if they got caught speaking French at school, so despite the fact that half his family is in Québec, his parents never spoke it with their kids and still won't, even though he's fluent. Since their parents' generation didn't speak English to any extent, Franco-Am kids from our generation were essentially cut off from part of their personal and cultural histories.

LadyJ said...

Gay Prof:

A lot of this hit home for me. My partner is born and bred, died in the wool Californian of Mexican decent. Family has been here for ages and yet to some Latinos she's not Latino (or Chicano depending on who's saying it) enough because she doesn't speak the language. In her family, her grandmother's father didn't teach her grandmother which meant her mother didn't teach Spanish to my partner and her brother and sister. Societal pressures like you describe figure into those choices heavily. Her father is fluent as was her grandfather.

And then you have the white folks at SF State (she's the exec chef in the dining center) who will look at her name tag and make assumptions about whether or not she speaks English. I've threatened to make her a shirt that says, "Yes, I speak English, ask me how!"

As a Black woman, I've been hit with the "not Black enough" label and it was only when I was an adult that I was able to say back, "And just what is Black enough? Did I miss the memo?" I can only imagine the hijinks in the halls of higher academia.

Why the litmus test? What does anyone gain by it other than the "prestige" of being the one special snowflake in the department?

Marlan said...

First--you've had some recent dates? Do tell.

Second, other immigrant groups, like your Latino grandparents, dropped their native languages in favor of English when they assimilated into the U.S. Imagine if all these foreign languages in America were still available as a second or third language to each of us. Imagine a country where people could know two or three languages. Gee, it must be like Europe or something.

Marius said...

You are absolutely right, Gayprof. The Latino community is more diverse than most people think. I've met Latinos of all walks of life who react to this issue quite differently.

I have a friend who's a graduate student at Emory University. He's Colombian American but considers himself Spanish. And he hates to be called a Latino. I know a Mexican American woman (from California) who is quite proud of her indigenous roots. I have many Cuban friends who are proud to be Cuban, but they hate being lumped together with other immigrant groups in the states. There are also socioeconomic differences that are rarely considered. This is a very complicated issue.

Historiann said...

On the question of the extra intellectual labor and service that is implicitly expected of non-white and women faculty members, you might want to see “Innovation is Overtime: An Ethical Analysis of ‘Politically Committed’ Labor” by Lisa J. Disch and Jean M. O’Brien, published in _Feminist Waves, Feminist Generations_ (2007). They describe the ways in which the corporate university relies on your overtime work for Latino/a and queer students, and benefits from your own political and personal commitments without paying for them (natch!) Anyway, thanks for getting this second post up--great work!


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GayProf said...

Mel: Why the U.S. is so hostile to multiple languages I will never understand.

LadyJ: The ways that the "Latino enough" or "Black enough" arguments get deployed are always destructive. First, they serve to divide those communities which makes it harder to mobilize for social justice. Second, the "enough" part is so often about enforcing conformity and particular relations of power. It all reminds me of Marlon Riggs' "Black is Black Ain't."

Marlan: Whatever we think of globalization (which is generally not so good IMHO), the reality is that workers of all types are going to benefit economically when they speak more than one language.

Marius: The more we can get those various perspectives engaged with how to fight for a common cause of social justice, the better off we will be.

HistoriAnn: Thanks for the reference. Indeed, universities literally use minorities to market themselves (Look how diverse we are! Here are some pictures of people of color on our campus). Yet, they rarely listen to the concerns of those same people.

TLC Tugger: Um, thanks. I am pretty okay with my penis as it stands today.

tornwordo said...

I thought I commented....guess I screwed up the word verification, lol. Great piece. I wonder about the fixation on being unilingual. I think it's laziness by and far.

Also, I haven't seen the Taco Bell ad, that would rankle me too.

Laverne said...

What you say speaks to all pigeon-holed groups.

The problem is with the balance. It's always with the balance. There's no easy way to address the inequities that minority groups face. And, being human, we want the easy way.

It's 2008, and the students at my school, the white, mainstream students, are just as out of touch as I was 30 years ago.

The expectations of minority students is almost subconcious. "You are the authority because you are black, gay, asian, brown, different."

How do we begin changing those expectations?

David said...

Not sure how you will feel about this, but when I met you last year, it never occurred to me that you were Latino. Not for a second. It was only when I started reading your blog that I realized "oh, I guess he's Latino."

GayProf said...

Torn: I still can't believe the Taco Bell ad made it on the air. Do they not think about things, ever?

Laverne: I think that the best we can do is be open to talking about these things, particularly in education settings. It will be uncomfortable and unpleasant, but pretending that race doesn't matter has been a dismal failure for the past twenty years.

David: Yeah, I hear that pretty often. Indeed, I would say that roughly 50 percent of Anglos that I meet tell me this (which, given my mixed ancestry, I suppose is fair). I am never quite sure what response people want to that.

I imagine it is about experience, expectations, and presumptions. Interestingly, it was only once I departed New Mexico that I started hearing that I didn't "seem" Latino. Mexicans and Mexican Americans are much more likely (though it's not 100 percent) to presume that my identity is Latino. Perhaps they are operating off a different set of racial "tells." Or have regularly seen a greater variety of people who identify as Latino/a.

Whatever the case, it does make me feel like I occupy a liminal space. I am not saying it's good. I am not saying it's bad. It is just the case.

I wouldn't fret, though. When I met you, it didn't occur to me at all that you were Jewish (Seriously). It was only after I started reading your blog that I realized that you identified as ethnically and religiously Jewish.

Roger Green said...

GP- I relate. Being "not black enough" has taken an ironic twist with my face lightening enough from the vitilago that a long-time associate I hadn't seen in a while didn't even recognize me.

Huntington said...

Why the debate isn't about whether all kids should be in bilingual education, rather whether any should, is what I've never understood.

Roger Green said...

You might find this interesting: http://delendaestcarthago.blogspot.com/2008/04/really-were-angry-about-this.html

Maria said...

my inability to speak spanish constantly bothers me. my dad (his dad was like yours and didn't teach them spanish) has been trying to relearn it because he wants to start going to spanish mass again. i guess catholicism is his major source of latinidad... me, i prefer the food.

sexy said...