Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Enough Minorities, Minority Enough? (Part I)

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.

Friday, February 22, 2008

I Go to the Mall

Thanks to all of you who have either commented or e-mailed me directly wondering if this post was eerily prophetic. Your concern was very sweet. Where would I be without you?

Fortunately, my silence has not been the result of major calamity. I had been meaning to write a follow up entry to my last one. Somehow, though, time always ran out on me. Days slip by quickly when you're faced with a ridiculously full schedule.

On top of that, my body seems to be responding to the cold-winter conditions of Midwestern Funky Town by going into semi-hibernation. While I have always enjoyed my daily sleep, I find myself going to bed early so that I can have solid ten-hour blocks of snoozing. It feels like I submit to a little mini-coma each night.

Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that the six week period between December 31 and February 14 (more or less) is always the worst time of year for me. Usually these are the weeks when I am the most busy and the least happy. This year was certainly not any different.

I wish that I could say that my temporary absence resulted in my finding ultimate Truth and/or my inner light. Alas, I had only two mild conclusions recently. First, I really need more Walter Benjamin for the Never Ending Research Project of Doom. This either means more reading or breaking out the Ouija board and attempting to contact his un-dead spirit. Either way, it’s best that we don’t talk about that part.

My other conclusion is that I am easily manipulated by techno-babble and aggressive sales people. This comes as a bit of surprise given how critical that I am of the media, advertising, academics, and all other forms of discussion. Put me in a mall with somebody working for commission, however, and I am easily moved.

Over the past few years that I have spent at the gym, I have come to recognize the importance of a quality running shoe. Shoes, like tires, are not a purchase where one cuts corners. If you go for the "bargain" in either, expect a blowout.

Given that I refuse to use any other cardio equipment beyond the treadmill, I need to keep replacing my shoes regularly to ensure that I have ample cushioning. Over the past couple of weeks, the telltale signs started showing up that I needed to get myself to the mall. When my knee joints begin to sound like snapping mousetraps as I walk, we know that I need some new shoes.

Before going to the mall, I had already decided to simply replicate the purchase of my last pair of shoes. After all, they had served me well and I put tons of miles on them before they finally gave out. Such noble plans often fail.

The sales associate at the athletic store wasn’t prepared to let me walk out with last year’s model. “Ack, you are still using the ASICS 2110 model? How have you managed?” she asked in feigned horror, “I mean, I could sell that to you again, but there have been some significant changes in runner’s technology since last year.” I liked how she made “technology” to be a possessive of “runner.” Not only is it technology for jogging, but it belongs to runners uniquely.

At first, I held strong and asked her to see if they still had the 2110 model. With a little bit of time, though, I fell to her message. Clearly, what I really needed was the ASICS 2130. See? It’s a whole 20 higher than the 2110!

“The 2130,” she explained, “has a Space Trusstic System™ that creates a pocket between the Trusstic device and the midsole.” Without that system, I could face midsole deformation and loose my foot function. That’s not what I want, is it? To have deformed, functionless midsoles? If I bought the 2110 again, I might as well nail my foot to a piece of plywood and call that a shoe.

The only thing that seems to have really changed between the 2110 and the 2130 is the color, but I was convinced. Such capitulation, however, did not mean that my erstwhile sales associate felt that she had completed her task. No, no.

Had I thought seriously about the quality of my insoles? The 2130 was a good shoe, but those ASICS people cut corners on their insoles. Before my eyes, she disemboweled the 2130 to reveal the “flimsy and inadequate foam insole that they dared to put in such a great shoe.”

In the end, I walked out with shoes $30 more expensive than I planned on spending. Don’t say that GayProf isn’t doing his part for the nation’s economy.

P.S. This is entry 300 at CoG -- Please fawn appropriately.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Where is the Diversity?

Big Midwestern University is currently in the midst of hiring several historians. These positions are both at the junior and at the senior level, but it’s clear already that the majority of people offered those new jobs will be white. Indeed, not a single person of color is even in the running for the most senior of these positions.

One of the major problems facing history departments today is that they have failed in the mission to diversify. This may come as surprising news to some. Indeed, I have been in several meetings (both in Texas and BMU) where white faculty have lauded how diverse those departments had become and how seriously they took the issue of “diversity.” For them, the successful hiring of one or two people of color in the department was enough to break out the “Mission Accomplished” banner and give a speech on an aircraft carrier.

Keep in mind that these are not bad or racist people. On the contrary, they actually do support diversity and are allies (unlike many of my other Texas colleagues who were explicitly hostile to hiring minorities (that, though, is a different post)). Yet, many well-meaning white faculty members like these don’t realize that our departments aren’t even close to racial parity. History, as an academic discipline, is shockingly out of step with the nation (and even far behind other humanities programs). Why has this happened?

In October of last year, historian George Sánchez called attention to the problem in an article for the American Historical Association. Though it didn’t garner much attention or comment, Sánchez revealed the history profession to be woefully blind to the reality of the nation’s population and the diversity of college-aged students. Combined, African Americans and Latinos represent well over 25 percent of the nation’s total population (and over a third of the population age 40 and below). Yet, African Americans only represent 5 percent of the total number of historians in the entire nation. Latino/as only compose 3 percent of the total number of historians in the entire nation.

Obviously, there are larger issues that are keeping minorities out of higher education that are beyond the scope of the field. Minorities disproportionately attend public schools with inadequate resources, they are not often encouraged to enter college and/or lack the means to pursue higher education, etc.

Historians wring their hands and point to those elements to explain why they just can’t fight the system. Yet, even with all of that, business and law schools are still much more diverse than history Ph.D. programs or faculties. History also fares worse than other humanities or social sciences. Sociology, political science, psychology, and literature are all more diverse fields than history. We are on par with economics (the discipline generally considered the most “conservative” of the social sciences).

The lack of diversity in history faculties is seemingly impacting the number of undergraduates pursuing degrees in history. Of all the disciplines, history has the whitest undergraduate majors in this nation. It therefore becomes a vicious cycle. History is taught only from the perspective of whites, which only attracts white students, who then become professors who teach that same history.

What has happened to the field of history that we should end up so far behind our colleagues in other parts of the university? We should feel a certain shame that the MBA program has done better attracting African Americans and Latino/as than our field.

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is the way that hiring and searches are conducted in history departments. If a minority is hired into a history department, he or she is most often hired into a position that is specific to their personal race or ethnicity. Latinos/as, in other words, are hired to teach Latino/a history. African Americans are hired to teach Afro-Am, etc. This is not necessarily true for white candidates, who occupy positions across the discipline (including positions teaching Latino/a and Afro-Am history).

Obviously, these “ethnic studies” positions are critically important components of the department and I am not suggesting they should come to an end (as, you know, I hold one of those positions). Yet, these positions are currently the only mechanism that departments employ to increase the racial diversity of their faculty. This is a seriously flawed strategy. Most departments can only afford to fund a couple of these positions. If that is the only avenue for diversity, then Latino/as and African Americans will always be just one or two people in the department.

Minority applicants are simply not hired for job ads in other fields (including (especially?) general U.S. history positions). Indeed, even positions that should have minority candidates because there is an obvious overlap with ethnic studies are given to white candidates. So, a job advertised for the "History of the U.S. West" should potentially net somebody working in Chicano/a history. After all, the West is where the majority of Chicano/as live (and, in some places, were/are the majority of the population). Likewise, a job on the U.S. South should logically draw candidates working on Afro-Am. Despite good ol’ logic, those regional-specific jobs most often go to white applicants working on white history. In one memorable incident that I witnessed, a member of a search committee rejected a qualified minority candidate by claiming that his/her work would be better suited to ethnic studies rather than a broad U.S. position. Apparently ethnic history isn’t U.S. history.

The emergence of African-American and Latino/a histories came as a response to the demand for the field to take seriously the experiences of these populations. It took decades of rigorous activism for these classes to even appear on course catalogs. A friend of mine, however, has aptly characterized how those movements have now been undercut by most history departments. After the struggle to get faculty positions for African American and Latino/a history, history departments have decided that those are the only positions from which minorities can speak and contribute.

If you imagine that this is just a problem caused by retrograde white, straight men, think again. White women are seemingly as likely to maintain white-dominance in their sub-disciplines. Indeed, I have been shocked by the number of smart white women scholars who recently claimed that gender was more important than race. That is an easy position to take if one is in a position of racial privilege.

A job post for U.S. Women’s History should be competitive for scholars working in fields like African-American women’s history or Latina history. In practice, however, those scholars are often dismissed by many of their white women colleagues as “too narrow” for such an allegedly broad field. Some white women historians still operate under the hidden assumption that race and gender are totally separate categories rather than identities created from intertwined ideologies. Twenty-seven years ago, Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga’s edited volume This Bridge Called My Back challenged white feminists to interrogate their own complicity in oppression. Moraga mourned that white feminists seemed to “feel no loss, no lack, no absence when women of color are not involved.” Since that time, This Bridge has gone out of print and few white feminist scholars have noticed. Whiteness, for many white feminists, is still the real story of women’s history, even if racial privilege is invisible to those safeguarding it.

If historians are serious about diversity beyond lip-service, then it is going to require a complete revaluation of business as usual. Affirmative Action programs are dead (and in some areas now illegal). To solve the problem therefore requires a new way of thinking. Instead of imaging diversity as a question for each individual department to solve, we need to think more broadly as a discipline.

This starts by rethinking how we approach undergraduate education. Our undergraduate classes can be made relevant for the population(s) that we serve. A single reading from Sojourner Truth does not make a course syllabus on U.S. history “diverse.” Rather, we can craft classes that position questions about the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality as the central theme.

We can also take more interest in encouraging promising minority candidates to pursue graduate education. It has been a fallacy to assume that minority candidates would only be interested in writing histories on people just like themselves. Our colleagues in non-U.S. fields would likely benefit a great deal from a wider-range of perspectives on their work.

Finally, we need to seriously scrutinize the ways job searches are conducted. From the initial drafting of the ad to the final campus interviews, we need to be more mindful about what is at play in our departments. I call it bullshit that a white woman writing about white women is writing "women's history." Call it like it is -- Make whiteness visible in historians' presumptions. We need to know about white women (obviously), but white women are not the sum-total of "women's" experiences in this country. Likewise, a white male scholar writing on white male settlers in the U.S. West is writing "white, male History," not a "general" history of the west that is supposedly open to all.

Moreover, having a single African-American historian writing African-American history doesn’t mean that he/she has the field “covered.” Nor does it mean that a supposedly “broad” U.S. history position is a “balance” to having African American or Latino/a History.

We must disrupt this “lite-brite” vision of U.S. history. The stories of minority groups in this nation are not simply festive, colored pegs that can be plugged into a core white background. The history of race in this nation is the history of this nation.