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.


Anonymous said...

I relate to so much of this post. Thank you for articulating the "tightrope" you've described.

Anonymous said...

Geesh, even after reading this blog for so long, I had no idea that your peers were so explicit in their opposition to just about everything you represented.

I wonder if the attitudes you describe, apart from time-old notions of privilege and elitism, really derive from this notion of identity politics. The only people I've noticed that really talk about identity politics are reactionaries who operate under the assumption that minorities - racial, religious, and secular - operate under a monolithic agenda.

Anonymous said...

It's sort of amazing how so many highly educated people can manage to leave their heads up their asses... one of the things I hear historians complain about (okay, I complain about, but I don't think I'm alone) is how non-historians think that just anyone can "do" history because they can read a history book (in contrast to the way people don't think that just anyone can "do," say, molecular biology. Because that requires skills, you know). And yet when faced with a Latino/a scholar teaching Latino/a history, it's amazing to me how quickly some historians completely forget their own defense of the complexity of their discipline.

Anyway, great post. I'm going to have to work on that plague thing (but hey! the squirrels in my city actually do carry the plague! I can be an authentic medievalist).

bardelf said...

From 2000-2006, I lived with a gay male couple who were both professors at a major East Coast university. The stories they told me of the discrimination against them, and comments made about them, from a few of their collegues were just as sickening and vile as the experience you mention in your post, gayprof. The academy can be such a cold place.

Margaret said...

I'm with Chad-- I've been reading since the beginning, and I was still unaware that your colleagues were THIS explicit and hideous in their treatment of you.

I have a lot to say about this, not the least of which is *part* of the problem is how MUCH of an old (white) boys' club the uni used to be. Admitting difference (whether racial, sexual, etc) to the club loosens the bond of clubiness, and is thus very threatening to people.

But of course, that's only a small part of the problem. Another is that the # of racial minorities at most colleges (or in most departments) is so small, that those who are there end up carrying the weight (and stereotypes) of all members of their ethnic groups everywhere. E.g., if we only have one or two African American professors (which is true at my school), they become the lightening rod for *everything* related to African Americans, or even "race" generally. Since one of them is an untenured member of my department, I am particularly concerned about this, as his department chair.

Looking forward to Part II...

pacalaga said...

Oy. My first thought reading your post was, "didn't those people ever hear of the golden rule?" Which, I recognize, is not the point of your post, obviously, but still. I wonder what those schmoes would do if you accused them of pushing their straight Anglo agenda? Oy. It seems a common reaction, though, to any perceived challenge to the status quo. Politics, medicine, law, academia - the powers that be spend a good chunk of time worrying about alternative ideas that threaten the way they see the world rather than worrying about whether they're seeing the world accurately.

Marlan said...

I think back to my undergrad days, about 30 yrs. ago, taking Black History (as it was called then) at a small, private midwestern college. We were taught this new subject/class by a faculty member who could only be described as white, male, older and on the fringes of credibility in the department. It was, they said, a class he was told to teach. Yet, I still retain some of the facts, know some of the major historical figures and have a good understanding of the African American struggles in American society.

Does it take a native scholar? Imho, it can certainly enhance the learning experience, but it is not a guarantee of success.

And yes, academic arrogance is a cruel and unwarranted by-product of academic freedom. I believe it is because many of these folks have never had to accept authority in regard to their approach to education. Tenure is a gift to those who cannot or will not work towards improving their approach to higher education.

GayProf said...

Kiita: Thanks for stopping by my little bloggy.

Chad: My peers were astoundingly explicit. Yet the administration and our other colleagues always made excuses for them.

New Kid: Well, except that they didn't think of Latino/a history as being like their allegedly more complex subfields. At least once a week I had a colleague mention that they didn't think Latino/a Studies was a "real" field (and that is not an exaggeration).

BardElf: Given that gay scholars working on gay topics is still relatively new, it will be interesting to see how their role develops in the university.

Maggie: Between my Texas colleagues and Liar Ex (Who Told Many Lies), my time in Texas was the worst period of my life. Well, I hope it is the worst period of my life. Things in the future better not get worse.

Pacalaga: What is scary is that they thought they were really reasonable. In their mind, they were safeguarding the department/university/discipline from "bad" scholarship. They were the gatekeepers and the tenure process gave them a mighty tool with which to bludgeon.

Marlan: Non-minorities who teach minority topics face a different set of challenges. It is something that we need to study more.

Frank said...

"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."

Well, they got your home life down, if not your teaching.

I don't know why, but I continue to be astounded by the things your Texan "colleagues" said. It's one thing to be ignorant and hateful, but to be so blatant and up-front about it to the person it's directed to! Have those men no understanding of basic politeness and civility? Didn't there mothers raise them right to talk about people BEHIND THEIR BACKS?!?

Like Marlan, I am also interested in your thoughts on non-minorities teaching minority subjects, as well as minorities teaching non-minority subjects. What sort of pressures are there for an African American to go into African American history, or a Latino gay male to teach only the history of Latinos and/or gays? Are you discouraged, both externally from the larger academic community and internally from the group(s) you represent, to narrow your focus like that, even if, say, Eastern European social history is really your true love? Is this a good thing?

gwoertendyke said...

this is so upsetting (i don't mean this in a naive way, like gee, i didn't know people were so backwards). i mean because the double-bind "other" scholars have to contend with in the academy is a ridiculous burden. painted and tainted with the identity-politics brush even while there remains an urgent need to make departments, at least humanities departments, more representational. isn't the point to eliminate racism (and other isms)? we can start with all facets of the academy before taking on the world, but seriously, we could start there, huh? or maybe it needs to happen in reverse.

i know enough people in the academy who like to pretend color-blindness is possible or even desirable to further complicate what you're saying here.

again, it is just upsetting. and along with chad/maggie, that you had colleagues so repulsive is, well, yuk. i'm sorry. happy you got out.

Oso Raro said...

Hey, thanks for the shout out! W00t w00t! Obviously, I can identify with the ways in which you trace out how faculty of colour get circumscribed within nodes of understanding that are reflective not of a post-racial opening of the institutional dynamic but thata actually reinforce and solidify structures of white supremacy. I could prattle on for days with my own thoughts, as well as more than my own fair share of horror stories (and those of my friends as well) that delineate the ways, which you have done here as well, of faculty of color walking the tight rope over the pit of lions, trying to stay true to self while being extrapolated into structures of meaning (and feeling) of which they may or may not be a part of.

Suffice it to say that I think one of the most important factors, both in individual experience as well as the larger macro situation of race in the academy, is that the concept of the collective (socio-cultural identity) is regarded with a certain skepticism in the academy (racial, sexual, and gendered collective identities), and subsequently you have a moment where both the professor of color (as representative of the untrusted collective) and whatever programming and curriculum one has around race, gender, or sexuality (Ethnic Studies, LGBT Studies, Gender Studies, etc.) are regarded a) as not worthy scholarship, and b) "identity" studies that work, like the Manchurian candidate, to turn out ideological robots.

But what all this obscures, of course, is one of the biggest collective bullies on the block, which would be whiteness. In the end, only white people in our society are allowed to be (fantastical) individuals, whilst the rest of us must struggle with our various collective burdens. This, however, is a story that goes way, way back.

ChristopherM said...

For the record, I would totally take your dancing/taco/tequila class. And I would have no doubt I would make an A.

tornwordo said...

It's really disheartening to hear about the things said at Texas school.

Clio Bluestocking said...

We burn bras, castrate effigies of men, and demonstrate cunnilingus in women's history classes. Perhaps we could join your tacos/tequila/salsa class and create one of these "learning communities."

Let me testify for Gayprof's description of Texas. I went to school down the road from his former institution and I too encountered daily the attitude that he describes. I was told such things as "women? What did they ever do?" A professor told the black students in the class that they were only allowed to bring up race on the weeks that we specifically discussed slavery (women of any color were not discussed at all). Another professor said that affirmative action was the only reason that the "dead weight" was on either the faculty or among the graduate students, and that financial support of the Latino (and there were only Latino at the time) and black students was only dragging down the quality of the department. Consistently, all non-white males were told by the white males that only women and minorities would get jobs whereas the white males would not, as if the job should rightly be going to the white males.

As a white woman now specializing more in African American history, I have encountered the constant question of "why?" White people want to know why a nice straight white girl would bother with "that stuff." I must have some sort of intellectual jungle fever -- of which I was actually accused (by a white Texan, of course). African Americans want to know roughly the same thing, but in a different tone and with some suspicion that a white person might be attempting to colonize the field. But, like you said, Gayprof, that's all for another time.

People in Texas really know how to show their asses.

Paris said...

Since you raised the medieval comparison, I offer two anecdotes:

1. Charles Clarke, UK secretary of education circa 2003: "I don't mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them."

2. A fellow grad student (gay) once confessed to me that he assumed I must not be gay because I was a medievalist. Perhaps it is because I do not use castanets or tequila when I teach (no billowy skirts please, I cycle to work). Will have to look into that.

Marius said...

some of my colleagues have questioned whether I am Latino enough given my mixed ancestry

I can't believe they would question your ethnicity. It's also surprising that (educated) people sometimes use the terms race and ethnicity interchangeably. There is a difference! One can be 100% white AND Latino! However, I should point out that some Latinos are just as misguided as the average American. A Mexican woman once told me that Salma Hayek isn't really Mexican because she's part Lebanese. I tried to explain to her that Salma was born and raised in Mexico, and that makes her just as Mexican as Pancho Villa.

Great post! :)

Roger Owen Green said...

At some level, I've avoided any job that would tend to identify myself as "Oh, of COURSE, he's the affirmative action officer" type. If you know what I mean.

Steven said...

I'm with Chad and Tornwordo regarding how you were looked upon and treated in Texas. Perhaps that has only led to will and further resolve which leads to your strong character?

I can recall going through "reverse" discrimination and having my abilities questioned seventeen years ago because I was a white man who worked in a predominantly African-American community.

Mike said...

The resentment and bitter feelings in both directions might stem from an environment where liberal arts in general, and history in particular are considered by so many to be frou-frou subjects that don't have much worth, and all the funds should be diverted to the electrical engineering department or something "useful."

In so many colleges, especially state ones, the cutbacks come, the prestige goes down, and at the same time, it seems new areas of scholarship are seen as "eroding" the once noble field. There's just a lot of bad feelings when people feel like they're fighting for smaller and smaller segments of the pie.

I'm hoping that in the future, as faculties get recruited from all over the world, the idea of a "lily white" faculty becomes rare.

Part of the problem might rest in the obscure methods of academe itself, with its secretive panels deciding who gets tenure, who advances, and what constitutes scholarship. Thus, the system makes everyone just a bit too competitive and paranoid.

Anonymous said...

I have always gotten mixed responses [especially while growing up in a North Jersey town that was mostly Italian, Irish, and Polish] when I explain that my heritage is Guatemalan and Norwegian. It gets tricky when I am asked to 'represent' a Latina view on x or y, because those requests always seem weighted with expectations of what an "authentic" Latina knows, likes, values and eats. People seem disappointed when my views don't fit the model they were expecting [and sometimes they seem disappointed not to be able to get some credit for being so supportive of my 'difference'].

The flip side of that is when people are surprised by my ethnicity: when I sold my old home, the adult daughter of one of my neighbors wanted to know if I had seen the prospective buyers, and did I know their background.

The tone of the question bothered me, but I chose to reply in a joking manner: "The names look Latino to me," I said, "But since the neighborhood didn't fall to pieces all the years _I've_ been here, I don't think that should be a problem."

She was shocked. "_You're_....?!!"
I'd lived there 9 years, she'd always been friendly, her parents signed as witnesses for my purchase of the house. I'd never made a secret of my name or background. Her backpedalling was painful to watch... [sigh]

Anonymous said...

Your experience rings true with me, although I am white and do not study race or ethnic issues. Even so, there are other topics outside of race that you are assumed to have an identity relationship with if you study them. Certain kinds of conservative religion, for example--even if people know rationally that you are not a fundamentalist, they will accuse you of being one if it suits their purpose should you study them--and certain kinds of conservative politics. If you teach religious studies or religious history, for example, be prepared to be accused of teaching "Sunday School" if a colleague wants to attack you, your politics, your ideas, or even the fact that you got a room he wished he could have gotten for his class.

I know "medieval" is coded white, and I understand why, but if you were a medievalist you would also be aware of how often people who study medieval history are told how entirely irrelevant their period is to history in general and their interests to the goals of the academy. This is both explicit and implicit--for example, they are excluded from many funding opportunities because of organization around concepts that don't apply to them, and when they do apply they are told that they are twisting their inherently boring oldfashioned topics to falsely try to make them appear relevant or trendy.

What would be great would be if we could just try to start out not assuming things about each other until they are proven...and not assuming that everything in our departments is a zero-sum game...it seems hopeless, though.

sexy said...