Striking a Nerve

By Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt

When Inside Higher Ed’s “Conditionally Accepted” column published my op-ed “A Checklist to Determine if You Are Supporting White Supremacy,” I was warned of potential backlash. Then it went viral.

While my piece was shared by hundreds of colleagues around the country, especially faculty of color, marginalized faculty and those who are committed to various equity, diversity and antiracist initiatives and interventions, it was simultaneously shared on right-wing media platforms that actively support structural, institutional and cultural racism and discrimination.

By Jan. 13, 2018, the next day, Campus Reform had picked up the piece and retitled it as “Prof Creates Checklist for Detecting White Supremacy.” This retitled piece had already been shared 1,500 times on various right-wing social media outlets.

The College Fix, The Washington Times, Barbwire, Reddit, The Blaze, The Gateway Pundit, Liberty Unyielding, Legal Insurrections and The Rightly Reportrepublished the article on their sites under different titles. The National Sentineltitled its piece “Campus COMMIE: Lib Professor Claims Meritocracy is WHITE Supremacy.” The various headlines in these right-wing and alt-right publications quite correctly defined me as a “liberal” or “left-wing professor,” while others like The National Sentinel mistakenly marked me as an academic pushing “Communist” ideas in the classroom. Some right-wing critiques suggested that op-eds like mine are a clear indication that “Serious study is being replaced with social justice activism.” The College Fix made a point to emphasize that “Gender studies coordinator offers ‘checklist’ to determine if you support white supremacy.”

The above headlines proved my central thesis on white supremacy and two other significant points:

  1. These backlashes against social justice scholarship and activism are a reminder of the pervasive nature of everyday white supremacy in our culture.
  2. Social justice activism is not divorced from “serious study” — it is “serious study.”

There were also confessions from self-proclaimed white supremacists. In Renegade Tribune, “WhiteWolf” commented, “I’m White so of course I support White supremacy. If Whites aren’t supreme then that means that other races are supreme over us. Why would I want that?” Joining WhiteWolf, thousands of self-proclaimed white supremacists doubled down on their racism, but also confirmed some features of white supremacy as noted in my “checklist.”

By Jan. 16, 2018 (just four days after the publication of the op-ed in Inside Higher Ed) conservative millennial Allie Beth Stuckey debated former Missouri Democratic state representative Don Calloway on Fox News, using my op-ed as a premise for discussing white supremacy, white racism and liberal bias on various college and university campuses. In their conversation Stuckey commented on how liberal professors are using “bias to drive their curriculum rather than honest dialogue” and concluded that “liberal colleges teach white shaming.”

While those who teach about racism and conduct antiracist work grounded in sociological and historical findings are repeatedly charged with “white shaming,” what is also ironic is that such work (both academic and activist) is often marked as promoting “reverse racism.” Sara Ahmed in her book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life makes a poignant remark on “how the creation of diversity as a political solution can participate in making those who speak about racism the cause of the problem.”

These outbursts and outrages against liberal professors who have written or spoken about white supremacy in America have become routine. Scholars like Steven Salaita, Saida Grundy, Johnny Eric Williams, George Ciccariello-Maher, Amanda Gailey, Dorothy Kim and, most recently, David Palumbo-Liu have all been subjected to severe right-wing media scrutiny for their stances against white supremacy, white privilege, settler colonialism and fascism.

Furthermore, many scholars, and particularly those who are faculty of color or marginalized, have received little to no support within their own institutions that proclaim to protect the academic freedom of their faculty members. Their experiences mirror what Arianne Shahvisi has called “epistemic injustice” within the academy.

It should be noted that it is not just these attacks, but the chilling effect it produces on academic freedom that is detrimental to all faculty. While some institutions have taken strong positions to protect the academic freedom of their faculty members, there are other institutions whose reactions have been lukewarm. On her blog, Tressie McMillan Cottom points out quite succinctly “how woefully underprepared universities are to deal with the reality of public scholarship, public intellectuals, or public engagement.” Joan W. Scott (in an interview given to Bill Moyers) concluded that the treatment scholars is receiving today are worse than during the McCarthy era. “The internet has made possible a frightening practice of threats and intimidation — threats of unspeakable violence and death … McCarthy’s were violent threats at a more abstract level. These are specific threats.”

So rather than depending on institutions to respond, I want to suggest a few safeguards if you want to enter the public discourse of critiquing white supremacy. These safeguards will certainly not eliminate any attacks or threats but can certainly minimize it.

  • Be sure to remove from your institutional page your email address, telephone number, office address, office hours and any personal information that can easily be assessed by internet trolls.
  • Make your Twitter account private and set your Facebook setting to “friends only” before the publication of your piece.
  • Forward your piece to your president, dean or provost, head of the campus security, and media relations office as soon as it is published. This allows them to prepare a strategy to protect you and the institution before they start receiving thousands of phone calls and requests to fire you.
  • As you start receiving the first wave of backlash, remind your administrators of the institution’s policy on academic freedom and request that they keep you informed about any outside interventions or threats made against you.
  • Forward your administration AAUP’s recent publications on targeted online harassment and “What You Can Do About Targeted Online Harassment.”
  • Avoid hyperlinks to any alt-right and right-wing media outlets. By linking to them, you not only invite the digital mob to make you a target for their attacks, but also promote their revenue stream.

Just alerting the administration will not be enough. You will have to safeguard yourself from the emotional stresses as a result of the various threats and comments made on social media about you.

  • Do not take each comment made by the trolls seriously, but do report the serious threats to your administration.
  • Expect some of your own liberal (white) colleagues to be a bit nervous around you. Many of them will not want to discuss your article, although they may have read it. Give them time to process what you have written. Most of your colleagues are well meaning but simply are not trained to discuss race or white supremacy.
  • Do not take it personally if people you thought were your allies are hesitant to share your piece on their social media spaces. Some of them have conservative friends and family members, and sharing your piece (which your allies actually endorse) may also invite some ugly conversations on their own social media space.
  • Welcome the new group of allies who will thank you for your thoughts and share with you some of their own experiences.

Last but not least, stick to your conviction about what you have written and said and remind yourself what Angela Davis once declared: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things that I cannot accept.”



Photo of Reshmi Dutt-BallerstadtReshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt is a professor of English and also co-coordinates the gender studies program at Linfield College in Oregon. She is the author of The Postcolonial Citizen: The Intellectual Migrant. Her most recent pieces of public writing are “On Being the Right Kind of Brown” and “When Free Speech Dismantles Diversity Initiatives,” both published in CounterPunch. She also has a blog called On Being Brown and Out/Raged.

A Time for Arrogance

“No. 1 in your life’s blueprint should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth and your own somebody-ness.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

This time last year, I was spreading my wings in the big, bad world: I was a clinical psychology graduate student on the market for a tenure-track faculty job at a major research university who still believed in fairness in academe. Once interviews were over one month later, I was glued to the Psychology Job Wiki, praying for daylight to come so my job-search nightmare would end.

Since long before entering the job market last year, I have struggled with my own somebody-ness while perplexingly being accused of arrogance. Being acutely aware of my shyness and personal insecurity, I felt as if I have worn the scarlet letter — for Arrogant. But in reflecting on my experiences on the job market last year, I’ve recognized the value of fostering quiet arrogance as a woman of color within a system that would rather I didn’t exist.

It is with this newly adopted arrogance that I recount my experiences on the job market to highlight systemic discrimination in academic job searches. In exposing my naïveté and wounds, I have hope for our collective sanity as scholars who continue to be marginalized.

Job Market Expectations and Realities

As a black woman who developed cultural betrayal trauma theory — a framework that implicates societal inequality in the outcomes of violence within minority groups — I expected to experience discrimination before I received campus invitations. Mindlessly assuming my application dossier would eliminate me from consideration in departments that devalue the work of women of color, I looked forward to in-person interviews free of discrimination.

And although the job market was painful, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the many positive experiences I had in this process. In the first round of applications, I received six phone or video interviews for faculty positions and three on-campus visits. At various points throughout the interview process, I was shocked by the level of respect I was shown from senior and high-status faculty, junior faculty and graduate students, both of color and white. The professional connections I made at multiple departments have resulted in a growing network of collegial support and respect.

Yet alongside those positive experiences, I also experienced discriminatory behavior throughout campus visits. The first was when a white male faculty member told me that I had explained my own theory on cultural betrayal trauma incorrectly. Next, a senior white female faculty member described cultural betrayal trauma theory to me as my “ideas” with air quotes and expressed her concern that my work was not scientific enough for that top-ranked department. Finally, while I was explaining how cultural betrayal can occur in rapes perpetrated by black men against black women, a white male faculty member interrupted me to suggest that being raped by a black man is simply worse for any woman, black or white.

Perhaps because I had expected kinship from minority faculty, my most painful interaction came from a high-ranking male faculty member of color. In probably a genuine attempt to help me, he expressed concern that publishing my researchfindings for the general public would undermine my academic credibility. Painting a one-dimensional picture of university life, he suggested that academe might not be for me. Having not expected such comments from a faculty member of color, I felt a profound cultural betrayal. Even though I can sympathize with the compromises he has had to make as an elder in the field, to this day, I have yet to forgive him. Yet to heal.

Those experiences were exclamation points amid an ongoing barrage of condescension. I remember leaving interviews, thinking, “Am I stupid? They’re talking to me like I’m a complete idiot.” I checked in with my white colleague allies who told me they were sure everything was going fine: You’re qualified! Your CV speaks volumes, and you explain your work so well!

What I Learned

It was not until the interviews were over, with no job offers, that I reached out to faculty of color. I was validated: they told that I wasn’t crazy (well, except for assuming that I wouldn’t experience discrimination while interviewing –that was a little crazy). I was reminded of things I already knew but had somehow forgotten: the ubiquity of antiblack microaggressions; critical race theory, which centralizes the experiences of people of color (not their supportive white colleague allies); and the vast literature detailing the toll of perceived discrimination.

Facing impending unemployment in a field I had spent 10 years preparing for, I went through my second wave of applications. I received two job offers, ultimately accepting my current position as a fellow in the Postdoctoral to Faculty Transition Program at Wayne State University, with placement at the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute.

The campus visit was unlike most of the others. I was not subjected to any open discrimination. I was spoken to respectfully, with my expertise valued. This interview resulted in a speedy job offer, with a negotiated, stellar start-up package. With one semester done, I feel I am working in a nontoxic environment — a rare academic feat I was unsure was possible after my experiences last year.

Returning to My Arrogance

I do not envy those academics currently on the job market. Nevertheless, the threat of attacks on marginalized scholars is ever looming. Therefore, at a time when so many of us are being explicitly and implicitly devalued — as humans, souls and scholars — I hold my arrogance close to my heart. Instead of waiting for them to please just notice my value, I know who I am and what I have to offer. With my diplomas and awards strewn across my office, I make the decision to not feel ashamed for being good at what I do, while continuing to possess the rebellious perseverance that I hope will carry me for a career to come.

Will you join me?


Photo of Jennifer M. Gómez

Jennifer M. Gómez is a postdoctoral fellow in the Wayne State University Postdoctoral to Faculty Transition Program at Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute. She developed cultural betrayal trauma theory to examine outcomes of violence in minority populations.


Jennifer M. Gómez

Is Gender Bias an Intended Feature of Teaching Evaluations?

Every semester brings with it a new series of articles, blog posts and stories about gender and racial biases in teaching evaluations. A large and constantly growing body of academic literature demonstrates how bias shapes these tools.

For example, experiments with students in online courses show that identical courses are rated lower if the instructor is randomly assigned a woman’s name. Students may also use evaluations to comment on faculty appearance, tone of voice or even their sexual orientation.

And in a political environment where much of the population denies basic empirical facts about racial and gender inequality, teaching about such controversial subjects can open one up to claims of political bias. Social sciences don’t have laws, but if we were attempting to devise one, “Women and minorities get lower teaching evaluations” would be pretty close to axiomatic.

From a methodological standpoint, teaching evaluations are a mess. These evaluations lack external validity and don’t correlate with student learning outcomes. Typically, when social scientists recognize a research instrument is providing an incorrect measure, or that a measure is systematically biased, the measure is abandoned and (hopefully) replaced with a better one. Everyone knows — or should know — that teaching evaluations are better measures of student stereotypes than teaching effectiveness. Yet colleges and universities persist in laundering systematic bias through tenure and promotion processes, the legitimacy of which depend upon their supposed neutrality.

Although the methodological problems with these tests matter, it is also important to not get lost in the abstract; we must remember that biased evaluations can actually destroy people’s dreams. Promotions, raises and tenure are partially based on biased evaluations. Students who are unhappy with a grade, who dislike the opinions of a disciplinary expert or who are simply sexist can play an outsize role in their instructor’s future job negotiations.

Using biased evaluations allows colleges and universities to punish those whose identities deviate from white male normativity. Take a hypothetical gender discrimination case for denial of tenure because of poor teaching. Substantiating the harm requires evidence that discrimination was based on membership in a protected category. The institution will be able to point to poor teaching evaluations — despite their known biases — to argue that denial of tenure was based on less meritorious teaching.

The irony here is clear; the discriminatory bias built into measures of teaching effectiveness can be retroactively used to justify unequal outcomes based on those measures. Biased evaluation criteria explain biased outcomes, which the college or university then considers legitimated. The case of Ellen Pao followed just this logic after she filed a discrimination suit against a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. A jury saw her performance evaluations as legitimate, despite the fact that they were systematically lower once she complained of gender discrimination — a pattern she attributed to retaliation.

Feminist sociologists have long argued that one of the features of contemporary organizations is their gendered nature. Claiming that organizations are gendered means that supposedly gender-neutral jobs are actually considered men’s prerogative and that women in “men’s jobs” — like, say, professors — are thought of as interlopers, out of place or what consistently shows up on evaluations: less competent. The key here is that, of course, these ratings aren’t based on objective measures of competence; rather, they are sifted through widely held stereotypes about women. But they are given the patina of legitimacy once the institution accepts them as credible when it comes to retention, promotion and tenure. That also has the benefit of protecting the university from potential lawsuits down the road.

Biased teaching evaluations, like race- and class-biased test scores, support the status quo and don’t create the same type of public outcry as, for instance, certain affirmative action policies that may slightly disadvantage white men. They are the perfect vehicle for a type of gender-blind discrimination because they allow one to claim detachment and objectivity. They pretend the “best qualified” is measured and confirmed through a neutral process that just so happens to confirm the worst stereotypes about women. Recent research by Katherine Weisshaar shows that, even accounting for productivity, gendered differences in the way tenure committees evaluate women contributes to fewer women moving up.

Given the evidence, I’ve almost reached the conclusion that gender- and race-biased evaluations are not used in spite of their bias, but because they are biased. Of course, my assumption about bias being a desirable feature of student evaluations is speculative. Hard evidence would be difficult to establish, because part of the point of these evaluations is that the bias is plausibly deniable. Administrators are unlikely to admit that they knowingly employ a biased instrument in employment proceedings. But I think the evidence for concluding that bias is a feature of teaching evaluations is in my favor. If colleges and universities know that evaluations are biased, and those biases are more likely to harm women and minorities (and the intersection of these categories), at what point can we start to assume that such evaluations are an intended feature of the process?

I don’t believe colleges and universities are going to drop these types of evaluations anytime soon, as the pressure to quantify every area of academic life is increasing. But making department heads, deans and tenure committees aware of both the biased nature of these evaluations and how they can influence tenure decisions will help to reduce the harm that reliance on such biased measure inflicts.


Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His research examines race and gender discrimination in organizations. His commentary has appeared in Newsweek, Boston Review and Gawker. He is the new editor of “Conditionally Accepted,” an Inside Higher Ed career advice column for marginalized academics. You can follow him on Twitter at @victorerikray.

My Journey With Department Service

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). The author is a Ph.D. candidate at a large public university.

I was at a brunch hosted by graduate students of color when I decided to pursue my Ph.D. at a historically white university in the Midwest. The students shared refreshingly real stories and praised the department’s racial climate committee. This brunch, an act of service by students of color, was the highlight of my visit.

But for students of color, doing service has a dark side. Service can make us hypervisible as problems and invisible as scholars. Unfortunately, it took me four years to learn that lesson.

As a black woman, I believe we should “lift as we climb.” So once in graduate school, I became a service superstar. I sat on panels, sent welcome emails, organized food orders, located paper plates and sent Doodle polls. I called out faculty members when I thought it would help.

I served on the racial climate committee for three years. I helped to revitalize recruitment of underrepresented graduate students, respond to microaggressions committed by white graduate students and support efforts to increase the proportion of faculty of color in our department. I did this while doing typical graduate student work like taking and teaching classes, submitting institutional review board proposals, doing fieldwork and publishing articles.

Being Both Hypervisible and Invisible

My service experience had fantastic highs and concrete results. Our gatherings made us feel better, and we convinced a few prospective students of color that our campus could be a place for them, too. Faculty members said nice things in meetings that made it sound like they “got it.” It felt like my efforts were making a change.

Service also helped my departmental comfort level. As a first-generation college graduate, I often felt insecure as I tried to master ways and skills of interacting that were foreign to me before college. Participating in meetings with faculty members made me feel like I belonged.

But the lows of service outweighed the highs. I already felt hypervisible in my department’s hallways, which were dominated by white faces and by people who routinely confused me with other black women. Doing service made me visible in another way: as the outspoken black woman in meetings and the author of countless emails.

Worse, my hypervisibility as a brown body and as a symbol of “those activist grad students” came with the twist of feeling invisible as a whole person, or even as a scholar. Around my fourth year, I realized that, for all the appreciative nods that faculty blessed me with in meetings, I still could not fill my dissertation committee. When I met with professors who seemed to be an intellectual fit, I encountered indifference. When I met with professors who did support my research, our conversations dissolved into rehashing campus climate controversies. My service was haunting me, even when I wasn’t working on it.

Feeling drained, I stopped doing service. I realized that I was contributing to a disturbing pattern where students of color give of ourselves until we are running on empty. Fortunately for the department, another student of color is usually waiting to serve. The department benefits from our labor while we pay the costs.

How White Departments Avoid Substantial Change

In fact, historically white departments can rely on the physical and emotional labor of students of color to mask larger racial problems. Graduate students of color are often tasked with recruiting other students of color. We are expected to support undergraduate students of color who are harmed by racially insensitive curricula. We are tasked with explaining to faculty members (ad nauseam), that yes, a student of color on campus faces challenges. Undergraduate students of color flock to us for care and emotional support. Those of us who study race are called on to help instructors with no expertise in the subject improve their teaching. This unseen labor is particularly high stakes as more universities turn to mandatory diversity coursesto ease racial tensions on campus.

As graduate students, we do this service from a precarious position. Faculty members hold direct power over graduate students. They approve our teaching, stamp our dissertations and write recommendation letters. In a very real sense, they control our academic fate. Asking those in power to change their practices is a big risk.

Our service may create the illusion that change is happening. Our service adds some brown faces for webpages and keeps some undergraduates happy. But ultimately, our service exempts faculty members from making substantial changes to the structure of the department. Departments need to be changed by faculty: tenured faculty members who have power and a long-term relationship with the university and, ideally, white faculty members who are allies and not already disproportionately burdened by service requests.

Deciding What Works for You

So if you are a graduate student of color, what should you do? I would not advise you to refuse all service. Service has benefits, like making small improvements for your community, generating hope and fostering ties to colleagues and staff. But as you consider service, first refer to some of the great advice for tenure-track faculty of color.

Then continuously ask yourself these questions: Are your contributions making things better for the people you care about? Are your contributions impacting faculty practices and resulting in substantial change? Do you have as many faculty members supporting your research and teaching as you do cheering on your service?

In short, do the benefits of your service outweigh the costs?

Halfway Home: The Black Academic and the Struggle for Belonging

Photo of Robert L. Reece

I’d never driven to Mississippi from the west before. The landmarks were different. The highways were different. But the arrival was familiar. The trees suddenly give way to open fields and the gentle downward slopes that people often mistake for flatness, and the smell of humidity becomes increasingly prominent, with the occasional skunk.

I was traveling home for Christmas from my new assistant professor position at the University of Texas in Austin. It was the first time I’d visited my hometown in three years, since I was in graduate school. I hadn’t intentionally stayed away, but I hadn’t made much of an effort to get back. And as more and more time passed, the thought of going home seemed increasingly awkward. This time I’d tried to avoid it. I procrastinated and offered my family excuses, content to spend Christmas alone in Austin.

I told them I was tired. I told them it was cumbersome to fly because the nearest airport was two hours away. I told them that I didn’t trust my 12-year-old car on the interstate. But I caved, rented a car and drove the nine hours from Austin to Leland, Miss., where I grew up, one of just over 6,000 residents.

I didn’t know what to expect from my interactions with people at home. People like me — upwardly mobile black people from poor and working-class backgrounds — tend to be deeply conflicted by our increasing status. We push back against the middle-class markers that we’ve come to enjoy and appreciate — the fancy coffee shops, the hipster calamari tacos, Trader Joe’s — while simultaneously trying to maintain or replicate symbolic ties to home. We try to speak the same even though our vocabularies have changed. We say we eat the same even though our tastes have changed. We claim we’re still down; we’re still real; we’re still from the country; we’re still from the hood. But we’re betrayed by newfound hobbies and lifestyles and a sudden hyperawareness of how our hometowns differ from how we normally live.

My trip to Leland forced me to reckon with my new status and my shifting tastes. At Christmas dinner, I listened to the conversations about food and compared the composition of my plat

e to those of my family members. I searched for vegetable options, simple green sides, among local takeout options and struggled to find any. I enjoyed my family, but I found myself self-conscious about whether my accent remained thick enough, whether my speech sounded unintentionally smug. And I wondered whether I still fit. Even my body began to betray me. Something aggravated my sinuses in a way that I’d never experienced before and left me stuffy, wheezing, coughing and with a persistent headache for my entire visit.

I longed to return home. To Austin. To my job.

But what type of home was I looking to return to, in an unfriendly academe that may more readily accept my language but question my person? Of about 40 full-time faculty in my department — one of the highest-ranked sociology departments in the country and an exemplar for other programs — I’m the only black faculty member; less than 4 percent of the faculty is black at the seventh-largest university in the country. The only black faculty member in a department that, almost 30 years after Derrick Bell left Harvard Law School in protest of the school’s refusal to hire and tenure black women, has never tenured a black woman. In a discipline that, despite its purported progressiveness, has taken to Twitter to push back against what they perceive as an overreach of activism in the discipline, and apparently emboldened by anonym

ity, has used online sociology forums to voice displeasure with the supposed merits of the current and next presidents of the American Sociological Association.

As I applied to jobs last year, I was shocked by how many departments had only one black faculty member and completely taken aback by the number that had zero. I knew that the department of sociology at Duke University, where I earned by Ph.D., with its four black faculty at the time, was an outlier and that there weren’t a lot of black sociologists, but I truly had no idea how underrepresented people who look like me are in this field. A recent report by the Brookings Institute revealed that black sociologists make up only about 9 percent of the discipline. And lack of representation can lead to marginalization of ideas, an uneasy feeling of difference and a hyperawareness of how much you stand out by merely existing (especially as a large man with dreadlocks).

And while I enjoy my colleagues and my department and have found allies and friends among them, I’m acutely aware that academe is not home.

I often wonder who I “really” am nowadays, which me is the “real” me, when am I code-switching and when am I being genuine. Am I faking the African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) that I frequently deploy in conversations? Am I still code-switching expectedly and appropriately in professional settings?

I honestly don’t know anymore.

There is a homelessness among black academics — an ever-present tension between who we used to be and who we have become — and a reckoning with the reality that neither our old spaces nor our new ones can truly offer us the sense of belonging that we desire. Perhaps it’s double consciousness, to use W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic description of being black in America: “Two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body … this longing to … merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost …”

But perhaps it is something else. Maybe Du Bois is too generous. E. Franklin Frazier is more critical in “The Failure of the Negro Intellectual.” He says, “The new Negro middle class is the stratum of the Negro population that is becoming integrated most rapidly because of its education and its ability to maintain certain standards of

living. In its hope to achieve acceptance in American life, it would slough off everything that is reminiscent of its Negro origin and its Negro folk background. At the same time integration is resulting in inner conflicts and frustrations because Negroes are still outsiders in American life.”

We’re forced to grapple with who we are and constantly consider the source of our frustrations, whether our tensions are about our inability to forge community with feet in such vastly different worlds or if we are more bothered by our failure to fully integrate into an academe that rebuffs us. Regardless, we cannot take this tension lightly. Our careers are at stake, our family lives, our health. And to be undone by this vagrancy that has been thrust upon us is unacceptable.


Robert L. Reece is an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Black Motherhood in Academe

“If we had known you were pregnant, we might not have let you into this program — and we would have made a mistake.”

“This is your first child? Maybe you should drop this class. Statistics is a challenging course, and when I had my first child …”

“Your second child? Congratulations! That’s enough now. Two is enough.”

Such comments made it clear to me that academic spaces have firm expectations that career and motherhood are separate. I couldn’t help but also wonder how my race and gender shaped the narrative that people wrote about my choices.

The social ownership of black women’s wombs is not new. Scholars like Dorothy Roberts, a professor of Africana studies, law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, argue that black women’s mothering has been denied and regulated for centuries — from slave owners’ economic stake in black women’s fertility to the social politics of excluding black women from any dialogue about reproductive rights. Everyone has an opinion on how to control black motherhood, leaving us conflicted and stressed in workplaces across the United States. In academe, the alleged home of intellect and forward thinking, I was wrong to expect more.

As a medical sociologist, I am hyperaware of the health problems facing black mothers. Contemporary statistics on the mortality rates of black mothers and their infants are startling. Black women are two to three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, and black mothers are more likely to have preterm deliveries than white women.

Sociologists admit it is typically difficult to disentangle the effects of race and socioeconomic status on a given social problem. But when it comes to motherhood, it is clear that unequal outcomes are driven by race.

For example, research suggests that increased income and education are associated with lower rates of preterm births for white women but not for black women, and that infants born to low-income white mothers have better outcomes than those born to high-income black mothers. And it’s more than just differential access to community resources, as the data also show that high-income black mothers living in white neighborhoods are actually more likely to have low-birth-weight babies than high-income white mothers in white neighborhoods and low-income black mothers in black neighborhoods. The stress of racism, then, has an impact on black mothers that affects their health and that of their unborn children.

When I started graduate school, I felt prepared for the stressors many black women attending predominantly white institutions face, and I was not naïve about how challenging this experience would be. Graduate school is a time of heightened precarity, intellectual insecurity and stress. Black students may be more likely than white students to deal with complex family and personal situations during their graduate career, and they are also less likely to receive adequate mentorship.

Although I certainly dealt with the challenges of being a first-generation Ph.D. student, I had mentors who set the bar high yet created space for my academic babies when I chose to start my family during graduate school. One reason I made this choice is the widespread perception among academic women that graduate school is the best time to have children. If that is true, then academe needs a lot more work.

One week after having my first child by C-section, I was sitting on my living room floor doing a statistics problem set with the help of two colleagues: one studying with me, while the other held my newborn. Just two weeks after the surgery, I was back in classes — theory, methods and statistics. It was physically and emotionally painful, but unfortunately, if I wanted to be taken seriously as an aspiring academic, I felt it was my only choice. At that point, I understood two things about my academic path: racialized motherhood comes with certain expectations, and mainstream organizations were not built for mothers.

The university’s maternity leave policy was not useful for a first-year graduate student. At the time, I could have taken up to six weeks — which is half the semester. I’m still not sure how someone can take half a class, so if I had used this leave, I don’t know how I would have made up six weeks of missed course work. And since first-year courses are consecutive and sequential (for example, Research Methods is a yearlong course with a fall and spring component), I might have had to defer my first year and start graduate school with a different cohort.

Moreover, looming in the background of my decisions was the reality that mothers face social sanctions in the workplace because of the perception that they are less competent than women without children — even though there is no clear evidence supporting this perception. This institutionalized maternity leave policy was, in practice, impossible to use, and the knowledge that informal sanctions from peers and colleagues are harsher for mothers made me push harder.

Black mothers must be superwomen to be taken seriously as scholars and professionals. The stress of racism and the pressures of academe mean that mothers are constantly forced to prove their commitment to research and ability to do the work. But that kind of active coping — working harder to compensate for the strain of discrimination — can be harmful. In his research on John Henryism, Sherman James, a professor emeritus of public policy at Duke University and an expert in racial and ethnic disparities in health care, shows that active coping in the face of psychosocial stressors leads to poor health outcomes. Yet my research agenda led me to move to the Dominican Republic, family in tow, for 10 months so I could complete dissertation fieldwork. I was (and remain) committed to academic research, but what is the price for proving we belong in a place that was not created for us?

For the black mothers in academe who are working hard and wiping noses, I’d like to share a few things that I learned along the way. First, reject the superwoman label. It presumes we can do it alone without self-care. I have a supportive partner, friends and family, tough and compassionate mentors, and a university policy that subsidized some of the cost of child care during graduate school. I am impressive, but I am not superwoman, and I did not do it alone.

Second, be a hustler. Because of motherhood, I cannot always participate in informal gatherings leading to professional collaborations. Because of race and gender, perhaps, I may not be invited. So I reach out to colleagues one on one and, together, we can set the personal and professional terms of engagement.

Next, be attuned to your own needs (mentorship, writing groups, sleep, yoga …) and prioritize plans to get those needs met.

Finally, check out Dean Ashby’s suggestions for overcoming impostor syndrome.

You’ve got this.


Photo of Trenita B. Childers

Trenita B. Childers is postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research examines social causes and consequences of racial health disparities. Her commentary has also appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer, and you can follow her on Twitter at @trenitac.

A checklist to determine if you are supporting white supremacy

For faculty of color, women and particularly those scholars who are outspoken about dismantling the master narratives of white supremacy within our colleges and universities, playing by the rules is neither an option nor an obligation. It is, in fact, a terrible burden. A burden to allow an oppressive system breathing down our necks, while we continue to work within institutions that treat us as mere bodies representing “diversity” or what Patti Duncan has called “Hot Commodities, Cheap Labor: Women of Color in the Academy.”

My own cathartic moment arrived when I was able to write about my experience and those of other postcolonial scholars in my book, The Postcolonial Citizen: The Intellectual Migrant, in a chapter titled “Threatening Bodies, Dangerous Knowledge, Legal Interventions.” It was 2001. The problem of exclusions and a lack of “due process” experienced by various postcolonial scholars were widespread.

After many years and many battles, and after much thought, I have created a list of qualities and attributes of those that overtly or covertly support or contribute to a culture of mundane and everyday white supremacy within our institutions. Such mundane acts manifest themselves in who is hired, who is tenured and promoted, whose scholarship is (de)valued, who receives the campus awards for teaching and service, whose voice is heard, whose ideas are policed, who is tone policed, and who is called out as not being “civil” — a coded word for speaking against the status quo of white privilege.

Participating in acts that enable white supremacist structures to exist obstructs the social justice and antiracist work that many of us are trained to do within the academy. We are marked as troublemakers when in truth we are trouble identifiers.

Here then is a list of 15 “troubles” that I have identified to help others in academe recognize your (un)conscious contributions to white supremacy.

  1. You work in a position of power in a predominantly white institution, and while you claim to be working for social justice, you do nothing to change the white supremacist power structures within your departments, committees and institutional decision-making process.
  2. When your colleagues who are marginalized complain to you about their “oppressive” work conditions, you think that they are difficult.
  3. When your colleagues and students claim that they experienced microaggressions, your response is “I am so sorry. This is unbelievable!”
  4. When you are asked to nominate your students and faculty colleagues for awards or leadership positions, your first instinct is to nominate those that are “stellar” (mostly men) and obviously “white.” It doesn’t occur to you that you are implicitly supporting a logic of meritocracy that is built on this racist assumption that everyone has had the same access and opportunities.
  5. When it comes to understanding your own white privilege, you get very angry if a faculty member of color points out to you where and how your privilege is operating. You deem such critiques as “uncivil” and as not supporting a collegial environment.
  6. You are aware of the many wrongs that you see your institution is doing to your marginal faculty and students, and while you sympathize with people of color and marginal students and faculty members behind your closed door, you never openly confront your institution.
  7. When a professor of color stands up in your faculty meetings and expresses their frustrations about inequity, you go to your trusted colleagues (the next day) and ask, “Why is s/he or them always so angry?”
  8. When you are on a hiring committee, you think that the writing samples by your white candidates of choice are stellar, while what is “stellar” about the candidates of color is, of course, their ethnicity.
  9. You never fail to articulate publicly your commitment for increasing diversity within your institution, but when on a hiring committee you express your strong hesitance to let go of your stellar candidate in exchange for a candidate who you perceive as only adding to your institution’s diversity mission.
  10. When people of color (faculty members and students) complain to you about discrimination and racism, you actively discourage them to report their cases, and often try to convince them that “it must be a misunderstanding.”
  11. You think of yourself as an ally to your faculty of color colleagues, but cannot understand why your white students are so upset when professors of color teach and critique sites of white privilege.
  12. In your institutional reviews for tenure and promotion cases, you advise and critique your faculty of color colleagues to be more sensitive and mindful in respecting the viewpoint of our students. By “our students” you really mean “our white students.”
  13. You benefit so much from the system that you have decided to stay out of all of this “identity politics.”
  14. You have never thought of yourself as an ally to any of the causes of faculty of color and you never have any time to go to any events that they and other marginal folks have organized (where they express their everyday struggles). But you will happily go to an event if Ta-Nehisi Coates is speaking in town.
  15. Claudia Rankine, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire and Teju Cole’s “The White-Savior Industrial Complex” — all rub you the wrong way.

If you have made it to this point, you are probably feeling quite hypervisible or fragile and have decided to have some hot chamomile tea from a cup that reads “White Tears” or “Black Lives Matter.”


Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt is a professor of English and also co-coordinates the gender studies program at Linfield College in Oregon. She is the author of The Postcolonial Citizen: The Intellectual Migrant. Her most recent pieces of public writing are “On Being the Right Kind of Brown” and “When Free Speech Dismantles Diversity Initiatives,” both published in CounterPunch. She also has a blog called On Being Brown and Out/Raged.