“Cultivating Allies As A Woman of Color in Academia” – By Dr. Manya Whitaker

Dr. Manya Whitaker, an education professor, regularly offers personal reflections, advice, and critiques on her blog, the other class. Below, Dr. Whitaker provides advice for seeking allies in academia, particularly for women of color.  Be sure to check out the other great guest blog posts by Dr. Whitaker.


Cultivating Allies as a Woman of Color in Academia

Manya WhitakerI tried my best to not comment on the pseudo Harlem Shake crap that is all the rage right now, but since students at my college filmed a video of themselves engaging in that nonsense, and said video went viral, this issue has become personal. It has become all the more personal because while I can excuse the students for participating in cultural mockery and theft (hey — they are 20, they do not know), I cannot excuse my colleagues. Since so many others have taken the time to breakdown the History of the Harlem Shake, and to write articles about cultural misappropriation (here, here, and here) I feel no need to go down that path.

Instead, I want to discuss allyhood in academia and how as a female junior faculty member of color, I must identify allies…and those who would be betray me with a click of the mouse.

A few posts ago I mentioned that I am reading Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. There is a section in the book about forming networks of allies in the Academy. Nancy Cantor wrote the introduction for that section and states ‘It’s both difficult and important that women who are white—the relatively privileged ones who have been the primary beneficiaries of feminism—perceive, acknowledge, and then act against the additional forms of discrimination experienced by women of color without feeling defensive’ (pg. 222). I flagged this sentence when I first read this chapter weeks ago and more now than then, I feel this is an important point. So this is where I shall begin my tale of betrayal at a small liberal arts college.

Because our students’ video was such a hit, the faculty thought it would be ‘fun’ to film our own 30 second video at the next faculty meeting. Actually, two faculty members came up with this idea and emailed the rest of the faculty with the suggestion. Now, upon receiving this email I was astounded. I was astounded not because this idea emerged—it was inevitable that someone would hop on this train to nowhere. No, I was stunned because of who made the suggestion. The people who made the suggestion would never be people I’d think would support such nonsense. Both of these people are faculty who—whether they feel this way or not—occupy marginalized spaces on campus. Though both senior faculty members, one is openly homosexual and the other is of Asian descent. The latter specifically researches issues pertinent to race, so her complicity felt like a slap in the face. After reading the email I said aloud to myself ‘is she serious?’ My immediate emotional experience cannot be described as anything other than feelings of betrayal laced in incredulity. This quickly turned to anger.

A close friend and African American colleague contacted me about this issue to formulate a plan for how we were going to respond if in fact the faculty decided to film this video. During that conversation, we thought about who else was ‘down for the cause’ and could only come up with two nonwhite faculty members. While we both wished a senior faculty member was not away on sabbatical because she certainly would’ve publicly allied herself with us, we were stunned that between two of us, we could not identify more people who would stand up and fight with us. At the end of the convo, I sadly said ‘wow…I thought we had more allies.’

Though a few minutes after the aforementioned conversation, the Asian faculty member emailed to say maybe we shouldn’t do it because after quick research, filming such a video may have ‘unintended consequences’, I couldn’t help but continue to be enraged because a) this idea emerged in the first place, and b) it could be just as easily quelled without a dialogue between affected parties.

The ‘settling’ of this issue was devoid of critical thought or open conversation. The words race, misappropriation, cultural theft, black, misidentification, or history were never mentioned. All we got was a two sentence email cloaked in light hearted liberal arts humor with a slight acquiescence that yes, perhaps this idea was not the best because they may perceive unintentional harm. The word ‘unintentional’ is laced with blame on the others and drenched with self excuse. By not discussing it, or even opening it up for discussion, the issue was deemed unworthy of discussion. That email was colorblind, perspectiveless, ahistorical, and riddled with power. Because she decided that she did not want to discuss it, the issue was closed. What of us who are still upset? Still offended? Still full of words we have been barred from sharing because the prefix to your title outranks the prefix to mine?

No. This does not feel like allyhood.

“By your powers combined…I am Captain Planet!” Hehe..I think of this when I think of allies.

I have learned a few things. First, friendship and respect do not equate allyhood. While mentally scrolling through my list of friends for possible allies it became clear that few people would sacrifice their reputation or professional relationships for the greater good (perhaps because they do not view it as ‘greater’ or ‘good’). Few people can find the courage and fortitude to do more than softly agree behind closed doors. When it comes time to stand up publicly and declare an alliance, most friends will hold their heads down while avoiding eye contact (if they are not in fact, already out of the door). They do not want to look me in my eyes and see the result of their abandonment. And I get it. It’s hard to do what you know is right when you don’t feel anything was wrong.

A chapter in Presumed Incompetent written by Margalynne Armstrong and Stephanie Wildman outlines what it takes for people to truly be considered allies when it comes to issues of race. They describe the necessity of color insight—the recognition that a racial status quo exists in which society attributes race to each member—to battle the pervasiveness of colorblindness. Ignoring issues of race under the guise of equality does nothing but create a space in which racism and oppression can grow unchecked, only emerging when people can no longer avoid discussing the black, brown, yellow, or red elephant in the room.

They also borrow from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1994) discussion of perspectivelessness—the adoption of the “neutral” white norm as the default for laws, values, and behaviors. I especially believe this construct is constantly at play in racialized environments because it empowers people to not think about how their behaviors and words affect others. It is as if they believe ‘if most people are fine with it, then what’s the big deal?’

Yes, it seems to me as if colorblindness precedes, or perhaps bolsters, the existence of perspectivelessness. It is easy to ignore others when you refuse to accept that no, everyone is not like me and everyone is not treated as I am treated. I am especially concerned with the fact that the homogenous climate of academia facilitates (and sometimes encourages) the silencing of racial discourse. Why is it that one woman of color was allowed to represent the collective voices of ethnic minorities? Why didn’t a white colleague challenge her self-assumed position as Speaker of the [Colored] House? Most of all, why were we faculty members who disagreed with her narrative forced to plot and plan in secret instead of being given the space and opportunity to express our views publicly? The fallacy of community in academia made certain that she felt comfortable not having to think about how her endorsement of a racialized behavior would be perceived by white colleagues. She is tenured, she is well respected on campus, and she is Asian. So of course she has the experience, the knowledge, and the right to suggest such an idea. Because if she thinks it’s ok, and she is Asian, then it must be ok, right?

I am certain she never intended to speak on behalf of all ethnic minorities, but the reality is that many believe in the singular experience of minorities. Why didn’t she and other faculty in support of this video research the topic before going public with it? If we who are scholars trained at top notch institutions, national award recipients, professors at a tier 1 college do not feel the need to investigate the origins and implications of pop cultural trends, the future of academia is bleak.

We in academia are far from what Susan Sturm (2006) calls an ‘architecture of inclusion’ because we do not acknowledge what it takes for others to be included. It takes more than a shared smile in the hallway, laughs over lunch, invitations to personal events, and overlapping research interests to build inclusivity. As Nancy Cantor states, it takes ‘a culture of collaboration where issues of intersectionality can be addressed. Inclusion requires justice and due process. It also needs the give and take of social support, of flexibility of models and respect for individual and group differences…’. I would add that inclusion requires true allyhood—loud, proud, public allegiance across diverse people. Allied relationships are built upon shared knowledge, even if there aren’t shared experiences. Most importantly, allyhood, and by default, inclusion are not ephemeral weak constructs easily undermined by threats of ostracization or promises of promotion. Allies are people to whom we can turn for support even when, no—especially when—the professional turns personal.

2 thoughts on ““Cultivating Allies As A Woman of Color in Academia” – By Dr. Manya Whitaker

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