Victor Ray is a PhD Candidate in sociology at Duke University. He will begin as an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville this fall. His research is on organizational responses to racial and gender discrimination. You can follow Victor on Twitter at @victorerikray.
Below, Victor reflects on his frustration with his department’s award-winning level of diversity, at least on paper, that contradicts the otherwise exclusive department climate, norms, and practices.
My department just won the inaugural Dean’s Award for Inclusive Excellence, an award that is meant to reward the department for “extraordinary achievements” in promoting diversity in its graduate student body. I was surprised by the news, as my experiences as a student of color in this department have been less than inclusive and other than excellent. Although students of color are indeed admitted to the graduate program, and even make it through to the PhD, they may still be psychologically scarred in the process. In fact, graduate students in nominally diverse departments can experience a backlash against diversity, as professors and students may be bothered by rising numbers of minorities. We are, after all, taking “their” resources.
I thought that the awarding of this “honor” would be a good time to write about the contradictions between symbolic inclusion and forms of de facto exclusion. Awards like these only serve to reward organizations for their nominal commitment to a vague conception of diversity, without actually encouraging any improvement in the institutional treatment of people of color.
Although students of color were surprised just to hear the news of the award, the process got even more farcical when my department put up an announcement on its website celebrating the award. The photo next to the announcement is a generic stock photo of “diverse business people” that turns up on the first page of a Google search for “diversity.” This photo was used because the classes are so overwhelmingly white that they couldn’t use a photo of an actual classroom to show racial diversity. Of course, the response to this was typical of the many schools that suffer from this dilemma: they asked the folks of color to provide a photo or congregate for a photo-shoot. We refused, deciding collectively that the stock photo is a better representation of the empty type of diversity these awards celebrate.
I want to emphasize that the department itself has done little to create or support a diverse environment. Organizations don’t make themselves more diverse out of benevolence—they are pushed. Students of color and white allies within the department have fought for years to get more classes on race and ethnicity and faculty hires of color (with little success). We’ve written letters, spoken with deans and department chairs, and served on hiring committees. There is considerable cost to this type of organizing, in time not spent on schoolwork, in the psychological tax of tokenism, and in risking the label of racial militancy, all of which affect subsequent employment opportunities. These requests for substantive changes have largely been met with the typical excuses that universities make—pipeline issues, a lack of “qualified” scholars of color (whereas white mediocrity goes unremarked upon), budget shortfalls, etc.
As a stopgap means of providing more support for race scholarship, students of color also organized a race workshop, providing a space for students, postdocs, and professors from across the campus and from other institutions. The majority of white faculty in my department rarely attends this workshop—but this award gives them credit that work. Further, faculty members get angry that students have the audacity to organize. Essentially, for pointing out that there is a problem with racial inequality, you become the problem. You have, after all, made (white) power uncomfortable. The racial etiquette of our “colorblind” era means you’re rude for talking about such things.
While the award was supposed to take curriculum into account, this is also an area that is significantly lacking. The normative environment of graduate school is white and male. White men often teach the core courses in sociology programs (Theory, Stats, Methods). Their job is to socialize you into “the center” of the discipline; a center that historically and presently contains few (fully acknowledged) people of color. These men have variable levels of hostility towards race work: for instance, I was told in my theory class that if we wanted to learn about racial theory, we should go study with the department’s one black male professor. The simple fact that they are often the gatekeepers of the discipline sends a symbolic message. The problem with this sort of diversity is we are only accepted on their terms.
Beyond the symbolic messages of these gatekeepers and the curriculum they prioritize, interactions with white professors hostile to race scholarship can silence students.1 For instance, on the first day of a seminar, there was an intense discussion on the “culture of poverty” thesis and Black families. The professor and I were on opposite sides of this debate. I left the class feeling exhilarated—we had had an excellent civil exchange (or so I thought), with both of us defending our positions with citations. An hour after the class, I got an email from the prof asking me to come to his office. Upon arrival, he discussed our debate through a host of racist tropes, telling me I was hostile, angry, threatening, and subjective in evaluating evidence. He told me I needed to moderate my tone. (He, of course, had only been objective and dispassionate while using the same tone in the discussion.) He had all the power in the situation, and I was effectively silenced. Of course, harassment proceedings exist to allegedly remedy this type of behavior, but research shows reporting superiors can end careers. The diversity we add to the department is supposed to be seen, not heard.
As a very light-skinned black man, I realize that I do not experience the overt racism of, say, being racially profiled by campus police or asked regularly if I am a student, experiences that effect darker-skinned men and women all too often. That being said, contrary to some rather un-reflexive commentary on the experiences of light-skinned people of color elsewhere, being light doesn’t mean you don’t experience racism. Over the past seven years, professors have told me that I only received competitive grants and fellowships because of affirmative action; that my Afro didn’t look scholarly; that the graduate student applicant pool didn’t include any qualified blacks; and that “critical” race work wasn’t objective.2 These types of not-so-subtle micro-aggressions do not harm a department’s numbers on recruitment and only harm retention rates if they become so unbearable that students drop out.
Undoubtedly, my department has a good record on admitting racial minorities comparative to similarly ranked programs. And while the numbers aren’t necessarily lying, by equating population with power, they are obscuring the daily lives of graduate students of color in the program. If this award were granted solely on the racial climate, we wouldn’t deserve it. Finally, I fear awards like this end up justifying inaction on a department’s problems. People can point to the award as recognition for a job well done, and oppose movement towards racial equity. Maybe giving out these awards, without specific benchmarks for departments to achieve, is not such a good idea.
1 Although I can’t speak for the other students of color in the department, many of them have spoken to me privately about similar micro and macro aggressions. And some have even left graduate school because of what they considered a climate of racial animus.
2 I personally don’t think of myself as all that critical or militant, not because my scholarship supports the status quo, but because I don’t think there is anything all that critical about saying, for instance, that the United States is founded and continues to thrive on racism. This is simply true.