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Invisible Labor: Exploitation of Scholars Of Color In Academia

Image source: Bro. Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ

Several weeks ago, Audrey Williams June wrote an article for Chronicle of Higher Education about the additional service burden experienced by many faculty of color in academia:

“The hands-on attention that many minority professors willingly provide is an unheralded linchpin in institutional efforts to create an inclusive learning environment and to keep students enrolled. That invisible labor reflects what has been described as cultural taxation: the pressure faculty members of color feel to serve as role models, mentors, even surrogate parents to minority students, and to meet every institutional need for ethnic representation.”

Aptly, June highlights that this service burden (“cultural taxation”) has grown as student bodies have diversified on college campuses, while diversity among the faculty have lagged. Students of color are disproportionately poor or working-class, on financial aid, and first-generation (i.e., the first in their families to attend college). On top of the challenges of getting into, paying for, and navigating college, many students of color also enter a racially hostile environment, perhaps for the first time in their lives. (I’ve lost count of the number of students of color who have told me they are miserable at my institution, for some, even saying that this is the “worst chapter of their lives.” It’s heartbreaking.) Sure, they can turn to any faculty member, regardless of race and ethnicity, for some challenges; but, students of color may find that racial bias comes from faculty, too – inside and outside of the classroom. Thus, they turn more easily to faculty and staff of color. And, with a sense of linked fate or at least empathy, many faculty and staff of color are ready to be a listening ear, shoulder to cry on, mentor, tutor, life coach, stand-in parent, friend, therapist, financial planner, etc.

To say that few colleges are equipped to deal with the challenges of being a student of color is an understatement. This is particularly true for “Historically White Colleges and Universities” (HWCUs), here borrowing from the language of Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. With few exceptions, American colleges were built by and for white elites; today, they are overwhelmingly led by white presidents and administrators, with a majority white faculty. Racial integration and racial diversity have largely been the products of legal challenges rather than changed hearts and minds. Although it seems diversity is talked about on every college campus, its meaning is hallow. Allowing students of color into otherwise white campuses does nothing to change the racial climate; you can have racial diversity without true racial inclusion and racial equality. (Just look at how racially segregated your campus’s dining hall is.) Diversity in terms of the number of students of color doesn’t change the lack of diversity among the faculty and administration, the lack of coverage of race in appropriate courses, the absence of authors of color from syllabi, the absence and/or underfunding of Black/African/Latina/Asian/Native American studies departments, and so forth.

Short of institutional change, the burden of supporting students of color often falls to faculty of color. This is in addition to disproportionate requests to serve on committees related to diversity. And, in addition to “non-race-related” forms of service, plus teaching, plus research, plus having a personal life, plus navigating racism on and off campus. For my own professional and personal well-being, I have begun saying no to new service requests more and more. But, my heart aches a little (for me and for students of color) when I do; realistically, there aren’t many other people who have the expertise on race (be it research or personal experience). The pessimist in me, however, has reasoned that the institution has already failed students of color. If I give any more of my time away (from research, teaching, or my personal life), I risk having the institution fail both the student and me. Unfortunately, supporting that Black student is not going to be as valued – it may not even “count” as something CV-worthy unless it’s a formal activity; but, sending these articles out to journals is valued. I can’t realistically earn tenure if I’m spending all of my time mentoring students of color. And, I don’t have the time or power to change the institution to improve the situation for them (or myself).

Minimizing The Burden

What can we do in the mean time? In September, I attended the 2015 Conference of Ford Fellows – an annual meeting of some of the brightest scholars of color in the US, namely those who have received a Ford fellowship at one time. One of the conference sessions was on “Invisible Labor: Exploitation of Marginalized Scholars,” including panelists Dr. Koritha Mitchell (@ProfKori), Dr. Crystal Fleming (@FlemingPhD), and Dr. Steve McKay. Without even reading the description, I knew what the panel would be about – and that it would speak to a growing frustration of my own. And, the panelists didn’t disappoint in the advice they offered to reduce the burden of additional and race-specific forms of service placed on scholars of color. I took thorough notes, which I share below.

Think Big, Think Long-Term

 Setting Priorities

Avoiding The Burden Of Service

Be Opportunistic About Service Opportunities

Get Help If Necessary

What has worked for you? Please share your strategies in the comments section below!