Latinxs In Academe: Rage About “Diversity Work”

Note: this was published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Salvador Vidal-Ortiz is associate professor of sociology at American University. He recently published a co-edited volume, Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism, with University of Texas Press, and has a forthcoming co-authored book, Race and Sexuality, with Polity Press.

Latinx students’ higher enrollment in colleges and universities in the United States should produce hope. But the attrition rate is higher for Latinx students than for their peers from other racial and ethnic groups. That lower rate of undergraduate completion is reflected at the graduate level as well: a recent report shows that less than 1 percent of Latinxs hold Ph.D.s — far fewer than Asians, whites and African-Americans. And while academic institutions may be recruiting more Latinx students, they often aren’t increasing their Latinx faculty hires.

People in higher education talk a lot about diversity, but the aforementioned disparities should raise concern as to whether institutions are all talk when it comes to inclusion. The gap between what is said and done sustains what Sara Ahmed has called diversity work, a project that often supports the public relations goals of colleges and universities at the expense of Latinxs and other ethnoracial minority groups.

Early on in any given fall semester, I attend a reception for Latina/o students — a common occurrence these days, as growing numbers of Latinx students attend private institutions like my own. According to colleagues I have consulted, there seems to be a pattern across our institutions: the majority of the Latinx faculty members are largely “term” or visiting faculty — concepts used to describe faculty employed on yearly contracts. In contrast, the number of Latinx scholars who are tenure-track faculty is relatively small at these colleges. It seems that our institutions typically have one or two full professors who are of Latin American (not U.S. Latinx) descent and a handful of Latinx tenured associate professors (myself included).

It is with those patterns in mind that I begin to notice my rage at the unfortunate set of events — the unintended setup, I prefer to think — unfolding in front of me. Such patterns do not merely become evident with statistics and numbers; they are part and parcel of many Latinx students’ everyday lived realities in academe.

Mine is a rage against “diversity work.”

“Diversity” has become a shorthand for the insertion of minority students into predominantly white academic spaces, while at the same time leaving untouched the historical enforcement of exclusion inherent from the inception of these institutions. Often times, to “diversify” means to change brochures, update website pictures, hire key administrators who represent the face of any given historically excluded group. Yet colleges and universities still prioritize enrollments and registration over spending time and resources to support the retention of students.

Let’s not kid ourselves — the stakes are partially monetary. In the view of corporate-minded academic administrators, the more diversity there is, the more “experience” students gain. That, in coded language, means more diversity allows U.S.-born, non-Hispanic white students to consume otherness and develop the appropriate skills at managing difference (and a portrayal of their “tolerance” for difference) for when they work with — not in — a “diverse” environment. This translates in a direct gain — monetary and otherwise — for a white student body that eventually becomes part of the work force. Their coded experience with “diversity” allows for them to “manage” diversity without having to address inequality. It also means disciplining students of color to assimilate to that diversity project — preparing them to abide by these unequal work-force standards, to fit within that system.

This superficial diversity work is not only a challenge for private colleges and universities. Some public institutions I’ve recently visited have become Hispanic-serving institutions — a designation that recognizes the significant number of Latina/o and Hispanic students enrolled. It also, ironically, makes those institutions less accountable to diversity, as they are academic models by the act of surpassing “quota” numbers, but they continue to instill a consumption of difference (or the showcasing of their nonwhite students for the benefit of the institution without addressing inherent inequalities). At those institutions, the experiences I hear about from Latinx students are similar: no matter how many brown students I see, the professoriate is white and does not get our concerns, cannot think with a truly intersectional lens, and is unable to rescind some of the hegemonic views that inspire the “canon” in any given field.

I experience a personal rage about some of these things and how they impact faculty members, students and academe in general. That is not the rage of the “angry Latino man” — a common stereotype even in academic circles. Rather, it is my own rewriting of it. Like the discourse that presupposes Latinas and Latinos are homogeneous, rage is but an individual aspect of Latina/o racializing in the United States and in academe in particular.

Latinx professors are expected to know everything about diversity. Even if you work on the sciences in a lab, you should be able to, at the drop of the request, pull out a set of handouts and a 60- to 90-minute session on “my culture has these distinctive features” or “diversity is good because of …” Some of us decided to study topics of race, gender, class and sexuality in order to own and redefine the tenets of the discourse we were simply invited to join. We have been pushed to speak for a group of people, and our behavior, emotions and expressions of support for X or Y administrative task are read through a lens of representation not expected of white men or women.

This rage is not violent — it is affirmative. I feel rage for Latinx students. Many of them come from community colleges and are hungry to discuss their take on being a Latinx or multiracial student on the campus. Yet they don’t have the resources to adjust (read: assimilate) to such a new and unwelcoming environment. In privileging their current diversity project over the needs of Latinx students, colleges and universities constantly lump those U.S. students together with Latin American ones, even though their socioeconomic backgrounds and linguistic practices are significantly different.

I sometimes rage at administrative staff members whose interests may be more in line with the institution’s diversity project and who could care less for students’ challenges and concerns — or worse, who may dismiss those challenges or channel them to faculty of color. I feel rage with the junior faculty members whose research and teaching must excel, all while having to take under their wing dozens of Latinx students who continually demand they listen to stories about experiences of institutional violence — you know, those inherent in colleges and universities that were not made, and are unwilling to be transformed, with Latinx students in mind. I have to let the rage sink in.

Rage is that constant exasperation with the contemporary hypocrisy that aims to be “inclusive.” It may give visual sense to the invisibility of white dominance in the curriculum, or solidify the unnoticed classed markers in academic expectations and “professional” behavior, or perhaps reclaim diversity in ways that are less about inclusion and more about institutional transformation. Rage is also a tool to turn the presupposed norms upside down — that is, the orderly ways in which both women and men articulate whiteness in academe — and the responses to the inertia we sometimes see.

Transforming this rage means teaching about race at historically white colleges and universities, interrogating existing diversity discourses, revisiting curriculum so that whiteness is not left invisible, or involving non-Latinx faculty members (or other faculty of color) in the mentoring of nonwhite students. Collaborating on making our rage productive means multiple things at once.

This rage does not belong to Latinxs alone. It is an important source of action, of challenging meaningless “diversity work.” We should not engage it alone. Collaborative rage on diversity might end up producing more transformative changes — real diversity — or something new altogether.

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