Dismantling Whiteness In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally 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.

Dismantling Whiteness In Academe

Academics, primarily those of color, are fighting for a voice to disrupt the neoliberal (some would say white supremacist) logics now embedded in false practices of choice and equality in education today. Academic circles operate as inhospitable sites to faculty of color, as higher education is built on the exclusionary processes of symbolic and tokenistic inclusion. The ways in which those historical exclusionary processes impact nonwhite faculty involve those faculty having to constantly negotiate or say no to extra work — work that oftentimes involves managing diversity for whiteness.

In this essay, I discuss some of the characteristics of whiteness as embedded in multiple university sites and experienced by many of my colleagues. I also begin to point toward a project of dismantling whiteness in order to make room for an academic transformative engagement.

Scholars’ vocal actions against “light” multiculturalism, reactions to shallow accusations of “reverse racism” and active resistance to neoliberal diversity often encounter a challenge. That challenge is, namely, that whiteness and a strong racial inclusion and justice project cannot occupy the same space. By whiteness — as an institution, as discourse and as the invisible norm — I am referring to the entitlements provided to most professors by virtue of a white academic institution that privileges cultural norms of formal communication, professionalism and appropriateness. A rule of sameness often applies here: of sameness in hiring practices, in trusting others like them, in the advancement of knowledge and in simple networking endeavors that invoke “fairness and equal opportunity” through the vaguest language of multiculturalism (or the 21st-century upgrade: “diversity and inclusion”).

Those institutions may, conversely, tag nonwhite faculty members as unfitting, creating the conditions that make them feel out of place. Indeed, when an institution is not made for you, you are out of place and, indeed, conditionally accepted. When faculty of color speak up, we are often silenced — and put in “our place.” Over all, the failed project of watered-down academic diversity is a reminder of how whiteness is structured — and structuring our interactions in academe.

It bears repeating that the dismantling of whiteness (as structure) is different from white (as race). When we talk about race in the classroom, I always make sure to distinguish between a race, a group of people, and the system that races encode. Here, I talk about whiteness as a discourse that enables a set of practices, which activates, with its own set of codes, certain responses and actions. But I am not speaking of white people — whether administrators, colleagues, students — or even whiteness as a race.

Academe is poised to transform the bias of traditional and canonical curriculum. Yet while the philosophy and policies at many universities have become more robust, inclusive and oh so diverse, in actuality, the leadership of many of those institutions has continued to reinforce whiteness as a rule. Universities may have incompetent administrators in departmental units, but the code of white networks makes any honest actions or comments about the challenges those people create difficult at best. Thus, whiteness remains pretty invisible to the very powers that be and that operate in and through it, maintaining a ruling on norms that directly impact faculty of color in recruitment, retention and promotion.

Networks among the “we” that hire base their decisions on a white collective imaginary of who produces important work (read: gets the right grants), who seems to work hard, who meets the standards — creating self-fulfilling situations that repeat, and thus reify, whiteness (and that obscure when folks of color do, indeed, produce the work). Universities that are in constant tribulation for their lack of diversity ironically use “target of opportunity” hires, but white people get tenure-track positions in (at best) dubious processes. We also see white folks who leave and come back to institutions as they please, without formal hiring processes, who may be claimed as target recruitments. Nowadays, the process of tenure has become a bargaining of sorts — with (often) white folks holding other offers in hand, ready to quit and move on.

Indeed, whiteness talks — it always has, and it does so in silence, as the norm, as whiteness often most successfully reproduces itself. And yet if one notes how that work gets done, those mentioning it become the problem. In neoliberal talk, some of us don’t do the work that matters, or that gets us (and the university) funded, or that is published in presses and journals that are ranked, so we best stay in our place. I’ve heard so many of such versions from colleagues across the country, countless times. This is not new.

I am a Latino queer tenured sociologist at, like most scholars, a white institution, or a majority white institution. But here I use “majority” in the sociological sense. I am referring to the actions that make it a majority white institution irrespective of the numbers. The terms “majority” and “minority” are not literal; rather, these terms are about power, control of institutions and resources, and a sense of ownership and belonging. When academic settings operate in and through whiteness, the process constructs ethnoracial groups as minorities, irrespective of the numbers. Faculty, staff and students are often engaged in sometimes innocent, often implicit, or at times explicit engagements with a code of whiteness that reproduces a specific social order that sets exclusionary traps for most people who feel ill placed (sometimes including women, often gender and sexual minorities, and, generally, people of color).

At many universities in the United States, diversity bypasses race for country of origin, for gender, for sexuality, for queer identity and experience, for working-class status (in white students) and for disability. To bypass here is not just to ignore but also to avoid. Yet this avoidance is also a significant passing through, in that it depends on a loose notion of how to include “the other” in academe, while it co-opts any efforts to confront the structural systems of racism embedded in the culture of universities.

Sites that bypass racial-minority faculty hiring often simultaneously master showcasing how “diverse” they may be — with white women constituting the majority of the ranks, as well as gays and lesbians. (Some universities go as far as to argue that conservatives, Republicans and religious applicants who hold sexist, racist and homophobic beliefs are minoritized.) This bypassing of diversity is in actuality an erasure of minorities — and of Blackness in particular — that gets constituted into benign acts of inclusion. These acts serve the dual purpose of salvaging the university’s attempts and efforts to diversify, while at the same time justifying why the focus is not on ethnoracial minorities. Students at many campuses have noticed this and begun to demand practices that move beyond tokenism. Faculty and staff members must follow suit.

It is taxing to call out the whiteness of those so comfortably supported by the web underneath that discourse, and it sure has repercussions — any challenge to systematic control and power does. Sometimes, faculty of color do not find the room to challenge the systems in place; sometimes, we do not even have the energy to communicate this effectively, given our frustration at academe’s inability to articulate itself outside of neoliberal markers.

To dismantle whiteness is to enunciate its characteristics, denounce how it works (when it does and through whom), and make evident the patterns that may be obvious to some people (and how and why others are oblivious to it). Dismantling whiteness in academe is about giving up power and privilege, yes. It is also about recognizing how inherently hostile the university spaces and environment are for faculty, staff and students of color. It requires a rage about diversity and that we move into a sociohistorical and cultural analysis of academe as a racist institution.