Surviving Institutional Racism In Academe

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). The author is a Black woman professor at a small liberal arts college. She was strongly encouraged by IHE to remain anonymous for fear that her colleagues or university would retaliate against her for calling out the racism that she has experienced at work.

Readers, I will be honest with you: when I accepted my first tenure-track position, I was excited to formally join the academy. I naïvely assumed the bubble of academe would insulate me from, well, everything. I raced toward my Ph.D. in search of social protection, professional stability and financial freedom. Instead, I found early-career emotional, physical and mental exhaustion.

Upon joining the professoriate, I thought I was joining a group of people committed to a similar end goal. I imagined college faculty members as collective change agents transforming the lives of future generations. I was wrong. Colleges as manufacturing plants for little liberal soldiers is a fairy tale created by political conservatives to reconstruct classism around education rather than political affiliation. I have found few liberal “havens” in academic spaces, and I am not sure that there is a happy ending here.

I am sure none of what follows is unique to my experiences as a black woman faculty member at a HWCU (or historically white college or university). The ordinary nature of racism in the academy encourages its growth where it seemed, to me, least likely. A small segment of faculty of color experience extreme harassment, receiving death threats and sometimes termination for their public discussions of white supremacy and privilege. Most of us, instead, experience professional death by a thousand cuts. We spend our days ducking microaggressions, hurdling stereotypes and navigating emotional distress. Most of us will be denied tenure, and many will be too exhausted to protest if we managed to land a tenure-track job at all.

When I went to work mobilizing support for change, I had no idea the toll institutional racism in this setting and academe more generally would take on my physical health, my spirit and my passion for educating. I led poorly attended workshops on “othering” in the classroom. I proposed noncomparative research on black student communities, but reviewers suggested white subjects were imperative to create valid data. I came to the academy to create platforms for change. Instead I found an institution where skepticism permeates discussions of inequality and willful ignorance of prejudicial rhetoric perpetuates discrimination.

Here are some lessons about surviving academe’s institutionalized racism that I have learned the hard way.

The job of a professor is physical work. In graduate school, I rarely heard discussions of the physicality of academe. I did not expect to feel the work so viscerally. The constant tension is a byproduct of the inherent conundrum of my role on the campus. I am expected to exert power where it is not assumed. Fellow faculty and administrators challenge my fit while also thrusting me into the limelight. Students test my steadfastness and institutional authority. My body language is constantly surveilled and therefore must be managed. “Stand taller, take up space, remember you belong here” is a mantra I repeat often to myself. Tenure won’t change this, and publications won’t, either. A short critical comment in faculty meeting requires brute force to momentarily pause my shaking hands as I stand to address fellow faculty. There is no alternative action in this example. To allow my hands to shake would undermine the little power I’ve amassed, but the physical exhaustion I feel afterward is palpable.

You cannot always be the counselor. The impact of white supremacy on campus is often silent in its devastation. Coupled with low levels of student trust in faculty and staff, marginalized students have few spaces where they can speak openly and without fear of recourse. So I opened my door. I let students unload their experiences on me, but it is difficult to maintain emotional distance when we are angry about the same things. What would you tell a black student who has to attend class with a peer who yelled racist epithets at them last weekend, or a survivor who has to eat in the same dining hall as their rapist? I listened to them, tried to console them, to temper the anxiety and frustration plaguing them. I met with anyone with institutional power to plead my case. I lost sleep, I cried. I want to give these students a voice but almost lost mine in the process.

People will try you. I joined the academy because I love to explore, teach and write. I expected to feel at home, but instead of like-minded peers I found antagonists. Instead of solidarity, I found cynicism. I endure affirmative action jokes from white colleagues and passive digs at my inability to “look like a professor.” Students of all races challenge my syllabus, threaten to go “over my head” to their white man professor of choice and reject social inequality discussions in the classroom.

Administrators are happy to use my efforts to promote institutional diversity initiatives but routinely ignore my recommendations for effective structural and cultural change. They ask: Why are you so sensitive? Perhaps it wasn’t their intention to offend you? Who else corroborates your story? What could you have done differently? Have you reviewed the institutional policy on this topic? Perhaps you should discuss with unreachable person X. Many students and staff members regard me as a member of the liberal elite pushing overwrought theories of social inequity on the next generation. I am an outsider. Therefore I can be openly challenged, admonished and ignored at the whim of those around me.

You are not alone. I dreamed of rallying a group of like-minded thinkers to the same table so that we could make a plan to save the world. But that never happened. At first, my colleagues were happy to help champion issues of marginalization on campus, especially when catchy buzzwords were involved. Increase diversity! Improve inclusivity! But the excitement faded quickly in the face of constant administrative resistance. I also found it difficult to use cultural support, once a dependable savior, as a scaffold. I thought myself a burden to those struggling through their own fatigue. I watched from the outside for too long, wondering if other marginalized faculty felt similarly alone and disappointed. I wish I had known sooner that they did.

You can decide your success. I would love to be awarded tenure when the time comes, and I would like to publish social justice research in peer-reviewed journals, but I realize now that may not be my path. The difficulty to produce in this environment, to maintain creativity amid the emotional, physical and psychological strain of this job, cannot be overstated. I have dedicated hundreds of hours to improving the academic experiences of the marginalized at my institution. It hasn’t made a difference, but I will not stop fighting.

Instead, I stopped using institutional change as a marker of success. I prioritize my stability, health and happiness. I don’t need to create a more liberal environment to experience success. Sometimes a day maintaining collegiality far above what I receive is success. Continuing to raise my voice is success. Providing support for those who need it, even when it is difficult to find myself, is success. And most days that’s enough, for now.

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