Is Gender Bias an Intended Feature of Teaching Evaluations?

Every semester brings with it a new series of articles, blog posts and stories about gender and racial biases in teaching evaluations. A large and constantly growing body of academic literature demonstrates how bias shapes these tools.

For example, experiments with students in online courses show that identical courses are rated lower if the instructor is randomly assigned a woman’s name. Students may also use evaluations to comment on faculty appearance, tone of voice or even their sexual orientation.

And in a political environment where much of the population denies basic empirical facts about racial and gender inequality, teaching about such controversial subjects can open one up to claims of political bias. Social sciences don’t have laws, but if we were attempting to devise one, “Women and minorities get lower teaching evaluations” would be pretty close to axiomatic.

From a methodological standpoint, teaching evaluations are a mess. These evaluations lack external validity and don’t correlate with student learning outcomes. Typically, when social scientists recognize a research instrument is providing an incorrect measure, or that a measure is systematically biased, the measure is abandoned and (hopefully) replaced with a better one. Everyone knows — or should know — that teaching evaluations are better measures of student stereotypes than teaching effectiveness. Yet colleges and universities persist in laundering systematic bias through tenure and promotion processes, the legitimacy of which depend upon their supposed neutrality.

Although the methodological problems with these tests matter, it is also important to not get lost in the abstract; we must remember that biased evaluations can actually destroy people’s dreams. Promotions, raises and tenure are partially based on biased evaluations. Students who are unhappy with a grade, who dislike the opinions of a disciplinary expert or who are simply sexist can play an outsize role in their instructor’s future job negotiations.

Using biased evaluations allows colleges and universities to punish those whose identities deviate from white male normativity. Take a hypothetical gender discrimination case for denial of tenure because of poor teaching. Substantiating the harm requires evidence that discrimination was based on membership in a protected category. The institution will be able to point to poor teaching evaluations — despite their known biases — to argue that denial of tenure was based on less meritorious teaching.

The irony here is clear; the discriminatory bias built into measures of teaching effectiveness can be retroactively used to justify unequal outcomes based on those measures. Biased evaluation criteria explain biased outcomes, which the college or university then considers legitimated. The case of Ellen Pao followed just this logic after she filed a discrimination suit against a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. A jury saw her performance evaluations as legitimate, despite the fact that they were systematically lower once she complained of gender discrimination — a pattern she attributed to retaliation.

Feminist sociologists have long argued that one of the features of contemporary organizations is their gendered nature. Claiming that organizations are gendered means that supposedly gender-neutral jobs are actually considered men’s prerogative and that women in “men’s jobs” — like, say, professors — are thought of as interlopers, out of place or what consistently shows up on evaluations: less competent. The key here is that, of course, these ratings aren’t based on objective measures of competence; rather, they are sifted through widely held stereotypes about women. But they are given the patina of legitimacy once the institution accepts them as credible when it comes to retention, promotion and tenure. That also has the benefit of protecting the university from potential lawsuits down the road.

Biased teaching evaluations, like race- and class-biased test scores, support the status quo and don’t create the same type of public outcry as, for instance, certain affirmative action policies that may slightly disadvantage white men. They are the perfect vehicle for a type of gender-blind discrimination because they allow one to claim detachment and objectivity. They pretend the “best qualified” is measured and confirmed through a neutral process that just so happens to confirm the worst stereotypes about women. Recent research by Katherine Weisshaar shows that, even accounting for productivity, gendered differences in the way tenure committees evaluate women contributes to fewer women moving up.

Given the evidence, I’ve almost reached the conclusion that gender- and race-biased evaluations are not used in spite of their bias, but because they are biased. Of course, my assumption about bias being a desirable feature of student evaluations is speculative. Hard evidence would be difficult to establish, because part of the point of these evaluations is that the bias is plausibly deniable. Administrators are unlikely to admit that they knowingly employ a biased instrument in employment proceedings. But I think the evidence for concluding that bias is a feature of teaching evaluations is in my favor. If colleges and universities know that evaluations are biased, and those biases are more likely to harm women and minorities (and the intersection of these categories), at what point can we start to assume that such evaluations are an intended feature of the process?

I don’t believe colleges and universities are going to drop these types of evaluations anytime soon, as the pressure to quantify every area of academic life is increasing. But making department heads, deans and tenure committees aware of both the biased nature of these evaluations and how they can influence tenure decisions will help to reduce the harm that reliance on such biased measure inflicts.


Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His research examines race and gender discrimination in organizations. His commentary has appeared in Newsweek, Boston Review and Gawker. He is the new editor of “Conditionally Accepted,” an Inside Higher Ed career advice column for marginalized academics. You can follow him on Twitter at @victorerikray.

Welcoming Remarks From Our New Editor, Dr. Victor Ray

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His research examines race and gender discrimination in organizations. His commentary has appeared at Newsweek, Boston Review, and Gawker. He is the new editor of Conditionally Accepted. You can follow him on Twitter at @victorerikray.

This essay is my first as the new editor of “Conditionally Accepted,” a career advice column on Inside Higher Ed for marginalized academics. I’ve been a reader and contributor since before “Conditionally Accepted” became a part of Inside Higher Ed in 2016, and I am happy and honored to be taking over editorial duties for “Conditionally Accepted,” a continual source of advice and affirmation.

I’ve supported the vision of Eric Anthony Grollman, the founder and outgoing editor of “Conditionally Accepted,” from the start as a behind-the-scenes confidant, occasional adviser and scholar-activist fellow traveler. In 2016, Eric asked me to become a regular contributor for “Conditionally Accepted,” where I’ve written about the racial landscape of funding in higher education, the inherent whiteness of “mesearch” and attacks on free speech from the right. I’m generally committed to public scholarship, publishing in other outlets like Boston Review and Newsweek.

Eric and the column’s contributors have created a remarkable and rare intellectual space where writers from the margins regularly challenge the status quo in and beyond academe. Eric made their own lane right out of graduate school. They eschewed the safe, docile path that graduate students are taught leads to academic success and eventually tenure. Instead, Eric centered the traumatic experiences that many marginalized scholars face in spaces that were never made for us. Eric created a model — risky though it is — of committed resistance and scholar-activism. By doing that, they opened up a national platform for scholars who remain underrepresented. I’m humbled that Eric trusts me to edit “Conditionally Accepted,” because this space is an important, meaningful outlet for marginalized scholars like myself.

Over the past four years, contributors to “Conditionally Accepted” have regularly subverted comfortable thinking about higher education. The writers frequently featured in this space — people of color, queer and trans folks, and women — face barriers at every stage of their academic careers. At (sometimes considerable) personal risk, the bloggers at “Conditionally Accepted” have laid bare higher education’s inequalities through deeply personal narratives. This format helped make “Conditionally Accepted” a high-profile institutionalized space that remains ahead of the curve in national debates on diversity and racial inclusion, white supremacy in higher education, free speech, and sexual assault, among others.

Reading the column, I often think about a famous quip from W. E. B. Du Bois. According to Taylor Branch, upon becoming the first black person to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, Du Bois said, “The honor, I assure you, was Harvard’s.” Du Bois deftly inverted the white supremacist narrative of racial belonging that assumed people of color were incapable of intellectual excellence. “Conditionally Accepted” — in this Du Boisian tradition — continually reminds us that despite claims that we are only here because of affirmative action or are “presumed incompetent,” the truth is that the honor is the academy’s. To remain legitimate, the academy needs us more than ever.

So, Eric, thank you for creating this space and entrusting me to continue the work. (Be sure to read Eric’s farewell essay as outgoing editor of “Conditionally Accepted.”)

My Goals As Editor

Because I have so much respect for the space here, I don’t plan on making big changes. I will continue to feature a diverse array of writers and topics. But I do anticipate two slight adjustments.

My first goal is to provide more coverage of current events from committed experts. The political environment in the country at large, and in higher education in particular, has become increasingly hostile to people of color in a number of ways. Republicans are doubtful about the importance of higher education generally. Attacks on the free speech of faculty of color, the promotion of so-called alt-right speakers, cuts to funding, changes in immigration law and assaults on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the rollback of protections for LGBTQ folks, the weakening or eradicating of tenure protections, and the vast and growing precariousness of the labor force are just some of the present threats to higher education. These trends will tend to disproportionately hurt marginalized people; thus, marginalized folks should be at the forefront of the debates about them. I hope to recruit public scholar-experts for commentary when new legislation or case law appears on the educational landscape. At a moment when the very notion of truth is threatened, our scholarly expertise — communicated through clear, accessible writing — is needed more than ever.

Second, I will be looking for writers who use personal narrative to illuminate structural issues in academe. So, for instance, a discussion of personal experiences with microaggressions, which are typically thought of as individual slights, could expand into a description of how organizational forms and institutional histories facilitate or hinder negative racialized and gendered interactions. Too often, the work of marginalized people is seen as overly personal or anecdote. This framing is belied by the huge body of research that shows discrimination and harassment against marginalized folks in the academy (and elsewhere) are not aberrant or surprising. Rather, such hostile treatment is common and mundane — although no less damaging for its mundanity.

I hope to publish work that connects personal experiences to broader disciplinary literatures. For example, Adia Harvey Wingfield’s contribution to our 2017 sexual violence series showed how the gendered nature of universities contributes to the perpetuation of sexual assault on campus, as high-status male professors are often protected at women’s expense. Of course, as this is a career advice column, I will also continue to feature writers who offer valuable advice on how to survive and thrive in academe as an underrepresented scholar.

I’m excited about this and look forward to writers trusting me with their words, just as Eric and Inside Higher Ed have trusted me with this space. “Conditionally Accepted” published some of my earliest public work, helping me to gain the confidence to write for other venues. I hope to provide the same opportunity for other writers. So please send me bold, fearless, truth-telling pitches at

Understanding The Recent Slew Of Attacks On Public Scholars

Note: this blog post originally appeared on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His research examines race and gender discrimination in organizations. His commentary has appeared at Newsweek, Boston Review and Gawker. He is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted.

Weaponizing Free Speech

The political right has developed a coordinated network to systematically target the free speech of presumably left-wing professors. Over the course of the last few weeks, this network of activists has launched a vicious series of attacks, leading to intimidation, calls for firing and even death threats. Colleges and universities have shut down operations, while scholars have canceled speaking engagements and even gone into hiding with their families.

Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, Johnny Eric Williams, Sarah Bond, Tommy Curry and George Ciccariello-Maher are the most recent targets of the right’s campaign against higher education. As the attacks have spread and intensified, the American Sociological Association joined the American Association of University Professors in condemning the targeting of individual professors and calling on universities to protect those whose speech is targeted. Jessie Daniels and Arlene Stein have written an excellent overview of why and how universities should support these scholars, and Eric Anthony Grollman offered a model for scholars to protect their colleagues from public attacks.

The specifics of these professors’ statements have been covered and analyzed elsewhere. My concern here is twofold. First, it appears that free speech is policed differentially based upon the identity of the speaker and whether they are supporting or challenging power. Second, the right is exploiting these manufactured outrages, using free speech as a wedge issue as part of their years-long strategy of delegitimizing higher education itself.

There is little doubt that some on the right disdain the institution of higher education. We, as faculty members, are regularly caricatured as effete, out-of-touch liberals with an overabundance of leisure and job security. By attacking faculty of color in particular, these organizations have brought a Southern strategy to higher education. Research shows that allegedly principled free speech arguments are often thinly veiled defenses of racist attitudes.

As Steven W. Thrasher argued in The Guardian, free speech is often a disingenuous framing device, with racial and ethnic minorities’ speech less likely to be protected. Wendy Moore and Joyce Bell document this selective application of free speech, showing that protected racist speech promotes a hostile racial climate. Campus Reform, the National Review and Fox News gamble, correctly, that the magic of racial alchemy will silence so-called principled free speech activists.

The disingenuousness of this strategy is apparent in the worry about hypothetical bias against white students, while ignoring the well-documented, ingrained, pervasive and routine bias against people of color on and off campus. The fake news outlets promoting these attacks outsource violence to maintain a veneer of plausible deniability. They hope to silence critics and make an example of those who stand up. White supremacy becomes frictionless.

This basic pattern has been playing out across colleges and universities recently, as a cottage industry of white liberal columnists regularly castigate undergraduates for interrupting conservative speakers like Charles Murray or Ann Coulter, casting students as unruly, childish and nearly incapable of reason. Thus, the right ends up enlisting liberal commentators to advance their illiberal agenda.

Yet those free speech warriors are nowhere to be found when faculty of color, or those speaking out against racism, are the targets. Typically, here, critics of my position will resort to a “both sides” argument, saying that the left also stifles free speech. At times, this is true. But, to my knowledge, the left has no coordinated national apparatus that specifically and systematically targets individual professors

The broader political climate has emboldened white supremacists. And their fellow travelers’ violent attacks from the right are supporting and driving official policies. The full impact on academe writ large is of course unknowable, but I fear their use in undermining tenure, diversity and the very notion of empirically verifiable knowledge. The well-publicized sabotaging of faculty governance and proposed cuts to funding are furthered by the selective policing of free speech. These manufactured outrages are quickly leveraged into attacks on higher education. Legislators have already seized upon them to call for the firing of tenured professors, and Trinity College has placed Johnny Eric Williams on leave. Those academics without the protection of tenure face greater speech restrictions, as they often lack even basic employment protections.

It is time to stop assuming good faith in the free speech debate. The right has weaponized free speech, framing campus debates in a way that resonates with liberals to destroy the very things liberals purport to care about. By capitulating to the demands of those who threaten violence against professors, colleges and universities undermine one of their central functions as refuges for debating controversial ideas.

Advice For Securing Funding During Graduate School

victor-rayNote: this blog post was originally published on our weekly career advice column for marginalized scholars on Inside Higher Ed.  Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. You can follow him on Twitter @victorerikray.


In my previous post, I argued that research funding is racialized and that disparities in funding exacerbate racial inequities in academe. Although nothing short of institutional change can significantly reverse those patterns, below I offer advice to help students successfully apply for funding during their graduate training.

Early in my graduate career, I felt insecure and worried about my place in the department. It was clear that my political and intellectual commitments were, to put it mildly, somewhat out of place in my chosen graduate program. Although I was funded, I felt that the support was precarious. In retrospect, perhaps that feeling was overstated. But it was nonetheless real, and I needed a way to combat it.

As a person of color from a working- to lower-middle-class background, funding was extremely important to me. It influenced my decision about which graduate school to attend. When I received my acceptance letter informing me that I would be funded for five years as long as I maintained adequate progress in the program, that was the most economic security I had experienced in my life.

Of course, funding was partially freeing. And given what I felt was my precarious position in the program, the external validation was instrumental in my continuing in graduate school. The freedom that funding brings is particularly important for radical scholars of color whose work may make some (white) colleagues uncomfortable.

When I talk about funding opportunities, graduate students and some faculty members often tell me that applying for funding is a waste of time, that it requires too much work or that agencies are not interested in their type of work. Below, I address each of these concerns with practical advice. Although I am mainly talking about sociology departments, some of these strategies may resonate beyond my discipline.

Understanding the structure of funding. The structure of funding is often a bit confusing. Although there is occasional overlap, grants are typically for expenses related to research, while fellowships pay for living expenses. Federal and private sources of support tend to have considerably different application procedures and expectations attached to their funding. Those applications can be complicated, so I advise you to start them early. Make yourself familiar with a given funding agency’s reporting requirements and make sure you are willing to meet them.

How to find funding. I identified funding opportunities primarily in two places: university databases and the CVs of more senior colleagues whose work I admired. The latter strategy allowed me to see how people were funded at different points in their career and what opportunities I should be looking for down the line.

Many undergraduate institutions have grants and fellowships that are reserved for alumni who are in graduate school. Those are prime places to look for funding, as the applicant pool tends to be smaller. Search your institution’s website, write to the program officers and apply. Although the funding from such sources may be lower than national competitions, they are great places to find seed support for projects.

Once I found opportunities for which I qualified and that were related to my work, my strategy was to apply for everything. Applying for funding, like working in academe in general, is largely about learning to manage rejection. I made a spreadsheet that covered the next three to four years of graduate school and systematically applied every year. Early on, I got a lot of rejections. They were an opportunity to revise and refine my ideas. One success can make those rejections recede from your consciousness pretty quickly.

Another strategy (to use sparingly) is to contact program officers at funding agencies. Make sure you find out the policy regarding contact so as to not violate protocol. However, if the officers are open to talking, send an email briefly outlining the most important aspects of your project and ask whether they are willing to set up a phone conversation. I have had program officers give me information that I think was central to eventually being funded.

Before you contact a program officer, make sure your project description is far along and perhaps even reviewed by a colleague or two. You do not want to antagonize a program officer with a proposal that is not well thought out, as that may ultimately hurt your chances.

Writing the application. If you have colleagues who have successfully received grants or fellowships for which you are interested in applying, ask if you may look over their applications. Many people are flattered by the request and happy to share; others, not so much. Remember, however, that they are in no way obligated to help you and may consider the request inappropriate for any number of reasons. They could be shy about sharing work, view you as competition or resent your success. But while the academy often still functions on an outdated notion that intellectual work is the result of heroic individuals, ideas — and your personal success in deploying those ideas — are the result of a community.

If someone is willing to help you, remember you owe them. Write a thank-you note, take them out for coffee or a drink at a conference, or just generally show that you appreciate their help. Also, never pass along an application someone has shared with you without permission. They agreed to share it with you, not the entire applicant pool.

Grant and fellowship writing is not an exercise in creativity. Grant and fellowship writing in sociology is different from composing papers. Papers can be somewhat meandering because of their standard format. For grants, the punch line needs to hit the reviewer within the first few sentences. They need to know the purpose of the proposed research, the theoretical tradition from which you are drawing and a little about what you expect to find. If you have been fortunate enough to get successful examples of the particular grant or fellowship for which you are applying, make sure you look over them and mirror their outlines.

Tailoring your work to the call. This is a tricky one. Foundations and federal grant agencies issue calls because they are looking for specific niches, have political leanings or are chartered to further research in particular areas. You should never do violence to your own research interests and commitments to land a grant. However, you should look at calls for applications with the widest possible lens when it comes to applicability to your work. This isn’t just pragmatic; it is also an exercise in intellectual growth, as it forces you to think about your work in the widest possible context.

Reusing your work. Writing a funding proposal is ideally the first step one makes on a new project. Agency deadlines can help to force you to write your ideas down. These drafts are then recycled, becoming the first draft of research papers. One of the most useful things that a trusted and brilliant adviser in grad school told me was, “Everything you write has to count for more than one thing.” You should never use a piece of writing that you have spent a considerable amount of time or thought on for just one class or conference. The same is true for fellowship and grant writing. Revise your applications according to the call, but if you had a successful application in a prior round, it indicates that you’ve hit the sweet spot. Use that as the template to apply to subsequent grants and fellowships. It is also a good indication that your proposed research is a potential contribution to the discipline, as the reviewers were likely drawn from a pool of experts in your area. Getting this feedback at an early stage can be extremely useful for shaping your subsequent projects.

Victor Ray On “The Racialization Of Academic Funding”

victor-rayNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. You can follow him on Twitter at @victorerikray.


This essay is the first of two in which I will provide advice on getting research funding in graduate school. Here, I outline how disparities in graduate funding are deeply racialized and how that connects to racial issues in higher education more generally.

Let’s first take a brief look at the history of higher education in the United States. American colleges and universities were founded as white organizations. Part of their intellectual mission was to further the ideology and material practices of white supremacy. Profits from slavery, the exclusion of people of color and complicity in scientific racism were much more than unfortunate footnotes to an otherwise noble system.

As Craig Steven Wilder shows in the remarkable Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, higher education in the United States was founded on racial exclusion and explicitly designed to further white privilege. The life of the mind was underwritten by the cut of the whip. Although the civil rights movement and tepid diversity programming have reconfigured the racial relations central to higher education, they have by no means erased them. Colleges and universities attempt to project the illusion of a level playing field, yet racial disparities in funding, admittance and graduation rates remain deeply unequal.

Research funding is a racial issue in ways both easily apparent and occasionally hidden. Race shapes funding most obviously through the fact that the bulk of institutional resources remain firmly in white hands. Racial stratification is a defining feature of higher education at all levels of the hierarchy. For example, despite hand-wringing over supposedly “reverse racist” policies, whites are overrepresented relative to their proportion of the population when it comes to scholarships.

According to recent research by Louise Seamster and Raphaël Charron-Chénier, black students graduate with higher debt burdens. This bias extends to national funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health. After accounting for a host of factors that influence funding decisions — essentially, to statistically compare equally qualified white candidates and candidates of color — researchers found that black scholars were still 10 percent less likely than white scholars to receive NIH research funding. Such funding inequalities can make it less likely for students of color to be able to support their schooling and research, furthering racial inequity in higher education more generally.

Wider social factors also influence the ability of people of color to self-fund their education. As William Darity Jr., Darrick Hamilton and their colleagues have shown, deep racial differences in family wealth persist. Black and Latino families have fallen farther behind since the Great Recession, such that the “median black family has $7,113 in wealth, while the median white family has $111,740 in wealth.” The numbers are similarly stark for Latina/os. Those disparities are directly traceable to racist social policies like redlining, subprime lending and educational segregation, and they may make self-funding more difficult for nonwhite students.

Historical inequalities that can influence research opportunities and educational trajectories do not always show up in obvious ways. For instance, most legacy admittances can easily be construed as white racial preferences, given that many colleges and universities were only integrated in the 1960s. Similarly, the bias in so-called aptitude tests — which are excellent measures of inherited wealth — create the illusion of meritocracy while legitimizing educational inequality. Those historical inequalities influence current research realities. For instance, a dustup at New York University, in which the director of graduate admissions told a black student that perhaps he should rethink his application if he could not afford the fee, is a particularly blatant example of this racialized dynamic.

Because people of color are more likely to come from families without an ample and reliable store of wealth, they may not have the economic resources needed to support some basics of research. In my own discipline (sociology), necessary tools of the trade — such as laptops, digital tape recorders, data analysis software and money for transcription — may be unaffordable. A lack of funds for this basic equipment can put you behind your peers. And, psychologically, the very real sense of shame that comes from lacking resources in a society that measures your worth by your wealth can also constrain productivity. As a critical sociologist interested in racial inequality, I see how unequal funding holds implications for who gets to tell the stories of people of color.

Racial inequalities have real implications for conducting research. Sociologists have long argued that early disparities in funding create a Matthew effect that advantages scholars over the course of their careers. Based on the scripture “to them that has, more shall be given,” sociologist Robert K. Merton observed that scholars who found early success in securing funding were likely to have higher career productivity. Early funding provides vital resources — research assistants, course releases, money for travel — that scholars can use to extend their advantages. Those resources are then turned into the capital of academe: visibility, publications and access to social networks. Like compound interest, the productivity of scholars who achieve funding early in their careers is boosted, and that early advantage opens up subsequent opportunities. Racial disparities in funding thus create a cycle of cumulative disadvantage.

Beyond these reasons, the ability to acquire funding is becoming more important on the job market. Increasingly, departments in the social sciences are looking to hire scholars with a proven record of acquiring funding. Given the well-substantiated racial differences in rates of funding, this is yet another hurdle that scholars of color face — one that sets many of us behind.

Although personal action can never serve as a full substitute for institutional change, some strategies may make receiving funding more likely. In my next essay, I will offer practical advice on how students of color can increase their chances of getting funded and why they should apply for everything.

The Unbearable Whiteness Of Mesearch

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

victor-rayI recently heard of a patronizing slander directed against scholars of color. Research that examines discrimination, racism or simply focuses on communities of color has been dismissed as “me studies” or “mesearch.”

The claim is that we are provincial, our problems are particular and we are stuck navel-gazing at nonuniversal issues. The neologism has roots in deeply held ideas about the inability of people of color to study their communities objectively. That is especially the case if the scholarship locates the problems of nonwhite communities in discrimination or racism as opposed to alleged cultural deficiencies.

Calling the research of nonwhites mesearch locates scholars of color as academic special interest groups that get in the way of the real, rigorous work performed by unnamed white academics. Mesearch, as epithet, simultaneously highlights people of color as incapable of objectivity while certifying the objectivity of the speaker.

My colleagues Phillip Ayoub and Deondra Rose have defended the utility and necessity of scholars of color studying their own groups. I thank them for this and regret that we work in an environment where such types of interventions remain necessary. (And if the comments on their article are any indication, we still need these interventions.) My concern is related to theirs yet distinct.

White scholars do mesearch all the time. In many disciplines, that is simply called the canon. Claiming that mesearch is a particular issue for scholars of color demonstrates a profound lack of self-awareness on the part of researchers in the social sciences and humanities. As scholars of whiteness such as Amanda Lewis have more than amply shown, whiteness maintains its power partially through its relative invisibility. White norms and culture are projected as universal standards, but it’s only whites’ socially dominant position that allows this work to be considered universal. Relations of dominance are built into what we think of as legitimate topics of study.

Take, for instance, psychology. Many people have criticized the discipline for drawing heavily from nonrepresentative college-age populations that are overwhelmingly European American. People of color tend to be such a small proportion of the sample that researchers have routinely dropped them from analyses. Yet, when such findings are presented, they are not usually discussed as the psychological dispositions of a dominant racial group — rather they are projected as general, universal psychological processes.

Or take the discipline of philosophy. As my undergrad philosophy professor Brian Van Norden and his colleague recently pointed out in The New York Times, in America, the discipline of philosophy has a deep Eurocentric bias. They argue that we should highlight this white bias by renaming the departments “European and American Philosophy” or “Anglo-European Philosophical Studies.” Such euphemisms sound slightly less abrasive than “White Philosophical Mesearch.” Of course, philosophers of color such as Charles Mills have been pointing out the bias in the discipline for years, showing that it impoverishes and distorts our basic understanding of the contemporary world.

These are important areas of study. I have taken courses in psychology and philosophy, and they have enriched my thinking and my life. The problem arises when people claim that they are a universal representation of the human condition. These areas of study are no more universal than African or ethnic studies programs. In fact, outsiders often criticize academe for studying topics that they may see as trivial, irrelevant or too specialized for “real world” application.

Some right-wing federal and state legislators regularly lampoon and deride research they don’t understand. We academics, as a group, usually rally to the defense of colleagues whose work is attacked as trivial. A core belief of liberal arts education is that insights can often arise from arcane knowledge or unpredictable connections between disciplines. Thus, scholars who claim that people of color are especially prone to conducting mesearch undermine a central principle of scholarship. That is, scholars have the autonomy and expertise to pursue questions they find interesting and relevant.

Ultimately, the relative invisibility of white normativity creates the illusion that white subject matter is universal and universally interesting. Ironically, scholars who locate the genesis of mesearch in the work of people of color would do well to adopt a technique forwarded by black feminists: reflexivity. As Patricia Hill Collins argues, all researchers, regardless of background, should be aware of and open about how their social position or personal biography might influence their assumptions.

Reflections On Nominal Diversity In Academia By Victor Ray

victor rayVictor 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.

Diversity Matters

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.