A Time for Arrogance

“No. 1 in your life’s blueprint should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth and your own somebody-ness.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

This time last year, I was spreading my wings in the big, bad world: I was a clinical psychology graduate student on the market for a tenure-track faculty job at a major research university who still believed in fairness in academe. Once interviews were over one month later, I was glued to the Psychology Job Wiki, praying for daylight to come so my job-search nightmare would end.

Since long before entering the job market last year, I have struggled with my own somebody-ness while perplexingly being accused of arrogance. Being acutely aware of my shyness and personal insecurity, I felt as if I have worn the scarlet letter — for Arrogant. But in reflecting on my experiences on the job market last year, I’ve recognized the value of fostering quiet arrogance as a woman of color within a system that would rather I didn’t exist.

It is with this newly adopted arrogance that I recount my experiences on the job market to highlight systemic discrimination in academic job searches. In exposing my naïveté and wounds, I have hope for our collective sanity as scholars who continue to be marginalized.

Job Market Expectations and Realities

As a black woman who developed cultural betrayal trauma theory — a framework that implicates societal inequality in the outcomes of violence within minority groups — I expected to experience discrimination before I received campus invitations. Mindlessly assuming my application dossier would eliminate me from consideration in departments that devalue the work of women of color, I looked forward to in-person interviews free of discrimination.

And although the job market was painful, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the many positive experiences I had in this process. In the first round of applications, I received six phone or video interviews for faculty positions and three on-campus visits. At various points throughout the interview process, I was shocked by the level of respect I was shown from senior and high-status faculty, junior faculty and graduate students, both of color and white. The professional connections I made at multiple departments have resulted in a growing network of collegial support and respect.

Yet alongside those positive experiences, I also experienced discriminatory behavior throughout campus visits. The first was when a white male faculty member told me that I had explained my own theory on cultural betrayal trauma incorrectly. Next, a senior white female faculty member described cultural betrayal trauma theory to me as my “ideas” with air quotes and expressed her concern that my work was not scientific enough for that top-ranked department. Finally, while I was explaining how cultural betrayal can occur in rapes perpetrated by black men against black women, a white male faculty member interrupted me to suggest that being raped by a black man is simply worse for any woman, black or white.

Perhaps because I had expected kinship from minority faculty, my most painful interaction came from a high-ranking male faculty member of color. In probably a genuine attempt to help me, he expressed concern that publishing my researchfindings for the general public would undermine my academic credibility. Painting a one-dimensional picture of university life, he suggested that academe might not be for me. Having not expected such comments from a faculty member of color, I felt a profound cultural betrayal. Even though I can sympathize with the compromises he has had to make as an elder in the field, to this day, I have yet to forgive him. Yet to heal.

Those experiences were exclamation points amid an ongoing barrage of condescension. I remember leaving interviews, thinking, “Am I stupid? They’re talking to me like I’m a complete idiot.” I checked in with my white colleague allies who told me they were sure everything was going fine: You’re qualified! Your CV speaks volumes, and you explain your work so well!

What I Learned

It was not until the interviews were over, with no job offers, that I reached out to faculty of color. I was validated: they told that I wasn’t crazy (well, except for assuming that I wouldn’t experience discrimination while interviewing –that was a little crazy). I was reminded of things I already knew but had somehow forgotten: the ubiquity of antiblack microaggressions; critical race theory, which centralizes the experiences of people of color (not their supportive white colleague allies); and the vast literature detailing the toll of perceived discrimination.

Facing impending unemployment in a field I had spent 10 years preparing for, I went through my second wave of applications. I received two job offers, ultimately accepting my current position as a fellow in the Postdoctoral to Faculty Transition Program at Wayne State University, with placement at the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute.

The campus visit was unlike most of the others. I was not subjected to any open discrimination. I was spoken to respectfully, with my expertise valued. This interview resulted in a speedy job offer, with a negotiated, stellar start-up package. With one semester done, I feel I am working in a nontoxic environment — a rare academic feat I was unsure was possible after my experiences last year.

Returning to My Arrogance

I do not envy those academics currently on the job market. Nevertheless, the threat of attacks on marginalized scholars is ever looming. Therefore, at a time when so many of us are being explicitly and implicitly devalued — as humans, souls and scholars — I hold my arrogance close to my heart. Instead of waiting for them to please just notice my value, I know who I am and what I have to offer. With my diplomas and awards strewn across my office, I make the decision to not feel ashamed for being good at what I do, while continuing to possess the rebellious perseverance that I hope will carry me for a career to come.

Will you join me?

Bio

Photo of Jennifer M. Gómez

Jennifer M. Gómez is a postdoctoral fellow in the Wayne State University Postdoctoral to Faculty Transition Program at Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute. She developed cultural betrayal trauma theory to examine outcomes of violence in minority populations.

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Jennifer M. Gómez

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.

Bio

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.

Black Motherhood in Academe

“If we had known you were pregnant, we might not have let you into this program — and we would have made a mistake.”

“This is your first child? Maybe you should drop this class. Statistics is a challenging course, and when I had my first child …”

“Your second child? Congratulations! That’s enough now. Two is enough.”

Such comments made it clear to me that academic spaces have firm expectations that career and motherhood are separate. I couldn’t help but also wonder how my race and gender shaped the narrative that people wrote about my choices.

The social ownership of black women’s wombs is not new. Scholars like Dorothy Roberts, a professor of Africana studies, law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, argue that black women’s mothering has been denied and regulated for centuries — from slave owners’ economic stake in black women’s fertility to the social politics of excluding black women from any dialogue about reproductive rights. Everyone has an opinion on how to control black motherhood, leaving us conflicted and stressed in workplaces across the United States. In academe, the alleged home of intellect and forward thinking, I was wrong to expect more.

As a medical sociologist, I am hyperaware of the health problems facing black mothers. Contemporary statistics on the mortality rates of black mothers and their infants are startling. Black women are two to three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, and black mothers are more likely to have preterm deliveries than white women.

Sociologists admit it is typically difficult to disentangle the effects of race and socioeconomic status on a given social problem. But when it comes to motherhood, it is clear that unequal outcomes are driven by race.

For example, research suggests that increased income and education are associated with lower rates of preterm births for white women but not for black women, and that infants born to low-income white mothers have better outcomes than those born to high-income black mothers. And it’s more than just differential access to community resources, as the data also show that high-income black mothers living in white neighborhoods are actually more likely to have low-birth-weight babies than high-income white mothers in white neighborhoods and low-income black mothers in black neighborhoods. The stress of racism, then, has an impact on black mothers that affects their health and that of their unborn children.

When I started graduate school, I felt prepared for the stressors many black women attending predominantly white institutions face, and I was not naïve about how challenging this experience would be. Graduate school is a time of heightened precarity, intellectual insecurity and stress. Black students may be more likely than white students to deal with complex family and personal situations during their graduate career, and they are also less likely to receive adequate mentorship.

Although I certainly dealt with the challenges of being a first-generation Ph.D. student, I had mentors who set the bar high yet created space for my academic babies when I chose to start my family during graduate school. One reason I made this choice is the widespread perception among academic women that graduate school is the best time to have children. If that is true, then academe needs a lot more work.

One week after having my first child by C-section, I was sitting on my living room floor doing a statistics problem set with the help of two colleagues: one studying with me, while the other held my newborn. Just two weeks after the surgery, I was back in classes — theory, methods and statistics. It was physically and emotionally painful, but unfortunately, if I wanted to be taken seriously as an aspiring academic, I felt it was my only choice. At that point, I understood two things about my academic path: racialized motherhood comes with certain expectations, and mainstream organizations were not built for mothers.

The university’s maternity leave policy was not useful for a first-year graduate student. At the time, I could have taken up to six weeks — which is half the semester. I’m still not sure how someone can take half a class, so if I had used this leave, I don’t know how I would have made up six weeks of missed course work. And since first-year courses are consecutive and sequential (for example, Research Methods is a yearlong course with a fall and spring component), I might have had to defer my first year and start graduate school with a different cohort.

Moreover, looming in the background of my decisions was the reality that mothers face social sanctions in the workplace because of the perception that they are less competent than women without children — even though there is no clear evidence supporting this perception. This institutionalized maternity leave policy was, in practice, impossible to use, and the knowledge that informal sanctions from peers and colleagues are harsher for mothers made me push harder.

Black mothers must be superwomen to be taken seriously as scholars and professionals. The stress of racism and the pressures of academe mean that mothers are constantly forced to prove their commitment to research and ability to do the work. But that kind of active coping — working harder to compensate for the strain of discrimination — can be harmful. In his research on John Henryism, Sherman James, a professor emeritus of public policy at Duke University and an expert in racial and ethnic disparities in health care, shows that active coping in the face of psychosocial stressors leads to poor health outcomes. Yet my research agenda led me to move to the Dominican Republic, family in tow, for 10 months so I could complete dissertation fieldwork. I was (and remain) committed to academic research, but what is the price for proving we belong in a place that was not created for us?

For the black mothers in academe who are working hard and wiping noses, I’d like to share a few things that I learned along the way. First, reject the superwoman label. It presumes we can do it alone without self-care. I have a supportive partner, friends and family, tough and compassionate mentors, and a university policy that subsidized some of the cost of child care during graduate school. I am impressive, but I am not superwoman, and I did not do it alone.

Second, be a hustler. Because of motherhood, I cannot always participate in informal gatherings leading to professional collaborations. Because of race and gender, perhaps, I may not be invited. So I reach out to colleagues one on one and, together, we can set the personal and professional terms of engagement.

Next, be attuned to your own needs (mentorship, writing groups, sleep, yoga …) and prioritize plans to get those needs met.

Finally, check out Dean Ashby’s suggestions for overcoming impostor syndrome.

You’ve got this.

Bio

Photo of Trenita B. Childers

Trenita B. Childers is postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research examines social causes and consequences of racial health disparities. Her commentary has also appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer, and you can follow her on Twitter at @trenitac.

A checklist to determine if you are supporting white supremacy

For faculty of color, women and particularly those scholars who are outspoken about dismantling the master narratives of white supremacy within our colleges and universities, playing by the rules is neither an option nor an obligation. It is, in fact, a terrible burden. A burden to allow an oppressive system breathing down our necks, while we continue to work within institutions that treat us as mere bodies representing “diversity” or what Patti Duncan has called “Hot Commodities, Cheap Labor: Women of Color in the Academy.”

My own cathartic moment arrived when I was able to write about my experience and those of other postcolonial scholars in my book, The Postcolonial Citizen: The Intellectual Migrant, in a chapter titled “Threatening Bodies, Dangerous Knowledge, Legal Interventions.” It was 2001. The problem of exclusions and a lack of “due process” experienced by various postcolonial scholars were widespread.

After many years and many battles, and after much thought, I have created a list of qualities and attributes of those that overtly or covertly support or contribute to a culture of mundane and everyday white supremacy within our institutions. Such mundane acts manifest themselves in who is hired, who is tenured and promoted, whose scholarship is (de)valued, who receives the campus awards for teaching and service, whose voice is heard, whose ideas are policed, who is tone policed, and who is called out as not being “civil” — a coded word for speaking against the status quo of white privilege.

Participating in acts that enable white supremacist structures to exist obstructs the social justice and antiracist work that many of us are trained to do within the academy. We are marked as troublemakers when in truth we are trouble identifiers.

Here then is a list of 15 “troubles” that I have identified to help others in academe recognize your (un)conscious contributions to white supremacy.

  1. You work in a position of power in a predominantly white institution, and while you claim to be working for social justice, you do nothing to change the white supremacist power structures within your departments, committees and institutional decision-making process.
  2. When your colleagues who are marginalized complain to you about their “oppressive” work conditions, you think that they are difficult.
  3. When your colleagues and students claim that they experienced microaggressions, your response is “I am so sorry. This is unbelievable!”
  4. When you are asked to nominate your students and faculty colleagues for awards or leadership positions, your first instinct is to nominate those that are “stellar” (mostly men) and obviously “white.” It doesn’t occur to you that you are implicitly supporting a logic of meritocracy that is built on this racist assumption that everyone has had the same access and opportunities.
  5. When it comes to understanding your own white privilege, you get very angry if a faculty member of color points out to you where and how your privilege is operating. You deem such critiques as “uncivil” and as not supporting a collegial environment.
  6. You are aware of the many wrongs that you see your institution is doing to your marginal faculty and students, and while you sympathize with people of color and marginal students and faculty members behind your closed door, you never openly confront your institution.
  7. When a professor of color stands up in your faculty meetings and expresses their frustrations about inequity, you go to your trusted colleagues (the next day) and ask, “Why is s/he or them always so angry?”
  8. When you are on a hiring committee, you think that the writing samples by your white candidates of choice are stellar, while what is “stellar” about the candidates of color is, of course, their ethnicity.
  9. You never fail to articulate publicly your commitment for increasing diversity within your institution, but when on a hiring committee you express your strong hesitance to let go of your stellar candidate in exchange for a candidate who you perceive as only adding to your institution’s diversity mission.
  10. When people of color (faculty members and students) complain to you about discrimination and racism, you actively discourage them to report their cases, and often try to convince them that “it must be a misunderstanding.”
  11. You think of yourself as an ally to your faculty of color colleagues, but cannot understand why your white students are so upset when professors of color teach and critique sites of white privilege.
  12. In your institutional reviews for tenure and promotion cases, you advise and critique your faculty of color colleagues to be more sensitive and mindful in respecting the viewpoint of our students. By “our students” you really mean “our white students.”
  13. You benefit so much from the system that you have decided to stay out of all of this “identity politics.”
  14. You have never thought of yourself as an ally to any of the causes of faculty of color and you never have any time to go to any events that they and other marginal folks have organized (where they express their everyday struggles). But you will happily go to an event if Ta-Nehisi Coates is speaking in town.
  15. Claudia Rankine, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire and Teju Cole’s “The White-Savior Industrial Complex” — all rub you the wrong way.

If you have made it to this point, you are probably feeling quite hypervisible or fragile and have decided to have some hot chamomile tea from a cup that reads “White Tears” or “Black Lives Matter.”

Bio

Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt is a professor of English and also co-coordinates the gender studies program at Linfield College in Oregon. She is the author of The Postcolonial Citizen: The Intellectual Migrant. Her most recent pieces of public writing are “On Being the Right Kind of Brown” and “When Free Speech Dismantles Diversity Initiatives,” both published in CounterPunch. She also has a blog called On Being Brown and Out/Raged.

Classrooms Must Be A Frontline In The Fight Against White Supremacy

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Nicole Truesdell is the senior director of the office of academic diversity and inclusiveness, and affiliated faculty in critical identity studies at Beloit College. Her general interests are in radical pedagogy, academic hustling and social justice. Her research focuses on the intersections of race, racism, gender, class, citizenship and the modern nation-state, higher ed, and radical black thought in the US and the UK. Her latest co-authored article, “The Role of Combahee in Anti-Diversity Work,” is forthcoming in Souls.

Recent events in Charlottesville, Va., and Shelbyville, Tenn., show us the modern face of American white supremacy. Rather than marching under sheets or lurking in the backwoods, today’s white supremacists stand proud in their tan khakis and white polos with tiki torches in hand. No longer are sheets needed to masks their faces as white men and women boldly shouted racist chants like “blood and soil.”

Instead, we see a disturbing trend emerging in larger society to label this speech and action as opinion-based ideology with no social, political or economic ramifications. While some people will look to the current U.S. president as the source of this normalization, his administration is not the only location to push “both sides” rhetoric. Instead, we can also look to colleges and universities as sites that help both disseminate and normalize racist hate speech.

Alt-right/white supremacist speakers and organizations are choosing to use and abuse colleges and universities as locations at which to speak and recruit. Speakers like Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter spew their hate-filled opinions from college lecture halls, relying on academic free speech as their alibi of legitimacy in these locations.

Colleges and universities that allow these speakers on their campuses say they are committed to upholding “free speech” rhetoric, no matter its consequences to the students, faculty and staff members who live and work in these places. “We welcome a diversity of opinions” tends to be a favorite tagline of places that invite these controversial speakers to come and set up shop, signaling a welcome to (and normalizing of) hate speech. Yet when those who are committed to antiracism, antioppression theory and practice — such as Lisa Durden, Johnny Eric Williams or Tommy Curry — use these same locations to push back against this toxic rhetoric, they are met with death threats, job loss and/or lack of support from those same institutions.

Why are colleges and universities prime and targeted sites for white supremacist speakers and their allies? Because it is in these locations where administrators saw diversity as a problem and not, as Christina Berchini says, “the symptom” of the ways white supremacy is embedded in the structure of higher education. Students across the country organized and began to protest and create sets of demands on the various ways they saw this inequity within their colleges and universities. In response, college administrators and boards of trustees have created “diversity and inclusion” strategic plans and initiatives to placate student demands. Many of those plans have not focused on structural changes but instead have relied on Band-Aid approaches that give just enough to student demands while never addressing the racist structural barriers that created the issues to begin with. In the process, many colleges and universities are now invoking “academic freedom” and “dialogue” as a way to “speak and hear” across difference in order to stop “divisive” rhetoric from taking hold.

Yet the implementation of such initiatives seems one-sided, and, instead of making space for students, faculty and staff members at the margins, they have ended up further marginalizing the demographic groups that demanded change in the first place. Instead of moving institutions forward, both diversity/inclusion initiatives alongside pleas to have more neutral stances inside and outside the classroom focus more on making majority students (namely, white students) comfortable at the expense of those who took the risk to protest injustice in the first place (usually black, brown, queer and trans students who sit at multiple intersections) because they sit in institutions that were not made for them. In this process, structures of oppression are never interrogated and instead everything is rendered “opinions” that can be “debated.” This process of deflection has helped normalize (and even welcome) hate speech on campuses, making them prime locations for white supremacists to target.

Many people call for an end to politics in the classroom, as this is seen as the source of the problem. Rather than address systemic and structural oppression and discrimination, faculty are being asked to take “neutral” stances and just teach our disciplines, leaving politics to social media and in-person conversation. Yet for many scholars, this is our work. Many of us are trained to see and then speak on institutional and structural systems of oppression. I have been trained specifically to see and call out institutional racism through an intersectional lens. If we are being told to just do our job, then we are. So the real question becomes, is society ready to accept the true point of an education, which is to develop a group of critically thinking, conscious citizens? Is higher education ready and capable of taking on this work?

That is the true point of education, what James Baldwin meant when he said in 1963, “The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” As educators, it is our job to teach students how to think critically so that they can engage with larger social issues. That is not confined to just the social sciences, but has an impact on all academic disciplines and departments. Yet as Baldwin also said, society is not always that anxious to have a mass of critically thinking and engaged people, because “what societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.” That is why education matters more so now than ever as a location that should be unapologetically committed to developing students to become true critically engaged thinkers who learn how to apply those knowledges, methodologies and skills to locations outside spaces like this.

It is on college and university campuses, and within our classrooms and through our programming, where resistance to this encroaching normalized white supremacist ideology must be challenged. Now is not the time to side with neutrality. In my office, we have taken up this challenge head-on through our programming and work with students. This academic year our #GetWoke series is focused on Organizing and Activism During 45. We created an open-source syllabus to accompany the panels we host around this theme, using both music and accessible reading pieces to guide and contextualize each of our panels.

Our goal is to have the campus and community understand what organizing and activism are, why individuals and groups participate in these practices, and what possibilities there are or can be when we engage in other ways of knowing and being. In doing so, we hope conversations and actions move away from partisanship and into understandings of what we want humanity to be. What humanity should be.

Power-Conscious Approaches To Campus Sexual Violence Prevention

Harris & Linder

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Chris Linder (@proflinder) is an associate professor of college student affairs administration at the University of Georgia. Dr. Jessica C. Harris (@DrJessicaHarris) is an assistant professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California, Los Angeles. Be sure to see their first blog post on challenging taken-for-granted assumptions in research on sexual violence.

Feminists have long advocated that sexual violence is more about power than about sex, yet few people understand what this means. Further, when mainstream feminist movements (i.e., white, middle-class, educated, cisgender women) highlight that power is integral to understanding sexual violence, that usually (re)centers power connected with only sexist oppression. While misogyny, patriarchy and sexism contribute to sexual violence, we argue that the root of sexual violence is deeper than the sum of these sexist systems.

The root cause of sexual violence is oppression, in all of its manifestations, including racism, cissexism, heterosexism, ableism and sexism. Oppression results from people abusing power or lacking consciousness about how power influences their own and others’ experiences. For these reasons, we advocate a power-conscious approach to addressing sexual violence.

What does “power conscious” mean? Simply put, it means paying attention to power dynamics at work in individual, institutional and cultural systems of oppression. Developing power consciousness means that we ask:

  • Who is missing in this discussion? Who is centered? Why? (See our previous essay for a fuller discussion on this.)
  • Who has the power — both formal and informal — in this system?
  • How do social identities influence who is heard and who is ignored and silenced?
  • Who benefits from this system? Who does not?

For example, how do social identities influence people’s experiences in the criminal justice system? The cases of Cory Batey and Brock Turner illustrate how racism and classism show up in sentencing processes. Cory Batey was a black football player at Vanderbilt University; Brock Turner was a white swimmer at Stanford University. Both men were convicted of committing sexual violence. Batey was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and Turner was sentenced to six months in jail. Although state law and specific contexts make up for some of the discrepancy in sentencing, they cannot account for the drastic differences in the sentencing in these cases.

How does that relate to our campuses?

College campuses are mostly made up of the same people who make up our larger communities, so racism and classism are showing up in our campus accountability systems, as well. Campus police, campus judicial systems and even victim advocacy services are not immune from failing to consider the ways people from historically minoritized communities may not experience campus systems the same as students with mostly dominant identities.

So, what do we do? Below, we offer three specific recommendations for approaching sexual violence from a power-conscious perspective.

Learn the history of rape and racism. Ahistoricism, or failing to understand or account for the history and context of an issue or topic, leads to incomplete and ineffective strategies for dealing with sexual violence. For example, sexual violence law is fundamentally racialized.

Early sexual violence laws in America were rooted in property law. White men were the only people who could file charges of rape, as rape was considered a property crime — something that reduced the value of a man’s daughter, essentially his “property.” Additionally, in the time period after the Civil War, white men falsely accused black men as perpetrators of sexual violence directed toward white women to maintain white men’s power and dominance.

More recent sexual violence laws, specifically, the Violence Against Women Act, emerged during the “tough on crime” era of the 1980s and ’90s, which was also highly racialized. People in that era sought to address drug abuse, but drug laws and enforcement focused primarily on poor communities and communities of color, contributing to the continuation of portraying men of color as criminals.

Given the racialized history of sexual violence law and the current context of racism in legal and policy systems, administrators and educators on college campuses should consider community accountability processes as an option for addressing sexual violence. Community accountability, as described by the INCITE! women of color against violence collective, means that communities stop relying on systems that perpetuate violence toward them and start relying on each other to hold perpetrators of violence accountable and work to transform perpetrator behavior. Community accountability is not appropriate in all cases and must be carefully implemented under the leadership of people with a significant understanding of it (specifically, women of color, who created it).

Further, in cases where campus adjudication systems are used, people involved in those systems must be educated about the role of oppression in legal and policy response, as well as the history of the intersections of oppression and sexual violence. A deeper understanding of history may lead to more equitable outcomes in campus adjudication systems.

Employ an intersectional, identity-conscious perspective. Foundational intersectionality scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw provides a number of examples to illustrate centering women of color and poor women in interpersonal-violence work. Crenshaw helps us understand that, by centering the most marginalized people in efforts to address interpersonal violence, no one is left out. When white, cisgender, heterosexual women at elite institutions of higher education are centered in sexual violence work (as they are now), they are the only ones to benefit. However, when marginalized populations are at the center of antioppression work, strategies are more comprehensive, resulting in more effectively dealing with interpersonal violence.

That being said, incorporating intersectionality into student affairs practice does not mean that every program has to be for every student. There is no such thing as an “all-inclusive” program. In fact, this is dangerously close to the concept of “color blindness,” or the notion that one does not “see” color when discussing race. In addition to the ableist nature of the term “color blindness,” using an “identity-neutral” approach to any issue effectively (re)centers people with dominant identities, who are treated as the norm or default.

Related to campus sexual violence, seemingly identity-neutral approaches effectively make the experiences of any victim who is not a white, cisgender, heterosexual woman invisible. Designing programs that specifically center the experiences of men survivors, trans and queer survivors, survivors of color, and survivors with disabilities (re)centers their experiences in the conversation. Doing so will result in better-informed providers and more empowered survivors. This also frees up space to develop programs specifically for white, cis, hetero women, whose experiences are distinct in and of their own — just not the only experiences, as currently portrayed.

Focus on perpetrators. We are working on a research project examining the ways sexual violence is portrayed in campus newspapers. An initial review of the data reveals that perpetrators are invisible in most articles about sexual violence. Language used throughout newspaper articles often implies that sexual violence just “happens,” as though there is no actor or explanation for it.

By making perpetrators invisible, we ignore important power dynamics at play. Perpetrators — not alcohol, not being at the wrong place at the wrong time, not miscommunication — are solely responsible for sexual violence. Failing to acknowledge this ignores the power that perpetrators wield, placing responsibility for ending sexual violence on the wrong people: potential victims, bystanders and advocates.

Campus administrators and educators should work to ensure that perpetrators are made more visible in discussions of sexual violence prevention. For example, rather than only focusing on teaching potential victims how to avoid being assaulted, we should spend more resources teaching people not to rape. Focusing on perpetrators as the cause of sexual violence may contribute to increased community accountability for their actions. People will begin to see the perpetrator — not alcohol or miscommunication — as the key problem.

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.