Advice For Minority Scholars On “Unfriending Friends”

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Dr. Manya Whitaker (@IvyLeagueLady) is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College. She is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted.

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Manya WhitakerI, like many other fresh-out-of-grad school professors of color, entered academe with the naïve idea that other people of color on college campuses would be natural allies and perhaps even friends. I’m aware of the statistics and know that I am among a privileged few who have the fortune to land a tenure-track position. I also know that the presence of diverse bodies does not negate the presence of racism. If anything, racism is more prevalent in a space where the majority has become so used to being the only that they have never had to think about how their words, body language, values or even methods of intellectual inquiry can be derivative of white supremacy. Of full-time professors, the 16 percent who are of color bear the burden of educating not only the students but also their colleagues about systemic inequities.

For those reasons it is incredibly important that faculty and staff members of color find allies. At the most basic level, we need the numbers. We need the numbers to recruit more people of color. We need the numbers so that when issues of diversity emerge, more than 12 voices will be arguing on behalf of all marginalized and underrepresented groups. We need the numbers to show our white colleagues that yes, black and brown people can and do earn advanced degrees.

Beyond allyship, it’s important for faculty of color to cultivate friendships because we need the community. We need the emotional support on the days when we’ve had to deal with just one too many microaggressions. We need the ability to talk about things of cultural importance and not have to explain why we can’t just go to any hair salon. We need to be able to wear what we want, relax our shoulders and not monitor our language. We need the space to be ourselves — our individual selves instead of our professional selves.

Yet with that said, not all people of color are interested in getting to know your real self. It took me a while but I’ve figured out how to recognize when someone is not my ally or my friend. I share these insights with you.

You have to accept the truth. It is easy to dismiss ignored emails, absence from social events and even silence during contentious meetings as minor. You can devise reasons why your so-called friends avoid eye contact, arrive late and leave early, and basically do everything in their power to avoid conversation with you. And when they are forced into conversation, you can act as though fake smiles and surface-level banter are simply an attempt to maintain professionalism at work.

But what you can’t dismiss or reason away are when “friends” actively work against you. These actions are not always explicit, but are nonetheless hurtful and impactful. Their silence when they should be speaking with you is indicative of their indifference to issues of importance to you. Their absence when they should be standing beside you speaks to their lack of courage. Most of all, when they consistently find a way to co-opt conversations that are not about them and their problems, they are not interested in building community. Your pain or happiness should not be fodder for their narrative.

It took me so long to identify and interpret such behavioral patterns because I didn’t want to see them. I wanted to believe that people with whom I interact daily were not so egocentric and selfish that they would throw away a relationship with one of the few people who shares their day-to-day lived experiences. I overlooked their consistent disrespect because I might not find other people of color whom I could befriend for a very long time. I ignored the annoyance, hurt and sometimes anger that I felt in response to the ever-increasing negativity they brought into my life for the sake of the larger group, in the name of community. In any other circumstance in which I would have ended a negative or unfruitful relationship with a person, I stuck to it because hey … we all we got.

This has been a mistake. Too often I’ve allowed myself to dwell in relationships with people who do not add to my life. They may not necessarily detract, but they are not pushing me to grow. Being a minority, any kind of minority, in academe is extremely difficult. It took four years for me to realize that I was making it harder on myself by forcing relationships with people whom I am not naturally inclined to befriend, with people who were more interested in using me to reify their worldview than they were in constructing a new worldview.

I have to forgive myself for that. I wanted so badly to build community that I overlooked moments when those with whom I wanted to build were instead tearing me down.

Most impactful were the group hangouts-turned-grief sessions. Complaints dominated our conversations. Complaints about the institution, complaints about the city, complaints about personal lives, complaints about colleagues, ad nauseam. At first I cosigned. I wanted to be supportive and show my understanding of how difficult it is to do the jobs we do in the circumstances in which we do them. I, too, am sick of being The Only. I, too, want to live in a thriving metropolis with an abundance of available singles. I, too, want students to respect what I offer the institution without having to cite my pedigree.

But I also want to be happy. I want to make the best of this opportunity, because it is an opportunity. I am in a tenure-track position at a well-paying institution with amazing benefits. I am given agency to teach the courses I want to teach when I want to teach them, how I want to teach them. I look forward to going to work on Monday. I love chatting with students in my office. I like the challenge of writing grant applications while teaching a new course and finishing a book manuscript. I love my job. I want to be able to love my job without feeling guilty about it.

My “friends” weren’t allowing me that space. I didn’t feel as though I could express my joy at being able to do exactly what I wanted to do in my career. It felt as though my happiness made me a traitor in this politically correct revolutionary world of academe in which I am either with you or against you.

This was unfair.

This was not support or allyship. This was not community. Being in a community doesn’t feel lonely. Being in a community isn’t emotionally taxing. Being in a community does not mean biting your tongue and setting aside your emotional experiences in order to validate those of others.

So I made difficult decisions to end relationships with people whom I once considered friends, and I advise you to do the same. It doesn’t have to be hostile or aggressive. It doesn’t even have to be a thing. When they don’t return emails, stop emailing them. When they don’t show up to events you’ve organized, stop inviting them. When they talk incessantly about themselves, don’t listen. When they dwell on negativity, counteract it with positivity.

Give voice to what you love about yourself and your life. While empathy can affirm that you are not the only one enduring difficult times, trapping pain within a tight circle ensures it is never released. Instead, you need to find ways to release the hurt and begin healing journeys.

And after you’ve stopped investing in undeserving people, find the people who are willing to help you heal — regardless of their identity characteristics. In my experiences, my white colleagues are those most willing to explore self-care strategies in the face of racial battle fatigue. Just because someone looks different than you doesn’t mean they can’t understand your struggle.

But you first have to identify who is helping you overcome your struggle and who is capitalizing from it.

Advice For Faculty On Writing Strong Recommendation Letters

Manya WhitakerNote: This blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Manya Whitaker is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College and a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted. Her areas of expertise include urban education, culturally relevant pedagogy, and developmentally appropriate teaching. She is the founder of Blueprint Educational Strategies, an educational consulting business that provides workshops for teachers and administrators, as well as guidance and advocacy for families.

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A few years ago, I wrote “A Letter to College Students (From All Profs)” in which I provided advice to students about how to ask for letters of recommendation. Interestingly, just as students do not intuitively know how to find letter writers, faculty members, too, seem to lack automatic insight into how to write strong letters on their students’ behalf. In our years of training to become researchers, I doubt many of us are taught to write recommendation letters.

If I may be frank for a moment … letters of recommendation suck! It sucks to read them, and it sucks to write them. Still, almost all institutions, programs and employers require two to four letters for admission, acceptance and employment, and, despite the hassles those letters can sometimes bring, I believe that they should. Recommendation letters are often the deciding factors among candidates. They offer insight into an applicant’s temperament, working style, manageability and potential for professional growth. They are meant to be an opportunity for someone close to the candidate to explicate how and why they should be afforded this new experience instead of the other 200 applicants.

Toward that end, I believe a recommendation-letter writer bears a heavy burden that they do not always treat with respect. I know that some professors allow their students to write their own letters. Some copy and paste large portions of letters they have written before or simply find a template online and fill in the blanks.

I realize that academics are busy and that recommendation letters are an added task to our overloaded schedules. However, the fact of the matter is that letters of recommendation are an integral part of academe’s business model. And we should never forget that at some point, someone wrote a letter on our behalf. A recommendation letter may have been the aspect of our application that tipped the scales in our favor. Writing on behalf of our students is an opportunity to pay it forward.

Here are some general guidelines that I have compiled from my experiences as an anxious applicant reading my many letters of recommendation, as someone on admissions and hiring committees, and now as a full-time professor writing at least a dozen of these letters each year.

  1. Decide whether you can write a good letter for the applicant. Consider your schedule, the nature and quality of your relationship with the applicant, and how well you know them. If you find you cannot think of what you would write in a letter of recommendation, perhaps you should decline. Which brings me to …
  2. It is OK to say no. I encourage faculty members to develop a policy for writing recommendations that includes requirements for academic performance, a time frame or whatever else you need to feel comfortable writing. Make sure your policy is truthful and instituted consistently. If you say you need three weeks to write, do not decline one person because they asked 10 days before the due date but agree to write one for another person who did the same. People talk. You do not want to develop a bad reputation. Remember, students evaluate us, too.
  3. Request as much information as possible before you begin writing. Ask the student to provide material about themselves and the opportunity or program to which they are applying. That includes a résumé or CV, personal statement and essays, answers to application questions, transcripts, and, of course, a description of the institution/program/job to which they are applying. These materials are useful complements to more-personal narratives.
  4. Do some research. If you agree to write the letter and they do not send you the requested material, take three minutes to Google the institution/program/job. I am not suggesting that you do all of the legwork, but information about even the location of the job could help you craft your letter. If that seems like too much work, just revisit the student’s performance in your course and ask colleagues for their input. Some information is better than nothing.
  5. Set aside ample time. A good recommendation letter, like a good paper, is well researched, requires planning and takes revision. If you can write a letter in less than an hour, it may not be your best work. If the letter is only two paragraphs double spaced, you may not be going into enough detail. After all, don’t you expect students to be thoughtful and thorough in their writing? We should do no less for them.
  6. Be specific. This may be the most important piece of advice. Reading vague letters of recommendation filled with generalized claims of awesomeness may be the most annoying part of being on a search committee. Provide specific examples to support your statements. Try to paint a picture so that readers get a true sense of who the applicant is in real life — or at least outside your classes.
  7. Avoid cliché descriptors and platitudes. Words like organized, team worker, creative, passionate and dedicated are found in almost every recommendation letter. Regardless of how accurate these descriptions may be, they come across as shallow when you read the same sentence over and over. Instead, think about skills that would be useful in the potential position and see if the applicant possesses them. If not, identify what they do possess and explicitly state why that particular skill is beneficial.
  8. Organize the letter chronologically or thematically. Have an introduction that identifies the position being applied for, describes the nature and duration of your relationship with the applicant, and previews what you will discuss. Be sure to close with a clear statement of endorsement for acceptance/hire and include contact information for questions. This sounds like a no-brainer, but many recommendation letters are devoid of the basics (which is usually a sign that it is a form letter).
  9. Be honest. Be original. Be genuine. That means not having people write their own letters. It means not writing the same letter for every person. It definitely means not borrowing templates from the internet. Form letters are easily identified and often result in the candidate’s application being set aside. If you do not even want to write a letter of recommendation on their behalf, why would I want to hire them?
  10. Follow through. This student has trusted you with an important task. You accepted, so it is your responsibility to do it well and on time. One late or missing component of an application can render a package incomplete and thus not up for consideration.

That’s it. Writing letters of recommendation is not the most enjoyable or simple task, but it can be ultimately one of the most rewarding. I find it an honorably humbling experience to play a role in helping someone enter the next phase of their life.

Maybe that’s why I’m a teacher.

“Don’t Sell Yourself Short”: On Starting My Own Business

WhitakerDr. Manya Whitaker, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Education at Colorado College. Though her degree is in Developmental Psychology, she teaches courses centered on social and political issues in education such as Diversity and Equity in Education, Education Policy, and Education Reform. Her research focuses on cognitive and social variables affecting the academic achievement of low-income urban students such as perceptions of self, parental involvement, teacher expectations, as well as race and social class.  Dr. Whitaker is also founder of Blueprint Educational Strategies, an educational consulting company that provides trainings and support for urban schools and families. 

In the post below, Dr. Whitaker describes the process of creating her own business, and offers advice for other academics who may consider doing so, as well.

“Don’t Sell Yourself Short”: On Starting My Own Business, by Dr. Manya Whitaker

One of the joys of being a scholar in an applied field like psychology or education is the ability to work on the ground with “real people.” In other words, as an educational developmental psychologist, my work happens to easily skip out of the Ivory Tower. Though I am trained as a developmental psychologist, my research is situated firmly within education. Largely construed, I investigate the sociocontextual factors that affect low-income students’ academic achievement. More simply put, I work with teachers, admin, and families to improve academic outcomes for marginalized students. For many years, this took the form of teacher in-service workshops focused on parental involvement. Because schools serving underrepresented demographics struggle with facilitating meaningful parental participation in children’s schooling, I help them figure out how to access, communicate with, and engage “hard-to-reach” parents.

As an off shoot of that work, I was often asked to hold workshops at small conferences or to sometimes attend open houses and speak to parents. Once word got out that a young Black woman was working with families in urban schools, I received more requests to give keynote addresses, tutor, or come speak to first generation hopefuls at area high schools. I ended up spending so much of my free time doing such things, I had no choice but to cut way back. But, in cutting back I realized how much I missed engaging with people in ways that affect immediate change. There is something special about sitting in a family’s home, at their kitchen table, speaking with the very people who constitute the “subject” of your research. I enjoyed hearing their stories and brainstorming ways to help their children. I liked being an advocate for families who may not have the time, energy, or information to effectively advocate for themselves.

While talking to a good friend who has much more of an entrepreneurial mind than me, it dawned on me that I could start an educational consulting business. Like a good researcher, I did some investigation into what it meant to run a small business. I spoke with my father who has successfully run his own small business for over a decade. I spoke to friends with all kinds of businesses in varying stages of businessdom. While the initial work seemed intense, the service itself was no more work than I’d been doing for free. And as my father always says “don’t sell yourself short”…so I decided not to.

Before I got into the nitty gritty of starting my business, I paused to consider the implications for my full-time career as a tenure track professor. Was this even ethical? Was I violating some implicit agreement between myself and the Academy? Did my knowledge and skills belong solely to the institution and its concomitants? No, surely not. That’s absurd….right?

The fact that I paused to think about this quandary more than once speaks to the ways in which academics are inculcated into academia in a sometimes unhealthy manner. I’m not sure what it is about graduate school that makes one’s intellectual property feel like the property of others. It might be the fact your advisor or committee has so much control over what you actually produce, that it indeed feels as though your words aren’t your own. Or maybe it’s the publish or perish mantra that really means “it is your duty and obligation to publicly share your thoughts for the good of the public.” I find it odd that in other professions, people are paid well for the knowledge and skills they spend years acquiring and refining. But academics are expected to share their assets solely for the glory and grandeur of it? Yes, tenure is a huge benefit that is often directly correlated with the amount and quality of one’s scholarly contributions; however, other professions have this too. They call it a “promotion” or a “raise.”

Getting Started

I decided that I, too, deserved a promotion and a bonus for all the extra work I do to translate my research into practice. I therefore brainstormed company names (of course that was my first task—it was by far the most fun), chose colors, hired an artist to create a logo, and filed my business as an S-corporation with the federal and state government. Then the school year started.

Being realistic, I knew that starting a small business in August was not the best timeline. I knew once school started my efforts would be 100% devoted to a successful first year on the tenure-track. I made plans to reengage with my business in June of the following year, and I did just that. This past June, I conducted market research on types of services, prices, and timelines of most interest to my target demographic. I also asked them about the possibility of utilizing consulting services via social media and other popular forms of technology in lieu of face-to-face interactions. I was surprised to see that most participants in my pseudo-study were more concerned with the price of services than the mechanism through which they would be delivered.

After creating a list of services and running my pricing models by other entrepreneurs in similar fields, I created marketing materials. Besides business cards, I also ordered rack cards, folders with my logo on them, and printed a “menu” of services with accompanying fees. I considered creating a Facebook page, but that didn’t seem like it would be worth my time and effort. If I know anything about education, I know that information spreads through word of mouth, not written materials. To help spread the word about my business, I did two things: the first was becoming an affiliate member with the gym where I am a member. The second was offering a 20% referral bonus. The latter is how I secured clients 2 and 3. I considered advertising my services in the newspapers of the local colleges, but the cost would offset the potential financial gain, so I decided against it.

I’ve been in business a few short months, but so far it’s going well. The academic year started a few weeks ago and I admit that it’s tough coming home from a full-time job to do more work. But it is very much worth it. My clients are extremely appreciative and more than willing to refer me to their family and friends. That’s more than can be said of the outcomes of publishing in academia.

For the professors who think that maybe they too want to start a business, I have a few bits of advice:

  • Be clear in why you want to start a business. Writing a mission statement should be one of the first things you do. I referred to the Small Business Administration for help in creating a business plan, deciding my business structure, and learning about the legalities of owning a business.
  • Research your market. Ask them what services are of interest, how much they would be willing to pay, and any other information necessary to execute your idea.
  • Apply for grants to help fund your business. There are dozens of grants for women and people of color specifically for small business owners.
  • Similarly, make a budget. And make sure your budget includes the taxes you pay on your earnings. This will also help you decide appropriate price points for your services/products.
  • Be realistic in your timeline for development and growth. Starting a business takes a lot of time and thought. Decide if this is the appropriate time in your life to start such an important endeavor. Once you have clients, it is unlikely they will care as much about your tenure clock as you.
  • Start small. Offer your services/products for free or at a reduced cost for a while. Then, have those clients write reviews and help spread the word about your business.
  • Grow slowly. As you gain clients, it will be tempting to hire more people to help you meet the demand; however, remember that like being a professor, owning a business is a learning process. Consider the pros and cons of having employees and/or business partners. Always refer back to your mission statement as your guiding rule.
  • Continue to improve your product. It is not only articles that benefit from a good R&R (revise & resubmit).

To other professors for whom owning a business is not desirable, I encourage you to find other ways to utilize your talents. Perhaps you could write a blog, or better yet, children’s books! Perhaps you can volunteer in community organizations providing services to those who will not get to meet you within the economically discriminatory walls of academia. Or perhaps you can just talk to whomever you please about whatever you please, without the pressure of “perishing” after the conversation. The knowledge is yours to do with what you choose.

“Tick Tock: Love or Learning?” – By Dr. Manya Whitaker

Manya WhitakerDr. Manya Whitaker, an education professor, regularly offers personal reflections, advice, and critiques on her blog, the other classShe has kindly agreed to share the following blog post on tenure, time, and starting a family.  Also, see a related post on her blog, “Single and Fabulous!(?) Unmarried in Academia.”   Be sure to check out Dr. Whitaker’s other awesome guest blog posts at Conditionally Accepted, as well.

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Tick Tock: Love or Learning?

I started my PhD program 1 month after my 21st birthday. I was 2 months shy of my 26th birthday when I got my PhD. I am very young to be a faculty member. I remind myself that if all goes as planned, I will still be of marriageable age when I’m tenured. I don’t have to rush. I have some time. But that’s not true for most (female) PhDs. Our clocks are ticking—biological and tenure.

For those who don’t know, tenure is the goal for any professor. In general, here is the process:

  • Tenure-track assistant professor for 3 years
  • Third year review
  • Semester sabbatical (if you’re fortunate enough to be at a school that gives you this)
  • Another 2.5 years of teaching
  • Submit your tenure file to your committee at the beginning of year 6 (in some schools, this is year 5)
  • Anxiously wait for them to either tell you ‘Congratulations! You have a job for life!orUnfortunately, we are unable to offer you tenure’ which really means: ‘you have a semester to pack your things and find a new job where you will likely have to start your tenure clock over’.

In order to get tenure, schools require their faculty to perform in 3 areas: Teaching, Research, and Service. The weight given to each area differs between schools, but the general rule of thumb is that you need to be excellent in two of them and ‘good’ to ‘very good’ in the third.

I won’t bore you with more of the tenure process, but suffice it to say that at most Research I institutions, you need to publish 5-6 peer reviewed articles in order to get tenure. That’s an article a year (to put in perspective, it generally takes a year to get through the publishing process). At teaching institutions, your teaching evaluations need to average ‘excellent’. That means one ‘average’ course could tank you.

Amidst these high expectations, where do we find time to meet our soul mate?

I’m not sure professors have a good answer for that. Those who do, I welcome your input. Here are the barriers to love I’ve experienced thus far in the Academy:

  • Stress—this was especially true during graduate school. It’s really hard to maintain a relationship when you are emotionally and mentally drained. Who wants to be around someone who is tired, irascible, and just worn down?
  • Time—now that I’m a full time professor trying to cram research, teaching, and service into my days, by the time I get home, I’m exhausted. When I’m asked out on a date, I want to say ‘I only have an hour because I still have papers to grade, a lesson plan to write, emails to respond to, an IRB proposal to submit, and a manuscript revision waiting.’ But I don’t say that. I go out for 2-4 hours and come home even more tired because I’ve used what little energy I had to keep on my ‘date face’ all evening.
  • Intimidation—this is a big one. If one more guy says ‘oh wow! You’re a professor?!?! You must be really smart’, I am going to throw my plate of mediocre food right in his face. I got this so often, I started telling people ‘I’m a teacher’ instead of saying ‘I’m a professor’. This yielded a completely different reaction. All of a sudden, guys were excited and happy to discuss my career choice instead of hastily changing the subject to more comfortable (for them) territory. I only did this twice. I am a professor. I shouldn’t have to alter my profession for the sake of your ego.
  • Paucity of Options—in a previous post on my blog, “Academia is a Lonely Place,” I mentioned how isolating the Academy is. This is especially true if you are young, a woman, or faculty of color (or all three like me). For those who want to date someone in their age range and/or ethnic group, the pickings are slim. For those who don’t mind branching out, it is common that the men are simply not interested in you. In no way am I implying there are prejudice or racist feelings at play; all I’m saying is that asking a white guy to date a woman of color with a PhD and a solid career is asking him to do what almost no human can: be comfortable with a lot of difference. And when we do find those men who appear comfortable, it’s natural for us to question it. I often find myself asking ‘why are you interested in me?’ As I write this I feel a bit of shame that I have gotten to the point where I can’t view someone’s interest in me as genuine. But experience has taught me that often, I am arm candy for their ego; an intellectual display piece meant to boost their street credibility; a ‘new experience’ or a ‘chocolate fantasy’. But rarely am I just a cool, funny woman they’d like to get to know.

I know that many professors are happily married with families. I know that many professors are happy with just their professional success. But those who want both—they scare me. They are the ones who look haggard, are always rushing around, who show up late to meetings and return emails at crazy hours. They are the ones who can never come out for drinks or attend after hour functions at work. They are the ones whose passion for teaching or research or for their relationship is starting to fade. They are who I fear becoming.

I’m reminded of a Sex and the City episode where Carrie posed the question: Can we have it all?

“Cultivating Allies As A Woman of Color in Academia” – By Dr. Manya Whitaker

Dr. Manya Whitaker, an education professor, regularly offers personal reflections, advice, and critiques on her blog, the other class. Below, Dr. Whitaker provides advice for seeking allies in academia, particularly for women of color.  Be sure to check out the other great guest blog posts by Dr. Whitaker.

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Cultivating Allies as a Woman of Color in Academia

Manya WhitakerI tried my best to not comment on the pseudo Harlem Shake crap that is all the rage right now, but since students at my college filmed a video of themselves engaging in that nonsense, and said video went viral, this issue has become personal. It has become all the more personal because while I can excuse the students for participating in cultural mockery and theft (hey — they are 20, they do not know), I cannot excuse my colleagues. Since so many others have taken the time to breakdown the History of the Harlem Shake, and to write articles about cultural misappropriation (here, here, and here) I feel no need to go down that path.

Instead, I want to discuss allyhood in academia and how as a female junior faculty member of color, I must identify allies…and those who would be betray me with a click of the mouse.

A few posts ago I mentioned that I am reading Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. There is a section in the book about forming networks of allies in the Academy. Nancy Cantor wrote the introduction for that section and states ‘It’s both difficult and important that women who are white—the relatively privileged ones who have been the primary beneficiaries of feminism—perceive, acknowledge, and then act against the additional forms of discrimination experienced by women of color without feeling defensive’ (pg. 222). I flagged this sentence when I first read this chapter weeks ago and more now than then, I feel this is an important point. So this is where I shall begin my tale of betrayal at a small liberal arts college.

Because our students’ video was such a hit, the faculty thought it would be ‘fun’ to film our own 30 second video at the next faculty meeting. Actually, two faculty members came up with this idea and emailed the rest of the faculty with the suggestion. Now, upon receiving this email I was astounded. I was astounded not because this idea emerged—it was inevitable that someone would hop on this train to nowhere. No, I was stunned because of who made the suggestion. The people who made the suggestion would never be people I’d think would support such nonsense. Both of these people are faculty who—whether they feel this way or not—occupy marginalized spaces on campus. Though both senior faculty members, one is openly homosexual and the other is of Asian descent. The latter specifically researches issues pertinent to race, so her complicity felt like a slap in the face. After reading the email I said aloud to myself ‘is she serious?’ My immediate emotional experience cannot be described as anything other than feelings of betrayal laced in incredulity. This quickly turned to anger.

A close friend and African American colleague contacted me about this issue to formulate a plan for how we were going to respond if in fact the faculty decided to film this video. During that conversation, we thought about who else was ‘down for the cause’ and could only come up with two nonwhite faculty members. While we both wished a senior faculty member was not away on sabbatical because she certainly would’ve publicly allied herself with us, we were stunned that between two of us, we could not identify more people who would stand up and fight with us. At the end of the convo, I sadly said ‘wow…I thought we had more allies.’

Though a few minutes after the aforementioned conversation, the Asian faculty member emailed to say maybe we shouldn’t do it because after quick research, filming such a video may have ‘unintended consequences’, I couldn’t help but continue to be enraged because a) this idea emerged in the first place, and b) it could be just as easily quelled without a dialogue between affected parties.

The ‘settling’ of this issue was devoid of critical thought or open conversation. The words race, misappropriation, cultural theft, black, misidentification, or history were never mentioned. All we got was a two sentence email cloaked in light hearted liberal arts humor with a slight acquiescence that yes, perhaps this idea was not the best because they may perceive unintentional harm. The word ‘unintentional’ is laced with blame on the others and drenched with self excuse. By not discussing it, or even opening it up for discussion, the issue was deemed unworthy of discussion. That email was colorblind, perspectiveless, ahistorical, and riddled with power. Because she decided that she did not want to discuss it, the issue was closed. What of us who are still upset? Still offended? Still full of words we have been barred from sharing because the prefix to your title outranks the prefix to mine?

No. This does not feel like allyhood.

“By your powers combined…I am Captain Planet!” Hehe..I think of this when I think of allies.

I have learned a few things. First, friendship and respect do not equate allyhood. While mentally scrolling through my list of friends for possible allies it became clear that few people would sacrifice their reputation or professional relationships for the greater good (perhaps because they do not view it as ‘greater’ or ‘good’). Few people can find the courage and fortitude to do more than softly agree behind closed doors. When it comes time to stand up publicly and declare an alliance, most friends will hold their heads down while avoiding eye contact (if they are not in fact, already out of the door). They do not want to look me in my eyes and see the result of their abandonment. And I get it. It’s hard to do what you know is right when you don’t feel anything was wrong.

A chapter in Presumed Incompetent written by Margalynne Armstrong and Stephanie Wildman outlines what it takes for people to truly be considered allies when it comes to issues of race. They describe the necessity of color insight—the recognition that a racial status quo exists in which society attributes race to each member—to battle the pervasiveness of colorblindness. Ignoring issues of race under the guise of equality does nothing but create a space in which racism and oppression can grow unchecked, only emerging when people can no longer avoid discussing the black, brown, yellow, or red elephant in the room.

They also borrow from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1994) discussion of perspectivelessness—the adoption of the “neutral” white norm as the default for laws, values, and behaviors. I especially believe this construct is constantly at play in racialized environments because it empowers people to not think about how their behaviors and words affect others. It is as if they believe ‘if most people are fine with it, then what’s the big deal?’

Yes, it seems to me as if colorblindness precedes, or perhaps bolsters, the existence of perspectivelessness. It is easy to ignore others when you refuse to accept that no, everyone is not like me and everyone is not treated as I am treated. I am especially concerned with the fact that the homogenous climate of academia facilitates (and sometimes encourages) the silencing of racial discourse. Why is it that one woman of color was allowed to represent the collective voices of ethnic minorities? Why didn’t a white colleague challenge her self-assumed position as Speaker of the [Colored] House? Most of all, why were we faculty members who disagreed with her narrative forced to plot and plan in secret instead of being given the space and opportunity to express our views publicly? The fallacy of community in academia made certain that she felt comfortable not having to think about how her endorsement of a racialized behavior would be perceived by white colleagues. She is tenured, she is well respected on campus, and she is Asian. So of course she has the experience, the knowledge, and the right to suggest such an idea. Because if she thinks it’s ok, and she is Asian, then it must be ok, right?

I am certain she never intended to speak on behalf of all ethnic minorities, but the reality is that many believe in the singular experience of minorities. Why didn’t she and other faculty in support of this video research the topic before going public with it? If we who are scholars trained at top notch institutions, national award recipients, professors at a tier 1 college do not feel the need to investigate the origins and implications of pop cultural trends, the future of academia is bleak.

We in academia are far from what Susan Sturm (2006) calls an ‘architecture of inclusion’ because we do not acknowledge what it takes for others to be included. It takes more than a shared smile in the hallway, laughs over lunch, invitations to personal events, and overlapping research interests to build inclusivity. As Nancy Cantor states, it takes ‘a culture of collaboration where issues of intersectionality can be addressed. Inclusion requires justice and due process. It also needs the give and take of social support, of flexibility of models and respect for individual and group differences…’. I would add that inclusion requires true allyhood—loud, proud, public allegiance across diverse people. Allied relationships are built upon shared knowledge, even if there aren’t shared experiences. Most importantly, allyhood, and by default, inclusion are not ephemeral weak constructs easily undermined by threats of ostracization or promises of promotion. Allies are people to whom we can turn for support even when, no—especially when—the professional turns personal.

“Managing Academic Survivor Guilt Without Losing Yourself”

Dr. Manya Whitaker, a professor of education, offers personal reflection, advice, and critiques on her blog, the other class. Recent posts include the exhaustion of preparing for microaggressions in the workplace, students’ guilt when discussing social inequality in the classroom.  She has also kindly written a few guest blog posts for Conditionally Accepted. 

Below, she reflects on the feeling of guilt many marginalized scholars feel as they excel in academia — and at what personal costs — while others don’t.

Managing Academic Survivor Guilt Without Losing Yourself

Afro

You made it. Now what are you going to do with it?

If you’re like me, this is a question you ask yourself from time to time when you look up and are amazed anew that you somehow breached the walls of academia. It’s the feeling you have when you acknowledge that in walking on the stage to be hooded, you had to walk away from something and someone.

On the heels of that realization comes the guilt. No matter how screwy it sounds, I sometimes feel guilty for having made it. What did I do differently to deserve this? Was it fortune or privilege that afforded me the opportunities necessary to achieve my goals? Basically, why me and not them?

This is academic survivor guilt: an overarching sense of inequality experienced by marginalized scholars because we carry the burden of representing an entire body of people while accepting the reality that to do so, we left them behind. It is the feeling of wrongfulness because you survived what so many *minorities1 did not. You survived high school, survived a single parent household, survived a low income or working class neighborhood. Then, to top it off, you had the nerve to survive college, graduate school, and the job market while equally qualified academics did not. Yes, I worked hard, but so did thousands of others whose goals may never be realized, often for reasons beyond their control. I feel like I owe…. someone. But I’m not sure who or what. That makes the guilt that much more troubling.

When I push myself to really investigate this self imposed sense of responsibility to people unknown, I sometimes toy with the idea that perhaps I feel most responsible to myself. And similarly so, the source of my guilt may be me. I feel guilty not because I achieved my dream, but more so because I may have lost some of myself in the process.

In this publish or perish world of academia, who we intended to be—our ideal self—can easily be postponed until after the department meeting and accidentally discarded along with last semester’s final papers. The misplacement of self is a gradual process, and when you finally get to a mental, emotional and professional space to have the courage to be your most authentic self, you may find that that particular version of you no longer exists.

Though this may be acceptable to many and a goal for some, there are others of us who strive to maintain the purity of heart and compassionate ideals that prompted such a selfless career choice as teaching. Though ever day is different and I can’t foresee exits from the highway of me, I try to do a few things to keep track of myself:

  • I practice reflection. I check in with myself at least once a week through writing, yoga, or taking a walk. This quiet time allows me to listen to my thoughts and acknowledge my emotions.
  • I accept changes in myself. Growing is what life is about.
  • I review my life plan and make adjustments as necessary. I always strive to be better than who I am, not who I was.
  • I hold myself accountable. If I am consistently doing or saying things that misrepresent who I am, I make a plan to stop. This plan can be cognitive (replacing negative thoughts with positive ones) or it can be behavioral (limiting interactions with people who bring out the worst in me). I remind myself that I am responsible for what I do. I cannot and will not be responsible for what you do.
  • I share myself with others. Healthy conversations with a close friend about this very issue can go a long way to helping me work through my tangled web of thoughts. It is also allows me to hear how similarly situated professionals manage their own guilt. The social can be a wonderful mirror for the self.

You will notice that what I do not have listed is anything to do with external validation. There is little value in gaining others’ approval of yourself if you can’t stand by yourself. In every class session, every meeting, and through every manuscript, we are asked to give. We give our compassion, our time, our thoughts.  Professing is philanthropic work.  I advise you to keep a little for, and of, yourself.

Notes

1 – *minorities is used as an inclusive term for individuals who are marginalized because of their race, ethnicity, nativity, language, social class, gender identity and expression, and/or sexual orientation.

“No Ticket, No Entry: Cultural Capital in College Degree Attainment” – By Dr. Manya Whitaker

Last week, I offered a brief summary of a recent report that highlights racial and ethnic disparities in college enrollment that ultimately perpetuates racial and ethnic inequalities in society broadly.  But what produces these disparities?

Racial and ethnic differences preparedness for college was tossed out as a factor.  But, the more prestigious colleges themselves may not be making enough effort to reach out to potential students of color and working-class students.  There is an assumption that their prestige should be enough of an incentive, so just wait for the students to come to them.  Another culprit that has been named is “white flight” — or growing racial and ethnic segregation in neighborhoods.  Inequalities that precede college, especially in K-12, are simply further exacerbated by these dynamics in college.

Dr. Manya Whitaker, an education scholar, has offered a more nuanced look at race, ethnicity, and higher education on her blog, the other classShe has kindly allowed me to share her post below.  Be sure to check out her guest blog post on advice for junior faculty if you have not seen it yet!

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No Ticket, No Entry: Cultural Capital in College Degree Attainment

AfroI am all a dither because today, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce released their report entitled “Separate & Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege”.

As an educational scholar I get excited when I see these reports for multiple reasons: a) it’s a text I can use in many of my courses; b) national scale data is hard to come by; c) the quality of the research done is fairly solid given the origin of the work; d) this contributes to, and may advance, discourse on equity in education.

The executive summary is clearly written and organized. It begins with a very clear thesis: “In theory, the education system is colorblind; but, in fact, it is racially polarized and exacerbates the intergenerational reproduction of white racial privilege.” I can dig it. They follow this assertion with clear data points, some of which I share here:

  • Between 1995 and 2009, postsecondary enrollment rose 107% for Hispanics, 73% for African Americans and 15% for Whites
    • However, 82% of new white freshman in that time frame enrolled at one of the top 468 most selective four-year colleges, compared to 13% of Hispanics and 9% of African Americans.
      • 72% of Hispanics and 68% of African Americans enrolled in open-access two and four year colleges

Let me stop you here: These enrollment trends are not a function of college readiness. In fact, the report states that even though high scoring Hispanic and African American students attend college at the same rates as whites, 30% of African American students attend community college compared to 22% of academically comparable whites.

Aaaaand once these students get to college, whites are more likely to complete college. After controlling for prior achievement, 51% of Hispanics and 49% of African Americans drop out of college compared to 30% of whites.

Why?

Here is where I diverge from the report whose primary purpose is to relay long-term life outcomes associated with disparate college enrollment patterns. That story is not new. What I want to discuss is why all students (but especially Hispanic and African American students) who attend the top 468 selective institutions are nearly twice as likely to graduate and have a greater likelihood of attending graduate school as those who attend open-access institutions.

I argue that our conversation should be about college completion, not enrollment. And in that conversation we must acknowledge the critical role cultural capital plays in degree attainment.

Let’s review some more data:

  • Among high scoring Hispanics and African Americans at the top 468 institutions, 73% of them complete a degree compared to 40% of Hispanic and African Americans at open-access schools.
    • Of the 73% of Hispanic and African Americans who complete a degree, 33% of them attend graduate school, compared to 23% who attended an open-access institution.

There are obvious explanations for the different success rates between selective and open-access colleges. The report points to greater financial resources as measured by per pupil spending. The 82 most selective colleges spend almost 5 times as much on instruction as open-access schools. In dollars this is $27,900 compared to $6000 per pupil per year. The top 468 schools fall between spending an average of $13,400 per pupil.

I do not disagree. Yes, financial capital is essential when we talk about quality of education. Money buys students more qualified professors (who demand higher pay), extensive technological support, smaller classes, more opportunities for enhanced learning (study abroad, community-based learning, participation in research) and higher quality food (linked to cognitive functioning), among other assets.

But focusing solely on economic differences masks what I believe to be the true driver of stratification in higher education: access to cultural capital.

Our postsecondary institutions have been and continue to be structured around the white male norm. White men still dominate academia, occupying higher positions and receiving higher pay than equally qualified women. This discrimination is furthered when one happens to be a woman and of color. Women of color occupy the lowest position in the Academy, marginally outranked by men of color. The curriculum—especially at elite schools—is driven by what the power culture deems important. We glorify pre-med, pre-law, and business under traditional academic models, and encourage exploration of many fields under the liberal arts model. Both of these are direct representations of white middle and upper class expectations. To be successful at the collegiate level on a pre-professional track, one must first have taken the requisite courses in high school and possess the self-regulatory learning skills and content knowledge to be competitive in such courses. For many white middle and upper class students, this is a given. Of course you’ve taken pre-calculus in high school. Of course you know how to write. Of course you have a context in which to place and a schema through which to make sense of course content. I don’t need to give you any of that.

Similar scenarios play out at elite liberal arts colleges. There is little guidance about what courses to take beyond making sure students satisfy distributive requirements. There are no vocational tracks because the idea is that you are qualified and informed enough to construct that path yourself. You have a long term vision of who you want to become and you have all the supports and information you need to get there. So four years from now you will walk across that stage empowered and prepared to pursue your chosen career. Congratulations!

What I know to be true from my own experiences as a student at elite institutions (one liberal arts and one more traditional), as a faculty member at a selective liberal arts institution, and as a scholar whose work centers on the function of social factors in educational attainment, is that students from low income and racial minority groups begin their college career without the cultural capital needed for success in such an environment.

How do I know? It’s obvious. These are students who have never written a paper in any other format than a five paragraph essay. Who have never taken an AP or IB course because their district didn’t offer them. Who have been given step-by-step instructions on every assignment because their teachers did not trust their decision-making. Who have never left their state (or in some cases their city) so are unaware of how different people in different settings live. Who have never had choice in their education because choice implies a school with academic options. Who don’t understand the necessary courses to take if you want to become a veterinarian because you do not know any veterinarians—or anyone who went to graduate school for that matter. Who don’t know that summers should be spent networking at internships instead of working for the necessary pay to continue to your education. Who don’t have a safety net of a job, space at home, and financial support from parents and family members in case you make a mistake and all of this was for naught.

Given all of these barriers, one would think that students of color at the top 468 selective institutions would graduate at lower rates than their counterparts at open-access schools. This is what they want us to believe. This is what they sell us. They paint a picture of an environment where our students can’t succeed. They tell us our babies will feel ‘out of place’ and ‘lost’ and would be more ‘comfortable’ at a less rigorous school. Or they dissuade us with hefty price tags, never mentioning that elite schools carry higher endowments which enable them to provide more need-based aid than do open-access schools. And this aid is often in the form of scholarship, not loans. They do not tell us that our children, who are qualified to attend an Ivy League school, could afford to do so even if their family income is less than $75,000 per year because now, at many of the Ivies, these students can go tuition-free. They hesitate to mention that President Obama has vastly increased access to Pell Grant funds for families whose income is less than $30,000 per year. No. They don’t want us to know any of that. Because if we knew, if we enrolled in the top 468 schools, we would graduate at much higher rates and consequently occupy a higher social position in society. What a threat that would be to their happy existence of privilege and power.

Students of color who enroll in selective schools do succeed. And they do so despite a lack of explicit instructional and social supports. They succeed at higher rates than their peers in open-access schools because they have access to cultural capital their peers do not. No matter how you spin it, the elite schools are elite because they function in an insular bubble where cultural capital begets more capital begetting power. Students of color enrolled at such schools are privy to a whole new world, a new way of being. They are given access to information that has been kept close to white chests throughout time. Slowly, they can become a fringe member of the most esteemed society in our country: white society.

Don’t get me wrong: you are indeed a fringe member as your skin will never give you full entry. But we don’t need full entry. We don’t need to be white or wealthy to succeed in life. We just need to be informed. We need to know the game and the players. We need to recognize and accept the fact that cultural capital is our ticket in.

And once we are in…think of what we can do.