Dismantling Whiteness In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Salvador Vidal-Ortiz is associate professor of sociology at American University. He recently published a co-edited volume, Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism, with University of Texas Press, and has a forthcoming co-authored book, Race and Sexuality, with Polity Press.

Dismantling Whiteness In Academe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic Blackballing – Censoring Scholars Who Critique Inequality

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column for marginalized scholars on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Sandy Grande is a professor of education at Connecticut College, where she is also director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity.

Ever since National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during a pregame national anthem last year as a form of protest against police brutality and racial injustice, he’s been the target of boycotts, death threats and fan backlash. Consequently, despite his talent and performance, he remains conspicuously unemployed, even while less accomplished quarterbacks have been signed. The situation has led many to speculate that Kaepernick is being blackballed and possibly even colluded against by the NFL.

Kaepernick’s story resonates with faculty members, particularly faculty of color, who have also suffered backlash for speaking out against injustices within and outside the academy. Some have similarly become the subject of national media storms, death threats and intimidation and found themselves suddenly unemployed.

While such severe cases capture the spotlight of media attention, I focus here on the more quotidian forms of backlash, or what I term academic blackballing: everyday acts of silencing, gaslighting, bullying and “mansplaining” that not only serve to marginalize and exclude but also limit or outright deny opportunities for professional growth and advancement.

As a professor who has worked in higher education for more than 20 years, I have been both witness to and target of academic blackballing, the experience of which, as detailed below, shares things in common with Colin Kaepernick’s.

Tone Policing and Victim Blaming

Just as Kaepernick has endured criticisms that he brought the blackballing on himself by choosing the “wrong” form of protest, professors who speak out are also often subjected to this form of victim blaming. The justifications sound something like this: “If only you had spoken in a more reasoned tone” or understood that “there is a time and place for everything,” because in the university “we” value “civil discourse and debate” and not “emotional” diatribes.

Such tone policing functions as a means of redirecting attention away from the injustice itself to the method of protest, a form of silencing that suggests emotion or expressed anger is what is intolerable, not the inequity, prejudice or bias that is being named. But what exactly is the “right” tone for expressing frustration over the fact that, in 2017, the professoriate remains more than 75 percent white and 60 percent male? That the college graduation gap for students of color is still growing? That ethnic studies still struggles for legitimacy in the academy? That (hetero)sexism remains rampant?

Lest we forget, Kaepernick chose a silent mode of protest and, in the month immediately following, 15 more black people died in encounters with police. What kind of measured tone should we, as a society, strike to raise questions about the nearly 600 Americans killed by police in 2017, particularly when the combined total of such deaths in England and Wales across a nearly 30-year span is 67?

History bears witness to the violence that nonviolent protest has generally garnered. Similarly, within college and university settings, it does not seem to matter whether one chooses a direct form of protest or plays the role of good university citizen — you still pay a price for speaking truth to power.

The Distraction

Kaepernick has also been labeled a “distraction,” meaning his politics distract from the teams’ focus on the primary work at hand: football. Some well-meaning “supporters” have even suggested that perhaps Kaepernick prefers his activist work to his day job. Outspoken academics, often perceived as “activists,” receive similar messages from their colleagues, and grad students from their advisers; they are told either tacitly or explicitly to concentrate on their work and leave their political activities for a more appropriate space and time.

The problem with such advice is that it fails to understand that we are women, people of color and otherwise minoritized faculty all the time, not just between the hours of nine and five. And whether we speak out while on the job or not, there are still consequences for just being who we are. The struggle to be perceived as rational, reasonable, collaborative and nonthreatening in environments where even the mere utterance of the words “racism” or “sexism” is experienced as injurious is constant. And the dilatory effects of carrying the weight of this struggle are well documented.

Conditional Acceptance

At the same time Kaepernick’s blackballing carries on, so does its denial, explained away through arguments that it is his lackluster performance and not his politics that is in question — despite all evidence to the contrary. In other words, his blackballing is justified because it isn’t blackballing at all; it’s just what happens when (suddenly) your skills are found to be subpar.

Academics who speak out similarly experience the questioning of their qualifications and performance either directly through denied promotions or indirectly through the disparagement of their scholarly expertise. That is, in the court of public opinion, one is typically found guilty until proven innocent. To the extent that it does not seem to matter if words are misconstrued, taken out of context or grounded in empirical evidence and historical facts, institutions often capitulate to public outcry before they stand behind their faculty. The outcome is the same: if you find yourself the subject of academic blackballing, your skills — the ability to teach and conduct research in a manner suitable to your profession and field — will be called into question.

Paying the Price of Admission

Insofar as the default setting for American society is defined by hierarchies of race, class and gender, then the work of social justice, by definition, requires disruption. Yet disruptive actions, whether in the form of public protest or speech acts, are rarely experienced as necessary or productive interventions — as moving us toward more just and equitable outcomes. On the contrary, they are viewed as un-American, disloyal and uncollegial.

To be sure, under such precarious work conditions, staying silent and keeping one’s eyes focused on the “prize” of tenure, promotion or other forms of academic recognition makes sense. But for as long as racism, sexism and other forms of oppression continue to negatively shape the work-life conditions of both American colleges and society, there is a stronger case to be made for staging protests of multiple kinds. We need to keep speaking up and out because the alternative — the ascendance of the authoritarian state and the neoliberal university — is unacceptable.

That said, it is also incumbent upon people in positions of power to reject the narrative of “disruptive” acts or speech as categorically negative and unproductive and, instead, embrace it as an important and necessary strategy for positive change. They need to support faculty and staff who come under attack, because once threats of lynching, bombing, death and rape become the regular consequence for the expression of ideas, we will have solidified our decline into pure despotism.

Acts of disruption and pedagogies of dissent are vital to the health of a democracy. Thus, as faculty, we owe it to our students and society to insist on “thinking dangerously” and to engage critique as an essential mode of inquiry. We need to ensure that campus leadership understands that education has never been a neutral enterprise, diversity and inclusion are only starting points, and that study by definition requires struggle.

We need to recognize that the story of Colin Kaepernick is our story and work ever more assiduously to connect across various justice projects. The future of democracy and higher education depends on it.

Understanding The Recent Slew Of Attacks On Public Scholars

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

Weaponizing Free Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being White Does Not Make You An Expert On Race And Racism

Image source: Alex Garland

Image source: Alex Garland

I use and consume water every day, multiple times each day.  But, I would never call myself a water scientist.  (My ignorance shows in even having to look up the term, the profession of researchers who study water.)

I watch television daily, and frequently watch movies either at home or, less often, at the movie theatre.  My strong opinions and preferences aside, I would never call myself a TV or film critic.

I drive almost daily, and have been driving regularly for 17 years now. But, I don’t know the first thing about cars, and certainly wouldn’t call myself a mechanic.

I was assigned a racial identity at birth — two actually, Black and white — and have lived as a raced person in a racist society for 32 years.  I tentatively call myself an expert on race and racism because I study and teach about them, though they are not my primary area of research or teaching.  But, if these topics never appeared in my work as a scholar, I wouldn’t call myself an expert.

“Opinions Are Like Assholes…”

I am certain that most academics and laypeople share my hesitancy to claim expertise on water, the arts, and automobiles if they lack formal training or long-term experience (research, teaching, or performance) in these areas.  Though we may self-diagnose illness and injuries with WebMD, we still end up in a doctor’s office for a “real” diagnosis and treatment. How did we ever survive before there was quick and easy access to internet search engines?  Google is a verb, and Let Me Google That For You exists as a snarky response to idiotic questions that can be answered with a quick Google search.

But, race and racism seem to be the exception.  Everyone, regardless of education level, seems to be an expert on race.  Collectively, white Americans presumed to understand racism well enough to conclude that it no longer existed upon the election of a half-white, half-Black person to US President who likely only had a shot at the office because he was raised by his white mother.  I know from my slowly evolving awareness of the ways in which white privilege — specifically, the white privilege passed on to me by my white heterosexual middle-class cis man currently without disabilities father — that has benefited my own life that Obama’s upbringing is not typical for Black Americans today.  But, that nuance never appeared in mainstream discourse about the election of “the first Black president.”  And, I ask of those quick to declare we live in a post-racial (or even post-racist) society — yes, even some academics… who study race (please, excuse my shade…) — how the hell did we end up here with a known racist as Obama’s successor?

I certainly understand why race and racism are hard to understand for those who do not empirically analyze them for a living.  There is a nifty analogy for gender, that it is like the water that surrounds us as fish.  We take it for granted; it is there from birth — assigned to us, thrust upon us, taught to us, and then policed when we deviate — and thus we come to think of it as natural.  In other words, it is incredibly difficult to step outside of gender to understand it, especially gender as a social structure — a system that organizes the social world from gendered identities and expressions to sexist laws and policies.  Gender seems so everyday, so familiar, and so mundane that it is easy to only see it as something individuals have, thereby missing it as a system of oppression that shapes and constrains our lives and livelihood, interests, interactions with others, and even our organizations and institutions.  Gender is complex and ever-changing; we need women’s and gender studies programs to even begin to grapple with this complicated social system.

Race and racism share the mundaneness that we sense of gender.  We take for granted that race exists, naively assuming that it has always existed, and, by extension, is a universal and essential artifact.  Though the social construction of race has caught on as a more adequate way of conceptualizing of race, there are still spoken and unspoken glimmers of the assumption that race is biological.  There is also the stubborn mentality that racism is solely the explicit expression of prejudice toward others of a different race, which leaves anti-racist activists and scholars stuck with the perpetual burden of having to prove that racism manifests structurally and unconsciously, as well.  That’s why whites’ resentment about “PC culture” — modern social etiquette that demands you simply not say something deemed racist — is misplaced; yes, please stop referring to Black people as monkeys, but, you should also stop killing us, denying us jobs and promotions, withholding affordable loans and excluding us from predominantly white neighborhoods, expelling us from school or even sending us to prison over minor disciplinary problems, and so forth.

Race and racism are complex systems.  That is why there are scholars who devote their careers to their study.  That is why there are academic programs in racial and ethnic studies, Black studies, Africana and African American studies, Latina/o/x studies, Indigenous studies, American Indian and Native American studies, Asian and Asian American studies, Black women’s studies, Muslim and Islamic studies, Judaic studies, cultural studies, American studies, etc. The study of race, racism, and racialized communities also appears in more traditional academic programs like sociology, psychology, English, social psychology, music, theatre, art, and political science.

Race and racism warrant academic inquiry because they are important, but also because they are incredibly complicated and ever-changing.  I’m afraid your uncle Joe’s assessment of who is ISIS and who isn’t fails to constitute expertise.  I’m disinclined to consider your mom as a race scholar just because she (thinks she) has one American Indian friend.  I’d be wary of your boss’s conclusion that “Hispanics will take over America” because he gets nervous around the office’s janitorial staff when they “refuse” to speak in English in his presence.  And, I’m rolling my eyes at your friend’s story that she experienced “reverse racism” because the Black Starbucks barista was “mean” to her (read: didn’t roll out the red carpet to celebrate her existence because she’s white).  Yes, I am intentionally drawing upon examples of racial prejudice here because many everyday whites draw upon their bias and stereotypes as expertise on race and racism.

I Blame Academia (Or, What’s New?)

More frustrating is that whites’ arrogance about their expertise on race and racism exist alongside their dismissal of academic study of these topics.  And even more frustrating is that I have witnessed this not among laypeople — those whom we might dismiss as ignorant or uneducated if we are disinclined to be sympathetic, or inclined to be elitist — but from fellow academics.  Many white PhD educated people, whom I would assume to have an appreciation of other disciplines and be self-reflective about the limits of their own expertise, are quick to devalue research and teaching on race and racism.  Even in my own discipline (sociology), race and ethnicity scholars — specifically those who are scholars of color — are faced with accusations of conducting “me-search“; by virtue of their inability to be “objective” (a privilege reserved for whites, no matter their research area), their work is dismissed.  More generally, the study of communities of color is dismissed (yes, even in sociology).

I suppose we cannot be too hard on uncle Joe, your mom, your boss, and your friend for believing they are experts on race and ethnicity.  The academy itself is complicit in devaluing formal academic study of race and racism.  Though racial and ethnic studies and similar programs exist, they are woefully underfunded, underresourced, understaffed, and are increasingly under threat.  These topics have never been seriously championed in academia, and support for these programs may even be waning (at least in some places).  You can get a PhD in Black studies, but I’m not so sure you can expect to get a tenure-track faculty position (if that is your goal).  You can specialize in race and ethnicity as a sociologist, but publishing in top mainstream sociology journals will be a challenge, as will securing grant funding.  Oh, and get ready to be challenged by your students who think they know as much about race as you do (if not more if you are an instructor of color).  Why should we expect everyday white folks to take seriously “the leading expert on racism” when such scholars are not celebrated and respected as would be “the leading heart surgeon” or, hell, even the worst physician alive who, nonetheless, has the respect afforded to doctors?

The academy’s devaluation of academic study of race and racism makes it complicit in the rampant ignorance about race and ethnicity in the US.  It is partially responsible for the inevitable rise of Trump and fellow white supremacists.  It is responsible for the success of the narrative of angry poor whites who put Trump in office, despite empirical evidence that it was racism and sexism that gave him the election.  It is responsible for the dumb notion that whites can be victims of racism or the more perverse “reverse racism”, that calling attention to racism is “playing the race card” or wallowing in victimhood.  Academia is responsible for the disgusting reality that Black women scholars’ teaching and public writing about racism can successfully be demeaned as racism — this is reflected best by the fact that these scholars actually get in trouble for doing the work they were trained and hired to do!

Concluding Thoughts

The supposed post-racist era is dead, which actually serves as more proof that it never existed to begin with.  We cannot even optimistically say we’ve entered a new era of racism because many of the features of old-school racism have reemerged (including Nazism and a bit of anti-Semitism).

But, racism today is undeniably more complex than ever before.  As such, this moment is a crucial one to turn to experts on race and racism to understand how we got here and how to move closer to the death of racism.  And, by experts, I mean people who have extensive academic training and who study race and ethnicity for a living.  Now is the time to seriously support academic programs devoted to the study of race and racism.  It is the time to hire race and ethnicity scholars to aid in developing new laws, policies, and programs.  It is the time to listen to the experts of race and racism like we would to those who study climate change, or medicine, or biology, or space.  Maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess right now if we had already been seriously listening to the experts.