28 March 2006

Oso Writes a Self-Assessment



This past week the roof collapsed on my professional life. You’re tottering along, a bit woozy but still standing, minding your own business, dreaming of the summer which is right around the corner, there’s a lightening of the mood and the weather begins, gradually, ever so subtly, to turn, you decide to open your storm windows, you go for a walk in a “Fall” jacket, and then, in the words of the annoying cleaning commercial: KABOOM!


In short order, I woke up from my honey-coloured dream of lazy summertime barbeques and short pants and sultry Big Eastern City days and nights with Mr. Gordo to discover several outstanding bill collectors on the phone: a conference paper due forthwith (like yesterday!), students clamouring for extra credit work because they bombed your midterm, the usual meetings and minute-taking, long-postponed paperwork rearing up, not to mention tax time and the suddenly desperate need to see your CPA before he himself is overwhelmed. But by far the most demanding task at hand has been the need to write my year-end report on activities for my Dean, which because this is my first year at this particular school I severely underestimated. So underestimated, in fact, I didn’t even know it was due, until I received (again, out of the blue), a polite note from my chair. I fear I am becoming the very model of the bumbling professor who forgets his car keys in the refrigerator.


In essence, my “book report” is a catalogue of my activities in the three well-known subject areas: research, teaching, and service. And there is a certain empirical quality to the task that is reassuring: Yes, Virginia, you are exhausted for a reason! Committees and meetings, abstracts and conferences, works-in-progress and works forthcoming, student evaluations and syllabi, emails and phone calls, lectures and events. I have been, um, busy this year, contrary to the stereotype of the academic as social parasite, so eloquently paraphrased by my girlfriend La Connaire tonight who said, “I thought the whole point of academia was not working hard,” followed by the sound of a stream of smoke blown into the telephone mouthpiece. As most academics would tell you, the stereotype bears little relationship to the reality of most tenure-line professors. However, this cataloguing of the minutiae of quotidian academic life has gotten me to think of the differentials in experience for faculty across the broad spectrums of race, gender, and sexuality.


As a professional, I obviously covered the unholy trinity with some aplomb, if not utter success in all three. Given what has been thrown at me this year in terms of workload, I feel I did very well, as undoubtedly will my Dean, who has been nothing if not incredibly supportive. However, the differential I am thinking about here is the double duty that faculty of colour, some women faculty, and some LGBT faculty, perform in their role as symbolic capital for the profession. For we are not only meant to perform as scholars and teachers and colleagues, we also have to be role-models and mentors and supportive persons, lifting as we climb, each one teaching one, until we reproduce ourselves like some sort of crazy neo-Fabergé Organics Shampoo commercial.

This notion of symbolic capital is one that is both forced upon us by institutions looking for the diversity fix, and nurtured within ourselves, by varying degrees of gratitude, guilt, regret, and sadness at the price of our success. We are the best and the brightest, the cream of the crop, those who struggled and worked, only to find ourselves marooned as tokens who value is unclear, both to ourselves and the profession we serve. I am reminded of Toi Derricote’s story in The Black Notebooks, of meeting the “other” black woman faculty at the college were she taught, only to discover that this woman was as light-skinned (i.e. completely passable as white) as Derricote herself, and how this causes a crisis in her thinking about why they were hired, and what is the symbolic value of having two black faculty members who look white?

Ironically, tonight in my race class, upon discussing with my students Fanon’s The Fact of Blackness, my eyes fell on this quote:

It was always the Negro teacher, the Negro doctor; brittle as I was becoming, I shivered at the slightest pretext. I knew, for instance, that if the physician made a mistake it would be the end of him and of all those who came after him. What could one expect, after all, from a Negro physician? As long as everything went well, he was praised to the skies, but look out, no nonsense, under any conditions! The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. I tell you, I was walled in: No exception was made for my refined manners, or my knowledge of literature, or my understanding of the quantum theory.

To which all I have to say is: Ain’t it the truth? Faculty of colour can never be sure how close we are to disgrace, to the knife-edge of outliving our usefulness, our symbolic capital. Seemingly, we can never be appreciated as intellectuals alone. We must always have some other value, some point to our presence, aside from simple qualification. We must be, in the truism, 200% good. And never, ever, make a mistake, for it's not just our personal mistake, but a mistake for every person of colour, past present and future. If we simply think of this differential in terms of labour, then perhaps the contours will come more sharply in focus.


While I appreciate my white colleagues for the support they provide, they are not expected to “liaison” with Latina/o students and student organizations. They are not expected to be role models of appropriate behaviour. They are not expected to be present at every little thing that might concern race, whether interesting or not. They are not expected to be experts at the drop of a hat, nor responsible to others of their same race who might have particular critiques of authenticity for which they have to answer. No, my beloved white colleagues get to be themselves, be individuals, and go home and sleep soundly. So for me, this is not only about the incredibly problematic racial dimensions of role modeling or each one teaching one. This shit is also about work, cause believe me, this is work.

As any faculty of colour, nay person of colour, could tell you in an unguarded moment, the illusory community fostered by sixties social movements is exactly that: fleeting and utopian. Academics of colour in particular suffer from the vertiginous histories of racial trauma that are predicated on the unintelligibility of the subject of colour: the very fact of our theoretical stupidity. Living in a post-race society means that we are finally, blissfully allowed to be ourselves, individuals in a society that prizes individualism. Needless to say, we aren’t there yet.

And then, as I am thinking about this and taking a break from writing this post and perusing the Internet while wolfing down a quesadilla, I come across this little ditty, which linked from here, both of which sadly and ironically prove my point. The most inflammatory quote from Michael A. Livingston’s post on race and law school faculty is a bombshell:

Because it is so costly to dip below the required minimum of diversity faculty, in practice almost anything has to and is done to ensure that they are happy. At my school, I have watched sadly as one after another of the unwritten faculty rules--the level of publication expected, the expectation that one's work would be presented to the faculty before tenure, even the assumptions regarding physical presence at the law school--were compromised or abandoned to accommodate female or minority candidates who the law school simply could not "afford to lose" under the new dynamic. Once these principles are given away, of course, the same concessions are demanded by other professors, so that the entire system of expectations that cements a faculty begins to come crashing quickly down.

Good grief! So not only are we not smart enough to be hired on “merit” (the odious false consciousness of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, apparently) but we also simultaneously threaten the very foundations of the institution. For as tenuous a hold as faculty of colour have in the profession, we seem to wield an incredible amount of power in Livingston's analysis. While it is true I have known some ‘playas’ (as in players, not beaches) who have worked out some pretty impressive deals on next to nothing, by far the vast majority of the professoriate of colour (and professoriate in general) works, day in and day out. In fact, faculty of colour are incredibly vulnerable not only through the typical utilitarian nature in which they are hired (as tokens) but also to the risible racism and real disgust revealed in Livingston’s quote. If anything, Livingston’s critique reveals more about the unscrupulous ways in which institutions will go out of their way to hire "dummies of colour" to avoid hiring contrary to racist type (e.g. with intelligence) than the general qualifications of a vastly diverse class of people, who after all have earned doctorates and J.D.s, right? If we trace Livingston’s critique to where it originates, this isn’t just a critique of hiring and retention practices, it is questioning the very ability of people of colour to hold advanced intellectual and professional degrees. And people wonder why race is still important?

The evidence is writ before you in Livingston’s post. Race still matters, and not only for red state academics or conservatives, for liberals and leftists hold similar, if more holistic, views. The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. One wrong move, and you’re toast, baby!


Self-assessment is hard, this I know after struggling with it this past week. But it might be time for the profession to take a real self-assessment of its own. For instance, when, if ever, will faculty of colour be real intellectual members of the community, and not just tokens of diversity and tolerance? When will the university and its faculty and administrators stop considering us as detriments to its intellectual mission? Why, if universities are so committed to "diversity," can't they sustain and support faculty of colour in double or triple digits? When can we stop the fiction of pretending just because student X is “brown” and I’m “brown,” we automatically understand each other, like dolphins? When, in other words, will our years and years of labour be appreciated for what it is, hard and good and honourable work? When, in other words, shall we breathe the fresh, clean air of individualism, which includes the noble as well as banal? When can we be normal, neither Sydney Poitier nor Step ‘n’ Fetchit? Not, apparently, any time soon.

7 comments:

GayProf said...

So, is this the statement you turned into your dean?

One of the things that bothers me about universities' visions of diversity is that they usually end with raw numbers. Faculty of color are often warehoused away, brought out only when needed to show that they exist. Making our studies the centerpiece of any academic program seems outrageous and absurd to most institutions.

Oso Raro said...

"So, is this the statement you turned into your dean?"

If only, girl! No, my report is more of a Wunderkammer of all the strange and odd things I was required to do this year.

"Making our studies the centerpiece of any academic program seems outrageous and absurd to most institutions."

Exactly! Because, at least in my meta-field, race is a side dish, your mashed potatoes to the steak of real work of empirical knowledge, which because it is considered 'universal,' we know is "white." Margins, centers, and that conference paper are filling my brain.

goy said...

- ...when, if ever, will faculty of colour be real intellectual members of the community, and not just tokens of diversity and tolerance?

I'd suggest re-reading Livingston's statements when the overwhelm of the moment isn't so great. I think you misinterpret his intent. He decries enforcement of a policy that has the unintended consequences of allowing some to game the system that results. His obvious point is that non-minority slackers aren't in a position to game that system until the rules have been bent by someone protected by quota policies.

With all that in mind, I would hope one answer to the question you've posed would be apparent: when affirmative action quota policies are eliminated. But perhaps you've said that elsewhere on your site, which I haven't read in its entirety.

Joanna said...

Hola, oso raro
!tu blog es estupendo!

The strange annual bureaucratic exercise of reporting one's activities in little categories often feels to me like a ritual of humiliation, because so much of what I think is important doesn't figure in. So I try to remember this when that time comes around, so I can check in with the folks whose perspective I value, and do something fun and self-indulgent.
Critical mass and strategic alliances are what it takes to change the standards. And some folks have no clue how hard and lonely that is.

Oso Raro said...

Goy, upon your suggestion I did return to Livingston's post (and his follow-up, posted after the original linked here), and I think you are correct in suggesting that Livingston is attempting to craft something more subtle than I gave him credit for. However, I still disagree with him, and stand by the veracity of my response, for the following reasons:

a) Livingston is indeed attempting to critique the paradigmatic institutional approach to diversity hires, which he remarks hurts both talented and not-so-talented candidates. However, he never indicates what a solution to this crisis may be, aside from critiquing affirmative action hiring policy (which in all truthfulness seem clumsy at his institution). I'm sorry, but that is just not enough for me. I think we can all see there is a problem, but Livingston offers us no clue as to what may indeed dislodge this engrained institutional sense of all candidates of colour as "diversity hires" (e.g. talentless hacks). In fact, as I suggest in my own post, this is actually the crux of the matter, and not affirmative action per se. Or rather, to put it another way, the historical understanding of people of colour as beneath intelletualism finds expression in thinking (on both the left and right) that candidates of colour in the university are tokens, which itself become a tautology: you're a token because in fact you're a token.

b) My focus on Livingston's quote may have been misinterpretation. I don't know Mr. Livingston personally, but I would give him the benefit of the doubt in thinking of him as one who, like all of us, is struggling over complicated and intense questions of race, justice, and institution. However, Livingston's use of the language of traditional white critiques of affirmative action (these people are unqualified, they are ruining the system for everyone, etc) does his argument no justice, if indeed he is attempting to make a new or critical intervention. Rather, his use of the particular descriptives he deploys in fact mimic the white hysteria and ressentiment throughout the contemporary history of affirmative action. I think some of the more deliberate responses to his arguments on his site speak to some of these limitations.

c) and finally, in response to your query as regards affirmative action or "quota policies" (which of course have not been legal since Bakke and if indeed they are in place are very well-hidden, so well-hidden that even people of colour can't find them), I would say that indeed, yes, there may be problems, deep true real problems, with affirmative action. But, I would add that I do feel we need *something*, whatever that may be remains a mystery to me, however. In a society such as our own, with a violently racist history, enforced legal servitude for Africans in British North America/USA for 200 years, and caste exclusion for other historic racial minority groups (Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese and Japanese Americans, Filipinos, and Native Americans), to expect deeply held and often unconscious racist attitudes to disappear overnight is naive, at best. Indeed, without the struggles of communities of colour it is doubtful whether Civil Rights as a pressing social and political issue would have emerged from mainstream (white) American society. I will say that as a society we have come very far very fast, and that speaks to the promise of American transformation. However, "merit" (which I find to be a deeply problematic concept) will not alone solve our historical problems that continue today or salve the unconscious racisms that effect and warp our quotidian lives.

Best, Oso

Oh, and to Joanna: Gracias, mi amor!

MaggieMay said...

Oso, This is a wonderful post. I get a *little* of this as a woman who is active with feminist issues (I get called on to be the "voice of feminism" quite often) but nowhere NEAR what my colleagues who are faculty of color must endure.

Re: affirmative action. The 2 UMich cases decided by the Sup. Ct. in 2003 (? I think), with 2 very different decisions, illustrate how contentious this issue is for us as a country, and how there are very few (if any) perfect solutions.

Finally, I love your blog!

goy said...

Oso, I appreciate your thoughtful response.

I'd preface the following by noting your comment, that the "affirmative action hiring policy ... seems clumsy at his institution". I'd submit that Livingston's observations of his institution's policies are valid, as are your observations of yours. Let me also tell you that my experience most recently in academia is diametrically opposed to the environment you've described in your post here. So part of the problem may be that institutions can be so markedly different as to confound a consistent solution. Or so it would seem. More on that below.

I'm not sure Livingston's criticism of the effects of diversity hiring is invalidated by his lack of a suggestion for what to do about the notion of "diversity hires" - your post dealt with one issue and his dealt with a related but different one. The problem he sees results, in his opinion, from the unintended consequences of affirmative action, and so that's what he's criticizing. In fact that's ALL he's criticizing, so far as I can see. In any case, as you have conceded, the *something* needed to solve the problem you see is a mystery to you as well. *Something* (which I also agree is needed) can't be just *anything* (like simply filling diversity quotas - let's call them informal ones, but real just the same), especially if it can be demonstrated that the *anything* leads to unintended weaknesses in the system and produces undesirable results.

What I can't find in the post you referenced at Livingston's site are any clear examples of "use of the language of traditional white critiques of affirmative action". I see no assertion (or even an implication) that 'these people are unqualified' or 'they are ruining the system'. I've read the post twice and can't find any direct reference or even an implication of these attitudes. The closest I see is "everyone knows that the people other than the best candidates are being selected", but this is clearly an observation intended to criticize the selection process - which is based on objective physical criteria as opposed to academic merit - not a criticism of those who are selected. As such, I fail to see his comments as the bombshell you described. I think you're reading something into Livingston's statements that simply isn't there. Sorry.

Lastly, with regard to (c), I completely agree with you regarding the unlikelihood of long-held attitudes to change overnight. The context you've described, however, is not overnight. Nor is it over a decade, nor even a century. And this leads to what I have experienced and how completely different it is from what you've expressed in this post. Again, this is to stress variations between institutions, not to question your observations. My experience is not as faculty but as the spouse of an adult Psych student who will soon be entering a doctorate program with the eventual goal of counseling and advocating for elderly and trans/intersex individuals and their families. I have more than a casual exposure to her academic experience, as her health issues (secondary progressive MS) affect her vision, mobility and stamina. As such I know her professors and counselors personally and have become rather integrally involved in her curriculum and the details involved in not only what, but how it's taught. Hopefully this will provide a reference when I admit that my first reaction to your post was "sheesh, what a whiner - what world is she living in!?" We obviously live in very different ones.

While long-held attitudes may not change overnight, it is also true that they do not last forever. Nowhere is this more true than in the academic world I know - specifically the catholic college "we" currently attend. The faculty, curriculum, extracurricular activities, events and campus attitudes at our school are absolutely, overwhelmingly dominated by feminist, minority and gender issues. This phenomenon is so severe that I have no doubt that the science of what's being taught there genuinely suffers due to the exclusive deference to these topics. There is no balance. For instance, theory of personality studies examined not just exclusively female personalities, but exclusively lesbian (or closet lesbian, like Eleanor Roosevelt, per Cook) personalities. Aging classes followed this same pattern. Classes on cultural differences as related to medical care revolved exclusively around Hmong and African races. As psychology and health care are currently taught at our school, whites and males essentially don't exist for all intents and purposes. In short, there is not only no dominance of traditional white or male influences here, there is little evidence in the curriculum that whites or males exist at all. This phenomenon carries over completely to the selection of and attitudes among the faculty also, as far as I can see.

This is getting too long, but perhaps you can see why my reaction to your post was what it was, and why I believe you are reading something into Livingston's points that are not there. And while I am not doubting your perceptions, my experience forces me to respectfully submit that you consider the following possibility. As long as you equate "white" with "mainstream", as long as you see "straight" and "white" people as "outsiders", and as long as you see yourself as a "token", and you believe others see you as a "token", you will be likely be perceived in accordance with those convictions. It may be you that's not changing "overnight".