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Dismantling Whiteness in Academe: Part 2

Salvador Vidal-Ortiz explores how to begin to dismantle the workings of whiteness and redistribute power dynamics in academe.

April 13, 2018
 
 

In a previous article, I invited readers to think about dismantling whiteness in the academy -- a project that moves beyond simplistic notions of diversity. I sought to show institutional patterns.

My goal in this piece is to demonstrate how we can actually begin to dismantle the workings of whiteness in academe’s service, teaching and research in order to redistribute power dynamics; the article also recognizes how inherently hostile university spaces may be for faculty members, staff members and students of color laboring through whiteness. (In Part 1, I discussed the difference between white people and whiteness as an overarching force. It bears repeating that, whenever I say whiteness, I do not mean white people.) I join other scholars in noting how the assignment of diversity work to faculty of color, directly or indirectly, actually hinders a larger transformative social justice project, one that needs to reconsider the meaning of diversity.

Academe isn’t distinct from any other business enterprise. Board member, president, provost, dean and chair are all roles that institutions overwhelmingly assign to white male and female faculty (and here I am using binary gendered language intentionally) in a lack of recognition of the changing demographics of the United States. A room filled with white administrators who promise to diversify their faculty is neither original nor honest. Instead, the work that needs to be done requires hiring clusters of faculty of color, developing collaboratives that are balanced between new junior and seasoned senior faculty members, and reallocating resources -- and not in public reports and strategic plans, as a showcasing of alleged alliance, but in private and in defiance of all the sham antiracist grandiloquence we are so accustomed to seeing.

Faculty members engage in teaching, service and research -- a tripartite that helps us think about addressing whiteness’s invisibility and its simultaneous reach. The points I am making are but a single contribution; do add your own, based on experiences and observations. This is, after all, a project fraught with underwhelming documentation. Its treatment also varies: while plenty of institutions simply assume a “proper” (stereotyped) placement of people of color, women and other minoritized folks, faculty members and administrators at other universities are more authentically and crucially engaged.

Take, for instance, service: it often seems as if faculty of color, women and LGBT people have their own set of roles and rules. Working across difference (and carrying a “diversity” banner) is expected from members of those groups. It is common to hear straight white men expecting to hear from “others” on diversity. Faculty of color are often expected to do the unpaid labor of diversity education and to deal with the confrontation inherent in such efforts. We are accepted on the condition that we operate under the expectation of “translating” our difference to the mainstream.

Women face service requirements with an expectation of empathy, whereas faculty of color are expected to mentor and support other faculty of color, as well as students, because it is easier to “fix” people’s individual feelings than the universities themselves -- which, due to institutional racism, give rise to those very feelings to begin with. To dismantle whiteness, we need to acknowledge that invisible, tacit labor and to shield faculty of color from their automatic assignment to such service. Paying faculty members for extra service, or providing course releases, is a good practice to counter this implicit demand. But not everything is about money; some principled engagement with critical race/whiteness studies would better guide a cultural shift so that minorities would not be unfairly burdened by additional work.

Similarly, when establishing teaching schedules, institutions almost automatically assign topics such as race and ethnicity to nonwhite faculty on the presumption that their lived experience gives them expertise. (Whether faculty of color wish to teach those course is not in question, but the tacit racialized assignment of the teaching of such topics is). That absolves white faculty members of having to teach something some people already see as “subjective,” while assigning this imagined (unconscious, unintentional, but still problematic) “proper” place to faculty of color.

Further, it institutes a hierarchy: to always have a white faculty member teach the required course in theory or methods sends students a message about the field. Faculty of color produce as much disciplinary and central research, but they may be assigned work according to their lived experience. To dismantle the operation of whiteness in teaching, we must support faculty of color willing to develop courses in areas of sciences, policy, mainstream arts or history that are not about a minoritized subject.

In terms of research, administrators may question the validity of the choices that scholars of color make to write about lived experience and structural racism, sexism, classism and/or homophobia. It is not “real” scholarship, either, because it amounts to an open set of methodological anxieties: “the sample is too small,” “it cannot be replicated,” “not that many people of color share that experience,” “it is not published in a peer-reviewed journal,” “it was not externally funded” or “it is not theoretically sound.” I was once, for example, on a panel where other academics put down a colleague’s work for their use of Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s work because, well, what can we learn from women of color? And how is that theoretical work, anyway?

To dismantle such patterns, universities could provide paths for tenure and promotion in scholarship in a way that works outside the peer-reviewed model. Like community-based research and public sociology -- often devalued in higher education -- academic work in books and anthologies that connect the personal with the social, or that recognizes the discrimination and racism toward communities of color impacted by violence, is a relevant as any other scholarship. Work connected to forms of social media and communication strategies should be considered, too. The end goal is to connect policy, community engagement and theoretical engagement for social transformation.

External grants often produce indirect funds, which universities bank on. Administrators should do more than merely benefit from such financial support, making at best dubious hiring practices for the sake of higher research rankings. That results nowadays in the remodeling of departments with white women as the “new” diversity model, leaving the rest of the inequalities untouched. Dismantling whiteness could shift funds into cluster hires, and that could truly change an institutionally racist culture that privileges whiteness as the norm. At its core, bringing in a single “diversity hire” to fix, or worse, “produce” diversity signals the inability of a university to produce a welcoming space for people of color. The need for intersectionality should not fall flat on chairs, deans and administrators, but it often does.

To do the work of dismantling whiteness is to background white administrators without showcasing the black administrator as a rarity. It is to have white colleagues quietly do the necessary work behind the scenes. That means a different kind of leadership where whiteness isn’t, literally and figuratively, center stage. And that also means that the administration invests its time and money less in simplistic discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion and more in a complex and truly effective diversification project of systemic change. That’s a good beginning. Or, at least, a beginning.

Bio

Photo of Salvador Vidal-OrtizSalvador Vidal-Ortiz is an associate professor of sociology at American University. He recently co-authored, along two former students, the book Race and Sexuality (Polity Press).

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