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Who Serves Your Cake?

Even in a progressive field in higher education, many people who believe they're operating from a place of equality have not recognized their unconscious expectations, argues Adriana Domínguez.

September 25, 2020
 
 
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At a recent department function, I came to the realization that although I hold a Ph.D. and am on the tenure track, I will always be expected to serve others. Literally.

The event was a celebratory function, and after the speeches were made, it was time to have cake. The cake, cutting knife, plates, forks and napkins all sat on a central table at the event. Everyone in the room just waited and waited. Someone even announced, “It is time for cake!” Yet no one made a move to cut the cake and continued to have their side conversations.

This was not a catered event, and no one was in the clear position to serve the cake to the guests. I, personally, had not provided the cake or any of the serving materials. I was at the event with my fellow faculty and staff members to celebrate, just like my colleagues.

After about a solid five minutes of inaction, I finally took the steps toward the cake area. Other meetings were scheduled that afternoon and, as it was clear that no one else was going to do it, I did it. I went to the cake area and proceeded, with two non-tenure-track female colleagues of color, to cut and serve the cake. Everyone enjoyed their cake and went about socializing while we wiped frosting off our hands before taking our first bite; we were the last to be served. We even laughed and joked among ourselves about how interesting it was that no one else stepped forward to cut and serve the cake.

This experience significantly affected me as the only faculty woman of color on the tenure track in my department. It reinforced what I have contended with my entire professional career: that a brown woman is always going to be expected to serve her fellow faculty members. Now, I am not new to the department (although if I were, that shouldn’t be an excuse, either) and I did not organize the event, so I had no real role in cutting and serving the cake. Yet there I was, piling the cake onto plates and measuring the slices to make sure that everyone at the event got one.

Yes, I could have stood there inactively like my colleagues. I could have waited (potentially forever) until someone else was guilted into the serving position. Yes, I could have said something out loud to encourage others to cut the cake. But I didn’t. For one thing, I didn’t want the individual being honored to feel like an imposition. And for another, I could feel the weight of my color at that event along with the expectation of me taking on that role. And although we would all like to believe that there are no politics in higher education, as a junior faculty member, I also felt an additional level of expectation to cater to the senior members of the faculty. (Other junior faculty members were present, as well -- just not faculty of color.)

Clearly, the experience bothered me enough that I felt that I had to write something about it. I have discussed it with family and friends to vent my frustrations. But I want to communicate this experience more publicly and broadly so that other people might gain some perspective about the experiences of the very few faculty members of color in institutions of higher education. I seek to remind people that such experiences can have a great bearing on a professional’s personal progression when they are seen as less than their peers.

It may seem as though this is a tiny thing -- one small event. And it is. Yet these occurrences do not feel random; they happen often enough to genuinely have an impact.

How am I supposed to compete and succeed on the tenure track when those that work with me continue to see my role as one that serves them? How much more work do I have to accomplish in order to remove myself from that role?

I thought to myself, how entitled and what a life to lead -- to always expect others to serve you. I have never lived that life; it has always been made clear to me that I am in the position that is less than others'. The experience at my department celebration demonstrated what I have always known: I am always going to have to work 10 times harder than others just because of my name and the color of my skin. I have to prove that I am qualified to do more than just serve cake.

A Conscious Decision

It is clear that I am angry. A few months have passed since the event, and it still bothers me. It bothers me because that one event is representative of my common experience.

Upon further reflection, I also thought about the other perspective. As best as I could, I took the time to look at the event from the lens of those who were being served. I believe that, over all, no malice was intended; people were just functioning as they always do. They were conducting themselves normally.

And that, in fact, is the problem. Even in a progressive field in an institution of higher learning, many people who may believe they are functioning from a place of equality have not recognized -- let alone confronted -- their unconscious expectations. Therefore, those expectations continue to permeate their interactions.

The same individuals whom I served came over to comment on how delicious the cake was and to discuss the upcoming meetings in the afternoon. Their day was continuing as any other day. They had no recognition of or understanding about what had just occurred.

I have turned this experience into an opportunity to reach a larger community: you. I ask you to make a conscious decision at your next event in higher education -- or any event, for that matter. Make the intention to think about who is serving you. And further, ask yourself, why is that person serving you? Question your expectations and entitlement at such events.

Those of us who are working our way along the tenure track can find it very lonely when we are the only faculty of color, and such experiences can make our work even more daunting. But I assure you, we can do much more than just serve cake.

Bio

Adriana Domínguez is an assistant professor from El Paso, Texas, a resilient city that knows no borders.

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