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-colored 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 clamoring 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, the time for which I severely underestimated because this is my first year at this particular college. 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, e-mails 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 color, some women faculty, and some lesbian or gay 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 whose 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 professor 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 color 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 percent good. And never, ever, make a mistake, for it's not just our personal mistake, but a mistake for every person of color, past present and future. If we simply think of this differential in terms of labor, 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 behavior. 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 color, nay person of color, could tell you in an unguarded moment, the illusory community fostered by 60s social movements is exactly that: fleeting and utopian. Academics of color in particular suffer from the vertiginous histories of racial trauma that are predicated on the unintelligibility of the subject of color: 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 20th and early 21st centuries, apparently) but we also simultaneously threaten the very foundations of the institution. For as tenuous a hold as faculty of color 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 color (and professoriate in general) works, day in and day out.
In fact, faculty of color 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 color" 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 color 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 color 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 color 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 labor be appreciated for what it is, hard and good and honorable 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.
Oso Raro, who is writing under a pseudonym, teaches cultural studies, literature and film at a North American university. A version of this essay first appeared on Oso's blog, Slaves of Academe, which concerns itself with academe and racial and cultural politics.
Submitted by Alex Golub on April 17, 2006 - 4:00am
As a Jewish professor, I know that it is my lot in life to deal with stereotypes of Jewish academics. As a Jewish professor from California, dealing with these stereotypes is even more difficult because I lack recourse to the solution favored by many colleagues: acting as if the complex negotiation of my identity can be accomplished simply by assuming that "Jewish" means "from New York" and leaving it at that. As a Jewish professor from California who teaches in Hawaii, navigating my identity as a practicing Reform Jew, both in the classroom and out, has taken many surprising twists and turns.
Oxford University Press's Judaism: A Very Short Introduction notes astutely that Jews, like tomatoes, are neither "particularly complicated or obscure when left to themselves, but they don't neatly fit into the handy categories such as fruit or vegetable or nation and religion which are so useful for pigeonholing other foods and people." Growing up in northern California, I went to a high school where the blanket term "Asian" was scrupulously decomposed into a wide variety of ethnicities, which included not just Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, but Hmong, Miao, Mien, Lao, Hongkie, Taiwanese, and so forth. When I got lunch at Vang's convenience store, my Thai friend grumbled about "those hill people." But for him, as for me, there was only one kind of white person: the white kind.
It was not until I moved to graduate school in Chicago that I realized that there were different kinds of white people. Growing up in Reagan's America, "Marxism" to me meant a critique of the soullessness of suburban life. Exploitation was not about class -- it was about Mexican-Anglo relations. While I understood that my religion made me different from most people, it didn't seem to make me any more distinctive than the guy in my class whose family had a time-share in Tahoe: I missed a few days of class for high holy days, he missed them for the time share. But living on the south side of Chicago, class became an inescapable fact of life, and "color" meant "black" and "white."
That I could understand. But I was particularly puzzled by religion as a source of social differentiation in America. I traveled to Minnesota and visited small towns, which featured intersections with churches on every corner. Why did the Missouri Synod Lutherans need one church and the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans need another? And how was all this related to the graduate student parties where bizarre passes would occasionally be made at me by women whose complex psychological relationship with novels like Portnoy's Complaint and Ravelstein had driven them out of their dairy-rich farming communities and into the arms of a cosmopolitan intellectualism which they expected me to embody?
My dissertation committee consisted of three Jewish structuralists and a Protestant interested in performativity. The Protestant member of my committee claimed that reading Kierkegaard's analysis of the sacrifice of Isaac through a Derridean lens could help explain nationalism in Indonesia, but this was the closest I actually got to Judaism as a religious phenomenon. Actually that is not true. At one point as I was driving in the car with one member of my committee, she pointed out a kosher butcher shop and told me that that was where another member of my committee went "for really good meat." But that was it -- my committee was alarmed when I suggested that Judaism was not actually synonymous with being an atheist intellectual, or even who knew where to get a pound of lean pastrami.
I originally felt my move to Hawaii would be a sort of homecoming -- a return to the multicultural environment of my childhood and an end to the terrible, terrible cold I had suffered through in the Midwest. In fact I was in for a bit of a shock. Hawaii has a unique local culture derived from the state's legacy of plantation colonialism and its overthrow at the hands of a strong labor movement. As a result Hawaii owes much to the Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese workers who moved here to cut cane. And of course there is the rich tradition of native Hawaiian culture, which has experienced a renaissance here in the past 30 years. Since the United States has long been the inheritor of Spanish colonialism in the Pacific, our islands are called home by increasing numbers of Chammoro and Filipinos. The growing number of migrants from Samoa and Tonga allows Hawaii to challenge Auckland as the unofficial capital of Polynesia. And there is no doubt that Honolulu -- the forward point for the projection of U.S. political and military power into the Pacific -- has long been a center for Micronesian migration.
Further, Hawaii has one of the highest rates of intermarriage in the country, and the place is remarkably cosmopolitan given its small size and distance from major centers. The result of all this is that my students are more likely to visit Saipan than Schenectady, and know more about Pago Pago than Paris. It soon became apparent that the welcome return to my natal relation to my Jewish identity was not to be had -- and for reasons more enduring than the fact that the Web site for my new shul in Honolulu was "shaloha.com."
A great deal of my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course involves getting students to rethink ideas of race and ethnicity in light of the anthropological concept of culture. However, I feel very uncomfortable asking my students to objectify themselves in class by asking them "as an Asian, how do you feel about this?" or lecturing my African-American students about supposedly innate black athletic ability. On the mainland I solved this problem by objectifying myself and examining, for instance, stereotypes about Jews. In fact I typically use the tomato imagery from Oxford's Very Short Introduction to Judaism. "So," I said in my first class in the islands, dry erase marker in hand and ready to make a discussion-spurring list, "what are some stereotypes you have of Jewish people?"
"Please," I say generously, "This classroom is a safe place where people can discuss controversial topics civilly, so don't feel you need to spare my feelings. So: what are some stereotypes of Jews?"
Silence. As a new professor I had read countless books and articles exhorting me not to get freaked out if it took a while for someone to say something. But this time I get nothing. Nada.
"How about the idea that Jews are good with money?" I finally offer.
"You mean like they're pake?" asked one confused woman, using a Hawaiian term originally meant to describe Chinese people, but which in local slang simply means tight-fisted.
In this and other classes I quickly came to realize that when it comes to Jews the Hawaiian response to the question of "is a tomato a vegetable or a fruit" is to ask "what's a tomato?" In California, my identity as a Jew wasn't particularly relevant. In Honolulu, I am pretty much off the table insofar as the ethnic imagination of my students goes. All white people were haole -- a Hawaiian word with a slightly derogatory connotations (one of my students wears a T-shirt to class that reads "Haole you flew here I grew here".)
The problem was not just that my students didn't know that I was a tomato, they're often a little unclear on the idea that people must be sorted into fruits and vegetables. To put it another way: it is difficult to expose the culturally-contingent nature of your student's essentialist folk theories of identity when they have names like Motoko Kapualani da Silva or Brian Ka'imikaua Li. This latter student claimed to be "Japanese, Filipino, and Hawaiian." I pointed out to him that his last name was Chinese. He paused and thought about it for a second and then remembered that yes, his family was also Chinese but he had never really thought of "Li" as a Chinese name. By speaking frankly about my own identity with my students I learned that they did not operate with the same concepts of race and ethnicity that my students on the mainland did, and this insight allowed me to teach anthropology in a way that was accessible to them.
Now when I teach my intro class I engage my student's expectations about ethnic difference by approaching some of the aporias of identity in Hawaii. How does the selective retention of taboos and purity laws by orthodox Jews provide a model of how (or how not!) to creatively innovate one's tradition? Why do we speak of Hawaii as a multicultural paradise when there is so much racial tension simmering under the surface? Is the distinction of "local" and "haole" one of race? Of class? What does it mean to talk about "ancient Hawaiian tradition" with a professor whose people lived in diaspora for a millennium before the first Hawaiians arrived in the islands? Why are haole tourists noisy, rude, and overbearing compared to locals? How can we use the concept of culture to render this comportment intelligible?
In sum, living in Hawaii has forced me to rethink not just my own Jewish heritage, but the issue of heritage in general. As an anthropologist I find the challenge of working through these multiple layers of identity and (as we say in the business) “group affiliation” to be both professionally and personally rewarding. And most important of all, it provides my students a chance to grow intellectually by thinking about identity and belonging in ways they may not have before. In the next few semesters I plan to put together a class entitled "Kohen and Kahuna," based on an unpublished manuscript by a Rabbi and sociologist who studied at the University of Hawaii in the 1940s. We will not discuss Woody Allen films or where to get a pound of lean pastrami. We will discuss the comparative study of taboo, social complexity in Polynesia and the ancient Middle East, and anxiety about not being able to chant properly in your heritage language. Shaloha, everyone!
Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.