Invisible Labor

Eric Anthony Grollman discusses the exploitation of scholars of color in academe.

December 15, 2015

Several weeks ago, Audrey Williams June wrote an article for Chronicle of Higher Education about the additional service burden experienced by many faculty of color in academia:

“The hands-on attention that many minority professors willingly provide is an unheralded linchpin in institutional efforts to create an inclusive learning environment and to keep students enrolled. That invisible labor reflects what has been described as cultural taxation: the pressure faculty members of color feel to serve as role models, mentors, even surrogate parents to minority students, and to meet every institutional need for ethnic representation.”

Aptly, June highlights that this service burden (“cultural taxation”) has grown as student bodies have diversified on college campuses, while diversity among the faculty have lagged. Students of color are disproportionately poor or working-class, on financial aid, and first-generation (i.e., the first in their families to attend college). On top of the challenges of getting into, paying for, and navigating college, many students of color also enter a racially hostile environment, perhaps for the first time in their lives. (I’ve lost count of the number of students of color who have told me they are miserable at my institution, for some, even saying that this is the “worst chapter of their lives.” It’s heartbreaking.) Sure, they can turn to any faculty member, regardless of race and ethnicity, for some challenges; but, students of color may find that racial bias comes from faculty, too – inside and outside of the classroom. Thus, they turn more easily to faculty and staff of color. And, with a sense of linked fate or at least empathy, many faculty and staff of color are ready to be a listening ear, shoulder to cry on, mentor, tutor, life coach, stand-in parent, friend, therapist, financial planner, etc.

To say that few colleges are equipped to deal with the challenges of being a student of color is an understatement. This is particularly true for “Historically White Colleges and Universities” (HWCUs), here borrowing from the language of Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. With few exceptions, American colleges were built by and for white elites; today, they are overwhelmingly led by white presidents and administrators, with a majority white faculty. Racial integration and racial diversity have largely been the products of legal challenges rather than changed hearts and minds. Although it seems diversity is talked about on every college campus, its meaning is hallow. Allowing students of color into otherwise white campuses does nothing to change the racial climate; you can have racial diversity without true racial inclusion and racial equality. (Just look at how racially segregated your campus’s dining hall is.) Diversity in terms of the number of students of color doesn’t change the lack of diversity among the faculty and administration, the lack of coverage of race in appropriate courses, the absence of authors of color from syllabi, the absence and/or underfunding of Black/African/Latina/Asian/Native American studies departments, and so forth.

Short of institutional change, the burden of supporting students of color often falls to faculty of color. This is in addition to disproportionate requests to serve on committees related to diversity. And, in addition to “non-race-related” forms of service, plus teaching, plus research, plus having a personal life, plus navigating racism on and off campus. For my own professional and personal well-being, I have begun saying no to new service requests more and more. But, my heart aches a little (for me and for students of color) when I do; realistically, there aren’t many other people who have the expertise on race (be it research or personal experience). The pessimist in me, however, has reasoned that the institution has already failed students of color. If I give any more of my time away (from research, teaching, or my personal life), I risk having the institution fail both the student and me. Unfortunately, supporting that Black student is not going to be as valued – it may not even “count” as something CV-worthy unless it’s a formal activity; but, sending these articles out to journals is valued. I can’t realistically earn tenure if I’m spending all of my time mentoring students of color. And, I don’t have the time or power to change the institution to improve the situation for them (or myself).

Minimizing The Burden

What can we do in the mean time? In September, I attended the 2015 Conference of Ford Fellows – an annual meeting of some of the brightest scholars of color in the US, namely those who have received a Ford fellowship at one time. One of the conference sessions was on “Invisible Labor: Exploitation of Marginalized Scholars,” including panelists Dr. Koritha Mitchell (@ProfKori), Dr. Crystal Fleming (@FlemingPhD), and Dr. Steve McKay. Without even reading the description, I knew what the panel would be about – and that it would speak to a growing frustration of my own. And, the panelists didn’t disappoint in the advice they offered to reduce the burden of additional and race-specific forms of service placed on scholars of color. I took thorough notes, which I share below.

Think Big, Think Long-Term
  • Gain the knowledge that you need to survive in, thrive in, and succeed in academia. Professional socialization in grad school rarely speaks to the unique experiences and needs of marginalized scholars, so you may need to find your own mentor (perhaps in another department or at another university). Use external resources like the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD), books like The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure–Without Losing Your Soul, and blogs like Conditionally Accepted, University of Venus, The Professor Is In, Get A Life, PhD, etc.
  • Have a broad vision to drive your career. As new opportunities or requests to serve your department, college, or local community arise, first assess whether doing so is in line with your vision. In other words, you need not say “yes!” to everything, or use the blanket “no!” to avoid everything; rather, you can prioritize those things that bring you closer to achieving your goals.
  • Have a vision for your life beyond your career in academia. This will help to put the demands, requests, and opportunities in academia into proper context; after all, it is a job at the end of the day, and we are more than just workers.
  • Know your value beyond academia. A healthy mindset is remembering that no job can give you, or deny you, your worth. Do not fall prey to depending on external validation, particularly from an institution that benefits from your labor, to feel valuable.
  • In general, don’t feel you need to get along with everyone. Ensuring you get tenure/promotion and pursuing your personal and professional goals are more important than being liked by your colleagues.
  • Tenure allows you to make a difference for a lifetime. So, think long-term about what’s expected of you and what you value.
 Setting Priorities
  • Decide on the image you wish to portray to others. Are you exclusively focused on your research, only doing the bare minimum of service for tenure or promotion standards? Are you more of an activist or community advocate at heart, pursuing an academic career as a means to that end? Are you a teacher among teachers, always looking for ways to support and challenge your students and grow as a teacher? Whatever image you wish to convey to others, be sure that the service opportunities/request you accept should reflect that image. For example, the committee that awards grants to undergraduate student researchers may not be right for you if you’re a teacher above all else. Or, serving on the curriculum committee won’t make sense for you if you prioritize research.
  • Your energy, like your time, is limited. Devote your energy just to those things that are important to you. In particular, for marginalized scholars, give energy to those organizations that made your career possible; this approach helps you to give back or “pay it forward” so that future marginalized scholars will be supported as you were. By selecting forms of service that energize you, you can avoid or minimize those that drain you. And, in general, dispel the myth that exhaustion or busyness are signs of success; they reflect poor time-management, organization, self-care, and/or prioritizing.
Avoiding The Burden Of Service
  • Do not be flattered that you have been requested for service – any service, no matter how important or visible it is. This is especially the case for service related to diversity and inclusion; notice that your institution is likely not asking white men to serve.
  • Avoid making decisions out of fear. Ask yourself, “what is the absolute worse thing that could happen if I…[fill in the blank]?” Turn to trusted mentors or allies if you feel you cannot decline a service request without professional consequences.
  • If you feel uncomfortable navigating service, specifically declining service requests, assess where that discomfort is coming from – you can learn from it. Consider finding someone you trust with whom you can share these feelings.
  • With these conditions in mind, it is advisable to let “No!” be your default answer to new service requests. “Yes!” should be for the rare exceptions that fit with your vision, reflect the kind of scholar you are, and energize you.
Be Opportunistic About Service Opportunities
  • Pursue service opportunities that are visible on your campus, as well as those that actually have power on campus. This will give you more leverage to pick and choose service opportunities and, more specifically, to decline requests.
  • To ensure that the service you pursue is “counted” and valued, prioritize those that are in line with the university’s mission. This may help to avoid the expectation to take on “important” forms of service because the one’s you are already doing are deemed unimportant.
  • Use service as a means of making yourself an asset to your department or university by selecting opportunities to raise their profile.
  • Find ways to make opportunities for service opportunities for research. (I would add that it could also be opportunities for teaching, especially if you are a liberal arts college.)
  • Pursue service opportunities that build your professional networks and/or leads to additional professional opportunities.
  • Ask for a course reduction in exchange for taking on service, particularly highly time-consuming and high-stakes/high-status forms of service.
Get Help If Necessary
  • Find mentors who have a vision that is broader than academia.
  • Find mentors in and outside of your department, and colleagues in your discipline and subfields. They can serve as a guide for determining which forms of service to pursue (or avoid) and the ideal time in your career to do so.

What has worked for you? Please share your strategies in the comments section below!


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