In recent months, people have renewed their efforts to acknowledge and address systemic racism in academe, calling upon institutions of all types to examine their role in reproducing racial hierarchies. We are rightly cautioned against individualizing issues; racism is no more the fault of a few bad apples than it is capable of being resolved through individual action. That does not mean, however, there is no value in sharing individual experiences -- especially insofar as those experiences reveal the institutionalized patterns and practices that people of color must navigate.
With this in mind, I want to share my experience of racialized trauma on the tenure track. My goal here is not to disparage any particular department or persons but to encourage readers to consider: 1) how many people in your department might have similar stories they have not shared, 2) the ways that your department’s culture creates the conditions for racialized harm and 3) the role you might be playing in contributing to or combating those conditions.
I’m the daughter of Mexican immigrants and the first person in my family to go to college. When I interviewed for the first tenure-track assistant professor position that I would hold, I knew that, if successful, I would be the sole Latinx faculty member in the department in question, researching and teaching Latinx issues. I did not yet know that I would be the only untenured faculty member of color in the department and remain so for my entire time on the tenure track there. Within this deeply asymmetrical context, interpersonal instances of racism were both painful and dangerous to discuss.
During the interview process, I met with a full professor in their office along with another tenured faculty member after the job talk. The full professor asked me to defend the hiring of a Latina sociologist. They said, “You know, there are people in this department who think we should not hire people like you.” When I pointed to the demographic significance of Latinx people in this country and among the student body, the full professor pushed back on all my explanations, while the other faculty member remained silent. Frustrated, I noted that they seemed to be sending me a warning, more than asking a question. The senior faculty member chuckled and said, “Well, if you take this job, you will have to learn that not all Latinos eat tacos.” The comment was almost too ridiculous to unravel -- a seeming nod to the diversity of Latinx experiences delivered through a reductive and offensive stereotype. When I relayed the comment to colleagues who claimed to be allies, they simply laughed it off.
Upon starting the job, I asked to teach the large Introduction to Sociology course. The faculty person in charge of teaching assignments responded, “It is a very difficult class to teach, you have to know the entire field, and you do not know how the students will react to you.” I pointed out that I had been out of graduate school and teaching full-time for two years and assured them I was capable. They denied my request and went on to ask the other three new hires -- all white -- if they would teach the course.
Other interactions were more subtle and difficult to code. Being an advocate for a faculty of color and causing harm are not mutually exclusive. Well-intentioned people can also act in hurtful ways -- in many cases, because they have yet to process the trauma they themselves experienced on their academic journey.
For example, one senior colleague in a leadership position probably believed they were helping me by policing my behavior on several occasions. At the departmental welcome party, they overheard me telling a student that one of my classes had only six people in it, but that they were extremely engaged. The senior colleague pulled me aside and sternly warned, “I’m going to need you to stop talking about the number of students in your class.” They said nothing else on the matter, leaving me, once again, to try and decipher the message on my own. I could only imagine that they did not want me to mention the low enrollment, as they had to fight to justify the hiring of a Latinx professor.
In another instance, the same colleague scolded me for speaking during a faculty meeting when I attempted to share insights I’d gained from organizing a study abroad program in Latinx studies, where I was jointly appointed. After the meeting, the colleague cautioned me, “It’s better not to speak up and offer any information because it can be used against you.” Later, in an official mentorship meeting, this same person advised me to submit to “easier, lower-tier journals” and avoid shooting high. I later learned that they gave this advice only to me and not my white peers.
Scholars of color also confront structural conditions that remind them that they are outsiders who simply do not fit within academe. Like many other Black and Latinx scholars, I faced bias in the publication process, but it arrived in a form I did not expect. After revising a book proposal and sample chapters according to the recommendations of an editor at an elite press, I was informed that they couldn’t send my materials out for review after all, because they had no “vetted Latinx reviewers.” When I offered a number of possible candidates, they were all rejected on the grounds that none had published in presses that were sufficiently highly ranked. How the press’s own practices ensured this imbalance would be reproduced appeared to be lost on them.
I do research at the intersections of race and education. I know how detrimental it is when nonwhite students are viewed through the lens of deficiency, but I still caught myself internalizing doubts about my abilities and questioning whether I had what it takes to succeed as a scholar. To be sure, white scholars also experience impostor syndrome and feelings of alienation, and the tenure clock can feel like a pressure cooker for everyone. But I urge you to resist (and critically interrogate) the temptation to “All lives matter” the experiences of faculty who belong to historically marginalized and excluded groups in higher education. That many people share some experiences must not be used to obscure how those experiences still vary.
In closing, I’d like to offer some suggestions for how departments and those within in them could both recognize and seek to redress the racialized forms of harm they enact.
Hire more faculty of color. Underrepresentation is symbolic violence. Racial underrepresentation made my experience on the tenure track much more isolating. Beyond hiring more faculty of color, also be sure to compensate them equitably. I was among the lowest-paid assistant professors across four social science departments for my first five years on the tenure track. Knowing that affected my material realities, intellectual morale and mental health.
Make tenure procedures transparent and trust that candidates will meet requirements on time but at their own pace. If your institution has a transparent tenure process, trust that the candidate knows what is required to gain tenure. Also trust that candidates are fully aware of the pressure to publish. You don’t need to hound them with constant warnings and reminders. A colleague who identified as an antiracist ally thought they were helping when they shared, on multiple occasions, that they knew of three white colleagues who were “gunning for me” and urged that I go on the job market, as getting tenure was unlikely. My book was not under contract by my fourth year, as my provost and colleagues seemed intent on pointing out to me, but it was published within the tenure timeline.
Tailor your mentorship style for each mentee. Senior faculty give advice based on their own experiences. But unfortunately, many haven’t experienced the trauma that people of color have, which can shape the mentorship they offer and limit their ability to hear other’s experiences. Get to know mentees before offering advice. Ask them what works for them. When I finally had the courage to talk to a superior about some of the racism I’d confronted, they offered me a hug. I did not want a hug, and if they had known me even a little, they would have known that a hug didn’t match my personality and was not what I needed.
Rather than assuming you know how best to help, offer junior colleagues some options: Would you like me to ask about your research? Would you like me to avoid asking you about your research? Would you like me to read any drafts? Do you prefer it when people just drop by your office spontaneously or when they schedule a time to chat? The point here is to really be thoughtful about what works for them, not you.
Unfortunately, I wrote a book and worked to gain tenure in a racially hostile environment. Maybe you can work to ensure other junior faculty of color don’t have to do so.