You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Throughout the pandemic, various articles have explored the many challenges women of color faculty have encountered, including the amplification of structural inequalities, particularly for women faculty with caregiving responsibilities; barriers to publishing; and the extra labor of resisting racism and other forms of systemic exclusions. But we’ve also seen essays that highlight new possibilities that the pandemic has engendered, including rethinking academic leadership and teaching toward social justice.

In this piece, we’ve followed the thread of new possibilities, examining what we are learning during these difficult months and how it may fundamentally change the relationships that women of color faculty have with the academy. What transformative possibilities are enabled by the institutional changes enacted during COVID-19, including working from home, holding classes and meetings online, and other shifts in labor? What innovative spaces or strategies are we creating that we may wish to retain once the pandemic is over? How might power be reconfigured in new kinds of remote spaces like Zoom?

Embodied Responses to Institutional Spaces

So many of us who are faculty of color at predominantly white institutions experience physical reactions to hostile work environments. We have discussed among ourselves a shared sense of bodily discomfort, like knots in the stomach when arriving to campus. That type of discomfort is an embodied response to spaces where we regularly confront countless tiny paper cuts, or microaggressions, that structure our experiences in the academy. We consider those embodied responses as racialized and gendered, like those Resmaa Menakem discusses in My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, in which he writes that racialized trauma “lives and breathes in our bodies.”

Our work as women of color faculty is, indeed, deeply embodied: how our bodies are seen and treated on our campuses, how we come to represent “diversity” within our institutions, and how we feel on a physical and somatic level as we moving through spaces that are so often hostile to us. In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed calls this work that so many of us perform “diversity work,” the work that we do when we’re trying to transform institutions and also the work we do when we do not fit the norms of those institutions.

Experiences as “diversity workers” within the academy are often hard to talk about -- isolation, exclusion, racialized harassment, a lack of mentoring and other support, invisible service requirements, and unbearable workloads are just some of the effects of racism, sexism, ableism and other forms of oppression that many of us encounter on a daily basis as women of color in the academy. Ahmed describes the brick walls we come up against when we try to change institutions to make them more welcoming to those of us who have often been excluded and marginalized.

But, as Sandy Grande argues, struggling for inclusion and recognition within academic institutions also furthers and maintains the power of the state and sustains settler colonialism. Instead, Grande draws on Audra Simpson’s “politics of refusal.” We are intrigued by how the shift to remote learning enables us to engage a politics of refusal -- to refuse some of the norms of the academy, including its gatekeeping policies and its racialized logic of success and merit that renders much of the work we do invisible or deems it meaningless. Through a shift away from physical spaces of trauma, is it possible to move toward healing, not only for ourselves but also for our students and our larger communities?

‘Having a Seat at the Table’

In the multiple sites of the struggle for justice, the language of potential change is sometimes visualized through the image of a conference table around which power has been historically consolidated. Being at this table, as this phrase suggests, means previously marginalized or underrepresented people and perspectives are finally included and represented, penetrating the often-exclusionary enclave of academic institutional power.

When we think of university leadership, this table is a long oval industrial table, covered in dark-brown melamine and ringed by plush chairs with armrests. It is centered in a room with a wall of windows and the ubiquitous décor of books and walnut panels. There are two doors on opposite ends of this room, and to enter or exit requires passing by the head of the table.

University offices often draw from the architectural idioms of corporate spaces, and despite recent shifts in the design of the workplace, they remain stuck in the gendered, hierarchical postwar office spaces that signal male authority. Such spaces look somewhat different within different kinds of institutions -- for example, liberal arts colleges, large public universities, land-grant institutions, HBCUs and predominantly white institutions emerge from varying histories in distinct locales.

Picturing some of our institutions, we consider the systems of power that shape the spaces in which we work. When we walk into a conference room, a convergence of the spatialization of institutional power and of white patriarchal order, our heart rates often accelerate. More frequently than not, we have the experience of being the only woman of color in that space. Though we may have a seat at the table, we are also acutely aware of how such institutional spaces are racialized and gendered, and as we walk past the head of the table, we wonder where we should sit.

But the move to remote learning during COVID-19 has changed the spatialization of institutional power organized around the conference table. Meetings on Zoom have remapped the hierarchical ordering of power into a grid, leveled and flattened by the screen, where we all visually occupy the same amount of space. While meetings may still be conducted and mediated through gendered and racialized leadership virtually and figuratively positioned at the “head of the table,” working from home has also revealed the extent to which the flows and structures of power exert themselves on us through the material and symbolic spatialization of an actual conference table. No longer buttressed by the infrastructure of white patriarchal power masked by depersonalization, online meetings are re-spatialized and insistently personalized through, for example, the interruptions of children and demanding pets or the uneven interest and talent that people demonstrate in their interior design.

We recognize that systems of privilege and oppression make it easier for some people to show their homes than others -- coding class status and the privilege of a private workspace, for instance. And interruptions of children are frequently associated with the gendered burden of caregiving responsibilities, which may be celebrated for some but scrutinized or judged for others. The disembodiment of online meetings is not always liberating.

Yet we read this disembodiment as also a re-embodiment not defined by institutional spaces, showing us some path, however small, outside the institutional norms that have structured so many of our experiences in the academy. Our working from home is also a form of embodiment that connects us to familial spaces, which may potentially be spaces of empowerment and connection that we had to erase when seated at the table. Now, we can change the view settings from speaker view to grid view or even minimize our screens. We can speak with the camera turned off. While the pandemic has widened racial, economic and gender disparities, the move online has also revealed the extent to which the struggles for justice, inclusion, equity and social change necessitate reconfiguring the spatial organization of institutional power.

Limiting Injury: A Move Toward Healing

For BIPOC academics and particularly women working in highly masculinized and heteropatriarchal spaces surrounded by “white fragility,” in the words of Robin J. DiAngelo, experiences of microaggressions are an inescapable everyday reality. Such a reality manifests into invisible bodily harm and injury, fear, fatigue and anxiety, or “cultural taxation” caused by our obligations and expectations to show good citizenship by serving the diversity missions of our institutions. Taken together, these visceral experiences form the anatomy of what is called racial trauma in the academy. Given that most institutional mechanisms are incapable of addressing and redressing the harm and injury caused by racial trauma, many of us ask this question privately and collectively: Will we ever heal?

Sometimes the sites of such trauma are in physical spaces, like the buildings where we work, or in encountering colleagues and administrators who may have harmed us through their complicity with institutional forms of oppression and violence. Then there are those who have actively injured us by their various acts of retaliations, microaggressions and micro- and macro-invalidations. Our bodies have witnessed these layered traumas in various rooms or hallways inside concrete and contained buildings, some with windows and others without. This is why our bodies are instantly stressed when entering particular work spaces. Trauma, as Ocean Vuong writes in On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous, “affects not only the brain, but the body too, its musculature, joints and posture.”

As the pandemic hit last March and we were all thrown into learning an entirely new mode of engagement via Zoom for both our classes and various meetings, many of us faced a steep learning curve. Yet as months passed, we realized that something has altered -- namely, our own relationship to our institutions and some of our colleagues. We no longer have to see them, pass them in hallways or plan our exit strategies if we sense they are walking toward us. We no longer have those knots in our stomachs or the anxiety of going to a meeting where we had been the only voice of dissent on a hiring or awards committee defending a BIPOC faculty member or student. Our bodies remember the silent anger transmitted via heavy breathing and stiff postures from those sitting opposite us.

While the pandemic has indeed been devastating in terms of many losses in both lives and livelihoods, it may have also given us an unexpected though complicated gift: a gift of healing by keeping the cameras off to protect ourselves from witnessing the memories and sites of trauma; a gift of invisibility while being included on our own terms; a gift of both autonomy and agency from the safe space of “home” where the stomach is no longer in knots.

Notions of visibility and invisibility have deep implications for women of color in the United States. As Asian American women in academe, we know all too well what it’s like to be rendered invisible or, conversely, made hypervisible to affirm the diversity of institutions or specific programs. As anti-Asian hate violence has sharply escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic and hate incidents targeting Asian Americans, particularly Asian American women, have surged by nearly 150 percent, we’ve experienced some comfort in the ability to disrupt the binary framework of visibility/invisibility. Turning off a camera while still engaging in a discussion, or shifting to another mode of communication such as chat or text with colleagues during a department meeting, offers an intervention, however small, and opens new possibilities for creating solidarity with others outside of normative structures of the academy. Perhaps the pandemic has opened up possibilities of doing diversity work from the outside rather than inside the institution.

In a conversation with Angela Davis, reflecting on sustainable activism in the 21st century, Grace Lee Boggs said, “The time has come for us to reimagine everything.” In these challenging times, the idea of reimagining our world offers some hope for transformative justice. So much during these months has felt heavy, difficult, overwhelming. Our communities feel a sense of collective grief, and some days the daily tasks of our work within the university feel impossible. But coming to these conversations with other women of color offers a sense of hope and comradery. It also offers an opportunity to imagine new possibilities for changing our relationships to oppressive institutional spaces.

Next Story

More from Career Advice