This is a story about race and gender in the academic job market.
Before I begin I should probably explain that I went on the market as an associate professor. Why did I do this to myself? Briefly, my family and I live very far from our relatives. Also, I am currently the lowest-paid tenure-track faculty member in my department and was told by the man paid to manage me that if I wanted a raise I would probably need to get a new job or at least an offer that might prompt a counteroffer.
So I went on the job market and was lucky enough to score a campus interview for an assistant professor position at an liberal arts college in an ideal location. Let's just call this place Rich Liberal Arts College (RLAC). If I got a job at RLAC my family and I would be very close to our relatives. We’d be very close to several major cultural centers where my daughters and I could go to museums and see concerts and shows on a regular basis. And, most promising, this entry-level position would pay me over $10,000 more per year than I am currently making in my tenured position (plus more after tenure).
My story begins when the chair of the RLAC search committee, a middle-aged white woman, picked me up at the airport in her energy-efficient car. It was 6 p.m. on a Sunday night and since the "official" interview didn't start until Monday morning, Dr. Chair took me to Whole Foods for an "informal" meal and chat. During our drive to the idyllic home of RLAC, with its old, expensive homes and high-end shopping districts, she told me about her compost pile and I told her about mine. Once we arrived at Whole Foods and sat down with our dinners -- I had kale; I don't recall what she ate -- we began to chat informally, or as informally as one can chat when one is being not-yet-interviewed for a sweet job at RLAC and one wants to make the best impression possible.
During dinner our casual conversation transitioned, eventually, transitioned into more job-oriented subjects. Dr. Chair told me about the composition of her department, a hodgepodge of different-but-somewhat-related humanities disciplines tossed together by the whims of their administration, as is often the case in colleges and universities. Dr. Chair's field, for example, was completely unrelated to my own.
Dr. Chair also told me about the professors I'd be working most closely with if I got the job. Two of them, both white men, were on the search committee. I knew all about these men because I had researched them, as I did with everyone who was on the search committee. I would meet them at breakfast tomorrow, Dr. Chair told me. But she also told me of a third professor, an African-American woman, who was also in this department but who was not on the search committee because she was recently denied tenure. "You will not be meeting her," I was told.
I've been around long enough to know that, generally speaking, it's kind of a big deal when a professor is denied tenure. The university invested time and money in a job search to find you, and then the next six years in your professional development. So when they decide to kick you to the curb for good by denying you tenure, something in the university's communication system has broken down. So I was pretty surprised that Dr. Chair had told me about this, especially during my campus interview. That seems like a "third rail" subject to me, but, nevertheless, the subject was now on the table.
I can't quite remember the order of my conversation with Dr. Chair that followed because the entire time we were having it, my brain was having its own, separate conversation with me about the conversation the rest of me was having with Dr. Chair. What Dr. Chair told me is that the two white male professors were really distraught by the outcome of this tenure case. "They were distraught?" I asked. I tried to make this sound like a question, rather than an exclamation. After all, I know for a fact that a tenure denial is incredibly traumatic. I have friends who have endured that humiliation (notably, of the people I know well who have been denied tenure, all are women) and the process, from start to finish, is crushing to watch. I can't imagine what it's like on the receiving end.
Dr. Chair explained that the whole process had been very unpleasant and that the aforementioned white male colleagues had been "hurt" as a consequence. I said something innocuous in response like, "Oh well I suppose the tenure process is hard on everyone." But Dr. Chair assured me that there had been problems for a while. "We just want this to be a nice place," she said.
In addition to making her white male colleagues sad, Dr. Chair told me that the African-American woman who had been fired did not produce what she was expected to produce or teach what she was expected to teach. When I asked what those expectations were, Dr. Chair sighed and said something to the effect of, "She's a black feminist, you know, and it's just: not everything is about black feminism." She said this to me matter-of-factly, as if it were a satisfactory answer to my question.
It was at this point in the conversation with Dr. Chair that my brain and I were really starting to freak out. Please understand: had this been a conversation with anyone other than the chair of the search committee for that amazing job at RLAC, I would have said "What the hell are you talking about?" But instead, because this was, in fact, the chair of the search committee for that amazing job at RLAC, I just said, to my shame, "Oh."
Dr. Chair kept going. "I mean," and this, dear readers, I swear, is an absolute verbatim quote, "just because you're black doesn't mean you're good at everything."
At this moment my brain was telling me to abandon ship -- to tell this woman that her statements were offensive, inappropriate, and of course, incredibly racist -- but I kept quiet and finished my kale. I still wanted this job. I kept my mouth shut. When I got back to my hotel room I immediately Googled the woman who had been denied tenure for being a black feminist (she was not on the search committee, so I had not researched her earlier). Now, as I looked over the classes she had been teaching and the work she had completed, I was unsurprised to see that her interests focused on race and gender – Dr. Chair had implied as much. She had even done work on … wait for it … the marginalization of women of color in academe.
I called my husband and told him everything. I told him how much I wanted the job, but wondered about the ethics of taking a job in a department that is, horrifically, basing its tenure and promotion decisions on the candidate's race, gender, and political beliefs. Also, beyond being unethical, the job was also impractical for someone like me. It would be crazy for me to give up my tenured position to come to a place that doesn’t like professors to talk or teach “too much” about race and gender. Because that’s exactly what I like to talk and teach about (albeit as a white woman, which is infinitely easier than doing those things as a woman of color). If this woman was denied tenure, there was a strong possibility that I would be too, if I was offered the RLAC job.
I thought my husband would be disappointed. I thought he would tell me to give it my best shot anyway -- if I got a job offer I could always use it to get a raise at my current job and then turn it down. But he didn't say those things. Instead he said this: "Burn it down."
Look, I didn't burn anything down. I'm no revolutionary; when I woke up the next day I ironed my suit and went to that interview, knowing what I knew. However, throughout the day I was very honest about what I like to teach and write about (violence, gender, race, oppression, ideology) -- that way there would be no surprises if they hired me.
After I taught my demo class, several different faculty members who had been observing actually approached me to say some variation of "Wow, the women really talked a lot in this class!" And I kept saying, confused, "Do the women normally not talk in your classes?” Later when I sat down to chat with a white female student, the only person who attended the “student meet and greet” part of my interview, she told me about how some white male students in her class were giving her a hard time for forming an all-female working group for a class project. She and the other women in the class had been feeling marginalized, she said, and the group was helping with that. "But the guys in my class called us sexist," she said, deflated.
As we sat there with one of the white male professors from the search committee, I wondered how he would advise her on this matter. He shook his head but said little, so I said "That's impossible. Sexism is rooted in power and privilege. Women can be man-haters and bigots but they can't, logically speaking, be sexists because in a patriarchal society, men have the power. It's the same with racism. African Americans can be prejudiced, they can be black supremacists, but they cannot be racists. Does that make sense?"
"That’s such a great response!"
“Oh, I didn’t come up with that myself. It’s just the truth.”
“I’m going to tell them that the next time they say we’re being sexist.”
I beamed. It's so great when you're able to give useful advice to students. Then I looked at the white male professor. He smiled at me but I couldn't tell what he thought about the conversation.
I’ll never know why I didn’t get that job and a young, white male fresh out of graduate school did (true story). And ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What does matter, and what is incredibly troubling, is that a professor at RLAC was denied tenure because she was a "black feminist." It's also troubling that another woman told me this as if it were normal -- as if the words "black" and "feminist" were a clear signal about why someone would not be granted tenure at RLAC. With our shared love of Whole Foods and compost piles, Dr. Chair must have felt comfortable speaking to me in this way. She assumed that I, another "nice white lady," would understand these words and their import. This assumption, and the fact that I didn't call her out right there, makes me complicit.
I'm not telling this story now to simply ease my guilt (the guilt will remain, as it should). My purpose in writing this piece is to encourage others to share their stories from the job market: stories of racism, sexism, and homophobia, both casual and overt. If I witnessed it, I know others must have too. What’s your story?
The author is an associate professor in a humanities department.