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An Inconvenient Presence

It’s the job market season, and I find myself reading and thinking of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, a book-length hybrid narrative of unsettling perceptions of historic and everyday race, racisms, colorism, microaggressions and generational trauma in America. This is the time of the year when only a select few Black, Indigenous, people of color and queer candidates will be invited to campus visits—virtually or physically. Yet while potential candidates can find plenty of articles offering advice—as well as webinars, podcasts and workshops—about preparing for the academic job market, little to nothing less exists about the challenges that BIPOCQ faculty who serve on hiring committees face. And in spite of various DEI guidelines for searches to promote equity, avoid unconscious biases and invest in conversations about racial justice on various campuses, being on a search committee in predominantly white institutions can be a harrowing experience for many faculty members of color.

The truth is that BIPOCQ faculty understand the institutional value of being on hiring committees, both as advocates for promoting serious diversity and as scholars and teachers who have experienced firsthand the trials of being marginalized at their institution. But many BIPOCQ faculty report that their critiques of the different standards used to evaluate BIPOCQ candidates versus white ones, as well as their objections to the glossing over of unconscious bias guidelines and overprioritization of the “right fit,” have created tense search committee meetings. In fact, when BIPOCQ search committee members express their affirmations of and support for highly qualified marginalized candidates, those recommendations are often ignored, met with passive-aggressive resistance or weaponized against them as being hostile, noncollegial and even uncivil.

To be clear, I’m not talking about any particular institution, including my own, here. But my comments do reflect the experiences of many BIPOCQ faculty members, particularly women of color, who serve on search committees in predominantly white institutions across the country.

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So let me get back to Rankine, who writes,

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.

At the end of Rankine’s prose-poem, she introduces readers to a new term: John Henryism. It is used for people who are “exposed to stresses stemming from racism.” Rankine tells us that this term was coined by Sherman James, who said that the “psychological costs were high.”

So, I keep asking, what are the psychological costs of institutional racism and microaggressions that many BIPOCQ and marginalized faculty experience at many higher education institutions around the country when they are asked—or required—to be on hiring committees? Do they have adequate responses to the kinds of negations and erasures that they witness? Like Rankine, do they confront the perpetrators directly? Or do they keep saying loudly in their heads, “Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?” as Rankine asked herself.

Instead, many BIPOCQ faculty on these hiring committees exit these meetings outraged at the audacity of their white colleagues to assume that a colleague-to-be is somewhat lesser than the person whom their predominantly white committees would rather recommend to the dean. They feel insulted realizing that this colleague-to-be is seen as nothing more than a “diversity candidate,” contributing to the institution’s diversity mission or fulfilling the need to have a diverse pool so that the search is not deemed a “failed search.”

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And then a point comes during the final deliberations when many BIPOCQ faculty are simply appalled. Their predominantly white committee begins to list the numerous ways in which the BIPOCQ finalist colleague is not their top choice. They say how he/she/they are “so nice” (meaning not assertive) or seemed “aloof” (meaning not interested in the culture of whiteness), or that their publications are in unfamiliar journals (meaning not related to the culture of whiteness). Then they express their most important concerns: “Will this potential colleague-to-be be ‘happy’ in our institution or our predominantly white town or city?”

If you are such a BIPOCQ faculty member, you may at this point have mustered enough courage to ask, “What exactly about this institution or the town or city will make this BIPOCQ colleague unhappy?”

Your query is met with dead silence. As if you are not even present.

So you probe again and ask, “Where is the deficit? How do you know that this other white candidate you prefer from the Ivy League will be happy here? Aren’t such lines of speculation a violation of our search guidelines?”

The white committee members finally speak. They hesitantly say how the BIPOCQ candidate’s file is not as well rounded. “There is a bit too much emphasis on serving underrepresented students, and our institution does not have too many underrepresented students yet,” says a committee member. Others nod their heads. They all avoid making any eye contact with you.

Another white man (about to retire) jumps in and comments, “I want to be honest. I don’t want to set up this nice Black woman for failure. Our students are not quite ready for the kinds of courses she would offer. Hiring her would mean a curricular revision. We are not ready to change our curriculum yet, are we?”

You remind the other committee members that the candidate is nonbinary and would prefer the pronoun “them” instead.

You also explain how this candidate will not only contribute to the expansion of the curriculum but will also help close a large gap in it. Then you read to them from the last departmental external review where the reviewers specifically emphasized “the urgent need to expand the curriculum by including marginalized and minoritized voices and hiring faculty of color.”

Your other white colleagues continue to offer more rebuttals against the BIPOCQ candidate, mostly speculative or cursory in nature. Only one other colleague, an untenured junior colleague who had initially supported the BIPOCQ candidate, now remains silent. The head of the search committee is also chairing her tenure committee. Later, in private, she expresses to you her discontent with the search and apologizes for not voicing her thoughts.

Finally, the search chair announces his verdict. “Well, you see, our top choice has the potential for receiving that enviable prize one day.” He beams as he promotes a coveted prize that only white scholars have received for the last few decades. “That letter from their adviser at [insert name of any Ivy League institution] was brilliant! Imagine the name, the fame that this candidate’s dissertation, ‘The Ode to the Nightingale: A Coded Opera,’ would bring!”

You compose yourself and tamp down the imminent explosion you feel rumbling up within you. You breathe deeply and then blurt out, “Well, I am afraid I am not on the same page with you. That Ivy League institution still has buildings named after slave owners. Besides, how many more faculty members do we need who can contribute to the various sights and sounds of nightingales on campus?”

And then you drop the bomb.

“The point is, I am done with this discourse on whiteness,” you say. “Our students are done with them, too. They have lost their relevance. What we need are fresh and clear voices that will revitalize and decolonize our curriculum, expose our students to Afrofuturism, digital humanities, works on racialization, Latinx speculative fiction, poetry, music, the rewritings of the Vietnam War, the literatures on the Dalits, the refugees, Palestine and new courses for our LGBTQI students.”

You know you have made your point. You can tell your white colleagues are angry even though they try to hide it at the meeting. They are quiet, which means that they are defensive and angry. And in the next few days, you watch them act uncomfortable around you. You witness their quick steps of avoidance if they see you coming toward them from the other direction.

This is where the psychological costs begin to pile up. You realize that, one day, you were on the other end as a candidate. You wonder what those same colleagues thought of you—or still may think of you. While you have never considered yourself to be inferior as an intellectual, writer, thinker or teacher, you are suddenly wondering if you really are. You wonder if you have anything else to offer the institution other than checking their “diversity” box.

You have gone down that path before, and you remind yourself that you earned your tenure and were promoted. You are even a full professor! You fought the last gatekeepers that wanted to keep you on the other side of the fence—those who wanted to discredit your voice, leadership, scholarship, teaching.

You remember standing up at a recent faculty meeting, naming the various microaggressions that the few BIPOCQ faculty on your campus face and asking academic leaders to revise and reframe the institution’s policies on discrimination and harassment. In response, some of your colleagues criticized you for being “angry and hostile.” Your department chair complained that you were noncollegial and “not nice.”

You want them to read Sara Ahmed’s new book, Complaint! You want to tell them that you are glad that they made the complaint against you, since complaints made by gatekeepers are a way to inventory how institutional whiteness is threatened, preserved, reaffirmed.

But at the search committee meeting, you won. You were heard, although your voice was never acknowledged. Once again, you ignored their racist emphasis of needing more books to be written on nightingales or the like to preserve whiteness. And once again, you made it clear that they were applying differential standards while deliberating on candidates.

They finally voted for the candidate of your choice. Not all of them voted, but enough did to make it possible for the dean to make the offer to the BIPOCQ candidate.

And now you’ve got more work to do. You need to begin to think how you can save your new colleague-to-be from John Henryism.

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