From the Publisher
"Women in academia still face obstacles built up over centuries, but the contributors to Presumed Incompetent have taken a leap toward liberation. Their revelations will enrage youand open minds and hearts."
"All my academic friendswhite and black, gay and straight, minority and majorityare putting up images of the book on their Facebook page. They don't say much except "I'm ordering mine" but the proliferation of this cryptic message is enough: indicating a tectonic shift. . . I'm glad there is a book out there that can tell it like it isa book that can do the talking for those who have to remain silent. Only in this way, with one party speaking to the other, can we begin a useful dialog. I hope everybody sticks Presumed Incompetent's image on their Facebook page. . . It will make the world a much, much better place."
Khan Ho, The Huffington Post
"Presumed Incompetent offers valuable lessons and advice for just about everyone in Academia, from contigent faculty, post-docs, and tenured and tenure-track faculty, to administrators and search committees. It is up to us to heed that advice if we hope to erase the dangerous and erroneous belief in academic women's incompetence."
Afshan Jafar, Inside Higher Education
"This book is for people of any race or gender who want to make campus a richer, healthier, more equitable place for all."
Women in Higher Education
"[Presumed Incompetent] provides a service by diversifying the chorus of voices speaking varied truths and provides a resource with which many can expand their understanding of the realities and evolutions that define our society,inside and outside of higher education."
Stacey Patton, Women's Review of Books
"Presumed Incompetent is undeniably a path-breaking book full of stories of resilience and survival. The editors of this magnificent collection attest to the power of storytelling and add to the testimonios of women in academia such as Telling to Live and Paths to Discovery. Each and every one of the authors survived and in telling their stories they offer hope and solace for young women scholars entering the academy."
Norma E. Cantú
"Exploding the myth that we live in a "post-identity" world, Presumed Incompetent provides gripping first-hand accounts of the ways in which women faculty of color are subjected to stereotypes, fears and fantasies based on the intersection of race, gender, and class. It reminds us that the mere passage of time is not enough to create equitable workplaces for anyone facing institutional subordination."
" . . . a masterpiece of frank conversation, convincing discussion, accessible prose, and courage. . . At times heartbreaking, at times hopeful, and always powerful, Presumed Incompetent is a must-read for academics, for those whose friends and loved ones are scholars, and for students of social justice anywhere."
Kate Aizpuru, Harvard Journal of Law and Gender
"A 'must read' for everyone in and outside of academia."
— Amelia ML Montes, La Bloga
"Should be required reading for students entering graduate studies. . . Highly recommended."
—R. Price, Choice Magazine- March 2013 Editors Pick
" . . . a must-read for every faculty and administrator who is committed to meaningfully 'diversifying the faculty.' There is a long way to go to achieving that goal in a way that is grounded in social justice and real transformation; Presumed Incompetent can play a significant role in helping us get there."
—John M. Ostrove, Psychology of Women Quarterly
"This book felt so painfully familiar I almost could not read it. Those of us who started our careers as firsts and onlys have had to forget much about the cruelty hidden in academic enclaves. Forgetting, a means of surviving, buries pain and erases history, leaving us morally and intellectually flimsy. Thanks to these women for taking the harder path of truth-telling."
—Mari Matsuda, author of Where is Your Body: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Law
"This book is a courageous and significant contribution – not just to gender and education studies, but towards a rethink of what the academia should be."
—Sin Yee Koh, London School of Economics Review of Books
Read an Excerpt
The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia
Utah State University Press
Copyright © 2012 University Press of Colorado
All right reserved.
Chapter One Facing Down the Spooks
Angela Mae Kupenda
Early in my academic career, a white male administrator scolded me during my annual pretenure evaluation. He did not have any problems with my teaching or service or scholarship. The problem he stated was that I did not tell him and my colleagues enough about my personal life. He said I was beginning to be much too private, just like the other woman of color on the faculty. I assured him that my coworkers did know all the relevant information about me. More importantly, they knew at least as much about me as I knew about them. He wanted me to trust them more with the intimate details of my life. I explained that they already knew those details: I was single, had no children, was close to my family and friends, lived a quiet life, was active in my community, attended church, and enjoyed travel, my books, and the arts.
Growing increasingly frustrated, he leaned forward in his chair, looked me straight in the eye, and, with his ordinarily pale face turning red, he yelled, "You must trust us more if you want to succeed here; there are no spooks behind the door!" That night when I recounted this story to one of my best friends, he said I should have replied, "You're right; there are no spooks behind the door because right now the spooks are staring me in the face." I wish I had thought of that retort, but instead I was uncharacteristically speechless.
When I think back now to this experience, I wonder if the white male administrator was thinking of some stereotype that black women—especially perhaps southern ones—are afraid of ghosts and goblins and engage in all types of magic to rid their homes and lives of these pesky creatures. The thing about an imagined, or even real, ghost is that it is not actually blood and bones that you can get your hands on and rid yourself of easily. The belief is that although they are not physically present, ghosts have a haunting power and can appear from anywhere (especially behind doors or under beds) without any notice and at inopportune moments.
As a black female academic with more than twenty years of experience in academia, to tell the truth, ghosts have haunted me: the ghosts of Jim Crow; the goblin of slavery-like, white, presumed superiority; and ghouls of sexism, racism, and classism just will not leave me alone! Beneath the surface of seemingly innocent encounters with supposedly well-meaning white administrators or colleagues or students, these ghosts linger and haunt me with words and acts that torture my very soul and keep me from being able to experience academia the way a white male with similar credentials can.
In this chapter, I plan to share with you some of these haunting encounters. I will recount the stories and what people said. Then, together, we will expose and examine the spirits behind the words that leave me struggling daily—even with all my experience—to maintain not only more than competence but also its appearance, yet seem never to receive an automatic presumption of competence because I am an academic who is black, female, southern, and from an economically disadvantaged background.
The Spooks in the Story I've Just Told
Although this story is just the beginning, it is very telling. The white male administrator knowingly or unknowingly seemed to say blacks must be entertaining to have a place with other faculty; they must share private details to appeal to the voyeuristic interest that some whites feel about blacks; and they are always afraid of what may be hiding behind the door. On the other hand, maybe he had just finished reading a book about spooks and did not mean anything, or had heard some rumor about me and wanted to know if it was true. I prefer to think that the more rational explanation is that this evaluation encounter was a visit from the enduring ghost of the slavery and postslavery treatment of black women and that academia is not immune from this ghost haunting its ivory towers.
During slavery black women were not allowed any privacy, not even for their bodies, which were inspected, prodded, used for experiments, and vulgarly displayed for the economic profit of whites. Their innermost parts were available at the whim of the white master for his own personal exploration, even for his sick pleasure. There was no such thing as the crime of rape against a black woman slave; if a crime at all, sexual violence was regarded only as a trespass on the white master's property.
White females, on the contrary, had their bodies cloaked, placed on pedestals, and protected to an oppressive degree. Even if they personally and freely chose to reveal their uncloaked bodies—to black men, for example—such sexual or marital alliances were unlawful and could lead to their black male lover hanging from a tree. Custom as well as law protected white women's privacy. For example, as a girl, I was always amazed that documentaries about countries where black women were commonly topless always showed their full black and brown nakedness, while films about similarly unclothed white women always seemed to cover their most provocative parts. It appears that for a black female academic to choose to protect some aspects of her life as private—not for display to the casual white colleague or administrative observer—is still a radical step. In contrast, the radical step for a white female academic might be to reveal private aspects of her life, especially about her sexuality.
My experiences in the workplace seem to suggest that even in academia, black women have limited choices. One is to tell white colleagues all they want to know and more, to be as comic as these people's misconceptions desire, to represent one's sexuality in a free way that whites may then claim confirms the truth of the lies told during and after slavery that black women are like animals. Following this path is most problematic, though, because whites may then argue that the black female professor's behavior confirms their presumptions that she is not fit for intellectual work, that she is incompetent. Sometimes, even when black females are carefully professional and competent, white colleagues claim they see the black behavior their minds envision because they so want to see it, even when there is little evidence of it.
For example, I mentored a pleasant, black female student who groomed herself very well and was struggling in her classes. One of my white male colleagues would walk back and forth past my office door looking in at us whenever she was there. His obvious, spooky facial expressions greatly disturbed me and made me feel very protective of, and helpless to defend, the young black woman. She took her midterms and did not do exceptionally, but her grades were salvageable. This colleague, who was one of her teachers, came to me one day after I had met with the young woman at length to develop a strategy for her success. He gloated, "That girl who just left your office is not going to pass; she wears her nails too long and pretty to be smart enough to be a lawyer. I know she is going to fail."
I could not believe that he would actually make such a racist/sexist remark and directly to me! After I stopped my neck from jerking around in disbelief of his haunting presence, I told him that his statement revealed some troubling things about him as both a professor and a colleague and he should never repeat what he had said to me or anyone else. Now I had not noticed her fingernails at all, but subsequently I saw that they were well groomed; however, it was nothing like what he was trying to suggest. However, her attempt to be an attractive black woman somehow gave him an excuse to call up this ghost and actually bring it to life with his words and perhaps in grading her papers, too.
A second choice for a black woman is to try to project an image of competence and professionalism. Nevertheless, even then a haunting is inevitable. I made a habit of going to my classes well prepared and organized. Students in my predominantly white male class commented favorably on these and other points. However, the major troubling point they expressed was that they were scared of my face when I was serious as we discussed the law. Many suggested if I came into class and gave them a big, warm smile every morning and continued smiling throughout the class, then perhaps they could accept me—a black female teacher—better. [Today I am embarrassed to admit that when younger, I caved in to their incessant pleas, started smiling more, and even told a few jokes.] The students seemed to like me better, and my class evaluations improved, but unfortunately, I found I had fallen through a trap door that led to one of the most troubling ghosts for a black female academic hoping to become a scholar: the "I want my mammy" ghost.
"I Want My Mammy" Ghosts
As the white students became more and more comfortable with me, I—like any good academic—directed some of my attention to my research and scholarship. Publications and developing a national reputation were critical if I hoped to be promoted and get tenure. The problem for me was a summer program the school had for beginning students who needed a little extra help. I agreed that the program was necessary, but as a beginning instructor, I knew that teaching in the program during the summer would ultimately mean I would not be promoted because I would not be able to devote the summer to my writing the way my white male colleagues who were assistant professors could. Therefore, after discussions with several black and white female teachers far more senior, I painstakingly—in email and then later in person—explained to my white academic dean why I would not be able to take over running the program in my first year on the faculty. I even used some of the language that the far-more-seasoned women faculty had helped me construct. I suggested that if all the professors took a turn teaching during the summer, I would be happy to take mine many summers down the road after all the senior faculty.
He did not like that. He said that some of our colleagues were not good teachers, although he admitted that they made far more money than I did. I then suggested that I could teach in the summer program and have the fall semester off to write. He did not like that proposal, either. That is when the spook really came from behind the door. He said, "We know you are concerned about becoming a scholar and getting tenure, but we can't afford for you to work on your research this summer. ... We need you to teach all summer.... Yes, there are others who can teach and who already have tenure ... but we need and want you.... We need you to teach in the summer program because you are black, you are a woman, you are a great teacher, and you nurture, mother, feed, and nurse all the students."
Years later in evaluating the reply I gave him, I admit I could have been more delicate. However, I had originally been viewed as lacking teaching competence and had struggled to overcome that, and now the only thing needing attention was my scholarship, and I knew that, and he did, too. So I could not restrain myself. I repeated his statement to him word for word. He was nodding in smiling agreement. And then I added, "Listen to what you are describing.... You just described a mammy.... I guess I will have to be a mammy for you nine months a year, but I will not be a mammy twelve months a year. Three months a year I must try to be a scholar."
In a way, I felt as if I had played a role in awakening the "I want my mammy" ghost and therefore had contributed to my own oppression. I had become a mammylike, fully accessible stereotype to make the white students more comfortable. Moreover, I had done this at great cost to my complete self and my abilities as an academic. I had participated in the séance that called forth the "I want my mammy" ghost.
Subsequently, I was talking with my mother on the phone from work and telling her about my tiring day and about how depleted I felt. She thought for a few minutes, and then she told me that what she was about to say would sound harsh, but it would explain the inner rumblings I felt. She said, "You are so tired because you feel like a clown. You smile when you do not feel like smiling. You bite your tongue and make no sound when you want to speak. You try to make the casual and watchful observers so comfortable with you, but now you are uncomfortable with this false self. You take care of others' feelings, instead of your own."
She was right. The "be my mammy" ghost and "be my clown" ghost are close kin. In both kinds of haunting, black female academics are asked, or required, to focus on presenting a comforting appearance for whites who miss the blacks of the "ole South," those whites who dreamily sing, "I wish I were in Dixie," instead of focusing on their careers as scholars, activists, and teachers. In the slavery—and even postslavery—South, for example, black women were required to place the needs of the white families they worked for over those of their own children. Unfortunately today, black women in the South still face these ghosts. When we try to ignore their ghoulish calling, we may be punished for allegedly lacking collegiality or harboring irrational anger.
I was even punished by a black female student, who insisted I "would be liked more by the white students if I would get a really good perm in my hair," thus looking more familiar. (Interestingly, this black female student did not have a good perm, either.) Black students also endure punishment for adopting hairdos that look unfamiliar to whites. Years later, I went natural with my hair. Then, many years after that, several of my black female students went natural. White classmates accosted them regularly and accused them of joining "Kupenda's agenda" by stopping perming their hair and making themselves look more natural, which the white students felt was unnatural.
Almost as troubling as seeing the rights that others believe they possess to set the boundaries of a black female academic's personal space is the loneliness that academic often feels within the female community at large.
Flying with the White Female Ghosts and Their Disappearing Acts
A junior white female colleague approached me and said, "I know everything you go through because I am a woman, too." I assured her that women do have struggles in academia. However, I told her she has one thing I do not have, and that is her white skin with its automatic, unearned privilege. I reminded her that she seems to count on my support on gender-based issues, but she and some other white females disappear and leave me standing alone on racial or racial/gender-based issues. She said she understood, but that did not stop her disappearing acts.
I am not arguing that black and white female academics cannot be allies and friends; one of my closest friends is a white female who teaches at a historically black school. I am just saying that white females have to avoid disappearing at critical points for a mixed-race female friendship to be real, instead of just an illusion. As I prepared to be reviewed as a nontenured faculty member, I had four conversations that led to my believing that there are usually spooks right behind the door—or inside the door, holding it tightly shut so the black female cannot enter—when a black female professor tries to get a white female colleague to support her on racial issues.
First, when I went to a feminist white female colleague to discuss some issues, she related to me well but confessed she had no personal experience with being a racial minority. However, she did believe that in academia there were active issues of racial and gender oppression. Second, when I talked to a very conservative white female, she angrily declared there were no gender or race problems and that idea was definitely all in my mind. Months later, this same white female tried to get me to be at the forefront of a gender battle. When I reminded her of her earlier remarks, she had a lapse of memory and looked as if she were seeing a ghost. Finally, the feminist white female told me that she would not be there to support me. She said, "You are on your own; we white women can't help you with any of your problems with racism. But it is going to be fun to watch how it all turns out." Fun to watch?! I cannot recall ever watching anyone's battle with sexism, classism, racism, or any other -ism and having fun doing it. What is even more amazing, though, is that this same white female told me that they needed me at that school to help "lead the white women in the battle over sexism." In my academic career, I have often found better support among a few white males.
Excerpted from Presumed Incompetent Copyright © 2012 by University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of Utah State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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