Tag Archives: diversity

Clicks and Cliques: Part II

As I read Michelle Moravec’s response to my “Clicks and Cliques post,” I felt something—not a thrill up my leg since she’s not Obama and I’m not Chris Matthews—but something. Dare I call it a click?

It’s different than the click that Sansell refers to. Our eyes did not meet across a faculty meeting or at a conference. In fact, we’ve never met at all. An African-American academic I follow on twitter follows her, and since Moravec describes herself as a “lover of feminism” I thought she might read my blog entry. I didn’t know if she (or anyone) would even read it, but she did, and told other people to read it too.

The “click” I felt is different, but it seems different in exactly the right way.

•  She is, to borrow her phrase, “blogging her book” and so am I. Click.

•  Her post begins by describing a particularly successful day in the archives. I know that (in)tense pleasure oh so well. Click.

•  Excellent use of metaphor. Click.

•  She appreciates and acknowledges that my thoughts about feminism and diversity in the academy lead to tough questions and she’s ready to engage. Click.

• The answer she offers to my final question has prompted me to refine my questions. Click.

To put it another way, I didn’t feel a connection because we have a shared sense of oppression; in fact, it’s entirely possible that if we continue the conversation we’ll have sharp disagreements. I am interested, feel a click because the research she describes is intriguing and she expresses a clarity about her own subject position. Most importantly, her answer to my questions reminds me that many academic feminists don’t work in academic institutions with official programs and departments.

She answers:

I know my response offers nothing by way of what to do institutionally, and I suppose that it is one of the reasons I’m attracted to my extraordinarily small college (400 students, less than 40 faculty). I really do deal with things on a case by case basis and by continuing to ask the hard questions, which for me, emerge more around interactions with students than with colleagues because I have so very few colleagues.

She also agrees with me (and, yes, that’s one reason why I felt a click) that there is a dominant power structure in the feminist academy: “I do think the ‘old girls’ club is real and that it is largely white, and that creates a climate in which homogenous expectations are established (4: This footnote links to Notes From an “Angry Woman of Color”: Academic Policing and Disciplining Women of Color in a Post (Fill in the blank) Era).”

And so I would like to expand the question by making clear that while the thoughts and questions in the original post imagined larger institutions with Women and Gender Studies programs and departments, I think the different dynamic at smaller colleges needs to be considered as well. The collection as a whole has essays by scholars of color from different kinds of institutions, and I’d like this essay to reflect a similar diversity. The stakes are different at smaller schools (higher or lower, I honestly don’t know or if that measurement even works). I’m also wondering about the generational shift Moravec’s own research reflects and what it suggests about how feminist scholars interact with one another more broadly. Years ago, when I was a very new assistant professor, my colleague, the film critic and scholar Paul Arthur, introduced me to feminist film critic Amy Taubin. The three of us had dinner, and the conversation turned to the different instances of tensions (of all kinds) among academic feminists that I’d seen, heard, and been a part of since graduate school. She summed it all up rather neatly in a way I’ve never forgotten. She proposed that it’s sometimes easier to talk to your grandmother than it is to talk to your mother. It seems an apt metaphor and a useful way to think in a more nuanced way about the state of the academic feminist union in this current moment, when we have multiple generations of feminist scholars at different levels of success in academe.

Finally, while I am happy to have Moravec’s response, I am happy to hear about bits and pieces of people’s experiences, thoughts, and ideas.


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Filed under Gender, Race

Of Clicks and Cliques: White Women, Women of Color, Diversity, and Tension

In The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present, historian Christine Sansell describes a moment of connection that occurs between women who recognize a common struggle:

…the penetrating critique of life-as-women-lived it was a point of contact between strangers and far flung-sympathizers, when other signs of affiliation were absent.  This is what Jane O’Reilly meant in 1971 when she described the “click,” feminist shorthand for the decisive moment when women’s eyes met across a room, in unspoken recognition of some outrage disguised as normal life, men’s petty dominion over women’s time, attention, labor, and self-esteem, whether expressed in monopolizing a conversation or expecting a female employee to take notes at a meeting (234)

It’s a lovely notion—the feeling that at any moment one might suddenly know with certainty that she is not alone in the face of oppressive systems.  And I think it’s a moment that feminist academics seek.  This is not necessarily because they are women, though women are undoubtedly socialized to think in terms of community, but because the success of feminist ideological, curricular and political agendas within colleges and universities are built on such connections. Perhaps more than any other discipline, Women’s and Gender Studies links activism, scholarship, pedagogy and community building.  I tease a friend of mine about how many retreats women’s studies faculty attend and joke, “you all really have to get along, don’t you?”   They do.  We do.

My question, one that must be addressed in order to have a full consideration of the main issues this collection addresses, is this: what happens when that “decisive moment,” when that “click” doesn’t happen?  What happens if the dominant group of academic feminists (middle-class white women) doesn’t share similar oppressive experiences or, perhaps more importantly, have wildly different coping mechanisms?  My sense is that instead of a click there’s a sharp separating—an almost physical, huge step backwards that leads to a sharp divide. If the phrase, “the personal is political” is one of the key tenets of late 1960s feminism, the academic is personal seems foundational to the structure of Women’s and Gender Studies.  I recognize that there are other rifts (generational and economic come to mind immediately) but I am most interested in thinking about the racial divide.

Here’s what I’m noticing.  Many white women academics collapse their struggles with the struggles that face academics of color and this leads to a kind of blindness where they simply can’t see the oppressive realities that faculty of color face and, by extension, don’t see themselves as oppressors. The language institutions use to lump groups together exacerbates the problem. Consider, for example, the phrase “women and people of color”–a designation that pairs up two different kinds of marginalized groups in ways that can lead to conflict instead of collaboration. It prompts white women academics to see themselves as natural allies with the same challenges when faculty of color are always marked as racialized and, therefore, have a different set of obstacles to overcome.   In other words, while white women and women of color share some of the burdens of gender bias, it is all too easy for white women to lose sight of their own privilege and for that blindness to result in discriminating practices that extend into the evaluative process.

I am remembering how white women in grad school were much more comfortable working with women of color in crisis or turning to them for wisdom then sitting across from them as peers.  And I’m trying to work out how that pattern of engagement influences interactions around evaluative processes.  To further complicate this tension, generally speaking, women of color respond in completely different ways to oppression than their white peers. We have needed (and developed) a different skill set to survive the academy and we have been both punished and rewarded in complicated ways for our coping mechanisms.  I think this mode of coping can feel like an indictment to those who struggle differently and in a world founded on “clicks” that relies on the notion of a common battle they can be quite threatening.  The problems are often generational and exacerbated by a white privilege that is sometimes masked by the mixed- up ideas (part myth, part reality) of a shared oppression.

We, all of us, reproduce ourselves in our personnel decisions, and when we add in the complications of Women and Gender Studies departments that rely on faculty working closely together under the umbrella of “community” things get tricky and people are evaluated not so much on their skills and accomplishments but on whether or not they “click.” My sense, taken from the countless stories I have heard over the years, is that white women in the academy forget how far they’ve actually come and, worse, they run the risk of setting up oppressive systems that don’t actually replace patriarchal hierarchies they want to challenge but simply rewrite them along feminine lines.  This plays itself out in myriad ways—namely in the expectations placed on new faculty to support Women’s and Gender Studies agendas through service.  These expectations tend to have a moral element to them since the work of Women’s and Gender Studies is so closely tied to activism and advocacy.  Pretty much everyone agrees that there has been a long-standing tension between white women and women of color in feminist movements and I count this as progress. But how does that problem play itself out in the halls of academe? In other words, is there a dominant culture of Women’s and Gender studies that is inadvertently hostile to racial diversity? If so, what can be done to fix it?  What problems have you seen?  Have you seen this issue addressed directly in your institution?


Filed under Gender

Lesson III: Double Diversity and Derrick Bell

It’s become fashionable to call for the end of tenure, to claim that it is costly, doesn’t actually result in “intellectual freedom” and rewards unproductive faculty who atrophy after they reach this professional milestone, hanging up their scholarly and pedagogical hats and easing into inertia.

Most of the people arguing for its abolition are white. And tenured.
Given that faculty of color are disproportionally clustered among the contingent ranks, most of the people who work without the security and benefits of tenure are not white. There’s something wrong with the math here and there is definitely something wrong with this picture.


Just look at the pictures of the five-person panel The New York Times assembled for one of its “Room for Debate” virtual roundtables to take up the question “What if College Tenure Dies?” The debate held only passing interest to me when it was first published, but it came to mind with the recent death of the brilliant Derrick Bell.

Bell is famous for, among other things, being fired from Harvard after he protested the lack of women of color on the law faculty. At the time he was the Weld Professor of Law and could easily have rested on his laurels, but rather than bend, rather than yield he pushed back. Or, to be more precise, he refused to come back at the end of his sabbatical until Harvard addressed this deficit.

Considered a foundational voice in Critical Race Theory, Bell is the author of And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (1987) and Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992). Students who sat in his lectures and seminars speak of him in worshipful tones, and in the days after his death, I couldn’t look at my twitter feed, my facebook page, or my favorite blogs without seeing someone mourning his passing. I know Bell primarily for his work in Critical Race Theory, but given what I’m steeped in these days, I couldn’t help but see his passing in the context of the current debates about the role of tenure in the twenty-first century academy.

The two biggest names in the Times debate were Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Presidents and Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the department of religion at Columbia University—two men comfortably settled into the privileges of academic seniority. Nelson is an ardent supporter of tenure while Taylor argues vociferously against it. He begins his contribution to the debate: “Tenure is financially unsustainable and intellectually indefensible.”

I know we live in an age when rhetorical thunderbolts abound, but it makes me queasy to see an intellectual, especially one firmly and safely ensconced in the academy, doing the dirty work for administrators who are all too willing to use economics as a way to explain why they are doing away with tenure lines and replacing those positions with the cheap labor that is contingency faculty. It’s particularly galling to have that thunderbolt from a scholar who I am sure is costing Columbia a pretty penny. I could go on about all the ways in which Taylor is wrong—particularly when it comes to thinking about how tenure makes it possible for institutions of all kinds to meet their obligations to society—but what really sticks out in light of Bell’s passing is the kind of diversity that will be left unprotected if tenure is abolished. Bell and others like him represent an ideal kind of diversity that wise, ethical, and long-sighted academics would be wise to protect.

Bell embodies what I’m calling double diversity. It is the opposite of the diversity ethos that I fear pervades humanities departments today–simple, crude diversity that tends to reduce faculty to their race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. It’s the approach that has a department saying something like, “we need a Hispanic person” and then putting out an ad for Latino/a studies, conflating the scholar (and the scholarship) with someone’s identity. Double Diversity doesn’t just mean hiring brown faces or teaching texts by colored folks. Instead, it acknowledges that the academy works best when different teaching models, different research questions, different interactions with the world are equally valued and preserved.

Take, for instance, Bell’s approach to explaining critical-race theory by relating legal concepts through allegory. He does this with Geneva Crenshaw, a character he created for And We Are Not Saved. The dialogue he builds between Crenshaw and the narrator allows Bell to explore multiple sides of a complex issue in a mode that made often dry legal analysis interesting and accessible. The responses to this model were mixed, but the critique that stands out most sharply comes from legal scholar and judge Richard Posner. Posner, who currently sits as a judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, is described as conservative, but his dismissal of Bell’s approach is a critique that could easily have come either from a conservative or a well meaning but wrong headed liberal. According to the Times article on Bell’s passing he dismissed Bell’s approach, claiming that it “repudiat[ed] reasoned argumentation,” and that it “reinforce[d] stereotypes about the intellectual capacities of nonwhites.” Posner’s assessment appeared in The New Republic, and the whole piece is infused with carefully masked anxiety, hitting all of the high points of conservative terror. It begins:

“The postmodern left is defined by its opposition to the values, the beliefs, and the culture of the ‘West,’ the ‘West’ being conceived as the domain of nondisabled heterosexual white males of European extraction and their east Asian and west Asian ‘imitators,’ such as the Japanese (Hitler’s ‘honorary Aryans’) and the Jews. The postmodern left is radically multiculturalist, but it is more, for the “West” that it denigrates is not historically specific; it encompasses liberalism, capitalism, individualism, the Enlightenment, logic, and science, the values associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition, the concept of personal merit, and the possibility of objective knowledge.”

Bell is among others Posner names, as “ensconced in American universities” and who even have “a foothold in the law schools.” And, he continues, it’s this postmodern left that has “demolished to its satisfaction universal values and criteria…”


I’ve been an academic of some sort for more than fifteen years, and this terror is what guides many decisions in the humanities from admissions decisions to how job advertisements are written to hiring and retention practices. Given that those who rise to power tend to be those who subscribe to the “universal values and criteria” model of what is and isn’t “good” scholarship, it behooves the rest of us to push as hard as possible to protect scholars whose scholarship aims to stretch the academy’s rigid boundaries. The tension in the academy is often between the old and the new. So, while scholars and administrators alike claim they value new contributions to scholarship, often “new” actually only means a slight variation of what people in positions of authority view as acceptable. Anyone invested in whole new areas of scholarship or new ways of engaging with old areas of criticism needs the protection that comes with tenure.

It goes too far to say that the most diverse academics I know are people of color. That’s a generalization too broad to make, but I know what I see and I see it because I move in a world of academic/activists of color, and the truth of it is even those who may have been intellectually trained in the most traditional of methodologies always occupy two worlds, and fact of this truth means that we bring a double-view to the table. This, in turn, means that we have learned to look at whatever is in front of us from texts to statistics to students with a complexity that benefits the academy in myriad ways.

And the only way to insure that the academy doesn’t fold in under the weight of sameness is to protect us with tenure.

Tenured, I don’t think we atrophy. I know we blossom. This suggests that the problem isn’t with tenure but with those who abuse its privileges, and, cynic though I am, I believe those are more the exception than the rule.

Bell begins his popular work with the following claim:

“Black people are the magical faces at the bottom of society’s well. Even the poorest whites, those who must live their lives only a few levels above, gain their self-esteem by gazing down at us. Surely, they must know that their deliverance depends on letting down their ropes. Only by working together is escape possible. Over time, many reach out, but most simply watch, mesmerized into maintaining their unspoken commitment to keeping us where we are, at whatever cost to them or to us.”

I can’t help but think that those who seek to abandon tenure, whether they realize it or not, are pulling up rather than letting down the ropes, and I worry that if they succeed future Derrick Bells will be left at the bottom of the well.


Filed under Race and Tenure Op-Ed, Uncategorized