Saturday, February 26, 2011


(cross-posted at The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

For the past year or so, I’ve been inadvertently collecting unpleasant and disconcerting stories from senior black faculty. These stories have come mainly (though not exclusively) from men, most of whom are incredibly accomplished and wildly influential in their fields. These academics are housed in several different disciplines across the humanities and social sciences, and their confidential disclosures demonstrate real unhappiness about their treatment in the academy.

If I had to use one word to describe how these aforementioned scholars feel, it would be disrespected, profoundly disrespected.

In these narratives, senior scholars of color describe themselves as under-appreciated by administrators, relatively marginalized (and even maligned) by fellow colleagues, and somewhat alienated from other experts in their fields.

The first time I heard such a tale, over lunch at a coffee shop in California, I tried to dismiss it as an isolated incident, one person’s idiosyncratic experience. Maybe he was just being hypersensitive. Or I could have caught him on a particularly bad (and non-representative) day. But then I sat across from a few more senior scholars (in Michigan and Massachusetts, in New York and North Carolina) with similar stories to tell (of humiliating slights interpreted as race-based disrespect), and I had to admit that something more was going on than what some might imagine as a lone faculty member’s thin-skinned bellyaching.

Of course, most of these scholars are sharing such stories with me (as their relatively junior colleague) for my own good, in hopes of steeling me for a similar (potential) future of professional discontent. Their point: No amount of publishing productivity or public notoriety exempts one from the vulnerabilities and burdens that come with under-representation in the academy.

In all but one instance, these scholars weren’t lamenting the stain of “affirmative action,” the fear that their successes were tainted by other people’s assumptions about their achievements being predicated on something other than purely meritocratic grounds. Only one person seemed plagued by such a concern. The others were arguing the opposite (or close to it): that they had succeeded at a game decidedly stacked against them, and the thanks they received was a tacit (or not so tacit) attempt to ignore them, to demean them with cool indifference and a series of daily exclusions (from, say, important departmental discussions or substantive leadership roles at their universities).

For the sake of protecting their anonymity, I won’t divulge the specifics of these anecdotes. Not one of the scholars shared their examples with me banking on the fact that I would eventually write about them in The Chronicle. In fact, some of these senior scholars probably don’t perform their disaffection in any conspicuous way, especially not in mixed company. But these intimate discussions have been so disheartening and depressing that I wanted to write something, even something relatively opaque and inadequate, to begin describing this troubling discourse.

My brief post doesn’t nearly do justice to the stories I’ve been told. Or to the seething anger that those stories narrate. And there are many people who would argue that a lot of older faculty members, no matter how distinguished, feel the sting of disregard from younger colleagues. Race, they’d say, has nothing to do with it. But these scholars are thematizing their stories in explicitly racial terms. And even if they are swinging at mere windmills and making racial mountains out of race-less molehills (or mistaking ageist mountains for racial ones), it is still important to figure out why some senior black faculty, very senior black faculty, feel that they are more disrespected than their white colleagues.

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