This year, I made it successfully through third year review and was reappointed at the rank of Assistant Professor. It was a good feeling -- a hard won victory, too. I started my doctorate in Fall 2006, graduated in Spring 2011 and began my tenure-track job in the Fall of that year. The last 8 years has felt like a long distance, uphill run through molasses: tedious and deeply challenging. Being reappointed has meant that while I am still “running,” my trip towards tenure feels more comfortable -- more like “jogging.” I am enjoying this opportunity to pace myself.
The experience of preparing my materials for review and talking about the process with colleagues both at and above my rank was eye - opening. I didn’t anticipate the way that race would figure into and shape those conversations and inform my experience.
I noticed that when I spoke to White colleagues about institutional standards in the reappointment, promotion and tenure process, many of them expressed discontent about the requirements and re-counted stories to me about how they’d formally expressed their disdain in writing, in meetings, by being generally uncooperative in a variety of ways. Their outrage at being in an environment that was not amenable to them or that they felt was inhospitable to their work, personhood or ideas was tremendous; I came across this “how dare they” attitude aimed at the institution again and again.
When I spoke to colleagues of color -- especially other Black folks at and above my rank -- they too communicated frustration about some of the institutional standards and culture. But our discussions were not centered on their outrage; rather, these colleagues focused on the strategies they’d used to successfully navigate an inhospitable system that did not always honor their research or personhood. These folks were clear with me: either you find a way to move through the process with your integrity intact or you leave to seek greater horizons -- which may not exist elsewhere, precisely because of my race.
In reflection, I couldn’t help but think about the reality that generally speaking, White folks do not live in a world that dismisses their ideas or their personhood because they are White. Sure, we may all have the experience of being under-appreciated or unrecognized but that does not really happen at the location of racial identity for those in the “majority.” White folks don’t walk in a universe for the most part that is inhospitable to their worldview or that invalidates their collective experiences. This is, to be sure, part of how White privilege operates: by confirming and affirming -- through policy and the perpetuation/celebration of cultural norms (like narrow readings of “professionalism”) that substantiate the universality of the experiences of the “dominant group.”
This is what I know: I, like many other folks of color know what it is to have my ideas, worldview, personhood and competence dismissed because I am not White. I have inhabited spaces that have been downright hostile to my presence again and again due to my Black woman-ness. And I don’t have to prove that to anyone. It is the story of my life.
This is what I know: living in a world without challenge can facilitate a kind of debilitating mediocrity that can make the production of quality scholarship virtually impossible. While White privilege facilitates social, cultural and political capital, it can also prop up a kind of humdrum approach to one’s work. White privilege makes it easier to be outraged at the system and to “rage against the machine” as opposed to considering, for even a moment, that maybe your work isn’t so excellent. And maybe, just maybe, you are wrong and your outrage is misplaced.
This is what I know: Some might suggest that true equity would be a world wherein scholars of color could exhibit the same kind of middle-of-the-road-ness shored up by White privilege and still make it through the scrutiny of institutional processes. I get it. But I can’t advocate for scholars of color striving to be “twice as good” to get as far as those in the dominant group or suggest that we should aspire to the mediocrity facilitated by Whiteness. Our markers of excellence have to become increasingly self-defined. We have to be the measuring sticks for our own excellence and quality because White privilege ensures that our work will never be measured accurately and the systems that evaluate us are false meritocracies to begin with.
Look, fact is, I don’t believe that anyone’s work should be dismissed because of race or that they should be treated poorly based on their identity. But I remain struck by the outrage of my White colleagues on one hand and the commitment on the part of scholars of color in the same system to remain vigilant, proactive, creative and productive in the face of adverse conditions. Because of this, my experience with the RPT process was, at once, both heartening and absurd, exhilarating and confusing.
I am glad reappointment is behind me. And yet, the discussions linger, making me acutely aware of my position as a young Blackademic trying to make my way in the world.