Grad students of color and white faculty FAIL

Via Inside Higher Ed, Karen Kelsky at The Professor Is In has a riveting post about the challenges facing graduate students of color and in overwhelmingly white departments, which is to say, the vast majority of academic departments in any discipline you can think of in the United States and Canada.  She’s been affiliated with three public research university Anthropology departments, and she details the ways in which the faculty in two of the three failed to respond effectively to the questions that graduate students of color posed to them, their discipline, and to their way of conducting business. 

The whole thing is worth a considered read, especially if you serve as a professor or advisor of graduate students and/or if you’re interested in dysfunctional departmental dynamics.  (Like most of us, she’s like a neurologist:  more certain on the diagnosis than on ideas towards a cure.)  While it won’t be a surprise to any nonwhite readers, perhaps some white readers will be taken aback by her frankness in discussing white privilege among so-called “white allies:”

Here’s what I want to say. I learned through these interactions that the vast majority of white people in the academy are absolutely clueless when it comes to race. Not race as some abstract category of analysis “out there,” but race as it is manifested daily in their/our own subject position and actions.

One archaeology colleague remarked to me at a cocktail party, . . . “Too bad for you cultural anthropologists. You should be like us in archaeology. We don’t have any race problems. Because all of our students are white!” I gamely tried to explain to this colleague that the absence of students of color in her program was actually a more profound sign of a “race problem” than any visible conflict could be, but she was unmoveable.

.       .       .       .       .       .      .       .       .      

Anyway, it goes without saying that graduate students of color so often feel heartbreakingly isolated in their departments and completely without a friend or ally. That when they try to talk to white faculty about race—not so much as an analytical concept, as a systematic source of blindness about how syllabi are written (ie, with exclusively white scholarship) or how classroom discussions are conducted (ie, when the tentative critiques of students of color are instantly and angrily shot down by defensive white students and faculty), they are met with on one end, bewilderment, in the middle defensiveness, and on the other end, hostility. That when they try to engage their white graduate classmates in a collective intervention, the white graduate students are often MORE defensive, angry, and hostile than the faculty members themselves, probably because of their own status insecurity.

(OUCH on that last point, as someone who was once a very defensive undergraduate and graduate student, and who struggles with defensiveness even today.)

I appreciated that cocktail party anecdote in the middle paragraph.  I’m sure that all of you white readers have been in on conversations with other white people in which you were presumed to be an ally with an essentially racist opinion or point of view.  (If not an ally, they didn’t think we’d ever tell on them, right?)  Do you think white disciplines and white departments really want to change?  What are effective strategies for making non-white students and non-white perspectives part of the way we do business? 

This is a question that feminists should be in sympathy with, because it’s undeniable that the influx of women into the academy is clearly linked to the production of feminist scholarship.  In my experience advising M.A. students, I’ve personally seen how gay graduate students have come up with fascinating questions and innovative ideas for coming to new conclusions in their research in the history of sexuality.  Our departments and our disciplines have a long way to go, but at least in the humanities departments I know of, they are much more inclusive of white women and white gay faculty and graduate students than they are of faculty and graduate students of color.

What do you think?

21 thoughts on “Grad students of color and white faculty FAIL

  1. I think the entire article is definitely worth a read, as is the comments section, though I’d also recommend it to graduate students and not just faculty/advisors. Thanks for the heads-up on this one!

    I’m starting doctoral studies in a couple of weeks, so haven’t any personal takes on this in academia. In commercial archaeology, I have had conversations with people about the whiteness of the field (I won’t say lack of diversity; there’s a lot of unacknowledged and not-visible diversity that tends to be ignored). There are those who don’t see this as a problem (!!!), those who put the responsibility on the unrepresented groups (“We’d hire them/read their stuff if they were actually interested/published”), and those that actually acknowledge and engage the idea (though often in my experience this ends at “but I don’t know what to do about it”).

    A couple of thoughts, though. It can only be helpful, in any discussion of difference, to be explicit about what is being considered normative; different from WHAT? Discussions of white people in archaeological literature usually don’t mention that they’re white; assemblages from sites occupied by non-whites are often compared with assemblages from white sites as though the white-generated assemblages were “the norm” without consideration of what that means. Race isn’t the only topic where this plays out; it also shows up in discussions of economic ability. In addition, writing about or thinking about various ethnic groups (including whites) as though they were homogeneous is only asking for trouble.


  2. One day white people, especially white academics, will understand that whiteness itself is a normativity, a conceptual scheme that is not only not reducible to having white skin, but may actually be irrelevant to it in many circumstances. Whiteness is an invisible privilege, and at least some of its insidiousness comes from the undeniable fact that many well-meaning, educated people who have never been marginalized specifically because of whiteness may quite literally not see how the normative aspects of whiteness permeate their own work (syllabi, readings, perceptions on local power dynamics, etc.)

    Although I am not now and have never been in a position to advise or mentor graduate students, I do not doubt for a moment the legitimacy of Kelsky’s perspectives. I try, every single day, to practice being a person who is less masked to the pervasive and insidious ways in which whiteness colors not only my experiences as an educator, but the very things that I do, the choices I make, and the perceptions I have in my department, institution, and school.

    I miss things, of course — a lot of things, having never been marginalized because of whiteness — but here’s where fallibilism and humility are so important for me. I demand of myself that I be open to having the effects of whiteness on my own perceptions and practices shown to me, even where I may not see them myself. That doesn’t, I believe, require abdication of my own critical faculties, but especially as a white man working in a regional public uni in the South, I think the absolute minimum I and others should have a right to expect of me is an openness to the many forms and ways in which whiteness shapes all of our practices, including my own.


  3. The faculty of my engineering school is fairly non-white, including about half the department chairs. Proportionally, there are more non-white graduate students than non-white faculty (not a surprising trend, right?). However, “not white” isn’t necessarily enough to evaluate whether this is diverse.

    Non-white faculty are from Asia or Middle Eastern Countries; there aren’t really any from South America or Africa. I can think of one Hispanic professor in Civil Engineering; also, the lab manager [who does some teaching] in Biomedical Engineering. There are no black faculty.

    So it isn’t terribly surprising we don’t have anywhere close to a representative number of African-American graduate students; all the non-white grad students I know of are international. While engineering doesn’t tend to have Anglo-centric perspectives that influence scholarship, society is a hugely important influence of engineering design (what do people need? what can people afford? etc.). Engineering research therefore suffers when it doesn’t have a sufficiently broad-based understanding of people, so I see inadequate diversity as a direct contribution to a less-well-prepared student body, and less-adequate research output from faculty.

    But what do I know, I’m just a grad student 😛


  4. As someone who teaches at a school where self-identified whites/anglos make up about one-third of the student population… but almost *all* of the grad students in our small M.A. program:

    I think that most of us are well-intentioned, but clueless.

    I think that hiring a person of color or admitting a certain number of students of color allows us to feel too satisfied with ourselves.

    I think that most of us can never really know how isolated these students (and faculty!) might feel.

    I suspect that students of color may be hesitant to speak up about their experience for fear of drawing attention to the fact that they exist *as* people of color, and thus awakening that dormant “only a diversity admit” thing that may be lying dormant.

    And I *know* that I’ve likely been all of the above, and would like to not do so in the future, but I also know that it’s not the job of students of color to teach me how to treat them fairly. So I’m going to try a trick: Imagine that I am a woman in an nearly-all-male academia, say, fifty years ago. What am I experiencing? What can/can’t I say to my professors? What little offhand remark that they think is witty is actually cutting to me? What do I wish they’d do instead?

    It’s not an exact fit, I know. But it might get me on the right road.


  5. It’s been my impression that when questions of “racial diversity” (or the lack thereof) emerge in departments, there is a presumption that it is the people-of-color faculty who are supposed to “solve” the problem. Indeed, it seems for some faculty that they feel they have done enough by even consenting to hire one or two minorities.


  6. Just an interjection here: Digger suggests that this is for white grad students to think about, too. I intended my post to read this way, although I think in the end that faculty bear a greater responsibility for acknowledging and addressing these issues. Faculty leadership, according to Kelsky, is key. I agree, so that might be why the post is addressed more to faculty types than grad student types.


  7. Given the blogging and commenting I’ve done over the past few years on this issue, I think it’s clear where I stand. Without question, graduate school was the first place where I had to combat blatant, sustained, and unacknowledged racial bias, and it was from faculty, not from my colleagues. In all likelihood, I would have had to deal with this in any workplace that I spent my mid-20s in–facing the real world and all that. But the irony hasn’t escaped me that I had to fight a losing battle against assumptions made about my intellectual capacity based on nothing more than my skin color (at least in six years, this remains the only thing that my colleagues and I can come up with to explain why I was treated in the way I was) in a place and culture that prides itself on being liberal and progressive.

    As for faculty members, I’d say this: clueless is one thing. I try to be mindful of the fact that white faculty members haven’t grown up nonwhite and haven’t worked their way through the academy as nonwhite people, so they have no idea what it’s like and very few people in the world at large can truly put themselves in the shoes of a person different to them. Intransigence is another. There is nothing more demoralizing than having your experience of a situation be flat-out denied and overlooked.

    Here’s how NOT to handle a nonwhite student who comes to you with a problem: do NOT tell them to draw a line under the issue and act as though it hadn’t happened and then send them on their way to continue dealing with a situation that has not been acknowledged.


  8. In my experience, getting minority voices into graduate classrooms is a slow process to start but it quickly builds upon itself.

    In both my grad program and at my current position there have been huge pushes to bring people of color in as both graduate students and as faculty members. In my grad program this was combined with mentoring promising undergraduates. And, the mentoring of the undergraduates got much, much better once a grad student of color got involved. Now that there is finally a person of color in the faculty, recruitment has improved even more. Surprise! This was at a state school with a large Asian American population.

    Skip over to my institution now, where Asian Americans flat out don’t count as “under represented” and are therefore not eligible for scholarships or special tenure lines. (I’m pretty sure 2 out of 80 faculty members in my program does not count as “under represented.”) We are finding it very hard to recruit good graduate students of color, other than our non-American students. We had a lot of problems hiring a scholar to fill our diversity tenure line (held open for 2 extra years). (Due to the very small “supply” in the field, the scholars of suitable promise and quality were getting positions at Ivies, and our current hire was a miracle because her family lives nearby.) Our hope is that her presence will now help us build more momentum.

    Of course–remembering that my program was about 15% non-white–I had literally the opposite experience to this in graduate school:
    That when they try to talk to white faculty…how classroom discussions are conducted (ie, when the tentative critiques of students of color are instantly and angrily shot down by defensive white students and faculty), they are met with on one end, bewilderment, in the middle defensiveness, and on the other end, hostility.


  9. We all need to unpack our invisible backpacks, don’t we?

    It should be on all of our shoulders to think about how others, unrepresented or under-represented in the field, experience academic life.

    There are many reasons why academia continues to skew so white, so male, so cis and so Anglo and we’re all part of the problem at one point or another. If we can graciously admit our ignorance and faults, and seek to amend them? At least we have hope.


  10. So here’s what I’ve been ambivalent about: is it a good idea to recruit grad students of color into PhD programs where the job market is so bad across the board? Is it ethical to recruit grad students of color when you might not have enough departmental funding to fully support them or might be cutting way back on their funding once they are in the program?

    And what about recruiting when there are one or more faculty in the department who are actively hostile and unpleasant to grad students of color — or, like my former department, pretty evenly split between faculty who are attempting to be supportive and those who are mean and contemptuous? Is it ethical to actively encourage students to come to a department where you know they will get mixed treatment — or where previous students of color have a history of transferring out?


  11. I think Sisyphus raises some important questions that have no easy answers. I myself find this tricky: on one hand, I think the academy is is desperate need of meaningful diversity. Desperate. The overwhelmingly white humanities academy is simply unacceptable. That said, we can’t sacrifice individuals in pursuit of some idealistic goal of more diversity, and the reality is that many programs do little more than chew up students of color and spit them out. As I mentioned at Kelsky’s original post, I think the problem gets worse when we’re speaking about students who are in fields that don’t square with their racial and ethnic identities and therefore may not have access to the scholarly communities of like-minded colleagues and faculty advisors who also are members of that race or ethnicity.

    I’d also note that money alone doesn’t solve the problem. While it’s certainly important, there are also programs that believe throwing money at students of color is the only thing necessary and so don’t make sure that students of color aren’t stranded with unsympathetic advisors, etc etc.

    I’d say it has to be a case by case basis. I’d never recommend that a student of color go to my institution, even though there’s now one or two professors of color who are well-liked and have a reputation for working well with students of color who work on their ethnicity. B/c if you do run into trouble at my institution, you’re screwed. And I would like to think that there are some professors who know which of their colleagues aren’t up to the job and might end up running a student of color out, and would do what they could (within reason) to steer a student of color away from that advisor or at least make it clear to that student that they’re a resource.


  12. The whole exchange sounds foreign to me. Our department always has African American and Hispanic doctoral students. Of course, we have a large body of Asian students. (Is that a color?) A third of the faculty is women and a large group is of Indian descent; some of them consider themselves colored.

    Of about 40+ doctoral students that graduate under my advising, two were African Americans and one Hispanic. None of them had any problems, not even technical ones. On the contrary, I attended the two women’s wedding (as the only white guy and was treated as royalty) and kids birth celebrations. Until now I never thought about it; my kids dated African Americans which didn’t bother me at all.

    May be you have to be forthcoming, don’t assume that you can get into the student’s shoes (any student) and treat them with respect. After all, they came to study and graduate, they don’t demand much.

    We had a long term discrimination against Arab students that started in the late 80s and continue until the middle 90s. 9/11 was no problem. I fought for the Arab students and clashed with other faculty; eventually the group that fought for the students prevailed.

    I had and have Arab doctoral students; the problem was to prevent them from giving me 6×11 silk rug. They are very generous students.


  13. Can’t help but toss this in: practically every scholar of color I know is mistaken for some other scholar of color and called by hir name — undergrad, grad, tenure stream and tenured. Also have a male colleague who calls me by the name of the female US historian just senior to me. Have one friend who was called in for a stern lecture on first year grad performance by the DGS and then it gradually became clear he had meant to call in ah, er, um, the other Chinese woman.

    Why are clueless men and white people not so humiliated by this kind of behavior that they burst into flames on the spot? And yet they must not be, because they take no trouble not to do it.


  14. I’m so happy to have found this discussion arising from my original post! Thank you, Tenured Radical, for bringing my attention to it on Twitter. I’ve learned a lot from reading this comment stream.

    It seems that perhaps none of you wonderful commenters have stumbled upon the, ahem, *other* discussion of my post…the one on the Feminist Philosophers blog? If you want to see the spectacle of white academics (feminists no less) using their giant brains to deflect even the suggestion of white racism, well, then, this is your chance! Yay!

    (I will say this about the comment stream there–I DO accept the criticism that I over-rely on ableist language and the metaphor of blindness in the post. That could be improved.)


  15. Jeezy Creezy. That’s about as silly as this threadjack, from back in the day.

    So many jacks would be prevented if people 1) bothered to READ blog posts in their entirety before commenting, and 2) if other people READ the blog post in question so that they could call B.S. on the threadjacker.

    Love how they take your mockery of white attitudes as your serious diagnosis of the problem (i.e. that white people are not a unified “people.”)


  16. @Karen – Wow! The thread you linked to was mind-blowing. It explained a *lot* about how racist attitudes are permitted to persist in academia. The level of deflection was unreal – instead of talking about the racism they’d experienced/perpetuated, they were all talking about how racist Karen is! Because she made generalizations about white people! Poor, discriminated white folks. They just can’t catch a break. Just so you know, Karen, I think your blog is great (especially the advice – I think grad students should run not walk over there) and that this piece was thought-provoking.

    I can’t do much in my position to mentor or support grad students of color (there aren’t any!), but I do try to make sure that my undergrad classes represent not only women, but gays & lesbians, transgendered folks (yes even in the pre-modern era!), and people of color. It’s not much, but it’s something.


  17. During my masters program, on a majority minority campus in a large north eastern urban city, I had a class on colonialism where by the end of the semester all the minority students had dropped. When I (pasty white girl) tried to bring this up to my adviser privately he basically attacked me for even suggesting this might suggest a bias. Apparently int was impossible because the professor involved had a wife from the south american cone.

    I will point out that the whitest country by percentage on the planet is in the south american cone not in Europe. YMMV.

    When I quietly asked one of my friends who had dropped the class, she had another reason than racial bias to drop, but she pointed out to me that race was never the acceptable answer to any question posed by the professor. In a class on colonialism.


  18. “Apparently it was impossible because the professor involved had a wife from the south american cone.”

    This is one of the most typical defenses of racism and so irritating. Oh, we loved them, we had children with them, we are descended in part from them, we love their food, so that act of racial discrimination could not have been such, oh no.


  19. Working in Africa I do not have any of these problems. Almost all of our students including all the graduate students in the department are Black. Most of the professors and administrators are as well. As such I do not ever have to worry about diversity. Given the discussion above I would say not having to worry about the racial composition of the university is another added bonus to working in Africa rather than the US. Race is simply not an issue here.


  20. You ask: “What are effective strategies for making non-white students and non-white perspectives part of the way we do business?”

    Here are some strategies I have used in the past that my students of color have told me worked for them. Remember I work with HS students in a private school so some of these may not work in a college context. 1) pointing out a time when I was racist (in this case, I time I wanted to use “the n-word” to hurt somebody. I didn’t, but because I didn’t want to get my ass kicked by the assholes who were blasting music at one in the morning and woke up my sleeping sick baby who I had just gotten down. I went to confront them and burned with pure hatred. I want to physically and mentally punish them with every weapon I had. 2. Include stories about African-Americans, Native Americans, etc. in your syllabus and class. Mention scholars of color that you have worked with, admire, etc. Let your students know that they are of color but not blatently. 3. Never get defensive. (This is really key, about 8 years ago, I had a really tense class – not a class session, but a tense class every day – and I thought the African American students were pissed at me. I asked a student I taught formerly who was the leader of the Cultural Association to moderate a discussion between me and some of the students I perceived as angry. The students were angry, but not with me, they loved me it turned out, they were angry with some of their peers who weren’t going where I was leading (the denial of the rape of slave women was especially weird and probably indicative of some other issues that these students had). We had a really productive discussion about what teachers can and can’t do, and what they would want me to do and what I could do. 4. Master the phrases, “aren’t you going to argue back?” and “Hm, I’ll have to think about that, ask me again next week.” For many students of color, a rejoinder to an argument is a sign that the argument is closed not just beginning because it’s typical of their experience. To let folks know that you are open to argument, come up with some phrase that you can drop to let folks know that your critique of their thinking is a first step in a process. You also have to take those critiques seriously, and think about them for a week. After you’ve done that, and come back with a reply (perhaps after reading a suggested article). Acknowledge how your thinking has changed, or emphasize points of agreement as well as points of difference. 5. Reread Chela Sandoval’s article on Women of Color and the Differential Mode of Conciousness. (can’t find cite right now).


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