Friday, July 29, 2011

The American Way: Mediocrity, When White, Looks Like Merit

A couple years ago, I attended a meeting with a high-ranking administrator about diversifying the faculty and graduate student population. The administrator had recently hired someone to focus on diversity, and she was also at the meeting. Early in the conversation, someone asked about the racial composition of the administrator's unit. The newly hired diversity officer reported that the staff of nearly 100 people was 98% white. I really appreciated her wording. Rather than say that there were only 1 or 2 people of color, she emphasized that there were 98 whites. When we talk about diversity, we don't do this enough. We leave whiteness unmarked—as if its presence is never up for discussion and certainly not to be questioned. Missing her point, the very powerful administrator later said, sure that he was being reasonable, “Well, we have to be careful because people wanting to get minorities into positions may relax standards.”

His comment reflects the accepted way of understanding what most Americans call "affirmative action." However, this view depends on a bold-faced lie, that “race” is a factor only when people of color are involved. Yet, real affirmative action has always been for whites. Whether the rules governing who could own land in Colonial times (these policies certainly didn't favor Native Americans) or the practices ensuring that whites received 98% of FHA loans between 1932 and 1962, real affirmative action has always been for those deemed white.

Do you end up with a staff that is more than 90% white because they are the most qualified the country has to offer? That’s certainly the hype that we’re taught to believe. However, I have been surrounded by whites all my life, and that has not translated into being surrounded by excellence. When a candidate is white, they can be considered a “good fit” even when their qualifications are not all that impressive, but a candidate of color has to be exceptional (and put whites at ease) in order to get the same designation.

Of course, I am not saying anything new, but the intractability of American -isms makes saying it as relevant today as ever. For the same reason, it is always helpful to re-visit books that have stated the case better than I can. For example, if you have questions about the validity of the term “white” and claims about the benefits that follow “whiteness” in the U.S. context, please see George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. It discusses (among other things) how maintaining the whiteness of institutions requires pretending that whiteness has nothing to do with how the institution works.

Recognizing the same dynamic, cultural critic Dwight McBride has argued that when you look at African American faculty members in the top English departments around the country, you find—with very few exceptions— scholars who "by any measure of 'quality' are achieving at the highest levels of distinction in the field." However, "canvass those same English departments of the same top institutions and consider the white faculty members there. What you will find is a range of faculty members from the very distinguished to the mediocre...." Therefore, “ of the ways in which we will know when black people in the United States are truly liberated and equal to their fellow white citizens will be when there are as many mediocre blacks in academia as there are currently mediocre whites” (2005: 8).

McBride’s words have long resonated with me, but my experiences keep telling me how far the United States is from that moment. In the five years before coming up for tenure review, I won two postdoctoral fellowships in competitions among PhD’s throughout the nation and from every scholarly discipline. Though neither of the competitions that I won excludes white candidates, they are designed to address the fact that white men are over-represented in the academy. I get the impression that, in the history of my very large and established English department, I am the first person to have won two national, year-long fellowships before tenure review. This has not always been treated as an honor for me and the university, though; sometimes, it has caused hostility.

The hostility has often been subtle and it has taken many forms; I will give only the most recent example. A renowned senior colleague told me that my fellowships were more like financial aid because they allowed me to get my first scholarly book written. The book will be the real sign of whether I have done my job well, he explained. (This was a couple months ago, after my book manuscript had already gone through several levels of favorable review, to which he was privy.)

It is incredibly difficult to win fellowships, especially the kind that I earned: that which requires no teaching. These fellowships are an honor and a straightforward investment in the potential that the foundation sees in you as a scholar. Therefore, the foundation essentially pays to relieve you of your teaching obligations to your home institution.

How does such an acknowledgment of the quality of my research get interpreted as financial aid??? In short, the unearned arrogance that comes with white privilege. It's like magic! This man believes that his achievements have had nothing to do with his whiteness, but he cannot imagine that my accomplishments are about anything but someone “cutting me a break” because I am black and a woman.

If I had been a white man who studies Shakespeare, these awards would have been deemed an honor to me and the entire department and university. There would have been NO suggestion that this was anything like financial aid. I am sure that my esteemed colleague has never thought of his own fellowships that way.

So, I agree with McBride that we will have made some progress when a wide range of merit is tolerable for people of color, as it currently is for whites. They can be anything from distinguished to mediocre and not have people question their qualifications. Yet, to the majority of those in power, even excellence—if it's not white—does not seem like merit. No wonder our institutions look like they do.