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.


Robin Bernstein said...

Great posting, Koritha. It makes me think of the terrible case in Arkansas right now where an African American young woman was denied the right to be the sole valedictorian solely because of racism. Many people, including me, have been rightly decrying the denial of what is rightfully hers. But your blog post makes me think of the flip side: a white student is getting something that *he or she did not earn.* That student fully deserves to be salutatorian, but not valedictorian. The status of valedictorian is, for that student, pure white privilege, yet another hand up to a white person who did not earn it and does not deserve it. And I haven't heard a word about that student turning down the honor.

Koritha Mitchell said...

Thank you for adding that connection to current events, Robin. I haven't heard a peep about the white student not taking the honor either. You know, this is actually part of why Performance Studies continues to be so important to me (following in your footsteps, because your work has centered there longer than mine has). Some of what's going on here is that white just looks right in that position. When it's a position of honor, authority, or prestige, white always looks the part.

copyeditor said...

Wow! Koritha this post is one of the clearest discussions about race that I've read in a long time. At my University the faculty is 95% white and I never thought of saying it that way. Usually when I am asked about diversity I just provide the number of people of color on faculty. Now as I write that percentage, and read McBride's comments, I am able to see the lack of faculty diversity and not the number of ‘lucky-to-be-there’ faculty of color. Belated congratulations on your fellowships.

Koritha Mitchell said...

Thank you so much! Yes, the shift in language makes a big difference. Thanks for the good vibes on the fellowships. I certainly know that I'm fortunate, and I am quite grateful. But my gratitude is to those who paved this path for me. I don't have any illusions that this was possible because academia (or the U.S.) has become so generous, liberal, or even fair. It's all about what folk struggled for, often knowing that they wouldn't enjoy the benefits themselves. It is truly humbling to think of that, and I keep that very close.

Anonymous said...

Hello Koritha. Your post on the putative synonymousness of "white" and "merit" is clear as a bell and passionately inscribed. Most importantly, it is all too true. You are the best! An anecdote. At an Ivy League venue where I once worked, one of my white colleagues kept saying to me after faculty meetings: "You use such complicated language when you speak. I don't understand a word you say." (Presumably, "putative" would have been one such word.) I have to admit that my white colleague's bothersome insistence got my racial hackles up. But, here's the thing. After about a year, I realized that he really did not understand what I was saying! Because he was white, mediocre, arrogant, and lazy! Beware, right?, of assuming hired "whiteness" is "merit well placed." I love the courage of your writing, Koritha, and the integrity of your living. Houston Baker

Randy said...

This piece is well written and I share the same sentiments with you. I am using this book,White-Washing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society in my introductory class. The authors draw the same conclusion as yours but devoid of the personal insights that you offer in your piece. Good job!

Koritha Mitchell said...

Wow! I'm thrilled to see that this piece inspired a response Professor Houston Baker! Of course, you are one of those people who helped pave the path. My goal is to thank you all by doing better and better work.

Koritha Mitchell said...

Dear Randy, thank you for listing this resource. I will check it out. Wow! I don't recall being exposed to these sorts of things when I was an undergraduate at OWU. Then again, maybe a few professors made the attempt, but I just wasn't ready to learn anything from it. Either way, it is great to know that you are doing this crucial work there. But, yes, the personal dimension helps. For example, another reader reminded me of Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower.

Kim B said...

What a powerful post, Koritha. You are an inspriration! And thanks to the thoughtful comments that have added valuable resources to my "must read" list!

Nathan Grant said...

Koritha, you are absolutely spot on in exposing the academy's continuing ambivalence about race, wherein the side of its mouth that laments a lack of diversity is in eternal conflict with the side that fears that diversity. The most outstanding and painful aspect of that ambivalence is reflected in how faculty of color are treated by white hierarchies. I can't begin to count the episodes of insult and injustice I've both seen and experienced, and although there are new forms of this, the overall structure remains the same.

If I may, your post also reminds me of an article I read a very long time ago by Michael Hirshhorn in The New Republic, and thanks to your post, I somehow remember it as though I'd read it yesterday. What it said was that African Americans, as members of a historically economically disenfranchised group, are prohibited from spending the amount of time and expense required for development in graduate and professional schools—it's much more worth it for us to get what education we need, and begin working as soon as possible, because as the tide of capitalism waits for no one, it waits least for those who have had to work hardest on the way up the economic ladder. Your post has made me recall this now-hoary article in the sense that the larger racism, the racism beyond the academy, also makes it impossible for us to know how many talented nonwhites there are who not only may never find academic jobs, but who for their absence keep the numbers within the academy low, and become the excuse for the further stigmatization of the ones who are in. Thus the ugly knife of racism cuts in oh-too-many ways.

mcubed said...

Thanks for sharing your post. You have no fear in speaking truth to power. I admire you. And belated congratulations on your fellowships. Don't let the envy of others diminish your accomplishments.

Rodolfo Rosales said...

You speak to the point in very clear terms. I myself am in a struggle at my university, the University of Texas at San Antonio, with an administration that is bent on not only getting rid of me but of destroying me. They won't. But I am fighting back because in history we know that if we don't fight back then they continue with impunity. It is difficult to pinpoint how this attack began but I will say this, I am outspoken, so in a way, I am not surprised. Is it race? Yes, it is profoundly race. Is it age? Well yes, but then there are old mediocre white men who continue to get rewarded. Is it political? Definitely. I represent a voice that quite frankly threatens their status quo. I am left and then being a Mexican? Oh my, that is too big a threat.

It doesn't matter that my family has been here even before the Spanish came. It doesn’t matter that my credentials come from the University of Michigan. It doesn’t matter that my book, The Illusion of Inclusion, is still being used in classrooms. I (not unlike you, as exemplified by your blog) speak to racial, gender, sexuality, cultural, and class issues. I know their fears, prejudices, illusions—through many decades of involvement—and you speak to them well. Thank you.

This summer has been the best of times and the worst of times. I submitted two articles to Latino Studies Journal and Polity Journal. One is an R and R. I am going to Seattle for the American Political Science conference to talk to my Japanese colleagues about a collaborative work we want to do on citizenship and community. I finished an application for a fellowship which I won't mention.

These people have proven to be vicious, stopping at nothing to undermine any effort I make in my professional life. I have never experienced such hatred in my life. I have felt it at a distance, I mean I have experienced people who are intolerant and hate Mexicans but never at this personal and professional level where they take aim at me with impunity. I can say more but I will wait until the right time to discuss them openly. Meanwhile they treat me as if I don't know anything - as if I am totally incompetent. Pero como dice la gente: Cada pero tiene su dia. As the people in my community say: Every dog has its day. I have survived three semesters of this hell, so I am strong. But of course not without a little help from my friends. To Julie, Koritha, Ranell, Maria and all our Ford Community, Thanks. Please excuse my rambling.
Bueno Ciao,

Koritha Mitchell said...

Dear Rudy,

It means a lot to me that this post resonated with you. These are difficult truths to tell. And, we're in a historical moment in which telling them seems especially unacceptable. Whenever the economic situation tightens, everyone is expected to go into "just grateful for X" mode, and this expectation is especially high for those of us who are supposedly in our positions because of what most Americans don't mind labeling "affirmative action." But, I truly believe that our sanity can be at stake if we can't tell the truth, if not publicly then somewhere affirming.

I'm sorry to hear that this continues for you, but I'm no more surprised than you are. Often, we occupy spaces that are friendly for many while they are quite hostile for us. We have to remember that we're not here because the nation has necessarily become so liberal or fair, but because so many before us struggled. But that doesn't mean that we won't have to struggle, too. I won't assume that I'm dealing with the intensity of attacks that you are, but this is why we have to create a space where we can share these experiences.

Being a part of the community of Ford fellows has taught me so much that has been life-saving and sanity-saving, and interactions with you over the years have certainly been part of that. I remember well your feedback about Latino victims of lynching after my plenary in 2007, for example. In both intellectual and emotional ways, Ford has been there. Thank you all. You have allowed me to find my voice in more ways than one.

Koritha Mitchell said...

Honestly, I will have to continue to grapple with the implications of Nathan Grant's comment. You have identified stakes not taken up in my original post, and you couldn't be more right! Thank you for adding to this conversation!

Lewis R. Gordon said...

Dear Koritha,

It looks like we're on the same wave length:

Congratulations on the fellowship and the forthcoming book. On these matters, I am inspired by Anna Julia Cooper's "What Are We Worth" and would add the value of our valuing each other. All the best, Lewis Gordon

Koritha Mitchell said...

Dear Lewis R. Gordon:

Thank you so much for adding to this conversation!! Yes, we are definitely of like minds on this. I appreciate the international scope of your piece. It works well with the more personal approach that I have used. We need all of these articulations because attempts to silence these truths are constant and come in many forms.

I very much appreciate the lawyer examples in your piece. You remind us that the standards for determining who could practice law changed over time—in ways that created additional barriers for people of color. The professional standards that we take for granted today (needing a PhD, MD, JD, etc.) did not come into being until the turn into the 20th century. However, your discussion helps us remember that this was also a period of intense racial repression. Thus, we should recognize that these were not unrelated phenomena. The creation of new standards was linked to the fact blacks (even if a small percentage) were more likely to be able to compete in more arenas. You are right. This is not a coincidence.

I can't help mentioning that the lawyer example is especially important to me because I trace the increasing importance of the figure of the black lawyer in Living with Lynching. Before and during WWI, black communities saw the black soldier as undeniable proof of the race's right to full citizenship. However, because those soldiers returned from fighting overseas only to have to fight in race riots in the U.S., black communities increasingly put their faith in the black lawyer. Many saw the lawyer as the new soldier needed in the struggle for full citizenship, and James Weldon Johnson's experience figures in my discussion, too.

Again, thank you for sharing your piece and contributing to this conversation!!!

Anonymous said...


This is terrific. I kept saying Speak! Koritha! Speak!

Thanks for initiating this rich discussion.


marquis jsada said...

I'm an anonymous person who thinks I would be in academia right now had I been white. As it was the professors who taught me as I got my bachelors degree didn't like me speaking up in their classes in the ways that I did.

I pursued a senior project that was above and beyond what was recommended to me, even though I couldn't get any professor in the department to be my advisor. I had to get a professor in a different department to be my advisor, who basically just cautiously agreed without doing any 'advising'.

It should be obvious that there have countless people like myself. And white people never notice these people. White people casually exclude people they don't identify with as a part of their regular habits, this is heavy in academia and in all industries, organizations and clubs. An institution doesn't need to be in place to exclude people who are different on the level of race, class, or gender, because it happens as a matter of course. The face to face meetings I had with professors all went straight to emphasizing restrictions I needed to abide by: telling me how many courses I would need to take to complete a concentration, and checking on which courses qualify for this concentration, which was defined by my professors without any regard for the interests surrounding my project. In contrast I would see my white peers getting their projects and interests mentioned jovially by professors in the middle of class.

Koritha Mitchell said...

Thank you for sharing, marquis jsada. This is painful to read, but it's such an important contribution to this conversation. You've added a personal dimension to the reminder offered above by Nathan Grant.

As you both make clear, exclusion comes in so many forms. I won't try to add much because you've said it well. You've been so clear.

However, this piece is about shifting the conversation by having a different framework, and you've reminded me of one of the ways I do that when reading my surroundings. (Being able to read one's surroundings critically is precisely the skill that people of color need to survive and thrive in this society.) I often find myself thinking, "If s/he were black or brown, s/he would not be in that position." There are plenty of whites who are perfectly welcomed into professional environments of all kinds who are mediocre (or worse) at what they do, but their white peers would never think "My goodness, another unqualified white person!" Yet, people of color can operate way above the bar and still have folk assume that they got some kind of hand out. The ridiculousness of the double standard would be laughable if it didn't affect so many people's life chances.

As your words suggest, the entire profession (whatever the profession) and the entire country lose out because things operate this way. We could all benefit from the contributions of people like you. I am truly sorry to hear this, but I will admit that one of my motivations for doing good work is that I know that stories like yours are all too common. I don't take my opportunities for granted, and I certainly don't make the mistake of thinking that my successes are reasons to be silent on these issues. Again, thank you!

SPB said...

All I can say is this: thank you.


Koritha Mitchell said...

Dear SPB,

I'm so glad it's helpful! We have to save ourselves as much pain as possible, and some of that can be done with writing like this. Through the years, I've taken a lot of strength from those who were willing to go public with these kinds of experiences. It meant that I didn't have to go public myself in order to know that I wasn't alone!

I cherish the fact that I can now do for others what so many have done for me. Even the virtual/digital versions of community conversation can be incredibly affirming. We must equip ourselves and each other with the language, frameworks, and resources that will keep us from believing the hype. I'm so glad I could do that for you and for others who haven't left notes. I'm honored to be able to pay it forward!

Research Addict said...

First of all, thank you for this post. It has provided me with much food for thought and I've added George Lipsitz's book to my queue of books to read.

You address many issues here and I agree with several of your observations wholeheartedly. Yes, when I think back to all of the African and African American teachers, co-workers and bosses that I've had, I can say with all honesty that they were all excellent at their jobs and superior role models. I can say that the number of Caucasian teachers, coworkers, and bosses that I can say the same about is probably close to equal, but the percentages are far different (100 percent versus 10 percent?).

I also want to say that it never ceases to amaze me what lengths that truly mediocre workers will go to diminish the achievements of those whose passion and excellence threatens them; I can't help but suspect that your hostile senior colleague would have found a way to diminish your achievement regardless of your race or gender. That being said, I wonder what your thoughts are about Peter Bregman's recent Harvard Business Review post about diversity training?

The fact that my particular field looks predominantly like me (white and female) has always bothered me. For one, our staff does not reflect the racial diversity of our clients and therefore we are likely lacking diverse perspectives that would help us improve our services. Another reason it bothers me is purely selfish; I am bored by sameness. And after reading your post, I'm wondering if subconsciously I had caught on to the trend of excellence that you point out... passion about one's work is the trait I respect most and passion al.

I am not in a position to hire full-time staff, but I do participate in hiring graduate assistants each semester.
I have passion for my work (librarianship), so I expect the same from anybody who has entered graduate school; however, I have been disappointed to find that sometimes the GA hired ends up being mediocre at best even though she said and did all the "right" things to get hired.

Racial identity is not something asked in the GA application process yet every candidate who has been asked to interview has been a white female... just like the hiring committee. It makes me wonder: Do we have a cultural bias that we aren't aware of having? Is there something about the content, timing, or placement of our job posting that prevents people of color from applying? Are people of color applying for the job, but our expectations about the style and content of a cover letter and resume are not as objective as we think so we eliminate them too early? Or is the job that we offer seen as a mediocre opportunity and the people of color who have been accepted into Graduate School have had to be more exceptional than the white students and therefore will not settle for an unexceptional job opportunity?

Unknown said...

I stumbled upon your blog after you embedded it in your comments on and I really enjoyed this post; as an emerging scholar, you have turned me on to a number of articles, books, and authors who I can't wait to read.
The examples you have shared about the use of language to (re)frame the conversation about diversity is something that I can take away and immediately begin using. Thank you for sparking all of the wonderful comments that also speak to challenges of trying to excel in a range of fields, especially academia.