Aug 03, 2015


Presumed Incompetent: An Interview With “Path-Breaking” Co-Editor Carmen G. Gonzalez

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Carmen Gonzales        presumed incompetent
    Carmen G. Gonzalez, Co-Editor, Presumed Incompetent
Presumed Incompetent is a path-breaking anthology that examines the intersecting roles of race and class in the working lives of female faculty of color in a variety of academic disciplines. Through personal narratives, qualitative empirical studies (such as surveys and interviews), and traditional scholarly essays, the more than forty contributors to the book discuss the obstacles that women of color encounter on the road to tenure and beyond, and provide innovative and thought-provoking strategies to survive and thrive in the academic workplace. The book also offers practical advice for academic leaders on best practices to create a more equitable and inclusive campus environment.
NL: Carmen, you have quite an impressive professional bio:  You’re a well-respected professor at Seattle University School of Law.  You have degrees from Yale University and Harvard Law School, and you were a Fulbright Scholar in Argentina, among other achievements. Your parents are from rural Cuba — your father never attended school and your mother has a 5th grade education.  What messages did your parents impart on you to become the woman and professional you are today?  Who else had an influence on you?  How did you make this happen?

CG: My parents moved from rural Cuba to Havana several years before the Cuban Revolution, and from Havana to the United States seven years after the Revolution. For rural dwellers in Latin America, the transition from the countryside to the capital is as daunting as the transition from one’s home country to the United States. My parents made both transitions in one lifetime in search of a better life for themselves and for me, and I was determined to make good on their sacrifices. I arrived in the United States months before my fifth birthday, and was raised in a densely populated, working class immigrant community in northern New Jersey – a stone’s throw from New York City.

My mother worked as a sewing machine operator in a garment factory.  My father was a self-employed carpenter and plumber.  Neither of my parents learned to speak English or left the local community until they retired and moved to Florida. Although I spoke no English when I started grammar school and encountered prejudice and hostility from my Irish-American and Italian-American classmates, I excelled in school, and was even skipped a grade.

My mother, despite her limited formal education, was a voracious reader, and I quickly followed suit.  Reading introduced me to a world beyond the confines of my immediate environment and sparked my intellectual curiosity.   During high school, visits to New York City stoked my curiosity and fueled my passion for adventure.  I longed to explore other places and other cultures (while remaining fiercely proud of my own), and I knew that education was the key to opportunities that my parents never possessed. I was also influenced by two of my high school math teachers (both women – one African-American; the other East European), whose success in a male-dominated field inspired me to excel in every academic subject and who encouraged me to apply to Ivy League universities.

My public high school did not adequately prepare me for the challenges that I would encounter at Yale, but I rose to the occasion, graduated magna cum laude, and enrolled in Harvard Law School.  Yale introduced me to feminism, to Latin American studies, to political economy, and to the history of race relations in the United States. My professors and my peers laid the groundwork for the intellectual passions that drive much of my current work.  But I also saw the difficulties that graduate students and faculty of color encountered in academia, and practiced law for ten years before deciding to become a law professor.

NL: Presumed Incompetent is quite a title.  What made you and your co-editors choose this title? 

CG: In their daily lives as faculty members, women of color frequently encounter the presumption that they do not belong in the academic workplace.  Despite efforts to promote diversity in higher education, women of color remain woefully under-represented among full-time faculty. But the problem goes beyond numerical representation. Even in universities that have achieved critical mass of faculty of color, theculture of academia remains overwhelmingly white, male, heterosexual, and middle and upper class.  Those who differ from this unspoken, uncontested, and often unconscious norm find themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, presumed incompetent as teachers, scholars, and participants in faculty governance.  Just as criminal defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, female faculty of color are often presumed incompetent by students, colleagues, and administrators, and must prove themselves over and over and over again. Presumed Incompetent draws upon both personal narratives and qualitative empirical studies to explain how the presumption of incompetence operates in the academic workplace, and offers practical advice for women of color and allies and for academic leaders on ways to subvert this presumption.

NL: Undeniably, Presumed Incompetent has resonated with women of color in higher education, academia and beyond. How has the general public, including faculty at institutions around the country, responded to the book and it’s powerful message?

CG: Presumed Incompetent has been enthusiastically received by readers.  Since the book was published, all four co-editors have been inundated with phone calls and e-mail messages thanking us for producing the book, asking for advice and assistance, and inviting us to present at workshops and conferences. We have spoken about the book at numerous universities, including Yale, Columbia, NYU, Fordham, University of San Francisco, San Francisco State University, Tulane, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

On March 8, 2013, the University of California, Berkeley School of Law hosted an all-day symposium featuring more than 40 presentations by distinguished scholars responding to the book.  Selected papers from the symposium will be published in the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice and the Seattle Journal for Social Justice.  Several universities have used the book for faculty and student workshops on diversity and inclusion.  Presumed Incompetent has been favorably reviewed in a variety of academic journals and blogs, and the book’s editors and contributors have been interviewed on local and national radio programs.  In short, Presumed Incompetent has struck a raw nerve and has sparked reflection and candid discussion about the plight of women of color in academia.

NL:  Presumed Incompetent engages in a deep examination of the impact of racial/ethnic, sexual, gender and class bias in academic institutions, and how these experiences impact the advancement of faculty women of color. Apart from institutional bias, what individual or personal factors (e.g., internalized feelings of “otherness,” self-efficacy, etc.) exacerbate these experiences?  

CG: One of the key messages of Presumed Incompetent is that many of the obstacles that women of color encounter in the academic workplace are structural rather than individual, political rather than personal.  Although each essay in Presumed Incompetent is unique, the narratives and qualitative empirical studies in the book reveal that certain patterns repeat themselves across departments and universities.  However, certain personal and individual factors can exacerbate the challenges described in the book. One such factor is the internalization by women of color of academia’s culture of silence and tacit complicity.

Women of color who succeed in academia are pressured in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to uphold academia’s myth of meritocracy by distancing themselves from junior faculty who are experiencing difficulty and by remaining silent about the hardships that they themselves endured as they climbed the academic ladder.  This silence can be devastating to newcomers, who come to believe that they are the only ones who have had to grapple with academic workplace bias and abuse.  Like victims of domestic violence, these junior colleagues may blame themselves rather than the abuser(s) for their plight, may experience shame, isolation, and self-doubt, and may drop out of academia rather than contest inequitable policies and practices.

The stress of dealing with workplace bias has also been linked to various physical and mental ailments, including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, obesity, and depression. Many women who contacted us after the book was published informed us that they mustered the courage to stand up for themselves and challenge workplace inequities only upon learning that luminaries in their field had experienced rejection, ridicule, and tenure denial.  In the introduction to Presumed Incompetent, my co-editor Angela Harris and I explain in detail the nine distinct reasons that women of color gave us for remaining silent about their experiences.  One of our goals as editors of Presumed Incompetent was to break this silence in order to provide solace and practical survival strategies to women of color.

NL: Are there gender differences in how faculty men and women of color experience academia?  If so, can you please expand on these?

CG: While men of color are also subject to workplace bias, the experiences of women of color are different due to the interaction of race, gender, class, sexual identity, and other forms of subordination. Those who are at the bottom of several social hierarchies are likely to experience more severe forms of exclusion and to be subject to multiple forms of stereotyping. For example, several of the essays in Presumed Incompetent address race and gender bias in student evaluations.  Studies show that students consistently underestimate the credentials and academic rank of professors of color.

Both male and female faculty of color are presumed incompetent and must “prove themselves” in the classroom in order to earn the respect that their white male counterparts are typically accorded automatically.  However, women of color encounter unique obstacles due to the combination of race and gender stereotypes.  Students expect Latina and African-American female professors, in particular, to be warm and motherly – like stereotypical mammy or nanny figures. While men of color may be able to overcome the presumption of incompetence by demonstrating their intellectual prowess and command of the classroom, women of color who defy stereotypes and are rigorous and demanding teachers are often punished with negative student evaluations.  Conversely, those who comply with the stereotypes may be deemed more warm and likable, but will be evaluated as less capable or knowledgeable. This race/gender double-bind can be career-threatening.

NL: I really like how Peggy Davis defines the concept of “micro-aggressions” in the workplace as “subtle or blatant attempts at punishing the unexpected behavior.”  What’s poignant about these moments is how subtle (but powerful) bias can be.  Have you experienced these moments?  If so, how have you handled them?

CG: I have I have experienced almost every type of micro-aggression described in Presumed Incompetent, and have learned through trial and error (and through many painful mistakes) that there are better and worse ways of handling these situations.  One of the most important lessons is to pick your battles.  Micro-aggressions will occur on a daily basis, and it is unwise to spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and political capital responding to each one.  It is essential to be strategic about which battles are worth fighting and to develop alliances with like-minded colleagues who will provide information and support.

NL: Presumed Incompetent has really opened up the conversation on the experiences of faculty women of color. In terms of application, ‘what-to-do or not-to-do’ lessons can faculty women of color take from the book?  How can WOC prepare themselves best to enter a career in academia?

CG: The final chapter of Presumed Incompetent provides a comprehensive list of recommendations to women of color at all stages of their academic careers.  These recommendations can be grouped into three categories.

(1) The first category consists of individual strategies to maintain physical and psychological health while grappling with the micro-aggressions of the academic workplace.  These strategies include self-care, maintaining ties to family and friends, and building emotional distance between the public self and the private self.  In our busy lives as academics, it is easy to put self-care on the back burner and to underestimate the consequences of dealing with high levels of stress – until serious illness strikes.

(2) The second category involves collective strategies — building supportive networks with like-minded colleagues, including peers and mentors. Thriving in the academic workplace is a collective endeavor, not an individual one.  The most successful academics are those who have established networks of support (both personal and professional) within and outside of their universities.

(3) The third category consists of institutional strategies – a list of best practices that can be adopted by academic leaders to promote a more equitable and inclusive academic workplace.  The most important piece of advice that I would offer a woman of color embarking on an academic career is to remember the importance of the work that you do.  What you teach in the classroom can raise the consciousness of students, both white and of color, about social justice in the United States and globally.  Your very presence as a highly accomplished woman of color can inspire students of color and help negate harmful race and gender stereotypes. Your scholarship will enable you to reach and influence a far larger audience than your work in the classroom.  When times are tough, it is essential to remember that you are not alone.  There is a wealth of experience in dealing with the challenges women of color encounter in the academic workplace. Finally, read Presumed Incompetent and share it with friends, colleagues, and university administrators.  The detailed information in the book can be a lifeline.

NL: What are the next steps for Presumed Incompetent?  Is there a vision for the book to have public policy implications around WOC, academia and leadership?

CG: It is my hope that Presumed Incompetent will spark a social movement to address policies, practices, and procedures of universities that have a disproportionately negative impact on female faculty of color.  There are promising signs that this may happen.  First, several of the women who contacted me after Presumed Incompetent was published will shortly be launching a website to provide information and support to women of color who are battling workplace bias.  They have drafted a manifesto, and are actively seeking to break the isolation of the academic workplace by sharing resources and information.

Second, the book has been used extensively at a variety of universities to educate faculty and administrators and institute changes to policies and practices. Third, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), one of the nation’s leading civil rights organizations, recently took on a high profile race and gender discrimination case brought by a Latina professor against her university. Regardless of the outcome of this particular case, it is significant that MALDEF’s president and general counsel framed the issue as a systemic one rather than a case of an isolated individual battling for her own career.

Education has long been at the forefront of civil rights struggles in the United States.  While these struggles have increased access by students of color to higher education, female faculty of color represent a very small percentage of the nation’s full-time faculty (7.5 percent, according to the most recent figures). This under-representation deprives students, both white and of color, of important perspectives that would enrich their educational experience and enhance their ability to grapple with the race, gender, class and other issues that continue to divide this nation.  In addition, the under-representation and marginalization of faculty of color may exacerbate the alienation of students of color in predominantly white universities by depriving them of mentors and role models.

Indeed, students of color may be discouraged from pursuing positions in academia when their faculty mentors are denied tenure or otherwise mistreated in their universities. I hope that Presumed Incompetent (and the conversations resulting therefrom) will spur other organizations dedicated to advancing the rights of women and people of color to support female faculty of color in their quest for workplace equity.

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Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Dr. Perez-Litwin is the Founder & CEO of ELLA Leadership Institute, a multi-platform professional development organization designed to advance the careers and leadership of women. She's the creative force behind the LATINAS THINK BIG™ national tour, sponsored and live-streamed by Google.

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