Dealing with Difficult Issues
Miguel A. De La Torre
Associate Professor of Social Ethics at Iliff School of Theology
and Director of the Justice and Peace Institute
Ellen T. Armour
From the first day a student of color makes the conscious effort to do scholarship from the perspective of marginalized communities, her or his work will be viewed with suspicion. Most of the time, the scholarship done from marginalized perspectives is seen as being too subjective, lacking the Eurocentric call for objectivity. Yet, as we all know, what Euro-Americans normalized and legitimized as objective is in truth their own masked subjectivity. Nevertheless, because they set the academic canon and serve as gatekeepers into the academy, scholars of color wishing to ground their work within their own cultural norms will find that some of their Euro-American colleagues might view their work as somewhat inferior.
Story: A certain Euro-American professor of theology at a well-known seminary one day proclaimed to his class that history will show that the greatest and most influential theologian of the twentieth century will no doubt be Karl Barth. When a Hispanic student challenged this assertion, stating that the theologian Gustavo Gutiťrrezí work has revolutionized theological thought throughout the Americas, which serves as home for a major portion of the worldís Christian population, this particular Euro-American theologian confessed he was not familiar with Gutiťrrezís work. Such an experience is not uncommon.
Story: During a graduate seminar class at an Ivy League university, a student of color questioned why there was an absence of scholars of color on the syllabus reading list. A fellow German student responded by stating, if we include everyoneís perspective, little time will be left for doing "real" scholarship. For him, "real" was defined as "Eurocentric." Unfortunately the class professor remained silent, losing a potent teaching moment.
Here is the irony. For students of color to obtain a PhD, not only must they be fluent in Euro-American theological thought, but they must also be fluent with the works produced within their own racial/ethnic group. However, Euro-American PhD candidates only need to know the established white Eurocentric canon to graduate. While a Asian American student of theology will never receive a doctorate without having a proficiency in Karl Barth, Euro-Americans need never hear about Kosuke Koyama or Choan-Seng Song. But yet, it is the Euro-American student who is usually considered as more knowledgeable due to the persistent myth which assumes that all scholars of color only have expertise in "minority-related" issues and activities. Hence, they are mostly hired for those areas and are deemed incapable of handling the so-called scholastic rigor associated with "real" theology, understood as Eurocentric theology.
But why would a student of color entering the academic profession be considered to be less scholarly than their Euro-American counterpart, even though they usually have a wider grasp of the available material, due to them having to know both the dominant cultureís canon in addition to their own? Because institutionalized racism and ethnic discrimination is specifically designed to reinforce feelings of inadequacy among the marginalized so as to justify their disenfranchisement. Therefore, as a scholar of color, you will have to deal with all sorts of harassments, even at the most "liberal" institutions in the land.
According to Maria Reyes and John Halconís 1988 Harvard Educational Review essay, "Racism in Academia: The Old Wolf Revisited," faculty of color deal with racism in very specific ways:
- Some acquiesce to the demands to assimilate. They strive to purge themselves of the public manifestations of their culture.
- Some give up trying to fight the prevailing racist structures. They are usually "burned-out" because they have used up all their energy combating every wrong they encounter.
- Some count the cost of the fight and determine the struggle is not worth it. They usually move to another academic institution that better appreciates them and their work.
- Some continue the struggle, attempting to balance the temptation to bring about change with the importance of succeeding within the system.
- And finally, some fight back, challenging every offense and racist act, regardless of the consequences.
Dealing with Harassment Issues
Whenever a person is made to feel uncomfortable or worse in their place of employment or in the classroom due to unwanted sexual attention, she (seldom he) is being sexually harassed. At times the incident is reported to a superior, only to have the situation ignored by the institution. However, sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination, prohibited by federal laws. Specifically, the federal statutes Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 are used when charges of sexual harassment against higher education institutions and their employees are filed. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 provides additional rights and remedies to sexual harassment complainants.
Sexual harassment occurs when sexual favors are demanded to insure professional gain, or when refusing to provide sexual favors threatens oneís professional security. Additionally, sexual harassment is present whenever a hostile environment exists in the classroom or workplace that makes women feel threatened and/or disempowered. Unfortunately, some who have been harassed have resigned from their jobs or dropped out of required courses in order to preserve their own self-respect.
Unlike sexual harassment within corporate America, sexual harassment within academia focuses upon the professorís position of power and authority. According to Sexual Harassment: A Report on the Sexual Harassment of Students (1980), F. J. Tilly defines sexual harassment in academia to be "the use of authority to emphasize the sexuality or sexual identity of a student in a manner which prevents or impairs the studentís full enjoyment of educational benefits, climate, or opportunities." Tilly identifies five levels of sexual harassment within academia. They are:
- Gender harassment: generalized sexist remarks and behavior.
- Seductive behavior: inappropriate and offensive, but essentially sanction-free, sexual advances.
- Sexual bribery: solicitations of sexual activity or other sex-linked behavior by promise of rewards.
- Sexual coercion: coercion of sexual activity by threat of punishment.
- Sexual assault: gross sexual imposition or assault.
Most colleges and universities have programs in place which are set up to deal with sexual harassment. They should include:
- A carefully drafted set of definitions elaborating upon what constitutes sexual harassment, with clear policies prohibiting such actions
- An accessible grievance procedure understood by the academic community
- Continuous education concerning the nature of sexual harassment
Anyone who believes they have been sexually harassed should report the incident to the proper authorities within the school. You should first obtain a copy of your institutionís policy on sexual harassment, if one exists. The policy should spell out the necessary procedures for filing a grievance and identifying the person(s) responsible for implementing the policy. You should also check for any information pamphlets offered by your state or municipality concerning sexual harassment. These should explain your rights and the expected liabilities for those who harassed you. If you are being sexually harassed, begin to document in writing everything that is occurring (who, what, when, and where). Be sure to document all incidents of harassment on a spiral notebook so that you cannot be accused of adding or removing papers.
Contact the affirmative action officer or another appropriate university official. For most harassment cases you will need to demonstrate that you first wrote a letter to the harasser and then to his/her immediate supervisors and received either an insufficient response, or no response at all. As you move up the ladder, your letters should be specific on what happened, showing how the response, or lack thereof, failed to adequately address your concerns. Also provide the letter recipient the opportunity to correct the situation by specifically spelling-out what form of redress you would find satisfactory.
And finally, seek out legal advice immediately. Donít just say, "Iím going to sue." Instead, consider something more like, "Iím sure the college wants to maintain its fine reputation for supporting the work of scholars of color, so it is critical that you address this issue by sending a reprimand to the offending party, prohibit her/him from attending meetings when I am there, and instituting a sexual harassment sensitivity session for the department. The problem will not go away until you begin to publicly deal with it. If the situation is ignored, you may want to consider taking legal action, although such a course of action (as discussed below) may have its own hidden dangers.
While victims of sexual harassment are not at fault for having unwanted advances forced upon them, still there are some defensive steps that can be taken. They are:
- Keep relationships with fellow colleagues professional. Do not engage in personal conversations, specifically oneís sex life, marital problems, or physical "turn ons" or "turn-offs."
- If you are from a culture that uses hugs as a form of greeting, employ the leaning forward shoulder hug, not the full body, pelvis to pelvis hug.
- When meeting with anyone in your office (even if they are of the same gender) keep your office door open.
- If you have any concerns about the intentions of who you are meeting with, then schedule your gathering at a public place, e.g. the school cafeteria.
- While at a conference, never agree to meet a colleague or student in your hotel room.
- Never conduct an employment interview, or go to one, at the conference hotel room.
Race and Ethnicity
"Oh, youíll have no problem getting a position once you graduate," is what I constantly heard from Euro-Americans during my graduate studies. Yet, scholars of color can expect, due to institutional racism which can manifest itself in strange ways, even more hurdles to jump than their Euro-American colleagues. One well published light-skinned Latino was denied employment because he was told that he was not "Latino enough." The schoolís administration thought his skin lacked sufficient brown pigmentation. These forms of politically correct bigotry contribute to a hostile work environment. The mythology perpetuated is that non-white skin is an opportunity for employment, because as the argument goes, a prevailing politically correct environment which is hostile to whites permeates academia. What appears as a compliment is really a voicing of resentment that you will get a job over "better" qualified white candidates. However, the truth of the matter is that racism and ethnic discrimination is as rampant on U.S. campuses of higher education as in any other sphere of American life. Like in the rest of society, not possessing white skin is detrimental during the hiring process. And even if you are hired because you have out-published all your white competitors, or you have a greater span of the academic discourse, you will be made to feel that you do not, and in reality, do not deserve the position. The zero-sum rule assumes that all faculty positions belong to white colleagues, and any position given to a person of color is a position being taken away from a more deserving white candidate.
But even after being hired, you will still have to deal with issues of harassment, whether they be unconscious, subtle, obvious faux pas, or downright hostile.
Story: At one college, a new Hispanic faculty member was warmly welcomed by her colleagues, who would proclaim over and over, "Weíre so glad they hired one of your kind of people, because of all the pressure." Though a bit surprised, she naturally assumed they were referring to her area of specialization, and proudly said she was glad to contribute in this way. "Ha, ha, thatís very funny," they laughed. "You know what we mean - your kind of people - Hispanics!
A scholar we will name Manuel, was serving on a search committee for a new faculty position. After much deliberation, the committee narrowed the search to several candidates. One of the candidates was a person of color. While Manuel was a Latino, this particular candidate was an Asian American woman. Manuel felt that she would enhance the present curriculum by brining a new and much needed perspective. As Manuel was making his case for the consideration of this person, one of his white colleagues literally said, "But Manuel, we already have you doing these marginalized perspectives, why would we need another?" The assumption in this case was that the department already had its token minority to prove they were not racist , so there was no need to hire another one, particularly with similar leanings. Like most departments throughout academia, Manuelís department suffers from the "one-minority-per-pot syndrome." Manuel tried to passionately explain that bringing in someone else from a different gender and ethnicity would only strengthen the program. Yet another white colleague shot back, "We are a small department of eight, so while the ideal may be great, the reality is that minority issues are already covered. What is needed now was someone who would cover another aspect of Euro-American religious thought."
Manny felt outnumbered, a lone voice in the wilderness. What Manny began to realize was that he would never win an argument of any significant importance because he was always outgunned. As he related his experience to his outside support system, he realized that during his tenure with this school, he was never invited to eat at an Euro-American colleagueís home. Others from his department would comment about having enjoyed a meal with the Provost or the President, but Manny never met with them within a relaxed setting. He knew that other faculty members routinely socialized, but with the exception of department parties where everyone was invited, Manny was routinely excluded.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, Mannyís exclusion prevented him from participating in the informal give and take that usually takes place when decisions concerning his department were made. That is why whenever major decisions were made, e.g. a new hire, Manny realized that all of his Euro-American colleagues operated from similar talking points. White privilege means that one is invited to the golf course, gym, or basketball game where most decisions are really made. Absence from these locations of power only further marginalizes those whose race and ethnicity already disenfranchises them.
So what can be done if one finds themselves in an situation where their voice in effectively silenced?
- Organize. Find other persons of color within your institution, whether in your department or in other departments. Propose meeting on a regular basis to discuss possible strategies for advancing your interests. As mentioned above, white colleagues are probably informally meeting already - and usually to your disadvantage. For you not to be part of your own group undermines your effectiveness. But note, do not assume that just because a colleague is a person of color her or his political views are congruent with yours. Many great organizing efforts have ended badly because a person of color in the team essentially acted as a spy for the administration or otherwise undermined the groups efforts so as to advance their individual careers.
If there are not sufficient persons of color, slowly and carefully expand your base. Members of color within the administration might prove to be crucial allies. But remember, they represent the same administration with whom faculty of color might be at odds. Even if they are invited to participate in your group, use caution. There may be some meetings when it would be wiser not to include them because it might put them in the uncomfortable position of choosing between loyalties. Also, you may at times include those white colleagues who through words and deed have been willing to stand in solidarity on issues crucial to faculty of color. But again, use caution, because as Euro-Americans they benefit from the very structures you are questioning and hoping to debunk. Like administrators, their loyalties may be divided or conflicted.
- Report. If you find your work environment too hostile to your race or ethnicity, politely yet firmly discuss the situation with senior faculty members, your department chairperson, and/or dean. You may also consider obtaining advice from the universityís diversity committee if your institution has such a group. If this fails to bring about a desired change, consider talking to either the institutionís ombudsman or the affirmative action officer. First check if any such conversation commits you to lodging a formal written complaint. You may not want to do this depending on the seriousness of your complaint and its potential backlash. Be forewarned that an informal requirement for tenure is based on whether your colleagues find you to be collegial, meaning, do they really like you. You may be deemed too confrontational if your colleagues believe you are accusing them of unconscious racism, no matter how valid your experience may be.
- Legal action. Unlike sexual harassment, most schools and universities do not have a specific policy regarding racial harassment. Still, if you have experienced racial or cultural harassment (herein understood as any behavior that any reasonable person of color would find offensive), you should follow the same strategies as those victimized by sexual harassment, specifically to document in detail the experience and seek advice from university officials and/or an attorney.
Homophobia is a complex phenomenon for minorities because of the intertwined elements of race/ethnicity, sex, and gender within racism and heterosexism. Whites may inaccurately perceive an African American man as gay, for example, because racist stereotypes both oversexualize and undermasculinize black men. An Asian American lesbian may encounter a distinctive form of homophobia. Since Asian women are perceived by whites as being extra-feminine (read "passive") sexually, some may find it impossible to believe that she is lesbian (read "active" sexually and "mannish"). Handling a colleagueís casual homophobia can be tricky; academics are easily embarrassed by charges of bias of any sort. Sometimes, a light hearted response that names the stereotype in play without blaming the colleague is sufficient, since professionally we do claim to be experts at reading between the lines. If the message didnít sink in, it may become necessary to involve a mediator. Many colleges and universities offer mediation as a way of handling intra-faculty conflict. If this is not available, seek advice from your human resources office.
Homophobia can escalate into sexual harassment. Working up the courage to report such harassment can be especially difficult for minority and/or GLBT faculty members but is important nonetheless. Chances are that the harasser has either harassed before or will harass again unless he or she is stopped. All faculty members and students should acquaint themselves with the college or university policies on discrimination and harassment. Even if your collegeís or universityís policy does not explicitly include harassment on the basis of perceived sexual orientation, you should still explore pursuing a complaint under the umbrella of sexual harassment. You will want to know to whom you should go to discuss whether you should register a complaint. Good policies will have established a route for discussing and reporting possible harassment that allows you to bypass those who supervise you and assures your confidentiality. The human resources department can be very helpful in this regard. Its staff members are likely to have more training in this area than department chairs or academic administrators. As with any form of harassment, you will need to document specific instances of troubling encounters by keeping a journal recording the date, time, place, and any witnesses, along with a detailed description of what happened. Take steps to avoid being alone with the harasser. Do not agree to meeting behind closed doors. While it will feel important to seek support from friends or colleagues, remember that you risk having your concerns become the subject of campus gossip. That can hurt you as easily as it can the harasser. You will be best served by going through the proper channels to report the problem and seeking solace and counsel only from friends whom you can trust to preserve your confidentiality.
Incidents of hate crimes have multiplied on colleges and universities throughout the United States. Such incidents include, but are not limited to: hate mail, racist graffiti, and verbal abuse. Many institutions would prefer to keep hate crimes and rape an internal affair. Most schools strive hard to avoid the publicity associated with hate crimes and rape. But rape and hate crimes are first and foremost crimes that are serious, potentially deadly, and punishable by law. Yes, notify your campus security, but also notify the local police. File the necessary reports with the proper authorities. Insist on having these crimes investigated. By publicizing such crimes, it provides public notice that a grave problem exists. Some schools have a "Take Back the Night" rally that hosts on-campus vigils at sites where women were raped or otherwise attacked. Support such initiatives as one that all your students and community members should attend (not just the women), for this calls attention to a problem that destroys lives.
Several organizations lead by women of color exist that address hate crimes and sexual violence from an intersectional race/gender perspective. They include:
- Incite! Women of Color Against Violence
- Sista II Sista
- Audre Lorde Project
- Communities Against Rape and Abuse
- Northwest Network of Bi, Trans, Gay and Lesbian Survivors of Abuse
Harassment Within Oneís Community of Color
Just because you are a person of color, do not assume you will automatically receive the help, support, or encouragement of your community of color. Unfortunately, politics are just as prevalent within minority groups as they are within the dominant culture. Consider the following example. A graduate student of color, whom we will name Mirta, applied for a dissertation grant from an organization whose deciding board comprised of members from her own ethnic community. The thesis of her dissertation dealt with a topic which questioned the presumptions and rhetoric of her ethnic community. In fact, she was critical of one of the concepts advanced by one of the senior scholars who happen to be sitting on the grant deciding board, and has written articles propounding this particular view. Much heated discussion took place over Mirtaís grant request. At the end, the board voted not to provide funding. Financially strapped, Mirta seriously considered dropping out of the PhD program. After all, if her own ethnic community refused to support her work, maybe her work lacked scholastic rigor.
Fortunately, she received a letter from one of the board members. A senior scholar, he encouraged her to continue with her studies and explained that the decision to not fund her project was due more to politics and her boldness to critically analyze the work of senior members of the community through the use of methodologies that the community usually views with suspicion. In protest, this senior scholar resigned from the organization. Encouraged that her work did have enough merit to prompt this particular senior scholar to stand up in her defense, Mirta finished her dissertation. Within a year, her dissertation was published into two books, each by different university presses. Since then, she has published more books than most of those on the board who originally questioned her scholarship.
Mirtaís experience leads us to some strategies when one is harassed by oneís own community of color. Specifically: Do not give up. At times, rejection from oneís community may indeed be caused by a lack of scholarship. To be sure, seek out senior scholars from within and outside your community to provide critical feedback on your work. If they see some major flaws, spend time learning how to correct these flaws and tighten your argument. If however you receive overall positive feedback, then other causes for your rejection may be at play. In Mirtaís case, she was challenging, albeit indirectly, the work of senior members of her community. Her rejection was not due to the quality of her work but the implication her work would have on the way the discipline is constructed. Fortunately, she was able to move beyond the rejection by fostering alliances outside her community, and her eventual success refuted and exposed the boardís political machinations for what they were.
Restricting Academic Freedom
Many faculty of color are usually very engaged with their community. At times they find themselves serving as a representative for their group - a community Voice. Speaking against societal structures of oppression can easily put you at odds with your college or university who, many times, are economically interconnected with these oppressive social structures. Take the example of Michael, who taught at a conservative Christian college. When one of the nationís leading evangelical leaders of the political Religious Right made some bigoted homophobic remarks, Michael felt compelled to hold the evangelical leader accountable and wrote an op-ed column in his local newspaper. Within a week, the evangelical leader responded in the same newspaper, ending his diatribe with thanksgiving that his children were not enrolled in the college where Michael taught. Before the day ended, both the provost and president called Michael into their separate offices to voice their displeasure.
Within a month, the college president wrote Michael a letter questioning his scholarship, and holding him accountable for lost donations based on Michaelís op-ed writings. Even though Michael published three books that academic year, the president also took Michaelís name off the list of scholars that were to receive merit pay raises that year. Michael later discovered that at least two individuals who sat on the Board of the Directors for the evangelical leader he criticized were also trustees at his college, and at least one of them publically announced that he was considering withholding donations until Michael was appropriately dealt with.
This story is repeated to emphasize the fact that the work many scholars of color engage in is detrimental to their employment. As long as the scholar of color keeps his or her discourse abstract, he or she will be tolerated. However, if such a scholar is serious about the importance of praxis, and actively engages in changing social structures which secure white privilege, there is a real possibility that there will be a backlash. It behooves the scholar of color to first count the cost. Social and political activism carries a price, and that price may very well be unemployment. Whether one chooses to be a scholar-activist or not totally depends on the individual. But for those who choose activism as a form of their pedagogy, the following should be considered:
- Be as wise as serpents but gentle as doves. Definitely hold those who benefit from injustices accountable, but do so in such a way that it does not appear like a personal attack.
- Be accurate in your critique, always mindful that the color of your skin or your ethnicity will justify in the dominant cultureís mind your supposed lack of academic rigor.
- Choose your battles. Not a day goes by when you will not be reminded that you do not really belong because of your race or ethnicity. No one person possesses all the energy to fight every single insult. So wait for the right battle. Donít let others choose for you the battleground. It is you who should choose the time of engagement and the battlefield.
- At times your personal integrity leaves you no choice but to risk it all for the cause of justice. If this is the case, then move forward boldly. If the risks are too high, then it might be best to tone down the rhetoric. All talk and no action hurts all scholars of colors.
In the case study above, Michael was forced to resign. Fortunately for him, scholars elsewhere were impressed with how he merges praxis with theory. He quickly found new employment, in an atmosphere where his work is most welcomed and appreciated.
A Final Note
When dealing with issues of harassment it is important to remember:
- Avoid self blame. For most scholars of color, who are already isolated within their predominately Euro-American institution and who have had their work constantly questioned as to scholastic rigor, it is easy to believe that the harassment faced is somehow their fault. Do not forget that the systemic racism within the institutionís structures have been historically designed to privilege the dominant culture at your expense. Donít fall into the mental trap of blame that "everything is all your fault." Mind you, in a few cases you might have contributed to your situation, but the majority of the incidents you face would have been experienced by whichever scholar of color happened to fill your position. If you can begin by realizing that you are probably not to blame, then you can look at the situation a bit more clearly to see what are really the causing factors.
- Avoid self-doubt. Any form of harassment, regardless as to how self-confident you may be, will cause most people to doubt their abilities. Try to remember that in most cases it is not about you - it is about your skin color, ethnicity, gender, orientation, manner of speech, or any or all of these at once. If you allow self-doubt to creep into your deliberations as to what course of action to take, you may find yourself arriving at false conclusions, contributing to incorrect actions to be taken.
- Be realistic. As you analyze your situation, realize that you may lack the power, energy, or resources to bring about complete change. At times it might be best to cut your losses and move on. At other times, you may need to have to compromise in order to survive. Still, at other times, you might have to keep fighting the good fight. Whichever course you take, be realistic as to what you can accomplish and what would be the possible repercussions. Count the cost and move forward if you are willing to pay the price. It is always best if you can divorce yourself from your emotions, least you are tempted to act too hastily.
Living Through Bigoted Statements
Most scholars of color, no matter how gifted they may be as a teacher, no matter how prolific they may be as a scholar, no matter how active they may be within the academic community, must live with the perception that they lack the scholastic rigor to have been hired on their own merits. Not only do their colleagues assume that they were hired as a result of affirmative action, but many of their students also buy into this presupposition.
Kim, who has published more than his entire department combined, and whose student teaching evaluations were among the highest on campus, constantly heard very bigoted comments as he walked into group meetings on campus. For example, he once struck up a conversation with another colleague of the same ethnicity in their native Korean during a college reception, and was quickly approached by a Euro-American colleague to remind him that he was now in America and should be speaking in English. Another time, while speaking to the dean about obtaining more financial assistance for his travel based on the number of book contracts he had, he was dismissed by the dean with the reply "Anyone can get a book contract." Once, the newly installed provost stopped by Kimís office for a visit because he was concerned that one of the students in class was offended by Kimís critique of Euro-American power structures. Regardless of the fact that the majority of the students highly evaluated Kimís teaching skills, the provost felt the need to warn him that his tenure review was rapidly approaching, and that the administration felt that "many" on campus believed Kim was not a positive influence for the college due to his views. Kim constantly overheard his white colleagues remark that it was impossible nowadays for a white man to get a teaching position. Such comments ignored the reality that faculty of color are still disproportionately unrepresented within academia. John, an adjunct professor who shared an office next door surprised Kim one day with this statement: "They hired you instead of me because you are a minority and Iím just a white male." Kim remained silent, but thought about the difference in their track record: John had not published anything since he joined the department ten years ago, while Kim had published several books.
The list of bigoted remarks Kim continued to hear can fill an entire chapter. The question then is, what should he do about this? Regularly challenging such remarks can lead to a denial of tenure, as the provost warned him. But to say nothing is to provide credence to the bigoted comments made. If you are hearing as many bigoted comments as did Kim, think seriously about your "fit" in this school. Constant bigoted comments from your colleagues clearly indicates that, in their mind, your presence at the institution serves as a token of diversity, not as a representation of scholarship. It is unlikely that your work will be appreciated or supported. You are probably better off finding employment elsewhere. Kim chose to leave this particular college and is now working at a university where his scholarship is recognized and appreciated.
But what if you simply cannot move. What then? Responding to every remark is exhausting, potentially toxic to your peace of mind, and robs you of the energy needed for your scholarship and teaching. So pick your battles wisely. Take the example of a scholar of color we will call Sondra. Sondra was the first of her ethnicity to be hired by this particular seminary. She never allowed a bigoted remark go unanswered. She even sued the seminary for discrimination and won. But in the long run, she lost the war. After leaving the seminary she found it difficult to find employment. She developed a reputation, unfairly, of being non-collegial. No school
would hire her, fearing that with time, she may also end up suing them. It does you little good to win the battle over a bigoted comment or even constant negative chatter, when you could inevitably lose the war and never be able to practice your profession again.
The decision to come out is particularly fraught with stress for GLBT people of color/minority status. Because of the sexualization involved in racism, minority friends, colleagues, or family members who are straight may view your sexual orientation as a deliberate betrayal of your race or ethnic group. For similar reasons, majority friends or colleagues may find it difficult to believe that minority folk can be GLBT, too. In deciding whether to come out and to whom, you will want to be aware of your college or universityís non-discrimination policy. The degree of actual legal protection such policies offer is not always clear, given variations in state law and its differential relationship to private vs. public institutions of higher education. But having such a policy in place is an indication of an expressed commitment to which the institution should be held accountable. It will not necessarily be a commitment that all members of the institution share, of course. Given the risks, you will probably want to come out first to friends and colleagues outside your institution in order to ensure that you have a network of support when or if you come out at work. You may also wish to seek out GLBT support groups in your area (some include support groups specifically for minorities) or online as well as other "out" faculty members (if there are any) at your institution. If you seek online support, you may prefer to use a personal ISP account rather than your work account to ensure your privacy.
Deciding whether or not to come out to students adds another layer of complication, especially for minority faculty members in institutions that lack any explicit commitment to non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The power dynamics that characterize student/minority teacher relationships put you at some risk should you decide to come out. (A disgruntled student may try to use this information as the basis for a complaint, for example.) On the other hand, those same dynamics mean that choosing to come out can send a positive message to all students, especially GLBT and/or minority students. The relative risks and benefits need to be weighed carefully on a case-by-case basis Ė ideally, with wise counsel from others who know your institution, its administrators, and its student body. Student affairs professionals can be very helpful on such matters. They can also help you identify ways to be supportive of GLBT students whether or not you decide to come out to students. Consider, for example, organizing a Safe Zones program on your campus or serving as faculty advisor for your campusís GLBT student organization.
Dealing with Religion and Spirituality
As professors whose main area of study is religion. It should not be surprising then that for some, spirituality was the main reason why this particular discipline was chosen in the first place. How then does one balance their faith (or lack thereof) with the job of teaching about religion? For those who conduct their research or base their teaching from a particular faith tradition, it would be wise to seek employment at either a seminary or a college with strong ties to your particular faith tradition. For those whose faith does not affect their teaching or research, or for those who have no particular faith, then a secular college or a research institution might be the better fit. This does not mean that scholars of faith should not work at research universities or secular colleges. Nor does it mean that those who do not profess a faith or whose faith doesnít impact their work should not work at a seminary or a college strongly associated by a faith tradition. However, for those teaching at such institutions where their own spirituality (or lack thereof) and the ethos of the school are not well aligned, it would be wise to be sensitive to what is expected from you and the religious sentiments (or lack thereof) of the students and institution.
Faith Within Secular Academy
If one teaches at a Christian school or seminary, then their work is expected to be Christiancentric. However, caution should be exercised for those scholars of faith who work at a secular institution or research university. To work at a secular institution means that those sitting in your class probably represent a variety of beliefs, including non-belief. You should expect Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Wiccas, and atheists among your students. They are not in your class to learn the "truths" about your faith, but to study religion as a discipline. To impose your faith does a disservice to your institution, your students, and the faith tradition you represent. You must learn to divorce yourself from your faith upon entering the classroom. For some, this is impossible. If you are unable to do this, then teaching religion at a secular institution may not be the best "fit" for you.
But even if you are able to separate yourself from your faith, you still might receive disapproval from your more secular colleagues. At some institutions, being spiritual is seen as unscholarly. For those scholars of color who do ground their work within their faith tradition, serving in non-religious schools may prove formidable. For this reason, it is important to pay close attention to the schools to which you will be applying, ensuring that your spirituality (or lack thereof) fits with the overall institutional ethos.
Misappropriation for Other Traditions
Every so often we come across Euro-Americans who consider themselves more black than African Americans, more Latino than Hispanics, or more Indian than Native Americans. They (mis)appropriate cultural symbols, setting themselves up as experts. Native American scholar Tink Tinker asks the question, "Is the sharing of Indian ceremonial life ultimately helpful to either Indian or non-Indian people?" Although Tinkerís question should not be limited to Native Americans, he answers this question by pointing out:
- Cross-cultural differences make it very difficult for non-Indians to internalize Indian meanings relating to ceremonial acts. This makes it a necessity for Indian structures to be remodeled accordingly around non-Indian cultural structures and ideas in order to include non-Indian "individuals."
- Culture and belonging: Along with the communalist/individualist cultural difference comes another significant difference that is regularly overlooked. Indian nationality, and hence participation in the ceremonial spirituality of the community, is not a voluntary act such as joining a church. Rather, the concept of modality signifies that membership in the community is a birth right. We are what we are by birth. Andrea Smith would add that the issue moves beyond simply birth. It is about having kinship relationship to a specific landbase since Native culture emerged from relationships to a landbase.
Essentially, Tinker argues that white participation in Indian community ceremonial actions contributes to the ongoing destruction of Indian culture, ceremonies and communities, and constitutes continued colonization in a time that is often referred to as postcolonial. But as already noted, Tinkerís concerns about Euro-American appropriation of marginalized cultures is not limited to the Native American experience. As scholars of color we should hold our Euro-American colleagues accountable. Rather than standing with us in solidarity in dismantling power structures designed to ensure their white privilege, we should not accept them when they are utilizing that privilege to become us, as though it is somehow chic to be among or like one of the oppressed. Being marginalized is nothing to romanticize.
The Problem of "Fit"
The work done by most scholars of color does not neatly fit into the Euro-American dichotomy between conservatives and liberals. Many scholars of color would probably find themselves as being the "liberal" among conservatives and simultaneously the "conservative" among liberals. Of course it goes without saying that many people of color do not identify with either the liberal or conservative dichotomy prevalent within Euro-American culture. Thus, it becomes somewhat difficult to define oneself using the definitions of the dominant culture. Still, regardless as to oneís attempt to not to be labeled, labeled you shall be!
Whichever way you end up being labeled, consider these points:
- Learn to speak the "language" of the environment in which you find yourself. Rather than telling your students and colleagues why they are wrong, learn to communicate your message using, whenever possible, their language. By using their language, you subvert it by how you redefine their terms, and you increase the possibility of being heard. One liberationist professor of color adopted the evangelical language of the Religious Right to show how those who are calling themselves evangelicals are failing to live up to the liberating message of the gospel.
- Some conservatives refuse to acknowledge that oppressive structures exists, and that what people of color need to do is to pull themselves by their bootstraps. Some liberals, on the other hand, simply want to "feel your pain," by wallowing in guilt. Both extremes are dangerous to your well being. While the conservative refuses to recognize the plight of the oppressed, the liberal wishes to concentrate on their shame. Both extremes have a common goal, the unconscious but deliberate maintenance of white privilege. True, a few scholars of color might be allowed to be part of the institution, but unfortunately this is usually to give the impression of diversity. And to prove the institutionís so-called commitment to diversity, expect the public relations office to include photos of you at school events to show some "color" on the schoolís website and/or catalogue. Conservatives may dismisses taking action because the problems faced by people of color are perceived as being non-existent. And liberals may dismiss taking action because the shame of oppression is too overwhelming. But the end result is the same, action to change power structures will not take place because both sides of the social Euro-American spectrum is, at the final analysis, more concerned with protecting the power and privilege they already hold.