Diverse Women as Guests in the Academic House

By Caroline Sotello Viernes Turner

Cover of Presumed Incompetent IIPresumed Incompetent II: Race, Class, Power, and Resistance of Women in Academia, ed. Yolanda Flores Niemann, Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, and Carmen G. González. Louisville: University Press of Colorado, 2020.

Presumed Incompetent II: Race, Class, Power, and Resistance of Women in Academia presents first-person narratives that give voice and visibility to the lived experiences of women faculty members with diverse identities that overlap intersectionally (that is, across social categories such as race, gender, sexuality, and class) and transnationally (across national boundaries). In their stories, the authors describe obstacles they have encountered in their careers and the ways they continue to survive, persist, and thrive within the culture of academia.

Despite efforts to diversify faculties, documented in the editors’ introduction to the volume, the US professoriate remains primarily white, male, heterosexual, and middle to upper class. The volume’s contributors recount how, in such a context, academic women experience tokenism, marginalization, and the devaluation of their knowledge and talents. They are, at best, guests in someone else’s house. Guests have no history in the house they occupy. There are no photographs on the wall that reflect their image. Guests are to maintain good behavior and are typically not invited into all parts of the house. Like contributors to its 2012 predecessor, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, the new volume’s authors share how this lack of belonging creates a toxic environment that has contributed to the early deaths and suicides of some peers who attempted to fit into an academic context not built to include or value them.

Contributors to Presumed Incompetent II name and describe challenges and accomplishments within their own life contexts. The editors encourage the telling of those stories while also providing a frame for the shared experiences of women occupying marginalized spaces in academia. In that spirit, I want to share some of my own story here.

I am a Latina and Filipina cisgender woman, a full professor from a no-collar class. My educational journey took me from working as a farm laborer to becoming the first in my family to go to college to having the opportunity to serve for almost forty years as a professor of education at three large universities. In most of my faculty and administrative positions, I was the first Latina, Filipina, or woman of color to serve. My academic journey, while fraught with challenges reflected in several experiences described in Presumed Incompetent II, provided opportunities for me to publish work that has contributed to increasing the representation of faculty of color, pushing back against narratives that cast differences as deficits, and creating inclusive spaces for the sharing of knowledge and the development of mentoring and networking practices that support the career advancement of scholars of color.

Reading the narratives in Presumed Incompetent II, I saw many parallels with my own career in academia, especially in the stories that addressed the pressure to “forget about” one’s social class, as if it were something to be ashamed of or something that would somehow devalue one’s work. Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs writes that “lower social class is something from which we are meant to escape via academia.” Even as early as in college-prep classes in high school, I was told, without consideration of my previous grades, that I did not belong because I was the only one from the “fields.” Recently, I recall getting ready to give my Association for the Study of Higher Education presidential address when an admired colleague asked if I was sure I wanted to foreground my farm labor and ethnic or racial roots. This question made me realize how many times I have been pressured to downplay my beginnings, as if I could not be that person anymore.

I was encouraged from an early age to leave who I am at the doors of educational institutions because that is where my education should begin. Over years of trying to compartmentalize myself, I have learned that my power lies in bringing my whole self to whatever I do. By bringing all of our forms of knowledge to the table, we validate ourselves and our communities of origin. We can withstand critics who believe that these sources of knowledge have little or no value. In my view, the combination of all forms of knowledge creates new knowledge. It is important to acknowledge who we are in total because that influences our approaches to research, the types of questions we ask, the kinds of issues that interest us, and the ways we go about seeking solutions and interpreting our findings. Presumed Incompetent II consistently communicates the importance of acknowledging one’s whole self and bringing to the table one’s entire skill set, developed over a lifetime.  

Currently, I find myself blending the values and knowledge learned from my home community with what I have learned during my decades as a researcher in higher education. I have encountered various theories related to access and success in higher education. In contributing to these theories, I am much more aware of how my university learning brings me back to an understanding of the value of family and community knowledge gained in my youth. This blended knowledge helps me to think about what it means to cultivate nurturing environments in the field of farm labor and in the field of academic labor.

Several Presumed Incompetent II contributors write about learning how to blossom and thrive where they are planted. I relate the phrase “bloom where you are planted” back to my roots in farm labor. Observing the growth of plants taught me that they must be provided with sufficient water and sunlight, fertile soil, and protection from insects and other pests that could destroy them. Lacking these, a plant may or may not survive, but it will likely not fully bloom. The environment in which you are planted matters!

As Angela P. Harris notes in her foreword to Presumed Incompetent II, academic environments include the educational institution as well as the national sociopolitical environment. For example, the current movement toward white nationalism—evident in the Trump administration’s promotion of curricula designed to preserve traditional versions of US history that discount the teaching of ethnic studies and in efforts to withhold federal funds for diversity or implicit-bias training—threatens the ability of women faculty members from marginalized groups to survive and thrive in academia. Although the Biden administration promises to move toward diversity and inclusion, we are now faced with other major sociopolitical and global public-health challenges.

As I write this review, I am sitting in my living room where I have been “staying in place” for the last eight months because of the global pandemic. I am feeling the weight not only of COVID-19 but also of the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against the pandemic of racism in this country. Both pandemics further reveal the many inequities experienced by the marginalized women faculty who contributed to Presumed Incompetent II. Women needed to do even more service work than usual as campuses quickly transitioned to online teaching and online administration formats. One of the findings that emerges from Presumed Incompetent II is that in evaluating scholarly productivity, there is a penalty for service, but there is no penalty for lack of service. For example, in her discussion of tokenism in higher education, Yolanda Flores Niemann states that “the weight of the needs of the university structure relative to any matters related to race is placed on the few visible Faculty of Color. . . . The situation becomes cyclical and compounding—the more tokens engage as racial entities, the less they are perceived as scholars, and the more they are called upon to function through their racial identities.” Furthermore, in many cases, women also bear the primary responsibility for the care and learning of their children now at home rather than at school. Many have lost their jobs or are in fear of losing their jobs because of budget cuts. On top of all these concerns are a myriad of health inequities exposed by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color.

Efforts to dismantle systemic racism and challenge anti-Black bias that were propelled by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others especially affect the lives of scholars of color. In an article for The Faculty, Jasmine Abukar writes about many, including herself, who are suffering from vicarious trauma. One contributor to Presumed Incompetent II, Adrien K. Wing, refers to this phenomenon as spirit injuries. This term conveys the feeling that these professionals, including those in academic leadership, can’t breathe at work even as they may go about their tasks, pretending to be okay when they are not.

The continuing pressures and stressors described in this book, combined with the current social unrest and public-health challenges, intensify an already taxing situation and accentuate feelings of being alone, overwhelmed, and depressed. As racism persists and change seems so far out of reach, many may doubt themselves or wonder if their work is worth the struggle. Contributing authors who are in academic leadership positions face additional tensions as they work to transform institutions within power structures established primarily to maintain the status quo. According to several of the voices highlighted in the volume, the work is worth it when considered as part of a broader fight waged for social and racial justice. However, authors point to the need for individuals to realize that they are not alone in their struggles. They underscore the importance of reaching out to one another in order to create supportive communities and to practice self-care, which includes securing treatment for anxiety or depression and resting or taking breaks from academic work as needed.   

Presumed Incompetent II is a critical and welcome addition to the literature documenting the experiences of marginalized women faculty members. It provides the authors an avenue not only to share their individual stories but also to contribute to a knowledge base for building a supportive community and creating opportunities to mentor each other and those whose experiences are reflected in this book. This body of work is a major intervention that can disrupt business as usual by providing explicit examples of organizational barriers encountered by each author while also highlighting how they overcame these challenges to persist in their academic careers.

The authors describe how they managed to remain in the academic profession while staying true to their identities and values. However, their narratives emphasize that while one may be intelligent, resilient, and motivated, individual characteristics alone are not enough to counter the effects of unwelcoming and often toxic work environments. In such environments, institutional responsiveness is crucial for the persistence and development of marginalized women faculty, including those in academic leadership positions. Institutional leaders and policy makers can use the wealth of knowledge shared in Presumed Incompetent II to cultivate nurturing work environments that include and value the talent and perspectives of those who have been marginalized.

Caroline Sotello Viernes Turner is professor emerita of educational leadership at California State University, Sacramento, and Lincoln Professor Emerita of Higher Education and Ethics at Arizona State University. She served as president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) and as interim dean for the College of Education at California State University, Sacramento. She is the author of Women of Color in Academe: Living with Multiple Marginality and coauthor with Samuel L. Myers Jr. of Faculty of Color in Academe: Bittersweet Success. Her email address is [email protected].