A Politics of Color

By Carol E. Henderson

Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia by Gabriella Gutierrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez, and Angela P. Harris, eds. Boulder, CO: Utah State University Press (an imprint of University Press of Colorado), 2012.

Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia
by Carmen G. Gonz and Guti and Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs


More than forty years have passed since the Ninety-Second Congress amended the Higher Education Act of 1965, creating Title IX, a legislative provision barring any educational institution or program receiving federal financial assistance from discriminating against or denying benefits to any person based on sex. Integrally tied to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the amended law targeted gender discrimination specifically and has been largely used to regulate high school and collegiate sports, although its legal reach extends to all facets of institutional life.

Nonetheless, advances in racial and gender equity at all levels in the academy have moved at a snail’s pace. Within administrative and faculty ranks, in particular, women of color find a lack of presence and parity with their peers at many of the major universities and colleges in this country. According to statistics from the American Council on Education, women of color held only 7.5 percent of full-time faculty positions in 2007, and as rank increased, the percentage declined: only 6.6 percent of associate professors and only 3.4 percent of full professors were women of color. Women of color made up 10.6 percent of professors in administrative roles in 2007, even though the populations of students of color on most campuses rose to 30 percent that same year. And at the higher levels of academic administration (presidents and provosts), the numbers are even more troubling. Such lack of diversity affects all developmental levels of institutional life, and academic vision is compromised when college and university leadership or campus culture does not represent—or speak to—the multiple and complex issues of the population it serves.

Presumed Incompetent is a haunting collection of thirty essays by academic women of color that attempts to address this ongoing problem of underrepresentation and misrepresentation. Despite fear of reprisal, further isolation, and personal angst, these women speak openly, with precision and acuity, about the contradictions inherent in academic governance. Divided into five sections that address campus climate, faculty-student relationships, tenure and promotion, social class, and network allegiance within institutional life, the essays speak to the socialization culture on college campuses, the perils of a not-so-postracial world within academic curricula, and the anxieties of identity performance for women of color in academe.

The moment is right for such a volume: there is an ever-growing tension between the distinctly white, male, heterosexual, and middle- and upper-middleclass culture of academia and an emerging and increasingly multicultural student constituency. Understanding the importance of education in changing lives, communities, and global culture— and aware of the informal, nebulous demands of promotion and tenure that favor the “good ol’ boy network”—these authors unveil in their personal narratives the contradictions of having their service labor exploited while their intellectual capacity and their scholarship are deemed wholly unacceptable, summarily questioned, and even dismissed by colleagues and students. Thus women of color find themselves fighting with the ghosts of inferiority imposed on them by the racial and social myths circulating within the ivory tower. These unfounded myths presume that women of color are incompetent, unwilling or unable to meet the challenges of academic rigor. Such devastating assumptions create a climate in classrooms and departments that can lead to disrespectful or even vitriolic behavior on the part of colleagues and students, behavior that resolidifies the historical racial hierarchy of academic culture.

Critical to this collection is its reliance on personal stories and qualitative empirical data. As coeditors Angela P. Harris and Carmen G. Gonzalez contend, storytelling as qualitative research is important to bridging the gap between those who have the privilege and power to speak within any given structure and those who hold subordinate roles within that same institution. Many of the narratives assembled in this collection describe disquieting moments where scholars of color endure verbal assaults as well as blatant and subtle “microaggressive” behavior that leave lasting wounds on their spirits. Such behavior occurs, Harris and Gonzalez argue, when academic women of color perform as serious scholars, thwarting stereotypical and mythological expectations that they should be more motherly, secretarial, and nurse-like, ministering to the personal needs of student, administrator, and colleague alike. As Angela Mae Kupenda reveals in her essay “Facing Down the Spooks,” early in her academic career an administrator told her, “We know you are concerned about becoming a scholar and getting tenure, but we can’t afford for you to work on your research this summer . . . we need you to teach in the summer program because you are black, you are a woman, you are a great teacher; you nurture, mother, feed, and nurse all the students.” Revelations such as these leave one asking, Really? Someone actually had the nerve to say that? How can such arrogance and ignorance be accepted—tolerated—in the upper ranks of institutional life? What type of institutional climate allows such ill will to thrive? This behavior does not reflect the educational goals of institutions, most of which claim to promote diversity writ large but have no infrastructure in place to implement and support its practice. How are scholars of color to succeed when the infrastructure needed to support them, including mentorship, is not in place?

Presumed Incompetent offers answers to these questions that are as varied as the narratives it contains. More than just a recounting of victimization and persecution, the authors’ accounts reveal troubling patterns of institutional complicity in oppressive practices while also demonstrating the resiliency of scholars of color and their allies who, despite pernicious academic environments, survive, thrive, and effect change within their workplaces. A number of these narratives suggest concrete and holistic ways to begin the slow process of restructuring academic culture to create more inclusive, meritocratic systems and to honor the educational and intellectual intent of university life. But building a truly inclusive academic world takes real institutional effort and real structural and cultural change. No longer can the single university committee on diversity and gender equity generate proposal upon proposal, only to have them filed away at the first sign of faculty or administrative resistance—and brought out again when the next racial incident occurs, only to be filed away once more when the turmoil dissipates. In providing traceable avenues to healing and “a transformative understanding that results from absorbing the emotional content of each of the experiences shared in this volume,” writes coeditor Yolanda Flores Niemann, these narratives “plant the seeds of change so that future generations of women of color and members of other historically underrepresented groups may have more fulfilling, respectful, and dignified experiences as faculty in the academic world.” Indeed, this is the experience we want for all people.


Carol E. Henderson is professor of English and chair of the Department of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware. She is currently at work on two book projects: Scripting Black Childhood: Screening Family, Community, and Violence in American Cinema and Resurrecting the Hottentot Venus: Visions, Revisions, and Literary Responses. Her e-mail address is [email protected].