Q&A with an Editor of Race and Class in Academia Anthology Presumed Incompetent

Presumed Incompetent Book Cover

In my last post, I explained my love for the new anthology Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Using personal narratives, empirical studies, and scholarly essays, over 40 different authors discuss the challenges faced by academic women of color in higher education. I emailed with Seattle University School of Law Professor Carmen G. Gonzalez about what it's like to put together such a meaty and long-overdue book. 

 

How did the idea for this book come about?

CARMEN G. GONZALEZ: As women of color who have managed to survive and thrive in academia despite formidable obstacles, we (the co-editors of Presumed Incompetent) felt a need and a responsibility to create a public dialogue about the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of workplace bias women of color experience.

Despite decades of struggle to achieve workplace equity in academia, both women of color and white women face daunting obstacles. For example, a recent study found that female faculty in the United States on average earn 6.9 percent less than men in similar academic positions. 

At each full-time rank, women are hired at lower salaries than men, receive less career support than men (such as research leave, relief from service work and research assistants), and are tenured and promoted at lower rates than men. The statistics for women of color are particularly grim. Women of color hold only 7.5 percent of U.S. full-time faculty positions. But even this low number is misleading because women of color are concentrated at the lowest faculty ranks.

Those who differ from the invisible and largely uncontested white male norm find themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, presumed incompetent as teachers, scholars, and participants in faculty governance. 

In other words, it is necessary but not sufficient to increase the numbers of women faculty of color. What is required is a transformation of the culture of academia.

 

What was the most surprising thing you found through your research?

The most surprising thing for me was how difficult it was to articulate the role of class in the experiences of women faculty of color. Our book focuses on the intersection of all three. But when one faces workplace subordination based on several intersecting identities, it can become difficult to tease out what part is due to gender, to race, to class, or to sexual orientation. 

We don't talk about class in the United States despite the fact that the United States has among the highest levels of income inequality in the developed world and the lowest rates of upward mobility.

Women of color from working class backgrounds face enormous obstacles—not only due to material disadvantage, but due to the alienating nature of academic culture. Without family members who can help them decipher the opaque rituals and expectations of academic culture, academics from the working class are essentially navigating without a map. They often struggle with isolation, with the disorientation of stepping into middle and upper class worlds, and with the nagging sense that they have abandoned their communities of origin or "sold out."   

How do you believe we, as a country, community, and world will be able to overcome overt and covert sexism and racism?

I don't think we will begin to overcome overt and covert gender and racial bias until we stop pretending that we live in a "post-identity" society where race and gender no longer matter. 

Only by talking openly about racism and sexism, in all of its manifestations, in all of the institutions that affect our daily lives, will we understand it, deconstruct it, and overcome it. 

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One of the most important

One of the most important things that this book should do is discover empirically what the mechanisms are that lead to the disparities mentioned, like lower salaries and lower career support. For example, it might be that female professors are less likely to ask for these things, which would not involve active discrimination and still lead to the outcomes described. Getting these empirical matters right is important because only if we know why will we be able to do the right thing about it.