A Flawed System: Navigating Racist Encounters

Last week, The Student embarked on the first of its four-part series examining the experiences of faculty of color at a predominantly white institution. Professors of color discussed extra burdens of service and emotional labor as work not acknowledged by the college, while internal reports showed that professors of color were denied tenure at significantly higher rates than white professors.

In addition to these inequalities, professors of color often face racial injuries — harm caused by encounters with racism — and microaggressions that contribute to feeling unwelcome at the college. Extensive research has shown that repeated exposure to racism or discrimination results in negative mental health effects. According to a report released by the National Institute of Health in 2015, employees who face discrimination in the workplace are more likely to experience higher levels of psychological distress and health-related problems than employees who do not.

In February, two professors of color at Williams cancelled their courses for the spring semester, noting that they did not feel safe at the college amidst sentiments of anti-blackness and transphobia on campus. According to The Williams Record, one of the two professors wrote in an email to the students enrolled in her class that “[m]y decision is rooted in a refusal to continue business as usual while many of us (students, staff, community members, faculty) suffer from the college’s violent practices.”

Racially tinged encounters are not isolated to Williams. Multiple professors at Amherst spoke about being misidentified as another faculty member of color. Experiences with racism ranged from microaggressions to overt acts.

A few years ago, Professor of American studies Robert Hayashi was waiting for doors to open at the Mead Art Museum, where he was scheduled to speak at a reception. He was dressed in a suit. Suddenly, a white alum handed him her water cup without a word.

After one month at the college, Professor of Spanish, Latinx and Latin American studies and film and media studies Paul A. Schroeder Rodriguez received an “unwelcome comment” from a colleague. Schroeder Rodriguez, who was born in Puerto Rico, began his career with the author name Paul A. Schroeder. But because a film director shares a similar name — Paul Schrader — he decided to start using his second last name.

One night, he was having drinks with some faculty members, and one said, “Oh, so you added Rodriguez to get this job.”

“We were having drinks, so I laughed and said yes, but I should’ve said something else and stopped that practice because it was a white male, European, Euro-American, with everything the weight of that comment implied — that I wasn’t good enough to be here, that I was a token Latino faculty when in fact my research has been awarded,” Schroeder Rodriguez said. “Nevertheless, even though I had a good upbringing so I have no traumas and I have a loving family so I have a pretty solid ego, it still hurt. I can only imagine people who did not have all the privileges I had, maybe from difficult situations in their families, poverty, how those microaggressions — sometimes not even micro — impact their careers. Because we’re human beings. We’re not just brains.”

We all have that story, said Professor of English and Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Officer Marisa Parham.

Once, Parham was sitting with a faculty member who came to the college around the same time as Parham. The faculty member was talking about a specific incident; suddenly, they turned to her and asked, “Were you even here then?”

“And I’m like, ‘What? I’ve been literally sitting next to you for like, 16 years. Why would you ask me that?’” Parham said. “But then I realize that moment — and I called this person out on it — was actually a performative moment when they were trying to establish their own authority in front of someone else, and it was very much predicated on me letting the moment go … But I don’t let those moments go. I go, ‘Why would you say that? You know I literally came in the same generation as you.’”

That then, however, immediately got turned into “Why is Marisa always so saucy?”

“When you start to hear these claims — why does everything matter? — and people sort of doing these bunny ears, for me that becomes the power of privilege because at some level, you’re simply saying, ‘This speaking, this talking, this thing that you’re doing is a waste of time.’ … It’s a complete abdication of what it means to be a member of a community, and when you can completely abdicate your role as a community member in relation to other people simply because you don’t like how it feels, that’s privilege. It’s all about the deflection of uncomfortable feelings and situations as a way of never actually having to think oneself as simultaneously holding power and responsibility to a community.”

“Being kept from [feeling like you have power] is the real work of racism,” Parham added. It is why, in her role, she works with faculty members who face different kinds of “social injuries” to try to detach themselves from larger cultural narratives about academia that may reinforce hierarchies of power. This means helping pre-tenure professors in particular to accept and understand that a microaggression by a senior colleague does not necessarily equate a loss of power at the institution.

According to the Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein, formal complaints about faculty go to her office. In her time at the college, she has received formal complaints about faculty from students but not from faculty members. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion tends to hear anecdotally about incidents of racial injury from faculty members, said Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Norm Jones. In order to set in motion a grievance process, however, a formal complaint must be filed to the dean’s office.

“It would really depend if it’s something that’s clearly actionable, where the senior faculty member has clearly engaged in conduct that really should be investigated,” Epstein said. “Serious enough is something that someone could lose a job over. That’s different than a microaggression — with that, what I would want to do is hear about the incident, ask the aggrieved person, ‘Could we try and do some informal mediation here and at least have a conversation and try and resolve it in that way?’”

Understanding that faculty members, especially those who are pre-tenure, may not feel comfortable filing a formal complaint because the dean’s office oversees promotion, Jones, Parham and Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Officer Allen Hart have began meeting one on one with individuals more often to hear about such negative professional experiences.

“I know anecdotally, of course, that we need to be paying attention to things like — standard things in the industry, like compensation analyses across gender, across race,” Jones said. “We’re definitely paying attention to these overarching themes that we know can complicate the academic experience. What’s missing is the specific cases, but again, I don’t want individuals to feel that the onus is always on them to come forward in a system that doesn’t necessarily reward coming forward because bureaucracy is a very real thing in any system. I understand that.”

“I’m under no illusions that there are things that are happening out in the world and in the culture and in the world of academia that are somehow not happening at Amherst,” he added. “Given the fact that people don’t come forward for lots of different reasons, I would not rely solely on certain processes to assume that everyone is coming forward with the things that are happening. This is exactly why it’s important for us to keep conversations about the world of academia, about what we know, about difference, gender difference, race difference, all these things, in front of the community, so that as we are dealing with individual cases, we are also normalizing for people the fact that these things happen every day in lots of different space[s].”

This is the second of a four-part series examining retention of faculty of color at Amherst.

Part one — “A Flawed System: The Burden of Service Among Faculty of Color”

Part three — “A Flawed System: Professors of Color Face Hurdles in Obtaining Tenure”

Part four — “A Flawed System: The Obstacles of Shared Governance”