My grandmother was born in the 1930s, the seventh living child of black sharecroppers in Greenville, South Carolina. She spent her adulthood raising four children, caring for her husband, and working 30 years on factory lines to help pay the mortgage on the family home in Manchester, New Hampshire.
More than her job on a line assembling delicate aviation instrumentation, she was most prideful of a position in a garment factory screen-printing images on T-shirts.
Even after she had to quit working in order to take care of her grandchildren, she would judge the T-shirts she bought us at K-Mart by the quality of their screen-printing. She would recount the variety of visual calamities that could overtake an image if you weren’t careful enough when lifting the ink-filled screen. She even kept old T-shirts she had made to illustrate how and why I should always avoid ruining my own work.
Like my grandmother, my grandfather did factory work. He was a leather tanner, and when I was about 12, he came home from work extra heavy. At the dinner table, he told my grandmother, brother and me about a work accident that happened.
“I try to teach these young kids how to mix the acids and chemicals together the right way,” he told us between bites of chicken-fried-cube steak and instant mashed potatoes. “Today, some kid was running with some acid and poured it into another bucket, and it splashed back in his face and on his hands. He’s done for!”
Even at the age of 12, I could see buried within my grandfather’s story the lesson that a young, inexperienced white man was burned because he refused to listen to my more knowledgeable black grandfather.
I am the first woman in my family to ever attend college, the only person in my family with a PhD. I’m thankful that my grandparents imagined and worked for a less physically dangerous workplace for me. Yet, after a decade of work within the ivory tower, it seems to me that it’s people of color—and particularly black women—who get figuratively burned at the workplace.
Just a few days before Michael Brown was murdered for jaywalking in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, I stepped down from being one of the youngest Associate Deans of Faculty at an “elite” liberal arts college in the U.S. I left my position because the kind of institutional leader I have to be is one critical of white supremacy and her own complicity within it. As a black woman and a scholar of black literature, history and culture, I grow less convinced, however, that this position is compatible with many American institutions—small and large, corporate, non-profit, or governmental.
My stint in college administration began shortly after my tenure, when I was approached to take on the role of Associate Dean of the Faculty at my institution. I took the position in part because I was interested in the sort of professional mobility administrative experience might offer. I was also interested in finding a way out of the sort of indignities that I had been suffering at the hands of many of my colleagues for years. For instance, just weeks after I joined the faculty as a new professor, a senior black female colleague told me that members of my department would never support me for tenure because I was a black woman and had nothing to offer white people.
During my second semester at the institution a white senior colleague broke confidentiality and protocol in order to give me details about departmental deliberations regarding my hire. And just last spring, I sat in a room as a group of men discussed whether or not I had suffrage—me, a tenured faculty member who was, at that time, serving as Acting Dean of the College. These are just sprinkling of instances among countless others, all issued with the intent to diminish my right to be a black woman with full-citizenship rights at the institution.
The reigning discourse is to call these sorts of interpersonal violations “micro-aggressions,” but I prefer workplace hazing, because it captures the power relations and institutional tradition that such violations constitute. Moreover, hazing suggests the violence many black and brown faculty, particularly those of us who are women, encounter as we run the gauntlet of life within the academy. Attacks from faculty colleagues, students and administrators leave many of us scarred and fatigued. And in some instances, some faculty of color and women so internalize this violence that they become the worst perpetrators of workplace hazing on other less powerful, marginalized community members.
When I accepted the position as Associate Dean of the Faculty, I told myself this role might also allow me the opportunity to shift the culture of faculty hazing at my institution. What I didn’t tell myself is that I had so internalized the presumptions of my inadequacy that had been produced by years of hazing that I would work myself beyond my job description in order to prove my institutional worthiness. And of course, the institution benefited.
Throughout my time as Associate Dean I taught a course each semester, which was not part of my job description and, thus, uncompensated. I told myself that teaching was fulfilling in ways administrating wasn’t, and that faculty-administrators must remain tied to the primary work of the institution (educating students) in order to truly know the institution.
But these were partial truths. I continued to teach because I knew many of my colleagues didn’t trust that I was up to the work of the office and would use any evidence that didn’t entail my excessive excellence and institutional service to suggest I wasn’t fit to hold my position. I ended up teaching a year’s worth of courses during my two-and-a-half years working administration, giving a year’s worth of work (salary) back to my institution.
When a lower-level administrator left her post, I was asked to take on the duties of running her area in order to support institutional salary savings. I took on that work without asking for any extra compensation. At the same time, I continued to advise students, serve as an informal mentor to the students of color and give lectures and speeches when asked by students and offices around campus. I routinely had groups of black students over to my tiny faculty apartment to remind them that they were welcomed and valued at our institution.
I wanted to give them a feeling I rarely had.
I’m not complaining. I said “yes” to all of this work. But like many black women, I carried the internalized burden of trying to outperform negative gendered racial biases in order to prove my institutional worth. The institution benefited, and in many ways, I did too. I was entrusted with more institutional responsibility and opportunities to grow my administrative skill set—the key assets to the administrative mobility I had hoped for.
So when I was asked to serve as the Acting Dean of the College, I jumped at the opportunity. During that semester, I got to help facilitate the work of many tireless administrators who provide very necessary student support services. Together we worked to create safe trans-student “friendly” bathroom access, increase counseling support for students, create better sexual assault protocols, and consider ways to be more inclusive of a diverse student population.It was important and good institutional work, and I am thankful for the opportunity to do it.
Yet the higher one climbs up the administrative ranks, the more forward thinking one must be. It’s captivating to think you’re laying the foundation for the future of an institution. But what happens when larger principles of social justice—and the lived lives of all of our students—seem out of the purview of the state of the endowment 30 years into the future?
For me, the tension between present and future priorities made itself most apparent when campus security called the local police to campus to detain and question a group of black male teenagers without identification. The kids were reported to have been horsing around in the campus library on a Sunday afternoon during quiet hours. Within minutes of the call, a town police car pulled up on the library lawn. The college students watched as these four black teenagers were questioned by police.
Many students were shocked by the sight of the a police car, an officer and four scared young black boys on the lawn of a campus considered to be a progressive bastion. As with most predominantly white institutions, black teenagers are, sadly, a rarity on our campuses. And many students within these sorts of elite spaces have been sheltered from racial violence due to their whiteness and/or socio-economic status. The students who haven’t been sheltered often escape into these “liberal,” liberal arts colleges expecting a respite from the violent face of anti-blackness that plagues our nation.
Yet racial profiling often intensifies rather than relents in elite, predominantly white institutions located in cities and towns that are predominantly black, brown, and poor.
In the face of this incident, as the singular, young, black female high-ranking administrator, I found myself a part of a crisis that had been brewing decades. For years before my six-month time as Acting Dean, black faculty and students had raised racial profiling as an issue. Little had been done over the decades to address their concerns. There wasn’t even a formal mechanism in place to acknowledge these incidents.
After talking with impacted students, I worked to put into place a system for documenting racial profiling incidents on our campus. Unlike the classroom, which can breed critical self-reflexivity, there was no space within the administrators’ managerial function to reckon with a history of racial profiling writ large on our campus community, city, or nation. All of my work around racial profiling was a loose-fitting Band-Aid that came too late and too little.
Living in the wake of the deaths of so many black and brown, cis- and trans- men and women around this nation, I remember my grandparents’ lessons in quality work and the willful neglect of black voices and knowledge. The national reckoning on display in the wake of the Ferguson grand-jury decision illustrates that decades-long racial problems can’t be treated with Band-Aids. They, and we, require thoughtful structural overhauls.
We—from the highest ranking administrator to faculty, staff and students—have to be vigilant in bending ourselves toward equity and care for the most marginalized members of our communities. We cannot avoid implicating ourselves in the way we have contributed and benefited from race and gender inequity and inequality.
These issues must be seen by administration not singularly, but as part of the institutional fabric, formulated within a national fabric sickened by white supremacy, misogyny, heteropatriarchy, and old-fashioned elitism. It’s a matter of having a leadership and communities able to wrestle deeply with the fact that racial and gender violence are foundational to all American institutions and, as such, must be driven out through constant, caring vigilance.
When I called my grandfather to tell him that I stepped down from being a dean and went back to being a faculty member, his first question was, “Why would you give up such a good opportunity?” His second question was, “Were they racist?” The two questions haunt me. I wonder if my grandmother were alive, if she would have told me that I’ve ruined my work.
I’m sure my grandparents never imagined the academic factory. It’s a space where preparation, attention to detail and precision can only work when all institutional players are prepared to accept and work for radical change, especially when it comes from bodies with bodies of knowledge historically undervalued. Pushing these issues down the line for the next administrator or next administration does long-term personal and institutional damage.
Though my grandfather’s experience at the tannery happened decades ago, the warnings and calls for improvement issued by people of color are still being ignored. I refuse to be one of those administrators ignoring those calls, and I refuse to be another unheard black woman. “Social justice” and “social responsibility” are not tags in a course catalogue, or what happens after social unrest. They are the living and breathing bedrock for a compassionate and thriving community. They are utterly attainable goals—when leaders of powerful institutions actually listen.
Eve Dunbar is the author of Black Regions of the Imagination: African American Writers Between the Nation and the World. She is an Associate Professor of English at Vassar College.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby, Image via Shutterstock.