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Presumed Incompetent

Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia

Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs
Yolanda Flores Niemann
Carmen G. González
Angela P. Harris
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 512
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  • Book Info
    Presumed Incompetent
    Book Description:

    Presumed Incompetent is a pathbreaking account of the intersecting roles of race, gender, and class in the working lives of women faculty of color. Through personal narratives and qualitative empirical studies, more than 40 authors expose the daunting challenges faced by academic women of color as they navigate the often hostile terrain of higher education, including hiring, promotion, tenure, and relations with students, colleagues, and administrators. The narratives are filled with wit, wisdom, and concrete recommendations, and provide a window into the struggles of professional women in a racially stratified but increasingly multicultural America.

    eISBN: 978-0-87421-870-1
    Subjects: Education, Law, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
    Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González and Angela P. Harris
  2. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Bettina Aptheker

    When This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, was first published in 1981, women of color in the movement and universities across the country greeted it with deep joy and near reverence because it so accurately reflected and validated the realities with which they had been contending for a very long time. Although intellectually we understand institutionalized systems of domination, study them, and teach their details and histories, in our hearts and innermost selves we may also—at the same time—somehow internalize the ideas about our presumed incompetence that are so pervasive in our...

  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)
    Angela P. Harris and Carmen G. González

    As editors who are also women faculty of color, we produced this volume to provide a framework for understanding the contradictory culture of academia. On the one hand, the university champions meritocracy, encourages free expression and the search for truth, and prizes the creation of neutral and objective knowledge for the betterment of society—values that are supposed to make race and gender identities irrelevant. On the other hand, women of color too frequently find themselves “presumed incompetent” as scholars, teachers, and participants in academic governance. The essays collected in this volume examine the ways that higher education reflects and...

  4. Part I: General Campus Climate

    • Introduction
      (pp. 17-19)
      Brenda J. Allen

      When I told a young black woman faculty member I was writing a foreword for a book about women of color in the academy, her response surprised both of us. She slowly repeated the title—Presumed Incompetent—and tears sprang into her eyes. “That was exactly my experience in grad school,” she said softly. “You just don’t know what I went through,” she added as the tears slid down her cheeks. She shook her head from side to side and whispered, “I can’t believe how much this still hurts.” She then told me a few of the subtle and blatant...

    • Chapter 1 Facing Down the Spooks
      (pp. 20-28)
      Angela Mae Kupenda

      Early in my academic career, a white male administrator scolded me during my annual pretenure evaluation. He did not have any problems with my teaching or service or scholarship. The problem he stated was that I did not tell him and my colleagues enough about my personal life. He said I was beginning to be much too private, just like the other woman of color on the faculty. I assured him that my coworkers did know all the relevant information about me. More importantly, they knew at least as much about me as I knew about them. He wanted me...

    • Chapter 2 Waking Up to Privilege: Intersectionality and Opportunity
      (pp. 29-39)
      Stephanie A. Shields

      A metaphor best expresses the way my understanding of white privilege has operated and changed over the years. I think of white privilege as lighting my path of professional development. Over the course of forty years of academic life, I have come to see how this light made travel over the rocky and difficult road possible, how it lit up opportunities at many critical junctions, and how it blinded me to what was just outside my own experience.

      Whatever the image or metaphor, I spent much of my career, especially the early years, without seeing the unearned white privilege that...

    • Chapter 3 A Prostitute, a Servant, and a Customer-Service Representative: A Latina in Academia
      (pp. 40-49)
      Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo

      During my first time teaching introduction to comparative ethnic studies as a newly hired, tenure-track faculty member, I was about to begin class one day when a white male student raised his hand. I acknowledged him, and the following exchange ensued:

      Student: Can we cancel class today?

      Me: Why should we cancel class?

      Student: I don’t feel like being in the classroom today, and since my parents pay for your salary, I think it is only fair you do what I say. Though I was momentarily taken aback, I also chuckled at his reasoning (and audacity) a bit, after which...

    • Chapter 4 Black/Out: The White Face of Multiculturalism and the Violence of the Canadian Academic Imperial Project
      (pp. 50-64)
      Delia D. Douglas

      Critical race scholar Patricia J. Williams is only one of many who have poignantly argued that racism achieves a violence that is psychological, embodied, and cultural (P. Williams 1991, 228; see also Alexander and Knowles 2005; Essed 2002; S. Hall 1996; Myers 2005). This essay is both a personal narrative and an analytical discussion of the myriad of ways that expressions of racial hostility and racism surface in the academy through the often-intangible, but ever-present, values, norms, and practices that are felt and lived in the daily lives of Canadians. A related topic is the way racial ideologies and strategies...

    • Chapter 5 They Forgot Mammy Had a Brain
      (pp. 65-77)
      Sherrée Wilson

      In one of the earliest studies that examined the climate for African American women scholars at predominantly white institutions (PWIs), Moses (1989) declared that their professional development or job satisfaction was not achieved without constant struggle. The findings noted some of the typical problems experienced by African American women faculty and administrators:

      1. constant challenges or being viewed as “other” and therefore believed to be inferior;

      2. lack of professional support systems;

      3. excessive scrutiny by peers, superiors, and students;

      4. an unstated requirement to work harder to gain recognition and respect;

      5. assumptions that positions were acquired through affirmative...

    • Chapter 6 Present and Unequal: A Third-Wave Approach to Voice Parallel Experiences in Managing Oppression and Bias in the Academy
      (pp. 78-92)
      Kimberly R. Moffit, Heather E. Harris and Diane A. Forbes Berthoud

      Ruminations on questions similar to those posed in the opening quote by political scientist Richard Iton guided the inquiries and resonated with the voices of the black and Latina women professors who shared their experiences of recognizing and responding to the complexities at the four traditionally white universities (TWIs). Through the exploration of their interlocking identities, these women share their experiences from a place of empowerment in spite of their marginalization on numerous levels. Each one has made a conscious decision to center herself in an institution that views her as “other” because she is more than a woman—she...

    • Chapter 7 Navigating the Academic Terrain: The Racial and Gender Politics of Elusive Belonging
      (pp. 93-110)
      Linda Trinh Võ

      When considering whether to write this chapter, I had all the reservations so eloquently articulated in the introduction to this book, cognizant that I should be spending my time laboring on that single-authored book that will contribute to my next promotion.¹ However, reflecting upon the journey that led me to a life in the academy and the opportunity to make the path more welcoming to a future generation was too inviting to pass up. Women of color, like most who attend graduate school hopeful of achieving faculty status, are motivated by lofty goals to make a contribution to some original...

  5. Part II: Faculty/Student Relationships

    • Introduction
      (pp. 113-115)
      John F. Dovidio

      Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia is not a book just for women of color: it is a volume about women of color but one that is for men and women of all races and ethnicities. It provides rare insights for those of us who are not women of color into the experiences, perspectives, goals, and realities of a significant constituency in academia.

      The perspectives offered in the chapters of Presumed Incompetent challenge our beliefs about what academia stands for and inspire us to work to achieve the ideals of the profession. The narratives...

    • Chapter 8 Visibly Invisible: The Burden of Race and Gender for Female Students of Color Striving for an Academic Career in the Sciences
      (pp. 116-132)
      Deirdre M. Bowen

      The twin themes of too few students of color and too few female students in the pipeline for careers in science, engineering, or mathematics are certainly not new. Many have written expressing their concern and warning of the effects of not having these populations properly engaged in these fields. However, the intersection of race and gender creates additional burdens for women of color striving to stay in the pipeline and develop an academic career in the sciences. This third theme—the experiences women of color endure while majoring in the sciences—is the focus of this essay.

      The limited studies...

    • Chapter 9 Stepping in and Stepping out: Examining the Way Anticipatory Career Socialization Impacts Identity Negotiation of African American Women in Academia
      (pp. 133-141)
      Cerise L. Glenn

      Higher education has been a means for underrepresented groups to gain access to higher standards of living and better jobs in the United States, especially since the 1950s and the civil rights era. Often thought of as a key component of pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, women, people of color, and/or those of a lower socioeconomic status have utilized colleges and universities to achieve our piece of the American dream. Although this has been a successful strategy for many people, women of color often find ourselves in precarious situations because of the way we modify and communicate our identities...

    • Chapter 10 Silence of the Lambs
      (pp. 142-151)
      Angela Onwuachi-Willig

      For an untenured faculty member, perception is everything. It matters how her students, her senior colleagues, the greater university, and outsiders at other institutions perceive her (Carbado and Gulati 2003b).¹ The way that an untenured faculty member uses those perceptions, or in the words of Professors Devon Carbado and Mitu Gulati, works her identity, is critical to her survival and the ultimate goal of obtaining tenure (2000b).² How should this young “lamb” signal to all that she is a dedicated teacher, a brilliant scholar, and a wonderful colleague who services her department, the university, and the community as a whole?...

    • Chapter 11 On Being Special
      (pp. 152-163)
      Serena Easton

      I think I thought I was special—immune to the realities of racial discrimination.

      Because I grew up in the heart of black middle-class privilege in a mostly white suburb of New Jersey, instances of blatant racism were few and far between. Moreover, because of my elevated social class, the “good family” I came from, and my penchant for getting good grades at a challenging high school, I was considered “different” from the other black kids in town. Thus, while other black kids my age might have had to deal with racism and discrimination from whites in the town, these...

    • Chapter 12 Are Student Teaching Evaluations Holding Back Women and Minorities?: The Perils of “Doing” Gender and Race in the Classroom
      (pp. 164-185)
      Sylvia R. Lazos

      Teaching is important. Among the traditional three main responsibilities of the professoriate—teaching, scholarship, and service—teaching is probably the most important from the public perspective. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has recently challenged its members to focus more on student learning and develop better ways to measure it (National Association of American Colleges and Universities 2006), citing the well-reported statistics that the United States is slowly slipping behind other industrial countries in student performance in math, science, and writing.¹ In addition, demographics have changed the student population and its educational needs. Increasingly a greater proportion of the...

    • Chapter 13 Notes toward Racial and Gender Justice Ally Practice in Legal Academia
      (pp. 186-197)
      Dean Spade

      The many ways that academia generally and legal academia specifically produce and reproduce hierarchical norms and standards of race, gender, sexuality, ability and class have been explored in the articles in this volume and many others. Because the university is both a location of the production of knowledge that is often central to sexist, racist, capitalist, and imperialist regimes of practices and a place where structures of laboring are articulated through these forces, what does it mean to practice ally politics in the university, and specifically, in the law school (Dean 2010)?¹ Race and gender norms in academia produce structural...

    • Chapter 14 Where’s the Violence? The Promise and Perils of Teaching Women-of-Color Studies
      (pp. 198-218)
      Grace Chang

      When I am asked what I teach, I respond somewhat reluctantly that I teach women’s studies and often add that I teach women of color studies. Recently I was asked by a white man, “What is that? White male bashing?” and I surprised myself with the directness of my answer. I said, “No, actually, it is probably more like white feminism bashing, or the critique of white, Western feminism.” I was careful to specify that the target of my criticism is the body of thought and practice generally identified as white, Western feminism, rather than those who support its theories....

  6. Part III: Networks of Allies

    • Introduction
      (pp. 221-223)
      Nancy Cantor

      Stereotypes and oppression manifest themselves in a multitude of ways. Attuned to the power structures of the day, they operate simultaneously at overt and subconscious levels that are both deeply personal and profoundly political. Their targets and victims are thwarted and injured as individuals and as members of groups. Even those who struggle for social justice are vulnerable to cruel divisions and to being played off against each other and against themselves. The premise of this volume, as Sylvia R. Lazos captures it, is that “whites and men start from a presumption of competence” and “minorities and women do not...

    • Chapter 15 Working across Racial Lines in a Not-So-Post-Racial World
      (pp. 224-241)
      Margalynne J. Armstrong and Stephanie M. Wildman

      Both women of color and white women may face a presumption of incompetence when they enter the law school classroom as professors. Due to centuries of excluding women and people of color from the professoriate, white men “receive a benefit of the doubt, a little chip of ‘you belong here,’ that others may not receive” as they approach the podium (Wildman 1996, 165). Presumptions of the competence of white men and the incompetence of others arise from the creation of dominant stereotypes in the legal academy and profession.² The archetypal law professor is white, male, heterosexual, and older. He channels...

    • Chapter 16 Native Women Maintaining Their Culture in the White Academy
      (pp. 242-249)
      Michelle M. Jacob

      Issues of women and work are an important part of feminist scholarship, including studies of women’s experiences within the academy. However, Native women’s experiences are often overlooked, and women working as staff, rather than faculty, are excluded. Drawing from qualitative interviews with five women, as well as personal experience, this chapter discusses the race, class, and gender dilemmas that face Native women working as faculty and staff in the academy. Results indicate that Native women experience the following problems: (1) an extreme sense of isolation, (2) tokenism, and (3) tremendous service burdens. This chapter argues that Native women, as the...

    • Chapter 17 Dis/Jointed Appointments: Solidarity amidst Inequity, Tokenism, and Marginalization
      (pp. 250-265)
      Michelle A. Holling, May C. Fu and Roe Bubar

      What follows is our story arranged in multicolored pieces, the remnants of material we imagine was gathered by the brown, worn, and wrinkled hands of grandmothers, tucked away for star quilts in anticipation of upcoming giveaways. Yet none of us have learned to sew. Perhaps like the womyn who have come before us, we honor their wisdom and contributions yet understand that the way we have chosen to walk in the academy is a new path, one that few of our ancestors have traveled, so none of the womyn in our families know how to show us the way.


    • Chapter 18 What’s Love Got to Do with It?: Life Teachings from Multiracial Feminism
      (pp. 266-276)
      Kari Lerum

      I first “met” Audre Lorde in the late 1980s while attending a midsized liberal arts Lutheran university on the West Coast. Because I grew up in a predominately white working-class town and attended college with mostly white middle-class students and professors, Audre Lorde’s work was my introduction to multiracial feminism; she was also one of my first loves. My love for her was abstract because I only knew her through her writing, but she danced into my life at a critical crossroads, sang to me about the “erotic as power,” and made me hungry for more. I was a senior...

    • Chapter 19 Sharing Our Gifts
      (pp. 277-282)
      Beth A. Boyd

      Presumed incompetent. In thinking about my contribution to this volume, it occurred to me that, in my career, such presumptions have many times come from those around me and, at the worst times, become my presumption about myself. Many people have helped me learn to overcome this way of thinking and discover the gifts I have been given. My hope is that telling this story will pass on that wisdom to someone who needs to find his or her own gifts.

      When I was accepted into a graduate clinical psychology program, I automatically assumed that the only reason was because...

  7. Part IV: Social Class in Academia

    • Introduction
      (pp. 285-286)
      Samuel H. Smith

      This is a remarkable publication that describes the complexity of the internal workings of many of our colleges and universities. Although each institution has its own culture, these descriptive narratives provide real-life examples of the culture and challenges faced by women of color in academia.

      Higher education has become a major business in America with annual university budgets often exceeding a billion dollars and employing thousands of individuals. I have been in or around universities for more than fifty years and, on numerous occasions, been asked by nonacademics to describe how they work and how decisions are made. Those asking...

    • Chapter 20 Igualadas
      (pp. 287-299)
      Francisca de la Riva-Holly

      Igualada is a condescending term often used by upper-class women who hire domestic workers in Mexico. An igualada is a subaltern who wishes to possess the same riches and privileges as her upper-class employer, especially one who hopes to give her children a level of schooling, clothes, and standard of life that she does not possess.

      An igualada will never receive the respect she longs for from la patrona (her boss). She has entered an unequal relationship. The “I” for “igualada” inscribed on her forehead for all the acquaintances of the patrona to see is indelible. She can never work...

    • Chapter 21 The Port Hueneme of My Mind: The Geography of Working-Class Consciousness in One Academic Career
      (pp. 300-312)
      Constance G. Anthony

      In a certain respect, being working-class and becoming an academic is an oxymoron. Academics aspire to genteel, professional success; working-class life rejects the genteel for the overt—at times even rude—acknowledgment that life is difficult. Academics revel in a world of carefully chosen words and phrases; subtlety and indirection are prized. A well-delivered, witty repartee at a party is always rewarded. At a working-class party, it would be much safer to say exactly what you mean in a direct way. For example, if you are approached at a bar by someone to whom you do not wish to talk,...

    • Chapter 22 On Community in the Midst of Hierarchy (and Hierarchy in the Midst of Community)
      (pp. 313-330)
      Ruth Gordon

      When I began teaching, I attended the Association of American Law Schools’ (AALS) Workshop for New Law School Teachers, as did most of my colleagues. We received much good counsel, were advised on potential pitfalls and problems, and, if lucky, formed bonds with our fellow new law teachers. I still vividly recall one of the presenters stating with a big grin, “Welcome to the goose that lays the golden egg.”

      He was candidly informing us that when all is said and done, we were about to enter an exceptionally satisfying profession, and I have found that he could not have...

  8. Part V: Tenure and Promotion

    • Introduction
      (pp. 333-335)
      Deena J. González

      The essays in this volume drove me back to one of my favorite books, Spivak’s Outside in the Teaching Machine. As I move ever closer to the “inside”—training as I am for a position as a higher education administrator—I see far more clearly the sheer, utter necessity of testimony, of analysis, of wit, and more, of wisdom from classroom practitioners, from researchers and scholars, wherever we locate ourselves along the spectrum of academic positions. Women of color—guest workers, as so many conceptualize their positions and work—offer a unique and daring perspective. We watch as Sonia Sotomayor...

    • Chapter 23 The Making of a Token: A Case Study of Stereotype Threat, Stigma, Racism, and Tokenism in Academe
      (pp. 336-355)
      Yolanda Flores Niemann

      Ethnic/racial-minority faculty continue to be underrepresented in the US professoriate, representing only about 6 percent of all professors in the academy (Garza 1993). Obstacles to reaching the academy abound, including institutional racism, socioeconomic barriers, and, for Latinas, traditional gender-role expectations (Martinez Aleman 1995; Gandara 1995; Niemann, Romero, and Arbona 2000). Once Latinas overcome these obstacles and make it into the academy, they—like other faculty of color—face yet another set of obstacles, including experiences of racial tokenism, overt and covert racism, and stigmatization. These experiences are generally grounded in the undermining attitudes and behavior of people within the institution....

    • Chapter 24 Lessons from a Portrait: Keep Calm and Carry On
      (pp. 356-371)
      Adrien Katherine Wing

      In 1990 the Berkeley Women’s Law Journal asked me to write an article for a special issue on the lives of black female law professors.¹ I was a young pre-tenure professor learning to juggle all the responsibilities of teaching, research, and service, and I was very excited that the journal had invited me to participate. Even though I was a very junior faculty member, someone thought I might have something to say and was willing to give me the space to say it.

      I was inclined to accept, but where would I find the time to do it? The pressures...

    • Chapter 25 “No hay mal que por bien no venga”: A Journey to Healing as a Latina, Lesbian Law Professor
      (pp. 372-392)
      Elvia R. Arriola

      Blessing in disguise: I often heard my abuelita say, “No hay mal que por bien no venga,” or “You can find something good coming out of something bad—eventually.”

      This has not been an easy project for me to undertake. I knew I would have to revisit painful memories. Even though I have told and published the stories about my experiences of being presumed incompetent a few times now (Arriola 1997, 2005), I wanted this rendition to be different because time has allowed me to heal from the emotional wounds, and I am in a very different place. I am...

    • Chapter 26 La Lucha: Latinas Surviving Political Science
      (pp. 393-407)
      Jessica Lavariega Monforti

      As a little girl growing up in New York, I was one of three girls in a sea of boys in my close-knit family.¹ I learned that—to survive among my cousins—I had to play rough and not be thin-skinned. I never thought those childhood lessons would be relevant to my professional life as an adult. However, today I find myself in an academic field dominated by men and Anglos;² clearly my ethnicity and my gender (in addition to the fact that I am married to a Spanish-speaking foreign national) place me outside the mainstream. At times I have...

    • Chapter 27 Free at Last! No More Performance Anxieties in the Academy ‘Cause Stepin Fetchit Has Left the Building
      (pp. 408-420)
      Mary-Antoinette Smith

      The following discussion is a long-overdue narrative analysis of the challenges and rewards I have faced as an African American woman pursuing a meaningful and comfortable fit in the academy. It was a struggle to write this chapter, in part, because its anomalous content is peculiar to my personal and professional journey as a black woman in higher education and, in part, because it forced me to reflect back upon situations that either I had convinced myself no longer mattered, or had denied into dormant nonexistence. However reluctant my reminiscent journey, the profound truth I have embraced in the process...

    • Chapter 28 African American Women in the Academy: Quelling the Myth of Presumed Incompetence
      (pp. 421-438)
      Sherri L. Wallace, Sharon E. Moore, Linda L. Wilson and Brenda G. Hart

      African Americans have consistently been at the heart of education.¹ Upon emancipation from human bondage, Reconstruction governments led by African American legislators instituted free public schools for all citizens along with other forms of democratic government and social legislation. In fact, for many years, education was the only respectable profession that was open to African Americans before and after emancipation (McKay 1997). Many black educators played prominent roles in the struggle for social justice for not only African Americans but America as a whole. Similar to these early pioneers, African American women continue the struggle for racial enrichment and advancement...

    • Chapter 29 The Experiences of an Academic “Misfit”
      (pp. 439-445)
      Kelly Ervin

      As I reflected on my past and present academic career, I wondered if there was anything specific about my journey that would be of any value to a discussion of the experiences of women of color in academia, for I no longer work full time in the academy. I am currently a public servant in federal service with the Department of Defense (DoD), and I have built a career as a senior research psychologist with the United States Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences (ARI). In addition, I am an adjunct, full professor with the University of...

    • Chapter 30 Lessons from the Experiences of Women of Color Working in Academia
      (pp. 446-500)
      Yolanda Flores Niemann

      Women of color face harsh realities in their professional lives as university faculty members. At the same time, even within the walls of these often-pernicious academic environments, women of color can assert their voices, effect change, find allies, and not only survive, but thrive. These are the courageous truths revealed by this book’s authors. They tell us that women of color are the canaries in the academic coal mine (Guinier and Torres 2002) and warn us of the toxic nature of academic workplaces for members of historically underrepresented groups. The challenges these authors have faced are grounded largely in the...

  9. Afterword
    (pp. 501-504)
    Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs

    As a twenty-first-century Latina, I came across many obstacles in my quest for tenure and particularly an epistemological gap in academia: an emptiness in the journey from graduate school to an assistant professor to full professor. To my knowledge, there was no one document readily available for new PhDs that defined, deconstructed, described, or clarified the evolution of terminology in academic settings about acquiring tenure. Although these documents perhaps exist in some institutions, they are purposefully written to possess certain levels of mystery, obscurity, and avoidance, depending on the university. Seemingly faculty handbooks often delineate issues peripherally written to posses...