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No Longer Participating in Our Own Oppression

Every day, institutions of higher education ask marginalized people to participate in their own oppression. Maybe it’s time we stop.

We are asked to represent diversity, but we are not given meaningful seats at the tables of power. We are told to meet (or exceed) the same metrics as our straight White male colleagues, but, even when we do, the institution betrays us.

Carly Parnitzke Smith and Jennifer J. Freyd explain, “Institutional betrayal occurs when an institution causes harm to an individual who trusts or depends upon that institution.” The roots of this lie in the structures that fail diverse staff over and over. For example, the push to reopen campuses this fall in spite of COVID-19 ignores the multiple vulnerabilities faced by university staff. The pandemic has reduced academic women’s scholarly production and threatened contingent faculty, disproportionately women, and  programs like Women & Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies.

Dr. Susan ShawDr. Susan Shaw

Young students may be less likely to die of COVID-19, but many faculty are over 60. Maintenance staff and dining hall workers, disproportionately people of color, are at high risk because their jobs involve sustained indoor contact with students. Yet many institutions seem fully committed to bringing folks back to campus, regardless of the risks.

Faculty at risk for marginalization in the university due to gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, and age face institutional betrayals throughout their careers. The 2019 HERI survey found that “faculty of color and female faculty disproportionately experience stress due to discrimination . . .” The hashtag #BlackInTheIvory documents stories of discrimination and marginalization of thousands of Black scholars. The 2019-2020 AAUP Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession found that faculty women’s salaries are still only 81.4 percent of men’s.

What Should We Stop Doing?

First, we need to decolonize our minds. Higher education teaches us it is a meritocracy. In recent years, it tells us it wants to be a place of diversity and equity, and our inclusion is evidence of its commitment. It seduces us with diversity statements, diversity strategic plans, diversity trainings, and diversity committees that convince us it will grant us an equal seat at the table if we just do our part. We have to stop believing that and stop participating in it.

Instead we must reserve our participation for committees and projects that are explicitly anti-racist and anti-sexist, with intersectional analysis at their core. Otherwise, the university points to us as evidence of its commitment to inclusion while making no real changes to the deep structures that maintain straight White male power.

We need to stop cleaning up White men’s messes. When these colleagues don’t or won’t meet student needs, when they can’t get along with students who need their advice, when they won’t mentor students, when they harass students—women and faculty of color step in. They spend more time interacting with students, especially students of color, than their male colleagues. They also receive and are expected to grant more special requests from students. From now on, I say we refer these students to the male faculty’s supervisors.

We need to stop doing more than our fair share of the housekeeping and emotional labor for the university. Women and people of color do more service activities, especially related to diversity, than their White male colleagues. Women also do gendered tasks such as taking notes, sending cards and flowers and planning retirement parties. We may even enjoy doing these things, but the university does not reward us (and may even penalize us) for them.

What Should We Do?

Let’s own our “legitimate rage”: Name the ways the institution has systematically marginalized and harmed us. Too often women, people of color, and LGBTQ people are chastised for their anger, but anger, as Audre Lorde notes, is a potent driver for change.

Let us do this together: have one another’s backs, own each other’s struggles, and build coalitions across our differences to claim our power to resist.

Let’s use our research and publishing platforms to address inequities and demand discussions about authentic institutional transformation.

We can teach students to analyze their own oppression within higher education and support student movements for equity and justice.

We can unionize. Faculty unions give us the power of collective bargaining, and we can make real transformation part of that bargaining. Of course, we have to elect union leaders committed to equity and justice.

We can speak up—for ourselves and for each other. In solidarity and for justice. The pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests have given universities a chance to remake themselves with equity and justice at the center, to show “institutional courage.” Will they?

The university entices those of us committed to justice into thinking incremental change might lead to institutional transformation. We put up with being tokenized and patronized, thinking we might have impact.

We think perhaps we’ve made progress . . . Until we look at the deep structures of the institution and recognize that interlocking systems of patriarchy, racism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, and ageism remain. We realize how much diversity actions are performative, not transformative. We recognize how much we’ve participated in our own oppression in hopes of a better university.

Let’s not do that anymore. Perhaps our greatest power is our power of refusal.

Dr. Susan Shaw is a professor of Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University. 


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