Gaslight: Proving Institutionalized Racism


In a recent talk, I stated that institutional and structural racist systems of opportunity and privilege still exist in the academy. Noticing the pushback — furrowed brows looked like neon signs plastered on folks’ foreheads — I engaged them in a conversation that went something as follows: 

Search committees talk about the difficulty they face when trying to “find” faculty of color. When we hear this excuse, some of my colleagues and I share similar responses, “You ain’t looking.” There are more than a few of us around and I would argue that you may not be knocking at the right door. Also, when you folks knock, the universities may be creating a wide chasm. Sometimes, the potential faculty is met at that door with the question “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” And, at the other end of the chasm, “Sorry we already have one.” While some institutions have made significant changes, overall the number of faculty of color on most campuses is still relatively low. 

Why? Because we are still asking the same questions, where do we find qualified faculty of color? I will not entertain the notion of “qualified” in this space. I would have to address “qualified,” and I would also have to address “racial consciousness” — too little time to dedicate to such a big topic. I suggest everyone pick up Dr. Darrell Cleveland’s book, When Minorities are Strongly Encouraged to Apply. Where does one find candidates of color? Simple to me. While there are many, the most obvious would be at some of the largest professional conferences. 

Next time you attend, take a quick glance around the sessions. What do you see? I am reminded of Dr. Beverly Tatum’s book but with a similar title, “Why are all of the professors with similar socially constructed racial phenotypes sitting at the conference tables, lunch tables, bars, colloquiums, symposiums and you name it together?” I feel like grabbing a bullhorn and one of those sandwich board signs that says “the reason you cannot find ‘them’ is because you are not looking.”

An audience member asked me to prove it. He insisted the theoretical framework that I used, Critical Race Theory (CRT), did not prove that institutionalized racism existed at all, because all we do is talk about it and never prove it really exists. If the structure of higher education is faulty and riddled with structurally racist mortar and bricks — prove it (not exact words but that was the gist of it). A good invitation I thought, and I suggested that he revisit or just visit, “Coloring Epistemologies” by Drs. James Joseph Scheurich and Michelle D. Young. I was particularly fond of this article because White scholars questioned Whiteness. I tend to gravitate toward the critical White scholars who focus on their own Whiteness and not what they can do for folks of color.

 The conversation forced me to think about the old film “Gaslight,” where the husband, who is trying to rid himself of a wife, tries to convince her that she is mentally unstable, that her perceptions are not real and that she has a problem. We see the protagonist go from strong-willed and confident to doubting her own self-worth and her own notion of what is real. I shared the story with the audience member because he was trying to “Gaslight” me.

 \The audience member was still puzzled. I felt like fading to black just like in the old black and white film because I was sick of trying to prove “it.” This was not geometry where I needed to prove anything and I certainly was tired of this game. Nevertheless, I explained, if you are recruiting collegiate golfers, you don’t go to a tennis court or gymnastics event, do you? He looked puzzled. I assume my sports analogy was confusing. I explained this is how institutional racism is played out in academic recruiting. When institutional affiliates cluster in groups that look like themselves and then report that they are unable to find any “qualified” faculty of color — that’s institutionalized racism. It’s also a form of theft. Let me attend an event on the university’s dime and not do what I am supposed to do. When we haven’t looked in the right spaces or when we are in the right spaces and we “hook up” friends, protégés, mentees and colleagues’ mentees with all sorts of employment in the academy — and they tend not to be of color — that’s how institutionalized racism is perpetuated. And, if I needed further proof to dig myself out of this gaslight, then reality check: The research is clear, “hook ups” tend to look like the majority at whatever institution. 

I asked the audience member to try and shift his reality. He seemed to live in a paradigm where there was only one viewpoint and that one had rarely been questioned. I struggled through an overwhelming bout of paradigm shift lag (see symptoms in Evaluating Difference: Paradigmatic Shift Lag) even though it was he who was suffering from his own unwillingness to see that there are multiple realities. I was not like that woman in “Gaslight.” He needed the reality check, not me. While I did want the audience member to recognize his own flawed sensibilities, I did not want the folks in the room to leave feeling comfy about their own academic space. I asked everyone, people of color included, to go back and look at their departments and question their institutions if they “had one” faculty of color or if they had been unable to find “one or any.” I asked that they question what that means. Does it imply that one is enough? Does it mean that only one was “qualified?” Does it mean or imply that an entire group of people is unable to “qualify” for such positions? I also asked that they think about what messages their own institutions may be sending to the world. Then go back and take a look at the movie “Gaslight” and ask yourselves, who is gaslighting whom?

 Dr. Robin L. Hughes teaches courses in higher education student affairs in the School of Education at Indiana University, Indianapolis.