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call me diversity

May 3, 2013

… because I just won another diversity award, this one at the division (Arts & Humanities) level. Last year, I was given a university-level diversity award. Some people work to make their institutions more diverse and inclusive. Others embody diversity by virtue of their, uh, bodies. I, apparently, do/am both. I am diverse. My name at my institution is diversity.

Let me tell why this isn’t bragging. Let me tell you why there’s shame attached to this allegedly well-meaning sign of recognition.

I wrote a bit in an earlier post about my ambivalence toward the previous award, acknowledging my sincere gratitude to the colleagues and students with whom I do this work (diversity work is not solo work, like reading a novel, which is often what I would rather be doing), while expressing my annoyance with the fact that the awardees would be publicly recognized at, of all places, a football game. At the end of that post, I suggested that the comparatively lower amount given to diversity awards versus staff, teaching, and scholarship awards intimates that the former “operate as safety valves and cynical covers. What could be a better alibi declaring that the university values diversity than by having an annual award dedicated to it?” — even if the value of that award is at the bottom of the pay-out scale.

At the risk of sounding ungrateful (see below), I take this most recent (less-than-)celebratory occasion of becoming Crown Prince of Diversity at my school to elaborate on that last point. In fact, I will take this occasion to post some remarks that I had prepared to give at a campus event held this past spring semester called “Diversity Talk: Changing the Discourse, Changing Course” — but that I ended up changing (toning down) the night before.

In both cases, though, I aimed at trying to bridge the gap between diversity-talk as a “climate” or “student life” issue and diversity-talk as it relates to the institutional structures that shape the pursuit of research and teaching in “diversity” fields. (The necessity for scare quotes indicates how weird and ridiculous it sounds to call ethnic, gender, sexuality, disability studies studies in and about “diversity.”) In other words, yes, it’s important to address issues of racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, and homophobia on our campus and to seek to create an environment where everyone feels welcome and safe. And, without doubt, my campus and the surrounding area has been subject to various, highly visible forms of discrimination, hate, and intimidation toward minorities over the past year or so. But I’m always disheartened and appalled when the very scholarly fields that directly address those histories of violence, oppression, and subordination are neglected and left out of the climate and recruitment-and-retention conversations. The most explicit evidence of that sidelining is the way that certain interdisciplinary programs are treated and perceived: as financial drains, as serving only a small number of students, as being led by an exclusive clique of faculty who are situated in and represent only one disciplinary area of the university.

So, of course, I wonder why. The simple answer is that those fields — in their critical iterations — constitute threats to the neoliberal/corporate/globalized whatever-makes-money university. As Roderick Ferguson points out in his recent book The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (2012), the social movements of the 1960s and 70s and the changes in higher education to which they gave rise forced university administrations (along with the state and capital) to affirm — rather than outright exclude or suppress — what he terms minority difference. But that affirmation, he argues, often took the form of managing difference, in effect, neutralizing by accommodating some of the transformative hopes that galvanized the earlier generation of student and faculty activists and mediating them through the hierarchical and normativizing structures of academia.

My sense is that in the post-multiculturalism era diversity awards — like diversity mission statements, diversity reports, diversity course requirements, diversity personnel protocols — operate through a similar logic of affirmation-as-management. And my “Diversity Talk” remarks tried to articulate one specific modality through which they do so, a modality whose (facetious) equation might look like: devaluation + frustration = diversity award. So here’s part of the first version — the angry version, the version that I ended up not delivering:

“I was hired as the first Asian Americanist in the English department in 2005 — and, to date, the only person recruited through the typical hiring process as an Asian Americanist. Across the four campuses, the English department consists of nearly 100 full-time tenure and tenure-track faculty members. It’s hard not to see my appointment as a gesture of racial tokenism — a recognition that focusing on Asian American literature is a legitimate area of specialization in English studies and should therefore be done in this department as well. But, of course, we can’t really afford more than one position in that area because we have so many more pressing needs. The message is clear: one is good; one is enough; more than one is too many; more than two and we might have a yellow peril on our hands. Within the grand scheme of English studies at my institution, Asian American studies represents a tiny fraction of the field — 1%, in fact. It constitutes about 1% of ‘what we do.’

“So what does this mean for the 1% that has to fulfill all of the same requirements for tenure and promotion that his similarly-positioned colleagues have to do? It means that there are no senior colleagues who are experts in your field. It means that the kinds of conversations you can have about your research are necessarily limited — limited to the level of theory, or methodology, or readability, or clarity, or tenurability, but not extending to the level of the archive, or possible archive, that you’re grappling with or trying to document. It means that there aren’t a whole lot of people around who keep abreast of trends in your field and who might surprise you and say: hey, have you checked out this new monograph, anthology, novel, film? It also means that you can’t bank on walking down the hall and asking your colleague what it’s like to teach such-and-such a book in this department or whether a syllabus you’ve constructed offers a good sampling of the field’s history and current directions. It means that you don’t have colleagues at your institution who are already plugged into the professional networks that operate in your field. They are not editors of journals or book series in your field; they don’t know personally the senior folks in your area; they can’t hook you up.

“All of this means that you have to look elsewhere for intellectual community — conferences, workshops, symposia — and make those connections on your own. (I attended and participated in about 16 conferences and workshops during my first 5 years as an ass-prof, fresh out of grad school.) Your relationship to your own institution grows increasingly tenuous, more prone to disidentification and alienation. And that alienation comes from the recognition that somewhere along the line there was a serious lack of foresight in the idea of hiring one person who specializes in Asian American studies. This lack of foresight is not merely an indication of the lack of care given to the new faculty member; it is more consequentially an indication of the lack of regard given to the field that the new faculty member is supposed to ‘represent.’

“As a side note, it’s worth emphasizing that enrollment-based justifications for new hires are based on a customer-service model of education that maintains the status quo through institutional reproduction. The assumption is that if there aren’t masses of students clamoring for Asian American studies courses, then there’s no need to expand the faculty or curriculum. But students aren’t going to desire something that they don’t know exists, and that the institution, by virtue of its non-support, devalues to begin with. This is how institutional reproduction works in an officially anti-racist climate: posture as if student demand — potential revenue generators — determines where resources are allocated.

“To resume my narrative, since intellectual support — with the notable exception of the Diversity Enhancement Program for junior faculty of color — was not already in place, I felt like I was supporting the institution more than vice versa, especially in taking on the role of coordinator of the Asian American studies program in my second year when there was no one else to do it. And while many people warned me not to — cautioning that it would take time away from my research and might very well prevent me from getting tenure — I went ahead with it anyway because I didn’t want to work at an institution that didn’t have an Asian American studies presence at all, however minimal. I also felt a responsibility to keep the program going, even if the history of the program’s existence was rather vague to me. As it turned out, the job was an enormous time-suck, deeply frustrating, and only confirmed my sense that the university could care less about the field I work in. (Of course, good things came out of it too — my great, if still too few, colleagues in Asian American studies and in adjacent fields.)

“In the end, I’m not too worried about whether my school thinks Asian American studies is important or not. But there is one thing that does worry me: the possibility that I was played for a fool. Others have noted that, although tenure and promotion requirements regarding research, teaching, and service may be equal across the board, the kind and intensity of labor engaged by certain junior faculty members, particularly women and other social minorities, is patently not equal. My (rather sinister) reading of this uneven playing field is that the university is not blind to it, is well aware of the added burdens that women faculty and faculty of color assume, and is entirely fine with that. If they succeed, great, we have another do-gooder on our hands who can further the university’s ‘diversity mission,’ who can be called on for anything and everything related to diversity. And if they don’t succeed, well, it’s too bad that they overcommitted themselves to service when we explicitly told them not to do that, advised them to protect their time, encouraged them to focus on pursuing their research and getting tenure above all else.

“This, then, is what I cannot bear to consider: that I have fulfilled — and continue to fulfill — the vomitous stereotype of the model minority: the extra hard-working Asian houseboy who gets it all done. With a smile.

“Sara Ahmed writes in On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012), ‘When our appointments and promotions [and awards?] are taken up as signs of organizational commitment to equality and diversity, we are in trouble. Any success is read as a sign of an overcoming of institutional whiteness. [. . .] Our talk about whiteness is read as a sign of ingratitude, of failing to be grateful for the hospitality we have received by virtue of our arrival’ (43).

“The trouble in mind? That I was played, for a fool.”

And now they’ve given me a jester’s cap, for a crown.


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