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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jonathan Perez

Leading from the Margins - Acknowledging the Presence of Whiteness in Academia

Like almost every other system in the US, professional environments are dominated by Western European standards. This phenomenon has created structural roadblocks for people of the global majority (non-white folks, i.e. most of us) to lead and thrive as naturally as their White colleagues, and is regularly the topic for public speakers or panels in town hall meetings. Recently, I had the privilege to sit on a panel with peers who are also engaged in the work of improving racial equity in leadership roles across our community. Following this event, I felt similarly to the way I do after every other session. There is an elephant in the room that no one is willing to call out: the ever-present impact of Whiteness.

Why is it important to acknowledge the presence of Whiteness in professional settings? The standards by which many people in corporate environments base what is considered “professional” are rooted in white supremacy. This explicitly and implicitly privileges whiteness and discriminates against non-Western and non-white professionalism standards related to dress code, speech, work style, and timeliness (Gray, 2019).

This idea isn’t one that exists simply in academic institutions. Many leaders who come from communities that have been marginalized by the dominant culture are actually members of the global majority - Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) - represent over 80% of the world’s population (PMG, 2020). It is not just theoretical for those of us who have been living this for our entire professional lives. This is part of our lived experience as business professionals.

My background is in higher education. If you want to talk about being in a White space, then this is a great place to start! The panel I previously mentioned was part of an event that centered the dialogue on the perspectives of Black and Brown leaders. At one point we were asked to define our “why” behind what we do. This question asked of this panel of speakers, specifically at this location - the South campus of our county’s community college district, located in proximity to a part of town that is historically comprised of Black and Brown residents - made me think back to a specific situation while I was employed there*.

I was tasked with serving on a hiring committee to place an executive leader for the college. This committee consisted of four people. The racial breakdown was one Black woman, me (Brown Chicano male), a White male who held an executive leadership role, and the head of the committee, a White woman.

Things seemed great and we had interviewed some great candidates for the job. One candidate stood out among the rest. Unfortunately, her interview was the point that things began to get a bit heated. The candidate, a White woman, asked “what is the culture of your campus”? Without hesitation, the head of the committee, again a White woman, replied, which caught everyone in the room off guard. Her response was, “we are known as the Black ghetto campus, but we actually have a high population of Caucasian students and they do very well here”.

Her comment created a palpable shift in energy in the room. This experience of discomfort is one of the pressure points in my life story that led me to begin researching how racism and white supremacy show up in academia.

There's some confusion in our society that college campuses are "liberal" spaces. However, it's important to note there is a linguistic difference between being "liberal" in education and being "liberal" in politics - one is a philosopy of the rights of human beings to participate in the educational system to gain freedom (or liberation of the mind) and the other is a political orientation quite often pitted against ideas of political conservatism. Commonly inside higher education and outside in the community (i.e. in the media), these two concepts are used interchangeably - which is problematic. The assumption is that because higher ed institutions are "liberal" that means racism does not and cannot exist on campuses (here used as political liberalism). But we know the use of "liberal" in this context is not accurate either, as racism is prevalent on both sides of the political aisle. Higher education perpetuates racism and White supremacy in various forms despite the perceptions that exist. In many cases, these misconceptions are as equally damaging to making true progress toward racial liberation. A common cry from administrators in academia is, But this is XYZ University- we can’t be racist. Everyone knows how liberal we are.” This is the academic's version of “but I have non-white friends!"

There are plenty of other systemic roadblocks that exist as well. These include the Texas Success Initiative (TSI), a standardized assessment designed to identify what college classes a student should or should not take. Students of color often underperform on the assessment and end up having to take remedial courses.

Another way racism and White supremacy show up in higher education specifically as a workplace is a gross disparity in Black and Brown faculty members. While most colleges have a high-level, strategic diversity plan, a quick and easy way to determine how racism and White supremacy show up is by assessing the number of faculty members of color the institution hires, as well as their promotion and turnover rates. The chronic underrepresentation of faculty of color in institutions of higher education shows that colleges are not true about their diversity efforts. According to the University Professional Association of Human Resources, less than 10 percent of higher education professionals are identified as Black (Whitford, 2020).

I can go on and on about how white supremacy and racism show up in the higher education workplace. In fact, there are plenty of scholarly articles that detail the experiences of people of color in higher education. The question becomes, how are you interrupting racism and white supremacy in your current workplace?

This is the first of a series of posts that will be made on whiteness in the workplace. Please subscribe to our blog to follow along with this subject and others as we dig deeper.

*Author's note: I do not make it a habit of identifying former employers when negative behaviors are mentioned. This is an instance where I had the ability to address this situation with that institution directly, and have a relationship where leaders in that organization know that this is an example of previous behaviors that have since been addressed. This example has been used many times, even within that organization.

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