Dr. Shah is an Associate Professor of Criminology at Eastern Michigan University. Her aims understand the ways in which correctional systems are socially and legally constructed. Her first book, The Meaning of Rehabilitation and its Impact on Parole: There and Back Again in California (2017), queries the concept of rehabilitation to determine how, on a legislative and policy level, the term is defined as a goal of correctional systems. She is also an amateur photographer. You can learn more about her academic and photographic work at her website or follow her on Twitter @TheRitaPhD.
I apologize for the delay in posting this piece ~ Karen K.
Today, March 17th, is the day after the mass shooting at several Asian-run massage parlors in my home city of Atlanta. As I am sitting on my couch, reading the updates and doomscrolling on Twitter, I am (thankfully) seeing several white academics express their disgust and dismay at the violent act. What is frustrating, however, is I have not seen those same reactions to the rise in anti-Asian attacks over the past year. (In fairness, the algorithms could be hiding them.) And I’ve seen even less of a conversation from them about the racism Asian academics and employees and students in higher ed face, sometimes on a daily basis.
I’ve talked about my own experience with racism in academia before. But when folks ask me about specific examples, this is my go-to:
“…colleagues identify the lack of a cultural inclusivity that includes space for students who see the world differently than their instructor.”
This was a line in the department chair “yellow form” that summarized the feedback from my other department members during my tenure review at my prior institution. It is, in many ways, the perfect example of how white faculty members who should know better (it was a combined sociology and anthropology department) use the language of diversity and inclusion against the very people such language is supposed to support.
I was the only faculty of color in the department. In almost every semester, I was the only person of color in the classroom. We could count on two hands how many people of color were on the faculty at any given time. And yet, I was the one lacking cultural inclusivity. Why? Was it because I had the audacity to consistently point out that the criminal justice system is structurally racist? Was it because I didn’t kowtow to white fragility when they didn’t like hearing that US policing is rooted in slave patrols and union-busting? Was it because I dared stand-up for myself when other colleagues put responsibilities on me that would never be considered sensible in any other situation (e.g., expecting the untenured junior faculty member to mentor adjuncts)?
Or, was it because I refused to slide by on my white adjacent privilege and uphold the whiteness of the department and college? Something that I have struggled with, and something that likely cannot be parsed out, is whether and how the stereotypes and assumptions about Asian/South Asians/Indians played a role in how I was treated and judged.
It would have been easy for me to utilize the model minority myth in my favor. To put my head down and pretend to be the quiet woman who would work hard and wouldn’t want to ruffle any feathers. To teach my classes using a standard textbook and focused on the basics without asking my students to interrogate what they think they know about the system.
And, initially, I did not plan on rocking the boat. I did not plan on keeping things basic, but I also did not realize that covering the realities of how the system operates and incorporating specific lectures on defining racism and white privilege or gender and classism to better help students understand the data were inherently rocking the boat. The longer I stayed there, however, the clearer it became that these were precisely the students who needed to learn this information. After only a few semesters, it became abundantly clear that many of my students had never thought about racism, sex/genderism, and classism or how their own position in the world may impact how they perform their jobs in the criminal justice system. And each semester, in each class, I saw students furrow their eyebrows in disbelief at the data, ask engaging questions, and express their anger that the system was not what they thought it was.
But, each semester, I also knew I would likely get at least one “she’s a reverse racist” comment on evaluations. I also knew a small number of vocal students were complaining that I wasn’t supportive of police. I was told by my mentees that other faculty members were telling students not to take courses with me.
And yet…I also saw the number of students who sought me out for additional classes, or random follow-up conversations, or mentorship increase every semester. There was clearly a segment of the student population that felt heard and seen or found value in my classes. And there was also clearly a segment of students who, when finally given a chance to learn about the realities of the system, discovered their real purpose was to work towards change and wanted support figuring out how to do that work. If it wasn’t for those students, I might have given up. I might have caved. But I didn’t. I fought for them. I fought to make sure that their future co-workers (and possible employers) would have at least some understanding of the realities of the system they worked in.
Because of them, I embraced being an Indian American in academia in a way I never thought I would. Not in the sense that I suddenly started wearing saris to the classroom (though that would have been entertaining). But I no longer hid how being a woman of color, and particularly a woman of color in academia, meant that I brought a different perspective, different approach, and different goal to my teaching. I embraced that I was in a position to highlight the injustices in our system, injustices students needed to learn. And I embraced that by simply existing, that by virtue of being in the classroom, I was rocking the boat.
And for that, I had the language of diversity and inclusivity weaponized against me. For that, I was labeled as having a “lack of cultural inclusivity.”
And it is precisely that kind of racism that white academics need to be calling out.
- Too Big, Too Brown, and Too Much – WOC Guest Post
- Losing and Finding a Sense of Belonging in Academia – WOC Guest Post
- Romancing the Academy for Fun and Profit, Part II – Novelist Guest Post
- What Mentorship? The Experiences of Black Female Faculty – WOC Guest Post
- What Can You Do: Being Black and Tired in Academia – #BLM Guest Post