The Initiative on Faculty Race and DIversity:
A Personal View
The Faculty Newsletter managing editor has asked me to write a brief retrospective on the experience of leading the research effort for the Race Initiative Report.
I am no longer sure what my expectations were when I joined the Initiative committee, but having long dealt with gender issues I thought I understood something about the experiences of a “minority” group in a predominantly majority environment. But this was different. In the gender studies I was part of the group that was the object of study; I was both seen as and felt knowledgeable and competent. Here, in contrast, I was in the “out” group, though I was working with people who belonged to the group being studied. This position led to some complex and uncomfortable situations for me, as well as to increased insight into the dynamics across racial lines.
I also learned, more than I had anticipated, in what ways the experiences of my minority colleagues differed from my own. If you look at p. 109 of the Report – Table D.1 – you discover that 42% of MIT’s Black male faculty, compared to almost no one else, report having been assumed to be a trespasser by someone at MIT during interactions on this campus.
How is that possible, when we know that MIT people are basically well intentioned? One minority faculty member expressed well this disjuncture between good intentions and bad outcomes. “I’ve never experienced a place as good as MIT but there can still be a problem.”
Sections C and D of Part II of the Report detail this problem by providing the findings from all parts of the extensive research effort: from an all-MIT quality of life survey (e.g., Table D.1); from interviews with the minority faculty and a comparison group of White and Asian faculty (e.g., the quote cited above); and from institutional data that allowed a comparative analysis of career trajectories. The analysis of these multiple data sources highlighted different aspects of the problem, but together they form a picture of the lives of minority, particularly Black faculty that differs significantly from the experience of White faculty in ways that I knew about but hadn’t properly appreciated. In dealing with issues of race and diversity, minority faculty are asked to do more than their non-minority peers. On issues unrelated to race and diversity, in contrast, they may be ignored and undervalued. Superstars do just fine – but not everyone, even at MIT, is a superstar. And expectations for minority faculty who are not in that small category are different from those of their non-minority counterparts. As reported by one department officer: “People have a lowered expectation of minority faculty when they walk in the door, something not spoken or even perceived.”
Here are some examples from the richness of detail provided by the interviews. One interviewee tells of keeping books on office shelves so as to be seen not as an “affirmative-action kid” but as “a real scholar.” Another recalls being told what to do in a faculty meeting – "as if I don’t know…that’s what it’s like being Black, day-to-day.” On the whole, especially if male, White faculty are automatically assumed to belong and to know what to do and how to do it. And that’s what I mean by not appreciating White privilege. I discovered that I didn’t really know – though of course theoretically I knew – how much automatic privilege accrues to one just because one is White. For White men, who reside in multiple advantaged groups, that understanding must be even more difficult.
I also didn’t fully realize how much such understanding can be undermined by emphasis on objectivity and meritocracy, which is particularly strong in an institution centered on science. An emphasis only, or primarily, on the products of research, ignores the human transactions that underlie and support its production. As one perceptive interviewee explained, "There are dynamics within labs. There’s funding. There’s all of these kinds of things that inform what happens. But somehow that all gets pushed to the side…I think in other places there’s just more cognizance of a more complex world.” The belief that all rewards are based strictly on merit – defined by explicit, objective, uncontested criteria – closes the mind to the relevance of the organizational, cognitive, and social interactions that together constitute scholarship, as well as to the biases and stereotyped expectations that infect those interactions.
Section D, entitled “MIT: A Meritocratic Institution of Excellence and Inclusion?” is especially telling. It will not be surprising to our minority colleagues, but might be to faculty from majority groups. Race is a significant aspect of the lives of many of the minority faculty, even though most of us do not acknowledge this, but rather assume that because we are of good will, expectations for everyone are equally high and each lives in the same supportive environment.
What we don’t realize is how privileged most of us are because we do not face such everyday difficulties as having someone ask what you are doing here when you walk down the corridor and assuming you are not a faculty member. It is for this reason that throughout the Report we have capitalized “White” to indicate that it too is a racial/ethnic category, though one that can take much for granted.
The recommendations in Part I of this Report will go a long way, I hope, to alleviating some of these disparities. But their implementation will be easier if we all understand the racial dynamics detailed in the research findings of Part II.