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Presumed Incompetent: Breaking the Silence of Racism in Academia

There's a hot new book making the rounds in the academic world:. The book addresses the predicament that women of color high up in the ivory tower find themselves in -- a predicament few of us really know.
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There's a hot new book making the rounds in the academic world: Presumed Incompetent. The book addresses the predicament that women of color high up in the ivory tower find themselves in -- a predicament few of us really know. Here it is in a nutshell: often, women of color are recruited to universities in order to represent intellectual change, to burnish the image of so-called diversity. Yet so many people have a hard time getting promotion, achieving that holy grail of the academic ladder -- tenure.

And this is precisely because they have to overcome so much. There's a lot of institutionalized racism, even among the liberal crowd of tenured radicals. In fact, one of my friends, a law professor put it best: "It's the liberal who can often have the least self-consciousness about the pain they inflict." She smiled wryly and put on her best NPR voice. "I can't be a racist; I voted for Obama."

Women of color aren't taken seriously because there exists a bias that is extremely destructive: the perception that they are tokens, that they are penny-ante players in the high stakes intellectual poker match. Yet institutions get many material benefits by recruiting people of color. And yes, they get even more by dumping them before they can become permanent. Another friend put it this way: "It's like leasing a new car if you don't grant tenure; you'll get a new one in a darker color, only it will cost you less." So, the revolving door of academia perpetrates and perpetuates a great loss... and the university can never be enriched by the gifts that a mature scholar of color can bring to the intellectual smorgasbord.

The problem is that you really can't talk about this issue: it's taboo. To do so is tantamount to grousing -- as outré as scratching and farting at a cocktail party. And in large part this is why the system has been allowed to perpetuate itself, unchecked. I suspect this is why all my academic friends -- white and black, gay and straight, minority and majority -- are putting up images of the book on their Facebook Page. They don't say much except "I'm ordering mine" but the proliferation of this cryptic message is enough: indicating a tectonic shift.

Though Presumed Incompetent itself focuses on women of color, it is more generally about scholars of color -- both men and women -- who find themselves not only having to perform the rigorous work of making it in academia but, also, having to deal with the battle fatigue of challenging the bias that dogs their every action. It can be a tiring, thankless job being a person of color in academia -- one feels like an island in a vast, uncharted ocean. This is bourne out by the many discrimination law suits that are popping up at universities left and right, nowadays.

Presumed Incompetent is an historic work for one key reason: it voices discontents through the personal accounts of high profile scholars who have already made it, who have experienced the outrages of the academic mill...but are secure enough in their own careers to now be able to talk about some of the tribulations of being a person of color without appearing to whine. You can't say they're belly-achers or that they're working through a pile of sour grapes. They're intellectual superstars; go ahead: google them.

I'm glad that there is a book out there that can tell it like it is -- a book that can do the talking for those who have to remain silent. Only in this way, with one party speaking to the other, can we begin a useful dialog. I hope everybody sticks Presumed Incompetent's image on their Facebook page. Already, I hear it has sold out. May it sell out many times more. May it make it to the Bestseller's List and become anointed alongside the collected works of J.K. Rowling and the most compelling Vampire Erotica available. It will make the world a much, much better place.

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