(Un)Safe Faculty Spaces

Group of students discussing outside school building
Group of students discussing outside school building

This was originally part of a keynote address for the 10th Annual Latinx Leadership Summit at the University of Kansas.

Last week I was at a faculty reception hosted annually to welcome new women identified professors to our campus. This is my fourth year on faculty here, and I returned to my alma mater, after five years on faculty elsewhere. So, I was there to welcome, not be welcomed myself. However, I remember attending this reception when I first joined the faculty. This reception was where I met a number of people who are still some of my closest friends and colleagues. I consider this reception a safe space. A place where I am able to engage with a supportive community of other women in the academy, many women who have gone through similar struggles that I have, women who I look up to as mentors and role models.

I was standing near the plate of desserts talking with a friend a mine and an older woman approached us. I had never met this woman, but my friend introduced us, shared our names. I said it is nice to meet you, and the woman asked where I was from. We were at a faculty reception, so I assumed she meant which department. I proudly told her I'm an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs & Administration. She said, "No, where are you from?" I thought she meant where had I grown up or where had I moved from since the reception was about faculty, many of us are from all over the country and world. I smiled and said, "I'm from Kansas. Working at KU is home for me. I spent 5 years on faculty at George Mason University outside of DC, but grew up near Lawrence and went to KU for undergrad and grad school, so I'm happy to be home." She gave me a bit of an exacerbated look and said, "No where are you from?"

I now realized where she was going with the conversation, and I was frankly ready to get back to picking out my brownie from the platter positioned just out of my reach behind her. I told her what she wanted to hear, "My father is Mexican American and my mother is Jewish. I'm a MexiJew." She smiled and "I knew it! I knew it from your name. I've studied Latin Americans." She looked like she was ready for a cookie, but more of a metaphorical one than the plate of carby deliciousness she was blocking me from at the moment. I said "Oh, that's wonderful, I study policy implementation within public organizations." Her face dropped a bit and I excused myself and enjoyed a brownie with cream cheese frosting and chocolate chunks.

One of my mentors often reminds me not to read malice where you can read ignorance. She means that often people aren't trying to do us wrong, but rather they don't know any better. That doesn't mean they cannot hurt us. It doesn't mean they don't have an impact on us. I truly believe this woman meant well. She was trying to make a personal connection to me that she saw as unique. Instead, I felt like she was equating me with her research subject rather than a peer, a colleague at a faculty reception.

This is a reception I enjoy going to every year because I see it as a safe space. It is a space where I engage with interesting faculty doing fascinating work. Many of us have not only studied the inequalities of the world, but have survived them to become a part of a traditionally male dominated profession. This micro-aggression, this small, unintended slight, hurt me in many ways more than the overt sexism or racism we still see in our world because it came in a place I saw as safe and it came from a person I assumed an ally.

I shared this story over Facebook messenger with other academics of color when I got home. We shared gifs of rolling eyes, there were comments of support and "I'm sorry you had to go through that" along with comments of anger. It was cathartic to share the story, to laugh at this older woman's expense when she equated me to a research subject and not her peer. In reality I knew, or I think, she was trying to be nice and see a connection between us.

The implications I always take away from my mentor's phrase, "do not read malice where you can read ignorance" are two fold. The first focuses on intent. There are inequities in the world and actions in the world that are not intended to hurt us. They still can, but we can approach them with more humanity and empathy if we realize that they are not intentional. The second is a call to action. As an educator I want to push back against ignorance. I want to help people learn and grow. Sometimes that means I have to help them understand their preconceived notions are wrong. Sometimes that means I have to educate by example. Showing this woman that Latinas can be professors as well as research subjects.

But, we also need to talk more about how we handle the pain of encountering and learning. My husband refers to this as pain for growth. It isn't useless pain, it is the pain we experience as we get stronger and smarter and able to tackle the challenges in front of us. Talking about what you're going through, sharing your experiences and hearing others share their experiences is how we grow our empathy and compassion. It is how we learn to educate those around us.

I remember this pain for growth quite vividly from graduate school. In graduate school I had the opportunity to work as a research assistant for three professors who were working on a book about race and policing. Honestly, I had never considered doing research on the police. I knew I didn't care much for the police. My father, a large dark skinned Mexican-American man was regularly pulled over driving me to school as a child because he looked out of place in our very white neighborhood. I remembered the long conversations my dad had with my brother about how to act during a police stop, something that as a light skinned, small, woman I was never lectured about. I generally didn't like the subjects that were brought up around the police in my house, and did not give it much thought to them beyond that.

But, this research position was a great opportunity academically, and financially. I was working with incredible scholars. One of those scholars was my dissertation advisor, hands down the person who has had the biggest impact on my academic career. He helped me to deepen my thinking about scholarship and ways in which law and social norms intersect. This was a great opportunity, and if it meant I was studying the police, I was all about it. For my part in the project I interviewed police officers and citizens about their encounters in police stops. For this project we were only interviewing black and white citizens. This was really frustrating as a Latina scholar. I know we "complicate" things. It is hard to discuss identity and race within Latino communities, so much of the scholarship just doesn't.

In the project, white citizens would respond in outrage about being pulled over. Even when they knew they were doing something wrong. They were upset that the police interrupted their movement and their day-to-day activities. Whereas black drivers responded with relief when they received "just" a speeding ticket. Interactions between black drivers and the police escalated quickly, often when the driver had not committed a crime. Black drivers would quickly discuss these stories in the context of family and community narratives. Black drivers would discuss being prepared by their parents for how to interact with the police.

To me, this wasn't surprising. These are conversations that HAVE to happen between fathers and sons, over dinner and before bed. But, what was interesting, was this was shocking to the three amazing scholars I was working for. They didn't realize that there were completely different communities within our communities. They didn't realize that these cultural narratives have played out for as long as our country as had a modernized police force. They didn't realize that these narratives are what keep black and brown men and women alive when interacting with state authority. To be fair, these scholars are not isolated individuals. As this project has gotten attention, many progressive whites have had the same response.

This is not to discount what they did. They created one of the most systematic studies of police-citizen interactions to date. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited their work. They have survey data on top of the narrative data I mentioned before. If you read just one book about policing, read Pulled Over (University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Being able to contribute to this work is one of my most important graduate school memories. The things I learned while working on this project shaped me into the scholar I am today. I am stronger methodologically and intellectually because of this project.

This project made me realize that it does not matter if you have the most progressive, forward thinking individuals in the room. A diversity of experiences, racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation and other traditionally underrepresented identities do not just make our institutions symbolically representative. That diversity does not just show that anyone can make it if they work hard. That diversity does not just demonstrate that America is a place where we value equality. That diversity fundamentally shapes our conversations, the questions we ask and the scholarship that gets done in academia.

My own scholarship fundamentally changed because of the uncomfortable position this research project put me in. I started getting angry not just because they left Latinos out of the citizen groups, but because all police were assumed the same.

When you close your eyes and think of a police officer what is the image that comes into your mind? To this day I still think of a large white man with too many muscles and a short haircut. But, I know that police come in all shapes and sizes, both sexes, all genders, multiple races and ethnicities. I realized, that much like I was not experiencing academia the same way that my white male colleagues were, these "othered" police officers were not experiencing their work in the same way as the stereotype of a police officer I had in my head.

My research now builds off of this idea, exploring the paradox of power for people of color and women in positions of authority. The irony is not lost on me that I basically do research that is an extension of my own experience - being Latina in a white male environment. But, my findings and my scholarship continue to contribute to the academic conversation. There is a need for diverse voices in the academy. There is a need for us to all share our stories and help shape the questions that are asked and answered by experts.

We often talk about creating safe spaces for students to discuss sensitive topics in the classroom, but learning often isn't safe. Sometimes safe spaces can let you down. Often it isn't because of malice it is because of ignorance. So we have an obligation to help the world continue to learn. We have an obligation to make sure that we're seen. We also have an obligation to continue educating ourselves so we don't hurt people because of our own ignorance.