This anthology, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, is comprised of essays that explore the presumption of incompetence that arises when women of color pursue academic careers in culturally inhospitable institutions of higher education. The theme woven throughout the book is the experienced and, at times, internalized presumption that the women represented in these stories do not possess the intellectual competency to belong in the academically rigorous “ivory tower” traditionally equated with White male scholars.
Although the civil rights movement in the United States is currently commemorating its 50th anniversary, affirmative action debates continue to rage, spurred on most recently by the Supreme Court’s decision to order an appeals court to re-rule on the most current affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas). At issue is the questioned constitutionality and necessity of considering race in higher education admission processes in what some consider a postracial society.
Institutions of higher education are caught in the crux of the debate and face the challenge of increasing campus diversity in environments that covertly resist such efforts by claiming liberal objectivity and academic freedom. Instead, scholarly uniformity may be rewarded with tenure, and social hierarchical power structures are reproduced along the lines of race, gender, and class (Evans, 2007; Tierney & Bensimon, 1996; Woods, 2006).
Through interviews, academic research, and first-person accounts, Presumed Incompetent explores the intersection of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity in the professional experiences of women in academia. While the stories and research represent a variety of disciplines, a majority of them are legal academic narratives that utilize critical race feminism and intersectionality.
Critical race feminism (CRF) is a theory that emerged in response to the essentialist portrayals of Black women in critical legal studies (CLS) and critical race theory (CRT) (Crenshaw, 1991; Williams, 1991; Wing, 1997). It deconstructs the allegedly neutral concepts of CLS and CRT by focusing attention on the sexual and racial aspects of power relationships and the multi-dimensional experiences of women of color who are subjected to multiple forms of discrimination based on their race, class, and gender.
Combined with intersectionality, a concept that examines the “multiple systems of oppressions” that “simultaneously corroborate and subjugate to conceal deliberate, marginalizing ideological maneuvers that define ‘Otherness’” (Few, 2007, p. 454), CRF places women of color at the center of its analysis. Presumed Incompetent adeptly brings theory to life by providing powerful examples of overt and covert discrimination that women in academia face due to their intersecting identities.
Presumed Incompetent consists of 30 chapters grouped in five parts. Part 1, “General Campus Climate,” focuses on ways in which institutions of higher education can foster hostile climates that contribute to the persistence of discriminatory stereotypes that negatively impact how students and colleagues perceive women of color.
Part 2, “Faculty-Student Relationships,” highlights classroom challenges for women of color, especially regarding teaching evaluations and unexamined consumer-driven student expectations of faculty homogeneity. Part 3, “Network of Allies,” presents the struggle that women of color face in developing the professional networks and mentorship they need to advance their careers and secure tenure.
Part 4, “Social Class in Academia,” is a rare and thought-provoking analysis of class bias in higher education with a particular focus on the performance of class, class bias, and the evolving acquisition and navigation of social capital. Part 5, “Tenure and Promotion,” showcases the institutional racism that pervades the often ambiguous path to tenure and the self-doubt and psychological harm that it elicits.
Each story, study, and interview presented in the five individual parts deconstructs the layers of cultural incompetence and inequitable power structures that inform the contributors’ presumed incompetence. The women who contributed their stories, research, and time to this important anthology provide a wealth of cultural and professional representations (ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, [End Page 286] institutional type, discipline, etc.) as well as their significant years...