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  • Hot Commodities, Cheap LaborWomen of Color in the Academy
  • Patti Duncan (bio)

My resignation and the discouragement I see in my colleagues, their alienation from “academe,” are reactions to a seemingly insoluble problem: formalism, establishmentarianism, whitism—whatever it is called, it has me beat.1

In 2008, after immeasurable distress, I resigned from my faculty position in a women’s studies program. I had recently been awarded tenure at a large urban university in a city I love. I had developed numerous close friendships at the university, and I felt that my research and teaching were meaningful both to me and to my students. However, for nearly three years I had experienced harassment and discrimination, in both subtle and extremely overt ways, by the program’s acting director, a white woman without tenure, whose own position had been converted from a contract instructor to the tenure track in exchange for serving as program director. Presumably either threatened by my seniority over her or uncomfortable with my racial identity as a woman of color, or some combination of the two, she seemed to do everything she could to exclude me and to undermine my position in the program and in the university. I was denied program resources and bullied in front of colleagues and students, rumors were spread about me to colleagues within the program, and the submission of my tenure file was obstructed. For a period of time I attempted to counter her discriminatory treatment, going as far as filing grievances with both the Office of Human Resources and the university’s Office for Affirmative Action, as well as participating in three separate mediation processes over the course of seven months. In the end, acknowledging that the problem was greater than that represented by this individual, and that the administration seemed unable or unwilling to address the issue in any meaningful [End Page 39] way, I made the difficult decision to leave what had become an increasingly hostile work environment.

Racism and sexism in the academy are systemic, supported by the entire institutional structure and rendered invisible to many by the complex workings of the academic marketplace. In the years since my resignation I’ve realized that my story is not anomalous, but all too common for women of color in higher education. In today’s global economy the restructuring of academic institutions and their subsequent privatization result in a changing educational environment characterized by shifts in labor relations, transforming the nature and effects of racism and sexism in academia. As the global free market assumes primacy within the university system, previous commitments to social justice within disciplines like women’s and gender studies are often replaced by conflict-management models of the corporate world. In this essay I am most concerned with the effects of this restructuring on women-of-color faculty, who have historically been marginalized within academia and expected to perform reproductive labor (i.e., act as “service providers”) for the benefit of others. Even while the language of diversity often dominates discussions about higher education, race and gender continue to structure the experiences of women-of-color faculty, who, as Chandra Talpade Mohanty suggests, remain subject to a revolving door policy. As she states, “while the discourse of multiculturalism is in full force in the academy these days, the practice of multiculturalism actually facilitates the recolonization of communities marginalized on the basis of class, and racialized gender.”2 Thus, how such recolonization occurs varies depending on context and the specific institutional practices associated with addressing “multiculturalism” and “diversity,” which, within corporate models, often rely on individualistic rather than structural understandings and analyses of power. What is the changing nature of higher education—and women’s and gender studies in particular—within a neoliberal political economy in which the university functions much like other apparatuses of the state, and how do these changes affect women of color?

Women of color in women’s and gender studies have endured a long history of exclusionary racist practices, tokenization, and discrimination. Since the inception in 1969 of women’s studies programs in the United States, women-of-color writers, scholars, and activists have identified and resisted multiple forms of...


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