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  • Silent Scripts and Contested Spaces
  • Melanie L. Harris (bio), Carolyn M. Jones Medine (bio), and Helen Rhee (bio)

In May 2008, a group of women of color who teach religious studies in predominantly white colleges and universities came together at Texas Christian University in a Wabash Center for Teaching Theology and Religion consultation. The desire of the event’s organizers—Melanie L. Harris of Texas Christian University, who hosted; Helen Rhee of Westmont College; and Carolyn Medine of the University of Georgia—was to bring together women of color teaching religion and theology. The group included Asian American, African American, and Latina women who examined what happens, both to them and with students, when women of color enter the space of the religion classroom, how their presence affects teaching and learning, and what strategies we might employ to ease interactions among students and teachers. This essay is a reflection on a crucial theme that we discovered in the consultation: authority.

Juanita Johnson-Bailey and Ming-Yeh Lee write, “The classroom is a study in how power is accorded and exercised in our society.”1 As a microcosm of the academy and of our society, the makeup of and dynamics in classrooms reflect larger social tensions and problems. Statistics bear out this observation. While women make up nearly half of those receiving terminal degrees in the United States and only slightly over half of all doctorates awarded and while institutions have generated policies to recruit and retain them, women in the academy still lag behind as a percentage of tenured professors and earn less than their [End Page 101] male counterparts.2 This, in addition to the paternalism of universities, generates what Anamaria Dutceac Segesten calls a “leaky pipeline.”3 Women of color rank lowest in the number of tenured professors: “38 per cent for Latinas, 41 per cent for Asian and Native Americans, 46 per cent for African Americans compared to 47 per cent for Anglo-European females and 68 per cent for Anglo American males.”4 For women of color, hard work does not translate, necessarily, to promotion or value. Carmen Kynard, reflecting on how other professors assumed that a black professor, the first in her department, wrote her black female student’s dissertation, shows us the complexity of the academic careers of women of color:

It would seem that any researcher or scholar in the academy would know that you cannot possibly present at conferences, give keynote addresses, publish your own articles, review other articles for peer-reviewed journals, work on your own book manuscripts, review other people’s manuscripts and books in print, work on grant-funded projects, and then also write someone else’s dissertation for them. It seems safe to say that it is a huge task to even make time to read drafts of advisees’ dissertations. This event is just one of many that show how white faculty and staff can be deeply invested in the illogic of their racism.5

As Kynard’s quotation suggests, establishing authority, for scholars or teachers of color, is difficult. Women of color, often, are the first and/or only one in their fields or departments. Colleagues often question the authority of the subject matter that women of color teach because it necessitates interdisciplinary approaches that complicate the classroom and stretch disciplinary boundaries by challenging epistemologies, theories, and methods. This plays out in multiple arenas. Johnson-Bailey and Lee cite three incidents in which their authority [End Page 102] was questioned: first, when a young white man wanted to see their vitae and to question them before he would take their class; second, a teaching evaluation in relation to racialized stereotypes; and third, the public devaluation of their work by a colleague whom they had invited to coteach with them.6 Similarly, Kynard cites multiple examples of undergraduates’ “unwavering reproduction of color-blind racism.”7

Boundary stretching often threatens colleagues as well. Bonnie TuSmith’s “Out on a Limb: Race and the Evaluation of Frontline Teaching” opens with the story of a white man who overheard her describing a negative classroom experience to a colleague. The man told her, “‘You’re really a lousy teacher; you’re just...


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