- Women of Color and the Precarity of Their Intellectual Labor1
In the popular television show Scandal (April 2012 to present), the protagonist Olivia Pope's father reminds her "You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have." This on-screen fatherly advice to a powerful woman of color character in American politics reverberates in real life. The unsaid rules of operating in a patriarchal, sexist, and classist society had long been understood among women of color (WOC), but they were finally openly articulated in a mainstream series. I open with this iconic scene because it is noteworthy that the advice is phrased in colloquial economic terms—to get what they have. In this piece, I would like to explore the experiences of women of color in the academy as precarious work.
Precarious work is defined by the International Labour Organization as "uncertainty as to the duration of employment, multiple possible employers or a disguised or ambiguous employment relationship, a lack of access to social protection and benefits usually associated with employment, low pay, and substantial legal and practical obstacles to joining a trade union and bargaining collectively" (2012, 27). I would also add how racialized and gendered labor experiences, including other identities such as immigration status, contribute to a worker's economic insecurity.
Given my long-standing work on labor rights for low-wage workers, I observed that women of color's intellectual labor faces similar challenges. The concentration of WOC in the nontenured, adjunct, and contingent jobs renders their economic security the most precarious. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the contingent low-waged labor in the informal, domestic, and other industries is equivalent to adjunct, nontenured WOC's intellectual labor, where at least they do have the benefit of social acceptance; [End Page 353] but they do share some salient features as part of the broader gig economy.
I hope shedding light on this issue will push academic institutions to see faculty diversity not just in terms of increasing WOC in the halls of the academy as bodies, but also to ensure their economic security by hiring them into more secure, better paid positions and understanding how structural racism operates as a double burden on WOC faculty in the United States. Otherwise, we will find that most hiring of women of color will cluster in nontenured, adjunct jobs subjecting them to lower pay and benefits, thereby limiting their advancement in the academy.
On faculty diversity, the America Federation of Teachers reported in 2010 "that a disproportionate number of underrepresented faculty members continue to be hired as contingent rather than full-time tenured faculty" (4) which often marginalizes the contributions they could make to their institutions and provides them with grossly inadequate pay and working conditions. "Of the 10.4 percent of faculty positions held by faculty of color, 7.6 are contingent positions, which means 73 percent of faculty of color do not receive adequate wages, benefits, job security, and meaningful academic freedom" (13). Additional labor is expected and extracted from women of color such as committee service burdens, administrative tasks, mentoring, and academic advisement to underrepresented students, but this labor is not valued, compensated, and often not acknowledged in terms of promotion. Scholars have defined this as "cultural taxation" a price faculty of color have to pay to remain in the academy (Canton 2013).
The statistics for black faculty are even more stark and, in my mind, require special attention apart from the broader women/people of color category given the United States's pernicious history of slavery and racism, including a eugenics movement which viewed blacks as lacking intellectual capacity. This mindset rears its head from time to time in new pseudoscientific garb in discussion around IQ. The American Association of University Professors found that the proportion of African Americans in non-tenure-track positions was 50 percent higher than whites (1993). In her piece "The New Old Labor Crisis," Tressie McMillan Cottom (2014) traces this racial inequity back to the civil rights movement. While the recent renewed focus on adjunct faculty labor through the organizing efforts of groups like Faculty Forward is...