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On microaggressions in academia

CultureEducation

The foremost issue of structural inequality in academia, and the most quantifiable, is the growing divide between part-time sessional instructors on year-to-year contracts with no job security. Illustration by Sam Bullis.

Media outlets are full of stories on microaggressions that have been surfacing in academia. From declaring white supremacy as endemic in scholarly citations (it is mostly white researchers who get cited), to charging that sexist biases determine performance evaluations, to public complaints that doormen misaddress highly respected scholars—by not calling them ‘doctor’ for example—as a dissatisfied Cambridge professor complained not that long ago to the British press.

Such experiences reveal the existence of unexamined sexist, racist, classist and xenophobic assumptions, and are no doubt unpleasant and hurtful. They can cut deep into one’s psyche and most likely will trigger some level of grief. And they probably will be felt as violent, especially if they result from interactions with close colleagues. But airing them publicly does little to combat the racist, sexist and xenophobic systems whose greatest impact is on those with little ammunition to fight against these structures, and on those whose material prospects in life depend on not taking a stand against manifested sexist or racist incidents.

Consider the case of scholarly citations. Getting fewer citations than white scholars is unfair, irritating and infuriating, but it will not make a racialized academic lose their tenured or tenure-track position. Indeed, such practices, while symbolically violent, have few material consequences. A less frequently cited scholar will perhaps be less known or will become less famous within a tight scholarly niche compared with those who are widely cited. From a broader public perspective, however, a professor is still a professor, securely employed and holding a position that would make most people in society, who labour at rigid nine-to-five jobs with little opportunity to exercise real agency in their work, and at a fraction of the pay of a tenured academic, jealous of their privileged position.

Keep in mind that entry-level salaries in tenure-track positions at Canada’s research universities start at close to $100,000 per year. By the time they get to full professorships, academics make an average of $150,000 a year and most will be making $200,000 a year by the time they retire. And these figures do not account for those who take on administrative duties, such as program or school directors, deans, provosts and presidents, whose salaries reach the levels of the high-end corporate sector. According to Statistics Canada, an annual salary of $191,000 puts one in the top one percent of income earners and $102,300 puts one in the top five percent. While it is mainly full professors who make it to the top one percent, all tenure-track academics are part of the top five percent earners in the country. In other words, academics in general make more than what 95 percent of the national population does, and a lot more than the median after-tax income of Canadian families and unattached individuals ($61,400 per year in 2018, the last year for when such data is available).

Moreover, speaking out against micro-aggressions in academia will hardly trigger precarious occupational outcomes. On the contrary, some scholars might even get more publicity for drawing attention to such instances of symbolic violence. Their names enter the public discourse, their books get higher sales, and invitations to radio and television talk shows follow. By contrast, think of the racialized persons who are migrant workers in the agri-food business or work at low-end service jobs at Tim Horton’s or McDonald’s. When racist or sexist incidents and occupational abuses occur, these workers will have little agency to speak out. For those in precarious and temporary living arrangements, fear of further employer abuse, of retaliation, of losing one’s job or even of deportation, is strong motivation to avoid bringing public attention to any incidents of oppression they might experience. In other words, those who are affected the most by incidents of racism, sexism and xenophobia–and there is no doubt that these will most likely be encountered by those at the lower end of the labour market—will be the least likely to voice their occupational concerns.

The main problem with asking for public sympathy for the microaggressions suffered by the well-off, particularly at a time when most community conversations are accompanied by situating and acknowledging one’s privilege, is that such gestures fail to recognize the privileged position of those making claims of differential treatment. Why should one be entitled to expect society to care about the microaggressions encountered by those who are already in the top one percent or five percent? What is it about the wealthy psyche that it needs so much coddling? These are struggles of the elites.

And it is not solely a matter of entitlement per se. The public outcries demonizing symbolic aggressions also conceal a disrespect for the experiences of those who cannot make the choice to publicize their concerns without facing serious risks. If someone really wants to fight oppression from inside the ivory tower, it is imperative that she carefully examines what is happening below, and steers away from the narcissistic impulse to keep attention focused on the troubles faced by the top five percent income earners in the population. To put it simply, academics are not an oppressed class, and their institutional treatment, while violent and hurtful at times, in no way represents a social justice issue.

The foremost issue of structural inequality in academia, and the most quantifiable, is the growing divide between part-time sessional instructors on year-to-year contracts with no job security–just consider that close to 2,800 adjuncts have been laid off at the City University of New York in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—and the full-time tenured and tenure-track staff who are required to teach only a handful of courses each year (thanks to the adjuncts, who teach twice as much), and who have the time to write long grant applications to fund their research and strengthen their publication records to advance their careers. But this is an issue that rarely concerns the tenure(d) class.

Raluca Bejan is a first-generation university educated academic. She is Assistant Professor of Social Work at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, NS. Between July 2018 and December 2019, Raluca was Assistant Professor in Critical Social Policy at St. Thomas University, in Fredericton, NB. Raluca regularly writes for rabble.ca, and she previously contributed opinion pieces to TelesurTV (Caracas, Venezuela), Verfassungsblog | On Matters Constitutional (Berlin, Germany), The Globe Post (Washington, DC), LeftEast/CriticAtac (Bucharest, Romania) and the London School of Economics Brexit Bog (London, UK).

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