global politics, relationally

Being a Minority Professor in Modern America: How Do You Check Privilege When There is None?


For many, being a Professor (Lecturer in the UK) is a badge of honor.   It is a source of pride that demonstrates intelligence plus hard work.  For others, it can actually be a source of stress and, in the extreme, a weakness that leads to violence.

The Ersula Ore tale has made its way through the media in the last few weeks.  She was stopped for jaywalking while people in front of her were not stopped.  Her response to this was to be offended and stating that she was an ASU Professor, then being manhandled and brutalized on the ground are inexcusable for this situation.  She clearly made an error, that error being to think that there is some sort of privilege that comes from being a Professor in modern America.

There is no privilege to being a Professor in many parts of the United States.  Some places respect the position and see it as a badge of achievement; others just see it as a path to express biased liberal opinions and to pontificate for the Ivory Tower.  For that, the Professor must be knocked down a peg or two.

It is even worse if you are a colored minority.  “Post-racial” America is nothing special, nor “post” anything.  I have my own story of harassment and disrespect.  It is hazy after many years, but still vivid in many ways and I only recount it here to suggest that many of us have similar stories, Dr. Ore is not alone, nor is she an aberration at all  What happened to Henry Gates is so typical for many of us; it is not even really news.  It is worth recounting these sorts of experiences to understand what some go through, to understand that checking our privilege is not a buzzword to stay humble, but really a strategy to survive.

The basics of what happened to me start with me working on campus late on a Sunday night.  I was in my office at my first tenure track job in Texas.  To get to my office, I literally had to use three different sets of keys and with restricted access points.  I was plugging away and heard a gruff knock on my door.  Two officers had been called to the scene by another Professor in a different department since I looked “suspicious” walking around the building.  They briefly detained me, searched me, found my ID, and looked over everything I was doing in my office.  They called in my information into the central sever and did a check on everything.  I asked why all the trouble since I was in a secure location and clearly not a threat.  The officer said it was because “I did not look like a Professor.”

Was I profiled because I was young?  Because of how I was dressed?  There was a strange dynamic in Texas.  While the surrounding community just south of Austin was 70 percent Hispanic, at the time only 7 percent of those who attended the University were Hispanic.   I was one of the few Latino faculty at the University, faculty that likely could have been counted on two hands despite the Texan roots of the University.

Nothing serious came of this incident.  I was not brutalized, tazed, or slammed on the ground.  But I did feel violated.  That for all the work I had done and how far I had come, even working alone in my office on a Sunday night was not a safe space.  I felt as if there was really no such thing as a safe space for me on campus.

It was safe to say I was not long for the University, spending only one year there before ditching a tenure-track job for Chicago.  My treatment that night (among many other issues) led to the exit.  Are there lessons to learned from all this?  Not likely.  There is no privilege for a minority Professor in the United States.    Given that the choice to pursue a PhD in the first place seems to be a combination of strong mentorship early in life, knowing others who have made it through, having a financial support system, and access to very strong institutions of higher education, we rarely see minority professors make it through the pipeline.  Even if they do finish, minorities are less likely to get a job and less likely to receive tenure than their peers.   We do not have obstacles or speed bumps, but real brick walls in our path.  There is never really a sense of safety and freedom, for that simple fact academia and the University town is not the bastion of liberal America that many assume.  Instead, it is just as unsafe as any place, just that the hate and mistrust is hidden behind the veneer of a progressive America that really does not exist.

Author: Brandon Valeriano

Brandon Valeriano is the Donald Bren Chair of Armed Politics at the Marine Corps University.