Diversity in Academe 2013

Good Silences, Bad Silences, Unforgivable Silences

Dave Cutler for The Chronicle

October 29, 2012

For an untenured faculty member, perception is everything. How should this young "lamb" signal to all that she is a dedicated teacher, a brilliant scholar, and a wonderful colleague? For outsiders, such as women of color, this task of negotiating and performing identity can prove rather burdensome because of the need to counter negative stereotypes based on race, gender, and class. For many junior faculty members, a recurring conflict is the longstanding tension between voice and no voice: to speak or not to speak becomes the question. How, then, can women of color, especially those from poor or working-class backgrounds, draw the line between following advice for survival and resisting their own subjugation?

The tenure process is an exhausting one, and each individual must do what allows her to sleep at night. We all have to strive to be like Sister Pollard, who proclaimed during the Montgomery bus boycott, "My feets is tired, but my soul is rested." Although I went through the tenure process recently and emerged relatively unscathed, I constantly struggled with the issue of silence, and continue to do so now. Through it all, I have learned that there are good silences, bad silences, and unforgivable silences.

Silence as Action

As an untenured professor, I learned firsthand about the power of silence by observing the conduct of a senior male colleague of color at the first law school where I worked. I recall my initial surprise at his silence during most faculty meetings, especially given his stature as a highly respected faculty member. His silence stood in stark contrast to the frequent speech of many of our white, male senior colleagues, some of whom voiced their opinions on every matter—repeatedly. I wanted to learn from my colleague's opinions, but, in the end, I learned more from his silence. As I watched him throughout the year, I understood that his silences were, at least in part, strategic. They gave him a powerful voice when he spoke in public settings. I later learned that he did much of his speaking outside of the public faculty eye—in private.

Through him, I learned that we have to become comfortable enough with silences to know when to read them and nurture them into spoken voice. As the legal scholar Dorothy Roberts said in her article "Paradox of Silence": "One possibility is that by employing silence, the professor subverts the dominant style of speech in law-school classrooms. By breaking through the fast-paced aggressive banter, typically dominated by white, male students, silence allows less aggressive students of color to compose their thoughts and to participate." Undoubtedly, silence can be powerful. But when are the silences harmful? And how can such harm be prevented?

The Harmful Effects of Silence

We—female faculty of color—can be silenced in many aspects of our job. We can be silenced through our difficulties in saying no to extra service burdens that involve diversity, especially where we know our voices will not otherwise be represented; or through our shame in talking about the daily biases we face in the classroom, biases that are often invisible to white colleagues; or through our feelings that we are impostors in the academic world. We have to ask ourselves, How can we balance the act of not speaking without losing self and yet speak without losing the game?

Most recently, I struggled with these issues when I taught employment discrimination for the first time. Little did I know that I was in for a surprise as I covered the law regarding workplace-appearance codes and discrimination—in particular, those cases concerning the hairstyles of black women. I presented the class with a hypothetical case based upon an actual one (Rogers v. American Airlines), in which a black female airline employee had filed a discrimination lawsuit. She argued that the airline discriminated against "her as a woman, and more specifically, a black woman" through a grooming policy that prohibited certain employees from wearing all-braided hairstyles.

I was pleasantly surprised by my students' initial reaction. My students—none of whom were black, and many of whom came from small, rural towns—argued fervently that the prohibition on braided hairstyles was a form of race discrimination.

I then revealed that my hypothetical was based on an actual case, which a court had dismissed on the grounds that the appearance provision did "not regulate on the basis of any immutable characteristic" and that the policy applied equally to both races and sexes. My students slowly began to nod their heads in agreement. Their challenges ended. I pressed them briefly, but I never really dove into complex criticisms of the case. I later questioned my silence during this classroom discussion. Why had I remained on the sidelines?

I began to understand how Paulette Caldwell, a black legal scholar who wrote 20 years ago about her reluctance to discuss the Rogers case, had felt. I had remained silent because I was nervous about voluntarily making myself both a subject and an object. But my silences in that class hurt not only me but also my students.

A few weeks later, I had another chance in that course to address the hair issue. This time I spoke openly, explaining my theory about how braids, locks, and twists—in light of the gender ideal for women with long, straight hair—should be understood as natural hairstyles and thus a marker of race. The students were receptive, nodding this time with me instead of the Rogers court.

Only rarely, though, do we get second chances to make up for our silences. There are times when we have no choice but to speak.

Unforgivable Silences

I had just moved to a new school, where I was scheduled to come up for review for tenure the following fall. During a meeting to discuss my file, one associate dean, a white, senior male, remarked, "What we really care about are your teaching evaluations here, not the ones at your previous institution." I was in my first semester of teaching at my new school. I had no evaluations to speak of yet and—at least until that moment—had not been too preoccupied with them. I immediately thought, "Really? My record does not matter much?" I wanted to explain to him that—unlike him and many of my white, male colleagues—I did not walk into a classroom with a presumption of competence; that students judged me more harshly than they did my white peers; that I effectively had to work twice as hard to get good evaluations; that it could take at least two semesters to build up the same credibility that my white peers so often automatically received; and that this struggle would be particularly arduous because of the overwhelmingly white student body.

I then thought back to the pretenure meeting at my first school, a meeting that had gone completely differently. In that meeting, the dean, a white, senior male, told me, "You should know that I am fully aware of the challenges that women of color face in the classroom. We fully consider these challenges as we evaluate your teaching." I remembered how soothing I had found his words at that time. Struck by the stark differences at my new school, I remained silent in that pretenure meeting.

When I later had a chance to speak about my classroom challenges in my tenure file, I limited my words. I had previously planned to discuss these challenges at length—to educate others from what I hoped would be a position of relative privilege. However, my evaluations in one course were not as strong as my prior ones, and I was worried that my discussion of those challenges, including studies of proven bias against women of color, would sound too much like I was making excuses.

My silences before had affected my freedom to speak later.

Although I went through the tenure process—as others repeatedly tell me—easily and unscathed, that incident and others continue to haunt me. But they have also taught me much about unforgivable silences—about the times when we must speak up.

I refer primarily to the tenured voices that helped the dean at my first school understand the classroom challenges faced by people of color. My silent senior male colleague of color and a senior female colleague of color had often met privately with that dean to discuss such challenges over the years. They had used status to create understanding for those who came after them.

It is my thoughts of these colleagues that often remind me that it is time to stop being a lamb, that it is my duty now to educate and speak up, that the silences reserved for the young lambs are no longer my own.


Angela Onwuachi-Willig is a professor of law at the University of Iowa College of Law. This essay was adapted from Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González, and Angela P. Harris; Copyright 2012 University Press of Colorado).