Want to Combat the ‘Privilege Payoff’? Here’s How
Inequitable workloads persist across lines of gender and race, but they don’t have to.
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This concept of cultural taxation resonates with me and accurately describes much of my time as a student, staff member, professor, and administrator. While the idea is sometimes new to white people, to people of color in the academy it often makes perfect sense. They’ve shared with me their experiences of serving on committees, translating documents, and brokering relationships with historically marginalized communities. They’re all too aware of cultural taxation.
It’s good that there is now a name for, and an increasing recognition of, the burden people of color carry in predominantly white spaces. Indeed, some institutions, such as the University of Texas at Austin, with its Provost’s Distinguished Service Academy, have recognized and rewarded the extraordinary service commitments undertaken by historically marginalized scholars. But I’ve come to suspect that a focus on this phenomenon is causing us to overlook the other side of the question. In short, if cultural taxation exists, then so must a “privilege payoff.” If minorities carry an invisible burden, those who hold dominant identities in the academy, exempted from such diversity work, find themselves getting ahead.
I first noticed this as a graduate student, where I had an office adjacent to a well-known scholar of color. This professor always had a line of students camped in the hallway, waiting to discuss class topics, career advice, and thoughts about their academic progress. I never noticed similar lines for the older white faculty members. Later, as a new assistant professor, I became the scholar with the long line of students — many of whom I did not teach. The students who come to me discuss not feeling a sense of belonging on campus, or struggle with the overwhelming whiteness of the place, or are navigating microaggressions. My white colleagues say admiringly, “Wow, you are everywhere! Where do you find the time?”
When I started researching Black faculty experiences, I heard professors share stories about supporting students in programs other than their own, including helping them to find fellowships and jobs. In the words of one study participant, “Where on my faculty report do I explain the work I do with students who aren’t in my department?”
And I would hear from some white faculty that, though they noticed the extra work shouldered by scholars of color, they didn’t know how to help: “When a student is seeking out a Latino/a mentor, I’m not sure what my role is,” or, “I come from a fairly privileged socioeconomic background. … I worry that if I open up, I’m just going to reinforce how distant our experiences are.” And some professors are disengaged from these issues altogether. Realizing their careers depend on their success in publishing, obtaining grants, and research productivity, they leave the mentoring, sponsoring, and developmental nurturing to their largely minority, female, queer, and non-tenure-track peers.
Fortunately, research suggests some promising approaches to eliminating the privilege payoff. In 2018, O’Meara and colleagues demonstrated that a four-step process can lead toward workload equity: 1. Provide departmental workshops on implicit bias and how it relates to both the amount and type of workload assigned to women and minority faculty members; 2. Create dashboards providing transparency on service, teaching, and research duties; 3. Use these dashboards to expose inequities; 4. Provide professional-development webinars to discuss their plans to deal with these inequities.
In my own research, I’ve suggested that proximal experiences of being othered — the times in life when majority-identity faculty have been marginalized or experienced a diminished sense of belonging — are experiences that can be mined for empathy and understanding. I’ve heard white faculty discuss anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism, either experienced directly or by a family member. These experiences sharpened their sensibility about what it might feel like to be a minority in a predominantly white space. This is not the same as saying “my experience of marginalization is the same as yours.” Rather, it helps them to develop a sixth sense about what being marginalized feels like, which inspires them to think about how to leverage their privilege on behalf of those less represented.
These faculty take on the responsibility of educating themselves, through literature and media, about the experiences their minoritized colleagues encounter. They speak up on issues that might come at a cost for their marginalized colleagues, who risk being labeled as the “angry [insert descriptor] person.”
Cultural humility can also combat the privilege payoff. The self-reflective examination of one’s own culture can serve as a launching point for learning about other cultures — and can be an asset in understanding how assumptions and biases shape one’s world view. This requires some discomfort, some dissonance — and can feel in tension with the academic emphasis on expertise. Majority faculty and administrators have a pivotal role in modeling how one might, with humility, lead and follow as an ally and co-conspirator in curtailing cultural taxation and the privilege payoff.