Presumed Incompetent (You Have The Right to Remain Silent…)

I never go anywhere without a book, and my mother, a retired research librarian of mixed Arab and European descent, is always curious about what I’m reading. When I pulled out my copy of Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, my mother scrunched up her face in disgust, “Why would anyone choose that title for a book about women academics?” I responded with, “Because that’s how many people see us!” She countered by inviting me to move to the living room to watch a (closed captioned) television clip about the life of Sonia Sotomayor.


As usual, mom won this match: women, race, class, and disability.


As the title states, Presumed Incompetent, edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González, and Angela P. Harris, focuses on the intersections of race and class of women in the academy. The book is a compilation of narrative essays written by women (there is also an essay on being an ally written by a man) with chapters organized around the following themes: general campus climate, faculty-student relationships, networks of allies, social class in academia, and tenure and promotion. 


The introduction, written by Harris and González, begins by taking note of the privileged position inhabited by women of color who are full-time faculty, and the juxtaposition of the privilege of the academy — as perceived from the outside looking in — with the frequent absence of privilege experienced within the academy. From there, they highlight some of the realities that exacerbate problems for us: numerical representation, negotiation of identity in academia, institutional privilege, academic culture (including microaggressions) and the corporatization of the university.


For the most part, the chapters in Presumed Incompetent are narratives about how the author’s intersectionality of gender, race, and class drives her experiences in the academy. Unfortunately, no one included a disability perspective in her narrative account. I know of no other book that features such a collection of narratives of women academics of color that includes class as part of intersectionality, and for this reason (among others) find the book a valuable addition to scholarship about the experiences of the professoriate.


When one is a solitaire, that is, when one is “the only” Latina woman, lesbian, disabled woman, woman with working class roots, trans* woman (whether in the department, at the university, or in the profession as a whole), it is easy to cultivate the habit of silence.


Silence is a survival strategy; by keeping silent about injustices, one is viewed as a team player, as someone who is not a troublemaker, or as someone who doesn’t play the “race/gender/disability/sexuality/class” card when the going gets tough. Suffering in silence gets one through the hazing of graduate school (but not always), it gets one through the job market (maybe), it gets one to a tenure track position (perhaps), and it gets one successfully through the tenure process (in some cases).


The downside of keeping silent is that the details of one’s experiences are unknown. Even if one chooses to disclose these experiences to a few trusted friends and family members (who are often outside the academy), their response isn’t always as encouraging as it might be, since it may be overlaid by perceptions of the privileges afforded by the academic lifestyle.  


(I should pause here to make the point that something I really like about Presumed Incompetent is the wide range of narratives – this variety avoids the all-too-frequent conflation of race with a particular class experience.  Women of color experience the jolt of assumptions and stereotypes whether their life experience is working class or upper middle class, and sometimes this point is glossed over.)


Breaking silence, then, can be a transgressive action.


When stories about the difficulties of being a solitaire are not shared, it makes it harder for others in similar positions – this is not a point about misery loves company, but about mustering fortitude. Knowing that others are dealing with similar challenges can make it a little easier to keep on keeping on. Telling one’s story can also help one find allies.  If colleagues who can be supportive and helpful don’t know what exactly one is facing, it is harder for them to take concrete action to change things.


Of course, there are very real risks in breaking silence.


Not all Presumed Incompetent contributors used their own names; for some, the act of telling their stories without identifying details was as far as they felt they could go without possibly subjecting themselves to unwelcome consequences. Harris and González underscore this by devoting a section of the introduction to the women whose stories were not told, listing a number of reasons why these women decided to remain silent.


For readers of the What is it Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy? blog, it is easy to see the parallels in the list generated from the Presumed Incompetent narratives: opening psychological/spiritual wounds, fear of retaliation, the problem of identifying others due to the pattern of behaviors at one’s institution, the fear of making one’s situation at work worse by publicly disclosing the behaviors of one’s “benefactors”, and the concern that one’s own story is a mild version of the horror stories that others have experienced. Other issues raised by the intersectionality of race, gender and class include the concern that going public might harm the tenuous networks of colleagues of color and the fear that  telling one’s story now might affect one’s future status as faculty of color gain critical mass later.


Add to this the worry that to step outside of the comfort of one’s academic expertise raises the perception of such writing as “un-intellectual” or the risk and fear of writing outside of one’s professional expertise (and being labeled a dilettante), and it is surprising that the editors of Presumed Incompetent were able to find as many non-pseudonymous contributors as they did! For some of us, simply naming all of our intersectionalities is sufficient for identification.  For others, naming intersectionality identities, describing the type of university one works at, and describing one’s geographical location is enough information to considerably narrow down possible “suspects”. 


Presumed Incompetent is a riff on the common legal phrase “presumed innocent”. When one is Mirandized in the U.S., the boilerplate begins with “You have the right to remain silent… anything you say or do can be used against you…”  Although these words are related to the pursuit of justice within a legal system, for solitaires residing in the academy, these words represent a mantra of survival. For this reason alone, I commend the bravery of those who contributed to Presumed Incompetent and broke the silence.


Over the following weeks I will post on some of the themes in Presumed Incompetent. Next week’s post will focus on the first section: General Campus Climate.




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