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01/31/2020

Ask the Oracle

We’ve come far in 40 years, but we have further to go: Diversity and Inclusion in Communication Studies

Written by: Megan Cullinan, University of Utah

In the last year, our Ask the Oracle format of has shifted a bit. Though we’re still focused on academics, our column has begun to expand from our coverage of recent scholarship to include a view on life and success in academia as well—and as grad student representatives, I feel that this gives us the opportunity to reach out to other emerging scholars. This trend began with Melissa Harris’ feature profile of Dr. Kami Anderson (February 2019), which explored Anderson’s top five priorities for managing life as an academic (scholarship, community outreach, passion projects, and a personal life!), and continued with Danielle Biss’ recent article (June 2019) which traced intergenerational female-mentorship and friendship across the lives of five women who are doctors of communication.

In approaching my own column, I was inspired by the creativity of Danielle’s article and the quintessential ORWAC story that it told—a story about women helping women to succeed in academia in spite of the odds against us. As Danielle explained, forty years ago the field of communication was so male-dominated that lone women faculty members on campuses often served as a sort of “savior” for female graduate students. In 1977, women’s voices in the field were so often suppressed that female scholars had to start their own journal: Women’s Studies in Communication. But things have changed over the last four decades, to the point that Danielle and I have had a very different experience. Neither of us have lacked positive female mentorship—a fact that continually reminds us both how privileged we are. And although statistics still show that there are more opportunities for men in academic careers, things are changing there as well. According to NCA, the 2018 NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates found that 68% of all doctoral recipients in 2018 were women. Further, more women (85.4 %) also reported definitive employment in academia than their male counterparts (81.5%). So Danielle’s story portrays not only positive anecdotes about the value of female mentorship, but it also gives us a window into the exactly the kind of thing that is contributing to the positive changes occurring for women in academia.

This is the reason I’m proud to be involved in ORWAC. In addition to our work promoting discussion and scholarship concerned with women, gender, and social change, we can very clearly trace histories of mentorship between women scholars, as demonstrated by Danielle. And yet, the story does not end here. One thing Danielle and I couldn’t help but discuss later is that all of the women featured in her story are White. My own piece is certainly not a criticism of Danielle’s article, which I love, but an attempt to build on it, as I am a White woman also, and so are the many female mentors I’ve sought out in graduate school. And this is something that I need to admit I did not think about much until recently. But in light of the overwhelmingly important discussion about diversity and belonging that took place in our discipline over the summer and fall of this year, I’ve realized that this is absolutely something I should be thinking about more. All White women should.

This year, for example, I learned that my own program has not graduated a Black Ph.D. student in fifteen years—a fact that I was unaware of for three years, but something my Black classmates have to confront every single day. It’s easy for me to rely on mentorship because, thanks to the work of many other women, it has always been available to me. But as we saw this summer, this is not true for everyone. Though women as a whole have made so many important strides in carving out our place in communication studies, our discipline still has a long way to go in including scholars of color—especially women scholars of color. Which brings me to the main point of my article. Who do students who are women of color go to for mentorship when faculty of color are also a minority? And how do students come to terms with working in a system that is not always welcoming?

For this piece, I sat down with one of my peers, Mackensie Minnear, a doctoral candidate with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a women of color navigating academia. Mackensie’s experiences are not universal, nor are they a set standard for WOC in academia, but her experiences have been very different than mine, and she had a lot of enlightening information to share with me—someone who often does not have to confront issues of race and ethnicity in the workplace. Together, we engaged in a conversation to Mackensie Minnearexplore the difficulties, but also the positives that she has encountered when looking for guidance and mentorship in academia. Ideally, her words can help us to better explore the gaps in mentorship opportunities—as ORWAC members and as community members in the discipline at large—as well as to pinpoint the places where we see do see success in mentoring and guidance of students of color, so that we can continue to build upon these achievements and elevate WOC in academic departments.

 

Megan: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience seeking out mentorship during your graduate career?

Mackensie: I got my undergrad at UC Santa Barbara, and I took comm classes and sociology classes and black studies classes, so I was surrounded by people of color asking important questions. I didn’t realize the degree to which people were still a minority until [my MA program]. So when I applied for PhD programs I applied to a few, and I was looking for… well, I think that the benefit is that I’m a person of color who studies ethnicity and race, so I was really fortunate to find an advisor at the University of Nebraska who is a) of color, and b) studies ethnicity and race. So even thought people of color are a smaller percentage in academia, I still was able to find someone.

That being said, my first year in Nebraska, while I was still adjusting to not being around many other black people at school, I actually emailed a professor from another school who was doing cool work that I admired, and I asked to meet her at NCA.

I basically just said “can we just talk?” So we sat down and I said “okay, how do I—how can I be black?” And she was like “I got you. I feel you I understand.” And that was really great. I mean, I just emailed her and that was our only connection at that point.

Also at that NCA I got involved more. I went to Black Caucus and African American Communication and Culture panels, and that was really great in terms of meeting other people and getting to know other people like me, and kind of getting outside of the whiteness of academia a little bit. And that was just really helpful.

It had to be an intentional choice I made, but it was really helpful.

 

Megan: So can we talk about positive mentorship experiences you've found in your education? Specifically, valuable mentorship experiences you’ve had, or maybe people who have stood out to you as working to push back against systemic inequality in academia?

Mackensie: First of all, it was Dr. Shardé Davis that I reached out to, and she’s at University of Connecticut. I knew our education had overlapped, she had been a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara when I was an undergrad, so I always knew about her, but reading some of her work was like “whoa… you’re answering super cool questions.” She came out with all of this work on black women and microagressions, and honing in on these ideas and critiquing a lot of what interpersonal communication had put forth as kind of the “one true ring,” based in white, 18-22 year-old samples of college students. She really pushed back and did this amazing thing of blending critical work and quantitative work. And… those have been fairly polarizingly different, with this narrative that “you can’t be a critical scholar if you’re doing measurement” or “why are you reading bell hooks when you’re focused on interpersonal family.” She was someone who really showcased that you can do that. You can pull in feminist scholarship and look deeper into theory and method without having other people define your paradigm, and you can look at these contexts of things that matter so much, and here’s how you push it, and here’s how you can do it.

Also, Dr. Jordan Soliz is my advisor right now, and he’s just been great at pushing back, and pushing this for years, about how family communication cannot just be white, middle-class families. When he was the Journal of Family Comm editor, for his last piece he wrote this article that pointed out that you can’t just look at race and ethnicity as a limitation—you can’t just put a line in and say “okay, so we didn’t ask about this group, but oh well.” We need to be considering all of these differences. And he’s been so great at doing that, helping me work through publications and those kinds of things, and addressing these kinds of aspects in learning how to push back against some of the assumptions people make about interpersonal and family communication.

 

Megan: So along those lines, I also have a male advisor, who’s great, but our experiences will ultimately be very different, because… of course they will. But I have a lot of women in the department I can go to, women who look like me, who can answer my questions about being a woman in academia. But if there aren’t women of color in your department, what are you supposed to do?

 Mackensie: It’s hard. At some NCA party I mentioned that I’d worked with Dr. Walid Afifi, and then Dr. Alan Sillars, and then Jordan, and someone was like “wow… you’ve had a lot of male advisors, like kind of in a way insinuating, you know…”

[Megan: Like, why aren’t you working with women??”]

Mackensie: Yeah! Like it’s a pick-and-choose type thing at this point, like I’m not in a program where there is a woman of color who can address all of those parts of my identity and be my advisor. I have an advisor of color who is really helpful and encouraging and who studies what I do, and who can address parts of what I need, but it’s not like I have options to feed all parts of my identity, nor do I have options to be choosy. It was just an interesting comment—how people see that. And I think it’s like, getting an advisor who meets all of your identities is just never going to happen, and that’s okay! It’s unrealistic to expect to find an advisor who meets every single one of your needs.

So I also have … I guess you could call it lateral advising? Like my other friend Megan, I can go to her because we see things in a similar way. Like today I had a rough day teaching and I can explain the problem and vent and she gets it. Having someone who deals with similar things…it’s been great.

And I’ve developed more of these lateral collegial relationships in the last few years, where I’ve met and connected with other people of color. For example, I was in Prague for ICA, and I was at a panel for the Ethnicity, Race, and Communication division, and I think Shardé Davis was presenting along some others, and this guy comes up to me, and he’s Black, and he’s says “I just love Shardé’s work,” and I’m like “oh my gosh, same,” and then he looks around the room and says “it’s just so nice to be in a space with other people who look like us,” and I was like “yes! It really is!” Especially since we were in Prague, which was wonderful and beautiful, but also very white. And those kinds of moments are really important… and in a way that I don’t know that other people have to contend with as much.

 

Megan: In what way have you had to come to terms with working in a system that is not always welcoming?

Mackensie: Oh. Girl. We can have long talks about this. It starts small. It’s not always like these big moments. A lot of it is just little microagressions that build up over time. And not just from peers—like Nebraska is very collegial, warm, and accepting and willing to listen—but you’ll have students who say things. Things that are going to get to me a lot quicker than other people, or that are going to sit with me in different ways. Or even small things that classmates might say. Some stuff can be really upsetting in ways that people haven’t considered.

So when I have students who say that they “don’t like people with cornrows,” which is, of course, just code for something else, that’s going to sit with me. Or even today, I was having trouble today with a student—I mean, I didn’t get worked up until much later—but students will push back at me in ways that they don’t push back against White instructors.

So that’s one layer. Even if you have a super supportive network of people, those microagressions will get to you.

And then… well, Dallas was a weird NCA for me, actually, because I went to so many good panels about difference, and race and ethnicity and challenging all these things… and yet I kept getting mistaken for a person who worked there. Which I was just like “[laughs] oh my god.”

I was talking to one of the guys who worked there, and he was like “yeah, well, you’re brown, and your shirt kind of looks like what we’re wearing, so yeah, everyone is just going to assume it.” …Cool. It was a very interesting experience.

And I think the other way I’ve had to come to terms with the system is in some of the reviews I get. I look at ethnicity and race and… people tend to look at it as an extra context. Like I’ve gotten reviews that kind of ask “hmmm why are we really looking at this, why does race and ethnicity matter?” And this is usually from people who pride themselves on doing a more, uh, basic form of quantitative research, you know, where it’s “we test theories.” But you test theories on the same populations you’ve been testing them on for years—that’s not… I mean, everyone has a context. And people claim that they don’t, but their context typically is middle-class white people, often college students.

 

Megan: Or they’ll say something like “this is the standard population” but what they’re really saying is “White is the default normal.”

Mackensie: Yes, exactly! So as an example of this kind of reviewer push back, one time we got a rejection where... So, to back up, this was part of a data set that was originally being used to understand multi-racial ethnic identities, and it was a very diverse sample size. But we’d found this cool mediation model that didn’t really have anything to do with race—I think it was perspective taking and empathy and a couple of other things—and we were like “oh, we have this nice model, and these are interesting findings” and so we submitted an article about it to a journal. And then one of the things we got dinged on was that our sample was “too diverse.”

Reviewers said things like “well you have so many different groups”—actually one said “you have a lot of Hispanic people, could they all speak English?” but… like they took the survey so yes??? But anyway, we were told “you have so many different groups, why don’t you compare them?” But that’s not the point?

 

Megan: You’d think that if you have a really good representation of how a theory works with an incredibly diverse sample so that you can see how this happens in lots of different social groups or ethnicities, that would further legitimize the theory.

Mackensie: Yes! But it was just a “nope! We’re not publishing this.”

So that’s one thing that stands out to me as a major tension.

 

Megan: Where do you see disadvantages in surviving academia as a WOC? Were there scripts you had to figure out and questions you had to answer on your own?

Mackensie: Despite a number of frustrations, I do have a certain amount of privilege. I’m half-White so I’m pretty light skinned, and so people might not look at me and think Black initially. Which can be frustrating for other reasons, but colorism is real and I benefit from that.

I do know that when, say, I’m asking questions about where to go next, for a program or for a job, unless a school has a person of color in their department, I can’t really get a good answer about whether the new location is welcoming. And Lincoln is! I’ve found a great place, and I’m very happy here, but this kind of thing comes up a lot in a lot of contexts.

When I was going out for interviews and asking if the community I’d be potentially moving to was LGBT friendly, a lot of people would have to say “oh, well, we think so! But honestly we can’t tell you for sure because we’re straight.” And my partner is a woman so … those kind of scripts are hard to navigate.

And I think that’s part of what makes being a woman of color in academia sometimes hard. You have an inkling, or ideas about things that aren’t quite right or that are missing, but you can’t put your finger on the exact problem or fully determine how something should be fixed. And I think in Comm we’re getting to a point where we’re having more real conversations—especially last summer. I think that is pushing things forward.

 

Megan: That is actually a good example of how privileged I am in academia. I didn’t read a lot of CRTNET over the summer. I didn’t intentionally ignore it, I just didn’t follow it as closely as I probably should have because I felt like I had all of these other things going on. But for some people, I know it was absolutely imperative that this become a real conversation, because it was a matter of “I do not feel like I am allowed to be who I am, or be recognized for who I am in this field, and this is not okay, and we are asking that this get fixed.”

Mackensie: Yeah, and I think it’s been a good awakening for a lot of people.

I think a lot of people before me have talked about this. I know that Dr. Amber Johnson said something at an NCA panel along the lines of “you do not have to wait until tenure to be yourself.” And that was so encouraging.

 

Megan: And I mean, there is another element for me, where I’m asking all these questions being like “hey! You have a different experience than I do. Explain it to me. And I’m going to take time out of your evening!” And I’m like “hmmm, okay, I see the irony of this.”

Mackensie: Hahaha, I know, but I feel like I do appreciate people trying to learn. It is a fine balance. And I understand, I’m the same way, which is why I’m out here paying my participants for my dissertation because I don’t want to be like “hey, I want more people of color to volunteer their time for free.” But at the same time, I know that there are people who feel really uncomfortable talking about race, and like… well okay, but you still have to.

 

Megan: Well yeah, just because you’re uncomfortable about it doesn’t mean it’s going away!

Mackensie: Yeah! Like, please talk about it. So I don’t have to be the one angry person of color bringing it all up.

 

Megan: Ultimately that’s a perfect example for one of my questions. Where are we failing our students in mentorship? Maybe we’re not teaching our students how to interact with things that make them uncomfortable enough.

Mackensie: Yeeeeah.

And that’s part of why I think it’s so important to make sure we’re also creating those spaces for having those conversations…and for people who have always been having those conversations to have a place to feel comfortable. And at NCA and ICA I have found those kinds of spaces, but I think sometimes, especially for women of color—I mean, I had to be like “hi professor I’ve never fully met, please talk to me.”

And I’m very extroverted, so that was fine for me, but that’s also not the case and it’s a lot of pressure to put on people.

 

Megan: And yeah, there’s still that element when you’re in that position that like of course you’re willing to help with this, but it’s still unpaid work that you can’t always use—like it’s not going to get you publications, it’s not going to get you service, even though it IS a service. And it absolutely is an important part of the job, it’s just not one that gets recognized.

Mackensie: Oh yeah, there’s a lot of emotional labor that goes into that work. I still remember I had one student, a young Black woman, who was falling behind and we fixed some things but she looked like she wanted to talk to me about something more but didn’t. And I still feel guilty—and this was three years ago—that I didn’t push harder and that I wasn’t there for her, and what could she have gone through, and I still think about it.

 

Megan: It’s that thing that you were talking about earlier. You know there’s something there that’s wrong, but you can’t put an exact definition to it, or an exact finger on “this is what the problem is” and because of that it’s incredibly difficult to solve said problem.”

Mackensie: Yeah. It’s difficult in a lot of ways.

That being said, I’m very happy that I’m in academia. I love it. I’ve found great mentorship.

This is the career I want, and I’m happy, and I love it.

…But still, I think it’s okay to want it to be better. And I think that’s another hard part. Like when you do complain about it, I 100% do not believe that academia is the hardest job in the world. At all. Even close.

 

Megan: Oh seriously! Have you read about the horrors of industrial pig farming?

Mackensie: Exactly! I haven’t had to kill a single animal, so this career is great.

But at the same time, I want to critique this. I’m happy, but I know things can be better.

So it doesn’t mean you’re unhappy in your field, but you sometimes… sound unhappy. You know? It’s about finding that balance—especially as a black woman—of not sounding angry, or upset, because that just leads to having assumptions made about you.

 

Megan: Oh absolutely. Because there’s this script you have to follow in order to be seen good co-worker and you know, all that. I mean, I’d say all women have that script to some extent, where it’s like “oh, you can’t be too outspoken, or you can’t raise your voice or people will call you shrill or difficult to work with, which doesn’t happen to men,” so like we all know that there’s a whole bunch of scripts, but definitely that element of if you’re a woman of color and you talk about microagressions in the work place or express some dissatisfaction you get labeled as “angry” even though maybe that’s not even the first emotion that you’re feeling, and it’s more like “I just wanted to point out a problem.”

Mackensie: Yeah. Your exasperation gets labeled so quickly. And anger is read in such a different way, when you’re in a black female body vs. a white female body. In the same way that a Latinx woman is going to be read differently and like you add any intersection to that, and it’s just a whole other thing you have to navigate. And people who don’t go through it don’t have to see it.

One of the hard things, too, is that as I’m in the midst of working on my dissertation—which involves interviewing people—my mind doesn’t stop. And I know that everyone has that feeling of “oh, I can’t stop working!” but it’s not that I can’t stop working it’s that I’ll have people in interviews tell me about being harassed, or called racial slurs, or any variety of systemic inequality, and then they’re always in the back of my mind. I can’t turn that off as easily. Especially seeing parts of myself in my participants, and seeing parts of myself in other people’s struggles. It’s very worthwhile work and it’s inspiring, but it does make it harder to make a switch to “off.” And then it’s so tied now to politics and things that are always coming back to the bad, and reminding you of the things that you’ve heard from participants.  

There are people who I can talk to about this, but finding the people who can have those kinds of conversations, who do that kind of research and who have experienced seeing themselves in their participants, in that way, that’s one of the reasons that mentorship is so important.

Mackensie Minnear is a doctoral candidate with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and a new hire with the University of Georgia, starting summer 2020. Readers can learn more about Mackensie’s scholarship in her most recent publication: Minniear, M., & Soliz, J. (2019). Family communication and messages about race and identity in Black families in the United States. Journal of Family Communication, 1–19.

 

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