Scholars of color in white majority universities inhabit a zone of alterity, which forces them to make strategic choices about how they perform. Tactical essentialism is an alternative to the dichotomous ideologies of static and fluid ontologies. Rather than allowing oneself to be caught in the double bind between performing whiteness and resisting white supremacy, a tactical form of essentialism recognizes that identity is fluid, yet simultaneously linked materially to lived-empirical experience. By recognizing that the dichotomy can be complementary, the tactical subject intentionally engages in performances of identity that can be leveraged to decolonize merit in the ivory tower.
Scholars of color in a white majority university campus inhabit a zone of alterity, which forces them to make strategic choices about how they perform.1 While engaged in my own struggle to reconcile the tensions between white values and my political and pedagogical commitments, I find that engaging in tactical racial essentialism is helping me navigate my institution. Tactical essentialism is an alternative to the dichotomous ideologies of static and fluid ontologies.2 Rather than allowing oneself to be caught in the double bind between performing whiteness and resisting white supremacy, a tactical form of essentialism recognizes that identity is fluid, yet simultaneously linked materially to lived-empirical experience. By recognizing that the dichotomy can be complementary, the tactical subject intentionally engages in performances of identity that further their political objective. Put simply, tactical subjectivities link their lived experiences to a multiplicity of identity performances that can be deployed as an act of political agency. In theory, tactical essentialism requires us to come to terms with whiteness as a permanent feature of our work environment, recognizing that the values of the institution are predicated on white supremacy, and scholars of color have no choice but to survive and resist.
CRITICAL RACE THEORY AT THE UNIVERSITY
Critical race theorists have already demonstrated how discourses of meritocracy in education are deployed to propagate deficient thinking. This deficient thinking mobilizes racist narratives in order to blame scholars of color for failing to succeed within structures that valorize whiteness as professional, impartial, and rigorous.3 Whiteness is a form of cultural capital that allows white people to navigate academic spaces more easily.4 Compared to people of color, white faculty are more likely to be taken seriously as teachers, they are more likely to be tenured, and they are paid more, yet they do less work.5 Whiteness as strategic rhetoric naturalizes the values of white academics and administrators.6 Nationwide, the data suggest that despite more than 50 years of sustained effort to increase faculty diversity, very little has changed. Black and Latinx faculty make up only 6 percent of tenured professors.7 Such stagnant numbers may lead one to think that the hiring, retention, and promotion practices are broken. After all, scholars of color do twice as much service and cost 10–20 percent less, depending on gender.8 Yet, what if we assume that the systems are working perfectly? Critical race theory suggests that racial privilege is a fundamental component of life in the United States and that if people of color are going to make meaningful change, they must first confront the inevitability and tenacity of white supremacy.9 It is imperative that scholars of color learn how whiteness as a form of capital is encoded in the university system so that they can appropriate and subvert these systems by leveraging the discourses of meritocracy that replicate the structural inequalities in recruitment, retention, and promotion among faculty of color.
THE DIVERSITY TAX
In practice, tactical essentialism requires scholars of color to master the discourses, performances, and genres of whiteness in order to leverage discourses of both diversity and merit. Therefore, insurgent tactics might be the best chance to improve recruitment and retention of faculty of color. Instead of faculty of color focusing their service on diversity, which is typically far removed from the levers of power, we must focus on controlling and then subverting committees that define and reward merit.
Research on cultural taxation demonstrates that faculty of color experience greater service burdens.10 Students from marginalized communities ask more of scholars of color than they do of white faculty, and scholars of color typically step up.11 Overwhelmed by the needs of our students, or by being called upon by our campus to address the lack of diversity, or just broken down by chronic stress resulting from racial aggressions, scholars of color find themselves penalized and often denied tenure for failing to fix or survive toxic whiteness.12 The extra labor is invisible, yet deemed necessary, and not considered meritorious under tenure processes, which approach merit from a colorblind and thus tacitly racist perspective.13 If scholars of color are going to disrupt the deep structures of white supremacy on campus, then we must work to co-opt and then decolonize the bastions of academic meritocracy; namely, faculty awards committees, hiring committees, and promotion and tenure committees.
Universities and academic associations often have awards for teaching, service, diversity, and research. There are even awards for “distinguished scholars.” Many of these committees are not rank-restricted, which means non-tenured and pre-tenured faculty may sit on them. In my third year I began sitting on a committee that provides small grants to support research and professional development. Faculty at every level apply for these awards, and as a result, I have been able to see what a successful funding request looks like. Having access to these types of materials shifted my understanding of how people in the university describe merit, and I have gained access to the codes that the white professoriate uses to signal its accomplishments. The codes and tropes used in these applications have begun to enter my professional lexicon, and I am working to describe my work in ways that are more legible in white spaces. That said, it is not enough to learn to speak to the fundamentally racist values of the university; we must also begin to reshape those values. Awards committees provide an opportunity to intervene in colorblind meritocracy by making visible the work done by scholars of color. Rewarding work that supports students of color and educates the campus community on issues of race, and publishing on race in spite of white editorial gatekeeping, incentivizes decolonial work and supports scholars of color in making arguments for tenure and promotion based on recognized achievements.
The second place I have begun directing my attention is hiring committees. The demographics of most universities are so heavily skewed that even with diversity measures in place there is very little reason to expect that a person of color will be taken seriously as a candidate. So far, I have sat on one committee, and I plan on making hiring committees a service priority. Hiring committees have allowed me to work with white allies to ensure that diversity and merit are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, my presence helped with recruitment because I was able to have honest conversations with prospective hires that alleviated concerns about the role of whiteness in university and department culture. Increasing the representation of people of color on hiring committees checks deficit thinking and helps apply the tipping point principle to university values.14
Lastly, after attaining rank, I believe that scholars of color should work to gain representation on department and university tenure and promotion committees. These committees are typically rank-restricted to full professors and are the primary mechanism by which ideology is reproduced and disciplined. The tenure process makes academics of color dependent on the subjective evaluations of university insiders, who often fail to see the value of their work.15 “The ivory tower functions like an exclusive club whose membership is tightly controlled by what might be called a ‘dominant frame’”16 that disciplines for and reproduces whiteness. Yet, research suggests that when tenure and promotion policies valued work by faculty of color to improve diversity, scholars of color found tenure and promotion to be less challenging.17 Like race, merit is a social construct with material consequences. If scholars of color are going to be valued, then it will come by changing the heuristic by which scholarly contributions are judged.