Inger Mewburn on Racism in Academia

A very good and honest piece from Inger Mewburn, a.k.a., The Thesis Whisperer, about waking up to racism in academia, and her own white privilege:

At the time Joe and I were both looking for more permanent work in academia. It has to be said that neither of us were having much luck. I barely waited to put in my lunch order before debriefing him on my latest unsuccessful job interview. Once again, I had been passed over for a man who, I felt, was less qualified to do the teaching than I was. It was my 5th knock back and I was beginning to seriously question my sanity.

At the time I didn’t understand that people don’t get jobs in academia just because they are good at stuff like teaching. Connections, histories, reputations – they all matter. Now it’s perfectly obvious why a professor, who had run out of soft money, would make sure his best research assistant got hired, but at the time I blamed it all on the gender thing (I still don’t think I was entirely wrong to do so).

So I got my rant on to Joe, who ate his lunch and patiently listened to me for around 20 minutes until I had exhausted my rage. Then he said something I have never forgotten:

“Inger. I understand you being pissed off. But consider this. There are some women on permanent staff in that architecture department. There are no Asians.”

More here.

I stopped mid chew.

Joe, I should point out, is of Asian descent. Actually I’m not even sure of his precise background. I’ve never asked. He was just ‘Joe’ to me. This is not to say that I “don’t see colour”, I would be lying if I said I never noticed, but Joe and I were similar in so many ways. I had never thought consciously about the implications of Joe having an Asian background and me having some kind of mongrel British one. Or, more precisely, if I did think about it I had dismissed it as irrelevant.

But suddenly I realised race did matter – at least, it seemed, in academic hiring practices. There were plenty of talented people of Asian descent, like Joe, who studied architecture with me. Plenty of these people taught architecture in that department sessionally, just like I did. But there was not one of Asian descent on permanent staff. If the past was anything to go by, I had much more chance of getting a job in that department than Joe did and that was clearly wrong. He was better at computer graphics teaching than I was and had not even been short listed for the job I missed out on.


In case you’re wondering, this absolutely does relate to productivity. I’ve worked with plenty of underproductive female academics, and I’ve never met one hadn’t been sexually discriminated against or harassed. Some of the stories are shocking, like that of the research fellow who was told that she should resign her fellowship after she got pregnant. (And no, this wasn’t in the 1950’s but the 2000s.)

I haven’t worked with too many male academics from marginalized groups, but I imagine the situation is similar.

If you’re an academic, your next stop should be, where I’ve posted the entire Appendix of The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, which is devoted to the needs of academic writers. If you like what you’ve read, buy the book. (A mere $3.95 for ecopy!)

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.