Patterns of Gender and Racial Privilege

Please see “How Priviledges of Gender and Race Affect Academic Life” at the end of the article

When Dr. Juanita Johnson-Bailey became a full professor, she expected her life to change. Surely she’d finally have the credibility some people can take for granted.

“Guess what, you’re still a woman and you’re still black,” she told WIHE. “The only thing that changed was probably my mindset.”

His race and gender have given Dr. Ronald M. Cervero credibility since long before his latest promotion. Both are professors in the University of Georgia’s department of lifelong education, administration and policy. He’s department head and she is associate head.

He was her mentor from the time she was a graduate student. When she joined the faculty at Georgia College, she talked with her old mentor about the stereotypes and assumptions she encountered. “He never tried to rationalize away what was happening,” she said. Instead he saw parallels between her experiences and what he was hearing from other women and minority faculty.

Their conversation continued after she joined the faculty at the University of Georgia. A teacher of Women’s Studies invited them to speak to the class about white privilege. Taking turns, each recounted a way they’d been treated (or ignored) because of their race or gender. They spoke to more and more classes and eventually to the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference in Chicago in April.

She told WIHE that after such presentations, students would invariably ask him, “Did this really happen to her?” He replied yes, it did, but they should really be asking her. Some had the grace to be abashed.

Unconscious assumptions

When she made full professor she thought that wouldn’t happen any more, but it did. Even more telling was the incredulity of colleagues. One asked whom she had to sleep with. Another noted critically that a certain man hadn’t gotten his promotion yet. A third said, you got promoted, maybe I should apply—“as if they’d lowered the standards and that’s how I got through.”

She fell into a period of depression and anxiety, instead of the joy she’d expected. “My psychological salvation has been that I wrote about this,” she told WIHE. As a friend with a similar history pointed out, at full professor you’re no longer a sweet little thing—you’re a threat.

Behavior that’s expected of men counts as aggressive in a woman. Women who come on strong or try to negotiate clearly don’t know their place. A job offer to one African American woman was rescinded after she tried to negotiate her salary, apparently proving herself a trouble-maker.

That reaction isn’t limited to white males. Johnson-Bailey said students expect her to be the mammy—women students as well as men, black as well as white. It’s a running joke.

“Whether we’re black or white, we’re still socialized the same,” she said. “I’ve had people knock on my door and ask if Dr. Johnson-Bailey was in. I’m sitting behind the desk. That might be a clue.”

This summer she co-led a student trip to southern Africa with a male junior colleague. People kept approaching him as the authority. He had to refer them to her as the boss.

White male privilege is an issue in much of the world and across the United States, north as well as south. The unconscious assumptions behind it cross gender, ethnicity and discipline.

Just because we’re in women’s studies or multicultural studies doesn’t make us immune. “We have this habit of anointing ourselves: we get it, we have arrived,” she said. We need to consistently examine ourselves to make sure we don’t replicate unconscious patterns.

We can also seek teachable moments to raise awareness around us. By reflecting on our experiences, we can be prepared for those teachable moments instead of realizing later what we wish we’d said.

Creating change

Awareness is only part of the solution. “I don’t think it was a surprise to the women in the audience that they’re treated differently,” Cervero said about their AERA presentation. For some it was validation. If you think this has happened to you, you’re not crazy.

Their list of ways race and gender affect daily interactions is so powerful because it illustrates the political with personal stories, all of them true. “The things in the table are symptoms of the underlying problem, which is about power,” he told WIHE.

In addition to raising consciousness, it’s important to “put structures in place to move people along who don’t want their consciousness raised,” he said. We need measures of accountability that start at the top.

He gets more organizational response by talking about talent and resources than by focusing on social justice. “We waste a tremendous amount of talent in academia by creating barriers,” Cervero said. He’s worked with the dean to establish a mentoring network for new women and minority faculty (also open to white men). Their department has become a model of African American enrollment for other parts of the university, in part because students can see faculty who look like themselves.

Consider how often African Americans (but not whites) carrying laptops get stopped as they leave a building. Training for security staff can use it as a case study.

Consider the well-documented tendency for student evaluations to give women and minorities lower ratings than white men. Cervero has worked with the dean to be aware of this bias when using student evaluations in promotion and tenure decisions. Johnson-Bailey called this “making sure the system understands the penalties people pay for showing up as who they are.”


Dr. Johnson-Bailey, 706.542.2214;  
Dr. Cervero,  

How Privileges of Gender and Race Affect Academic Life

With Race and Gender Privilege

Without Race and Gender Privilege
1. Academic life with race and gender privilege makes it difficult to come up with a list of what academic life is like with race and gender privilege. 1. Academic life without race and gender privilege means I am often viewed through a stereotypical lens that characterizes me as hostile, emasculating, and intimidating.
2. Students do not see an agenda in my research about race and gender.  2. Students and colleagues think that my research on race and gender translates into a hatred of Whites and men, discounting my close friendships with White professors and my long term marriage.
3. Students and colleagues feel that since I am a White male, my research on race and gender makes me a hero. 3. Students and colleagues who ask why I only do research on Blacks don’t ask similar questions of White colleagues who don’t even include minorities in their research studies.
4. When I receive an award for my research, I can be reasonably certain that the people making the decisions look like me. 4. When I am first author on articles, I am questioned by colleagues and students as to whether it was charity or academic effort that earned me that right.
5. I have never once received a comment on what I wear to teach, except when students comment on the fact that I have dressed up by wearing a tie. 5. Despite my navy blue business suite and briefcase, a White student asked me to clean up a classroom because she thought I was the housekeeper.
6. No one has ever asked me if I am smart enough to be a professor.  6. I can be reasonably certain that the undergraduate male who asked to see my CV before he would take my course does not routinely ask this of his White professors.
7. When I mispronounce a word in class, students willneither correct me nor ask me to pronounce it correctly. 7. It is probably the scarcity of Black women professors that influenced a White student to tell me, “I won’t take a ‘B’ from a Black professor.”
8. When I say that I don’t understand a concept, students think this is a sign of a good scholar rather than someone who is not competent to be a professor. 8. When I disagree with my White colleagues’ interpretation of a concept, they question my ability to understand complex theories and offer to explain them to me.
9. When I am late to a committee meeting, the people waiting for me don’t assume it’s because of my race. 9. When I leave early or come late to a meeting I am often asked for an explanation by colleagues – even junior colleagues.
10. I’ve never been asked why I was hired for my faculty position. I guess people assume it was because I was the most qualified applicant. 10. I assume that when students ask whether my graduate degree and my academic appointment was a result of Affirmative Action, it is because of their interest in this topic and not their lack of belief in the myth of meritocracy.
11. I can be reasonably certain that my race wasn’t discussed during my promotion and tenure process. 11. I know that my race and gender were discussed during my promotion process.
12. Students routinely ask if we can publish together. 12. A first semester unpublished student explained that she put a copyright symbol on her final paper so that I would not confuse my ideas with hers.
13. No one has ever questioned whether I could enter any building on a university campus. Nor did anyone who saw me enter look at me funny. I guess they figured I belonged there. 13. I have been detained by campus police when exiting the building with my laptop. On one such occasion I was released when my White graduate assistant happened by and vouched for me.

Dr. Juanita Johnson-Bailey and Dr. Ronald M. Cervero created this list in homage to Dr. Peggy McIntosh, whose original White Privilege list opened the eyes and minds of many. Their list of 13 differences is reprinted here with their permission.

Back   |   Read Archive