Student Book Review: Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., eds.

By Kate Aizpuru[1]

             We’ve all seen the brochures. Glossy pamphlets advertising sparkling university buildings, rolling green campuses, and laughing students linked arm-in-arm as benevolent faculty look on, smiling. Somehow, college and university brochures always seem to feature students and faculty of color, bedecked with tolerance, diversity, and a cheery demeanor. But something is rotten in the academy. Even as institutions of higher learning trumpet their achievements in diversity, the reality is that for women of color, the academy can be an unwelcoming, unsupportive, and sometimes overtly racist environment in which to work and live. In a masterpiece of frank conversation, convincing discussion, accessible prose, and courage, Presumed Incompetent weaves together the challenges facing women of color in the (literally) ivory tower—while providing future academics with the tools they will need to remain resilient, and allies and universities with strategies for creating a healthier environment. 

             After a short introduction, the book is organized into five sections containing a total of thirty essays: General Campus Climate, Faculty/Student Relationships, Networks of Allies, Social Class in Academia, and Tenure and Promotion. The final chapter, “Lessons from the Experiences of Women of Color Working in Academia,” derives “immediate, concrete, and applicable recommendations that may help circumvent and/or diffuse the conditions described in [the] anthology.”[2] And despite the heartrending—and occasionally hair-raising—stories, as editor Carmen G. Gonzalez writes, “[T]he ultimate lesson of Presumed Incompetent is resilience . . . Our goal as editors was to empower women of color and allies by providing tools and strategies to overcome the challenges described in this volume.”[3]

            Those challenges included both overt and subtle racism, pervasive stereotyping, lack of institutional support, lack of respect from students, misogyny, heteronormativity, class bias, and isolation from home—among others. I was shocked at the flagrant racism that both students and other faculty displayed to the contributors: the black professor who was openly mocked for her natural hair;[4] the black faculty member who reported receiving Ku Klux Klan notes under her door;[5] the Argentinian professor whose student argued that, “You don’t even speak English. How do you know my paper is bad?”[6]; the post-doc who, after her first promising job interview, was told, “Well, I’m just going to be honest with you. You’re going to get this job because you’re black and a woman. So we’re going to give you this job. But we’re going to hire someone else for the job we advertised.”[7]

             Yet the brunt of the narratives did not focus primarily on overtly racist statements, though there were plenty of those to go around. Every essay also shed light on the institutional structures that consistently worked against women of color seeking to advance their academic careers.

             One frequently referenced example was the request that women of color serve on “diversity committees.” Universities, seeking to burnish their diversity credentials, would obviously benefit from having a black, Asian, or Latina women sitting on or chairing a diversity committee. But participation in committees counts for nothing when that professor is being evaluated for tenure. So what is a professor facing the appointment to do? Agree to participate in the committee, in addition to her teaching load and other responsibilities, sacrificing the time she needs for research and publishing? Or refuse, thereby alienating those who will ultimately decide whether her career advances?

             Faculty also reported perceiving that students, who were more accustomed to seeing women of color as maids, cooks, nannies and in other subservient roles than in positions of power, simply did not view their professors as credible. Indeed, “research shows that both minorities and women are presumed to be incompetent as soon as they walk in the door.”[8] When the students challenged the professor over a grade or some other issue, universities frequently sided with the student or chose to remain neutral—thereby further undermining the authority of the women of color faculty.[9] White students resented being taught race and gender issues by women of color, whom they perceived as, at best, unable to teach the material objectively, or at worst, inflicting “reverse racism” on the classroom.[10] White professors, particularly cis-men, on the other hand, were typically viewed as capable of presenting any material without a particular political agenda.[11] Meanwhile, faculty also reported rejection by their communities of origin[12] or by students of color.[13]

             Racial and gender stereotypes seemed to follow many contributors into the academy, shaping institutional expectations. Although the white media has excoriated Paula Deen for her racist comments, Angela Mae Kupenda’s essay makes clear that racist nostalgia is not limited to aging bigots: “[B]lack female academics are asked, or required, to focus on presenting a comforting appearance for whites who miss the blacks of the ‘ole South’ . . . . In the slavery—and even in the postslavery—South, for example, black women were required to place the needs of the white families they worked for over those of their own children. Unfortunately today, black women in the South still face these ghosts. When we try to ignore their ghoulish calling, we may be punished for allegedly lacking collegiality or harboring irrational anger.”[14] Professor Kupenda described how, after she turned down an offer to run a program for entering students who needed some extra help, her white academic dean replied: “We need you to teach in the summer program because you are black, you are a woman, you are a great teacher, and you nurture, mother, feed, and nurse all the students.”[15] In disbelief, Kupenda responded, “You just described a mammy . . . . I guess I will have to be a mammy for you nine months a year, but . . . three months a year I must try to be a scholar.”[16] Years later, Kupenda continued to feel as though she had been complicit in her own oppression: “I had become a mammylike, fully accessible stereotype to make the white students more comfortable.”[17] Black woman professors like Kupenda are in a double-bind, because studies have confirmed that “likeability and warmth are key elements for women professors to get good student evaluations,”[18] and for professors of color this often means taking extra steps to put white students at ease.[19]

             As the chapters progress, the essays begin to focus more on strategies and tools for creating a healthier environment—not just for women of color in the academy, but also for the administrators who will be managing them and their white and/or male colleagues. While acknowledging that for many faculty of color the task of sustaining oneself can seem an uphill climb,[20] the consensus appears to be that, with work, the academy can be as supportive and welcoming for women of color as it is for white men.

             Many of the essays shared the tools that contributors had, themselves, employed to sustain themselves while navigating treacherous territory. Community, solidarity, and the creation of safe spaces stood out as prominent themes.[21] Relatedly, mentorship was identified as “critical for graduate students and faculty of color in white-dominated departments and disciplines.”[22] Collectives provide a space to discuss challenges and openly speak the truth about institutions, as well as create the opportunity for unified strength and advocacy.[23] As Võ writes, “anxiety is reduced if you have supportive colleagues who protect you from burdensome committee work, present you with suitable teaching assignments, and genuinely support your research agenda,” and, “[a] good mentor can help you navigate the political landmines.”[24]

             Other essays provided concrete career advice for women of color and their allies in the academy. Holling, Fu and Bubar provided specific tips for women of color contemplating joint appointments.[25] Chang described the process of developing a women of color studies curriculum that is “intersectional, that looks at the experiences of women of color living within the structures of these systems of oppression and views them as inextricably linked,” aiming to “bring research to the service of communities being studied, rather than the reverse.”[26] Spade explains how classroom agreements, like “move up/move back,” “collaboration not competition,” “constructive feedback,” and using preferred pronouns and correct pronunciations of names can go a long way to creating a safe space in the classroom.[27] Other essays discussed issues like salary and benefit negotiations, institutional politics, tenure, promotion, and work/life balance.

             In addition to the wisdom aimed at aspiring academics, several of the chapters provided guidance for administrators and department heads. Võ calls on institutions of higher education to “consider a holistic approach to hiring, retaining, and promoting diverse faculty,” pointing out that “creating equitable policies, along with transforming a hostile workplace culture, benefits all faculty.”[28] Lazos draws on research about race, gender and student evaluations to determine that “academia needs to make systemic changes to account for the factors that systemically negatively impact both women and minority professors,” and suggests looking into different ways of evaluating teaching performance.[29] In the final chapter, among other suggestions, Flores recommends that administrators “be color conscious, not color-blind”; develop an action—and outcome—based diversity plan focusing on underrepresented group members; not define white women as the de facto norm for all women by using the phrase “women and people of color” or “women and minorities”; avoid knee-jerk reactions to accusations of racism; and mandate and implement meaningful sexual harassment policies.[30] She also advises administrators on how to deal with student/faculty issues, noting, for example, that “[w]hen women of color teach topics related to social justice . . . some, if not most white students will meet their message with resentment,” and that “lesbian, bisexual, transgender and transsexual women of color are particularly vulnerable to student violence and harassment.”[31]

             Presumed Incompetent is, first and foremost, a book by and for women of color who are in the academy or aspiring to enter academia. Editor Carmen Gonzalez writes, “I wanted students who might become law professors (or professors in other disciplines) to be forewarned and fore-armed.”[32] Nonetheless, it is also a book for white people and men in academia. Gonzalez continues, “The goal is to share strategies that can be used by women of color, by allies, and by academic leaders to ensure that underrepresented groups succeed in the academic workplace and to disrupt dysfunctional hierarchies.”[33] The collection triumphantly achieves that goal.

             When I first agreed to write this review, I felt uncomfortable writing about a book that I perceived as aimed at women of color. After all, as a white woman, I can relate to some of the challenges facing women in higher education, but I also enjoy the various well-documented privileges of white skin, upper-middle-class background, and Swarthmore and (forthcoming) Harvard degrees. Nevertheless, I quickly realized that Presumed Incompetent is a book for everyone who is interested in social justice and fighting structures of oppression. Some of the passages that were the most important for my own reading experience dealt with the failures of white, straight cis-gender women to be good allies.[34] Whether it was the surprise that a white woman would bring up race because “it was unusual for white women to raise the topic of racial justice”;[35] the failure of white women to support faculty of color in issues of racial oppression;[36] or even the thoughtless assumption that, “due to my own unexamined race and class privileges . . . that I could critique social conventions, wear and study whatever I wanted, and still be respected and promoted by senior white male faculty,”[37] I saw myself and my own failures—the misunderstandings and microaggressions—reflected in the text. It is my intention that, having read Presumed Incompetent and absorbed its lessons and strategies, I can work to become a better ally in the future.

             Presumed Incompetent is a historic work for a number of reasons, not least for its frank, honest discussion of race and gender in the workplace. Moreover, it documents the lived experiences of women who have struggled, survived, and thrived in often unfriendly and unwelcoming environments—“ensur[ing] that even those women who survived and soared realize that they are part of a greater phenomenon that relates more to power and gender relations than their particular stories,” and situating their work as “clearly central to the academy of the twenty-first century.”[38] At times heartbreaking, at times hopeful, and always powerful, Presumed Incompetent is a must-read for academics, for those whose friends and loved ones are scholars, and for students of social justice anywhere.


Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carman G. González and Angela P. Harris, is available from the University Press of Colorado. For more information, visit their website:



[1] J.D., Harvard Law School, 2014. Thanks to Christine Stott and the staff of the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender for their help on this piece. Thanks to the editors and contributors of this incredible volume for speaking truth to power.


[2] Yolanda Flores Niemann, Lessons from the Experiences of Women of Color Working in Academia, in Presumed Incompetent 446, 447 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012).


[3] Gwendolyn, The Academic Feminist: Women of Color, Racism and Resilience in Academia, Feministing, (last visited August 5, 2013).


[4] Angela Mae Kupenda, Facing Down the Spooks, in Presumed Incompetent 20, 24 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012) (“Years later, I went natural with my hair. Then, many years after that, several of my black female students went natural. White classmates accosted them regularly and accused them of joining “Kupenda’s agenda” by stopping perming their hair and making themselves look more natural, which the white students felt was unnatural.”).


[5] Sherrée Wilson, They Forgot Mammy Had a Brain, in Presumed Incompetent 65, 70(Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012) (“It felt hostile, and you know some very directly racist incidents happened. At one point, people in the school—it was African Americans, and I think gays and lesbians—got Klu Klux Klan notes under our doors. Or sometimes just plain old racist things were said.”).


[6] Kimberly R. Moffitt, et. al., Present and Unequal, in Presumed Incompetent 78, 89 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012).


[7] Serena E, On Being Special, in Presumed Incompetent 152, 158 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012)


[8] Sylvia R. Lazos, Are Student Teaching Evaluations Holding Back Women and Minorities?, Presumed Incompetent 164, 177 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012).


[9] E.g., Delia D. Douglas, Black/Out: The White Face of Multiculturalism and the Violence of the Canadian Academic Imperial Project, in Presumed Incompetent 50, 56­–57 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012).


[10] See, e.g., Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo, A Prostitute, a Servant, and a Customer Service Representative, in Presumed Incompetent 40, 45 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012); Linda Trinh Võ, Navigating the Academic Terrain: The Racial and Gender Politics of Elusive Belonging, in Presumed Incompetent 93, 102 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012); Grace Chang, Where’s the Violence?: The Promise and Perils of Teaching Women-of-Color Studies, in Presumed Incompetent 198, 198–199 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012).


[11] Lazos, supra note 8, at 182.


[12] E.g., Cerise L. Glenn, Stepping In and Stepping Out: Examining the Way Anticipatory Career Socialization Impacts Identity Negotiation of African American Women in Academia, in Presumed Incompetent 133, 139 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012). (“In addition to receiving responses from those inside academic institutions that African American women do not belong in our respective fields in academia as we obtain undergraduate and graduate degrees and begin interviewing for positions, these messages also come from our families, peer groups, and communities.”).


[13] See, e.g., Easton, supra note 5, at 161.


[14] Kupenda, supra note 42, at 23.


[15] Id.


[16] Id.


[17] Id.


[18] Lazos, supra note 8, at 181.


[19] Id. at 176.


[20] E.g., Michelle A. Holling, et. al., Dis/Jointed Appointments: Solidarity amidst Inequity, Tokenism and Marginalization, in Presumed Incompetent 250, 253 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012) (“How come we talk of simply sustaining ourselves whereas our colleagues appear to be well positioned to explore the academy in a multitude of ways that feed them professionally? How come simply sustaining ourselves—surviving versus thriving—becomes the standard for womyn of color in the academy?”).


[21] See, e.g., id. at 263; Margalynne J. Armstrong & Stephanie M. Wildman, Working Across Racial Lines in a Not-So-Post-Racial World, in Presumed Incompetent 224, 240 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012).


[22] Kari Lerum, What’s Love Got to Do With It?: Life Teachings from Multiracial Feminism, in Presumed Incompetent 266, 269 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012).


[23] Michelle M. Jacob, Native Women Maintaining Their Culture in the White Academy, in Presumed Incompetent 242, 249 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012).


[24] Võ, supra note 10, at 98.


[25] Holling, supra note 20, at 264.


[26] Chang, supra note 10, at 201.


[27] Dean Spade, Notes Towards Racial and Gender Justice Ally Practice in Legal Academia, in Presumed Incompetent 186, 189–90 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012).


[28] Võ, supra note 10, at 108.


[29] Lazos, supra note 8, at 185.


[30] Id. at 453–62.


[31] Id. at 465, 467.


[32] Email from Carmen G. Gonzalez to Jean W. Strout (May 23, 2013, 23:42 EST) (on file with author).


[33] Id.


[34] See, e.g., Stephanie A. Shields, Waking up to Privilege, in Presumed Incompetent 29, 39 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012).


[35] Armstrong & Wildman, supra note 17, at 238.


[36] See Kupenda, supra note 2, at 24–25.


[37] Lerum, supra note 18, at 268.


[38] Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Afterword, in Presumed Incompetent 501, 504 (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al., 2012).


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