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

Wendy B. Scott[1]


Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Edited by Gabriella Guitierrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Nieman, Carmen G. Gonzalez and Angela P. Harris. Boulder, CO. University of Colorado Press (2012). 570 pages.

“Presumed incompetent” names a standard imposed on people of color collectively in America. The book so titled demonstrates how this standard operates in the lives of women of color in the academy. The centuries of oppression, brutality, denial, discrimination, and self-effacement combined to establish this presumption based on entrenched images of those with darker skin as inept, [2] unable and therefore unworthy of the respect[3] accorded to those with lighter skin.[4]  Presumed Incompetent chronicles the struggles in which women of color in the academy have engaged, burdened with the presumption, in order to move forward in a world of privilege.  This essay collection is more than a series of anecdotes. The narratives and research establish empirically that being presumed incompetent, before any performance, is not the result of “individual flaws,” but of “larger structural and cultural forces within academia that make the experience . . . far too common” among women of color.[5] Therefore, Presumed Incompetent is required reading for every university president, chancellor, dean, dissertation, and tenure committee that truly wants to undo the presumption of incompetence.

Presumed Incompetent collects stories told primarily by women of color in a multitude of disciplines who have bravely spoken out in personal narratives, supported by a wealth of research, on their experienced or witnessed marginalization and downright mistreatment by colleagues, administrators, and students. I call them brave because the experiences chronicled and sentiments expressed are more often the subject of quiet conversations with kindred spirits than the subject of public discourse.[6] In the end, the authors move us closer to dispelling the presumption with both the content and the quality of the writing, editing, and research.

The editors organized the essays around four major themes: negotiation of identity, the link between the individual and the collective, the nature of academic culture, and mechanisms for change. [7] The themes are addressed in the context of second-generation diversity issues of campus climate; faculty/student relations; networks of alliances; social class in academia; tenure; and promotion. This review begins with a summary of the four themes through which the presumption of incompetence is explored, with emphasis on the negotiation of identity and mechanisms for change. Part I also points to lessons learned from waging the perpetual battle to keep the presumption at bay and offers some critiques of the collection. In Part II, I offer a brief reflection on my own experience with the presumption to further affirm the legitimacy of what the readers of Presumed Incompetent will learn when they study this timely text. Part III concludes with observations on the value of these essays to women interested in or new to the academy.

Full Book Review: Scott, Presumed Incompetent Book Review

Citation: Wendy Scott, Book Review: Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, 37 Harv. J. L. & Gender Online 1 (2013).


[1] Professor of Law, North Carolina Central University.

[2] No better place is that image embedded than in Hollywood, a shear repository of evidence to document the campaign to paint people of color as less than. Films like Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone with the Wind (1939) and the Tarzan series burned the image of the unintelligent other into the minds of generations of American children and adults. A movie buff, I watched two Bette Davis movies back to back. In each, a dark man played the part of her servant. One was the butler, “Uncle Cato,” in the antebellum film Jezebel (1938) set on a Louisiana Plantation where slaves danced and sang happy songs on her request. The other manservant was an unnamed Asian “Uncle Cato” in The Letter (1940), a film set on a rubber plantation in Singapore. For a thorough examination of the images created in Hollywood of the incompetent “darky,” see DONALD BOGLE, TOMS, COONS, MULATOES, MAMMIES AND BUCKS (4th ed. 2001). In later years the “blaxploitation” and video vixen image competed against the image of the hard working productive Cosby Show Huxtable family image. See KARRINE STEFFANS, CONFESSIONS OF A VIDEO VIXEN (2005); Top 10 Memorable Blackploitation Films, Listverse, http://listverse.com/2011/09/19/top-10-memorable-blaxploitation-films/ (last visited Sep. 2, 2013).

[3] Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857) enshrined the unworthiness of African Americans into American law. For an example of the ramifications of such legal doctrine, see Vincene Verdun, If the Shoe Fits Wear It: An Analysis of Reparations to African Americans, 67 Tulane L. Rev. 597 (1992).  Immigration and policies regarding Native Americans were also premised on assumptions of inferiority and incompetence. IAN HANEY LOPEZ, WHITE BY LAW: THE LEGAL CONSTRUCTION OF RACE (10THed. 2006); ROBERT WILLIAMS, LIKE A LOADED WEAPON: THE REHNQUIST COURT, INDIAN RIGHTS AND THE LEGAL HISTORY OF RACISM IN AMERICA (2005).

[4] Being white constitutes the ultimate privilege. See Cheryl Harris, Property as Whiteness,­­­ 107 Harv. L. Rev. 1707 (1993) (chronicling the value of whiteness in contrast to being colored). The hierarchy of complexion, or colorism, and hair differences within communities of color has also contributed to the feeling of unworthiness, especially among women.  The effect of colorism is described in the old song by Big Bill Broonzy: “If you was white you’re all right, if you was brown stick around, but if you’s black get back.” See Big Bill Broozy:Black, Brown and White, Youtube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0c1c0ZsTLA (last visited Sep. 2, 2013). For general treatment of colorism, see, What is Colorism, Mobilizing Around Colorism, http://mobilizingaroundcolorism.weebly.com/what-is-colorism.html (last visited Sep. 2, 2013); What is Colorism, About.com, http://racerelations.about.com/od/understandingrac1/a/What-Is-Colorism.htm (last visited Sep. 2, 2013). For scholarly examinations of the significance of hair and color, see Paulette Caldwell, A Hair Piece: Perspectives on the Intersection of Race and Gender, 41 Duke L. J. 397 (1991); Jennifer L. Hochschild, The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order, http://scholar.harvard.edu/jlhochschild/publications/skin-color-paradox-and-american-racial-order (last visited Sep. 2, 2013).

[5] Afshan Jafar, Presumed Incompetent, Inside High er Ed, http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/university-venus/presumed-incompetent (last visited Aug. 16, 2013) (book review).

[6] Two seminal works that addressed the marginalization of women of color in the academy were published three decades ago. THIS BRIDGE CALLED ME BACK: WRITINGS BY RADICAL WOMEN OF COLOR (Cherrie Mofana & Gloria Anzaldua, ed) (1981); ALL THE WOMEN ARE WHITE, ALL THE MEN ARE BLACK, BUT SOME OF US ARE BRAVE; BLACK WOMEN STUDIES (Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott & Barbara Smith) (1982).

[7] The major themes of the book are discussed in the introduction. PRESUMED INCOMPETENT: THE INTERSECTIONS OF RACE AND CLASS FOR WOMEN IN ACADEMIA 1, 1-14 (Gabriella Guitierrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Nieman, Carmen G. Gonzalez, Angela P. Harris, eds., 2012) [Hereinafter PRESUMED].

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